It started on a Tuesday… and the year would see the first Gulf War, Dr. Jack Kevorkian being barred from performing assisted suicides, the IRA launching a mortar attack on 10 Downing Street, the Unrepresented Nations and People Organization formed, the Visegard Agreement signed, the Rodney King beating, Armenia, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, and Ukraine amongst countries becoming independent from the collapsing Soviet Union, curfews being imposed on black towns in South Africa, Germany regaining complete independence, the Treaty of Asunción signed, the Dow Jones closing above 3000, Edith Cresson becoming France’s first female president, Queen Elizabeth II becoming the first British monarch to address the US Congress, Boris Yeltsin voted president of Russia, the South African Parliament repealing the Population Registration Act, Yugoslavia collapsing, the Warsaw Pact dissolved, Mike Tyson arrested for rape, Bill Clinton announcing he would run for president, Poland holding its first free parliamentary elections, Australia winning the Rugby World Cup, the KGB closing down, hostage Terry A. Anderson released after seven years in Beirut… and the list goes on and on.
1991 was a year that would change the world thereafter, and it is no surprise that the world of music would change with it in ways that we still experience.
Like any historical reality, the seeds of 1991 were sown in the past, especially in the 1980s. And music, like most art, is reactionary and would react to the world around it. I have come to see the 1980s as a neo-gilded age: though we were conscious of worldwide recession and the closing years of the Cold War, there was always this veneer that was smeared on everything. Politicians and CEOs, with their Orwellian double talk, would paint a picture of progress, of immerging from hard times through unity, and a new wave of nationalism started to soar. Musically, the second British invasion of the American mainstream took place (Duran Duran, Tears for Fears, Wham!…), and music moved away from straightforward production to glitzy, gilded production. The technology that would become the modern personal computer and sequencers were really invested in during the 80s, and this would have an impact on how music was produced and performed. New wave, electropop, hip-hop, and later industrial would rise and start to represent the “cutting edge.” Gilded, possessing veneer (computers sounding like instruments and band), these musicians would even mirror the double talk (entendres) of the politicians: did you really think that “Safety Dance” was about dancing?
The 1980s was a decade of conservatism, rejecting social, economic, and political ideologies of the previous generation. The dominant western powers were both conservative led, with Reagan in the USA and Thatcher in the UK. All over the world like never before, with the loosening of restrictions, corporations grew (bubbles in the economy created), and corporations would start to yield more power than individuals. This is a trend that continues till today, where the Supreme Court of the United States decided that corporations enjoy the same right to freedom of expression as individuals. And the music of the era, even with much of its political and social criticism, mirrored quite often the glitz (yes, glitz, Reagan was a Hollywood star), gilder, and double talk of the political/corporate institution. Music, which was always an industry, started to shift its attention more and more to numbers, not talent; just look at the proportion of one-hit-wonders in the decade – it’s astounding. But in a worldwide recession, the corporations started to feel the need to really protect their investment, which is the recording of albums. The practice of dropping artists that did not sell a specific amount of units started to become the norm by the end of the decade, as opposed to nurturing them. If this were always the case, bands such as The Cure and Depeche Mode would have been dropped after their debuts, but both were nurtured instead and remain two of the most iconic bands in history. Essentially, numbers were becoming more important than talent and this is most evident in the amount of releases by artists; no longer were they expected to release yearly or every eighteen-months, they were expected to tour and tour and tour until the required units were sold.
With disco and glam, in their original form, overthrown, ignored, and/or reinvented (house rising from the ashes of disco), in the 1980s the music industry had to invent new ways of generating profits and exposure; they succeeded, as seen/heard by the first video played by MTV, “Video Killed the Radio Star.” The rise of MTV would revolutionize music. It was no longer just about the song, but also the look. Slowly, high and unique fashion statements and youth would dominate the pop charts, and not just youth, but “fit” youth, as if there is no overweight talent. Essentially, by the close of the 80s, MTV was one long, twenty-four-hour commercial. All that aside, MTV caught up with the need to sustain itself, came up with various concept shows (playing videos was not enough or really necessary), and one show in particular would change how we envisioned bands: in 1989, MTV launched “MTV Unplugged.”
