30th Birthday Extravaganza – the Greatest Albums of 1991!

Hey, I turn 30 today! In an attempt to ward off the accompanying existential dread, I’ve been spending the last few weeks living in the past and immersing myself in the music of my glorious birth year of 1991. Turns out it was a pretty epic and hugely important year for popular music. Relatively new genres like hip-hop and house were really taking off; Nirvana kicked off the ‘90s grunge and alt-rock explosion; and rock subgenres like shoegaze and lo-fi were beginning to flourish. I have no plausible explanation for all this other than that my existence on the earth must have been very inspirational to many artists. What can I say?

So, in celebration of my birth on the 22nd day of the 2nd month of the year of our lord 1991, I present without further ado my Top 22 Albums of 1991! Every one of these classics will brighten your day and fill your ears with goodness. And yes, I’m fully aware that there are quite a few very popular albums that did not make my list. Don’t @ me, Smashing Pumpkins fans, ya bunch of weirdos.

22. Dinosaur Jr., Green Mind

Lou is gone, Murph is sidelined, and the noise and grime that made You’re Living All Over Me and Bug late ‘80s indie rock classics is largely gone. The cleaner sound meant that this–essentially a J. Mascis solo album–became the first Dinosaur Jr. record to actually chart. But if the rockers are a little less compelling this time around (other than classic opener “The Wagon”), but the lovely slower songs, like “Thumb” and the acoustic “Flying Cloud,” almost make up for it. And the guitar solos still rule, like on “How’d You Pin That One On Me.” Woah.

21. Drivin N Cryin, Fly Me Courageous

Red hot, no-frills Southern rock without any of the tiresome jamming. This one doesn’t have DNC’s only “hit,” “Straight to Hell,” on it, but whether you’re looking for warm poppy tones (“For You,” “Together”) or just some good old fashioned greasy riffin’ (title track, “Rush Hour”), you’ve got your bases covered here.

20. Slowdive, Just For a Day

The other major shoegaze album with a blurry fuschia-ass cover that came out in 1991. But Just For a Day doesn’t go for the same disorienting wall-of-sound thing that Loveless does. It’s more synthy and dreamy and full of hazy, serene vibes. 

19. Matthew Sweet, Girlfriend

His voice is whiny. Many of the lyrics are godawful. But the tracklist is stacked with crunchy power pop songs immeasurably elevated by world-class lead guitar, courtesy of veteran slingers Richard Lloyd and Robert Quine. How the hell did Sweet get those guys on board? He gave them drugs, right? Probably. This is supposedly a break-up album, but most of the songs seem to be about girls who don’t want to sleep with him, like his celebrity crush (“Winona”) or an uptight Christian girl (“Evangeline,” which is funny and cute). And I don’t care how bland and nonsensical the lyrics are; the title track is catchy as goddamn balls.

18. The Feelies, Time for a Witness

Like entering a time warp back to the early ‘80s, when Velvet Underground-obsessed college rock bands like R.E.M., the Dream Syndicate, and the Feelies themselves were trying to put everyone in a time warp back to the late ‘60s. A generation of bands that the Feelies influenced had moved on to other things, but the Feelies themselves kept on keepin’ on with their fourth album, the last they would make for 20 years. Even if their influences are obvious (“Find a Way” is a total VU-style drone, and the album closes with a cover of the Stooges’ “Real Cool Time”), they were never just another one of a million jingle-jangle indie bands – they were heavier, thanks to their two drummers and Glenn Mercer’s fat, greasy lead guitar tone.

17. Talk Talk, Laughing Stock

Beautiful, evocative, largely improvisational music by a former ‘80s synth pop band. Jazzy, even, and y’all know how I feel about free-form jazz. Thoroughly a mood piece, but you don’t even notice how sparse and quiet it is – there’s so much feeling in there that it feels very intense. But I lack taste, so of course my favorite part is a loud guitar chording on “Ascension Day.”

16. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Into the Great Wide Open

No matter the decade, you could always count on Tom Petty to churn out Tom Petty songs. And there are few things in life better than a Tom Petty song. With Jeff Lynne producing Into the Great Wide Open is shiny and jangly and melodic as all hell, with tons of tasty Mike Campbell slide guitar. And as with most Petty albums, the non-hits (“Kings Highway,” “Two Gunslingers,” “Built to Last”) are just as good as the hits (which this time around were “Learning to Fly” and the Beatle-y title track). And did Stephin Merritt rip off “All the Wrong Reasons” to write “The Book of Love”? He totally did, right? Somebody investigate this.

15. Sebadoh, III

A foundational landmark in the lo-fi movement. Some of the wonky cassette recorder tracks are not exactly, uh, melodically pleasing. But Lou Barlow’s tender home-recorded acoustic songs provide a resonant emotional core, especially in contrast to the bitter electric songs like “The Freed Pig,” which finds Lou still smarting about getting booted from Dinosaur Jr. 

