Cogs/Countercogs: Debating The Biggest Albums Of 1991

Part of the joy of working at Discogs is being exposed to all kinds of music we would normally not bother with. No matter how much we think we know about music, after a few conversations with co-workers we all realize how sheltered our musical worlds really are. We patiently tolerate each other’s tastes and pretend we actually will listen to albums that others recommend: the punk kids will smile and lie when they say “yeah, that techno album was cool; I’ll check it out later,” and techno kids will put on Oscar-worthy performances when they exclaim that the new Animal Collective album is “really interesting.” For the most part, though, we’re all honest about what we think, and are expected to bring our musical passions to the forefront every single day. 

Grippo and I love music. We will open our ears to pretty much anything. However, Grip is laboring under the misapprehension that music needs to have guitars for it to be worthy. I tease him on a consistent basis about this extremely bizarre opinion. Likewise, The Grip rolls his eyes at me and my predilection for all things electronic, and I know he’s not happy that I feel that Pink Floyd’s “The Final Cut” is a piece of pretentious poop. He questions my poor taste, and he’s absolutely correct in doing so, but these disagreements expand our horizons with each eye roll and “you’re an idiot” accusation. It’s fun! It’s not the music’s fault that we’re closed off to certain things, and we need others to challenge us in order to hear something we’ve been unable to hear before. 

As this month’s theme of 1991 draws to a close, The Grip and I decided to have a chat about the biggest albums of that year that have become part of our musical consciousness. Albums you can’t get away from. Records where, even if you don’t like them, you know every single fucking word of every lyric because you’re guilty of owning a radio. May it also be said that neither of us are experts in anything other than owning uninformed ramblings about music. I think I can speak for the Grip when I say we can’t properly clothe ourselves, or even have respectable wardrobes to speak of. Yet, we have opinions:

Nirvana-“Nevermind”

Biggest Albums of 1991 Nirvana

MarbleheadJohnson: This album never did a thing for me. Meant nothing to me then, means nothing to me now. I totally get why it’s important, why it’s influential, why it’s iconic, all that crap. But no thanks.

Grippo: Heh. I gotta admit that I actually came at this album well after the fact. Like, I don’t think I heard the whole thing until more than 15 years after it’d been released.

MJ: So you think hearing it after its highest relevance point maybe soured your experience?

Grip: Not really. I mean, I’ve been looking backwards my whole listening career. I think it actually helps a bit to look at it objectively, although, well, of course I would. There’s some stuff to like on the album. I love the fact that Kurt helped to redirect (some) guitarists away from the overly technical approach that you were seeing in the mainstream in the ’80s.

MJ: I was deep into the rave scene, industrial scene, electronic stuff, indie rock, shoegaze, punk, hip hop, etc, so the entire grunge thing just meant nothing to me at all. Plus I’m a native Portlander, so I felt that whatever the “scene” exemplified was something I experienced on a more local level just because I was exposed to it. The rest of the world was being introduced to something new where it was kind of old hat around the NW. 

Grip: Your first-hand experience with how this scene intertwined (or, uh, did not intertwine) with other musical approaches is pretty valuable and something that I can’t really make claim to. Congratulations on being old? Unrelated: wow, remember when Dave Grohl was a drummer? One of the best drummers? That was awesome.

MJ: I do like that Nirvana were the spearhead of ending shitty ’80s hair rock forever.

Grip: Yes, seconded on shitty hair rock.

MJ: I don’t hate “Nevermind”, it’s just not something I’d normally spend a lot of time listening to. The one thing I can never forgive “Nevermind” for is spawning all the shitty bands in its wake. Like The Offspring.

Grip: I kinda see what you mean about the copycat bands, but then again we’d blame four dudes from Liverpool for every second-rate rock band that ever existed. And that’s a lot of unlistenable music. 

MJ: Are we saying The Offspring are to the Monkees what Nirvana are to The Beatles?

Grip: Ha! Please don’t tell anyone we said that.

Pearl Jam-“Ten”

Biggest Albums of 1991 Pearl Jam

MJ: All I can say about “Ten” is this: should have been called ZERO. This album always makes me think of that cinematic turd “Singles“, with all the lazy hippies lying around being existential, thinking they’re hip while listening to that horrific top 40 grunge music. Vomit.  

