1991 in Music

The reviews I’ve written for music originally released in 1991.

 

1. Slint: Spiderland (10/10)

Full disclosure: I have never heard Slint’s debut album.

Slint’s second album seems like it came out of nowhere – as if this fully formed new style just appeared on the scene. This music sounds like music you should recognize: there are parts that sound like hardcore or alternative rock, but they have be disassembled – it’s like deconstructed hardcore punk through some lens that feels new and different.

Math rock existed before Spiderland – Blind Idiot God were playing music we could easily label math rock for years before this record came out – but never before had it sounded so fresh, so new, so unique. And unlike a band like BIG, all Slint does here is play this weird genre they seem to have constructed out of the ether, there are no detours into reggae or classic rock or metal that BIG might attempt. It’s just this sound, and what an incredible sound.

Sometimes the hype is exaggerated with certain records but I don’t think so here. This album forces the listener to think about the constituent parts of rock music in a new way and it opens up the possibility of doing things differently – a possibility that was clearly inspiring to loads of bands, given the huge number of math rock and mathcore bands that have appeared over the last 25 years (not to mention the post rock bands that were ostensibly influenced by this record – though let’s please accept that this record itself is not post rock).

It’s minimalism, which had been influencing rock music since The Velvets, finally fully incorporated into rock music. One of the great and essential albums of the ’90s.

 

1. Talk Talk: Laughing Stock (10/10)

Read the review.

 

3. Nirvana: Nevermind (10/10)

I wrote this in 2008:

I haven’t listened to Nevermind in forever. When I did listen to it, it was as background music, at a time when I was determined to be different by only listening to music made in the ’60s (or something like that). I was never really impressed by Nirvana, but that was partly because I never really listened to them. I still believe there were far better “grunge” bands, but it’s hard to deny the historical importance of a band that ushered in American acceptance of the “warts and all” approach. We can thank them for slightly more diversity in the mainstream, and that’s something. So, my problem was that I never listened to Cobain’s lyrics before. I realize now, as I reassess, that his lyrics are the thing. Musically, the band is one of the most straightforward and accessible of any of the bands dwelling in the American underground during that time period. But his lyrics connected to a lot of people, they expressed something nearly universal and that’s what grabs people. I never really felt this alienated myself, so I didn’t get it at the time, I guess. With age comes an appreciation of the great variety of experience, and so I can say that I finally get Nirvana. There’s no filler here and though it is far less interesting than UINY, it is still a fine and significant record.

I wrote this a few years later: “I pretty much stand by that but I would like to add this: holy shit is this thing overproduced (for how sloppy it should be). According the Wikipedia it actually happened during the mixing, which is too bad.”

I feel like it isn’t really as overproduced as I believed at the time. This is such a seminal record that I feel like my earlier issues with it were just me being contrarian. The impact this had on the US (and Canada) is hard to put into words. So even if I prefer Pearl Jam and Soundgarden to Nirvana, this is more important.

 

4. My Bloody Valentine: Loveless (10/10)

For years, I’ve struggled with the idea that this, this, is a record that drastically changed music. I had read so much about it – too much – that when I heard it, I was disappointed. “It sounds like shoegaze” I thought.

But it isn’t just shoegaze, it’s a revolution in electric guitar sound and production, and the incorporation of samples as lead musical instruments is also path-breaking.

I may never love this record, but I have finally come to respect it as much as I should.

 

5. U2: Achtung Baby (10/10)

Years ago, I wrote the following:

U2’s best album.  That’s because they actually tried to alter their sound for once.  The songs are still there, but this time the arrangements at least don’t completely sound like U2.  It’s still obviously U2, but there’s less of the “U2 sound” that had so completely defined them in the 1980s.  I personally don’t get why the Joshua Tree is great, or why their other 80s albums can really be considered independently, they’re all pretty much the same.  Here they incorporate other elements and it works very well.  It’s too bad they didn’t stay this adventurous because it would have suited them.  Instead they became the most overrated band ever.  Anyway, the songs are quite good.  In particular, there are a couple songs near the end that stand out.  The Edge actually has a quite amazing guitar solo (who knew he had it in him?) on “Love is Blindness.”  The two biggest singles are actually the weakest songs.

