25 Best Albums From 1991: the greatest and most revolutionary records from 25 years ago.
Something was in the water in 1991: maybe it was the end of the Cold War, the start and end of the Persian Gulf War, the Rodney King beatings, a rejection of Reaganomics and the moral majority, but kids were ready for change. And this applied to their tastes in music too. Hair Metal got shorn, Teen Pop was scorned.
In its wake came a flurry of innovation in a handful of genres: Alternative Rock, Grunge, Shoegaze, Hip-Hop, Electronic Music (and all fusions in-between) all rose to the surface from their small subculture origins (the Seattle, Washington grunge scene being the most prominent).
So 1991 wasn’t just one of the best years for music in the 90’s. It was one of the best years ever. And one of the most groundbreaking, where the hunger for new sounds were satiated by artists who upped their game, making musical history in the process.
So in honor of the embarrassment of musical riches from 25 years ago, here are the 25 best albums of the bunch. If you’d like to own any of these classics, simply click on the album image to preview/purchase from Amazon:
25. School Of Fish ‘School of Fish’
Okay some of you are thinking, WTF? A one-hit wonder on a list like this? Well it’s my list, so suck it! But seriously, School of Fish’s début is really one of the great lost albums of 1991. While its mainly known for 3 Strange Days, its packed with jangle/power-pop gems like the gorgeous Speechless, the smooth psychedelia of Rose Colored Glasses and the Rolling Stones homage King of The Dollar. This band never fully got their due, sadly ending in tragedy.
24. Seal ‘Seal’
Making more of an impact in the UK than the states, Seal’s eponymous début (produced by former Buggles frontman Trevor Horn) was a slick, soulful glimmering jewel that occupied its own unique space in 1991. Crazy was an anthem that any angsty, neurotic Gen-Xer could relate to. But there are deeper cuts like Violet, Show Me and Future Love Paradise that deserve equal praise.
Redefining what the bass guitar could do in a rock context, Les Claypool and co. crafted a funk metal masterpiece that sounded like nothing else before or since. Jerry Was A Race Car Driver still sounds like an extraterrestrial transmission from an alternate dimension.
Dean and Gene Ween’s hallucinogenic hodgepodge of pitch shifted vocals, intentionally sloppy musicianship and odes to Prince, food and prog-rock was just a hint at what Ween would eventually become. But their sophomore album’s weird, comedic overtones was an esoteric triumph.
The album that helped put the ambient house scene on the map, Ultra World is a psychedelic sonic odyssey equal parts Brian Eno, Pink Floyd and sci-fi soundtrack, featuring quirky samples from films like Flash Gordon (on the appropriately celestial track Earth (Gaia). Their track Little Fluffy Clouds (featuring snippets of an interview with Ricki Lee Jones), is one of the oddest, effervescent musical moments of the 90s.
Panned upon its release, this gloomy fuse of Goth and shoegaze (featuring haunting tracks like Spanish Air, Celia’s Dream and Brighter) has aged like a fine wine, helping to build the goodwill that spawned their recent reunion tour and hotly anticipated 2017 album.
J. Mascis’s off-kilter howl and blistering guitar-work lost none of their bluster on Dinosaur Jr’s major label début. Tracks like Blowing It, The Wagon and the title track still pack a ragged punch.
Confession: I’ve never been that into the RHCP. But given this iconic alt-funk epics’ popularity and impact, if I don’t put in on this list someone is gonna let me have it…so here ya go!
A Seattle supergroup, TOTD saw members of Soundgarden and Pearl Jam join forces to honor late Mother Love Bone frontman Andrew Wood. The self-tiled one-off was a powerful sonic eulogy. Hunger Strike, Say Hello To Heaven and Pushing Forwards Back are just a sample of the album’s emotional, cathartic rock, which still resonates to this day.
An album too weird to be understood in 1991 or any other year, this group fronted by Faith No More’s Mike Patton was a genre-smashing carnival ride clown car horror show. You’d probably fail a drug test just by listening to it. Click here to read how it changed my life.
Helping to establish the alternative rap movement, Low End Theory fused jazz and hip-hop in novel and groundbreaking ways on tracks like Check The Rime, Verses From The Abstract and Scenario, becoming one of the most critically acclaimed albums in the genre and the decade.
R.E.M. capitalized on their college rock cred with this iconic disc that played to their greatest strengths on tracks like Losing My Religion, Low and the hip-hop flavored Radio-Song (featuring KRS-One. That being said, Shiny Happy People (featuring The B-52’s Kate Pierson) is still a wretched, rotten tune that has not aged well over time (she’s used to better effect on the underrated Me In Honey).
Has there ever been a ballsier, throw down the gauntlet album title/concept than De La Soul’s sophomore album? A reactionary take on being labeled hippies in light of their groundbreaking psychedelic début Three Feet High and Rising, the NYC hip-hop trio went into darker and more texturally complex work on tracks like Bitties in the BK Lounge, My Brother’s A Basehead, and A Roller Skating Jam Named Saturdays (featuring A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip).
