1991 was a transformative year for rock music, a time when alternative rock and heavy metal entered a new era of commercial dominance. Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden ushered in the explosion of Seattle grunge alongside blockbuster albums by Metallica, R.E.M. and Red Hot Chili Peppers, to say nothing of influential indie classics by My Bloody Valentine, Primal Scream and Slint, or SPIN’s album of the year, Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque.
But while 1991’s hits set the agenda for alternative rock for the rest of the decade, the year was brimming over with fascinating career footnotes and debuts from other promising new bands. In England, the music press was excitedly hyping up genres like shoegaze, baggy, and whatever “grebo” was, while American indie bands like fIREHOSE, the Meat Puppets, and Screaming Trees hopped to major labels. Icons like Neil Young and David Bowie channeled the influences of a new generation, while short-lived bands like School of Fish and EMF enjoyed brief moments in the sun.
Here are 30 albums that will turn 30 this year, or already have.
Big Audio Dynamite II – The Globe
Mick Jones rebooting his post-Clash band as Big Audio Dynamite II in the early ‘90s may have been, as the saying goes, a big audio mistake. But The Globe became the biggest album of the band’s career, going gold in the U.S. and topping the UK singles charts, with an eclectic sound reflecting the rise of acid house and British rave culture. Jones reworked his own songs for the album’s two big hits, remixing BAD II’s 1990 track “Change of Atmosphere” into “Rush,” and sampling The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go” for The Globe’s title track.
Blur – Leisure
Whether they were just early to the Britpop party or late to the Madchester party, Blur’s debut album showed a promising band who weren’t quite right for the moment. “We arrived in America the day that Nirvana’s album Nevermind came out,” bassist Alex James recalled in the Netflix docuseries This Is Pop. “That record changed everything, and we arrived bankrupt with the old agenda. It’s kind of a buzzkill. All the music press were talking about grunge, it was the latest scene, British music was completely irrelevant.” Later in the decade, of course, Blur would conquer the U.K. and in America with 1997’s ubiquitous “Song 2.”
Elvis Costello – Mighty Like a Rose
Elvis Costello nearly released Mighty Like a Rose under his birth name, Declan McManus, before his label persuaded him to keep his more recognizable stage name. But the album sounds less like a reboot than a sequel to his 1989 comeback album Spike, featuring many of the same collaborators (Paul McCartney, T-Bone Burnett, Mitchell Froom, and Marc Ribot). The single “The Other Side of Summer” hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Modern Rock chart, but he’d only manage one more entry on the chart before alternative radio put Costello out to pasture.
Marshall Crenshaw – Life’s Too Short
Detroit singer/songwriter Marshall Crenshaw’s sixth album Life’s Too Short was his final major-label release, and “Better Back Off” was just a minor hit. But the Ed Stasium-produced album is full of the kind of literate guitar pop that made Crenshaw a star in the ‘80s, with catchy gems like “Delilah” and “Fantastic Planet of Love.”
Crowded House – Woodface
Neil Finn founded Crowded House in the mid-‘80s after the dissolution of Split Enz, the band founded by his older brother Tim Finn. In the early ‘90s, the New Zealand siblings became bandmates again when Tim Finn joined Crowded House. Several songs they’d written as the Finn Brothers songs were repurposed for Woodface, including “Weather With You,” one of the band’s biggest international hits. In the U.S., however, the only song that garnered significant modern rock radio airplay was “Chocolate Cake,” a barbed satire of American culture.
EMF – Schubert Dip
When “baggy” dance-rock took over the UK at the turn of the decade, kings of the Madchester scene like the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays barely made a dent on the American charts. But Epsom Mad Funkers, a band formed in 1989 and named after a New Order fan club, were the latecomers who wound up with the only baggy track to top the Hot 100, sampling comedy superstar Andrew Dice Clay on “Unbelievable” (although Jesus Jones got close with “Right Here, Right Now” that ended up at No. 2). The contradictory follow-up single “I Believe” was not as popular, and EMF soon faded from the charts.
fIREHOSE – Flyin’ the Flannel
By the end of 1991, flannel shirts had become synonymous with Seattle grunge. But checkered flannel was already a ubiquitous staple of underground rock fashion, as evidenced by the April release of the veteran California punk band’s major-label debut. Flyin’ the Flannel featured the band’s cover of Daniel Johnston’s ‘Walking the Cow,” as well as songs bassist Mike Watt co-wrote with his wife, Black Flag bassist Kira Roessler, and illustrator Raymond Pettibon.