Do I agree? Well…

I think that, had you not known it was U2, and caught the first loops of “Zoo Station,” you wouldn’t have known this was U2. And you can say the same thing for so many of these songs: they start off as unrecognizable and quickly morph into U2. It’s kind of incredible that they were able to do that, to strike a balance between new and old. I think it’s pretty great.

 

6. Mr. Bungle (9/10)

I spent most of my young life listening to one very specific era of music, and it was to my detriment. As I got older, I got a little more adventurous, which mostly meant prog rock.

At some point I bought this record; I’m not sure why I did exactly – it might have been recommended by a friend (I knew at one Bungle fan in first year university) or it might have been something I read about on All Music. In any case, at first I loved “The Girls of Porn” and couldn’t really be bothered with the rest of the album, as it was too weird and too metal for me (I didn’t listen to metal).
At some point, I did begin to listen to the entire thing, on occasion (much to the annoyance of the people on my floor) and came to love it.

This is absolutely the least focused and least mature Bungle album. But that being said, it’s still a rather remarkable achievement – Fisbhone on crack, you might call it.

It’s not that nobody had ever made music like this before – Fishbone definitely made music somewhat like this, albeit far more restrained and with far less metal – but the particular combination of elements (Zappa, ska, metal, Fishbone, Camper Van Beethoven, video games, carnival music) was pretty unique and the commitment to this style – no concessions to commercial viability here – is admirable.

This is Bungle’s least good record, but it’s still one of the best albums of 1991, in my mind, and it’s an ear-opening experience to a young music fan.

A personal favourite, even if it’s not as good as their later records.

 

7. Philip Glass: “String Quartet No. 5” (9/10)

The 5th quartet is an interesting one in that it seems to me to be a clear attempt to bridge Glass’ own very identifiable style with some other ideas, and as a result I think it is probably his second most successful, behind his first. It’s still very recognizable as Glass’ work, but it feels more mature than the middle quartets, which all feel as if they are just Glass’ music in quartet form – nothing wrong with that, just less interesting than this one.

 

8. Sofia Gubaidulina: “In croce” (9/10)

“In croce” is a duet for cello and bayan, and ranges from almost horror-movie film score intensity to a sort of meandering exploration of space. And then that builds back – there is a really strong use of dynamics. And the cello really gets into its upper register.

 

9. The Jesus Lizard: Goat (9/10)

In 2005, I wrote the following lazy “review”:

A little Fall, a little Dead Kennedys. My kind of thing.

Aside from missing what I now think is a clear Pere Ubu influence, I feel like I really sold this record short. Goat is everything I want from rock music: it’s loud, it’s well-played but sloppy – Denison regularly sounds like he’s about to fall out of time with the rest of the band – it’s “dangerous,” it’s unconventional. Even though it’s not the best, it definitely challenges the other records here for my favourite rock record of 1991, and it’s one of my favourites of the first half of the decade.

Honestly, I can only think of one criticism: it’s a little top heavy in terms of the songs. But beyond that, this is classic alternative rock (don’t fully understand the classification of it as “noise rock” or post-hardcore).

 

10. Soundgarden: Badmotorfinger (9/10)

Superunknown was the record that introduced me to Soundgarden so, for years, it was my favourite, and I refused to fully see the virtues of this record.

But this record is a pretty near-perfect combination of the things that made made Soundgarden and grunge in general so compelling: an alternative aesthetic, but with the conventions of classic rock (in this case, old school metal, for the most part).

The older I get, the more I think this is probably their best record, and certainly one of the main documents of grunge and early 90s American alternative rock. It’s maybe not their very best set of songs (it might be, though…) but it’s a little more “alternative” than their world-conquering follow up.

 

11. Nation of Ulysses: 13 Point Program to Destroy America (9/10)

Read the review.

 

12. Swans: White Light From the Mouth of Infinity (9/10)

Read the review.