12. Prince ‘Diamonds and Pearls’
Look at almost any best of 1991 list and this album is conspicuously absent. It’s a curiously glaring omission. Diamonds and Pearls saw Prince get his mojo back after a series of misfires. In 1991 he had a choice: stick to his patented formula, or experiment with hip-hop and the newly emerging New Jack Soul movement. Songs like Get Off, Cream and Insatiable split the difference with splendid results.
Famously taking the number one spot from Nirvana’s Nevermind in Spin’s best of 1991 issue, Teenage Fanclub crafted one hell of a power-pop opus on Bandwagonesque. The Concept and Star Sign were mainstays on college radio and 120 Minutes, and still cast a Big Star-esque spell.
While 1991 was a game changer for music, metal was curiously under-represented. That made Metallica’s Black Album all the more welcome…but frustrating for some hardcore fans who bemoaned the more traditional hard rock trappings on tracks like Enter Sandman or power ballads like Nothing Else Matters.
It’s certainly a bittersweet affair, but in 1991 it felt essential and it kept rock competitive with alternative, while also bidding farewell to the thrash sound that established them in the first place (not a good thing in the long run).
I dunno why so many critics were so meh on the Pixies (first) swan song. Trompe Le Monde is the band’s grandest musical vision to date, from bangers like Planet of Sound (and cover of Jesus and Mary Chain’s Head On) to the keyboard aided Alec Eiffel and the thoroughly trippy Space (I Believe In).
Scottish indie rockers went for an acid-house upgrade on their third studio album, and became sonic revolutionaries in the process. The electronic dance elements made for an unlikely but winning fusion with their psychedelic 70s influences. Loaded, Come Together and Higher Than The Sun becoming anthems for British youth as well as American anglophiles.
The album that birthed the Trip Hop genre, Massive Attack’s début was a sultry fusion of hip-hop, electronica, dub reggae and soul with songs like Safe From Harm and Unfinished Sympathy that still sounds as revolutionary today as they did 25 years ago.
One of the best-selling independent albums of all time, Gish weaved a tapestry of interweaving genre-bending textures. Billy Corgan and co’s mad scientist mix of metal, classic rock and Goth on tracks like Siva, Rhinoceros and Suffer were a crash course in dynamics, pacing and emotion.
Soundgarden were one of the first grunge acts to get signed to a major label, but their massively underrated 1990 album Louder Than Love had limited commercial success. But thanks to Nirvana, there was renewed focus on their follow-up Bad Motor Finger which was an abstract miasma of Sabbath riffs, post-punk guitar ephemera and Chris Cornell’s glass breaking caterwauling on tracks like Jesus Christ Pose, Rusty Cage, New Damage and Slaves and Bulldozers.
Released a month before Nevermind, Pearl Jam’s début wouldn’t catch on until months afterward in the wake of Nirvana’s massive success. While hailing from the same scene and city as their grunge contemporaries, Ten couldn’t have been any more different, with songs that were more upbeat, soulful and polished than normally associated with the genre. But anthems like Alive, Jeremy and Evenflow would leave a lasting indelible imprint.
U2 were stuck in a creative rut after the lukewarm reception to their Rattle and Hum album. Holing up in Berlin, the group decided to shake up their formula, embracing irony while deflating their self-serious image, and incorporating elements of industrial and dance music into their echoey-transcendent sound. The makeover was a massive success as witnessed by iconic hits like One and Mysterious Ways and deep cuts like So Cruel and the devastating Love is Blindness. Achtung Baby is arguably the band’s best…or at least a close second to The Joshua Tree.
2. My Bloody Valentine ‘Loveless’
Sonic perfectionist and MBV mastermind Kevin Shields spent two years crafting their sophomore release, going through 19 studios and multiple engineers to conjure the sound he heard in his head (the cost of which was one of the reported causes of Creation Record’s demise). Using unorthodox production, extreme guitar tremolo and samples he crafted an alien sound that was alternately bewitching and disorienting.
Songs like Sometimes, To Here Knows When and When You Sleep simply defy convention: male and female vocals are fused as one, buried guitar textures create sonic easter eggs, adding up to one of the most influential and revered albums of all time.
1. Nirvana ‘Nevermind’
To pretend that any album mattered more in 1991 than Nevermind is simply elitist contrariness. Nirvana owned that year (and the decade) by pushing the alternative underground overground that made Grunge a household name.
Upon first listen it may have sounded like an inarticulate sullen rage, but it was understood by Generation X immediately. The video for Smells Like Teen Spirit was the Trojan horse that hit the world like an atom bomb and went straight into the pop culture subconscious.
Honorable Mentions: Public Enemy ‘Apocalypse 91… The Enemy Strikes Black,’ Slint ‘Spiderland’, GN’R ‘Use Your Illusion,’ Ned’s Atomic Dustbin ‘God Fodder,’ PM Dawn ‘Of the Heart, of the Soul and of the Cross: The Utopian Experience,’ Siouxsie and The Banshees ‘Superstition,’Jack Frost ‘Jack Frost, Mudhoney ‘Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge’