On September 24, Nirvana’s Nevermind album turns 20, a milestone that seems rather inconceivable to anyone who actually lived and breathed during the alt-rock era. Still, its birthday will surely be celebrated all over the world, and justifiably so. After all, it’s the album that changed everything and, as such, deserves to be mythologized.
Of course, in doing so, most overlook the fact that there was no shortage of other classic albums released in the shadow of Nevermind, from mega-platinum rock blockbusters to quiet-as-it’s-kept indie gems, and just about everything in between. In 1991, rock truly rocked, so, in celebration of that fact, we’ve asked some of today’s biggest bands to discuss their favorite albums from that rather amazing year.
We’ve already paid tribute to classics like Dinosaur Jr.’s Green Mind and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Pearl Jam’s Ten and Fugazi’s Steady Diet of Nothing. Now, we’re honoring a pair of albums that truly show the scope of 1991’s back catalog, as told by their biggest fans.
Lenny Kravitz, Mama Said
Building on the slow-burning success of his 1989 debut, Let Love Rule, Kravitz returned in ’91 with Mama Said, an album that saw him expand his horizons — from the Philly soul-tinged hit “It Ain’t Over ’Til It’s Over” to the Lennon-inspired “Flowers for Zoë,” with homages to Sly, Prince and Jimi thrown in for good measure — and firmly establish himself as an international star. Sure, that sonic grab-bag (not to mention his biracial heritage) made Kravitz a curio case for critics in desperate need of a hook, but the end result was an album so sumptuous, seething and downright seamless that it could only really be categorized one way: as a classic. He’d hit the stratosphere with 1993’s Are You Gonna Go My Way, but it was with Mama Said that Kravitz truly made the leap.
As Remembered By Alicia Keys: “To me, Lenny is like one of the most important figures in music, for us as a generation, because there’s not many people who do what he does, and [to] do it so authentically and with such ease … who he is and how he is are exactly what he is, you know? And 1991 was an incredible year, and that album, I could definitely relate to ’Flowers for Zoë,’ figuring that was a song he wrote for his daughter, and how it moves you and affects you and what you want to say about it. I’m just super proud of Lenny. I think that he’s an icon for us, because he broke barriers and he was an individual and remains an individual today. And a lot of times, as a beautiful black artist, you’re put in many boxes, and I think that he really broke those barriers down.”
Guns N’ Roses, Use Your Illusion I + II
Though it was released as two separate discs (which sold a combined 1.45 million copies in a single week), GN’R’s Use Your Illusion is really, truly a double-album, one that represented a turning point for the massively popular band. Sure, the hard-rock histrionics of Appetite for Destruction were still present, but for the first time, Axl and company dabbled in blues, classical music and, of course, ballads. One can’t overlook the overtly political tone of songs like “Civil War” and the cover of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” or the proggy theatrics of epics like “November Rain” and “Don’t Cry,” but to focus solely on those bits would be a disservice to the sheer ambition, scope and spectacle of the project, which truly changed Guns N’ Roses — since it would be 17 years before they’d release a proper follow-up — and hard rock forever.
As Remembered By Joshua Epstein, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.: “[They] were huge hits when we were in elementary school. We actually almost called our band Use Your Illusion IV — this is actually true. But I will say those albums were everywhere. I remember all the videos; Axl Rose and supermodels and weddings and Slash playing giant guitar solos in canyons. But I also remember that they kind of brought back the ballad, which really changed my world. ’November Rain’ was, like, a huge monster hit, and it actually did change the way I thought about music. I saw them play, I went to this concert with my friend’s parents, and Axl Rose warmed up on the piano for 35 minutes before playing ’November Rain.’ But, like, he wasn’t a good piano player, so his warm-ups were, like, scales that you and I would’ve learned at piano lessons as a kid. And it was one of the worst things I’ve ever seen in my life, so I did learn also what not to do from watching Guns N’ Roses in the Use Your Illusion era.”
What is your favorite album from 1991? Let us know in the comments below!