Grip: Oh, that’s a good line, but you’re the worst. I like this one!

MJ: I was supposed to feel sympathy for that little kid in the “Jeremy” video, but all I wanted for Jeremy was for him to get ridiculed more. Fuck Jeremy. Who the fuck is Jeremy. 

Grip: Poor Jeremy. Or poor other people who Jeremy did…something to? Or in front of? This sounds a little more studied on the instrumental front than Nirvana. Pretty tight for a debut, though I guess it’s worth remembering that these dudes got plenty of pre-PJ recording in.

MJ: Oh, what did they do prior to Ten?  Was Mother Love Bone one of them?

Grip: Yeah, they were in a bunch of Seattle area bands and stuff. Green River, too. The recording for the Temple Of The Dog album, as well. 

MJ: I don’t mind Eddie Vedder anymore, he seems like a pretty grounded dude and he’s got a good grasp on things. But back then he was such a pretentious goof.

Grip: Well, I agree that Eddie’s best days were ahead of him.

MJ: What do you like most about “Ten”?

Grip: Uh, GUITARS. It’s funny because they’re much more classic rock-y than what Kurt was doing. Nirvana always sounded way more punk and dangerous. Still, Pearl Jam managed to bring those classic sounds without sounding like they were just some ’60s retread band.

MJ: Really? On “Ten”? I hear elevator music when I hear this album. I guess maybe that’s your point! 

Grip: Ah, I see what you’re saying. I think that might just be a consequence of some of these songs being so ever-present, y’know?

MJ: Yeah, true. It’s been overplayed hasn’t it? 

Grip: If “Alive” comes on the radio three times every day, even if you’re not necessarily listening to that all the time, you still know “God, ‘Alive’ is just on all the time” and it becomes a background thing. There are some amazing moments on this album, though. I think “Black” is actually kinda beautiful — just a pretty song. 

MJ: I must admit that I have a very surface level dislike of Pearl Jam that I associate with MTV and over-saturation of “grunge” music at the time. It was jammed down our throats, so it has a very corporate bullshit-y attachment in my brain.

Grip: Yeah, I don’t doubt that there were a few commercial calculations here.

MJ: If Neil Young approves of Eddie Vedder, that’s good enough for me. There must be something worthy about the guy.

Grip: Man, you’re just a big softy today! Oh, one more instrumental note: it’s kinda cool hearing fretless bass on what amounts to a hard rock record, and not just for novelty purposes. Credit to Jeff Ament for making that sound integral to the sonic landscape on this album.

Soundgarden-“Badmotorfinger”

Biggest Albums of 1991 Soundgarden

MJ: No. Just no. Whiny, poser-rock to my ears. 

Grip: Not Chris Cornell‘s finest moment, but…whiny? What do you mean?

MJ: Just the overall feel. It felt very “Hey! We’re from Seattle, and we’re making a grunge album!” type vibe. “Look how grungy we are!”

Grip: Ah, yeah, I can see that. My issue is that the songs aren’t really all that distinguishable. The mood is actually too consistent for me, like this whole album is up at 11.

MJ: Shit Sandwich.

Grip: Heh. I think it gets kind of interesting when they mess with things a bit. Like the track “Slaves And Bulldozers,” or Jesus Christ Pose: those sound pleasantly noisy and not just like standard heavy metal.

MJ:  Cornell is a very disingenuous guy musically. He’ll hop on whatever band wagon is available to sell himself. Yuck.

Grip: Hmm, that’s funny, I’ve always had the sense that Cornell is a pretty chill dude. He doesn’t seem like an over-hyped, jerk-ish lead man. He’s just a guy with an incredible voice.

MJ: What were their influences at this stage?

Grip: Uhhhhh, Sabbath.

MJ: Pffft, blasphemy. I don’t hear that at all. Ozzy laughs at that comparison.  

Grip: Pssh. He wishes he had Cornell’s chops. The band has some of these cool little psychedelic touches every now and then on Badmotorfinger, something they’d really get into on Superunknown, I think.

MJ: I do like some of the grinding guitars on it.

Grip: Toward the end of the album you get “Drawing Flies”, which has some sweet horns. It’s not quite as dirty and understated as, say, Fun House-era Stooges, but it’s a nice touch and it doesn’t come across as a cynical commercial move.

