At the dawn of 1991, no one would have dreamed that alt-rock would dethrone the King of Pop. Of all the developments that occurred during that seminal year for pop music, none is more celebrated or dissected than the popularization of the alternative rock genre, a style previously marginalized to music’s underground trenches. This was the year that the United States’ leading college rock band R.E.M. became a global top-tier act, the inaugural Lollapalooza festival plopped myriad abrasive sounds upon the doorstep of suburban America, and, like some storybook dream, a grungy trio from the backwoods of the Pacific Northwest named Nirvana leapt from obscurity to worldwide fame with its major-label debut Nevermind, a feat that would be capped by the shocking displacement of pop’s biggest name, Michael Jackson, at the top of the US album charts in January 1992.
Nirvana’s breakthrough LP wasn’t alone in ’91, as equally-important alterna-blockbusters by Pearl Jam (Ten), the Red Hot Chili Peppers (Blood Sugar Sex Magik), and R.E.M. (Out of Time) flew off record store shelves as often as anything by MC Hammer or Guns N’ Roses. Even without getting into the acclaimed cult favorites and pivotal releases by the Smashing Pumpkins, Primal Scream, Soundgarden, My Bloody Valentine, Slint, the Pixies, Dinosaur Jr., Teenage Fanclub, Hole, and more that shared calendar space during that 365-day span, it’s clear that the genre was a driving force in making 1991 one of the most impressive years ever for the LP format.
Funny enough, some journalists like to refer to 1991 in shorthand as “the year punk broke”, a title drawn from a Sonic Youth tour documentary of the same name released the following year. It wasn’t — that would be 1977 or 1994, depending on which country you come from. Commentators often take the name at face value, not realizing that “The Year Punk Broke” was the official name of Sonic Youth’s tour — it was inspired by the group seeing the promo for Mötley Crüe’s “Anarchy in the UK” cover and joking sarcastically that in ’91 punk would break into the mainstream — and not a name dreamt up after the fact. The Ramones aside, that bill lacked the sort of short, speedy three-chord rockers that still thrived in punk scenes around the globe, instead offering Sonic Youth’s very post-punk guitar deconstructionism (the band after all started out as a No Wave Johnny-come-lately, the very antithesis of conventional punk), Dinosaur Jr.’s wanky lead licks and stoner/slacker attitude, and Nirvana’s marriage of equal parts Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and the Pixies. Furthermore, much of alt-rock’s frontline at the time — R.E.M., Jane’s Addiction, Morrissey, Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails, etc. — had precious little to do with punk stylistically.
Some would argue that certain bands shared a socially-conscious, do-it-yourself philosophy of musical independence that was “punk” in attitude, but then again punk does not have a monopoly on indie-label frugalism, grassroots career-building, or independently-sustained regional music scenes. Anyone who thinks so is overlooking that these same methods were employed not only by post-punk (a concerted attempt to destroy punk’s spent corpse in glorious fashion), hip-hop, and underground metal in the 1980s (newspapers made a big deal of thrash’s jump from the indie-label ghetto to the majors in the late ’80s before it did grunge’s), but also allowed Western mainstream pop/rock of even the most mundane variety to spread behind the Iron Curtain prior to the end of the Cold War.
No, on a sonic level, we aren’t talking about punk storming the charts in 1991 — we’re talking about a genre/movement I like to handily summarize as “post-post-punk”. After the first wave of punk petered out at the end of the 1970s, those left standing either took the post-punk/New Wave route of breaking down genre parameters in an anti-rockist mission, or the hardcore/Oi! road that preserved punk by toughening it up into a stripped down, purist form (not unlike the path undertaken by the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and subsequent headbanger genres during the decade). A few years later, both these approaches had become largely spent creatively, and alternative rock was born of the intersection of hardcore kids outgrowing that scene’s rigid sonic parameters and backsliding post-punkers rediscovering the joys of classic rock.
Pioneered by a few key artists — R.E.M., the Smiths, Hüsker Dü, and the Replacements, chief among them — united in their rejection of hardcore and post-punk/New Wave for reconfigured sounds from the 1960s and pre-punk ’70s, the disparate-yet-likeminded sounds of early alternative rock congealed into a broadly definable genre as the decade wore on. Often swathed in patchwork, thrift store fashions out of economic necessity, these artists filtered rockist signifiers of the past — jangly arpeggios, fuzzbox distortion, heavy metal riffs, fringe haircuts — through a collegiate, postmodern sensibility that rejected macho swagger and technical spectacle, the sort of thing that actually dominated popular rock music from the end of New Wave until 1991. As Simon Reynolds once said, alternative defines itself as pop’s other, and thus ’80s alt-rock largely shunned advances in production and technology for an at times Luddite disavowal of the sounds of cutting-edge pop, rock, and R&B. Naturally, the genre didn’t sell very well back then, and was mostly confined to the racks of mom-and-pop record shops and the college radio airwaves.
Despite its separation from the pop world, alt-rock had inched progressively closer to the mainstream by the dawn of the 1990s, as critical plaudits grew and major labels began signing more and more artists. Observers anticipated a broad breakthrough would occur soon, but in the meantime had to content themselves with the occasional breakout success. At the start of 1991, alternative’s flagship group was Athens, Georgia’s R.E.M., a quartet touted as “America’s Best Rock & Roll Band” by Rolling Stone. R.E.M. had already scored top ten hits on the Billboard Hot 100 with the singles “The One I Love” and “Stand” in the late ’80s, but ’91 would be a banner year for the ensemble as its seventh album turned it into a household name. Trading in R.E.M.’s typical collegiate jangle-pop sound for mandolins and clearly-enunciated vocals, Out of Time debuted at number one in both the US and the UK, spawned the restless lament “Losing My Religion” (and the less-fondly remembered but equally sizable hit “Shiny Happy People”), and garnered seven Grammy Award nominations including Album and Record of the Year.
Out of Time‘s sales of 4.2 million copies domestically and upwards of 12 million units worldwide over the next few years would signal the start of R.E.M.’s imperial phase, when it was a serious contender for “biggest band in the world” status. Key to Out of Time‘s appeal was a gentle, song-focused pastoralism that was inviting to folks reared on adult contemporary sounds; the most threatening thing about the group was its by-the-book liberal politics. R.E.M.’s long, steady journey from an indie label single issued a decade earlier to pop stardom with integrity and creative control intact was a model to be admired and followed by those seeking similar rewards. Yet in practice, R.E.M. was more of an anomaly than an easily replicated template for how other musicians could break through the glass ceiling separating most alt-rock from the mainstream. More often than not, alterna-rockers would either score a freak pop hit and then fail to deliver a follow-up feat, buckle under the pressure and disastrously tone down their sound in vain hopes of radio play, or slog it out on a major label selling next to nil until they were dropped from the roster.
Outside of R.E.M. and the goth bands (whose top act, the Cure, sat the year out), alt-rock’s great commercial hope appeared to be the baggy bandwagon jumpers that swarmed the British indie scene in the aftermath of the Madchester craze. Alternative had long fared better in the United Kingdom than anywhere else — John Peel’s nationally broadcast Radio 1 show was a nexus point for all sorts of underground artists, and the Smiths had led the charge for the genre up the UK pop charts back in the mid-’80s — but at the time, its domestic indie scene was beginning to hit a bit of a doldrums; as a counterpoint, American alt-rockers became very hip in Britain, resulting in the Pixies’ astonishing number three album chart placement there for their 1990 LP, Bossanova, as well as much excited chatter about Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, and the Seattle grunge scene.
Two of 1991’s biggest hits were the beaming dance/rock hybrids “Right Here, Right Now” and “Unbelievable”, by British alterna-dance groups Jesus Jones and EMF, respectively. Though those singles were obscenely catchy, their authors paled in comparison to the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays — Madchester’s leading lights — both artistically and charismatically. But with the former wrapped up in record contract squabbles and the latter losing itself to intoxicant-driven hedonism, the field was wide open for less-remarkable copycats.
