1991 was a big year for music: U2 dropped their epic album Achtung Baby, Dave Matthews Band was formed, Michael Jackson released Dangerous, Metallica let loose their self-titled debut album, and grunge music was born. Most importantly though, three albums were released which impacted the music industry in ways beyond anyone’s imagination; and opened my ears to a whole new world.                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Pearl Jam released their debut album Ten on August 27, 1991. As of 2009, it has sold over 9.6 million copies according to Nielsen Soundscan and has been certified thirteen times platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Not too shabby for a group of guys from Seattle. Ten gave us eleven songs full of angst, misunderstanding, social divide and dissatisfaction with the way of the world. “Even Flow” paints a picture of homelessness, “Jeremy” displays teenage violence and my personal favourite off the album, “Black” deals with the anger that comes with loneliness and loss. I know this may not sound too appealing, but twenty years ago, this album exemplified grunge music and it was a big deal.
Younger people especially connected with this music because it reflected in large part how they felt – outcast, alone, and frustrated by the unfairness of the world (we’ve all been to high school haven’t we?). On this album, Pearl Jam dealt with real life issues and got us angry about it; the tracks were simple, direct, and made a statement. At this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, they debuted a film called PJ20, recapping their first twenty years together, to rave reviews. To support this film and their career, they put on a tour and I was lucky enough to go see them – right off the bat Eddie Vedder was wailing on the mic, to a backdrop of unbelievable guitar solos courtesy of Mike McCready. The energy was high, like they were twenty years younger. And then so was I.

Red Hot Chili Peppers released their fifth studio album Blood Sugar Sex Magik on September 24,  1991. Yes, I said fifth. Die hard fans aside, chances are you haven’t heard of their first four albums or like me were too young when they came out. No matter which way you slice it though, this album really put them on the map. Their sound is rock ‘n roll coloured with punk and funk, contrary to their earlier albums which were a lot more heavy metal. It has sold over 15 million copies worldwide (compared to 2.1 million by its predecessor, Mother’s Milk) and been certified seven times platinum by the RIAA. Sex, lust and sadness are common themes showcased throughout the album. “Under the Bridge”, easily my favourite track of all time, describes the feelings surrounding drug use and loneliness. “Suck My Kiss” is a guy’s somewhat provocative way to convince a girl to be with him.  “Breaking the Girl” tells the story of heartache and break ups. It’s a fun, soulful and very creatively written album, which was essential in catapulting their career and mainstreaming their music.

Arguably the most historic release of 1991 was Nirvana’s sophomore album Nevermind, also on shelves September 24, 1991. The unwilling poster boys for grunge music and everything it represented was obvious in all aspects of Nirvana: from music, to lyrics, to their appearance on stage. It has sold thirty million copies worldwide (compared to a feeble four million copies of their debut, 1989’s Bleach). It has been certified diamond in the US, Canada and France. Impressive for yet another group of guys from Seattle. I didn’t really start listening to this album until a few years after its release but it still managed to reach my generation and speak to us. They were jaded, and sometimes so were we and that’s why their music made sense. Kids started dressing like them: plaid shirts, baggy jeans, and boys would even grow their hair out and would purposefully sweep it to the side in an unkempt manner. It’s a pretty dark album but also very deep; twelve anthems about drugs, suicide, death and teenage angst. We always played Nevermind at birthday parties during which we would jump around, mosh and head bang our little hearts out.                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Sadly, Kurt Cobain committed suicide via drug overdose on April 5th 1994 and I still remember hearing it on the news: the candlelight vigil that was held out in Seattle, the number of kids at my school sporting a t-shirt with his face and the years 1967-1994 printed on it. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” evokes the exact sentiment of teen boredom and feeling like outcasts. Its stop and go sound, from soft to loud just adds more fuel to the song and gets the listener that much more into it. “Lithium” puts a spotlight on how drugs are used to mask real feelings, keep things under control. “Come As You Are” presents the eternal debate between being who you are and being who society expects you to be. Even the album cover generated mass media hysteria because it depicted a naked baby underwater swimming toward a dollar bill attached to a fishing hook. So much meaning in one work of art. That’s Nevermind for you.

Many more albums were released in 1991, but these ones stood out because their impact lasted for years after, and still to this day. All three bands released other albums after these ones, but none had the same kind of effect on their music, their career or their fans. These albums brought them into the spotlight, highlighted talent that would’ve otherwise gone unnoticed. Music about violence, depression, alienation and loneliness became mainstream. No fancy production needed, no back up dancers, no costume changes, no alter egos, no lip-synching  – just the music and the lyrics, and telling it like it is. It was finally time for the outcast/loner kid to get a voice. And it worked because the audience was ready to listen; they were waiting for someone to get it, to help them out. It’s hard to say if today’s listeners would be as receptive because music has evolved in so many ways since that time. These albums made a difference because they spoke to a generation in a way no other album had yet. Twenty years from now, they will still resonate with us, still make a difference. And that my friends is a beautiful thing.


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