MJ: So you’re an overall fan of this here grunginess.

Grip: I would say I am receptive to grunge music, yeah. Or whatever you want to call it. I mean, honestly, these three records don’t really sound all that much alike.

MJ: If I had to choose between the three it would definitely be Nirvana. I guess honesty is the most important aspect of music to me. “Nevermind” seems very honest.

Grip: Probably on the PJ side of things myself, though they got more time to branch out on later records. 

MJ: I like later PJ stuff. What’s that song: “Do The Evolution“? That song rips.

Grip: Yeah, that song is a beast! Great video. I am also a fan of evolution-themed music.

MJ: So you must love the “2001” sound track then. Is “Blue Danube” in your top ten? In your “best albums of 1866” short list?

Grip: I do not understand your joke and refuse to acknowledge it. 

Smashing Pumpkins-“Gish”

Biggest Albums of 1991 Smashing Pumpkins

MJ: Why do you torture me with these albums? Thumbs down again.  

Grip: I think “Gish” suffers from the opposite problem of “Badmotorfinger”: it really drags when it slows down. Oh, that reminds me of a holdover complaint about “Badmotorfinger”, actually: those songs are way too long.

MJ: I love long songs!

Grip: Dude. My ‘greatest hits of prog‘ compilation is only four songs long and fills up a full CD. Yes, I said CD. I love drawn out tracks — as long as they go somewhere. 

MJ: Well, “Gish” never went anywhere for me, regardless of the track lengths. Something about the whiny lyrics that I was never able to get into. I have a low threshold for whine. 

Grip: Yeah, I get that. I think Billy Corgan‘s voice is the hardest for me to take out of these batch of records. The dude can wail on guitar. I appreciate solo dedication on just about every track. After a while, though, those solos just kind of trundle on by. Oh, and there’s lots of snazzy drumming by Jimmy Chamberlin

MJ: I never was a fan of Corgan, but I will say I approve of him posing on the cover of cat magazines.

Billy Corgan - Paws Chicago Magazine Cover - Summer 2014 **CANNOT CROP**

Red Hot Chili Peppers-“Blood Sugar Sex Magik”

Biggest Albums of 1991 Red Hot Chili Peppers

MJ: This is the time the Chili Peppers started to kinda suck. I like everything they did prior to this album, though. 

Grip: Oh, come on. Boo to you! This album is killer.

MJ: This album yielded good things. Al Jourgensen remixed “Give It Away” and made it much much better.

Grip: Huh, I’ve never heard that. Guess I should give it a listen, though your taste is suspect…

MJ: Lemme just say this: Anthony Kiedis running shirtless in slo-mo during the Under The Bridge video. How am I supposed to like this album after witnessing that self-absorbed madness?

Grip: Here’s the deal about Anthony: undeniably the weak link of this band.

MJ: Flea is awesome. I love Flea. And that Hillel Slovak dude was a great guitarist. 

Grip: Flea plus John Frusciante, though, that’s just…wow.

MJ: Yes, Frusciante is great. And I completely approve that he is now making experimental acid house records. Big approval there.

Grip: You know the rumor about Frusciante and Zappa, right?

MJ: No!

Grip: He was really into Zappa’s stuff, even went so far as to head to one of Zappa’s auditions, but Frank had this very strict no-drugs rule, and Frusciante…well…

MJ: It’s funny, people always assume Zappa was a hard drug user.

Grip: Yeah. Zappa was a total kook but a dedicated one. A principled kook. Anyway, Frusciante is on fire on this album. Flea is on fire always.

MJ: I do like moments of BSSM, but overall it left me flat. It’s anthem rock. 

Grip: Aw, it’s really funky! The non-radio stuff, at least. If all you’d ever heard was “Give It Away” and “Under The Bridge”, and you started this record from the beginning you’d be going, “What the hell! Where’s the real Chili Pepper stuff?” But that’s the real stuff!

MJ: “Sir Psycho Sexy” is the best track, in my opinion. They are always so busy citing Funkadelic as an influence, and this is where they show it.

Grip: Yeah, it wouldn’t sound out of place on a George Clinton project.

MJ: I don’t hate this album, but it was a shift in their sound which I wasn’t entirely in favor of. Maybe that’s Rick Rubin‘s fault. Gimme “Uplift Mofo Party Plan” over this any day. 

