BY MIKE DEVLIN, TIMESCOLONIST.COM
The year that changed the music business forever included more than a few landmark events, from the debut of Lollapalooza and the arrival of Death Row Records to the death of Freddie Mercury and the birth of the SoundScan era.
But most of all, what people remember about 1991 is the music.
Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Smashing Pumpkins, Soundgarden and Nirvana all released game-changing records in 1991, leaving an indelible imprint on the way musicians approached music, and how fans wanted their bands to both sound and act.
A lesser-loved segment of the musical population that year didn’t sport flannel, army boots and long underwear, but made great records nonetheless. Among those was the Spin Doctors’ debut, Pocket Full of Kryptonite, a scrappy and scraggly New York gumbo that had quietly sold more than 10 million copies worldwide by the end of 1992.
The passage of time has been good to the record, which is in stores today with a two-disc reissue. Unnecessary? Kind of. But welcome nonetheless. 1991 was a heck of a year for good music — so much that even solid records like Pocket Full of Kryptonite are all but forgotten today. Here’s another 10 you barely hear about but still stand the test of time.
1. Matthew Sweet, Girlfriend. Journeyman Matthew Sweet emerged from the shadows with his third album, Girlfriend, a ’60s-friendly recording that almost singlehandedly reinvigorated the power pop genre. He was never better than on tracks like Divine Intervention, Evangeline, and the album’s title track, which remains a masterpiece of innovative production and hook-filled pop prowess.
2. Blues Traveler, Travelers and Thieves. There’s a soft spot in the hearts of the jam-band faithful for Travelers and Thieves, the second album from New York blues rockers Blues Traveler. Some of the most beloved songs in the Grammy-winning band’s catalogue (Ivory Tusk, I Have My Moments, Sweet Pain) debuted on this well-kept secret, which often gets overlooked in favour of the band’s 1994 mega-seller, Four. Don’t make the same mistake.
This one’s a gem.
3. Drivin’ N’ Cryin’, Fly Me Courageous. The Black Crowes were the biggest band repping Atlanta in 1991, which relegated unflashy but uber-talented acts like Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ to the second-tier ranks. The group was no bridesmaid: Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ bridged the gap between southern rock and jangle-pop, with a frontman-songwriter in Kevin Kinney who should have gotten his proper due. The title track was a solid hit on the rock charts, but the album as a whole is just as impressive.
4. School of Fish, School of Fish. Full of swirls of reverb guitar, courtesy of future Wallflowers guitarist Michael Ward, and the provocative, melodic lyrics of frontman Josh Clayton-Felt, School of Fish wasn’t hard enough to appeal to rock fans but their hit, 3 Strange Days, certainly had enough smarts to make R.E.M. fans take notice. Fans still pine for the group, which made only two records, but a reunion is not forthcoming. Clayton-Fe
lt died in 2000 at age 32, a victim of testicular cancer.
5. fIREHOSE, Flyin’ the Flannel. While quite a bit unlike the trio’s previous work on punk imprint SST Records, fIREHOSE’s major label debut is an excellent outing from Mike Watt and George Hurley’s post-Minutemen project. Bordering on jazz-punk, the sonic values of Flyin’ the Flannel run the gamut, held together by the yelping theatrics of frontman Ed Crawford and the always head-scratching bass playing of Watt.
6. 13 Engines, A Blur To Me Now. Toronto quartet 13 Engines made some headway as an indie act, but it was their major label debut, A Blur To Me Now, that paved new roads for the band. Big Surprise and King of Saturday Night resulted in radio hits, but deeper album cuts showed considerable promise. The group found further success with 1993’s Perpetual Motion Machine before slowly fading from view. Though difficult to find, A Blur To Me Know is a solid Can-rock offering.
7. Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, God Fodder. Despite numerous trips to North America, the distinctly British Ned’s Atomic Dustbin (named after an episode of the Peter Sellers-Spike Milligan program, The Goon Show) was relegated to U.K.-only success for the majority of its career. Though a few of the band’s singles made only a slight impact on these shores, the incessantly catchy Kill Your Television and Grey Cell Green, both sound fresh two decades later.
8. The Wonder Stuff, Never Loved Elvis. When these eclectic, unpredictable Brits kept their influences in check, they were a wickedly powerful act. The U.K. press made a star out of frontman Miles Hunt, who at the time of the Wonder Stuff’s peak deftly balanced his bad-boy reputation with briefcases full of excellent, Celtic-inspired pop tunes — and the perfect soundtrack for a night of debauchery. The group fizzled out a few years later, but left an impressive catalogue in its wake.
9. 808 State, Ex:el. Most dance music that originated in the late 1980s and early 1990s is bound to sound dated today, but there’s something about 808 State’s greatest achievement, Ex:el, that remains defiantly of-the-moment. Cutting-edge production for the time, in addition to unheard-of cameos from New Order’s Bernard Sumner and Björk, have put Ex:el (and its hit, Cubik) in good stead as one of the landmark electronic music recordings of the modern era.
10. Del tha Funkee Homosapien, I Wish My Brother George Was Here. Long before he became a bastion of indie rap, Del tha Funkee Homosapien was on a major label, sampling George Clinton and rapping about Mistadobalina. Del’s still-fresh debut, I Wish My Brother George Was Here, was co-produced by his cousin, Ice Cube, whose gangsta style at the time is nowhere evident. This was true-school hip-hop, built upon a base of trunk-of-funk beats, liquid flow and verbal acrobatics.