Tom’s Top 5’s: Albums of 1991

When my tastes were being molded during my teenage years, I had a number of friends who were deeply into Nirvana. Suffice it to say, I didn’t understand the attraction. But the fact that so many of the people I hung around with liked them meant that, periodically, I would attempt to give the band the benefit of the doubt… only to find that, nope, still didn’t understand the attraction. Throughout college, too, this same thing would happen every 9-12 months or so. I would see Nirvana referenced somewhere, think to myself, “You know, I’ve come to really like a lot of other artists (e.g., David Bowie, the Smiths) whom I didn’t like when I was a teenager. Maybe Nirvana deserves another chance.” So I’d put on “Smells Like Teen Spirit”… and after a minute-and-a-half I’d lose interest. Then I’d put on “Lithium”… and after a minute-and-a-half I’d lose interest. This would continue for six or seven songs, and eventually I’d give up and go back to listening to Italian progressive rock.

Well, this last summer, my wife and I found ourselves in the midst of a 90s revival, musically speaking, trawling online “Best of the 90s” lists to acquaint ourselves with more of the great music we never heard when we were growing up, from Aphex Twin to Semisonic. We noticed that Nevermind (1991) showed up pretty frequently near the top of such lists. And so, as an experiment, we decided to give Nirvana the benefit of the doubt one last time, and to listen to their breakthrough from start to finish. And here’s the thing: until I listened to Kanye West’s Yeezus this past December as part of my album-a-day project, Nevermind was the worst album I’d ever listened to in its entirety. Not the worst music I’d ever heard, by any stretch of the imagination; indeed, it was more boring than downright bad. But I typically don’t subject myself to an entire album of boring music.

The point of this story is that, I understand why grunge happened. And I suppose I understand why so many people connected with it. But much like the punk revolution of the late ’70s, I sometimes wished that the rebellion against the excesses of mainstream rock/pop had taken a different form. Oh well. Jedem Tierchen sein Pläsierchen, as we say auf Deutsch.

5. ON EVERY STREET (Dire Straits)

On Every Street

After the blockbuster Brothers in Arms, the restrained On Every Street came as something of a letdown five years later. Truth be told, though, BIA was something of a fluke – Dire Straits’ smoky, pseudo-progressive blues-rock had never really been all that commercial to begin with. And in retrospect, OES is a fine album too. Songs like “The Bug,” “Heavy Fuel,” and “My Parties” demonstrated that Mark Knopfler’s sense of humor was alive and well, while “Iron Hand” and “How Long?” showed off a lighter touch.

4. THE MISSING YEARS (John Prine)

The Missing Years

John Prine’s work throughout the 80s was pretty good (not bad, I can’t complain). But in keeping with the “classic musicians making comeback records” trend of the late 80s/early 90s, The Missing Years might actually be my favorite of his albums. Guests include no lesser lights than Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Phil Everley, Bonnie Raitt, and Albert Lee; but without Prine’s humorous, humane songwriting and comfortable-as-an-old-denim-jacket voice, they’d be so much window-dressing.

3. GIRLFRIEND (Matthew Sweet)

Girlfriend

Remember what I said yesterday about power pop? Well, you could hardly ask for a better poster boy for the genre than Girlfriend. Matthew Sweet doesn’t so much bowl you over as invite you into his world of indelible melodies and sweet (ha ha) harmonies. True to the record’s title, these songs mostly revolve around romantic entanglements, but there is nothing wrong with another album of “silly love songs” when they’re this damn sweet (ha ha), smart, and well-crafted.

2. INTO THE GREAT WIDE OPEN (Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers)

Into the Great Wide Open

It’s not a widely-shared opinion, but I think Into the Great Wide Open is every bit as good as Full Moon Fever. I’ll take “Learning to Fly” over “Free Falling” at any rate. Jeff Lynne exerts even greater influence over this record than he did over FMF – which means that if you don’t like that drum sound or Jeff’s swooping harmonies, this is going to be a tough listen. Happily, I do. And the songs (“All the Wrong Reasons,” “All or Nothin,” “King’s Highway”) are absolutely sterling.

1. DUST & DREAMS (Camel)

Dust & Dreams

After an extended hiatus, Camel returned at the top of their progressive game with this concept album based on The Grapes of Wrath. Like The Snow Goose, Dust & Dreams is structured as, and works best as, a coherent work, to be listened to from start to finish. But the hard-driving “Mother Road,” gorgeous “Rose of Sharon,” and the climactic, searing “Hopeless Anger” stand out as near-perfect evocations of the incandescent rage and deep humanism of Steinbeck’s novel.

[NOTE: As an album, Queen’s Innuendo bubbles just under the Top 5 for 1991, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the single most powerful vocal performance in the history of rock. At that time, an AIDS-ravaged Freddie Mercury was on his last legs. When he brought Mercury a demo version of “The Show Must Go On,” Brian May wasn’t even sure he’d be able to sing it. So Mercury downed a shot of vodka and laid his part down in a single take. And it’s perfect, absolutely, shatteringly perfect. “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “We Are the Champions,” “Somebody to Love,” you can keep them all. This is Queen’s finest hour.]

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One Response to Tom’s Top 5’s: Albums of 1991

  1. Now this is a great selection of music – Heavy Fuel wasn’t up Dire Straits’ best, but it was solid song writing from MK, and I still play Into the Great Wide Open – love the lyrics as well as the music of Tom Petty. And why was Matthew Sweet not huge? And I don’t mind a bit of John Prine either – or Camel (although I have to be in the mood)

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