 

13. Eleventh Dream Day: Lived to Tell (9/10)

We all have records that we connect with at just the right time in our lives, that mean more to us than maybe they should, that resonate with us more than “greater” art, art that actually changes the world.

This is one of those for me. I know other bands do this whole alternative rock blues thing. I know other alternative rock bands worshiped Neil Young. I know the songwriting on this record isn’t quite as strong as I would like to believe it is.

But I don’t really care. This is probably my favourite record from 1991, the one that resonates with me the most, the one that I choose to listen to more than the others.

Everything about it works for me; the songs and the aesthetic.

Great.

 

14. Pearl Jam: Ten (8/10)

You could forgive someone who isn’t a Pearl Jam fan for believing this is the only Pearl Jam album to own. Though the band has now been releasing music for a quarter century, most of the songs that the general public knows are from the first three albums, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that half of those songs (if not more) come from this record. When Pearl Jam is played on “Classic Rock” radio now (or whatever they call it), it’s most often songs from this record that you hear.

And that should come as no surprise. This is one of their best sets of songs to this day, and it is almost entirely free of the artsy fartsy stuff they started to pursue, the kind of stuff that turned them into a cult band, that made it so that their most famous songs come from their first four records.

But for fans, it really isn’t that representative of the band. And I personally believe that they have become better songwriters over the years, for the most part, while at the same time getting a little less prone to writing anthems.

But it’s not the songs that make me like this album less than some of their later records (including the sequel). It’s the production. Band members have gone on record complaining about the mix, so maybe it’s just the mix that is at fault, but this is one of only a few of their albums that sounds so utterly of its time. The production is rather terrible, dating the record but also making the whole thing sound kind of “cheesy” in a way that no other Pearl Jam record sounds.

It’s too bad, because this should be one of the classic Grunge records. It almost is. But it really needs to get remixed.

 

15. Mercury Rev: Yerself is Steam (8/10)

Read the review.

 

16. American Music Club: Everclear (8/10)

These guys are the Kings of Slowcore, so I’ve been told. Not being the biggest devotee of the genre, I have no idea if that’s true. And if I get obsessed about influence and such, I’ll ignore the music here and focus on the fact that slowcore already existed when this came out. (Because, of course it did. These guys supposedly invented it six years earlier.)

Ahem. Sorry about that.

This set of songs takes a while to ingratiate, which is shocking for a slowcore record. (Kidding, obviously.) But once you listen to it a few times, you realize this is a good set of songs. And, not only that, the band has achieved the sometimes difficult objective of seamlessly blending multiple American roots genres into their thing.

This album gets attacked for being overproduced. I’m not sure it is – I more think it’s oddly produced. There’s a echo-y quality to it. Maybe that’s a post-production trick, but it could also just be the space, right? It is an odd choice but I don’t think it hurts the record. And with nearly everything but his voice and one or two rhythm instruments buried in the mix, it gives the record a kind of ethereal quality.

Anyway, as first experiences of iconic bands go, I’d say this is a pretty good one. I prefer more energy in my music in general, but this is slowcore after all.

 

17. Primus: Sailing the Seas of Cheese (8/10)

Read the review.

 

18. Fugazi: Steady Diet of Nothing (8/10)

Read the review.

 

19. Uncle Tupelo: Still Feel Gone (8/10)

Read the review.

 

20. Hole: Pretty on the Inside (8/10)

Read the review.

 

21. Dinosaur Jr.: Green Mind (8/10)

I wrote the following in 2011:

I’m gonna say I miss Barlow even though I can’t place why. It’s probably more consistent than You’re Living All Over Me, but it’s also far less crazy. It’s lacking the incredible noise of Bug, which I must say is a bit of a disappointment. But things change. I have definitely warmed up to it. As ego trips go, it still sounds like “the band” (at least more than most ego trips) – it is recognizable as Dinosaur Jr. as such – and it has its share of gems.

I kind of feel the same way still. I think the songs are extremely strong and it really is hard to tell Barlow isn’t there. I wanted to dislike it and I can’t.

 

22. Sofia Gubaidulina: “Silenzio” (8/10)

I have always had a thing against pieces being named “Silence” but “Silenzio” is a fascinating exploration of this unusual instrumentation (bayan, cello, violin), though it is considerably milder (relatively speaking) than “In croce.”

