Tuesday, August 30, 2011

That Wonderful Year in Music... 1991

Next month, a documentary called "1991: The Year Punk Broke" will open in limited release in theaters across the country. This is not a new documentary by any means; in fact, it was first released in 1992 and is just now arriving on DVD. The movie itself is a crucial time capsule that inadvertantly caught a watershed moment in pop culture. What was originally supposed to spotlight Sonic Youth --an already well-established indie rock group-- performing live on tour gave equal attention to their various opening acts, including a young, fledging Seattle trio named Nirvana. Neither of these two bands nor did the director and producers of this movie know what was about to hit them.

People best remember 1991 as the year grunge (really a descendent of punk) hit the mainstream, but in reality the tidal change didn't really occur until the tail end of the year. Whatever musical trends were raging in 1989 and 1990 were still in vogue; there was a sense of complacency and sameness to Top 40 radio, at least until October or November of that year. One could even argue that nearly every #1 hit from that year was basically a variation on the same cheesy power ballad, regardless of the gender, race, or creed of the artist. Grunge was a game-changer, the new direction mainstream music needed at that time. Even though it's connection to straight up rock n' roll is fairly loose, it made a whole genre relevant again. Nirvana was the primary agitator of this new movement, and though they were the most infamous act in the bunch, bands like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins, and Alice in Chains owe their careers to Kurt Cobain's unlikely watershed moment. After this point, alternative rock was rock.

Even though I turned seven years old in '91, one might wonder what I would have put on a mixtape that year. This should give you a hint:

1. Nevermind, Nirvana. Some artists capture the zeitgeist; others are ensnared against their will. Nirvana straddled that line, jumping to a major label for their second album while also honing and mastering the fuzzbox fire of their 1989 debut Bleach. Where their metal contemporaries howled with the depth of a birdbath --especially in an era where cheesy, halfhearted ballads guaranteed record sales-- Kurt Cobain's music and lyrics are raw, evocative, and above all honest. Twenty years ago Nevermind was life-changing, but now its life-affirming, and perhaps for the better.
2. Ten, Pearl Jam. Rising from the ashes of Mother Love Bone (see my 1990 list for more details) and almost named for a basketball player (see my Mookie blog from four months ago), Ten plays second fiddle to Kurt & Co. in many critics' minds but deserves acclaim as a masterpiece in its own right. If Nirvana cracked the windshield, than Eddie Vedder and the boys smashed the whole damn window. Where Nirvana looked inward, PJ saw the world as their oyster, fusing social commentary into Vedder's raspy growl and Mike McCready's Hendrix-style guitar riffs. Conceived in tragedy, Ten rises above and never looks back.
3. The Low End Theory, A Tribe Called Quest. Grunge gets all the press, but 1991 was also a watershed year for hip-hop. Taking a cue from De La Soul's jazzy beats and literate lyrics, ATCQ shies away from hardcore rap and the growing gangsta movement for something more cerebral and philosophical. Put together, Q-Tip and Phife Dawg are absolutely sublime; they don't battle each other with rhymes so much as they debate. The heart is in the groove, and on The Low End Theory, the heart could fill up a whole room.
4. Loveless, My Bloody Valentine
5. Badmotorfinger, Soundgarden

6. Blue Lines, Massive Attack
7. Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Red Hot Chili Peppers
8. Bandwagonesque, Teenage Fanclub
9. Achtung Baby, U2
10. Metallica (a/k/a The Black Album), Metallica. Leaping into the mainstream for their fifth album, The Black Album has a divisive place in the band's oeurve; either this is where you discovered Metallica or gave up on them. Following the production issues of ...And Justice For All, you can't blame the boys for trying a simpler approach, while at the same time giving death metal some mainstream credibility. It's hard to deny that this is a great disc, even if left turns like "The Unforgiven" and "Nothing Else Matters" foreshadow later indulgences.

Honorable Mentions: Use Your Illusion I, Guns n' Roses; My Brain Hurts, Screeching Weasel; Temple of the Dog, Temple of the Dog.

"Siva," Smashing Pumpkins
"Shiny Happy People," R.E.M.
"Unbelievable," E.M.F.
"Right Here Right Now," Jesus Jones
"I Touch Myself," Divinyls
"Tom's Diner," DMA feat. Suzanne Vega
"Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)," C+C Music Factory
"Summertime," The Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff
"Bring The Noise," Anthrax feat. Chuck D
"Civil War," Guns n' Roses

1. "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Nirvana. The best song from the best album of the '90s also begat arguably the most compelling video of the grunge era. It's more than an anthem, "Teen Spirit" is a call to arms. Get lost, popular kids; the freaks have taken over.
2. "Losing My Religion," R.E.M. With a premise based on Gabriel Garcia Marquez' short story "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" and a hook built upon a mandolin riff, this beautiful clip is another pleasant surprise in a year chock-full of unexpected delights. Somehow, this never screams "pretentious."
3. "Justify My Love," Madonna. Madge channels Fellini in this erotic, banned-from-MTV video. I think Wayne Campbell and Garth Alger put it best: "man, check out the package on THAT guy."
4. "Enter Sandman," Metallica. Finding that rare balance between critical acclaim and commercial success, this dreamlike escape perfectly matches Lars and James' nightmarish vision.
5. "Into The Great Wide Open," Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. One of first "all-star" videos with any semblance of plot, Johnny Depp, Faye Dunaway, and a pre-"Friends" Matt LeBlanc overshadow a chameleon-like Petty in a story about the pitfalls of instant fame.

Honorable Mention: "Black or White," Michael Jackson; "Been Caught Stealing," Jane's Addiction.

Finally, this week I received a new laptop (a Toshiba Intel, to be exact) and to mark the occasion I finally made a great leap forward in the social networking world. You can now find me on Twitter at #heystu818 and on Skype at heystu17. (I assume most of you have already added me on Facebook or found this blog via Zuckerman's website, so that goes without saying.)

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