It may be hard to believe, but it has now been 20 years since 1991. “The Year That Punk Broke” may not have completely lived up to the eponymous documentary title, but it remains a watershed year in musical history, and not solely for the grunge-/alternative-rock breakthrough that defined the time for many observers. Arguably, more great albums and singles came out during that 365-day span than in any since the '60s or early '70s. Let's take a stroll down Memory Lane to a time when music videos actually mattered and received TV airplay.
Nirvana: “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
Of course, this is on the list. No band defined the era more aptly, and no video had a bigger cultural impact. For all but the most clued-in (obsessive?) underground-rock fans, this song and video introduced a songwriter and group who were so talented they were destined to blow up–in every sense of the word.
Tribe Called Quest: “Scenario”
Skeletal, jazz-influenced beats, super-tight pass-the-mic vocals and a 19-year-old Busta Rhymes getting silly. This defined “posse cut” for the 1990s and capped off what many considered the Golden Age of Hip-Hop.
U2: “Mysterious Ways”
U2 getting funky? And sexy? It worked. Love 'em or hate 'em, U2 had the pulse and ear of 1991 with Achtung Baby. “One” was the huge, uplifting single, but “Mysterious Ways” had the coolest video, a druggy, belly-dancing extravaganza directed by Stephane Sednaoui, who pops up again on this list.
Red Hot Chili Peppers: “Give It Away”
“Under the Bridge” was a bigger single, but this is the video everyone remembers. It's the Peppers at their naughtiest and funkiest: dancing, rapping and getting kinda homoerotic. The black-and-white color scheme and silvery costumes caught the eye (Stephane Sednaoui, again) and the popping bassline attacked the ear. Drummer Chad Smith was literally horny in this video.
Smashing Pumpkins: “I Am One”
This video introduced another band that would go on to great things. “I Am One” was noisy, defiant and hairy like all the best rock & roll, but Corgan and crew added prog-level musicianship and delicate introspection to the mix. It worked like a charm.
Metallica: “Enter Sandman”
Oddly, everything we said about the Smashing Pumpkins song goes for his one, too, except the introspection is replaced by balls-out aggression. Many purists decried the band's (slightly) simpler, more accessible direction on Metallica, but this riff and song were classics, and they deserved their status as the Biggest Metal Band in the World . . . Ever.
Michael Jackson: “Black or White”
Okay, hear us out. This song and video were the last time that MJ (the biggest star in music at the time) mattered for his artistic ouput, rather than his personal life. Dangerous was one of his best albums, and it only fell off its perch at No. 1 on the charts when Nevermind took it down in January 1992. Admit it, you were glued to the TV for the premiere for this video, and your mom was super-pissed about the car-smashing and crotch-grabbing.
REM were popular and well-respected before this song. They were megastars after it. So show how much had shifted in the 10 years since they released their first single, “Radio Free Europe,” to when this was the No. 1 song in the U.S. Eurodisco group Stars on 45's “Medley” of '60s classic-rock hits was big then, but in 1991, a mandolin-driven confession of doubt and mental anguish hit No. 4. It was a different world, and REM had a lot to do with it.
Massive Attack: “Unfinished Sympathy”
Often cited as one of the greatest singles of all time in any genre, “Unfinished Sympathy” was the first moment the world took notice of a new sound percolating in the U.K. It mixed classic pop songwriting, urban beats, R&B vocalists, and modern European dance production into a smooth, synthesized whole. Though later work would deepen (and creep-en) Massive Attack's sound, they never make a more beautiful noise than this. Trip-hop starts here.
Teenage Fanclub: “Star Sign”
People often forget how hotly tipped these guys were. In fact, their second album, Bandwagonesque, was SPIN's Album of the Year for 1991, over many other worthy releases. They may not have changed the world, but Teenage Fanclub did put out one of the finest records of the alt-rock era and continue to make great music to this day, and that's more than enough to deserve a bandwagon of their own.