 

23. Sebadoh III (8/10)

Read the review.

 

24. Mudhoney: Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge (8/10)

Read the review.

 

25. Ween: The Pod (8/10)

Ween’s second proper studio album is an onslaught of lo-fi weirdness touching on more genres than you can count, but unified in its deliberately inaccessible production and its self-contained world of in-jokes and references. Honestly, there’s nothing else like it… except for other Ween records. I’d probably give this one higher marks if it didn’t come after The Oneness, which is the best of the their lo-fi records in my mind.

 

26. Guns n’ Roses: Use Your Illusion I (8/10)

This record was one of the earliest hard rock albums I owned that wasn’t “Classic Rock” and, because of that, I am way too damn fond of it. Even the filler I like. But I acknowledge it’s filler and, when I’m thinking clearly, I recognize that a better record could have easily been made from the two combined, had anyone been willing to edit.

But given that this is the rootsier of the two records, and it doesn’t have the worst filler, I still like it more than part 2. Scroll down for Part 2.

It’s still one of my favourite albums though.

 

27. Pixies: Trompe le Monde (7/10)

Read the review.

 

28. Swervedriver: Raise (7/10)

Read the review.

 

29. Red Hot Chili Peppers: Blood Sugar Sex Magick (7/10)

In 2011, I wrote the following:

I’ve never paid much attention to these guys. I was too young when this came out (I heard the singles but I wasn’t into modern music at the time) and then they went very poppy and I never paid attention. I’ve always sort of thought of them as way overrated. But I like this. Aside from Kiedis’s often ridiculous lyrics, it’s pretty great. It’s extremely well performed and it really grows on you. Really, the only thing I can hold against them is that not everyone wants to listen to tons of songs about having sex with their supposedly ridiculously sexy lead singer.

Without realizing that, I then wrote this in 2016:

Though this is one of the seminal alternative rock albums of 1991, and one that helped provide the soundtrack to the lives of my friends (and my life, when I was around my friends) at the time, I haven’t given it much time. I knew the hits – more than I thought – but I only ever listened to the whole thing at parties or in cars. All of this convinced me that if I was going to ever listen to one RHCP album, I figured it would be this one. (Though I have always been interested in checking out their 80s stuff.)

But now that I’ve got to listen to it for the podcast I’m…underwhelmed. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been spending too much time listening to Funkadelic recently, or perhaps it’s because, the older I get, the higher my standards get for lyrics I don’t already know, but it feels like Anthony Kiedis has taken a hug page out of George Clinton’s book and decided that some really half-assed social comment and lots of stuff about sex is basically all you need to write about if you’re in a funk band. Most of Kiedis’ lyrics aren’t necessarily awful (though some are) but they are way too sex-obsessed and they are sometimes really dumb.

Occasionally they’re not bad, such as with “Under the Bridge,” but most of the time they are way below average and way too reminiscent of Funkadelic.

The other problem I have with the record is that it is way too long. This is a long-ass album. It never ever ends. There’s not enough material to make this run-time work.

But the band is excellent. Just excellent. And so I wished I had listened to this as a teenager when my standards were lower, because I’d probably regard it as a classic, rather than just their big commercial breakthrough.

So I have less of a tolerance for the lyrics than I used to.

 

30. Fishbone: The Reality of My Surroundings (7/10)

Read the review.

 

31. Sepultura: Arise (7/10)

Read the review.

 

32. Metallica (7/10)

I wrote the following in 2009:

I really don’t know what they were thinking. Bob Rock isn’t the guy to produce a metal record. And he seems to encourage Hetfield in “nah-nah-nah” type vocalizations. But whatever. It could have been so much worse, I guess, that we should all feel good about that. It’s not that the songs are particularly bad, at all, it’s just that some of them are, well, kind of wussy for this band. As my friend’s joke goes, Metallica ballads are all rewrites of “Behind Blue Eyes.” Maybe they felt pressure during this age of power ballads to write some of their own. Now a Metallica ballad clearly destroys all the cough “hair metal” cough power ballads out there, but they’re still ballads. In a way this seems to be Metallica for the masses, diluted enough to sell more records. That’s kind of lame. What part of “Nothing Else Matters” did Ulrich write exactly?

