And so, as every boiler plate VH-1 Documentary about hair metal or the nineties or music or whatever reminds us, “…then everything changed.” Cue Kurt’s guitar riff and the gym full of rioting grunge puppies. Yes, my Doc Martin-wearing sneerer, 1991 was the year of Nirvana, grunge, flannel shirts, and a liberating cry of disdain for all the hairspray, leather, lipstick, and cock waving of the previous half decade. Grunge may not have been as offensive as hair metal, but it ultimately proved itself to be just as limited, and Nirvana stands greasy head and shoulders above most of their peers because Kurt Cobain possessed a way with a pop hook that very few other Seattle groups did. And when surveying 1991, it was the other pop adepts and not the grungies that still hold up 25 years later.
10. Gish by Smashing Pumpkins
It was easy to lump Smashing Pumpkins in with the grunge crowd. They looked like they pulled their togs from the same Salvation Army bin that the Sub Pop bands did. Their guitars were sludgy, their lyrics humorless, self-obsessed, and self-loathing. However, there was something else going on with this band from the very beginning. Sludgey and sloppy are not the same thing, and it turns out that Billy Corgan was a studio perfectionist who often dubbed most of the instruments on his records himself, though this was less of the case with Gish, which reveals more of a band spirit than the group’s later albums. Jimmy Chamberlain was a seasoned timekeeper as indebted to Gene Krupa as he was to John Bonham. With her lead vocal on the haunting “My Daydream”, D’arcy Wretzky crystallized her icy persona even if it wasn’t always her on bass. While Corgan’s whiney persona would soon fuse with his music to a degree that make it hard to feel much true love for his project, he and his words were obscure enough on the first Pumpkins LP to vaporize that issue. Nothing on Gish is as tiresomely woe-as-me as “Disarm” or self-consciously cutesy as “Today”. It’s a collection of somewhat gothy, somewhat metallic, somewhat psychedelic tracks that are heavy and dreamy in intoxicating proportion.
9. Loveless by My Bloody Valentine
For psychedelic intoxication in unmeasured proportions, nothing came close to Loveless in 1991. It is the sound of a brain drugged beyond reason. Therefore it is an acquired taste and a listen only appropriate for very specific moods (or activities) despite often being dragged to the top of lists of 1991’s best albums. You may not always feel like listening to Loveless, but when you do, it will immobilize you quicker than an overdose of STP. From those swooping, thick streaks of absurdly affected guitar that begin “Only Shallow”, Loveless is a scary, overwhelming experience, and the incongruent sweetness and calm of Bilinda Butcher’s vocals makes the experience all the more unsettling. Bandleader Kevin Shields seems intent on disorienting the listener with his dense production and queasy “let’s clear the uncommitted from the room” pieces like “Touched”. Those who stick around and pay attention will detect great beauty glimmering out of the viscous “To Here Knows When” and “I Only Said” and vigorousness in “Loomer”, “When You Sleep”, and “What You Want”.
8. Out of Time by R.E.M.
After years as college radio stars, R.E.M. started popping up elsewhere on the dial with Document and Green. By Out of Time, they were full-blown stars. The album was a Grammy devouring, number-one smash. “Losing My Religion” scored a scene on “Beverly Hills 90210” that was the talk of high school halls. Michael Stipe sang “Shiny Happy People” with The Muppets. 25 years after the hype, the album feels a bit inconsistent because of some misplaced ambitions. R.E.M.’s folky pop and hip-hop are a terrible match, and “Radio Song” is an awkward attempt to funk up the band’s usual sound, while KRS-One performs a rap better suited to Fred Flintstone in a Fruity Pebbles commercial. The horrendously cloying “Shiny Happy People” should not have gone farther than that performance on “Sesame Street”. The excellent tracks—of which there are many—make it impossible to dismiss R.E.M.’s big breakthrough. The band’s effervescent joyousness fully matures on “Near Wild Heaven” and “Me in Honey”, while their moodiness does the same on “Low”, “Texarkana”, and “Country Feedback”. An increased arrangement inventiveness led by Peter Buck’s percussive mandolin brings out new textures in the material. The inconsistency of Out of Time will continue to be an issue on most of R.E.M.’s mega-star albums of the nineties, but as will be the case on Automatic for the People, Monster, and New Adventures in Hi-Fi, the journey is most definitely worth taking.
