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    The Computer Audiophile

    What A Time To Be Alive: 1991

     


    I was a 15 year old freshman at Robbinsdale Armstrong High School, in a suburb of Minneapolis, when the calendar flipped to 1991. Over the winter of 1991 I continued listening to music that would soon populate greatest hits albums such as Motley Crue's Decade of Decadence (released 10/19/1991), Ratt's Ratt & Roll 81–91 (released 4/6/1991), and plenty more testosterone fueled anthemic albums. I grew up on a steady diet of Led Zeppelin, The Who, and Pink Floyd before succumbing to the new shiny object that was hair metal. It's no surprise that the "pioneers" of hair metal aren't mentioned in the Jim Collins and Jerry Porras book titled Built To Last. That said, I was about to embark on the best year for recorded music in my lifetime and one that would change my life forever. 

     

    On January 27, 1991, at Super Bowl XXV, Whitney Houston and The Florida Orchestra, directed by Jahja Ling, performed the most memorable rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" the world had ever seen or heard. Sure, Marvin Gaye's rendition at the 1983 NBA All Star Game was silky smooth and soulful, but it wasn't performed on the biggest stage in the world to 750 million viewers and it wasn't performed ten days into the Gulf War. America was hungry for patriotism and Whitney stepped up to deliver the yet to be topped rendition. The recorded version of Whitney's "The Star Spangled Banner" was released on February 12, 1991 with "America The Beautiful" as the B-side. 

     


    Under Appreciated, Missed, and Holding On

     

    In the first seven months of 1991, several albums were released that would later become absolute favorites of mine, but I just couldn't appreciate them at the time. Take for example Marc Cohn's self-titled debt album, release February 8, 1991. Years later I purchased the MFSL version (UDCD 767) and now consider it a favorite. There isn't a bad song on the entire album. Who can argue with "Walking in Memphis," "Ghost Train," "Silver Thunderbird," "Walk on Water," "Saving the Best for Last," and "True Companion?" As a 15 year old, I certainly could, and likely did, argue against the album's significance. 

     

    A few other albums from early 1991 would be brought back into my life after starting this very website. Natalie Cole's Unforgettable... With Love and Aaron Neville's Warm Your Heart, both released on June 11, 1991 and mastered by Doug Sax. Oh yeah, throw in Bonnie Raitt's Luck of the Draw, released on June 25, 1991, also mastered by Doug Sax. In January 1991 Divinyls released its self-titled album, also mastered by Doug Sax. This one was 100% on my radar for the same reason every 15 year old boy had it on his radar. The video for the hit single "I Touch Myself" was banned from television in Australia. Need I say more?

     

    Other early 1991 albums that I didn't appreciate at the time of release, but would circle back to me by the end of the year were Dinosaur Jr.'s Green Mind (2/19/1991), REM's Out of Time (3/12/1991), Massive Attack's Blue Lines (4/8/1991)The Smashing Pumpkins' Gish (5/28/1991), and one that would rock my world in a few short months, Temple Of The Dog's self-titled album (4/16/1991).

     

    I finished the first half of 1991 listening to music from Lenny Kravitz's Mama Said album (4/2/1991), Seal's self-titled debut album (5/1/1991), Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers' Into The Great Wide Open, it squeezed into my CD collection just after the first-half buzzer on July 2, 1991, and Van Halen's For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (6/18/1991). During this time I was still hanging on tight to Van Halen and Tom Petty, but opening my ears to Lenny Kravitz. I spent countless hours in the cars of older friends cranking Van Halen's "Top of the World," via my CD to cassette adapter, and feeling like I was on top of the world because of the freedom that riding in an adult-free automobile can provide a 15 year old.

     


    WTF Was That?

     

    It all started with unforgettable opening chords played by Stone Gossard and a striking vocal from Eddie Vedder. 

     

     

    Son, she said
    Have I got a little story for you
    What you thought was your daddy
    Was nothin' but a 

     

     

    My friend Mike and I looked at each other and said, What the fuck was that! It was Pearl Jam's "Alive." Pearl Jam's debut album Ten came out August 27, 1991 and my life was never the same. Needless to say, the second half of 1991 was the most transformative time in my music loving life.   

     

    Pearl Jam's Ten was busting at the seams full of music that mattered to me and the sound was like nothing I'd heard previously. In no time, I memorized every lyric on every track. These guys cared about people and stood for something. They were angry at the man. They supported women as equals, as opposed to the debaucherous and demeaning actions of my old favorite hair metal bands. I felt every lyric and every riff as if this was an album made just for me, but at the same time I felt the movement that just had to be coming. There was no way to hold this down. Everyone was going to hear this stuff very soon. 

     

    After reading the liner notes, front to back and back to front, many times, I sent a letter into something called the Ten Club, P.O. Box 81429, Seattle, WA 88108. I wanted to be a part of whatever the club was about. It turned out to be Pearl Jam's official fan club. I received a response asking for around $10 to join the club. At the time, $10 was a bridge too far. I could either buy a CD or be a member of this club. I skipped the club membership, went back to Down in the Valley, and purchased Toad The Wet Sprocket's album Fear, also released August 27, 1991. Toad's album Fear began my decades long interest in the band and the solo work by singer Glen Phillips.

     

    One month later my musical world was rocked by an embarrassment of riches. September 24, 1991 Nirvana released Nevermind and the Red Hot Chili Peppers released Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Both albums blew my mind for different reasons. Nirvana's hit single "Smells Like Teen Spirit" didn't do it for me at the time. My throat hurt every time I listened to Kurt Cobain scream. There was something about it that I didn't get at the time. The other tracks were absolutely amazing. "In Bloom," "Come As You Are," "Lithium, Drain You," "On A Plain," and the song "Polly," which was played on repeat while my friends and I, may or may not have, indulged in a certain psychedelic substance with a famous three letter acronym.

     

    Blood Sugar Sex Magik blew my mind because it was so different, so funky, and so strange. I'd never heard of the Red Hot Chili Peppers or producer Rick Rubin. Plus, the bassist went by the name Flea. That was intriguing. Right from the opening track, "The Power of Equality," this album both sucked me in and pushed me away. The music was out of this world cool, but also so strange to me that songs like "Funky Monks" made me think these guys weren't a serious band. I quickly got over the strangeness and embraced it. "Give it Away," "Suck My Kiss," "Blood Sugar Sex Magik," and "Under the Bridge" are all tracks I still love to this day. 

     

    Two weeks after Nevermind and Blood Sugar Sex Magik came out, Soundgarden released Badmotorfinger. Whoa! This is some heavy shit, thought my friend Mike and I, as we cranked it on his RCA stereo with speakers nearly as tall as we were, in his 7x9 bedroom. After the first four tracks, "Rusty Cage," "Outshined," "Slaves & Bulldozers," and "Jesus Christ Pose," we needed a break, or perhaps a level-headed adult in the room. What the hell was this guy singing about? Plus his voice was like nothing we'd heard. For the most part it was way over our heads, but the musicianship, heavy sound, and the voice of Chris Cornell was another nail in the coffin of the hair metal music to which I'd spent the last several years listening.

     

    Ten, Nevermind, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, and Badmotorfinger set me on a course from which, at my core, I haven't varied. It's nearly impossible to live through the six weeks in which these albums were released, be as invested in music as my friends and I were, and not have it imprinted on one's brain for life. I still love bands and music that stick it to the man, whatever and whoever that may be. I still love bands that let their freak flags fly and don't care what people think. I still love bands that make music for themselves and hope people like it. Perhaps this is why I dislike most music made by committee, by an artist whose image has been approved by a focus group and branding agency.  Perhaps this is also why I can't let something like MQA tax every music loving consumer, without getting the facts from those much smarter than I, and speaking out about what I think is wrong. Disagree with me all you want, I'm OK with that. I have respect for those who speak up, even if it's against me. 

     


    Hair Metal Out, Seattle In, and Hold Up...

