“What a time to be alive!” It’s an expression that you hear often these days, but it was definitely true if you were a rock music fan in 1991. On August 12 of that year, Metallica released their self-titled album, often referred to as “The Black Album.”
Over the next two months, it was followed by a mind-blowing parade of classic albums: Pearl Jam’s classic debut, Ten, Guns N Roses’ long-anticipated Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II. And on September 24, Soundgarden released Badmotorfinger, the Red Hot Chili Peppers released Blood Sugar Sex Magik and Nirvana unleashed Nevermind. By the way, a lot of other great albums came out during that span, including Ozzy Osbourne’s No More Tears, Mr. Bungle’s self-titled debut, Hole’s debut Pretty On The Inside, the Pixies’ Trompe Le Monde. It wasn’t just rock bands who were releasing great records: country superstar Garth Brooks put out Ropin’ The Wind and hip-hop legends A Tribe Called Quest dropped The Low End Theory and Naughty By Nature released their debut. There was something in the air, or in the water.
But for the purposes of this list, we’re sticking with Nirvana, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Guns N Roses and Metallica. In honor of those incredible 44 days (they were tough if you were a student on a budget trying to buy all of these CDs!), we’re ranking the 44 best songs from those seven albums. We’re sure you’ll tell us what we missed and what we got wrong. But something that we can all agree on is that ’91 was a great and pretty much unprecedented time for rock music.
The singles from ‘The Black Album’ (rightfully) get a lot of attention, but “The God That Failed” is one of the album’s best tracks. Many songs on this list were borne of pain; that’s certainly where Kurt Cobain, Axl Rose, Eddie Vedder and Chris Cornell wrote from. And this song is one of the most painful: it’s about James Hetfield’s mother's death. She died of cancer after refusing medical attention, believing that her faith would save her.
Of course, not every song on this list is angst-ridden; in “Naked In The Rain,” the Chili Peppers are simply annoyed at humanity (“Cold and mean, people give me the creeps!”) and decide to hang out in a jungle instead. They love animals so much, they want to communicate with them. As Anthony Kiedis asks in the song, “Dr. Doolittle, what’s your secret?”
How tough was it to make this list? So tough that one of Stone Gossard’s best riffs on ‘Ten’ barely made the list (it’s worth noting that Jeff Ament wrote the music to this jam though). Like many of the songs on ‘Ten,’ though, it looks at dysfunctional families; the narrator laments the fate of a young girl who has been institutionalized: “It's been two years, and counting, since they put her in this place/She's been diagnosed by some stupid f---, and mommy agrees.”
Nirvana’s music was always a great study in contrasts -- often going from quiet to loud (a la the Pixies, one of their huge influences). Here, Kurt Cobain’s ragged vocals run right up against the sweeter backing vocals by Dave Grohl (this song was one of the first things the drummer recorded with the band).
‘Badmotorfinger’ was the band’s most psychedelic album, and this song is a good example of that. Drummer Matt Cameron said “‘Searching With My Good Eye Closed’ is one of Chris’ greatest songs, it has so much depth.” And the song translates well, too: Americana singer Brandi Carlile recently released a great cover of this one.
Kurt Cobain told Rolling Stone’s David Fricke that "Drain You" was one of his favorite compositions, saying that he thought it was as good, if not better, than "Smells Like Teen Spirit." “I never get tired of playing it," he said. "Maybe if it was as big as 'Teen Spirit,’ I wouldn’t like it as much.”
As we mentioned, a lot of the songs on this list were born of pain. But “Release” offers some catharsis. Eddie Vedder was still working through some issues from his past, while Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament were still dealing with the death of their former Mother Love Bone bandmate, Andrew Wood. But “Release” shines a light that possibly helped them get out of a dark place. It might do the same for you.
Famously originally titled “Imodium,” after the anti-diarrhea medication, it’s one of the most aggressive songs on ‘Nevermind,” with Cobain vocals, Krist Novoselic’s fuzzy bass and Dave Grohl’s frantic drums all competing for your attention.
Like the rest of the world, we’re stoked that Slash and Duff McKagan are back in Guns N Roses, but it’s a bummer that Izzy Stradlin’ isn’t part of the reunion. He brought a Stonesy, Aerosmith-y, Clash-y swagger that they’ve missed ever since he left. In fact, this song, which he co-wrote with West Arkeen (who also co-wrote “It’s So Easy” and a few other Guns jams) could have fit on an early ‘70s Stones or Aerosmith record.
After hearing “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” music fans might have been forgiven for thinking that Nirvana might have been a one-hit wonder (especially if they hadn’t heard their classic debut, ‘Bleach.’). But for anyone who bought the CD (or LP or cassette), they only needed to hear a few seconds of “In Bloom” to realize that “Smells” wasn’t the only time lightning was striking for the band. And of course, the rest of the album is classic as well.
Anthony Kiedis doesn’t like this song, but he isn’t making this list. He didn’t like his good-time L.A. lyrics, but that’s not what’s great about the song. What’s great about the song is the funky as HELL jamming by Flea, John Frusciante and Chad Smith.
The title, apparently, comes from the fact that Kurt Cobain thought that Krist Novoselic’s opening bass line sounded like something a lounge act would play. That might be true, but ten seconds into the song, they start trashing the lounge. And hey, it’s a catchy bass line!
“I don't question our existence,” Eddie Vedder sings here. “I just question our modern needs.” And later in the song, “I don't show, I don't share, I don't need, what you have to give…” set the tone for the decisions that Vedder and Pearl Jam would make over the next few years.
The definitive version of the Dylan classic, Guns had been performing it live for a few years before recording it for 1990’s ‘Days of Thunder’ soundtrack, before it came out on ‘Use Your Illusion II.’ Semantics aside, it features some of Axl Rose’s best singing and Slash’s sweetest leads.
In the ‘80s the Red Hot Chili Peppers weren’t known for acoustic ballads or sensitive lyrics. But by the ‘90s, they were growing up (a bit) and producer Rick Rubin pushed them in directions they hadn’t previously considered. Anthony Kiedis has said that it was based on his experience of being dumped by Sinead O’Connor, although she denies that they were ever involved. Either way: amazing song.
It was one of Paul McCartney’s most ambitious solo songs, and it was one of Guns N Roses’ most ambitious recordings as well. On McCartney’s version, the orchestra was conducted by former Beatles producer George Martin; on Guns’ version, Axl reproduced all of that on synthesizers, showing a huge artistic progression. GNR obviously loved ‘Appetite For Destruction,’ but they weren’t looking to repeat that album. Or at least Axl Rose didn't.
By the end of ‘Nevermind,’ Nirvana established that they were one of the noisiest bands on the planet. But they closed it with “Something In The Way” which showed how powerful they could be when they played quietly. (And of course, they followed it with the very noise “Endless, Nameless”).
Another great Izzy Stradlin’ moment: he co-wrote the song with Axl, and many fans speculated that it might have been about their friendship. The band have never confirmed that, but Izzy sang lead on the song. “It's been fourteen years of silence/It's been fourteen years of pain/It's been fourteen years that are gone forever/And I'll never have again.” They had known each other for fourteen years at that point, and Izzy quit the band right as the ‘Use Your Illusion’ albums were released.
The riff always reminded this writer of “Harvester Of Sorrow” from Metallica’s prior album, 1988’s ‘...and Justice For All.’ But there’s nothing wrong with that, both are among James Hetfield’s mightiest riffs.
Pearl Jam were one of the most radio-ready bands out of Seattle - at least they were on ‘Ten,’ if not their subsequent albums - but they weren’t afraid to go to dark places. “Jeremy” was based on two stories of gun violence in schools -- one that Eddie Vedder read about, and the other that he experienced when a junior high school classmate shot up a classroom. It’s still chilling to listen to today.
Is the song pro- or anti-religion? The title references a drug used to treat bipolar disorder, suggesting that religion is like a drug (or a disorder). On the other hand, Cobain said in an interview that the song was inspired in part by his experience living with a friend and his born-again Christian parents. He later said in an interview, "I've always felt that some people should have religion in their lives ... That's fine. If it's going to save someone, it's okay. And the person in [the song] needed it.”
Eddie Vedder writes a lot about his own experiences (“Alive”), but he’s also powerful when writing about others, as was the case here, where he wrote about a homeless Vietnam vet struggling with mental illness. Musically, it’s one of the band’s most powerful, pushed by one of Stone Gossard’s funkiest riffs and Mike McCready’s firey lead guitar playing, which he admitted was directly influenced by the late Stevie Ray Vaughan.
One of the few Soundgarden classics that Chris Cornell didn’t write or co-write. Guitarist Kim Thayil wrote the lyrics, while drummer Matt Cameron wrote the music. It’s wild, it’s psychedelic, it’s scary and that’s before the bonkers-saxophone solo kicks in.