Do I agree with that? I guess.

I was 10 when this record came out. For years, the only Metallica songs I knew were “Enter Sandman,” “The Unforgiven” “Nothing Else Matters.” And I thought that’s what metal was, I guess. And then I went and listened to Apocalyptica before I ever listened to Metallica.

As I’ve become a fan of 80s Metallica, I fully understand the derision heaped upon this album, as it’s clearly a blatant attempt to sell more records (and a successful one – this is the best selling metal album, ever right?). What I don’t understand is why Lars tries to defend this record as Metallica “growing.” Lots of bands do that when they “sell out” but they could have grown in another, more interesting direction.

That being said, it’s not a bad record and holds up rather well 25 years later. Still, ’80s Metallica is what we all should listen to.

 

33. Melvins: Bullhead (7/10)

Read the review.

 

34. Guns ‘n Roses: Use Your Illusion II (7/10)

Sometime in the mists of time I wrote this:

If this had been released as a double album, I might have been a little kinder. I know that sounds unfair, but it’s true. If it were a double album, I could look at the thing as a big sprawling mess and celebrate it. As two separate albums, the listener is forced to compare. And when you compare, the second doesn’t hold up well. There are still some good songs here. McKagan’s tribute to Johnny Thunders is a better song than he ever wrote, and now I have pissed off the music nerds of the word. They’re coming for me as we speak. But there are more Axl epics. For some reason, they seemed to save this album for the more dubious stuff. It feels like the leftovers. Axl’s lyrics are worse here than they are on I. Then there’s “Don’t Cry.” Repeating a song is inexcusable. They could have at least recorded a different version. They could have recorded an acoustic version, they could have recorded a louder version. But they don’t even change the backing vocals (listen to them, they are repeating lines from the first set of lyrics). The only thing different is the lead vocal. That is such a joke. It is the ultimate definition of filler. And then there’s the last track. This is a big “fuck you” to Gunners fans. It says, now you know whose band this is, and this is where “we’re” going. It’s enough for me to stop listening.

My issues remain. “Get in the Ring” is also fucking ridiculous and makes me want to hate McKagan (who wrote much of it). It’s fun, but it’s flawed in so many ways. And if you put the two records together, you get over 150 minutes of music. That’s 4 LPs! That’s too much! A 70 minute record (or even 80) of the best of these two albums would have been much better. But I can’t say I don’t enjoy it.

 

35. Superchunk: No Pocky for Kitty (7/10)

Not my thing, but well executed. Read the brief review.

 

36. The Tragically Hip: Road Apples (7/10)

The second Hip album is much like the first: competent, bluesy rock.

It’s easy to dismiss the early Hip as just a very, very good bar band but, trying to put aside how important a part of our cultural identity they were in my formative years, I think this sells them a little short.

First, this is one hell of a bar band. Not only do most bar bands not play this well but most bar band originals, if they have any, are not this strong. I mean, these guys can write hooks.

But then, of course, there’s Downie. Whether or not you like his voice, Downie is an above average lyricist at the worst.

However, the record still exists in a different time. In 1991 I think maybe only The Black Crowes were this committed to “classic” blues-based rock, and I think most of us would agree they were a better band at the time.

 

37. R.E. M.: Out of Time (6/10)

REM’s biggest hit to date (biggest hit ever) is one of their most flawed records (at least pre-Berry’s departure). It’s got weird, failed experiments, such as their weird Hip Hop crossover with KRS-1. It’s got the most annoying song they ever recorded, which somehow became a hit (“Shiny Happy People”). It’s got to Mike Mills-led songs that wouldn’t be recognizable as REM were it not for that unmistakable jangle. It’s got Stipe-sung songs that don’t sound like REM (“Belong”). And it’s got a bunch of delicate baroque pop that shows that they could really do a whole different spin on their jangle thing. Finally, it contains one of my favourite REM songs of all time, “Country Feedback.” In short, it’s a mess.

