Although I’ve always been prone to reminiscing about the “good old days” of my youth, but here lately I’ve been feeling extremely nostalgic.
It’s built slowly since I reluctantly joined Facebook a few months ago and started reconnecting with an amazing cast of characters from my past, and it really started gathering steam when I started posting some of my favorite Led Zeppelin songs every morning.
That trip down memory lane culminated in my writing a recent column about musical connections and, for some reason, brought me face to face with a pivotal year in my life — 1991.
The reason I say pivotal, and the chief reason I’m writing this column, is that I believe 1991 was a important year in music history. Naturally, others will disagree with me for various reasons, so I’ll squash that now and say that if you love music and you’re paying attention, great recordings are issued every single year.
I will also argue that life events tend to shape our opinions of what we like, so it’s no surprise that a sizable portion of my favorite music, or at least my coming to love the bands that make a lot of my favorite music, is tied to my high school years when the days were easy and carefree and everything was new and exciting.
I honestly could pick just about any year from 1991-1995 and rattle off a string of great records, but I choose 1991 because that was the year popular music shifted almost entirely and it was the year I really started exploring a vast universe of musical possibilities.
Just a year or so earlier, bands like Motley Crue, Poison and what seemed like thousands of copycats ruled MTV and the radio. But that all changed in 1991.
Historians point to Nirvana’s “Nevermind” as the chief reason for this change, and rightfully so. When that album’s seminal single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” dropped, everything about the sound and content of popular music changed and “grunge” was brought to the masses.
While “Nevermind” is undoubtedly a great record, 1991 saw the release of several fantastic recordings that left an indelible impact on the musical landscape, and more importantly, on my adolescent psyche. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the gems of that year, in no particular order.
— Metallica’s “Metallica,” or as it’s more commonly known, the “Black Album.” Few records from that year or in the history of rock and roll can match Metallica’s top-seller in terms of popularity. Hits like “Enter Sandman,” “Wherever I May Roam” and “Sad But True” fueled the band’s nearly three-year world tour and catapulted them to rock immortality. A long-time Metallica fan, I knew the record was big when nearly every girl in my class owned a copy.
— Soundgarden’s “Badmotorfinger.” Not as sonically adventurous as their magnum opus “Superunknown,” but for most of the band’s core fan base it’s THE Soundgarden record. Littered with killer cuts, none encompasses the sheer power of the group like “Jesus Christ Pose.”
— Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Blood Sugar Sex Magic.” Hits like “Give it Away” and “Under the Bridge” announced the formerly goofy funk/rock/rap hybrid outfit’s step into maturity and great songwriting. For my money, they nailed the formula on that record’s “Suck My Kiss.”
— Guns ‘N Roses’ “Use Your Illusions I & II.” The biggest rock act of the late-’80s proved once and for all they were head and shoulders above the rest of their hard-rock, Sunset Strip brethren with this colossal double record. Most fans will remember the epics “November Rain,” “Estranged” and “Don’t Cry,” but lest anyone forget how hard the band rocked they offered up “You Could Be Mine” and the standout “Locomotive.”
— U2’s “Achtung Baby.” Just when it seemed this Irish New Wave band couldn’t possibly get any bigger, they unleashed a record that showed tremendous sonic growth since their late 80s heyday and assured fans that the band would continue to be a musical force for years to come. Hits like “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses,” “Even Better Than the Real Thing” and “One” sound as fresh today as they did nearly 25 years ago. As do my personal favorites, “The Fly” and “Mysterious Ways.”
— Smashing Pumpkins’ “Gish.” Not as popular as the band’s follow-up, “Siamese Dream,” “Gish” nonetheless captured the burgeoning sonic assault of the Pumpkins expertly. Fueled by Jimmy Chamberlin’s titanic drumming, “Gish” announced the coming of a band that helped define ’90s alt rock. Few Pumpkins cuts truly rock like my fave “Siva.”
— R.E.M.’s “Out of Time.” Long college-rock darlings, this Athens-based group became one of the biggest bands in the world, thanks largely to the inescapable hit “Losing My Religion.” Touching on a variety of styles and textures, including a guest verse from rapper KRS-1 on “Radio Song,” the album features one of my favorite R.E.M. songs, “Country Feedback.”
— Primus’ “Sailing the Seas of Cheese.” This alt rock outfit from California isn’t quite as popular as some of the other artists on this list, but every rock fan of the 90s and those who were paying attention to good music, know who they are and love this record, which stands as the band’s best effort. Songs like “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver” and “Tommy the Cat,” featuring an unforgettable guest vocal from Tom Waits, are staples on regular rotation on my iPod to this day.
— Alice in Chains’ “Facelift.” Dripping with sludgy dread, the unearthly wail of Jerry Cantrell’s guitar and Layne Staley’s voice, one of the era’s biggest bands burst onto the scene with this massive slab of heavy rock, featuring the mega hit “Man in the Box.” While the band’s follow-up, “Dirt,” is considered its masterpiece, “Facelift” boasts earned the band a top slot along with their Pacific Northeast brethren and contains possibly my favorite AIC song, “It Ain’t Like That.”
— Pearl Jam’s “Ten.” Revered by millions, and perhaps the best debut record every released, “Ten” put the ever-evolving Pearl Jam on the map in a big way, thanks to the success of hits “Alive,” Even Flow” and “Jeremy.” A great record from top to bottom, the twin guitar attack of Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, coupled with the brooding power of singer Eddie Vedder, is what makes this record a classic. Nearly every song is great, from slowed-down beauties like “Black” and “Garden” to up-tempo rockers like “Once” and my favorite track, “Porch.” “Ten” offers proof that there was something magical in the air in 1991.
Just like wines, which typically get better with age, some vintages are simply better than others. For me, rock music from 1991 is like a bottle of 1846 Chateau Lafite Rothschild, it just doesn’t get much better.