10 Greatest Albums of 1991
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Bush the First was president. Operation: Desert Storm was in full swing and the Rodney King beating was all over the news. And yeah, that stuff was a big deal–but most importantly (sarcasm), 1991 was a landmark year for popular music. Massively huge and influential singles, new artists that would come to define the rest of the decade, established acts reinventing themselves, watershed albums that would influence the sound and culture for the next twenty years–it was a year that had it all. Two of the titans that had dominated pop music/culture in the 1980s, Michael Jackson and Prince, both released albums in 1991, but as the year progressed, it became increasingly obvious that these two icons and Madonna were not the all-dominating forces in music that they had been previously.
It’s been 20 years–perfect time to take a look back. So grab your Starter jacket and flip to “Married With Children,” here are the ten albums that stand as the greatest achievements in popular music during that heady year.
#10 De La Soul Is Dead by De La Soul
Their first album, the boldly innovative 3 Feet High & Rising, had made them critical darlings, but the quirky trio from Long Island had experienced something of a backlash in hardcore hip hop circles for being ‘hippies.’ Posdnous, Dave (then known as Trugoy) and Maseo responded with an album that mocked hardcore sensibilities while also paying homage to them. Full of idiosyncratic in-jokes, witty (sometimes confusing) wordplay and bolstered by Prince Paul’s ingenious production, De La’s second album proved that they weren’t an alt-rap novelty. The album touches on love, gangsterisms, sexual abuse, crack addiction and the pressures of newfound fame–all filtered through a sensibility that is uniquely De La Soul. The entire LP is the sound of the group deconstructing it’s own image. Even the cover alludes to their desire to tear down the D.A.I.S.Y. Age ideology they had helped invent.
“A Rollerskating Jam Named Saturdays,” “Keeping the Faith,” “Ring, Ring, Ring”
#9 Metallica (“The Black Album”) by Metallica
Since their emergence in the early 80s, Metallica had been the torchbearers for American heavy metal. With their status as metal gods firmly cemented as a new decade dawned, the quartet of James Hetfield, Kirk Hammett, Jason Newsted and Lars Ulrich teamed up with superproducer Bob Rock (who had previously worked with poppier acts like Bon Jovi) to craft their most accessible album. As dark and ominous as their previous work, “The Black Album” (as it came to be known) nonetheless features Metallica performing less riff-centric speed metal and more mournful ballads than they had previously recorded. But this is not a ‘soft’ album. Hetfield’s songs center on loneliness, death and fear and Hammett’s wah-wah-drenched guitar is as distinct as ever. This is not the sound of a band crossing over in as much as it shows how a band brought the mainstream to them.
“Enter Sandman,” “Nothing Else Matters,” “The Unforgiven”
#8 Niggaz4Life by N.W.A.
The “100 Miles & Runnin’” EP proved that N.W.A. could survive the departure of original member Ice Cube, but this, their follow-up album to the bonafide classic Straight Outta Compton, was an incendiary firebomb that even out-scandalized their infamous debut. The topicality is gone–instead, Dr. Dre, MC Ren and Eazy E focus their raps on robbing, killing, and assaulting on a cartoonish level, though it’s delivered with a degree of humor that softens some of the misogyny and violence. The true star of the album, however, is Dre’s production, which sits comfortably between his Public Enemy-influenced late 80s productions and the smoothed-out G-Funk he would perfect on his next masterpiece, The Chronic. Undeniably a starting point for rappers like Eminem and Odd Future, Niggaz4Life hasn’t lost a bit of its shock value, but the music is what makes it timeless.
“Appetite For Destruction,” “Alwayz Into Somethin,’” “Real Niggaz”
#7 Step In the Arena by Gang Starr
If Niggaz4Life featured a legendary hip hop producer perfecting the sound that would define the West Coast for the next few years, then Gang Starr’s second album has virtually the same distinction for the East. DJ Premier’s jazzy samples and loops are in top form here, with the superproducer’s trademark scratched-hooks becoming standard for East Coast ‘street-hop.’ Rapper Guru has sharpened his focus, as well. Though he still spends a lot of time boasting about his skills and chastising wack MCs, he also provides social commentary throughout the record. More relatable than Chuck D but less self-righteous then KRS-One, Guru challenges the hip hop community to take responsibility while also addressing the corruption of a system that has created many of the inner city’s ills–all in his distinctive monotone. A required record for fans of 90s East Coast hardcore hip hop.
“Check the Technique,” “Step In the Arena,” “Just To Get A Rep”
#6 Blood Sugar Sex Magik by the Red Hot Chili Peppers
They had been around for years, but outside of the underground L.A. indie/punk scene, few people had paid much attention to the Red Hot Chili Peppers before their 1989 album Mother’s Milk. But even that album did little to prepare the mainstream for the juggernaut of Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Featuring the classic band lineup of Anthony Keidis, Flea, Chad Smith and John Frusciante, the album is the zenith of the band’s punk-funk-rap-alternative sound and announced their arrival as one of the biggest acts in music. And Blood Sugar… revealed a band with vision. The instrumentalists’ chemistry is undeniable, and teamed up with legendary producer Rick Rubin, they crafted an album that stayed true to their history while also expanding on their musical repertoire.
