It's hard to believe that a full 20 years have passed since the year 1991, a calendar milestone that saw the roaring, flannel-clad birth of grunge and the toppling of cheese-pop from the charts for the first time in a generation.
Those of us old enough to remember each have our own stories from the incredible year in music, a period that completely transformed the landscape of pop-culture sonic consumption. From "Smells Like Teen Spirit" reshaping rock in one fell swoop, to Guns N' Roses delivering the staggeringly massive two-part rock opus Use Your Illusion I and II, to the introduction of bands that would go on to shape the next decade as superstars in their own right, 1991 was the turning point that put artistry back on the charts. Industry products like Natalie Cole and Whitney Houston were summarily ejected from the top of the charts, replaced by newcomers Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Soundgarden, Red Hot Chili Peppers and, of course, Nirvana.
Though a thoroughly dominant force through the year and beyond, grunge wasn't the only high point of 1991 by a long shot. It also marked the year that Metallica went mainstream, finding staggering success with the masses-friendly release of their self-titled "Black Album," where U2 hit a new career high with Achtung Baby and N.W.A. would release their blazing final studio album. Additionally, Cypress Hill hit the scene with their self-titled debut, establishing themselves as a musical Cheech & Chongs with Southsider-gangster flavor, while an unknown rapper named Tupac Shakur released his first album, setting the stage for a complete overhaul of the world of hip-hop.
To remind us all of how far we've come (and to make you feel older than dirt), we're running down a list of 20 Awesome Albums Turning 20 in 2011. How many do you own? How many can you remember?
1. NIRVANA – Nevermind
Selling over 26 million copies worldwide, Nevermind was responsible for breaking the dam of the pop-devoted mainstream and ushering in the grunge era. When "Smells Like Teen Spirit" first hit radio, there was an excitement in the air that hadn't been felt in generations. An unstoppable force of change had arrived, change our parents hated and the straight-laced feared. 20 years later, you're still hearing the iconic single on the radio.
2 & 3. GUNS N’ ROSES – Use Your Illusion I & II
GNR's ego-driven downfall came on the heels of this sprawling double-album masterpiece, a rock opera of a magnitude and depth of prowess the world hadn't seen since Queen, and hasn't seen since (sorry, Green Day doesn't count, kids). With orchestral arrangements and larger-than-life ambition bursting from the seams, Axl Rose, Slash and the rest of the GNR crew took the blistering momentum of their astonishing Sunset-Strip-grit debut Appetite For Destruction and leaped farther than anyone could've possibly imagined.
4. METALLICA – Metallica (The Black Album)
Metallica's fifth album was their most accessible, successful and polarizing recording of their careers. The thrash-metal champions shifted gears to a far more commercial sound with their self-titled "Black Album," resulting in tens of millions of new fans around the world, fawning adoration from MTV and legions of jaded metalheads who felt alienated by the band's ambitions. With over 15 million copies sold in the United States, it's the best-selling album of the SoundScan era, and was certified 15x platinum (diamond) by the RIAA.
5. RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS – Blood Sugar Sex Magik
When Rick Rubin and RHCP emerged from Harry Houdini's mansion in the Spring of '91, what they brought out with them would rewrite the often tumultuous marriage of fun and rock forever more. Blood Sugar Sex Magik was a funk-lust overload of boundless energy, beauty and positivity, catapulting the Chili Peppers to staggering success & stardom, which remains stronger than ever today. Numerous smash singles, including the iconic "Give It Away" and "Under The Bridge," keep the album in rotation even today.
6. SOUNDGARDEN – Badmotorfinger
Soundgarden's third album was an evolutionary leap for Seattle's godfathers of grunge, with singles "Outshined" and "Rusty Cage" resonating with MTV crowds and catapulting the band to international fame. While 1994's Superunknown would hold the greatest commercial impact and number of hits, Badmotorfinger will always remain Soundgarden's most aggressively energized release. Just try to listen to "Drawing Flies" or "Jesus Christ Pose" without your heart rate doubling & your old flannel & Doc Martens calling to you from the closet.
7. U2 – Achtung Baby
U2's Grammy-winning seventh studio album was a staggering success, mixing alternative rock and electronic dance music influences into their sound. Produced by Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, Achtung Baby debuted at number one on the US Billboard 200 Top Albums, while topping the charts in many other countries and yielding five hit singles, including "One," "Mysterious Ways" and "The Fly". The album has sold 18 million copies worldwide and is perceived by many to be the final artistically-charged installment from the band prior to their conversion to pop superstars.
8. MICHAEL JACKSON – Dangerous
Just as the full bloom of scrutiny began to take hold in his life, Michael Jackson released his eighth studio album – a tense, aggressive and funk-laden work that became his most stylistically fascinating since Thriller a decade before. From the deliate poignance of "Gone Too Soon," a about teen AIDS casualty Ryan White, to the heavenly choir-laden "Heal the World," or the jubilant ode to interracial harmony in the blockbuster track "Black or White," Jackson made history yet again with second to debut at number 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, selling over 32 million copies worldwide.
9. THE SMASHING PUMPKINS – Gish
The Smashing Pumpkins' debut album was a phenomenal introduction to Billy Corgan & company – it's just too bad the band barely survived the sessions. Corgan, creative nucleus of the group (and only remaining member in 2011), suffered a nervous breakdown during recording at Butch Vig's Smart Studios in Madison, Wisconsin. The beautiful, psychedelic and densely layered guitar-rock album gave the Pumpkins the momentum to release the commercial smash of Siamese Dream two years later, followed by the masterpiece double-album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness in 1995.