Fishbone – The Reality of My Surroundings
Fishbone’s third and highest-charting album is a kinetic powder keg of ska and hard rock. In a just world, it could’ve been as much a punk-funk blockbuster as Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik. While on tour in support of the album, Fishbone gave one of the greatest Saturday Night Live musical performances in the show’s history, blazing through an incredible rendition of “Sunless Saturday.”
Fugazi – Steady Diet of Nothing
Steady Diet of Nothing may be the least loved record in Fugazi’s celebrated catalog, and even the band had mixed feelings about their first self-produced album. But the album’s dry sound and slower, more bass-driven grooves helped set the template for later triumphs. And the album contributed some indisputable classics to the Fugazi canon, including the live staples “Reclamation” and “Long Division.”
The Golden Palominos – Drunk With Passion
Drummer Anton Fier’s long and varied career in experimental rock and jazz has included stints with the Lounge Lizards, Pere Ubu, John Zorn, The Feelies, and the Voidoids. As the leader of the Golden Palominos, Fier made nine albums with a rotating lineup of vocalists and musicians, with Drunk With Passion being one of the band’s most star-studded projects. Michael Stipe sings on “Alive and Living Now,” Bob Mould sings “Dying From the Inside Out,” and Richard Thompson and Bill Laswell play in the album’s backing ensemble, with Fier’s unique ear for writing and arranging as the uniting thread.
Susanna Hoffs – When You’re A Boy
When the Bangles split up in 1989, shortly after scoring their last No. 1 single with “Eternal Flame,” it was partly due to intraband tensions over the media’s focus on Susanna Hoffs as the star of the group. But when Hoffs released her solo debut two years later, she couldn’t quite carry the group’s commercial momentum into the new decade, with the lead single “My Side of the Bed” barely grazing the Top 40. When You’re A Boy is a solid display of Hoffs’ Paisley Underground roots, though, with a set of jangly ‘60s-inspired songs like “Its Lonely Out Here” and a cover of David Bowie’s “Boys Keep Swinging.”
Hole – Pretty On The Inside
Hole formed after Eric Erlandson responded to Courtney Love’s ad that stated “I want to start a band. My influences are Big Black, Sonic Youth, and Fleetwood Mac.” They’d explore their Fleetwood Mac jones eventually, but on Hole’s debut album co-produced by Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, the noisier influences won out. “Teenage Whore” topped the UK Independent Singles Chart, but by the time Hole toured in support of Pretty On the Inside, Love was already performing more tuneful future hits like “Violet” and “Doll Parts.”
The Magnetic Fields – Distant Plastic Trees
Before songwriter Stephin Merritt shared the band’s vocal duties with a rotating cast of singers, Susan Anway sang lead on the first two Magnetic Fields albums. Distant Plastic Trees featured one of the most enduring Magnetic Fields songs, “100,000 Fireflies,” which was famously covered by Superchunk, who later signed the band to Merge Records and reissued the album. On September 8, the Magnetic Fields’ social media accounts announced Anway’s passing. “It is with great sadness that we announce the death of our first lead singer, Susan Anway,” the statement read. “She was a lovely person and will be missed by all of us.”
Meat Puppets – Forbidden Places
Forbidden Places is a classic example of a veteran indie band being misunderstood by the suits on their major-label debut. After six wide-ranging albums for SST Records that included, among other sounds, the Arizona band’s skewed cowpunk take on country, London Recordings put the band in the studio with Dwight Yoakam producer Pete Anderson. The polish on Forbidden Places betrays little of the wild power trio sound that made the Meat Puppets a major influence on Nirvana. However, the single “Sam” was bizarrely brilliant, with Curt and Cris Kirkwood harmonizing on rapid-fire triplet-heavy verses something like a proto-Bone Thugs-N-Harmony.
