The Conversation: 1991 Was a Damn Good Year, But Was It The Best Music Year of The '90s?
Something happened this week 20 years ago, and music hasn't been the same since: Nirvana released "Smells Like Teen Spirit," the lead single from Nevermind, which would itself come out later in the month.
With the song came a new movement in music, a new era. But plenty of other influential acts released seminal albums in 1991.
REM came out with Out Of Time, My Bloody Valentine had Loveless, Pearl Jam released Ten and U2 released Achtung Baby (which will be re-released in box-set form on November 1).
There were many other great records that year, too. But these, along with Nevermind, top my list for 1991's best, most important releases. And with such a strong array of releases that year -- not to mention the cultural implications that followed (grunge culture took over my junior high school and everyone else's) -- it's hard not to look at 1991 as the '90s most important year in music.
Pete, as always, has a differing opinion. Hit the jump to read our discussion on music released in 1991, the best year of music from the '90s, and the range of influence all of these records still carry today.
Daniel: The other day, I read a story about Tokyo Police Club, Fucked Up and a handful of other acts honoring the twentieth anniversary of Nirvana's Nevermind by performing "Smells Like Teen Spirit" 144 times in a row on October 1. For many people in our generation, it's the song that changed everything. But I got to thinking about 1991 and some of the other great records released that year.
REM released Out Of Time, My Bloody Valentine released Loveless, Pearl Jam came out with Ten, and U2 put out Achtung Baby. Those records, along with a good amount of others (including Vanilla Ice's Cool As Ice) were some of the most important records of my upbringing. Even though I wasn't allowed to listen to any of them, they somehow slipped through the cracks and helped shape my musical preferences.
With all these seminal releases, was 1991 the most important year for music in the '90s?
Pete: Considering that those are absolutely, without question, five of the most important records of the '90s, yeah, that's definitely a fair argument.
But let's not slight the other big releases of the year: Red Hot Chili Peppers' Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Metallica's Black Album, A Tribe Called Quest's Low End Theory, Massive Attack's Blue Lines (often considered the first-ever trip-hop album), Temple of the Dog's only album and Guns N' Roses' Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II. 1991 also saw the debuts from Smashing Pumpkins (Gish), Blur (Leisure), Slowdive (Just For a Day), Pennywise, Cypress Hill, Tupac Shakur (2Pacalypse Now) and Drive Like Jehu. 1991 also brought us the second and last NWA album (Niggaz4Life), Prince's Diamonds and Pearls (which led to a lot of pretty forward music videos, if I recall) and a pretty solid Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers album considering it came 15 years into their career (Into The Great Wide Open). It's tough to argue those facts.
But, given my own personal tastes and history, I'd consider putting 1994 above it. I was 10 then, and that's when I really started paying attention to the music around me. I didn't listen to all of them, then, but the fact is that most of the records that make up the foundation of my tastes were pretty much released that year. Weezer's Blue Album, Green Day's Dookie, Notorious B.I.G.'s Ready to Die, Nas' Illmatic, Soundgarden's Superunknown, Pearl Jam's Vitalogy, Offspring's Smash, Beastie Boys' Ill Communication, Blur's Parklife, Oasis' Definitely, Maybe, Beck's Mellow Gold, Frank Black's Teenager of the Year, TLC's CrazySexyCool, NOFX's Punk in Drublic and Toadies' Rubberneck -- I've probably listened to each of these records over 100 times each. 1994's no slouch, dude.
Oh, and I haven't even yet mentioned Jeff Buckley's Grace. Or incredibly commercial successful albums such as Bush's Sixteen Stone, Dave Matthews Band's Under The Table and Dreaming and -- never forget -- Hootie & The Blowfish's insanely popular Cracked Rear View. Actually, those last three may be enough to put 1994 in its place below 1991, just out of principal alone.
But here's 1994's saving grace and maybe its most important record of all: Nirvana's MTV Unplugged in New York, a record I could argue is even more important than Nevermind.
I think, when talking the best music years of the '90s, we're talking '91 and '94 in the 1 and 1a positions. Me, personally? I'm putting '94 up front with '91 in a very, very, very, very close second position.
