Retrospect: Best Rock Music of 20 Years Ago

1991 in music

Twenty years ago, early in the year, Vanilla Ice’s utterly awful album, To the Extreme, was the number one selling album in the United States. Then people discovered the lasting star Mariah Carey, while also embracing ho-hum acts such as Michael Bolton’s Time, Love & Tenderness.

But 1991 also marked the release of some of the most important and influential rock albums of the last two decades. While the eagerly awaited Guns N’ Roses Use Your Illusion II didn’t disappoint and served as a perfect soundtrack to Terminator II: Judgment Day, it was Nirvana’s Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s Ten that brought the Seattle scene – grunge – to the forefront of rock music genres and put the final nail in the coffin for ‘80s glam metal.

However, 1991 didn’t just give us grunge. Metallica broke into the mainstream with its release of the self-titled Black album and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ release of Blood Sugar Sex Magik brought funk into the ’90s. These four albums, along with others like Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger and Alice in Chains’ Facelift, took off that year, setting the tone for the rest of the decade. Even now, 20 years later, this music continues to get radio airplay, and stations aren’t likely to let up any time soon.

A bit of trivia: Both Nevermind and Blood Sugar Sex Magik were released on Sept. 24, 1991. Also, though Ten was released in ’91, it didn’t get popular until 1992.

Let’s take a look at these four albums, and not wonder how our lives and taste in music would be different had they not been released.


“Smells Like Teen Spirit” became the anthem for Generation X, and hits such as “Come as You Are,” “Lithium” and “In Bloom” kept album sales going and made Kurt Cobain one of the most famous rock stars in the world. Unfortunately, that and other issues were too much for him to handle, and he committed suicide several years later in Seattle.

It was “Jeremy” that really made this album, but it’s a masterpiece from start to finish, particularly with the radio-friendly hits “Even Flow,” “Alive” and “Black.” Pearl Jam has released many albums since and continues to have a cult following, but never reached the success in sales they had in 1991.

The riff of “Enter Sandman” made Heavy Metal more popular than ever, and “Sad but True,” “The Unforgiven,” “Wherever I May Roam” and “Nothing Else Matters” helped make the album one of the top selling of all time. Metallica had been accused of ‘selling out’ by those who loyally followed trash metal in the 1980s.

The sound of this album (and band) is entirely different than traditional rockers, but the Red Hot Chili Peppers had the same fans as the others and shared radio airplay time with the top rock acts of the ’90s. “Give It Away” became the ‘fun’ hit for this band while “Under the Bridge” quickly developed sentimental meaning for the teens of that generation.
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