Mercury Rev – Yerself Is Steam
Mercury Rev’s self-produced debut album is a shaggy psych-rock head trip that foreshadows the cinematic grandeur of the band’s later albums with bassist Dave Fridmann taking the lead on production. Yerself Is Steam features the band’s short-lived early lineup with flautist Suzanne Thorpe, and original singer David Baker sharing vocal duties with longtime frontman Jonathan Donahue.
The Nation of Ulysses – 13-Point Program To Destroy America
Before The Nation of Ulysses had even released its first album, frontman Ian Svenonius was profiled in Sassy Magazine as the “sassiest boy in America” in 1990. The Dischord Records debut that followed is an explosive document of the Washington, D.C. band’s leftist politics, deft eye for cultural satire, and James Canty’s buzzsaw guitar riffs.
Ned’s Atomic Dustbin – God Fodder
Leading the short-lived and tenuous “grebo” scene minted by the UK music press alongside Pop Will Eat Itself, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin released their first and most successful album in 1991, featuring the hits “Kill Your Television” and “Happy.” The quintet got its thick and danceable sound via two bass guitarists, with Alex Griffin playing higher melodic lines and Matt Cheslin playing more traditional basslines.
The Nymphs – The Nymphs
The Nymphs were a highly combustible L.A. band that broke up just a year after releasing their self-titled debut on Geffen Records. The album is an artifact of a brief moment when punk, glam, and goth rock could converge in a tornado of big guitars and big hair, and Iggy Pop lent spoken word vocals to the song “Supersonic.” Over the next few years, Nymphs frontwoman Inger Lorre became a close collaborator of Jeff Buckley, co-writing a song he’d record, “Yard of Blonde Girls.”
John Prine – The Missing Years
John Prine only began winning Grammys after going indie, taking home Best Contemporary Folk Album for The Missing Years, released on his own label Oh Boy Records. It was also one of his most star-studded albums, featuring appearances by Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and Bonnie Raitt. But the album is at its best when John Prine is solo and showcasing his wry sense of humor on “Jesus, the Missing Years.”
Queen – Innuendo
Innuendo was Freddie Mercury’s heroic farewell, released less than a year before his death from AIDS complications at the end of 1991. Hearing him sing “The Show Must Go On” with power and conviction as his health was deteriorating is both inspiring and heartbreaking, rock’s greatest frontman going down swinging. It’s a little hard to believe that this chapter of Mercury’s life was left out of the band’s hit biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. Innuendo’s epic six-minute title track topped the singles charts in the UK, but in the U.S., where Queen had been on a commercial decline for a decade, the album’s release was barely noticed.
Saint Etienne – Foxbase Alpha
Saint Etienne’s UK chart breakthrough, a house music cover of Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” was sung by Moira Lambert. But by the time the band completed its debut album, released in 1991 in the UK but not until early 1992 in the states, the classic Saint Etienne lineup had fallen into place, with Sarah Cracknell singing the rest of the songs on Foxbase Alpha. Saint Etienne’s sound, cutting edge Roland synths and breakbeats mixed with classic pop kitsch, quickly became the standard-bearer for the burgeoning indie dance scene.
Screaming Trees – Uncle Anesthesia
The fourth Screaming Trees album was a transitional record, their first for a major label and their last with original drummer Mark Pickerel. The production by Terry Date and Chris Cornell preserved the Trees’ psych-rock sound instead of nudging them in a heavier direction like Soundgarden, and “Bed of Roses” was a minor radio hit. The album mostly feels like a dress rehearsal for their mainstream breakthrough, Sweet Oblivion, that would follow a year later. But “Caught Between” is one of the band’s most beautiful songs, a perfect distillation of Gary Lee Connor’s roaring guitar tone and Mark Lanegan’s raspy, expressive voice.