Grip: I have never heard that one; guess I need to give it a listen. I do think this was a fitting tribute to a fallen comrade. If I ever pass away, I want you to write a blog post as good as BSSM is. You know, in honor of my genius. PROMISE ME.

MJ: OK, I will. I’ll name the post “Gripp O Away.”

U2-“Achtung Baby”

Biggest Albums of 1991 U2

MJ: I think I am in the vast minority when it comes to U2: I only really like 90s U2. This one, “Zooropa“, and “Pop” are all bad ass.

Grip: I’ve never actually heard post-Achtung U2, aside from singles or whatever made it to the radio. I’ll have to give it a shot. As far as this record goes, it’s a close call but I think I’d say that “Achtung Baby” is my favorite U2 album.

MJ: “Achtung” is some great stuff. I like that they brought in Flood to produce; they started experimenting with sound with cool results.

Grip: Was this an Eno album?

MJ: Yep, Eno and Daniel Lanois. How can you lose? In addition to Flood, I think Steve Lillywhite is in there, too (of Pogues fame).

Grip: I think this album shows that my favorite Eno as a recording artist is also my favorite Eno as a producer: the closer he is to pop, the more you hear the weird stuff he’s trying to do and the better it sounds.

MJ: I agree! This album ages well, and when you start putting the pieces together as you consider the names involved with it you always hear different things.

Grip: Definitely a lot of wonderful sonic layering here. Plus The Edge’s guitar was starting to sound very un-Edge-y at times.

MJ: “Achtung” is a total collaborative effort. Which can be a disaster, but not so here. And Edge himself was desiring to experiment more, with less guitar and so on.

Grip: The collaborative thing is interesting to note because there was some strain within the band while they were recording, I believe. Yet somehow you come out with this cohesive artistic statement.

MJ: U2 was feeling the electronic influence of the time. I remember reading that they were very much influenced by KMFDM during recording this record which kind of makes sense. It has some hard-hitting beats on it. I’m also not generally a fan of ballads, but “One” is pretty incredible.

Grip: What are the best beats here, do you think?

MJ: “Zoo Station” and “The Fly“. Those were kind of pre-cursor songs to what “Zooropa” would be.

Grip: Oh man, I love “The Fly” so much. Great swagger and guitar tones. 

MJ: The associated remixes from this album are pretty damn good, too. Farley and Heller did a great house mix of a B-side called “Salome“.

Grip: Overall, I don’t think this is a perfect album, but it’s darn close.

MJ: Agreed. There are some boring moments, but for the most part they followed up the juggernaut that was “Joshua Tree” in a pretty cool way.

Grip: As a huge Radiohead fan, it’s also the first time I was actually able to hear U2’s influence on those dudes. Just put “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” right up against any track from “Pablo Honey“.

MJ: Coincidentally, that’s my least favorite track on the album!

Grip: Yeah, fair enough. “Love Is Blindness” is one hell of a closer, though. I do have to admit that I’m not a huge Bono fan. I think a lot of the charges you could level against, say, Corgan would be equally true of Bono. But something like “Love Is Blindness”, or “One” for that matter, seems like a very sincere lyric and vocal performance.

MJ: For me, this showed that U2 had a sense of humor to some degree. They were pretty damned annoying in the ’80s with their stone faces and naive gestures. They learned to laugh at themselves a bit with “Achtung Baby”.

Grip: Oof, yeah, never forget “Okay, Edge, play the blues.” There is legitimately funny stuff on this record, though, and it’s able to sit next to material that resonates very deeply. And at the end of the day it all still sounds coherent.

MJ: I always loved what Henry Rollins said about Bono back in the day regarding Bono waving the white flag during Sunday Bloody Sunday at Live Aid: “Yeah, you with the white flag— sit your bubble butt down!”

Grip: God bless Henry Rollins.

Electronic (self-titled)

Biggest Albums of 1991 Electronic

MJ: This is arguably my favorite of 1991, hands down. It’s the album all New Order fans wanted after “Technique” but New Order couldn’t deliver. So Barney and Johnny did!

Grip: I know this is going to break your heart, but this, uh…this might be my least favorite of the records we’re talking about here.

