To think when it was happening, 1991 felt like another year of moderate returns. By 2011 standards, it was a goshdarn goldmine. This two-part walk back onto memory lane, no jaywalking please, proves that it was kinda nice when the music industry had many different major labels to choose from among the indies. I've left a few good ones off in order to make Part Two another riveting read!
So, let's get right to 1991, a year when everyone reading this was much younger than they are today!
25) Joni Mitchell — Night Ride Home: By making a number of albums that sounded like the 1980s and completely at odds with what made her so great in the 1970s, Mitchell got people's attention here by returning somewhat to her known sound. But then I could be completely wrong, since like most people I haven't listened to Dog Eat Dog in years. Maybe it sounds really great right now and maybe For the Roses sounds completely lame. Wouldn't that be messed up? Oh revisionism, how I love thee!
24) Throwing Muses — The Real Ramona: How these abstractionists ever got a decent audience is beyond me. I mean, this stuff is weird. Kristin Hersh was always at a loss to explain where these songs came from. And they feel like that. Overheard voices, dream sequences, smudgy notebook jottings. Even when I'm confused and unsure, I'm happy.
23) Smashing Pumpkins — Gish: The alternative nation had an odd list of ideas. Most importantly, you could never want to be too successful. So bands worked on "indie" farm teams until they were called up to the majors. Future space alien Billy Corgan knew he needed a hook, so he assembled a band that looked like a college brochure celebrating diversity. Under the hood, the important stuff was all his.
22) Pixies — Trompe le Monde: By this point, Black Francis was pretty much ready to become Frank Black. Perhaps it worked out for the best, because soon after, Kurt Cobain would be telling everyone who would listen how he ripped off the Pixies. The Pixies became a legend. When they finally reformed, they sold out halls they could barely fill the first time around. Absence makes the legend grow fonder.
21) Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble — The Sky Is Crying: This collection of outtakes suffers not from being assembled from various projects. Once dead, the legend takes on its own momentum. Tracks that had emotional gravitas now have a finality to them that makes the listener hear things differently. Every note becomes more precious. You have to get something out of a bad situation.
20) Skid Row — Slave to the Grind: I did a double-take when I saw this album was released in 1991. That's what the Nirvana album did. It made what came before it seem like it was from a different era, like, say, 1990.
19) Seal — Seal: There will always be an audience who likes music that allows them to chill out. Because they are mellow, they do not get loud about their passion. You won't see Seal fans outside the local high school screaming about who is and who is not a poser.
18) Marc Cohn — Marc Cohn: "Walking In Memphis" was one of those tunes that sounded like it was written for successful boomers who now had the stereo system to enjoy a mature sound. It's like "I own a shower now and my bed is on a frame, so let the world be put on notice!" But if you people crash your Lexus, do you really want this to be your final statement to the world?
17) Guns N' Roses — Use Your Illusion I & II: Technically, 2 CDs is more like four albums of material. Unlike so many classic double albums where you'd hate to eliminate the filler because it makes a vague sort of sense, the filler here is mostly stuff that just doesn't sound finished. Where Appetite was lean and mean, the Illusions are mostly flabby. But then making such an elongated statement with your second official album is a pretty bold move. Didn't anyone tell these guys about the sophomore jinx? Oh, that's right. You can't tell Axl anything.
16) Eric Clapton — 24 Nights: Maybe I wasn't born right, but Clapton's solo work just leaves a huge question mark where the point used to be. He's so smooth, he's non-existent. When did the blues become dinner music?
15) Bonnie Raitt — Luck of the Draw: Why shouldn't someone who's been in the trenches for so long finally have a breakout hit? It feels a bit arbitrary. Why now? But then radio programmers needed something to play next to Eric Clapton and Dire Straits. Years of accumulated goodwill finally paid off. She hadn't changed at all and her hair was still red.
14) Lenny Kravitz — Mama Said: One of the more disturbing developments in the rock 'n' roll music is how by the 1990s it's mostly about what kind of record collection you have. Post-punks have their Mission of Burma or their Velvet Underground albums. Bar bands have the Stones. Lenny had his Beatles and Jimi Hendrix records on total recall. And those sunglasses that let you know who's the boss.
13) Sting — The Soul Cages: When someone's parents die, that person is allowed to get as weird as he or she may want to be. Much of Sting's solo career feels like a man turning his music into graduate work. The serious obscurity he deals in resonates with those who love sober-minded reflection more than hooks. His commercial success makes you wonder if most of his fans enjoyed his solo albums or if they bought them out of loyalty and then filed them away with the great books. You never know when your old English professor is stopping by.
