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THE LAST THIRD OF 1991 WAS NUTS: A Look Back at one of the biggest turning points in music history

Before I talk about 1991, let me define the word "watershed":


    1. an area or ridge of land that separates waters flowing to different rivers, basins, or     seas.
    synonyms:    divide
        an area or region drained by a river, river system, or other body of water.
    2. an event or period marking a turning point in a course of action or state of affairs.
    "these works mark a watershed in the history of music"
    synonyms:    turning point, milestone, landmark

Yeah.  It's that.

The last third of 1991 saw albums come out, often on the same day, that changed music forever.  Sometimes the change in question was the end of an era and for others it was the beginning of a new one we might not have even guessed at at the time, but there were also several MASSIVE [ahem] watershed albums that altered the course completely by themselves.

And if you look back earlier in the year, it's still pretty clearly the death throes of the 80's.  From August 12 onward, the biggest alteration of popular music since the summer of love took place. 

This was a four month period.  Keep that in mind:



Do I even have to tell you how huge The Black Album is?  It still sells 5,000 copies every week IN 2016, and the only reason it's no longer the highest selling album of the last 25 years is because it came out 25 years and three months ago.  It's sold more than 30 million copies worldwide.  And, ironically, it's the place where a lot of people jumped off the Metallica bandwagon.  The Black Album is slower, more melodic and definitely more mainstream.  Every band in the thrash scene at least dabbled with trying to score some of this popularity; some jumped in whole hog.  None of them made permanent gains because of this move (except maybe Megadeth).  The loud accusations of "sellout" echo to this day, but there are many more people (to an order of magnitude) that would defend this album and its level of quality.  (Besides, it's when they cut their hair when they sold out, right?) 


Brooks & Dunn "Brand New Man"

Brooks & Dunn is a country band that even people who've never listened to country have heard of.  And that's weird to say, since country sells a LOT of records (always has), so why does it feel like such a niche market?  Probably geography: I'm from Wisconsin, which has its own redneck culture, but it's nothing compared to the south.  A full 40% of every single they've released over their career has hit Number One on the country chart, and another 38% have hit the top 10.  This album is where that all started.  (Including "Boot Scootin' Boogie", which, according to Wikipedia, is RESPONSIBLE FOR REPOPULARIZING LINE DANCING.  An unforgivable crime if there ever was one. (jk?  maybe/maybe not?))

Cypress Hill

If you don't think Cypress Hill was an influential rap group, get your head checked.  They were one of the first groups to adopt a pot leaf as their mascot, for starters.  The beats, flow and delivery (especially of B Real) were outright ripped off by dozens of imitators in the 90's. 

Mr Bungle

Though more obscure, Mr. Bungle is big in the underground, both in popularity and influence.  They're sort of a band for musicians to listen to: KoRn, Mushroomhead, System Of A Down, Slipknot and Incubus have all claimed that the band's use of tri-tones inspired them in their own music, so you can kind of blame Mr. Bungle for accidentally sewing the seeds of nu-metal.  Poop.


Spin Doctors "Pocket Full Of Kryptonite"

Laugh all you want, but this album sold 5 million copies.  And it marked the first time in history this kind of album could be popular.  There were other bands before the Spin Doctors (Blues Traveler and sort of Jane's Addiction) that had a sound like this, but Spin Doctors was the line of demarcation: after this, the B and C and D tier bands will no longer sound like White Lion and Kix...they will sound like the Gin Blossoms and Dishwala...and the Spin Doctors.

AUGUST 26 / 27

Blur "Leisure"

This is the first album by Blur.  They're known over here in the States primarily as "that band the guy from Gorillaz used to be in," but a) In Britain, they've had six straight #1 albums, and b) Blur has put out an album more recently than Gorillaz has.  In the mid-90's, it was a desperate struggle for Brit-Pop supremacy between Blur and Oasis to see which band could monopolize the top of the charts, and all of that started here with this shoegaze-y, disowned by Damon Albarn yet critically acclaimed in some circles happy mess.

Pearl Jam "Ten"

...and this is where Pearl Jam comes in.  Y'know, just one of the biggest rock bands in the last quarter century.  Just popping in here for their debut, which despite being slow out the gate eventually sold over 15 million copies and made Pearl Jam one of the backbones of rock radio until such a thing no longer exists.


Naughty By Nature

"O.P.P." was fucking huge.  It hit #6 on Billboard at a time when rap was still seen as a novelty.  Plus, listen to the song "Uptown Anthem" and tell me Kriss Kross and (to a certain extent) Das EFX and Fu-Schnickens didn't get a little...inspired by this kind of flow.  This was definitely a huge feather in East Coast Rap's cap.