British observers would bristle at how a band like Jesus Jones would vastly outperform the Roses and the Mondays commercially in the US, strengthening criticisms that Anglophilic Americans would lap up any dreck from the UK. Huge sellers they were, “Right Here, Right Now” and “Unbelievable” dated obscenely fast, a trait that relegated those singles to the status of curious novelties not long after, and rendered popular follow-ups “Real, Real, Real” and “Lies” as forgotten cast-offs of a big Brit-led dance-rock intersection which never materialized. Interestingly, one baggy anthem from 1991 that holds up remarkably well is “There’s No Other Way” by a fresh-faced quartet from Colchester, England named Blur, who would become of the decade’s most acclaimed alt-rock ensembles once it sorted out a new identity for itself.
Yet a third option for popularizing the genre was rearing its drug-addled head in 1991 — unfortunately, said option had already decided to throw in the towel. The arty Los Angeles quartet Jane’s Addiction melded previously disparate musical strains including goth, heavy metal, and funk into an idiosyncratic, quasi-bohemian combination that managed to intrigue hard rock fans; some observers even touted the alt-rockers as the next Led Zeppelin. Jane’s had been one of the most buzzed-about bands in rock music for a few years already, but only three albums into its career and on the cusp of finally penetrating mainstream rock radio following Ritual de lo Habitual (1990), the group was ready to disband over creative differences and uncontrollable substance abuse habits.
Jane’s Addiction did have one last masterstroke at the ready, as flamboyant, forever idea-concocting frontman Perry Farrell, plus Ted Gardner and Marc Geiger, envisioned an American leg of the group’s farewell tour that would be a multi-band bill inspired by England’s Reading Festival and other such events in Europe unknown in the States. Instead of setting it up in one spot for a few days like the European fests, however, the three men fashioned it into a traveling, multi-date extravaganza. Named Lollapalooza by Farrell, it was a physical manifestation of the group’s open-minded, hedonist ideology, a subculture on wheels intended to arouse all the senses with information booths everywhere that advocated everything from gun control to body piercing.
Although Lollapalooza’s line-up wasn’t homogeneously alt-rock — the inclusion of Mick Jagger-approved hard rock band Living Colour and rapper Ice-T’s metal project Body Count precluded that — the heavy emphasis placed on the genre forming the backbone of the tour ensured that the style would receive countless namechecks in press reports. Furthermore, the bill was packed with artists that non-collegiate radio played rarely or outright ignored; aside from Jane’s and Siouxsie and the Banshees, none of the alt-rockers were even favorites of modern rock radio, the sole commercial format that alternative acts were often relegated to alongside post-punk/New Wave survivors.
As the headlining act, Jane’s cannily placed itself on the frontlines of what Farrell dubbed the Alternative Nation, subconsciously positioning itself as an amalgam of the various sub-strains these artists represented, including goth (the Banshees), transcendent funk-rock (Fishbone), post-hardcore heavy rock (Rollins Band), gonzo noise rock (Butthole Surfers), and irreverent melodicism (Violent Femmes). In the midst of a dismal touring season, Lollapalooza bucked an industry-wide low-attendance trend to became one of the highest-grossing live shows of the year, selling approximately a half-million tickets by its conclusion. To Farrell’s surprise, he was asked to turn the festival into an annual affair.
Though Lollapalooza was ostensibly an elaborate showcase for Jane’s Addiction, the foursome would receive stiff competition from another name on the bill, industrial rock act Nine Inch Nails. Having originated as Trent Reznor’s rather synth-poppy (albeit still seething) one-man studio project, following the release of NIN’s debut LP Pretty Hate Machine (1989), Reznor assembled a full touring band, complete with loud, brutal guitars that resulted in a truly fearsome assault which, according to commentators, wound up stealing the festival from Farrell and Co. Having made an impression on Middle America via the tour, NIN and Reznor were stars-in-waiting by the end of 1991. The project would benefit greatly from the alternative revolution in the years immediately afterward, as its follow-up studio releases Broken (1992) and The Downward Spiral (1994) were greeted with Grammy Awards and multi-million sales, while Reznor, with his fetish garb and his graphic yet visionary music videos, became the sort of dark, transgressive media icon Perry Farrell always cravenly strove to be.
After Lollapalooza concluded, the last months of 1991 brought albums by now-seminal bands — Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Red Hot Chili Peppers — that would soon be plucked from the alternative ghetto and elevated to rock’s multi-million-selling A-list. What conspicuously tied all these groups together (aside from most of them sharing the bill on the Chili Peppers’ late-’91 headliner tour and Lollapalooza ’92) was they were alternative rock bands, complete with long hair, aggressive guitars, massive drums, and infectious riffs. Ultimately, this quality was instrumental in allowing alt-rock to finally achieve widespread popularity.
Both the idea that pop crossover was the way to go and a general disapproval of rock’s macho clichés had led to an emphasis on melodicism as the key to mass acceptance by both musicians and industry types. However, rock fans in 1991 were starving for new, relevant sounds — contemporary stadium-sized superstars like Guns N’ Roses, Def Leppard, and U2 seemed hopelessly bloated, and pop, R&B, and hip-hop were dominating the musical landscape. If rock was to stage a comeback, it had to be in a refurbished, reinvigorated guise that connected squarely with Generation X, not its baby boomer parents.
Having rejected party-hearty subject matter, noodly guitar leads, and slick power ballads in favor of dense guitar distortion, oblique lyrics, and a socially conscious outlook, alternative rock (particularly grunge) was ably placed to fulfill that role (this sort of stripped-down, grim-and-real oppositionalism to mainstream rock is also what enabled Metallica to thrive handsomely at the same time). Despite a contrary nature that would result in some rather backward-looking tributaries from time to time — the ramshackle ’60s-adoring “cutie” bands of the mid-to-late ’80s being a perfect example — the genre’s noisier vanguard from Hüsker Dü on through Dinosaur Jr., the Pixies (which established the extreme dynamic shifts that would become the style’s trademark), and Sonic Youth, and up through to Nirvana and its peers had indeed made advances in redefining approaches to the electric guitar, leading to a dense, overdriven assault that by 1991 was cutting-edge stuff to the multitude.
The result of all this was that the “rock” element of alterna-rock became the genre’s primary draw for fans. This meant that unless you were R.E.M. disciples like Toad the Wet Sprocket or Gin Blossoms, after 1991 alternative artists were expected to be loud, riff-heavy, and able to move from a sedate verse to a cathartic chorus at the drop of a hat. The way forward for alt-rock was clearly illustrated by Nirvana’s late ’91 guest-spot on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball, where its “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video was performing quite well (“Skullcrusher number five!”). As the footage of Kurt Cobain — decked out in drag — and Kris Novoselic chatting with host Riki Rachtman (who struggles desperately to get his interviewees to loosen up) demonstrates, the alternative and metal sensibilities jarred hilariously, but the draw of the music to the latter fanbase was undeniable.
Fortuitously, in most cases, the potential new saviors of R-O-C-K managed to have ready the strongest LPs of their careers. Of this opening salvo of hard rock alternatives, the Chili Peppers scored with the masses first. Building upon the groundwork laid by their 1989 LP Mother’s Milk and its crossover rock radio hit “Higher Ground” (ironically, a buffed-up Stevie Wonder cover), Blood Sugar Sex Magik would elevate the Chili Peppers to the big leagues. Although the album’s second single “Under the Bridge” would do its part to boost sales of the record throughout 1992 by vaulting up to number two on the U.S. pop charts, its lead single “Give It Away” was an important beachhead in and of itself by confounding the assumptions of commercial radio.