I used to love “MTV Unplugged,” until I really realized what the effects of the show really were. At the end of it all, you were a real band if you could perform acoustically as a band. Not drag in an orchestra, not add a slew of musicians, but the band, coming out, bare-boned, and performing; the show would gain momentum in 1991 to 1994. It was the first step in rejecting a lot of the 80s ideas about music, in line with what came in the 90s. The glitz was gone, the veneer was gone, and soon too the double talk (until Clinton gets caught with his zipper unfastened). This was the symbolic death knell for electronic musicians, like Petshop Boys, who disappeared from the pop charts, who could not perform in this format. And then started the rise of musicians that mirrored the world of the 1990s: less glitz, corporate dominated, straightforward lyrics (poetic lyrics were rarely acceptable), and pre-packaged for consumption. New wave and electropop would be pushed into the underground for close to a decade, hip-hop would reinvent itself to be more “real,” more “credible.” And industrial artists, like Nine Inch Nails, would embrace their rock influences over their electronic and carve out a small niche for themselves. Raw emotion was favored over high production or virtuosos in all genres, just listen to Braxton’s “Unbreak My Heart” – pure emotional power. And concerts were supposed to be just that, concerts, not spectacles. Madonna, the master of live spectacles, would not tour post 1993 till 2001, for even her brand of high antics were rejected.
And to distinguish itself from what came before, the 1990s would invent the term “alternative,” whatever the hell that means. Have you ever seen which artists are lumped under alternative? Most of them have nothing in common with one another… at least not on the surface. The only thing they have in common is the demographic they are being marketed to by the record industry: white, suburban, 13-30 years old. (It is nothing like labels like “disco” that defines a sonic tradition or “shoegaze” a scene and aesthetic concept.) The 90s would tread straightforward for six years, before artists like The Prodigy would rise from the underground to prove that their was viability beyond the “mainstream.” And as the world went from the liberal 90s to the conservative oughts (00’s), political policies and artistic expression would return to the 80s for cues. Ironic, really when you think about the 80s and 90s: in the mainstream, when conservative power is in rule, the most glitzy music is produced, while when liberals are in power, the most bare-boned music is produced as a general rule of thumb. Even the East Coast vs. West Coast saga of hip-hop started to fade into history, as that sort of credibility was no longer necessary.
But it was 1991 that set the rest of the decade into motion. From glitz to bare, from nurturing talent to caring exclusively about numbers and investments, the future from this point on seemed glib for music. However, something gave way, as the late oughts and now (whatever we will call this decade) seems more apt to not reject anything, but rather reinvent and assimilate – genre-bending is in, along side revivals – and this is a new phenomena to figure out a decade from now. (And no, I do not believe it is because of lack of talent.)
What follows are retrospectives of five amazing albums from 1991: from synthpop to grunge, from Britpop to shoegaze, these five albums either reified and developed everything that was going on in music or blatantly rejected it outright and kept a candle burning for the following generation to rediscover what had been rejected. Enjoy them, treasure them, for they are not just albums, but landmarks in musical history. Enjoy!
Queen: “Innuendo” (5 February 1991)
Rock… macho bravado… straight (if not straight-laced)… Queen hoodwinked everyone. Choosing a name like “Queen” had many connotations, not least of all of Freddie Mercury (né Farrokh Bulsara) being gay himself, which he may have been private about, but was no secret. Through a career spanning close to twenty-years as a band, Queen proved one really important thing: good music trumps anything else. Queen, now, has become one of the most iconic bands in history, on level with The Beatles, David, Bowie, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, and The Rolling Stones – their fingerprints are everywhere! It is impossible to listen to music from any decade from the 1970s till now and not see their fingerprints all over, from rock to pop, from electropop to punk rock. And what made Queen such a phenomena? They did not stick to the rules of music. They were one of the first major acts willing to genre-bend when no one else was willing to. They were willing to experiment and never became complacent; they always kept a feeling of urgency to their music that made them relevant. And having the best frontman ever did not hurt either. Surely, no man has ever stepped on a stage that had the captivating power that Mercury had during a performance. The only person who comes close (damn close actually) is Annie Lennox, whose performance of “Under Pressure” alongside David Bowie at the Wembley Stadium in honor of Freddie Mercury proves that these two were and continue to be worlds away from all other performers.
