Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler, teacher, scientist; Published author & Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published February 22nd 2021
One of the best years in music revisited
30 years ago! How did that happen?
1991 is a difficult year in music. Not because of the dearth of tracks worth listening to, but because it was actually overflowing in good music. While it is not my favourite year for music, it is still one that is amazingly difficult to narrow down. So much phenomenal music was released in 1991. In fact, I was talking online to a music critic from the USA and, even though he was born in 1986, he still considers 1991 the best year for music ever, with 1967 his personal close second. And, looking at all the music I have, I was stunned how much I my own collection came from that year. It was, indeed, great.
So, this resulted in an obscenely huge list of songs. I have done insanely long honourable mentions lists in the past, but, looking back, that seems almost a cop-out. 1991 and its music deserves something more than that. Therefore, this is the first of three columns. This is the best songs of the year. Next will be cover versions of 1991, and there were a few. Finally, I am going to do Australian songs of 1991 (covers and originals) because Australian music put forth a lot of great stuff in 1991.
Now, I am looking at when the song was first released. Many songs that charted in 1991 and did well came from albums released in 1990, or the songs themselves were released in 1990 and took a while to gain traction. Charts are never a great thing to rely on for release date ('Tainted Love' by Soft Cell re-charted in 1991; 'Dreams' by Fleetwood Mac charted for the third time in 2020). So, if you are wondering where 'The Horses' by Daryl Braithwaite is, the song might have been released as a single in 1991, but the album came out in 1990. Sorry.
Okay, the rest of the rules. I have to like the song. Obviously. One song per artist in the main list. No live tracks. No re-releases.
And, with that in mind, here's the honourable mentions: 'Black Or White' by Michael Jackson; 'Calling Elvis' by Dire Straits; 'Come As You Are' by Nirvana; 'Cry For Help' by Rick Astley; 'Don't Cry' by Guns N' Roses (this was so close to being the GNR track in the main list…); 'Estranged' by Guns N' Roses; 'Even Better Than The Real Thing' by U2; 'Everything About You' by Ugly Kid Joe (another close call); 'Get In The Ring' by Guns N' Roses; 'Give It Away' by Red Hot Chili Peppers; 'Hazard' by Richard Marx (yes… don't judge); 'Headlong' by Queen; 'Hey, Stoopid!' by Alice Cooper; 'I Can't Dance' by Genesis; 'I'm Going Slightly Mad' by Queen; 'Jesus Christ Pose' by Soundgarden (another one so very close); 'Jesus He Knows Me' by Genesis; 'Joyride' by Roxette (vastly under-rated band); 'Just Like You' by Robbie Nevil; 'Little Miss Can't Be Wrong' by Spin Doctors; 'Live Your Life Be Free' by Belinda Carlisle (she is so good); 'Mysterious Ways' by U2; 'Nothing Else Matters' by Metallica; 'People Are Still Having Sex' by LaTour; 'Pump It (Nice An' Hard)' by Icy Blu; 'Saltwater' by Julian Lennon; 'The Globe' by Big Audio Dynamite II; 'The Unforgiven' by Metallica; 'Under The Bridge' by Red Hot Chili Peppers; 'Wild Hearted Son' by The Cult; 'You Could Be Mine' by Guns N' Roses. Whew! I mean, look at that list already! Great year, huh?
Well, now we have the 20 songs of the main list! (In alphabetical order.)
'3 A.M. Eternal (Live At The S.S.L.)' by The KLF
This is a song that is a mish-mash of so many different musical styles, thrown together seemingly at random, and yet it works. The female vocals, the rapper, the guitars, the synthesisers, it all comes together in a package that is unforgettable. The KLF were also unforgettable, known for burning a million pound in cash once as a "statement". Their music certainly reflected their strangeness!
'Ballad Of Youth' by Richie Sambora
Before he left the band Bon Jovi, and long before he created some great work with Orianthi in RSO, Richie Sambora released a solo album in 1991 that was great. I bought it on cassette and this song just stuck out to me from the word go. I wore my cassette out at this track. It showed that Jon Bon Jovi was not the only one capable of writing great music.
'Enter Sandman' by Metallica
For many fans of Metallica, the album Metallica (the so-called Black Album) was a let-down. On this, they made their music more palatable for a radio audience and they had their biggest selling album ever. I had all their albums, but I did not mind this new one. And this track especially just did it for me. That little prayer, that driving bass-line, those epic drums – this might have been friendlier for radio, but it was not poodle rock.
'Get Ready For This' by 2 Unlimited
And we jump from metal to light, fluffy Europop. In 1991 I was in my last year of my first university degree and had started my part-time job as an aerobics instructor, and this track was one of my favourites to throw on for classes. I bought the CD Single, and so have 5 different versions (the non-rap orchestral version was best for classes). The pseudo-orchestral music, the driving beat, this is such a great pop song. And, yes, I was known to dance to it at nightclubs as well…
'Heaven's Open' by Michael Oldfield
Michael Oldfield? Yes, for whatever reason, Mike Oldfield decided to put this, his last album for Virgin Records, out under his full name. Oh well, didn't matter – it's still a great album and the title track is one of his finest. It has overtly religious lyrics, and yet I still really like it. Oldfield's guitar rings throughout and the production is wonderful. Little known, and that's a shame.