Garth Brooks "Ropin' The Wind"

This is the first Country album to debut at #1.  It's sold 17 million copies.  As a matter of fact, it hit #1 four times in the US, knocking three other albums on this list out of the top spot (for a total of 18 weeks).  Garth Brooks is the best selling solo artist in U.S. Chart history, and this was his second-best selling album.

Guns N Roses "Use Your Illusion" (I & II)

One of the biggest rock bands of all time reaching the pinnacle of their success, and heralding their own downfall.  "Use Your Illusion" is a double album, but was released separately, so they debuted #1 and #2 respectively.  (II had the lead single "You Could Be Mine", so it did slightly better.)  These albums are nuts: There were 11 singles between them.  They're both 75 minutes apiece (which means this would be a triple album on vinyl).  The songs themselves oscillated between gut-punch bluesy hard rock or epic 10 minute ballads with orchestral backings.  ("November Rain" is the longest top 10 hit in the history of Billboard, clocking in at 8:57.)  They hired a full time keyboard player.  The album covers themselves were gaudy reworkings of a painting by Raphael (a guy who went with the one name thing 500 years before Madonna).  They literally scream This is art.  Holy SHIT was this the perfect statement of rock and roll decadence.

Ozzy Osbourne "No More Tears" (Sept 17)

This is Ozzy's second-best selling album, and it was supposed to be his last.  The "No More Tours" tour that followed was supposed to be a victory lap with a long-awaited Black Sabbath reunion gig (rare in those days) at the end of it.  And boy was he trying to go out on top.  The title track is one of his most iconic songs.  (If you've listened to rock radio in the last quarter century, you know the bass riff.)  Songs like "Mama I'm Coming Home" and "Time After Time" still receive play to this day and songs like "Hellraiser" and "Mr. Tinkertrain" were solid hits at the time.


Red Hot Chili Peppers "Blood. Sugar. Sex. Magik."

"Give It Away".  "Under The Bridge".  Chances are, if you aren't sick to death of these songs, you've at least heard of them (probably within the last month if you listen to rock radio).  This is the one that made the Red Hot Chili Peppers a household name for better or worse.  (I'm personally on the fence.) 

A Tribe Called Quest "The Low End Theory"

A lot of critics throw this album in their "Best Rap Album Of All Time" lists.  It's rarely at the top, but it always hangs around, due to its level of quality and influence on future generations of rappers.  Most importantly for me (on a personal level anyway), the song "Scenario" is what put Busta Rhymes on the MAP.  His verse in this song is one of the most notable in hip hop history for its (thought I was gonna say "impact...BOOM from the cannon" didn't you?), his word play and the fact that it launched one of the most well known rappers of the 90's.  The rest of the album is quite jazzy, adheres to its namesake and it is definitely Tribe's high water mark. 

Nirvana "Nevermind"

Oh, you know.  Just the thing that popularized grunge.  (It's also one of the first two albums I ever bought; the other being The Black Album.)  The most symbolic victory "Nevermind" achieved was knocking Michael Jackson's "Dangerous" off the #1 spot, fittingly enough to start 1992.  The record company didn't think it would be a hit.  The band didn't think it would be a hit.  But "Smells Like Teen Spirit" set the world on fire, and record stores couldn't keep up with the limited print run.  Needless to say they printed more: The album went double diamond and then some.  If you can point to a single song that ushered in an entire new era of music, as cliché as it is, it is truly "Smells Like Teen Spirit".

Prong "Prove You Wrong"

I know this isn't a landmark album or anything, but I think it's rad and I wanted to point out that it came out on the same day as "Blood. Sugar. Sex. Magik.", "The Low End Theory" and "Nevermind".  Good day for music!


Public Enemy "Apocalypse 91...The Enemy Strikes Black"

This was Public Enemy's last hit album.  They've still been cranking out quality material, but this was the last time PE made a severe impact on the culture.  "Can't Truss It", "Shut 'Em Down" and the metal version of "Bring The Noise" with Anthrax were all important, but it was "By The Time I Get To Arizona" which went at not just a state for not adopting MLK Day as a holiday, but at the sitting governor himself.  That got them in trouble.  And we could use more artists causing trouble now.

Soundgarden "Badmotorfinger"

This is the album that really put Soundgarden on the map.  By 1995 this band was about 15% of everything you heard on rock radio.  ("Outshined" still gets quite a bit of airplay.)  "Badmotorfinger", along with "Ten", "Nevermind" and "Dirt" (by Alice In Chains) were the opening salvos in grunge's war on the public.  (Yes, "Facelift" came out before this, and hell "Ultramega OK" was nominated for a grammy, but nobody outside the Northwest knew what this grunge shit was until late '91.)

