Essential Records: A Look Back At 1991

When considering all of the massive sea changes in music over the past 25 years, it’s hard to keep a mental note of the many records that have come along that helped form the landscape.  Trends and genres have slowly been created and accepted into the very fabric of popular music, and what was new and inventive a quarter century ago has become old hat and commonplace.  For those of us who were around and actively buying records in 1991, it’s quite simply hard to believe 25 years have passed.  Musical nostalgia means something different to everyone based on their birthdate, so if you were born in 1991, Nirvana’s “Nevermind” was already beginning to seep into the psyche of every music fan’s consciousness.  Depending on your own personal tastes, it might be hard to over or understate the importance of such albums, but the facts are there: 1991 was a massive year for music.  1991 was the seedling to many ideas and concepts that still continue to evolve (or devolve) today.  Grunge was in its infancy, hip hop was taking hold, and electronic dance music was beginning to find its marriage with popular music, as well as meshing with more traditional rock ideals.  What is obvious today was pretty out-there shit back in 1991.  Like any year, 1991 had its share of turds, and albums were released that can never be undone (see the Vanilla Ice live album).  However, the bad albums shone a light on what the major label executives couldn’t possibly keep up with: unbridled creativity.  Looking back at the list of albums, it’s hard to not take note of an astoundingly large amount of seminal work that gets re-released and talked about exhaustively to this day.  Music was ready for some serious change after the bloated droppings of 80’s hair rock, predictable synth-pop, major label “punk” rock, & AOR laziness, and artistry was at one of its all-time highs.  Barriers were being bashed, and expectations rose.  There was a true feeling of accomplishment and originality for the first time in years, and this explosion of genius still resonates today, perhaps to its detriment.  What I mean is, music hasn’t shifted too heavily since the early 90s — it’s easy to listen to an album that came out 25 years ago and say “damn, this sounds like it could have come out today”.  Conversely, if you had listened to an album in 1991 that came out in 1985, you’d be more apt to say “yikes, this sounds dated”.  This isn’t always the case, but the evidence points to 25 years ago being a pretty special year for ideas whether listeners are aware of it or not. 

For the month of May, we’re going to try and convey why you should be aware of it.  Music sounds the way it does because of history, and this year marks the 25th anniversary of some pretty amazing stuff.  And you know, 25 is a nice round number.  Here is a list of albums that are 25 years old now and deserve your attention.  I’m going to dig a little deeper here as we all know about Nirvana, MetallicaU2, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam and all the other obvious ones.  Not denigrating Nirvana, mind you, but they did inspire bands like the Offspring which is absolutely unforgivable in my book.  Besides, there were better albums that year overshadowed by the success of grunge that are enjoying late revivals because of our initial oversights.

Primal Scream – “Screamadelica

Essential Records: A Look Back At 1991

Most times you can judge an album’s significance by the number of re-issues it has received, and this one has had its share.  Perhaps this needs to fall into the “obvious” column, but any way you slice it, this album still flexes its influence today.  This album was a revelation thanks to its marrying of rock and acid house, making it a cool listening option to rock fans, and an acceptable distraction for the rave kids.  This idea was quite new in 1991, and 25 years on, the majority of “Screamadelica” still sounds fresh as ever.

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KLF – “White Room”

Essential Records: A Look Back At 1991

After their game-changing “Chill Out” album, The KLF revamped a bunch of earlier singles, mixed in some tales about campfires, and coolly released one of the best and most strange pop albums of the 90s.  They had already solidified the creation of trance music with “What Time Is Love“, created “Stadium House” with “3 AM Eternal“, and built a persona so mystifying that the public simply didn’t know how to react.  To add to their legend, they promptly deleted their back catalog, and burned the majority of their KLF cash in public before wandering into the country to write books about why music is terrible.  Seriously, if you want to know how to become the coolest band of all time, study the KLF.