7. No Pocky for Kitty by Superchunk
Grunge was the alternative rock buzzword of 1991, but the indie scene was also thriving, and it would far outlast the flannel fad. Just listen to No Pocky for Kitty, one of the defining indie rock records, and hear how vital it sounds next to 1991’s sludgier offerings. Mac, Laura, Jon, and Jim are uncontainable across a dozen blistering tracks. Steve Albini’s (uncredited) production is huge without over bloating the band’s lean, punk attack (and has any producer ever captured a more devastating drum sound?). Indie rock is sometimes stereotyped as twee or weedy but this record is vicious. “Skip Steps 1 & 3” is an absolutely breathless opener, and “Punch Me Harder”, “Press”, and “Creek” are similarly fierce. Even when the tempo slows, the intensity never lets up for 34 adrenaline-sparking minutes.
6. Kill Uncle by Morrissey
Immediately after The Smiths broke up in 1987, Morrissey moved on with a record distinguished from those of his previous band by Stephen Streets’s booming, rather eighties production, which unified an eclectic assortment of songs and arrangements into a unified whole. Moving on to Langer & Winstanley, Morrisey made a more organic-sounding album (ironic considering how that production team sabotaged a couple of Elvis Costello albums in the mid-eighties with their inorganic techniques) that caused each of its eclectic songs to sound thoroughly different from everything else on the disc. As a result, Kill Uncle sounds more timeless than Viva Hate even if it doesn’t have anything as career-defining as “Suedehead”. It does have a consistently tuneful and vividly arranged assortment of songs tackling the kinds of atypical topics that always caught Morrisey’s hard-to-capture fascination: racial (“Asian Rut”) and relationship (“King Leer”) violence, the tiresome nature of heart-to-hearts (“Our Frank”), grim fate (“There’s a Place in Hell for Me and My Friends”), etc. Morrissey’s usual brilliant gallows humor would make such odd songs more inviting if his usual detachment didn’t keep us at arms length, but that’s one of the things that make him such a fascinating artist.
5. God Fodder by Ned’s Atomic Dustbin
Ned’s Atomic Dustbin may owe their uniquely rubbery version of punk to having two bass players (Alex Griffin jittering leads high up on the neck; Matt Cheslin holding down the bottom below), but killer songs and crazed energy make God Fodder great. Even with those two basses— and added touches of percussion and keyboards— the band’s self-production is thin, but Dan Worton’s detailed, tireless drumming lays attention-snaring depth beneath tracks like “Grey Cell Green”, “Throwing Things”, and “Capital Letters”. The band’s attitude also elevates God Fodder far above the mass of the class of ’91; their joyful performances really contrast the prevailing grumpy mood, and even if the title of the frustrated “Happy” is meant to be ironic, and singer Jonn Penney always sounds like he’s purposely holding back, the song never sounds like anything but a complete expression of pure happiness created to send hordes of Grebo kids pogoing to the heavens.
4. Trompe le Monde by The Pixies
Pure happiness is not a word any sane person would use when discussing The Pixies’ landmark first albums, even if stuff like “Isla de Encanta”, “Tony’s Theme”, and “Debaser” are pretty elating. Even those tracks had thunderheads of doom hovering over them. Trompe le Monde is what it sounds like after those clouds break and the sun finally comes blazing through. That L.A.-day sound is ironic considering how relationships in the band had deteriorated thoroughly, leaving Trompe le Monde as the band’s final album (at least for a decade) and the fact that it contains some of Black Francis’s most crazed songs. Yet Gil Norton’s clean, bright production makes rabid shit like “Planet of Sound”, “The Sad Punk”, “Space (I Believe In)”, and “Distance Equals Rate Times Time” sound as playful as puppies. So does Francis’s funny songs about the superficiality of campus life and underground cultures, architecture, aliens, and sea monkeys in paradise. On “Palace of the Brine”, “Motorway to Roswell”, and “The Navajo Know” The Pixies also embrace the kind of uncomplicated pop they’d dallied with on “Dig for Fire”. This may not have been what a lot of fans wanted from such a scary group, but at least they give the comforting impression that The Pixies went out a lot happier than they actually did… not that anyone really wants to be comforted by The Pixies either.