OCTOBER 28 / 29

Queen "Greatest Hits II" (Oct 28)

Statistically speaking, if you own a Queen album, this is it.  One of the biggest bands of all time (tied for 5th with Abba as far as record sales go) and this is their greatest hits of the 80's.  It came out one month before Freddie Mercury died, and its timing is auspicious in this maelstrom of change.  It's a monument to what came before just in time for it all to be scattered on the winds of memory.

Ice Cube "Death Certificate" (Oct 29)

This album was so controversial the state of Oregon banned all images of Ice Cube from retail stores, including ads for St. Ides.  Some say the song "Black Korea" lead to a disproportionate targeting of Koreans in the L.A. riots.  (The song was written after a 15 year old black girl was killed by a Korean store clerk over a bottle of juice.)  It featured one of the most vicious diss tracks in the history of hip hop, "No Vaseline".  It also predated Dr. Dre's use of P-Funk samples by more than a year.  It had no radio support, but went platinum before the end of '91.  Say what you want about gangsta rap, about racial situations, about the artistic merit or level of reknown this album has, about any number of things, but this album is far too remarkable for me not to have remarked on it.

Hammer "Too Legit To Quit" (Oct 29)

This album sold well, but it wasn't long after its release that MC Hammer was perceived as a clown.  I mean, look at what came out the same day: Death Certificate.  By one of the harbingers of gangsta rap himself, Ice Cube.  (Also of note: A Tribe Called Quest was already dissing Hammer on "The Low End Theory".)  Poppiness in rap wouldn't be acceptable again for another six years when Puffy took the spotlight.

NOVEMBER 11 / 12

Genesis "We Can't Dance" (Nov 11)

The absolute nadir of prog.  The first incarnation of prog had been dead since arguably 1978, but this was about as far down the well as it went.  Yes, there's actually a ten minute song about The Crucifixion on this album, but seriously?  It's got "I Can't Dance" on it.  Dream Theater wouldn't come out with "Images And Words" for another seven months, and even then it wasn't prog prog, it was prog metal.  Porcupine Tree's first proper album was still two years away ("On The Sunday Of Life" doesn't count.)  Point is, the reason I'm talking about this is because it's a sign post for an entire genre.  Absolute fucking rock bottom.

2Pac "2Pacalypse Now" (Nov 12)

This falls into the "beginning of a larger legacy" category.  Its placement on this timeline is the reason Tupac is currently nominated for the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.  You cannot deny Tupac is one of the biggest names in rap history and if you are a fan of rap I shouldn't have to tell you why he's important.  (Whether you actually care is your choice, since rap music from 25 years ago is from a different planet than Future or Lil Yachty, much like someone into the heavy metal of Moby Grape would shit their colon out of their bodies trying to turn off the wretched metal stylings of Meshuggah.  25 years is a long time...)  Whatever your stance, this is when Tupac's solo career started, and that is a milestone.


U2 "Achtung Baby"

It's funny that U2's mission with this, an album so popular it almost went double diamond, was to specifically "NOT BE U2."  Bono & Edge were so butthurt by what critics had said about them on "Rattle & Hum" (which sold 14 million) that they set out to completely change their sound.  This process almost made the rhythm section walk out of the band.  What they came up with is an album critics masturbate to to this day, but to me sounds like someone polished up The Charlatans UK's first couple of albums then threw them three monster singles written by someone else ("One", "Even Better Than The Real Thing" and "Mysterious Ways").  Being that people thought they were pretentious and preachy before this album came out, it is kind of interesting the persona of "The Fly" was invented as a lark and a way to lambaste those who would take the band or its message too seriously.  (Though as far as public perception is concerned, this band became the parody they were trying to act out.  "Army Of Bono" by Clutch exists for a reason.)


Michael Jackson "Dangerous"

This isn't the moment where Michael Jackson stopped being cool, and certainly he never truly stopped being popular (even in his darkest hours, he still had millions of loyal fans staunchly defending him...well, maybe not so staunchly...) but this was the last Michael Jackson album that felt huge.  Music video premiers from this album were primetime network specials for fuck sake.  They were mini movies with cameos up the ass and were presented as matters of great importance.  Which was kind of their downfall, in a way.  The album sounds super dated now, but really it started to sound dated by 1993.  Because of all the other albums on this list, "Dangerous" came out about four to six months too late.  It was fitting it was the last major release to come out of 1991, because it was really the last relevant album that sounded like it belonged to a time before The Black Album.  It was the beginning of the end.

So that's it.  Not many days after "Dangerous" came out, the Cold War ended.  (COINCIDENCE?!?!?  Yes.  Yes, it was a coincidence.)  Popular music was already changed forever, and even in this four month span, the effects were visible.  (Poor Hammer.  Well, soon to be poor Hammer.  He was still rich as fuck in '91.)  Anyway, I hope you have enjoyed this stroll down memory lane or anthropological look at a time long before your birth.  Toodles!


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