In which Axl looks back… not with anger, but not quite fondly, either. The music video shows footage of the ‘Use Your Illusion’ era touring band, including then-new guitarist Gilby Clarke, interspersed with photos of the “old” GNR, including former members Steven Adler and Izzy Stradlin’.
Metallica shocked fans on 1988’s ‘...and Justice For All’ with “One,” a song that started out like a ballad… and it even had a music video! (As hard as it is to believe now, Metallica were famously video-averse in their first few years.) But “One” was about a casualty of war, which still felt like Metallica territory. “Nothing Else Matters” was a straight up love ballad. It was a huge risk, and it surely pissed off a lot of metal purists. But really, it paid off: it’s a classic song that has been covered by artists from R&B (Macy Gray) and country (Chris Stapleton).
“Alive” is intrinsically tied to Pearl Jam’s origin: Stone Gossard composed the music while he was still in Mother Love Bone. He, Jeff Ament and Mike McCready recorded a demo of the song, which found its way to Eddie Vedder. Vedder wrote lyrics that were partly fiction, but partly based on his experience of thinking that his stepfather was actually his father. It was the first single from the band’s debut album, and it took off relatively quickly. Within a year of the release of ‘Ten,’ they had shot an episode of ‘MTV Unplugged’ (which typically only worked with older acts), toured on Lollapalooza’s main stage, appeared in the film ‘Singles,’ and were on their way to stadium headlining status (and a hiatus from touring).
Another song featuring Izzy Stradlin’ on lead vocals; he co-wrote the song with Slash and Duff. Axl contributes backing vocals and piano. It’s another of the band’s Stonesy-est moments but also has a touch of Aerosmith: Slash’s voice box recalls Joe Perry’s playing in “Sweet Emotion.”
When ‘Badmotorfinger’ was released, Soundgarden’s members were not yet rock stars. Their earlier music was a bit too radical for primetime MTV and radio play (although Chris Cornell’s vocals on the Temple of the Dog album pointed towards his aptitude for more conventional tunes). “Jesus Christ Pose” mocked posturing rock band frontmen (including, allegedly, Axl Rose… who would later invite Soundgarden to open for Guns N Roses). Ironically, the song and album helped catapult Soundgarden to greater fame, leading to younger (and less successful bands) making the same criticism of Cornell himself.
Another song that was crucial to Pearl Jam’s origin: it was the only song that Eddie Vedder brought to the band when he went to Seattle to meet them; it showed that he would not only be a great frontman and lyricist, but a great songwriter. It was a highlight of their early shows; it was usually during “Porch” that Vedder would climb the rafters and jump into the audience. It’s still a highlight today, minus that rather dangerous bit of audience interaction.
Soundgarden’s first song that got real traction at rock radio, possibly because Chris Cornell’s vocals were a bit less abrasive (and only a bit less) than usual. The line, “I’m looking California and feeling Minnesota” is one of his best.
As we’ve mentioned, Axl Rose got reaaaaaaly ambitious on the ‘Use Your Illusion’ albums, and it paid off. Guns N Roses had the cultural currency to do pretty much whatever they wanted to do and Axl definitely took advantage of it. So this Axl-penned orchestral ballad clocked in at nearly nine minutes, and it dominated radio and MTV. The song, which predated ‘Appetite for Destruction,’ features some of Slash’s greatest playing.
It’s hard to imagine now, but the Red Hot Chili Peppers used to seem too weird to fit into the mainstream. They were this weird, quirky, fun and funky band but they didn’t seem like an arena rock group, and you wouldn’t have bet that they’d be rocking arenas in the 2020s. “Under The Bridge” changed that: it was soulful, confessional and an obvious hit, even on top 40 radio. Anthony Kiedis’s lyrics were a poem he wrote about his experiences with drugs, but he didn’t think it was appropriate for the band; fortunately, producer Rick Rubin changed his mind about that.
Yes, it sounded like Killing Joke’s “Eighties,” but “Eighties” never got much radio play, so few Nirvana fans caught the similarity. Anyway, after the massive success of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” it was a wise choice as a followup single. Years later, Dave Grohl played drums on Killing Joke’s self-titled 2003 album… and allegedly, refused to accept payment, possibly to attempt to make up for the “Eighties” schism.
Based on a riff that Kirk Hammett wrote - and which was, allegedly, influenced by Soundgarden - James Hetfield thought it was catchy. Maybe a bit too catchy. So he wrote disturbing lyrics to offset its potential commercial sound. Again, before ‘The Black Album,’ Metallica was extremely wary of the mainstream. Anyway, the song is pretty directly responsible for Metallica becoming one of the most popular bands of all time.