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Talk Talk – “Laughing Stock

Essential Records: A Look Back At 1991

This is one of those experiences I was speaking of earlier where you might not be able to believe this album didn’t just come out yesterday.  Largely ignored when released, this album quietly came and went, overshadowed by all of the current trends of the day.  It’s taken years for it to find an audience, but its quiet beauty and subtle determination prove its influence on bands such as Mogwai, Low, and Explosions In The Sky.  Not one to be missed.

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A Tribe Called Quest – “The Low End Theory

Essential Records: A Look Back At 1991

Probably another one to be put into the “painfully obvious” category, but it’s hard to overstate the seismic shift this album left on hip hop music.  Taking the baton from De La Soul, this album introduced the idea that hip hop music was one that all cultures and creeds could draw inspiration from.

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Massive Attack – “Blue Lines

Essential Records: A Look Back At 1991

And then trip hop was born.  Yet another annoying genre tag should be no reason to hate on this, one of the best soul albums of all times.

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LFO – “Frequencies

Essential Records: A Look Back At 1991

The important thing to remember here is the idea that electronic dance acts were not expected to deliver full albums back in the day.  House and techno was the art of the 12″ single, where two or three tracks were spread across one slab of wax, maximizing all bass and rumble potential.  Warp Records had the foresight to commission a full album from LFO, which became a shining example of the power of dance music presented in an album-length form.  “Frequencies” has lost little of its power since 1991.

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Ice Cube – “Death Certificate

Essential Records: A Look Back At 1991

This was one of those albums that made you feel like you were breaking the law just by purchasing it.  Gangsta rap wasn’t easy to get a hold of for a time, and “Death Certificate” contained a lot of ideas that some people didn’t wish to hear.  Rap music was still dangerous then, and this album represents the finest example of politically-charged lyrics mixed with seriously catchy beats coming out of the year nineteen hundred and ninety one.  No matter how hard and biting you think Kendrick Lamar and ASAP Rocky are, it’s bubble-gum pop compared to this shit.

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My Bloody Valentine – “Loveless

Essential Records: A Look Back At 1991

OK, another obvious one, but it wasn’t so much at the time.  It enjoyed its share of success upon release, but it somehow continues to gather more momentum as the years progress.  Rightfully so, as it still sounds just as alien as it did 25 years ago.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LseSx_hPJyQ

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Slowdive – “Just For A Day

Essential Records: A Look Back At 1991

Not as popular as “Loveless”, but no less inspiring.  Creation Records had a knack for releasing brilliant album after brilliant album, and its output was hard to keep up with.  Sometimes it takes a few years to appreciate the forward-thinking genius of band’s statement, “Just For A Day” being one of those examples.  Forget about “Shoegaze“, this is an album that music lovers of all genres should own.

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Orbital – “Green Album

Essential Records: A Look Back At 1991

Following in the same vein as LFO’s “Frequencies”, Orbital released a full album of rave tunes that proved to be a little deeper than just the standard 12″ fodder.  Orbital made the idea of a full-on dance experience a more heady proposition than most before them.

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Teenage Fanclub – “Bandwagonesque”

Essential Records: A Look Back At 1991

Creation Records struck again, and this time in the form of a collection of pop tunes too irresistible to refuse.  Whether this album is overlooked remains hard to tell, but it certainly had its popularity in 1991.  Listening to it now shows how very little it has dated, and proves that well-written jingles will always age the best.  Produced with a light fuzz, “Bandwagonesque” is simply one of the best and most influential rock albums since 1991.

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Coil – “Love’s Secret Domain

Essential Records: A Look Back At 1991

 

For those of you who keep an eye on our top 30 list every month, you’ll notice that Coil routinely appears as one of a handful of bands that sell for stupid amounts of money.  They deserve our respect for being one of the most creative bands to ever grace our planet, and “LSD” is their finest moment.  They put all of their talents to use on this one, giving us industrial, experimental, techno, house, ambient, and pop all wrapped into one divinely bizarre package.  Skip at your own peril.