'I'm Too Sexy' by Right Said Fred
Okay, I'll wait for you to stop laughing at me. Done? Good. This song was everywhere in 1991… and for a few years afterwards. It was a meme before memes were a thing. Even people who had never heard the song knew the phrase "I'm too sexy" and would tell people what they were too sexy for. Despite that, this song is a fun bit of Europop that does not take itself seriously… and 30 years later people still know it.
'Jam' by Michael Jackson
This is my favourite track off Dangerous, with its dance beats, guest rap verse that fits with the song (so rare nowadays) and Jackson in fine form doing what verges on a rock track. On the single, there's a version with serious guitar playing supplied by Slash of GNR. The whole album is a good one, don't get me wrong, but this track just does it for me (another song I have on CD Single).
'Learning To Fly' by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
Country rock done superbly. Tom Petty was a great singer, song-writer and guitar player, and his music is uniformly great. I am trying to get all his albums (some early ones are proving difficult) because I just want to hear everything he has released. And this song, a gentle yet rocking track, is so wonderful.
'Life Is A Highway' by Tom Cochrane
In Australia at least, Tom Cochrane is a one-hit-wonder, and this track is that hit. And, yes, it is a great track. That guitar, the lyrics, the soaring chorus that just demands you join in, this song also made appearances at the night-clubs. Hardly seems danceable, and yet more than a few got up on the floor.
'Losing My Religion' by R.E.M.
I was late to the R.E.M. bandwagon, not discovering them until Document in 1987 (thanks, Bel!), but it was 1991's Out Of Time that dragged me into them more, and this song in particular. The mandolin, the lyrics, everything about it is just magnificent. Still considered one of their best, and with good reason.
'No Son of Mine' by Genesis
A song that came up very recently, this is my favourite track from the We Can't Dance album which had a number of great songs on it. I know a lot of people dismiss Genesis after they became a trio, but when they release songs like this, with powerful lyrics, atmospheric music and a great feel, I think they are still really good.
'November Rain' by Guns N' Roses
It was tough to cut the songs from the two Use Your Illusion albums down to only one, but I eventually went for this epic of song-writing with its magnificent guitar solo, its wonderful lyrics, its great piano playing, its orchestration – epic is definitely the word. And it has a suitably epic video clip to go along with it. This is the pinnacle of 80s hair metal (it might be '91, but this has 80s written all over it); no wonder grunge came along in 1991 and blew them all away. Hair metal could never better this.
'One' by U2
To many people, this song now belongs to Johnny Cash. In fact, I prefer Cash's version over this U2 original. And yet, this song is still great. It's still emotional in the hands of U2, the sort of track that would get concert-goers holding their cigarette lighters (or mobile phone screens) aloft. It is a great song, no matter how you look at it.
'Rush' by Big Audio Dynamite II
Mick Jones left the Clash before their poorly received final album. He was fired for whatever reason, but it seems it mostly came to down to musical differences, as he was already growing out of their scene. He wanted to experiment, and thus was born BAD (and this iteration, BAD2, then just Big Audio), where he could experiment to his heart's content. This track, using loops and samples, guitar effects, synths, is just a great track that works so well. Another cassette single buy for me.
'Smells Like Teen Spirit' by Nirvana
There is a reason why this track started a musical revolution, why it is so highly regarded and why it still resonates to this day – it is so damn good. Kurt Cobain wrote a song that is a classic. The lyrics are obtuse – I think they are about the disaffection of youth – but at the time, unless you were there, you can have no idea how hard this hit. I was 20 years old, and this song just made me look at this new music and… it changed things for a lot of us.
'The Show Must Go On' by Queen
Innuendo was the last Queen album released before Freddie Mercury's death. It is not their best album, but some of the tracks are still amongst the best Queen produced. And my favourite track is this slow, sad piece about how everything must continue. The added poignancy of Freddie's death makes the lyrics even more powerful. Great, great song.
'To Be With You' by Mr. Big
A rock ballad with weird lyrics from a band made up of a bunch of guys well-known in the music scene, bit not really outside of it. It has great harmonies, a wonderful acoustic guitar solo, and then the band faded. Except in Japan where they were huge for years. This is a good song, so I'm glad they had further success.
'Two Princes' by Spin Doctors
Spin Doctors had two hit songs, both in 1991, and I am stunned they didn't do much else. Maybe it's because they sound similar, but I prefer this one, simply because of the story it tells about choosing the good but poor guy over the rich but not nice other.
'Unfinished Sympathy' by Massive Attack
I have trouble describing this song. It is just a sonic blast of great music that sinks in deep and stays there. Hip-hop beats, that voice(!), the effects, the orchestra… it is so very good. Not much more to say – just listen to it.
'Walking In Memphis' by Marc Cohn
Basically, a tour guide of Memphis, this is a tribute to a town that clearly means a lot to Cohn. Led by his piano-playing and string lyrics as well as his smooth voice, this is a great track, and a good one to finish this list off with.
So, twenty songs to celebrate the joys f the music of 1991, and with two more columns to come. 1991 was such an amazing year musically, and now I'm gushing. This has been a fun weekend of listening to so much stuff to get this ready for you.