MJ: It’s about as perfect a pop album can get. It really doesn’t get any better as far as pop maintaining credibility. The beats. The riffs. The vibe. It’s all there.

Grip: Listen, I’m a simple man. If you sit me down at an Indian buffet I’m going to eat until I reflect on what a terrible mess I’ve made of my life. If you show me a puppy I’m going to embarrass myself with uncontrollable baby talk. If you tell me Game Of Thrones spoilers I’m going to harbor secret resentment against you for the rest of my days.  And if you play me a record without guitars I’m going to wonder what happened to the good sound. I like guitars. Where are the guitars, Marblehead? 

MJ: It says “ELECTRONIC” in big letters on the cover, for god’s sakes. And “Get The Message“! That song has one of Marr’s most killer riffs ever. An extra added bonus: the album pissed off Morrissey something fierce. I love Morrissey, and I love him even more when he’s angry (which is always). I remember an interview with him where he was grumbling about Electronic, and the interviewer said “Oh come on, why can’t Johnny make an Italo disco album?” Morrissey’s response: “Why should he HAVE to??”

Grip: Oh, lord, now I know things are getting bad. I AGREE WITH MORRISSEY.

MJ: I adore this album. It’s everything I love about music all wrapped into one: dance, pop, rock, good songwriting….it’s all here.

Grip: I’ll admit that it’s too dancey for my tastes. Although, funnily enough, there are probably more guitar solos on this record than there were in the whole of Smiths history.

MJ: Right. And New Order history.

Grip: I guess my issue is similar to my complaint with “Badmotorfinger”: it gets pretty same-y to my ears, as it’s mostly at about the same level. There are good hooks here; they’re just sung by Sumner or delivered via synths instead of guitars and, well, that makes me all pouty. It’s a decent enough record, I guess. But I’d rather be listening to Joy Division and/or The Smiths.

MJ: Those are two completely different things, though. I do love Joy Division and Smiths, but only when I want to cry. Scratch that: I like JD when I wanna cry, I like Smiths when I want to punch someone, I like New Order when I’m straddling the line between being melancholy and happy, and I like Electronic when the sun is shining and all is right in the world.

Grip: Well, you get props for that summary.

MJ: Sumner is an underrated guitarist, don’t you think?

Grip: I think his JD stuff is incredible. The noise he makes on “Closer” is genius. And I reserve the right to grieve over the loss of guitars.

MJ: Let me get this straight — you’re bitching about the lack of guitars on an album called “Electronic”?

Grip: Finally you see the truth.

Blur-“Leisure”

Biggest Albums of 1991 Blur

MJ: I don’t think this album has aged well, but I definitely enjoyed it at the time.

Grip: I am a pretty big Blur fan, and I gotta agree that it hasn’t aged well. Is it just me or does it sound very Stone Roses-y a lot of the time?

MJ: Hmm, perhaps a bit, but the Roses just influenced everything at that time. It sounds like someone trying to be them, and failing. But at the same time you hear the talent in the songwriting.

Grip: I think Albarn hadn’t found his rhythm yet as a songwriter. On their later stuff, what I enjoy most is his wit. Those are funny songs. These are kinda just…songs.

MJ: Yeah, it’s a collection of happy pop-tastic radio fodder. Nothing wrong with that, it just is what it is. “There’s No Other Way” is still pretty catchy.

Grip: Granted. “Sing” is a beautiful track, too.

MJ: As we talk about this I kinda wanna revisit.

Grip: As a guitar nerd, the star is Graham Coxon. His particular kind of genius is still a bit gestational here, but he’s the only one saving some of these tracks from just being very run-of-the-mill. Compared with the guitar work on the other albums we’re talking about, Coxon’s stuff on “Leisure” might be my favorite. Artful use of effects in unexpected ways, hooks that don’t bend the way you expect them to but still stick in your ear, the ability to keep things a little loose without going off the rails…not too shabby.

MJ: Your description of it definitely makes me want to revisit. I do recall the album being very poppy but still a bit…off. And it’s because of the guitar work. I say “off” in a good way. Like a positive imbalance of elements.

Grip: Still, I don’t think he’d perfect the formula until, I dunno, “Parklife“.

MJ: I can only think of Oasis at the Brit awards that year screaming “SHITE LIFE!” while Blur was on the stage, haha.

Grip: Heh! It is interesting to think about this album in relation to their peers. I mean, Oasis was still years away from releasing their debut album. We won’t even get into the Blur/Oasis debate. Right now, at least.

Metallica (self-titled)

Biggest Albums of 1991 Metallica

MJ: I like this album. It’s a great example of a band making a mainstream album and still maintaining their credibility. Which they have since lost, but that’s another discussion, heh.

Grip: There’s a nice balance here between sounding heavy and expanding the types of stuff you’d be allowed to hear on a metal album. There are sitars on this thing! Also: I will totally air drum along with “Don’t Tread On Me”, and that’s as much as I’ll ever admit to getting behind an anthemic wet dream for conservative America.

MJ: Overplaying has soured a bit for me, but when I think of myself listening to it at the time, I was pretty impressed.

Grip: Yeah, I think the overplaying hits this one about as hard as it hits the grunge stuff, but these are good songs. Lars purposefully let off the gas a little bit on this record, I know, but I think it actually gives it a little more impact in a way. James Hetfield is in great vocal form here.

MJ: I agree. “Enter Sandman“, too. That beginning drum roll on the right sound system is still pretty fucking awesome. The one thing I missed with this album was their longer songs. They would take you on these journeys on previous albums, but not so much here.

Grip: Yeah, those epic tracks were sort of the hallmark of “Ride The Lightning” or “Master Of Puppets“, and I wouldn’t even hesitate to grab either of those before I’d put this one on.

MJ: “…And Justice For All” was always my favorite.  I like that grind.

Grip: I guess I gotta give that record another shot. I think they were still trying to figure out life without Cliff Burton.

MJ: It has “One“, which was a warning of the “Black Album”.

Grip: Didn’t somebody mash up the U2 “One” and the Metallica “One”? Oh, yeah, let me see…oh. I dunno, Marblehead, are you gonna love this despite yourself?

MJ: Oh my god, mash-up? Yikes! 

MJ: …this is fucking awful. Make it stop! 

Grip: “Nothing is real but pain now” is really starting to hit home, isn’t it?


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3 Comments
  • Jun 3,2016 at 00:20

    @Ragchip: I love that Jourgensen mix of “Reverence”! He turned an already intense song into something that just screamed.
    @sonicbloom: Ha! I’m with you, Pearl Jam puts me to sleep. Sorry, PJ fans!

  • Jun 1,2016 at 18:11

    I saw the chili peppers, pumpkins and pj on the same ticket autumn of ’91. We thought vedder and company were a local frat band and went and got a beer during their incredibly boring set lol…there was pretty much a riot when all of those powerhouse Gish tracks were delivered though, and the peppers were in full body glitter and absolutely frenetic amazing….

  • Jun 1,2016 at 17:45

    Yikes. Flashback. I’d forgotten how big 1991 was. I was never that keen on U2 – mainly because they were older, and my parents liked them. I listened to Achtung Baby recently though, and I was surprised how much I liked it. It’s definitely dated well. On the other hand, if I heard anything from Metallica now I’d probably die from cringe. Basically I now hate Metallica for being the metal band that everybody seems to like, and this album is largely responsible for that I’m sure, even though – of course – everyone prefers Ride The Lightning or whatever.
    Of the ‘grunge’ albums I’ll take Ten any day. It is weird how normal it sounds now. It is kind of middle of the road rock, but still I feel something in there, beyond all the earnestness. I think it just sounds great, basically. I could moan about Nirvana all day long, but yeah, Nevermind is okay.
    On the Brit side of things – Electronic was a fantastic idea. Especially when Neil Tennant is involved. The singles were fantastic, but I’m not sure I could listen to whole album for fun. Leisure on the other hand I like despite itself. It is essentially a rip-off of the Manchester sound, but there’s a perky enthusiasm about it that would eventually die out halfway through Parklife. Bless ’em. I struggle to understand how Damon All-bran (reverting to ’91 humour for a sec) has cultivated some sort of legendary status, but life can be strange sometimes.
    To finish up with, I don’t know much about RHCP, but What Hits? was pretty cool, right? And yes, Give It Away was improved by the Luxa/Pan mixes. Of course the best Al Jourgensen mix was for Jesus and Mary Chain, but that was 1992…

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