1991's best (and worst) music
See where ''Nevermind,'' ''Metallica,'' and ''Emotions'' ended up on our list
What kind of world is it in which a bratty Seattle-area band can sign with a major label, go into the studio, and instead of playing the usual recycled Led Zeppelin riffs common to many Northwest rockers, pound out a hook-filled mix of alternative rock and metal? And stuff each song with lyrics about ’20s-generation malaise and deranged loners? And wrap it in a gorgeous (if somewhat twisted) album cover depicting a completely adorable baby underwater, grasping at a dollar bill on a fish hook? And actually get the whole quirky, infectious shebang into the Billboard top five, selling over a million albums in a little over a month? A pretty good world, actually.
— David Browne
2. Guns N’ Roses
Use Your Illusion I and II
The music, first of all, has real breadth. But the main thing is that Axl Rose is struggling to cure himself. The two albums are a fascinating document of someone who is really screwed up and is looking for a way to escape his persona as a rebel and be healed.
— Simon Reynolds
3. Public Enemy
Apocalypse 91…The Enemy Strikes Black
A very ambitious album that tries to do what nobody else in pop music is trying to do: figure out how to rebuild the black community and convince young people to follow through with a real political agenda. And for the first time, Public Enemy have created music that works on the feet as well as it does on the mind.
— James Bernard
5. P.M. Dawn
Of the Heart, of the Soul and of the Cross: The Utopian Experience (
This record is almost a miracle. It does everything right: the singing, the arrangements, the wordplay, and the shrewd sampling. The group takes a step forward by bringing not just funk but blues and gospel into the hip-hop mix — and somehow winding up artier than the artiest rap group so far, De La Soul.
— Dave Marsh
From these headbangers, you expect another slab of bulldozer rhythms and stern-faced rhetoric, and you get them. What you don’t expect are a surprising maturity in the lyrics and a clean, sculptured production that makes their previous records sound like worn-out cassettes.
6. Sam Phillips
A singer-songwriter who veers on the edge of falling apart-but who knows enough to keep it in check, thanks to smart, taut arrangements that will echo in your head for months to come.
7. Neil Young & Crazy Horse
This live album captures the delicate quality of Young’s guitar, which you might not notice until you’ve recovered from his waves of feedback: It’s a sonorous sound like a cello at the bottom of the ocean. Young’s version of ”Blowin’ in the Wind” is perfect for an unsettling time: questioning, inquisitive, and uncertain.
— Stephanie Zacharek
8. Marty Brown
High and Dry
Brown’s stunning honky-tonk debut scared the hell out of Nashville and mystified radio programmers — how could they sell a genuinely mournful old country sound, devoid of pretense and guile? With deep Hank Williams roots, Brown is pure hillbilly poetry, his crying-heart vocals a sure connection to the soul.
— Alanna Nash
It’s heavy metal as rock & roll — mutable, limitless, using all of the available rock lexicon. It’s also the only metal album that people who respond to the rhythm of bass and drums can dance to.
— Arion Berger
Symphonies 1-9, Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Who would have thought that one of the toughest, tautest, and-not to stint on the praise here — most powerfully songful records of the year would be the 10 billionth recording of Beethoven’s by-now-numbingly-familiar symphonies?
— Greg Sandow
As arguably the most influential ”gangsta rap” group, N.W.A have made acceptable the idea that their hate-mongering lyrics reflect life around them, which insults blacks in general and even the gangs they rap about. Worse, because they claim that they’re mere conduits for this vitriol, they’ve abandoned responsibility for it.
2. Vanilla Ice
The Next Big Thing showed how far the fickle pop audience is willing to let its heroes fall: to the bottom. He might have sold 7 million copies of his first album, but after this attempt to cash in on his waning celebrity — a limp rehash of his only studio album — no self-respecting teenager will ever admit to being a fan.
3. Bryan Adams
Waking Up the Neighbours
This album is selling beyond its worth, mostly because of ”(Everything I Do) I Do It for You,” a horrifying triumph of aerosol emotion, so marginal as to defy human connection.
— Bill Wyman
4. Michael Bolton
Time, Love & Tenderness
There is simply nothing appealing about Michael Bolton’s smug visage, bland material, and most especially, his completely soulless version of ”When a Man Loves a Woman.” Bolton’s success is just more depressing evidence that America loves sexless, middle-aged white men with no sensitivity, grace, or imagination.
— Gina Arnold
5. Pat Benatar
The comedy album of the year. Pat Benatar tries a break from her normal formulaic pop-rock to attempt an ”authentic” blues record. She wants to get down like a hot blues mama, but instead, she sounds more like a mall-crawling housewife with a headache.
— Jim Farber
6. Mariah Carey
Her gospel-oriented R&B may have sold millions of records, thanks to her enthusiasm for ”heartfelt” lyrics and pseudo-operatic crescendoes. But her songs are melodramatic mush and her singing shows almost no restraint. Every time she hits that one high note, it sounds like a teakettle about to blow up.
— Marisa Fox
7. Lenny Kravitz
Kravitz’s stale, tuneless murk, so conspicuously borrowed from ’60s and ’70s sources, epitomizes the inevitable dead end that classic rock radio and MTV have combined to offer us in the ’90s. Nice hair, cool clothes, big romance problems-and vacuous music you can’t remember two seconds after hearing it. (And if you can, you should go out more.)
— Dave DiMartino
8. Rolling Stones
Nursing-home rock, plain and simple: a pointless memento of the rigid, uninspired Steel Wheels tour.
9. Various Artists
Simply Mad About the Mouse
How could Columbia — once the classiest of major labels — record Walt Disney songs with major pop figures, and turn all of them into brain-rotting slush? At least Michael Bolton’s ”A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes” does wake you up: His high notes sound like desperate shrieks of pain.
10. Cycle Sluts From Hell
Cycle Sluts From Hell
Four female singers who don’t play instruments, backed by an all-male band. They use pseudonyms like Venus Penis Crusher, which makes it seem that you have to hate men to be a female rock & roller. This attitude widens the division between the sexes and puts women in rock back 20 years.
— Janiss Garza
First Things First Award
Upon his release from prison after serving two years, Godfather of Soul James Brown flew to Los Angeles to have his balding eyebrows tattooed a solid black.
Worst Album Title
Van Halen’s lame-brained tribute to acronyms, For Unlawful CarnalKnowledge. What’s next? ”Dirty Usage Minus Brains”?
Losing My Religion- R.E.M.
I’ve Been Thinking About You- Londonbeat
Walking Down Madison- Kirsty MacColl
Enter Sandman- Metallica