Why is it a must? “Innuendo” is the last album to be recorded with Freddie Mercury, who past nine months after release. Mercury, who was already rumored to be HIV positive by the time of his death, finally made a public announcement of this fact twenty-four hours before his death. “Innuendo,” in many ways, is a living and breathing testimony of Mercury’s illness and its effects on the bands members and friends. In “I’m Going Slightly Mad,” Mercury sings, “I’m one card short of a full deck, I’m not quite the shilling. One wave short of a shipwreck, I’m not at my usual top billing. I’m coming down with a fever, I’m really out to sea. This kettle is boiling over…” And throughout the album, there are many other encoded moments such as this one. Musically, the album veers between hard and soft, 70s and 80s, but always being signature Queen. And in many ways, this is the last great album of a previous generation. Post-1991, the thriving musicians of the 80s would become old school, and a new breed of musicians would rise to the top. However, unlike the vast majority of “this old school,” Queen’s influence on music was already seen… and continues: Anthrax, Ben Folds Five, Green Day, Katy Perry, Keane, Manic Street Preachers, Metallica, Muse, Nirvana, Radiohead, and Smashing Pumpkins to name a few. This album on one hand may be the closing of an era, but on the other begins a new one where echoes from the past filter through for a new generation to embrace.
Track Listing (CD Version):
2. I’m Going Slightly Mad
4. I Can’t Live with You
5. Don’t Try So Hard
6. Ride the Wild Wind
7. All God’s People
8. These Are the Days of Our Lives
10. The Hitman
12. The Show Must Go On
Keep up with Queen an their homepage, MySpace, and Facebook.
From the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert here is Queen, George Michael and Lisa Stansfield’s performance of “These Are The Days of Our Lives” and Queen, Elton John, and Tony Iommi’s performance of “The Show Must Go On.” Both clips from their YouTube Channel: queenofficial.
Blur: “Leisure” (26 August 1991)
1991 saw the rise of Britpop, led by Blur. Foregoing the 80s, Britpop reached back to the British Invasion of the 60s for their main influences, while infusing some glam and punk rock in different degrees. Out with the mainstay (the 80s) and in with the new, Britpop artists, though most famous in their native UK and continental Europe, would make waves in the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South America. This new “style” of music would be seized upon by the corporate music establishment and pushed, pushed, and pushed on audiences for a few years. And like any of these corporate trends, what seems to follow after the initial trend is discovered is crap, so much of it just reinvented and prepackaged by the industry to turn over a few bucks quickly. But if you go back to the origins, you more often than not discover some incredible talent, like Blur. Forming in 1988 in London, originally the band would also infuse some elements of shoegaze and Madchester, setting them apart from their fellow Britpop artists. In 1990, Blur would tour the UK opening for The Cramps, release “She’s So High,” and create a new buzz in town. Years later, there would be a great rivalry with Oasis, two minor hits in the USA (“Girls & Boys” and “Song 2”), quite a few side acts (The Ailerons; Fat Les; The Good, the Bad & the Queen; Gorillaz; and Me Me Me) a break-up, a summer tour reunion in 2010, confirmation that the summer reunion was all that fans were going to get, and then a new single, their first in seven years, on 17 April 2010, “Fool’s Day.” So what exactly the future holds for Blur is unknown (though I am personally hoping for a new album!), these four guys have already blazed a trail for artists to follow.
Why is it a must? It is the first major Britpop release; though it would only chart in the UK (#7), “Leisure” lays down the foundation and path that other artists would benefit from, including Echobelly, Oasis, Sleeper, and Suede. The album starts off with their first single, “She’s So High,” the perfect example of Blur’s music: simple, catchy, poppy, and Damon Albarn’s unmistakable voice. The albums straddles both the dirgeful and gloomy (“Wear Me Down” – “I can’t say I love you easily, but you wouldn’t want me to, so I’d rather say nothing and leave it up to you… then it’s easy to forget…”) and the quintessential Britpop sound (“Bang” – “When all is said and all is done, what was said was never done. Don’t panic, it’s not really worth your while…”). Though Blur would develop into one of the most playful bands of the decade, their debut treads with a savoir-faire that is rare in debut albums. If any album is ground zero for Britpop, “Leisure” is it.