Despite being a mess, it’s still an improvement on Green, their weakest album prior to Berry’s departure. And the parts that work, well they work quite well. But it’s a shame that the introduction that so many people get to this band is through this record. Because it’s not representative.

 

38. Temple of the Dog (6/10)

Read the review.

 

39. Spacemen 3: Recurring (6/10)

Read the review.

 

40. Beat Happening: Dreamy (6/10)

I have tried to like this album for a long, long time. I still don’t.

It’s undeniably catchy and it’s full of ear worms.

But to me, this is just a louder, maybe a little more deliberately detached version of Young Marble Giants. And I’d rather listen to that band.

 

41. Primal Scream: Screamadelica (6*/10)

There are two hurdles for me with this album:

  1. The first one is that I do not like dance music. Actually, I kind of hate it. I hate music that appears to me to be solely created to dance to for one very simple reason: I don’t dance. And so I find music that’s made specifically to aid people in losing themselves in dancing to be mindless. And I find the dance music that has been integrated here to be particularly mind-numbing.
  2. The second issue I have is that I like my alternative rock loud and at least a little bit original But the rock songs on this album remind me of a lesser Black Crowes, rather than alternative rock.
But despite this, I want to understand why this record is such a big deal. Some people insist it is one of the most important albums of the 1990s. So this is something like my 7th listen to it over the years, perhaps even more. I still don’t like it and I think the only way I’ll really ever fully get it is if I listen to other dance music, which is not something I want to do

 

42. Steve Earle and the Dukes: Shut Up and Die Like an Aviator (5/10)

The opening radio / tv snippets make this sound like we’re about to listen to a concept album.

Of course, we’re not; it’s a live album. The songs I know sound pretty much like their studio equivalents – save for his voice which, as others have noted, is shot – and though the band shows some impressive versatility – particularly Earle himself – when they stretch out on the odd track they don’t sound much better than the average bar band. That’s not what I want out of a live album, personally.

On the other hand, because of his voice, it sounds rawer than it might have, which sort of deceives your ear into thinking the songs really are different. And most aren’t. (Also, they were doctored for sound quality afterwards, which is disappointing.)

An odd document. Recorded in London Ontario, amazingly enough.

43. Julian Cope: Peggy Suicide (5/10)

There’s nothing about this that’s special in any way.

(Review to come, maybe.)

 

Not Ranked: The Juilliard String Quartet: The Four String Quartets by Elliott Carter (10/10)

The first quartet has to be considered one of the great mid century masterpieces in so-called high art music. It is an astounding combination of forwarding thinking and lyricism. The second is also pretty spectacular. The third is a revelation as it seems like finally a composer was listening to free jazz! I am less impressed by the fourth, which sort of feels like three take 2. The piano / violin duo is initially less obviously awesome than the quartets but it is actually rewarding as well. An absolutely essential piece of “modern” music. Amazing.

 

Not Ranked: Ensemble 2e2m et al.: Vox Humana?, Finale, Furst Igor Strawinsky by Mauricio Kagel (8/10)

Read the review.

 

Not Ranked: Vancouver Symphony Orchestra et al.: The Seasons; Valses de Concert by Alexander Glazunov (8/10)

The Seasons is a pretty great ballet (well, I am making an assumption about the choreography) that is helped by the fact that it predates the great, revolutionary ballets of the early 20th century. This music is absolutely Romantic, one might even call it unapologetically romantic, but that is looking at this whole thing with a great deal of hindsight, as arguably Romantic music was quite killed off as something significant until the end of the decade (at the very earliest). I don’t know my ballets at all, but it’s a nice piece. It’s certainly not among my favourite Romantic compositions (or even among my favourite Russian Romantic compositions), but I see the appeal, I really do.
The waltzes seem very traditional to me, almost classical. The second in particular sounds like something else I just cannot place. (Or perhaps I have heard it before.) They are, on the one hand, obvious filler, having little to do with the ballet in question. But I guess they have to included somewhere, and an orchestra might as well perform them as an encore or something.