10 Best Albums From 1991
Nirvana didn’t fire the first shot in 1991, but they fired the loudest. And after all the carnage was removed, it became clear that indie rock was no longer just a left-of-the-dial underground thing. Major record labels and mainstream radio started picking up on artists, signing and playing almost everyone with a pulse. The full force of 1991 wouldn’t be felt for another few years, but Sept. 24, 1991, marked a turning point for alternative music. That’s the day ‘Nevermind’ was released. Things would never be the same.
The strain was beginning to show on the Pixies’ fourth album. Their heads and hearts were slowly moving outside of the band. The best song on ‘Trompe le Monde’ is a cover of the Jesus & Mary Chain’s ‘Head On.’ But listen below the surface of the often-abusive noise, and you’ll discover a record that’s brimming with punk energy. It turned out to be one last attempt to hold it all together, but it’s brutal, hard and occasionally tuneful all the same.
These Scottish indie rockers released a half-dozen albums in the ’90s. Their first to get a major U.S. push remains their best, a flawless 12-song set that combines slices of super-catchy power pop with jagged edges of guitar-driven alt-rock. A couple of ‘Bandwagonesque”s songs even managed to snag some modern-rock airplay.
Dinosaur Jr.’s fourth album, and first for a major label, is by far their most tuneful, a melodic mix of chunky guitar heroics and an almost pop sense of craftsmanship. Co-founder Lou Barlow was gone by this point, but singer and guitarist J. Mascis leads the new lineup through Dinosaur Jr.’s most durable collection of songs.
After a few years of teetering on global domination, R.E.M. finally scored the massive hit they were inching closer to with each album. ‘Out of Time’ doesn’t stray too far from the band’s usual blend of jangly pop and jagged modern rock. It just does a better job of making sure they coexist. Their sunniest album paid off with their first No. 1 hit.
The Chili Peppers didn’t alter their sound too much on their fifth album. The big change is the producer. Rick Rubin fills out their thin funk with big, round bass and fat booming drums. It makes all the difference in the world. ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’ isn’t perfect — there’s still too many frat-boy sex rhymes. But it’s as close to perfect they’ve ever come.
Massive Attack’s trip-hop classic changed the way electronic music sounded in the ’90s. Dusty, dirty, grimy and laced with haunting whirs and buzzes that make you think that maybe ghosts got into the machines, ‘Blue Lines’ stops you cold with its revolutionary shapes. Very few records from the early ’90s matter like this one.
Formed from the ashes of dismal Seattle grunge band Mother Love Bone, whose singer died of a heroin overdose, Pearl Jam bled the line between indie and commercial hard rock. They plowed forward with guitars straight out of classic-rock radio, but frontman Eddie Vedder possessed a punk spirit that elevated otherwise ordinary songs. They’d sharpen and tighten their attacks over the years, but their battle begins here.
My Bloody Valentine’s shoegaze classic pretty much ruined the genre for anyone else. Crammed with woozy, hazy guitar lines and spaced-out vocals that come from way too much time with the volume cranked to 11, ‘Loveless’ is an alt-rock milestone that still resonates 22 years later. Its influence, in one way or another, graces the best of today’s indie rock.
After their breakthrough 1987 album ‘The Joshua Tree,’ U2 spent the next few years uncovering their American roots. On their seventh album they headed back home to Europe, wandered into krautrock territory and made a record surging with electronic rattles and hums. It’s a titanic-sounding album, as big, brash and as anthemic as anything they’ve ever recorded.
Many of the records on our list of the 10 Best Albums From 1991 are essential. Many shaped the music we still listen to today. But none matters more than Nirvana’s second LP, a major-label blast that revolutionized everything about music in 1991: the way it sounded, the way it was played, the way it was consumed and the way it was marketed. After ‘Nevermind,’ nothing was as real. It’s a turning point that comes along every 20 years or so. And it’s still the most important album of the past quarter century.