Singer Anthony Kiedis mentions in his autobiography Scar Tissue that the group sought to premiere the track on a Texas station, but were told to “come back to us when you have a melody in your song.” Such a snippy attitude overlooked that the rhythmic thrust of “Give It Away” was what made it compelling, and that Chad Smith’s drum fills and Kiedis’ wiseguy rap flow were hooks in of themselves; it also illustrates the ingrained biases that faced metal and hip-hop on the airwaves, which would only be refuted by gigantic record sales. The Chili Peppers got the last laugh, as “Give It Away” reached number one on the Billboard Modern Rock Charts (the first chart-topper of many), and is now one of the long-running stadium-filling act’s signature tunes.
Red Hot Chili Peppers
Red Hot Chili Peppers’ breakthrough success with Blood Sugar Sex Magik would however be eclipsed by the event that would finally break down the doors for alt-rock forever, Nirvana’s wholly unexpected ascendancy to stardom. Having snapped up the buzzed-about yet still fairly obscure grunge trio amidst heated music industry competition, DGC Records still could only hope that Nirvana’s second LP Nevermind would match the numbers shifted by fellow signing/Nirvana booster Sonic Youth’s Goo from a year before, about 250,000 copies.
Without warning, the group’s first major label single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” — which itself was never intended as a breakthrough hit, but a base-builder to introduce neophytes to the band — conquered the radio airwaves in spite of reluctant programmers who were inclined to restrict the abrasive, mumbly-mouthed riff-rocker to nighttime radio play. Unprecedented demand created shortages of Nevermind, causing DGC to put production on other releases on hold in order to manufacture sufficient supply. Once the “Teen Spirit” music video entered heavy rotation on MTV, sales exploded even further; despite popular conception, MTV did not make “Teen Spirit” a hit, although it did multiply its impact to astronomical proportions.
The introduction of SoundScan, which relied on barcode scanning at the cash register to accurately measure each record sold, in the United States that year also aided Nirvana and its peers immensely. Previously, it had been relatively easy for promoters to entice stores to skew their sales tallies to benefit veteran artists and middle-of-the-rock pop/rock. The most shocking result that the implementation of SoundScan revealed to the industry was large gains in market share for three genres: hip-hop, country, and alternative rock. Having numbers on its side, DGC used the skyrocketing figures for Nevermind to convince radio stations playing more established artists to add the group to its playlists.
By Christmas 1991, SoundScan placed Nevermind at selling between 300,000 and 400,000 copies a week. Sources state that most of these sales were kids exchanging unwanted holiday gifts, with Michael Jackson’s latest LP Dangerous being the overwhelming returnee. Meanwhile the critical plaudits piled up — the 1991 installment of the renowned Village Voice Pazz & Jop critics’ poll (published in March 1992) would unveil the album and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as the most-acclaimed recordings of the year by a healthy margin. In just four months, Nirvanamania had spread out from the U.S. and UK, hounded Nirvana along its European tour dates, and caught on around the rest of the globe.
Considering R.E.M. and the Chili Peppers had already shifted crateloads of records that year, and Lollapalooza had just prior introduced the phrase “alternative rock” to the tongues of your average punter, it may seem curious that history fixates heavily on Nirvana’s role in alt-rock’s ascendancy to become the dominant form of rock music in the ’90s. It isn’t historical revisionism though, as a trawl through magazine and newspaper archives will reveal how observers were shocked by what Nirvanamania meant for music. Alternative was expected to be eked out to the masses slowly; springing straight from the underground and leapfrogging ahead of tried-and-true marketing strategies (and assumptions) was not supposed to happen.
Although Nirvana ousting Michael Jackson from his Billboard perch on January 11, 1992 was in essence a freakish exploitation of chance developments (biographer Michael Azerrad points out in Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana, “As luck would have it, U2 had decided to release its version of an art-rock record, Michael Jackson continued his artistic slide and Guns n’ Roses saw fit to release two albums at once.”), even if the album hadn’t reached number one, it still performed impressively — it was clear that there was a waiting audience after all for this genre’s rougher corners beyond college students and hipsters.