“Under the Bridge,” “Give It Away,” “Suck My Kiss”
#5 Death Certificate by Ice Cube
Having announced his arrival as a solo artist on the stellar AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, Ice Cube’s conversion to Islam and escalating feud with his former N.W.A. bandmates led to him releasing his angriest, most inflammatory and uncompromising album ever. Abandoning the Bomb Squad productions of his debut, Cube and his producer Sir Jinx kept things decidedly West Coast this time around, making the album looser and funkier than AmeriKKKa’s… had been. Lyrically, Cube has gotten sharper with his technique, but its his potent worldview that’s so compelling. Attacking everything from the spread of the drug trade, to the healthcare system, to the military to Korean store owners, to his old group, Cube is unflinching and unblinking with his rage. A powerful listen that made Ice Cube one of the most respected (and most controversial) voices in hip hop.
“Steady Mobbin,’” “True To the Game,” “No Vaseline”
#4 Achtung Baby by U2
Another album that features an acclaimed act dismantling the sound they became famous for, U2 had been megastars since the mid-80s, but the wide-open Americana of their 1987 masterpiece The Joshua Tree had been a mixed blessing and the group seemed creatively-stifled by its success. Described by U2 frontman Bono as “the sound of four lads chopping down the Joshua Tree,” Achtung Baby found the boys from Dublin embracing their European sensibilities and throwing electronica and a few alt-rock flourishes into their mix of introspection and grandiose anthems. Nonetheless, the band’s self-conscious attempt to re-imagine their sound/image never feels contrived. The album where a band that had been notoriously serious decided to finally got a little ‘sexy,’ its sound is also attributable to the eclecticism of innovative producer Brian Eno, who pushed the band to try new ideas. Thankfully, all of them worked.
“One,” “Mysterious Ways,” “Even Better Than the Real Thing”
#3 Ten by Pearl Jam
The only debut album to make the list, Pearl Jam’s first album is a perfect listen. Though it gets consistently overshadowed by another album-that-shall-remain-nameless (til later), Ten is brilliantly produced, written and performed by a band that was dismissed as late-coming opportunists when it was initially released. Eddie Vedder’s distinctive growl gave a powerful resonance to his lyrics, which touched on homelessness, depression and teen angst. Nirvana may have been heralded as the torchbearers of the grunge movement, but Pearl Jam wasn’t far behind–and were a stronger collective of instrumentalists. The twin guitars of Mike McCready and Stone Gossard gave PJ a connection to classic rock that many of their contemporaries lacked and song-after-song on the album became mainstays of alternative radio. Though many would go on to dismiss their idealism later, the album still stands as one of the decade’s definitive recordings. Hard to believe they’d only been together for about 8 months when it was recorded.
“Alive,” “Evenflow,” “Jeremy”
#2 The Low End Theory by A Tribe Called Quest
One of the greatest hip hop albums ever recorded, A Tribe Called Quest defined, refined and perfected ‘jazz-rap’ on this album. Their first album, People’s Instinctive Travels & the Paths of Rhythm, had been acclaimed–but the Queens kids were still heavily influenced (and slightly overshadowed) by their Native Tongues predecessors, De La Soul. But their second album stripped away some of the unabashed weirdness of their debut and presented a cerebral and laid-back aesthetic that was tied to the streets without ever pretending to be gangsta. The productions–chiefly handled by the group itself–are a virtual ‘How-To’ on looping and feature some choice jazz and soul samples that sent beatmakers running through the crates to find more obscure recordings. The wordplay of Q-Tip and Phife is clever and idiosyncratic as the two rhyme about materialism, urban life, date rape and the hip hop business. An album that sounds better every time you listen to it.
“Check the Rhime,” “Jazz,” “Scenario”
And what was the best album in a year that was full of classics that would define the rest of the decade? I almost wish it wasn’t so obvious…
#1 Nevermind by Nirvana
Changed everything. Perfect. Probably the greatest rock album of the last 30 years. Arguably the greatest album of the decade–in any genre. The cultural impact of Nirvana’s second album can’t be overstated. Even music fans that weren’t around to hear it when it debuted can recite what makes this album so important. But first and foremost–the music is amazing. Kurt Cobain’s songwriting was a revelation to most listeners in 1991 (particularly those mainstream fans that had missed out on the Pixies) and the sheer, visceral power of songs like “In Bloom,” “Territorial Pissings” and especially “Smells Like Teen Spirit” awakened a generation of fans that had been weened on poppy arena rock for most of the 1980s. Every song is virtually a standard and producer Butch Vig gave the band a meatier sound that helped them take over the charts. And the addition of drummer Dave Grohl added a throttling force to Cobain’s songs that had been lacking on the band’s debut. A masterpiece in every sense of the word. Everyone should own this album. And everyone does.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Come As You Are,” “Lithium”
So those are the ten best albums from 20 years ago. Disagree? Of course you do…
Honorable Mentions: Out of Time by R.E.M., Quik Is the Name by DJ Quik, Use Your Illusion I & II by Guns ‘N Roses, Breaking Atoms by Main Source, Naughty By Nature by Naughty By Nature, Dangerous by Michael Jackson, Badmotorfinger by Soundgarden, Forever My Lady by Jodeci, Cypress Hill by Cypress Hill, Emotions by Mariah Carey, We Can’t Be Stopped by The Geto Boys, No More Tears by Ozzy Osbourne, Mama Said by Lenny Kravitz, Diamonds & Pearls by Prince, Apocalypse 91…The Enemy Strikes Black by Public Enemy, Cooleyhighharmony by Boyz II Men, Screamadelica by Primal Scream