14. Willie Nile, Places I Have Never Been

Willie Nile’s first attempt at a comeback after a decade-long absence from the music business (it took until his third try in the mid-2000s for it to stick; he’s been hitting the dad rock touring circuit hard ever since). With the shiniest major label production Columbia’s money could buy, and A-list guest stars like Roger McGuinn, Richard Thompson, and Loudon Wainwright III at his disposal, it’s utterly baffling to me that Places I Have Never Been flopped and ended up with Willie exiled another ten or so years. Other than perhaps the characteristic forays into corny humor (the admittedly catchy, countryish “Everybody Needs a Hammer”) and melodrama (“Renegades”), there’s just one great melody after another on here. There were a million bands doing jangly Byrds-via-R.E.M. stuff at this time, but hardly any of them jangled as hard as “Rite of Spring” (appropriately featuring McGuinn on guitar). And I don’t care what anyone says; “Heaven Help the Lonely” should have been the biggest hit of the year. “Losing My Religion” can eat a dick.

13. Slint, Spiderland

The essential post-rock album, with its weird time signatures, spoken word vocals, and depressing atmosphere. At the time of its release, Spiderland went almost completely ignored and the band broke up before it was even released (they’ve since reunited a few times to play sporadic tour dates). But the revered cult status it’s earned in the decades since is well deserved. You gotta be in the mood for a record like this, but it’s truly haunting. Well, except for Brian McMahan’s attempt to “sing” at the end of “Breadcrumb Trail.” Yikes.

12. The Orb, Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld

Making like an ambient electronic version of Pink Floyd, except actually fun and entertaining, Alex Paterson, Jimmy Cauty, and various associates take us on a nearly 2-hour psychedelic journey through the cosmos, through genres, and to wherever the center of Ultraworld is. Ultraworld revolutionized the interspersion of samples and sound effects in electronic music, but beyond that, it’s just really fucking cool sounding. One minute you’re blissing out to the calm astral vibes of “Spanish Castles in Space,” and the next you’re bopping to the hard reggae-like groove of “Perpetual Dawn.” You should probably take drugs when you listen to this.

11. Prince, Diamonds and Pearls

Not at the same level as Prince’s ‘80s masterpieces, sure, but his first official album with then-new band the New Power Revolution is still bursting at the seams with absurd levels of energy and creativity. OK, sure, a couple of the experiments kind of suck (soft-shoe dreck “Strollin’” and novelty rap song “Jughead”). On the other hand, we get the classic sex jams “Gett Off” and the maddeningly infectious “Cream,” which became a number 1 hit. The album is poppy as hell overall, but can you handle all this ear candy? I don’t think you can handle all this ear candy.

10. Swans, White Light From the Mouth of Infinity

Before recently, I’d only ever been exposed to Swans’ more recent, post-reformation stuff, which is sooooo bleak I have to turn it off after about 30 seconds so I don’t start thinking about jumping off a bridge. This is still plenty gothy, but there are triumphal, anthemic qualities to this that really hit me where I live (heck, “Song for the Sun” is practically a feel-good romp). Like Nick Cave crossed with Bruce Springsteen, or something like that. But man, Michael Gira loves to twist the knife, doesn’t he? “I’m so glad I’m better than you.” Brutal.

9. Teenage Fanclub, Bandwagonesque

Clearly indebted to great guitar pop bands of the past (especially Big Star), back when the melodies were honey-sweet and “emoting” was still performed via sparingly used guitar soloing (classic opener “The Concept”). There are only one or two songs that are fast enough that one could infer that punk rock had happened already. But shit man, I don’t care how much “December” sounds like a Big Star song – it would have been one of their classics! With Norman Blake and Gerard Love pushing each other to new songwriting heights, pretty much every song on here would have been, really. 

8. Superchunk, No Pocky for Kitty

33 minutes of roiling, balls-to-the-wall guitar pop. What’s not to love? I tend to prefer later, less noisy Superchunk albums where the individual melodies are easier to pick out. In fact, even after I’ve listened to the Steve Albini-produced Kitty however many times, I can still barely remember how any of the actual songs go. But I’m always left with an impression of “Damn, that was awesome.”

7. Soundgarden, Badmotorfinger

Metal, but fairly non-threatening and classic rock-influenced metal – not unlike Metallica’s bazillion-selling Black Album, which also came out in ‘91, except done much better! “Rusty Cage” grooves along on an absolutely incredible riff. And I love the unexpectedly melodic sections that pop up in songs like “Outshined” and “Mind Riot.” Chris Cornell, Eddie Vedder, Axl Rose, and Kurt Cobain may have inspired a generation of douchebag nu-metal vocalists to sing like they were perpetually constipated, but it wasn’t their fault, dammit! Cornell is fantastic on this. I also totally forgot he was dead. RIP.