10. PEARL JAM – Ten
Eddie Vedder moved from San Diego to Seattle, picked up the pieces of Mother Love Bone with new friends Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, and put a dramatic sense of heartfelt passion into a music scene caught in the wildfires of flannel and gloomy-cool. With over 13 million albums sold worldwide and firm placement among the "Greatest Albums of All Time" lists, Ten will forever stand as the harbinger of true narrative passion returning to rock.
11. CYPRESS HILL – Cypress Hill
Before taking "Hits From The Bong," Cypress Hill hit the ground running hard with an innovative, engaging mix of Southsider flow rife with hardcore imagery and thick, pummeling low-end energy. B-Real, Sen Dog and producer DJ Muggs provided a unique narrative insight into the harsh realities of life in the mixed-culture streets of Los Angeles, rife with cannabis references and Latin lingo. They would go on to considerable commercial success, but Cypress Hill would never again achieve the artistic potency and danger of their debut release.
12. N.W.A. – Niggaz4Life
N.W.A.'s final album found the legendary rap collective with a good deal to prove, after the departure of Ice Cube and an assortment of conflicts related to the group. Violent, thuggish lyrics and gang tales turn to a mercilessly misogynistic second half, and it remains shocking twenty years later. Graphic sex and extreme violence overshadows the remarkable production work of Dr. Dre, but the album is an undeniable classic.
13. PUBLIC ENEMY – Apocalypse 91… The Enemy Strikes Black
The incendiary fourth album from Public Enemy is a platinum-selling sonic bomb bursting with blistering sociopolicial statements, from the murderous "By The Time I Get To Arizona" to the tracing of African-American discontent back to the dark days of the slave trade in "Can't Truss It". The latter is a track lyrically significant and culturally relevant enough to be taught in history classes in schools, and further cemented frontman Chuck D's reputation as one of the most intelligent, insightful and inspiring lyricists rap has ever seen.
14. TUPAC SHAKUR – 2Pacalypse Now
Young, aggressive and political, Tupac Shakur released his debut album in 1991 with a blizzard of thought-provoking lyricism and an early taste of a flow that would inspire an entire generation of rappers. Though round around the edges, the soundtrack of the rap legend first rising to power is an album every hip-hop fan needs to have at the very foundation of their collection.
15. PIXIES – Trompe Le Monde
The fourth and final album by the Pixies was a return to the abrasive sound of the band's early albums, which overtly influenced such bright-future bands such as Nirvana and Radiohead. "Trompe le Monde," a French phrase meaning "Fool the World," was a source of great speculation among fans, as tension building between the four members was evident on the album, eventually causing a split in 1993.
16. PRIMUS – Sailing The Seas of Cheese
Les Claypool's signature basslines leap from the Seas of Cheese, better and tighter than on their first album, Frizzle Fry. A more song-oriented effort than its predecessor, Seas established Primus as far more than a weirdo one-off act. In Frank Zappa's absence, we need abstract sound surgeons like Claypool to keep the caves lit, and he does in spades on this 1991 gem.
17. KYUSS – Wretch
The debut release of Josh Homme's desert-rock predecessors to Queens of the Stone Age ushered in the modern revival of "Stoner Rock," bringing the raw grit of desert generator parties to the ears of music fans desperate for a little danger that had nothing to do with hair metal and leather pants. The hardcore punk influence of the founding members' earlier musical influence can be clearly heard, more sonically in line with The Stooges than what would become QOTSA. Rough around the edges, gritty and experimental, several of these songs later appeared on the followup Blues For The Red Sun, which featured considerably better recording techniques.
18. TEMPLE OF THE DOG – Self-Titled
The first supergroup of the grunge era formed before one of the core bands even took off. Recorded after the heroin-induced death of Andrew Wood, frontman for Pearl Jam precursor Mother Love Bone and best friend to Chris Cornell of Soundgarden. In his mourning, Cornell wrote a series of hauntingly beautiful songs for and about his departed friend and fellow Seattle rocker, but didn't want to subject them to the aggressive song machine of his regular band. Instead, he teamed with some of Wood's old bandmates to record the album, as well as a quiet & shy newcomer from San Diego who aided with backup vocals and a verse on the track "Hunger Strike". His name was Eddie Vedder.
19. FUGAZI – Steady Diet of Nothing
Though not the highlight of their collective work, Steady Diet of Nothing shows the hardcore outfit's first inklings of experimenting outside their staple genre, beginning to show signs of the alternative sound that would drive the rest of their career. The album's sparse, dry production is due to the fact that it was the band's first attempt at self-production, and their limited technical ability kept knob-twiddling to a minimum.
While largely considered the band's most overtly political release, with songs inspired by the loss of Supreme Court liberal stalwart William J. Brennan, the Rodney King police brutality controversy and more, the band veiled its protest in abstraction and subtlety, with space for interpretation.
20. ICE-T – OG Original Gangsta
Ice-T's best album was a powerfully intelligent highwater mark that captured the height of the rapper's ability with gripping lyrics conveying brutal depictions of violence, psychological storytelling and an overall picture of the street life of a hustler.
Original Gangster also introduced the band Body Count, whose heavy metal sound was a stylistic leap from the rest of the album's material, and led to a highly controversial album from the side project. It's too bad Ice's rap game fizzled out and became parody material in the years that followed – but hey, there's always TV, right?