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FEATURE: The Ten Best Albums of 1991

FEATURE: The Ten Best Albums of 1991 Photo Credit: Peter Kaminski/

There are years in musical history that have spawned an incredible number of era-defining albums. The 1990s is particularly culpable: 1994 is one of the finest; do an Internet search to see all the classic albums that came out then. 1991 is a year especially synonymous with world-class records from some musical stalwarts. September alone was especially fertile – some greats of U.S. rock stepping up and unveiling stunning albums. The Metropolist looks, with some sad omissions, at the ten albums that defined 1991.


Blur – Leisure

DATE OF RELEASE: 26th August

The fact the first album of the feature was released in August: it goes to show how productive late-1991 was for albums. Although Blur’s debut album was received with muted praise: it is the moment the Britpop-defining legends arrived in music. To be fair, there are ample gems to be found on Leisure. Aside from standout gems There’s No Other Way and She’s So High; Sing causes hairs to stand up and elicits a certain shiver. Although the group stayed close to the shoegaze/psychedelic template of northern bands like The Stone Roses and Primal Scream; they would go on to carve their own inimitable, peerless sound. 25 years down the line and Leisure stands the test of time. One spin of There’s No Other Way and you are transported back (if you are old enough) to a fine time for music and a period where floppy-haired indie kids owned the dancefloors. If Blur were to go onto better things: the significance and relevance of Leisure cannot be understated. It remains a pivotal album from one of the music world’s most enduring and exceptional bands.


Pearl Jam – Ten

DATE OF RELEASE: 27th August

The debut album from U.S. grunge/rock legends Pearl Jam: Ten remains their defining statement and most celebrated record. After the disbanding of bassist Jeff Ament and guitarist Steve Gossard’s alma mater, Mother Love Bone; the duo recruited Eddie Vedder and the rest, as the adage goes, is rock history. Guitarist Mike McCready and drummer Dave Krusen completed the group and began working on a series of instrumentals – Vedder adding lyrics concerning homelessness, depression and abuse. What resulted was a hurtling, lightning-quick album that rang drama and emotion from a point d’appui of echoed strings and epic power chords. Arriving in the midst of the grunge explosion: Pearl Jam did not fit alongside contemporaries Nirvana and Soundgarden; offering something more mainstream and rock-based. If the themes and topics fitted into grunge’s definition; the music seemed better crafted and more disciplined. From Vedder’s raw, sky-scraping vocals to focused band performances throughout – one of the defining albums of the 1990s (let alone 1991).


Guns N’ Roses – Use Your Illusion I

DATE OF RELEASE: 17th September

The third studio album from the band – that was part of a double-release alongside Use Your Illusion II – the first half debuted at number two on the U.S. Billboard charts going on to shift 685,000 units in its first week – surpassed by ‘II’s 770,000 sales. More hard-rocking than the second offering: highlights such as November Rain and Coma are two stonewall classics. The former – complete with that legendary video – is a live staple and (perhaps) the band’s signature song. The latter is less orchestral and gnarlier and gun-toting – beauty and theatre replaced with fight and balls-to-the-walls grit. Yes, it contains some filler material but on an album that contained so many great moments: that lack of quality control and slight pretentiousness can be overlooked. The band would continue on – and are still in existence today – but would never hit the hits of Use Your Illusion 1 and II.


Guns N’ Roses – Use Your Illusion II

DATE OF RELEASE: 17th September

Differing stylistically from Use Your Illusion I: the companion album is a more political and thematically varied creation. Civil War deals with violence and chaos; Get in the Ring the issue of media bias and takes its focus away from drug use – which was a pervading theme on Use Your Illusion I. While Use Your Illusion I featured songs pre-Appetite for Destruction; the songs on Use Your Illusion II were written during the Appetite for Destruction recording sessions. Proving what an inspiring and creatively ripe period that was: you can feel the unity and band chemistry reign across every track. Bob Dylan’s Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door is given fresh life and reinvented. Not only (is Use Your Illusion II) an inventive, varied and solid work: it provides plenty of highlights and astonishing tracks. It is hard comparing both Use Your Illusion albums as they are very different affairs. It is clear 1991 was a bumper year for the U.S. band and one that defined their career.


Pixies – Trompe le Monde

DATE OF RELEASE: 23rd September

 Pixies have just released Head Carrier and an album that harks back to Trompe le Monde. Following the band’s attempt at surf-pop (on Bossanova) this was a fully-fledged return to the aggressive and mighty sound of their early albums. Critics were divided following Bossanova’s release but were more unified and clear when it came to Trompe le Monde. The spark and inspiration were definitely back – although Bossanova was a solid and brilliant record – their fifth album saw elements of The Velvet Underground, ZZ Top and The Ramones come through.  Perhaps more cohesive and focused than some of their earlier material; Trompe le Monde retains the quirkiness and humour. Black Francis, at various points during the album, yearns to travel spaces and through mountains – not a man who wants to remain grounded and Earth-bound.  The music never comes across too weird and fragmented. Songs are raw and animal-like but full of detail and depth; the band in complete command and at their tightest and most consistent. If Bossanova was an album that split opinions and Pixies’ loyal fan-base: Trompe le Monde was the L.P. that unified them.