6. Primal Scream, Screamadelica

Bobby Gillespie sure knew the right people to call to get the most authentic possible versions of the sounds he wanted for Screamadelica. He wanted to recapture the glory of the Stones’ golden era? Naturally, he called up Jimmy Miller himself, who would be dead in three years’ time, to produce the album with a beatific, groovin’-ass shimmy “Movin’ On Up” and the bluesy Sticky Fingers-esque ballad “Damaged.” He wanted to turn the rest of the album into a seamless mash-up of house music and classic rock? Andrew Weatherall, Hugo Nicolson, and the Orb took him where he wanted to go. The result is danceable, entrancing, and bold as hell – a shining moment wherein club music and rock ‘n roll co-existed in perfect harmony.

5. Nirvana, Nevermind

Well, here it is. The big one. It’s got to be one of the top five most influential rock albums ever made, right? Just because that influence was on a bunch of, like, nu-metal bands doesn’t make it any less historically important than, say, Sgt. Pepper. And not unlike Sgt. Pepper, the “revolutionary” nature of both albums gets overstated so often (even Kurt Cobain himself once said of the album: “I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies”) that just how many catchy-as-hell pop songs are on them probably gets understated. “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “In Bloom,” “Come As You Are,” “Lithium,” “On a Plain” – these are all on one album? Goddamn! Now, I never really got into Nirvana when I was an angsty teen, so Nevermind doesn’t mean that much to me personally. I wasn’t there–well, I was, but I was like 6 months old–so I’ll never really get it. I don’t need to. I just love the songs.

4. Uncle Tupelo, Still Feel Gone

Of the two “early” Uncle Tupelo albums–the ones where they were still loud and punky–Still Feel Gone isn’t as iconic as No Depression, and doesn’t have the same chonky guitar tone (guess Jay Farrar no longer had access to J. Mascis’ Les Paul). But the songwriting is leaps and bounds better, breaking free of the well-worn folk and blues tropes of No Depression. The Jeff Tweedy tunes especially, which range from pummeling rock (“Gun”) to power pop (“Nothing”) to country-folk (“Watch Me Fall”) to dreamy indie (“If That’s Alright”). And the way songs like “Postcard” and “Discarded” combine loud, punky guitars, roosty banjos and mandolins, and quick Minutemen-esque meter shifts is, well — I’ve still never heard anything quite like them, even after so many legions and legions of alt-country bands have followed in Uncle Tupelo’s footsteps. Have I mentioned Farrar’s “Still Be Around” yet? God, that’s a beautiful song.

3. My Bloody Valentine, Loveless

I believe the word we’re looking for here is atmosphere. Kevin Shields’ mad science experiment is the definitive document of shoegaze, and one of the most evocative electric guitar soundscapes there ever was or ever will be. The fact that Shields achieved most of it by messing around with EQ rather than relying on fancy pedals makes it even more remarkable. Can’t hear the lyrics above all the noise? Who cares. Let the roar envelop you and take you away.

2. Ween, The Pod

Not entirely unlike the Minutemen a few years before, Gene and Dean Ween–just 19-20 at the time of recording–set out to kinda-sorta parody classic rock, but turned out to be such talented songwriters that the stuff they ended up writing turned out to be just as catchy and inventive as actual classic rock songs. And in this case, thanks to whatever drugs Gene and Dean were into at the time (legend has it they spent the sessions huffing Scotchguard, of all things, but that’s probably bullshit), 100 times funnier. For skeptics, rest assured that beneath all the stoner humor (try not laughing at “Pollo Asada”) and sludgy cassette recorder audio quality are 23 great and original rock songs. But for weirdos like me, the funny and lo-fi aspects elevate The Pod to classic status. Yes, I’d be singing that melody to “Pork Roll Egg and Cheese” to myself until the day I die anyway; add the helium voices and the fact that it’s called “Pork Roll Egg and Cheese” – it’s like they’re doing it just for me!

1. Pixies, Trompe Le Monde

They don’t teach you in rock critic school that this is the best Pixies album. They should, dammit. Nothing against Doolittle or anything, but Trompe Le Monde is transcendent – at once sublimely beautiful and ass-kickingly rockin’. Other than the pedestrian closer “The Navajo Know” and the ugly first part of “The Sad Punk” (and even that song turns awesome after a minute or so), this is just about a perfect album. “Planet of Sound” has one of the greatest guitar riffs ever and makes me feel like I’m being repeatedly smacked in the head – in a good way. “U-Mass” is a classic frat rock anthem to rival the likes of “Wild Thing” and “Wooly Bully.” And the album’s middle section just blends together into a pseudo-medley of mindblowing hooks. One of the pinnacles of alt-rock.

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