Unlike today, music fans enjoyed variety in 1991. Today’s dominant music is homogenous and bland. However, the radio and music charts in 1991 demonstrated extreme heterogeneity. People enjoyed and purchased rock, classic rock, alternative, hip-hop, pop, country, Christian, and pop metal. By the end of the year, the zeitgeist changed dramatically. However, the heterogeneity remained.
The so-called Seattle “grunge” scene mainstreamed in 1991. Nirvana led the way with their 30x platinum album Nevermind and its lead single “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Younger fans wanted music to call their own and something to identify with. Nirvana arrived at the right moment. Fans latched onto the band and it ushered in many other acts like Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Soundgarden.
The “Grunge Revolution” helped eradicate hair metal. During the 1980s, rock bands with big hair, aquanet hair spray, and slickly produced albums dominated. The talent varied, but the formula proved successful until it got old. Overnight, bands like Poison, Warrant, and Motley Crue became the butt of jokes. Def Leppard scored the genre’s last major success in 1992 with their multi-platinum album, Adrenalize.
Despite the sea change, older rock acts performed well in 1991. Guns n Roses returned with new material and reigned over the music scene for the next few years. Metallica broke into the mainstream with their eponymous black album and remains a major act to this day. Van Halen reached new heights of popularity with the For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge album and its monster hit “Right Now.”
Groups like Van Halen emerged in the shadow of older, established acts such as Eric Clapton and Queen. In 1991, Queen front man Freddie Mercury died of AIDS. The music community held a large benefit concert in London to honor him. Queen’s 1970s hit, “Bohemian Rhapsody” charted again. Mercury’s death combined with a clever skit in the movie, Wayne’s World, reintroduced the song to the world. The same year, Clapton lost his son, Connor, in a tragic accident leading to a heart-wrenching ballad about the boy and increased success. Other older acts also experienced success in the early 1990s.
U2 bridged the gap between classic rock, alternative, and mainstream rock. They changed their sound and look in 1991. In the late 1980s, U2 emerged as the world’s biggest band. After alienating some fans with the film Rattle and Hum, they recharged and incorporated the European music scene with their own sound and the alternative vibe to create Actung Baby. The album and subsequent Zoo TV tour recreated U2 and made them rivals to Guns n Roses, Nirvana, Metallica, Van Halen, and R.E.M. for the title biggest band in the world.
R.E.M. spent a decade on the road before breaking into the mainstream in 1987. Four years later, they released Out of Time and experienced unprecedented success for an alternative act. The single “Losing My Religion” dominated the radio with a mandolin as lead instrument. While many credit Nirvana with changing the world, the revolution actually began with R.E.M.
While R.E.M. lost their religion, Christian music seeped into the mainstream. Amy Grant released a pop album, but managed to appear on the pop and Christian charts. She scored a couple of hit singles with non-religious themes. Meanwhile, Michael W. Smith became a superstar and Jon Gibson released the longest hit single in the genre’s history.
Christian music’s success surprised many while Garth Brooks’ success shocked those outside the country community. Brooks combined old school country influences with the Eagles and Billy Joel reinvigorating and changing the genre. Later in the decade, Shania Twain took Brooks’ innovations to new heights of popularity. Her husband, Mutt Lange, produced multi-platinum smashes for AC/DC and Def Leppard. He knew how to mesh musical styles for mainstream consumption.
While country music moved to the mainstream, Hip-Hop morphed to meet the times. A Tribe Called Quest helped usher in alt-rap with Low End Theory. Other acts followed their lead. At the same time, “Gangsta rap” sat on the verge of a commercial breakthrough. Ice-T released OG: Original Gangster foreshadowing releases in 1992 that came to dominate the early-to-mid 1990s. As a result, hip-hop fans could gravitate toward gangsta rap, old school, alt-rap, party rap, or any other variation.
Like hip hop fans, music fans in general had no problem finding something enjoyable to listen to in 1991. The industry produced something for everyone. Pop metal experienced its last gasp. Alternative rock broke into the mainstream. Country and Christian music incorporated pop music to become more listenable for general audiences. Classic rock remained popular. Ironically, the music industry was more democratic and heterogeneous in 1991 than in 2011.
Important 1991 Releases:
Big Audio Dynamite: The Globe
Garth Brooks: Ropin’ the Wind
Brooks and Dunn: Brand New Man
De La Soul: De La Soul is Dead
Bob Dylan: The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare and Unreleased) 1961-1991
Genesis: We Can’t Dance
Guns n Roses: Use Your Illusion 1 and 2
Ice-T: Original Gangster
Michael Jackson: Dangerous
Ozzy Osbourne: No More Tears
Pearl Jam: Ten
Tom Petty: Into The Great Wide Open
Red Hot Chili Peppers: Blood Sugar Sex Magik
R.E.M.: Out of Time
Temple of the Dog: Temple of the Dog
U2: Actung Baby
Van Halen: For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge