1991 Might Have Been The Most Game-Changing Year In Rock 'N' Roll

List Rules
Vote up the 1991 albums that still hold up today.

After the metal and synth-pop dominance of the 1980s, the world was overdue for a new generation of artists that would change the trajectory of music forever. Leather jackets, hair spray, and tight pants were becoming passe in exchange for flannel, baggy jeans, and Converse. A strong argument can be made that 1991 was one of the most important years in music - with bands such as Nirvana, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, the Smashing Pumpkins, and My Bloody Valentine (just to name a few) putting out game-changing records.

The most notable scene that formed in the early '90s was the Seattle grunge scene, which saw many bands break through with their gloomy, apathetic music. Grunge had become synonymous with "1990s music," but it wasn't just Seattle that was changing music forever. Even bands like Metallica and U2 were changing direction, adapting to a new decade that offered less neon, more black. Everything was starting to form under the blanket of "alternative rock," which would stay popularized until the 2010s. 

Here are some albums of extreme significance that made music history back in 1991. Vote up the ones that still matter to you.


  • 'Nevermind' - Nirvana
    Photo: DGC

    Release: September 24, 1991

    Only a few albums in the entire world can take credit for changing the face of music as we know it. When Nevermind hit shelves in September 1991, not only was the course of rock music altered indefinitely, but it was responsible for initiating a shift in culture that shocked an entire city as well as the globe. To say that Nirvana solely kicked off the grunge movement would be absurdly wrong, especially with bands such as Mother Love Bone, Alice in Chains, and many others at the face of that change, but without the mainstream success of Nevermind, grunge music may have never left Seattle. 

    By 1991, Nirvana had already put out Bleach, an album that was borderline sludge metal and punk rock - not exactly the type of sound that Nirvana is now known for. But that was the '80s, and this was now the '90s. Nirvana had ditched the messy, punk style and embraced the "Seattle sound" for Nevermind - an album that thrust Nirvana (and all associated acts) into the mainstream airwaves.

    Nowadays, hearing Nirvana on the radio feels almost passe, but this was a time when big love ballads and polished pop music dominated the music charts. Hearing something like "Lithium" or "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on the radio was not the norm. Almost every track on that record is iconic in its own right, right from the opening track to Kurt Cobain's haunting "Something in the Way" as the album closer. And not only did the surprise success of this album put the focus on grunge and alternative bands in the early '90s, it also put Seattle on the map. As Charles Cross wrote in The Seattle Times

    Nirvana’s unlikely and unprecedented success changed Seattle’s very idea of itself. Their weirdness and their edge became our weirdness and our identity. We already had tech, but Seattle in 1991 was still primarily thought of as a port town that was a gateway to other places physically and culturally. Nirvana helped make Seattle the center of something, even as an outlier. Microsoft made Seattle wealthy. Nirvana, with much help from other bands, and from labels like Sub Pop, made Seattle cool.

  • 'Ten' - Pearl Jam
    Photo: Epic

     Release: August 27, 1991

    People often look at Nirvana's Nevermind as the album that defined the grunge sound of the early '90s, but Pearl Jam's Ten was not only integral to the change in rock music at the time but also predates Nevermind by almost a full month. At the time of recording, Pearl Jam was made up of musicians from early Seattle grunge bands such as Green River and Mother Love Bone, with frontman Eddie Vedder being a surfer from California (he managed to yarl like a Seattleite nonetheless). 

    From a musical standpoint alone, Ten was highly impressive for a debut album. Although it wasn't a success at first, it later became a blueprint for emerging alt-rock bands of the '90s once the album was recognized for its extreme importance in molding the early grunge sound. With tracks such as "Alive," "Even Flow," "Jeremy," "Once," and "Black," it's safe to say Ten is not only Pearl Jam's greatest achievement (their sound would never be as poignant as it was on that album), but one of the most important contributions to rock history.

    Since going platinum 13 times in the US, Ten remains an essential entry to the grunge movement and living proof that alt-rock and grunge bands can still rely heavily on classic rock-inspired guitar solos - especially after claims that bands like Nirvana "killed the guitar solo."

  • 'Badmotorfinger' - Soundgarden
    Photo: A&M

    Release: October 8, 1991

    By 1991, Soundgarden had already put out two albums - Ultramega OK and Louder Than Love - both of which earned the band some mild success and rising popularity in the Seattle music scene. But that was nothing compared to their third release, Badmotorfinger. While their first two albums had earned them respect and label attention, Badmotorfinger landed them on MTV and their first Grammy nomination

    Despite Soundgarden being heavily involved in the Seattle grunge scene, Badmotorfinger wasn't your typical grunge album. If yarling and slow, melancholic guitar riffs were a key component of the grunge sound, Soundgarden didn't exactly conform to that specific style (that would come later on their following record, Superunknown). What came with Badmotorfinger were distinct remnants of that gloomy sound but with almost a heavy-metal twist. Some songs were fast and upbeat like Rusty Cage and Jesus Christ Pose - while songs like Outshined were much more reminiscent of their time and place.

    Badmotorfinger was scheduled for release on September 24, 1991, the same day as Nevermind, but production problems pushed the release into October. 

  • 'The Black Album' ('Metallica') - Metallica
    Photo: Elektra

    Release: August 12, 1991

    Metallica (commonly referred to as The Black Album) was the band's first studio album since '88's ...And Justice for All, which was a hard album to follow. The '90s signified a change not only in rock and alternative music, but heavy metal as well. The turn of the new decade saw Metallica ditch their usual fast-paced thrashy sound for a heavier but more polished and commercial sound. While the album may have been a disappointment to diehard fans, it put Metallica on the map and turned them from a small Bay Area thrash metal band into a global phenomenon. 

    Not only did The Black Album become one of the biggest (if not the biggest) metal albums of all time, but it also become one of the highest-selling albums of all time, period. The album produced such hits as "Enter Sandman," "Sad But True," "The Unforgiven," and "Nothing Else Matters," just to name a few. While these songs may not be as gritty as some tracks off Master of Puppets or Ride the Lightning, the band has never sounded better sonically, especially after the painfully underproduced ...And Justice for All.

    Seriously, this album sounded so good the singles still haven't left the radio waves. Try finding a rock or metal station that isn't spinning "Enter Sandman" or "Nothing Else Matters" on the daily. 

  • Release: September 24, 1991

    According to some casual fans, Red Hot Chili Peppers didn't exist prior to "Under the Bridge," which arrived in the band's 1991 album Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Four albums prior to BSSM disprove that statement, but there is some truth to it. Blood Sugar Sex Magik is the first record to feature the core lineup of Anthony Kiedis, Flea, Chad Smith, and John Frusciante, following the passing of previous guitarist Hillel Slovak, forming what we now recognize as the classic RHCP sound. 

    Before Frusciante mellowed the band into alternative rock, Slovak and previous drummer Jack Irons led the band into "funk-metal" territory, giving their earlier albums an edgier and more fast-paced appeal. While this landed the band some mild success, Blood Sugar Sex Magik landed them among the top bands changing the sound of rock in the early '90s.

    Although not their best album (that title goes to Californication or Stadium Arcadium), BSSM did give us major hits such as "Give It Away," "Suck My Kiss," and, of course, "Under the Bridge" - and has since gone seven times platinum in the US. If not for this album, Red Hot Chili Peppers may have faded into obscurity with the focus on darker, alternative bands in the 1990s. 

  • 'Temple of the Dog' - Temple of the Dog
    Photo: A&M

    Release: April 16, 1991

    Temple of the Dog formed as a tribute to grunge pioneer Andrew Wood, the former frontman of early grunge acts Malfunkshun and Mother Love Bone, who passed from an overdose a year earlier. The band only released one album (also titled Temple of the Dog), which was meant to serve as a eulogy to their fallen musician and friend, but it was an incredibly important contribution to the Seattle grunge scene nonetheless. 

    Temple of the Dog is perhaps the true epitome of "grunge" and the closest that any album will ever get to perfectly exemplifying that sound in all its glory. Made up of Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament, Mike McCready, as well as Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam (Gossard and Ament were both members of Mother Love Bone) and Soundgarden's Chris Cornell and Matt Cameron, Temple of the Dog was essentially a supergroup of future grunge superstars. The album featured two heavily popular singles, "Hunger Strike" and "Say Hello 2 Heaven," but the record wouldn't actually gain proper attention until the mainstream success of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden.

    The album was never meant to be a chart-topper. It was really about a bunch of friends saying goodbye to someone who had a major influence on their lives and music. However, the album has since gone platinum in the US, and is looked back on as one of the first albums to perfectly capture the Seattle sound in all of its essence.