Primal Scream – Screamadelica

DATE OF RELEASE: 23rd September

The third album by the Scottish band was their first commercial success. Frequently named as one of the finest albums of the ‘90s and the recipient of the first-ever Mercury Prize (1992) – an iconic album that still sounds intoxicating and joyous in 2016. In 1991, Screamadelica arrived when rock and grunge were starting to take hold and rule the airwaves. Juxtaposing the rather gloomy and serious sounds of the mainstream: Primal Scream dropped a colourful, psychedelic masterpiece whose samples, swing and infectious energy won hearts and minds. Reaching number eight in the U.K. charts and topping many end-of-year lists: a masterpiece of mind-blowing proportions that was impossible to classify and criticise. Many critics lauded the unification of the past, present and future: how kaleidoscopic and vivid the music was.


A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory

DATE OF RELEASE: 24th September

Following A Tribe Called Quest’s debut album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, Jarobi White exiled the group; Phife Dawg learned he was diabetic – a month after the album’s release – and agreed, in conversation with Q-Tip, their sophomore album needed to step things up big time. Q-Tip credited N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton as an inspiration for their album and you can hear that.  The Low End Theory helped define and propel alternative hip-hop during the ‘90s. Providing a link between hip-hop and jazz – culturally and musically – the streetwise sounds and inspirational songs have influenced a number of bands and helped evolve and define modern hip-hop and jazz. Up until that point (1991), few bands and artists were capable of tying jazz and hip-hop together into something engaging, spellbinding and fresh – The Low End Theory did that and continues to exert its magic and influence this many years on.


Red Hot Chili Peppers – Blood Sugar Sex Magik

DATE OF RELEASE: 24th September

Another band (like Pixies and Blur) who are still playing 25 years down the line: Red Hot Chili Peppers have been keeping critics on their toes since their inception. While they have released some below-par albums in their career: Blood Sugar Sex Magik is their finest record and one they have yet to equal (although Californication came close). Already passing 13 million sales and spawning some incredible singles – Suck My Kiss, Breaking the Girl and Under the Bridge among them – the album is almost like a greatest hits album from the band. The fact John Frusciante quit the band mid-tour in 1992 (not returning until 1998) was not because of illness or band tension but the overwhelming popularity of the album. Perhaps the most influential alternative rock album of the 1990s; it saw the U.S. band building their emotional and creative range and pushing their music forward.  Not only are the vocals filled with more passion, nuance and colours: Frusciante’s guitar work mixes acid-rock, art-rock and blues together – one of the reasons the album was so celebrated.


Nirvana – Nevermind

DATE OF RELEASE: 24th September

24th September, 1991 was an absolute treat for music lovers everywhere. Not only did Red Hot Chili Peppers release their majestic album but the perhaps-even-finer Nevermind was released. Cobain and company, on Nevermind, sought to expand grunge beyond the confines of Seattle and mix bands like Pixies into their music. That quiet-loud dynamic – so favoured and exemplified by Pixies – ensures anthems like Smells Like Teen Spirit remain in the record books. Dave Grohl’s drumming is more prominent and gives (the album) its ferocity, pummel and attack. Upon its release; Nevermind was overlooked by print media and garnered few reviews. Following the astronomical success of Smells Like Teen Spirit; critics were sweating and shoving each other aside to review Nevermind. If Cobain was dissatisfied with its commerciality and clean sound – something the band would redress and confront on In UteroNevermind’s legacy and importance cannot be understated and belittled.


U2 – Achtung Baby

DATE OF RELEASE: 18th November

A darker and introspective album from a band who, at the time of Achtung Baby’s release, were shaking up their public image. Gone was the rather serious façade to be replaced by something light-hearted and self-deprecating. In tandem with the image reupholstering was a musical ambition lacking from their pre-Achtung Baby work. Much more ambitious and wide-reaching than anything they had recorded: it built from Rattle and Hum’s solid basis and takes things even further. Exceptional, polished productions ensured every song had radio-worthy sounds; the band was on form and reborn. Disposing of any pretentions and po-faced seriousness – Achtung Baby is a looser and fresher-feeling record. Bono’s lyrics look at personal struggles and relationships – gone are the moralising and egregious one-man-saving-the-world numbers – and means Achtung Baby is more universal, accessible and tangible.


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