School of Fish – School of Fish
The L.A. quartet School of Fish was one of alt-rock’s great one-hit wonders of the early ‘90s, with their debut single “3 Strange Days” standing as a perfect snapshot of the bright, jangly sound of modern rock radio just before the grunge era. Their self-titled album was full of similarly catchy gems, but School of Fish split up after their second album missed the charts in 1994. Frontman Josh Clayton-Felt tragically died of cancer in 2000, at just 32 years old, and in 2020 the surviving members of the band reunited for a new recording of “3 Strange Days.”
Slowdive – Just for a Day
A couple of months before My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless was unleashed, Creation Records released another album that became a shoegaze touchstone for the ages, Slowdive’s full-length debut. The fickle UK music press that had hyped Slowdive’s early EPs gave Just for a Day a cool reception, but songs like “Catch the Breeze” and “The Ballad of Sister Sue” represented an influential intersection of shoegaze and dream pop.
Thinking Fellers Union 282 – Lovelyville
The third album by Thinking Fellers Union 282 was their first for Matador Records, bringing the San Francisco band’s very unique brand of noise rock to a slightly wider audience. Lovelyville alternates six-minute epics like “Nail in the Head” and “More Glee” with shorter vignettes and a lo-fi cover of the Sugarloaf hit “Green-Eyed Lady.” A decade later, the band was namechecked in Jonathan Franzen’s best-selling novel The Corrections.
Throwing Muses – The Real Ramona
When Throwing Muses made its fourth album, the Rhode Island band’s original lineup had begun to fray, with bassist Leslie Langston leaving in 1990. But before guitarist Tanya Donnelly left to start her own band, Belly, she contributed two great songs, “Not Too Soon” and “Honeychain,” to The Real Ramona that demonstrated that she was growing into songwriter as formidable as Throwing Muses frontwoman Kristin Hersh.
Tin Machine – Tin Machine II
David Bowie reinvented himself many times, but only once did he actually take the step of pausing his solo career to become a member of a band. In the late ‘80s, just a few years after the biggest album of his career, Bowie formed Tin Machine with guitarist Reeves Gabrels and, oddly, a rhythm section comprised of the two sons of comedy icon Soupy Sales. The band’s brief run was widely regarded as an expensive misstep, although it can be a kick to hear Bowie reenergized by his love of insurgent American alt-rock – as Gabrels later said, “We took Michael Jackson money for a Pixies album, which is only going to piss people off.” The band’s second album, which included a cover of Roxy Music’s “If There Is Something,” was supported by a Saturday Night Live appearance, but sold even worse than the first, and Bowie soon resumed releasing solo albums.
Trip Shakespeare – Lulu
Trip Shakespeare formed in the mid-‘80s at the height of the Minneapolis rock scene’s renaissance, and by the end of the decade had landed a major label deal. Brothers Matt and Dan Wilson’s Beatlesque tunes and lush vocal harmonies never found a wide audience outside Minnesota, but Lulu belongs in the conversation alongside Jellyfish as one of the best power pop albums of the early ‘90s. Trip Shakespeare didn’t last long after Lulu was released – they were dropped from A&M amidst recording a covers collection for their fifth album, and soon split up. But by the end of the decade, Dan Wilson and bassist John Munson finally landed platinum success with their next band, Semisonic.
Violent Femmes – Why Do Birds Sing?
On their fifth album, the Violent Femmes dragged their proudly acoustic approach to punk rock into the distortion pedal-obsessed ‘90s, and wound up with “American Music,” their most enduring song since their classic 1983 debut. But it was the last album by the original trio, with drummer Victor DeLorenzo soon exiting the band, and later occasionally rejoining to tour.
Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Arc
In 1991, Neil Young took Sonic Youth on tour as his opening act, with their noisy feedback-filled sets polarizing Young’s fans. But the band’s influence rubbed off on him: Young showed Thurston Moore an experimental film which edited together the beginning and ends of songs from Crazy Horses’ performances into a collage, and Moore suggested it could be an album. That album, Arc, was released as a companion to a more conventional live album, Weld. It’s one of the most unique albums in Young’s catalog, a 35-minute whirlwind of roaring amps and exploding drums, with brief, haunting passages of Young singing parts of “Like A Hurricane” and “Love and Only Love.”