Sure, they’re two separate songs, but so are Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker” and “Living Loving Maid (She’s Just A Woman).” They are linked in the minds of millions of fans and they create an explosive opening to the Peppers’ breakthrough album. “Power” sees the band railing against racism while “If You Have To Ask” is a bit more laid back, taking its name from a quote by Louis Armstrong: “If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.”
Although the song opens Pearl Jam’s debut album, ‘Ten’ in epic manner, “Once” is a lyrical sequel to “Alive.” The main character leaves home after learning that the man who he thought was his father, wasn’t actually his father. He loses control of his life (“I gotta bomb in my temple that is gonna explode/I got a sixteen gauge buried under my clothes!”).
The “Use Your Illusion” albums had a lot of great songs, but let’s be honest: not many of them hold up to the songs on ’Appetite For Destruction.’ “You Could Be Mine,” written during the ‘Appetite’ era, is an exception to that rule. It’s as powerful as anything that they ever did, so it’s no surprise that Arnold Schwarzenegger personally asked the band to use the song in ‘Terminator 2.’ Fun fact: the line “we’ve seen that movie too” is a reference to Elton John’s song “I’ve Seen That Movie Too.”
It was never a radio hit but Soundgarden die-hards love this nearly 7 minute jam, co-written by Chris Cornell and Ben Shepherd. Many fans believe that this song was a vent against the music industry.
It wasn’t as popular as “Enter Sandman” or “Nothing Else Matters,” but it’s still the highlight of ‘The Black Album.’ And it was so powerful that even the fans who complained about acoustic guitars and ballads couldn’t deny the song’s power, and even the power of James Hetfield’s singing (as opposed to his yelling and growling). Like “The God That Failed,” this is a very personal look at his upbringing in a religious home.
Released a year before the “Illusion” albums on a compilation ‘Nobody's Child: Romanian Angel Appeal,’ it’s the only song on the albums that features original drummer Steven Adler. The song’s length and epic gave fans a taste for the ambitious songwriting that GNR were working on. It was also one of their more political songs, sampling a clip from the 1967 film ‘Cool Hand Luke’ (“
Soundgarden’s prior album, 1989's “Louder Than Love,” got them a lot of attention, but they didn’t use that momentum to try to cater to the mainstream. “Rusty Cage” was as brutal and relentless as a Motorhead jam. But the times were changing, and somehow, the mainstream came to Soundgarden, and embraced “Rusty Cage,” which would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier. But the song worked without Soundgarden’s audio chaos: a few years later, Johnny Cash recorded a cover of the song, backed by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers.
A ballad featuring producer Rick Parashar’s adult-contemporary sounding electric piano, Epic Records wanted to release the song as a single, which made sense. But Pearl Jam started being rebellious early, and wouldn’t allow it: they felt the song was a bit too personal to be on top 40 radio. Eddie Vedder apparently called radio stations to verify the label’s claims that they didn’t, in fact, release it to radio. Whether or not they did, it became a massive hit. And it’s an enduring one: you can watch a number of “reaction videos” on YouTube to watch people hearing “Black” for the first time. We’ll recommend RogueRxyce’s. You’re almost jealous that you’re not getting the experience that she’s having, but you might remember how hard the song hit you the first time you hear it.
The first single from the Chili Peppers’ fifth album. It needed to be good - even though they had just signed with a new record label, labels tend to lose interest in older bands who haven’t started selling lots of records. “Give It Away” had a lot of heavy lifting to do, and it did it, going on to become the band’s biggest hit at the time. It’s also one of the funkiest songs about generosity. The song changed Anthony Kiedis’s life, and not just because it increased his starpower. As he wrote in his autobiography, ‘Scar Tissue,’ when he was dating punk rocker Nina Hagen, he was going through her closet and saw a jacket that he liked. She told him to keep it. She took “sharing is caring” pretty seriously, saying, "if you have a closet full of clothes and you try to keep them all, your life will get very small. But if you have a full closet and someone sees something they like, if you give it to them, the world is a better place."
Yeah, yeah, it’s an obvious choice, but name another song that seemed to change culture overnight. After “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” ‘Nevermind’ knocked Michael Jackson off of the top of the Billboard album charts and the rules seemed to immediately change. ‘80s pop metal and adult contemporary acts needed to pivot to a new era, and most of them couldn’t, and all of the sudden you were hearing guitar-driven rock bands all over the radio and MTV. Which was amazing, while it lasted.