Track Listing UK:
1. She’s So High
3. Slow Down
5. Bad Day
7. There’s No Other Way
9. Come Together
10. High Cool
12. Wear Me Down
Track Listing USA (re-ordered to front load the singles):
1. She’s So Hight
2. There’s No Other Way
4. I Know
5. Slow Down
7. Bad Day
8. High Cool
9. Come Together
12 Wear Me Down
Keep up with Blur at their homepage, MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter (Graham Coxon).
Here are the links for the videos for “She’s So High,” “There’s No Other Way,” and “Bang” from their YouTube Channel: Officialblurchannel.
Slowdive: “Just for a Day” (2 September 1991)
Originally a dirty, dirty word, shoegazing would solidify itself in the 1990s as the heir apparent of post-punk. Though taking its origin in the mid 80s, by 1991 shoegaze would have spawned the likes of Chapterhouse, My Bloody Valentine, and Ride – and this is the year that Slowdive would release their debut album, “Just for a Day.” Formed in Reading in 1989, there are two stories behind the namesake of the band – the first, homage to the Siouxsie and the Banshee’s song (where this blog has gotten its name), and the second (“the official”), from a members dream. With an EP release in 1990, by the time their debut was released, they were dubbed as part of the “scene that celebrates itself” – Steven Sutherland’s sneering phrase for a scene of musicians who seemingly got a long (at least in public), never giving into childish rivalries amongst themselves; go figure, they acted like adults! And though shoegazing would only gain modest mainstream recognition in the UK (non in the USA) as it competed with the dominant Britpop, two decades later it is impossible to not see its influence: The Big Pink, The Horrors, A Place to Bury Strangers, Asobi Seksu, and Silversun Pickups. And Slowdive was one of the bands that were instrumental in developing, expanding, and defining this genre.
Why is it a must? Whenever Slowdive gets mention among fans of shoegaze, inevitably there is someone who says, ““Souvlaki” is the best album ever!” But here are few reasons why I say “Just for a Day” is just as great (or maybe even greater). It still sounds incredible – as urgent and relevant as anything The Horrors or the Big Pink is putting out. The vocals arrangements are some of the most visceral ever, with lyrics as poetically dark as Robert Smith’s: “She flies, she’s gone to ride an angel’s breath, gone to taste a dream. And every time I call her, a shadow crawls away…” (“Celia’s Dream”). Musically, unlike so many other shoegazers, there wasn’t this obvious use-a-lot-of-effects-and-distortion; instead each song has a life of its own, arranged and produced to bring out their own trippy, idiosyncratic world that is so infectious it is easy to get lost in. And unlike their predecessors or decedents, Slowdive was not just paradigm shifting in the music scene in general, they were even iconoclasts to shoegazing itself – and “Just for a Day” is the evidence of it!
1. Spanish Air
2. Celia’s Dream
3. Catch the Breeze
4. Ballad of Sister Sue
5. Erik’s Song
8. The Sadman
Tracks from 2005 Sanctuary Records release second CD
11. Avalyn I
12. Avalyn II
14. She Calls
15. Losing Today
16. Golden Hair
19. Catch the Breeze, Peel Session
20. Shine, Peel Session
21. Golden Hair, Peel Session
Nirvana: “Nevermind” (24 September 1991)
Like Britpop in the UK, grunge in the USA would be seized upon by the corporate music industry as the latest fad in music that you simply had to listen to. Though, unlike Britpop, it was not an immediate seizure. Grunge has its roots in the mid 80s, with bands such as Green River, Soundgarden, and The U-Men. But the album that just ripped through the underground to mainstream was Nirvana’s sophomore album, “Nevermind.” Formed in Aberdeen, Washington USA by Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic, the trio would later include David Grohl on drums and other musicians on stage playing guitar. If any one genre was the antithesis of the 80s mainstream, if any one genre rejected all the glam and glitz of the 80s, it was grunge. But make no mistake, they did not reject aesthetics, they just replaced the old aesthetics with new ones: flannel, blue jeans, bed and long hair, power chords, thick bass lines, and banging drums. And leading the charge was Nirvana, whose fame was in spite of themselves. Cobain and crew never set out to be famous, and record execs had no clue about the windfall they had landed in the band. But once they realized it, the endless and lackluster imitations started to hit the radio waves, but there was and is only one Nirvana.