 

 


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6 Comments
  • […] be covered in more detail elsewhere. And then MarbleheadJohnson went and left it off of his list of essential 1991 releases. Huh. Then again, maybe that just goes to prove the point that this proto-post-rock masterpiece has […]

  • May 4,2016 at 01:54

    @marbleheadjohnson: My geographic handicap is that I have lived in the US SouthEast [mostly Florida] for a almost all of my life. There are simply certain records that never filter down here. If they cross the pond, they end up staying at a major metropolitan area. What became my catnip in the 90s were late 70s/early 80s records that fell through the importers cracks as too noncommercial and obscure. If you wanted the latest New Order 12″ers, not so much a problem. Victorian Parents? Another ball of wax!

  • May 3,2016 at 23:12

    @raydium: As always, thanks for your comments, I enjoy them! This list was originally 25 albums, then I shortened it to 10, but then couldn’t resist and added a few more. So yeah, these lists can be messy because something will always get left out. I did think about Saint Etienne, I love that album. I agree that the 90s was a pretty special time for record digging, at least for Americans. Vinyl was being phased out, but those of us who kept buying it were treated to people unloading their collections at rock-bottom prices as the rest of the music-buying public were busily investing in CDs. When you say “geographic handicap” what do you mean? Are you in a remote area? I loved 90s music even in the 90s, but at the same time there was a glut of extremely shitty music as well. I always felt the record companies were still desperately trying to crowbar what they knew worked from the 80s down our throats, but listeners were forming the landscape more than the label executives were in the 90s. It was a fun decade full of awesome and equally terrible music.

  • May 3,2016 at 14:52

    Different strokes for different folks, I guess. 1990 was a pivotal year for me in that I was no longer getting any love from contemporary music and I made the decision to look back instead at things I had missed from a decade or more in the past for my kicks. I didn’t care for the music of the mid-80s going into the 90s, so by 1991, when grunge exploded, the last thing I wanted to listen to was the [to my ears] dismal, macho hard rock music of my childhood [’71-’72] revisited as if it were “punk rock.” Electronic dance music had become tediously reductive in a way that managed to alienate this Kraftwerk fanatic. I disliked almost all 12″ mixes I heard from ’88-’04. A long dead period for me that made me wonder if I would ever like a remix again. Hip Hop as usual, almost completely failed to catch my interest. The one crew I liked [Run DMC] lost the plot and simultaneously managed to revive Aerosmith’s moribund career! [see: dismal, macho hard rock music of my childhood] I put my disdain for the 90s down to the drugs filtering into the musicians at that time as well as the 20 year cycle of music trends dredging up the horror of the early 70s I’d already lived through once, thank you very much! Most of it was just not for me. What did I like in the 90s? Pulp broke through to areas of greatness. Saint Etienne were au courant yet redolent of pop values I shared. Suede managed to bend my ear in a big way, though not initially. I had been exposed to the pre-release NME hype to the point of developing a severe resistance to the band once I’d heard them. It took many years before I came to see their charms on my own, but as the decade ended, I changed my tune on them. Most of the 90s were spent crate digging for “buried treasures.” Records I’d maybe heard of [but not heard or had seen to buy] in the ’78-’85 period and somehow missed at the time, owing to my geographic handicap.

  • May 3,2016 at 02:48

    @digreverend: Point taken, and I agree, it is very Creation-centric! I was self-conscious about this as I wrote the piece to be perfectly honest! But facts are facts, and I feel Creation had quite a banner year in 1991. Also, we’ll be writing more pieces in May about 1991 and other albums that we feel need attention, so it won’t all be so Creation-centric. Thank you for your comment, I appreciate it!

  • May 3,2016 at 01:11

    An interesting list with at least 3 essential releases that I love (So pleased to see Laughing Stock in here), it just seems a little Brit-centric, nay Creation-centric. It’s all subjective of course! It will be interesting to see how the 90’s is reappraised as we head inevitably towards it’s retro day in the sun.

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