Nirvana’s Nevermind at 30: 10 albums that prove 1991 was the best year for music

It wasn’t all about Nirvana’s Nevermind. 1991 had the most exciting, sonically diverse music ever. Here are 10 records that prove it.

Just some of the classic albums released in 1991Just some of the classic albums released in 1991
Just some of the classic albums released in 1991

The 1980s was a torrid time for music. Hair rock bands galore, cheesy synth-pop, and even the rock legends of the previous generation lost their touch.

But 1991 was the start of something fresh. It saw a renewed thirst for sonic experimentation, which continued well into the ’90s.

To mark 30 years since 1991 and the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind, we look back at the year’s landmark releases.

Nirvana – Nevermind

Nevermind essentially kickstarted the grunge movement that followed. It took one song for this album to become a chart-topper: ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’.

The day after everyone saw the chaotic video on MTV, things changed in school playgrounds, college classrooms and workplaces. The attitude shown by Kurt Cobain and his bandmates hadn’t been seen since the punk movement.

The record became an overnight success for Nirvana, who ended up selling 24 million copies and headlined Reading Festival the following year.


Red Hot Chili Peppers – Blood Sugar Sex Magik

The Chili Peppers spent years trying to find that ground-breaking album to release, with only middling notoriety in four albums. Once virtuoso John Frusciante joined the group, things evolved and they became a funk rock behemoth.

At over an hour, Blood Sugar Sex Magik explores advanced bass lines and guitar hooks that teenagers would struggle to replicate in their bedrooms.

For a band that already had a reputation, their popularity soared and they brought out Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Smashing Pumpkins (the greatest tour of all time) on the road to give them some of the exposure too – which they all heavily benefitted from.

Shortly after, the line-up derailed, but it still remains as one of the most popular alt-rock releases.


U2 – Achtung Baby

After The Joshua Tree, U2 were left in a bit of a predicament. The press were starting to accuse them of grandeur and the band were stuck in a creative rut.

Bono said they had to “go away and dream it all up again”.

The longest time away from the public limelight was the sound of “four guys chopping down The Joshua Tree“. Influenced by club culture, German reunification and industrial music, the band headed to Hansa Studios – where David Bowie’s Low and Heroes were made – and ended up with the grittiest album they’ve ever produced.


Primal Scream – Screamadelica

The transition from the ’80s to ’90s was vital for sonic innovation. Primal Scream had an early indie rock sound, which was later influenced by what Happy Mondays were doing in Manchester.

Their music was an infusion: combining neo-psychedelia with acid house (thanks in part to producer Andrew Weatherall) and still maintaining the rock buzz that initially gave them an underground following.


Pearl Jam – Ten

A month before Nevermind was released, a band called Pearl Jam were still relatively unknown. Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, guitarist and bassist of Pearl Jam, respectively, were active members of the Seattle music scene – having been members of grunge innovators Mother Love Bone and Green River

It’s arguable that Nevermind‘s unprecedented success helped Pearl Jam up the ladder, but this blend of classic and alternative rock still has fans spinning the black circle nearly 25 years later.


R.E.M. – Out of Time

From 1987, R.E.M. couldn’t do much wrong. They were growing out of their college rock fan base and many people started to admire them.

The group from Athens, Georgia were dropping hit after hit, and for this effort they included ‘Losing My Religion’ and ‘Shiny Happy People’.

This was essentially just the beginning for R.E.M., who went on to release Automatic for the People a year after and become global rock stars.


My Bloody Valentine – Loveless

Loveless could have been virtually anything. It travelled through 19 studios and reportedly cost nearly £250,000 to make. With all the reincarnations it presumably underwent, it makes you wonder what it could have been.

Kevin Shields dominated a meticulous process, experimenting with different tunings and pedals, sampling and arcane production ideas.

But their magnum opus received unanimous praise, and was a landmark shoegazing album that the band couldn’t follow, until they released MBV 22 years later.


Smashing Pumpkins – Gish

At the very beginning of Smashing Pumpkins’ sensational discography, Gish was what set the tone for a career that saw them temporarily grab biggest band in the world status.

Billy Corgan took the production to another level – to the standards of Queen – to make it sound like a crisp debut album. He was so involved in this operation that he recorded all guitar and bass parts himself.

It was also the beginning of their awe-inspiring work ethic. While Gish could only fit ten songs onto the album, there was another record’s worth of b-sides, most of which could be found on their outtakes album, Pisces Iscariot.


Soundgarden – Badmotorfinger

Soundgarden had been around for a while before the release of Badmotorfinger, acting as mainstays of the burgeoning Seattle music scene that would eventually evolve under the term “grunge”.

They were a four-piece that seemed to spend years being labelled as underground, and were just bursting to have a mainstream audience behind them.

A tour with Guns N’ Roses and endless music video rotation on MTV was all it took for fans to be eager for their next record, which was the behemoth reinvention of Superunknown.


Massive Attack – Blue Lines

This Bristolian masterpiece was a landmark for British music, and heralded an alternative band for the country to proudly endorse – whether you called it “trip-hop” or not.

Blue Lines was one of the first 1991 albums to raise eyebrows, stunning listeners with its intrepid style and dark elegance.

The record came out of nowhere and was one of the major and early players in reshaping the sound for a new decade, and Massive Attack would continue well into the ’90s with a series of successful albums.


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