Still, Nirvana’s feat underlined for everyone that all bets were off. In panic mode, record labels immediately scrambled to sign all sorts of offbeat underground artists because no one was sure what would sell anymore. Meanwhile the members of Nirvana—especially singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain—became newsworthy figures, grilled in numerous interviews about their newly-bestowed importance in relation to pop music and Generation X. Such inquires would be responded to with solemn disbelief, sarcastic jokes, and generous name-drops of the members’ favorite bands couched between criticisms of “cock rock” musicians—a startling lack of rock star self-importance and pretension that many young fans had never seen before, which would help explain why these unkempt weirdos were enthusiastically adopted as heroes for a new age. While Perry Farrell transparently sought to be a spokesman for a generation, the moody-yet-sensitive Cobain became one without trying (or wanting) to be one.
Nirvana will forever be the most important group to emerge during alternative’s crowning year — but it wasn’t the biggest. That honor goes to its grunge rival Pearl Jam, which stands revealed as the most popular — and populist — alt-rock band to graduate from the class of ’91. Unlike Nirvana’s out-from-nowhere rocket ride to prominence, Pearl Jam — a group that had only been together since 1990, formed from the ashes of the glammy Mother Love Bone — would have to claw its way gradually into the popular consciousness, meaning that, at the conclusion of ’91, its maximum impact was still some time away. If 1991 was the year of Nirvana, 1992 belonged to Pearl Jam, as Ten steadily climbed the charts all the way to number two on the Billboard 200, where it lingered for months. By early 1993, American sales of Ten had already outstripped those of Nevermind. Today, Ten is currently certified as 13 times platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America, making it not only the third most-shipped LP to come out that year after Metallica’s “Black Album” and Garth Brooks’ Ropin’ the Wind, but the highest-certified alternative rock album in the United States, ever.
Not that Pearl Jam would get many kudos for its feat, as alt-rock’s pervasive elitism — its most noxious trait — manifested amidst all the good news in ’91. Nirvana got cheers of approval during its ascent up the charts, but the knives came out for the members of Pearl Jam, who were disparaged (most notably by Kurt Cobain) as brazen careerists, fake grunge, and corporate whores willing to shell watered-down alternative. Much of the discontent stemmed from Ten‘s relatively conventional rock leanings, as it audibly bore the influence of Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and other perceived musical dinosaurs. It is this quality, however, that endeared it to millions who could care less if Pearl Jam had never been on an indie label. Rooted so strongly in classic rock, Ten sounded like, well, a classic rock record, one placed firmly in the modern age by Eddie Vedder’s rumbling, frequently rambling vocal stylings and tortured everyguy persona.
With Vedder’s impassioned tales of pain, angst, and anger regarding topics including homelessness and school violence layered on top of those big riffs and oodles of guitar leads, Ten‘s songs were transformed in widely-resonant anthems of despair and triumph. Amidst all the fretting about authenticity that the advent of million-selling alterna-rock conjured, history has proven that Pearl Jam has never been less than sincere in its intentions, as it would go on to challenge Ticketmaster over high ticket prices, stump for social causes like abortion rights at any given opportunity, and overall refuse to adhere to the expectations assumed of rock stars under the media glare. Bearing in mind the virtuous path Pearl Jam has followed in the last 20 years, the sarcastic disses and ironic affection for junk pop culture that became so important to ’90s alternative iconography betray the truth: that the problem with Pearl Jam was less about authenticity than a snooty us-verses-them mentally that — while giving alt-rock a sense of purpose pre-’91 — resulted in some rather petty attitudes that could at times make the genre’s practitioners more close-minded than the mainstream pop/rock it rallied against.