3. Girlfriend by Matthew Sweet
Trompe le Monde had a mood somewhat out of step with glum ’91. Girlfriend sounded like it had been shipped in from 25 years earlier. Simple, Beatle-esque pop was a rarity in both the alternative and non-alternative top 40s, making Matthew Sweet’s breakthrough a weird one to categorize, as well as a bracing gust of fresh air. There was nothing quite like his trend-damning stew of jangling guitars, multi-tracked harmonies, and Liverpool-meets-L.A. melodies at the time. Out of Time is the only other album on this list with love songs as uncomplicated and irresistible as “I’ve Been Waiting”, “I Wanted to Tell You”, and the title track, none of which are delivered with shiny happy irony. Sweet could brood with the best of them, but none of his peers had the guts to do so with the tenderness of “Nothing Lasts”, “You Don’t Love Me”, or “Winona”. This is no twee-fest, though, and tracks such as “Holy War”, “Thought I Knew You”, and “Does She Talk?” provide considerable bite, as does the ravaged guitar work of Television’s Richard Lloyd. On “Divine Intervention” and “Holy War”, Sweet tackles big issues with a clarity that seemed lost to the ages before Girlfriend appeared.
2. Nevermind by Nirvana
An album as over-discussed as Nevermind is really hard to discuss in fresh ways and tempting to criticize. The idea that it “changed everything” seems irrelevant today, especially since the alternative window it opened closed after just five or six years, while the door that subsequently let in Britney Spears, The Spice Girls, and The Backstreet Boys is still wide open today (and doesn’t that pop scene have a lot in common with the hair metal scene Nirvana was supposed to have vanquished?). Butch Vig’s production is too slick by several quarts, and that isn’t a minor flaw, but Nevermind remains a powerful, emotional, and perhaps most significantly of all, musical experience. Kurt Cobain’s love of The Beatles didn’t exactly produce an album as lovably poppy as Girlfriend, but it did produce the delicious melodies that make “Come As You Are”, “Drain You”, “In Bloom”, “Something in the Way”, and “On a Plain” timeless songs. It’s easy to give Kurt Cobain all the credit, as he wrote the mass of that material that makes Nevermind feel more like a greatest hits comp than a proper release and delivered it with an emotional intensity that seemed to be missing from rock since John Lennon died (perhaps since he’d released Plastic Ono Band), yet so much of the album’s power booms off of Dave Grohl’s drum skins. Ultimately, Nevermind is best appreciated not as some sort of game-changing, era-defining historical document but as a dozen tracks composed with true craftsmanship that create a sustained mood and are played and sung with monumental commitment. Isn’t that true of all great albums?
1. The Real Ramona by Throwing Muses
Perhaps it was the departure of Leslie Langston, whose superb yet angular bass helped shift Throwing Muses music off kilter (in a wonderful way, of course). Perhaps it was the growing confidence of sidekick Tanya Donnelly. Whatever the reason, The Real Ramona found Throwing Muses achieving the ultimate balance between their pop inclinations and artier tendencies. This is not as pure of an album as House Tornado —it couldn’t be without Langston— but it is the band’s most consistently delightful listen. I wonder if Kristin Hersh was moved to compose such delicacies as “Counting Backwards”, “Him Dancing”, “Golden Thing”, and “Graffiti” after Tanya presented “Not Too Soon”, the bubbly nineties alternative pop song to top all bubbly nineties alternative pop songs. I wonder if Kristin then hated herself so much for treading so deeply into pop territory that she felt compelled to write the raving, terrifying, relentless “Hook in Her Head”. I wonder if writing that song freaked her out so much that Kristin then had to write the stark, movingly beautiful “Two Step” to let some of those hooks out of her own head. I wonder if “Not Too Song” also inspired Tanya to build on her accomplishment by grabbing new bass player Fred Abong and rushing off to form Belly. Whatever the case may be, the circumstances that conjured the album were apparently more magical than one of Merlin’s recipes, because The Real Ramona is the perfect Throwing Muses album, and to my ears, the very best record of 1991.