Daniel: I see your point about Nirvana's MTV Unplugged in New York album being a big deal. I'll go a step further and say that it's definitely a better album than Nevermind, but there is no way that it is a more important record. Nevermind literally changed popular music, whereas Unplugged solidified the band's genius. Without Nevermind, think of where music might be right now. Skid Row, who, along with Lita Ford, will be performing at Grapevine's Glass Cactus on Saturday night, might've had a much longer, more successful career. But thanks to bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, the programming on MTV during the summer of 1991, when I was 11, wasn't all that hair metal garbage.
The same thing applies with Pearl Jam's Vitalogy, which you cited as one of the stronger albums of 1994. But Ten, which came out in 1991 was a much more important record.
I don't mean to discount what happened in 1994, because I think it was important. But I think that's because it was the first evolution of the '90s. A sort of British Invasion was occuring with Blur, Oasis, and Slowdive, whose records you mentioned, alongside a shift from grunge. Green Day brought punk mainstream with Dookie, and Weezer's Blue Album was a staple for several generations of music fans.
However, 1991 was the year a meteor met hair metal. It wasn't that a new generation of musicians were taking the baton from their elders. They basically changed the game, and took the playing field right out from under anyone who couldn't adapt.
One band that was able to adapt was U2. I think one reason that Bono and company have lasted as long as they have is their ability to reinvent themselves, which is what they did in 1991 with Achtung Baby. As they had already done before with Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree, they threw their fans for a loop with a new sound -- one that involved a lot of production and electronics.
The sound of Achtung Baby is still influencing bands to this day, arguably as much as Nevermind. Look at bands like Coldplay, and just about any working pop-music guitar player today. Anyone with more than two pedals on their pedal board has been influenced by U2's The Edge.
So, from 1991, who do you think had the biggest, longest lasting influence? Because, I think U2 is at least a contender.
Pete: Hey, people like hair metal. Yeah, they forgot how much they liked it for a while, but then Monster Jams came out and everyone was back on board, and only a little ironically.
Regardless, here's my point about MTV Unplugged in New York: It was the record that kind of made Nirvana legit, that solidified their status and that proved, in turn, that Nevermind was the real deal. Here, you had the biggest band of the day playing their songs in totally different arrangements than anyone could've imagined (Dave Grohl playing jazz drums in a turtleneck!), and the fact that it aired just four months before Kurt Cobain killed himself makes it all the more tragic and important. It's the last thing of note Nirvana did, really.
Hey, cementing your legacy ain't a bad way to go.
Seems to me that your argument, really, is about influence. And I'll grant you that 1991 was indeed a more influential year because of the huge turn in music tides. It was a more raw year, too. '94 was kind of when all of it reached its peak, I think; '91 was when the sea change started.
Maybe we're just arguing the chicken and the egg. Whatever. I'll take them both -- and fried, please.
As for which '91 album has the longest influence, I don't even think it's a competition. I get what you're saying about Achtung Baby, but, as technically proficient as that record is, Nevermind is right there with it, albeit heading a totally different sonic direction. I'm not even talking about just the sheen of the grunge sound -- I think Bleach kind of set that up in '89, if not even the Pixies before that -- but the idea of doing such a dirty sound in a professional space, and spending that much money on it, was definitely a newer idea at that point.
We see the ramifications of that all the time today. The whole lo-fi movement du jour is indebted to Nevermind, for sure. But maybe more important than that is this: Sure, it's chic to shout-out Kurt Cobain these days; but you definitely don't hear Lil Wayne shouting out The Edge's name in interviews...
Daniel: You're right, it's not a competition. Nevermind was probably more influential than Achtung Baby. But there was a wider variety of influential music that came out in 1991 other than just grunge. U2's influence is certainly prevalent today, although mostly among guitar geeks with pedal fetishes.
Pearl Jam, who just celebrated 20 years in the biz, have and always will live in the shadows of Nirvana -- as far as the grunge movement goes. But the quality of their music and the consistency of their records -- at least through the '90s -- proves that they were certainly a heavyweight of 1991. You'd be hard pressed to find a decent band these days that cites them as an influence, though, which is pretty interesting.
But, whatever. Here's to 1991, bro.
(Cracks open a beer, pours some out for Kurt Cobain, and takes a gulp.)
(Crushes can on forehead.)
Pete: Yes, let's drink to this whole conversation making me feel old. So long as we're drinking to '94, too.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.