Because the year-end Top 10 list is invariably partial to the albums still in the honeymoon period and inevitably ignorant of others, I thought I’d start compiling “top 10 albums of the year” lists for as far back as I listened to music. That’s not to say this list will be any more objective than my 2011 list, but it will at least be more thorough and fair and therefore maybe a better thoroughfare for conversation. (What do you think?)
1991: when alt rock reached its peak, hip-hop proved you didn’t have to be angry to be clever, and the ‘80s got a delay peddle.
Song of the year: “Give It Away” – Red Hot Chili Peppers
Video of the year: “Jeremy”
Top 10 Albums of the year: 1991
1) Red Hot Chili Peppers – Blood Sugar Sex Magik
“I can’t tell if I’m a kingpin or a pauper”
Leave it to Rick Rubin to take a band that’s ready to turn the corner and guide them through the maturing process while expanding what’s pop and letting the band maintain its irreverent cred. The best example is probably “Breaking the Girl” which is really a (beat-beefed) ballad but features that heavy breakdown with layers of clanking percussion (something Rubin would channel again with them on “Hump De Bump” in 2006 but is also evident in Jay-Z’s “99 problems” and Johnny Cash’s “God’s Gonna Cut You Down.” Both were also produced by Rubin and likewise represent his knack for cultivating maturity and accessibility.) I always kind of want the album to end with “Under the Bridge.” (That is, until I keep listening.) To me, this album is the best album of ‘91 by any measure on my imaginary rubric: songwriting; time period epitome; groundbreaking; excellent recording execution; album flow; makes you want to move; most likely I’ll put on and enjoy.
2) Nirvana – Nevermind
“Here we are now. Entertain us.”
I think there’s been enough written about why this album is brilliant and ceiling shattering but for me it’s mostly about how tight and succinct it is. Every song is simple and straight forward and so is the album itself. Yeah it’s loud and wild and gnarly but it’s never messy (except the secret track.) There are harmonies everywhere and there are some serious soft songs. The influence of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is well established and Cobain is widely messiahed but in all the ways that you’re supposed to judge an album (i.e. what it sounds like) Nevermind is underrated.
3) Pearl Jam – Ten
“AAAAIIIII ooooOO I’m still alive!”
It’s amazing to me that Eddie Vedder has a Cobain complex. I always thought that there was a general understanding that Cobain was a fragile genius who should be taken, like a shot of tequila, with a grain of salt. But instead of chalk up Cobain’s disparaging comments about Pearl Jam to drugs, jealousy, or contrarian eccentricity, Vedder took them so seriously that he’s basically spent the rest of his life trying to be alternative as fuck. (I mean, to the point where you wonder if he feels guilty singing “Alive.”) I also find it amazing that my heroes who care(d) so authentically about being alternative bred someone who wants to be everything that they hated that they were.
4) Temple of the Dog – Temple of the Dog
“I don’t mind stealing bread from the mouths of decadence.”
It’s no surprise that “Say Hello 2 Heaven” and “Hunger Strike” give me chills. But “Wooden Jesus” and “Pushin Forward Back” get me too. I didn’t realize until recently that this came out before Ten which makes Chris Cornell that much cooler for putting this whole thing together. Everyone else on the album is in Pearl Jam (although Matt Cameron, then the drummer of Soundgarden, didn’t join until around 2000.) It actually beats out Soundgarden’s effort on my list by a few spots because the songwriting is far superior. On Batmotorfinger you can feel that Cornell is fitting vocals around riffs rather than delivering the clean, consistent, complete, conceptually coherent, construction of songs you get here. You really don’t ever get this: an emotional/fun embryonic super group with no pressure to conform to its pieces. (I guess Monsters of Folk maybe.)
5) Del the Funkee Homosapien – I Wish My Brother George Was Here
“Fraudulent foe with the strength of Hercules / The way ya on my dick must really hurt ya knees”
So this kid is 18 and he’s busting the conventions of hip-hop. (And he’s got the only non-alt-rock album in my top 5.) His multi-syllable rhymes, his internal rhymes, his alliteration, and even his straight punch lines, are a generation ahead (which might actually make sense since he’s so young.) Not to mention his mentality. He’s hearkening back to the old-school before its even old, keeping subject matter intimate and personal and real, avoiding any machismo that isn’t strictly lyrical, and playing with annunciation like no other. He keeps it good humored but he doesn’t keep it PC. If nothing else, this shit is bold. But it’s also great songwriting. More than in most hip-hop before or since, this album includes songs with things like bridges and mood changes. It’s witty (“Money for Sex”) playfully childish and immature (“Sleepin’ on My Couch” “Pissin’ on the Steps”) catchy (“Mistadobalina”) and blunt (“Dark Skin Girls.”) Del embraces his blackness and at the same time actively shuns the black stereotype that hip-hop helped create and perpetuate, despite relying on the (actually superb) production of his cousin Ice-Cube of N.W.A. (Ice Cube’s own 1991 album Death Certificate, didn’t quite make my top 10, largely because it extends the racist/sexist violence that was brilliantly affirming and empowering for N.W.A. but somewhat stale next to Del.) It’s worth mentioning that the production here is mostly made up of George Clinton samples (on 8 of 14 tracks.) P-funk was also the main influence on the Chili Peppers—Clinton actually produced their second album—but it wouldn’t be perfected in the hip-hop world (and christened G-Funk, for gangsta) until the next year by Ice Cube’s old friend (and new arch enemy—Cube raps about raping him on Death Certificate’s “No Vaseline”—at least for the time being—they’d release a song together a few years later) Dr. Dre.
6) R.E.M. – Out of Time
“Consider this the hint of the century.”
Pretty ‘80s indie pop grows up a little bit and gets way more dynamic.
7) Soundgarden – Badmotorfinger
“…but you’re staring at me like I’m driving in the nails.”
Time-play more masterful and meaningful than prog and with way better vox. Actually with way better vox than anything else ever.
8) Gang Starr – Step in the Arena
“Cause rhyming is serious, I’m strong, I’m like Hercules. You’ll get hurt with these lines. Close the curtains please.”
Guru: Master of the internal rhyme. Premier: God of the straight forward loop and cut. This album would be much higher on my list if it wasn’t so simple and formulaic. But that’s also what’s so great about it in the first place.
9) U2 – Achtung Baby
“If you wanna kiss the sky, better learn how to kneel.”
It pains me to place this on my list instead of Petty but this is U2’s peak verses Petty’s (arguable) pits. (Into the Great Wide Open doesn’t totally suck. The first three songs are great but then it just dies and the filler like “Makin’ Some Noise” (where an awesome Mike Campbell riff gets ruined) border on the other side of embarrassing, whereas the filler on Achtung Baby like “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World” at least takes a stab at modestly experimental song structure.)
10) A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory
“Stern firm and young with the laid back tongue”
So smooth and innocent. Some of the lyrics are clever or funny but mostly it’s just that unmatched attitude over those jazzy but straight rhythms.
Near misses: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – Into the Great Wide Open; Smashing Pumpkins – Gsh.