The rise of alternative rock in 1991 had seismic consequences, as the music industry quickly reconfigured itself to accommodate to the new landscape. According to David Brown’s Sonic Youth bio Goodbye 20th Century, there were about a dozen modern rock stations in the United States in 1990. By 1992, there were over a hundred, all happy to spin the latest singles by Nirvana and Pearl Jam instead of rapidly expiring British post-punk leftovers. The proliferation of such stations was beside the point in a way, as alt-rock succeeded the year before because it infiltrated music television and mainstream rock radio, not by pandering to the then largely inconsequential modern rock format. For years afterward, industry discussions would be focused on finding “the next Nirvana”, the next oddity from the underground that could enrapture the teenagers of the world. Musicians also reinvented themselves in the face of the New Thing.
Mötley Crüe, Poison, and countless other fading glam metal stars tried to overhaul their sounds and images in the vain hopes of remaining relevant. Depeche Mode frontman Dave Gahan became enamored with alt-rock after attending Lollapalooza, and newly decked out in long hair, a beard, and tattoos, insisted to his synth-welding brethren that they become a grunge band. U2’s ahead-the-curve embrace of irony served it well in the post-grunge landscape, but it aimed to shore up its associations with the Alternative Nation by asking Nirvana, Sonic Youth, and the Pixies to open for its media-overload Zoo TV tour; the Pixies ultimately nabbed the opening slot after the others declined, but to their eternal regret they often played to mostly empty and/or indifferent arenas, as unsympathetic U2 diehards stayed away until their heroes took the stage. Meanwhile, high-class grungewear designed by Marc Jacobs stalked New York fashion runways, and Hollywood’s leading men started sporting unwashed hair and patchy facial scruff.
It might be tempting now to veer into a sober recap of how the reign of alt-rock eventually came toppling down for a variety of reasons less than a decade later: death, drug abuse, lackluster follow-ups or overinflated sales expectations, the deluge of unremarkable alterna-clones that flooded the market, the replacement of rock as the preeminent musical voice of the youth by hip-hop. And certainly, there was a lot of crap alternative music released amongst all the fondly remembered ’90s classics. But what’s inspiring about looking back at alternative rock in 1991 is how even as grunge was just starting to turn a generation of music fans onto flannel shirts and politically-correct angst, there were discernable signs of later advances in the genre to come.
In the year Nirvana began storming up the charts, Pavement and Sebadoh (led by former Dinosaur Jr. bassist Lou Barlow) turned “indie rock” from a mere synonym for alternative into a distinct anti-mainstream strain by spearheading the lo-fi movement. Shoegaze group My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless was a sonic canvas of visionary guitar textures that virtually reinvented the language of the instrument. The first stirrings would was would be termed “post-rock” emerged in the form of LPs by former New Wave synthpop group Talk Talk, which had completely overhauled its sound in by its final album, Laughing Stock, and gnarled math-rock ensemble Slint, with its hipster touchstone Spiderland. And grunge’s conquest of the British baggy hordes would not long after lead to a nationalistic rebuttal in the form of swaggering, tuneful Britpop.
Be it unlikely blockbusters or low-selling gems admired by an ardent few, in the end, the most tangible legacy that alt-rock from 1991 has to offer will forever be the records that were produced. Alternative rock has reached phenomenal heights before and since, but there is a certain heady aura that clings to the year that gave us R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe pining “I think I though I saw you try” to an audience of millions, Eddie Vedder using that powerhouse voice of his to exorcise his personal demons for the first time, and Kurt Cobain bashing out a deceivingly simple four-chord riff that would become a generation’s equivalent to the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” or Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love”.
In the long run, it was never about an underground genre “winning” against pop aristocracy and rock convention: after all, in spite of all that had indeed genuinely changed, slick mainstream pop never went away post-Nirvana — it just had a more visible counterpoint –and even Guns N’ Roses was finally defeated more by its frontman’s rampant egoism than Nirvana’s scathing rebukes. Instead, it was all about 1991 quite likely being the creative apex of alternative rock music.
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This article was originally published on 29 September 2011.