12) Natalie Cole — Unforgettable: Necrophilia is awesome. I preferred it when they took Hank Williams, Jr. as a small child and had him sing along with his daddy over a fully grown Natalie singing to her King. Gushing sentimentality moves people in different ways, some to buy the record, others to run like hell.
11) Van Halen — For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge: It's been pointed out to me that I don't care for Sammy Hagar. True. I also don't like poverty, world hunger, mayonnaise, brussel sprouts and those Jersey Shore children. I don't think it's just a "David Lee Roth was better" feeling. I didn't think Sammy did Montrose any favors either. Maybe I should try his tequila and see if maybe we can reach a truce.
10) Dinosaur Jr. — Green Mind: If it were not for Thurston Moore and the Sonic Youths, there's a good chance that only a small cult of fans would be remembering J. Mascis and Co. It was Moore's tireless insistence that Dinosaur Jr.'s Bug was, in fact, better than Daydream Nation that forced those fence-sitters to take notice. Personally, you turn most things up loud enough and they do just fine. For the moment. And, really, isn't the moment what counts?
9) R.E.M. — Out of Time: What I've learned in the days following R.E.M.'s breakup announcement is that some people love their heroes unconditionally and most people are strictly 'What have you done for me lately?' and aren't so easily persuaded when the reviews come in that a band is "back." For an album that was very popular, there sure are a lot of people saying they don't like this one. Buyer's remorse? Or do we hate it when our bands become successful?
8) Red Hot Chili Peppers — Blood Sugar Sex Magik: I know Chili Pepper fans who bristle at the hit, "Under The Bridge," but if the boys never had that hit, there's a good chance you wouldn't still be seeing them on the covers of rock magazines twenty years after. It's the way the world works. Funk it up as much as you want, but if you don't write something for people to hum, you're just another footnote. Some bands make better footnotes. Such is life.
7) Soundgarden — Badmotorfinger: No matter how many alternative bands pledged allegiance to the Stooges, the Ramones, or Black Flag, it was only a matter of time before the Led Zeppelin fans showed up. And why not? Suburban teens may move to the city, but you can take the suburbs out of the kid.
6) Pearl Jam — Ten: So, was Eddie Vedder sincere enough? Did he just want to be — gasp — a rock star? Newsflash: if you lead a rock band, if successful, you will become a rock star. Like, what's up with that Mick Jagger guy? I think when he sings "Brown Sugar," he might be putting us on? Why, that's just wrong, mom!
5) U2 — Achtung Baby: The first album to consciously go about not sounding like all their others, Achtung Baby is a relief. The bloated self-importance turns into an ironic snarl. Or at least they sounded like they might be having fun while saving the world. The songs were written for the arenas, where they'd be played. It gives the rockers good sense and the ballads a weird distance, like yelling into your girlfriend's ear.
4) Hole — Pretty On the Inside: I'm not so sure the inside is any prettier than the outside. The whole thing is abrasive and on purpose. The next time we'd hear from Miss Courtney, she'd be Mrs. Cobain. Her music is interesting to people who value celebrity. Would you buy an album by Kim Kardashian?
3) Garth Brooks — Ropin' The Wind: Nothing is more amusing than when a record sells a zillion copies and the pundits then have to pretend like it matters. Isn't it just possible that people liked to sing along with his songs in the same way that they liked his look? By definition, most taste is bad taste. It's like baseball. Even a .300 hitter fails 70% of the time.
2) Spin Doctors — Pocket Full of Kryptonite: No one ever went broke serving lite-beer to the masses. While these guys made their name on college campuses as part of that weird hippie-redux that hung over the late 1980s like so much ugly tie-dye, they ended up with the kind of pop album that fraternity brothers and jocks loved to death. I know, I was there, hoping my future was not this. (Available in "Deluxe" form, in case you need a live bootleg version of that Steve Miller Band sounding tune.)
1) Jesus Jones — Doubt: While Rolling Stone has played it safe by championing only bands everyone's already got in their collections, Musician magazine went out on a limb (kinda) and threw in a cover insert that asked if Jesus Jones could save rock 'n' roll. Get it, "save." Yeah, I hate puns, too. But they're popular with the press. Then we wonder why no one takes us seriously.