Why is it a must? One song alone, “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” This is the anthem of a generation: “I’m worse at what I do best, and for this gift I feel blessed. Our little group has always been and always will until the end.” By Cobain’s admission, the song was an attempt to write a song in the style of The Pixies, an obvious influence on many grunge musicians. (By the way, Cobain swore he was unaware of a deodorant called Teen Spirit when writing the song.) “Nevermind” has many other amazing tracks packed into it, including “Come As You Are,” “Breed,” “Lithium,” “Polly,” and “Drain You.” From September 1991 onward, the American music scene radically changed thanks to “Nevermind.” And though I am sure that Cobain had no intention of revolutionizing the mainstream, he did. The only pity was that one too many hacks tried to imitate “Nevermind’s” sonic and visceral power… Reality, an album such as this one is once a generation, and this is the album of that generation and 1991.
1. Smell Like Teen Spirit
2. In Bloom
3. Come As You Are
7. Territorial Pissings
8. Drain You
9. Lounge Act
10. Stay Away
11. On a Plain
12. Something in the Way
13. Endless, Nameless – hidden track on select copies
Here are the videos for “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Come As You Are,” “Lithium,” and “In Bloom” from the NirvanaVEVO YouTube Channel.
Erasure: “Chorus” (14 October 1991)
Treading through the later half of the 80s from obscurity to worldwide fame, Erasure built a pop career on the marriage of Andy Bell’s voice and Vince Clarke’s genius synthpop songwriting. From their debut album in 1986, “Wonderland,” the band employed guitars on various tracks, include “Who Needs Love Like That?” “Sometimes,” “Victim of Love,” and “A Little Respect.” From playing small clubs to playing arenas, this small duo, often doubted and ignored by the press, developed a fan base that remains loyal after two-and-a-half decades. Their claim to fame: strong songwriting. The songs are simple, catchy, and easy to remember, with beats nearing dance ready (sometimes full on dance), and devoid of demure or gloom. Anyone who knows Erasure’s music would immediately admit that even when making political (“The Circus”) or social (“Chains of Love”) statements, it is done without harassing the listener, without being preachy, and without losing their pop friendliness. And in a decade that rejected electropop in general, Erasure kept a sparkling candle burning for a future generation/decade to embrace.
Why is it a must? Erasure and their album “Chorus” would represent everything that grunge and its macho bravado wasn’t. Instead of reformatting and introducing new instrumental elements, like live drums and more guitars (which Depeche Mode would do in the grunge era), “Chorus” is the first Erasure release that is solely electronic – pure glitz, very glossy, and highly produced, the antithesis of the trend in 1991. There is no prepackaged grunge anxiety, instead a lovefest, flirtation, and personally sensitive introspection, all accomplished while dancing. And if this wasn’t an affront to the straight, straight-laced male dominated music industry, Andy Bell queers it up in the single “Love to Hate You”: “For every Casanova that appears, my sense of hesitation disappears…” And in the Greek inspired “Siren Song,” Erasure delivers their most powerful message about how to live life: “Try to feel the splendour of it all, embrace the honesty of nightfall; try to feel the anguish of it all, wrap yourself up in every facet of emotion.” (By the way, they filmed the tour to the album (The Phantasmagorical Entertainment Tour) and released it on DVD: “The Tank, the Swan, and the Balloon.” This was not a concert, but full out-and-out spectacle, in two acts, multiple costumes (Bell in a frock in the shape of the globe at one point), while covering some ABBA classics (including “SOS”), “Over the Rainbow,” and “Stand By Your Man.”)
2. Waiting for the Day
4. Breath of Life
5. Am I Right?
6. Love to Hate You
7. Turn the Love to Anger
8. Siren Songs
9. Perfect Stranger
Keep up with Erasure at their homepage, MySpace, and Facebook.
Here are their videos for “Love to Hate You” and “Am I Right?” from their MySpace video channel.
Love To Hate You (Video)
Erasure | MySpace Music Videos
Am I Right? (Video)
Erasure | MySpace Music Videos