     

    Those who didn't live through 1991, with music on their brains 24/7, may think it was all Seattle all the time. Oh no. It was a great time to be alive for music lovers. Going back to August 12, 1991, two weeks before Ten was released, Metallica released its self-titled album often called the black album. This album went on to sell over 16 million copies and found its way into all of our Case Logic CD holders. Metallica's first album with producer Bob Rock was the album that changed the band for better or worse. I remember playing this album until my ears hurt. We played it in the car, in the hockey locker room, on our headphones, and everywhere else. "Enter Sandman," "Sad But True," "The Unforgiven," "Wherever I May Roam", and "Nothing Else Matters" were all masterpieces of heavy metal made palatable for the masses. This wasn't music that lead me to new social causes, but it was fun music to just crank up and let go. 

     

    One month after Metallica's biggest album to date, Guns N' Roses released Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II (9/17/1991). This was a huge deal. Two albums from one of the biggest, most volatile bands in the world. I was a fan of Appetite for Destruction and the acoustic side of G N' R Lies, but I was more curious about the "Illusions" than anything. At the time the albums were released I couldn't get into them. It seemed like epic secretary rock to me (no offense meant). "Don't Cry," "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," "Civil War," and the nine minute "November Rain." The one track I really liked, and still do to this day, is "You Could Be Mine" from the second album. Matt Sorum's opening drum and Duff McKagan's opening bass sequence, followed by guitar from Izzy and Slash, is unforgettable. 

     


    Cruisin' In My 64, or the White Suburban Kid Version

     

    In 1991 I wasn't old enough to drive, but my friend Bob sure was. Bob also had a 1991 convertible Ford Mustang 5.0 with an aftermarket Alpine stereo. It was a recipe for disaster, that we managed to survive and from which we have some great memories. In the summer months with the top down, Bob, Mike, and I would take the long way to wherever we were going and blast rap and hip hop. In the colder months, we did the same thing, just with the convertible top buttoned up. 1991 was also a good year for our favorite driving music. We listened to several albums that would go on to influence generations of artists, and other albums that wound up careers of successful groups. 

     

    On May 28, 1991 N.W.A, one of my favorite rap groups of all time, released its final album titled Niggaz4Life (also known as the mirror image Efil4zaggin). The tracks "Niggaz 4 Life," "Appetite for Destruction," and "Alwayz into Somethin'" fascinated us, just like the tracks on N.W.A's album Straight Outta Compton. Of course one track amazed our juvenile sensibilities, that was the track titled "She Swallowed It." And, we knew every word. It's amazing that this album went to number 1 on the Billboard 200 chart. 

     

    Former N.W.A lyricist and vocalist Ice Cube released his second solo album, Death Certificate, later in the year on 10/29/1991. The album debuted at number 2 on the Billboard 200 and contained tracks "The Wrong Nigga To Fuck Wit" and "Steady Mobbin'" that received plenty of spins in Bob's CD player. 

     

    2Pac Shakur released his solo debut, 2Pacalypse Now, on 11/12/1991 but I didn't really get into it. I couldn't connect with it and didn't find the issue of teen pregnancy in "Brenda's Got A Baby" fascinating like I found other gangster rap. If anything, it freaked me out.

     

    On July 23, 1991, Dj Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince released the album Homebase, and what would become our summer driving anthem. That anthem was appropriately titled "Summertime." We drove around the lakes in Minneapolis, to friend's parties, and even to the convenient store blasting "summer, summer, summertime." To nobody's surprise, that song remained the summer anthem throughout high school.

     

    Other favorites that emanated from Bob's "5.0" were from Public enemy's Apocalypse 91, released on 10/3/1991. Bob was likely the biggest Public Enemy fan I knew and made sure to crank "Can't Truss It," "By The Time I Get To Arizona," and "Bring The Noize." As a 15 year old white suburban kid riding around in a new Mustang, I couldn't have been further from really comprehending the message behind "Arizona," but I loved it nonetheless. The collaboration between Public Enemy and the heavy metal band Anthrax on "Bring The Noize," was ahead of its time. I still really like this track. 

     

    Two other albums that have had long lasting effects in the hip hop and rap world, also came out in 1991. Cypress Hill's self-titled debut album (8/13/1991) and A Tribe Called Quest's The Low End Theory (9/24/1991). Cypress Hill later became known more for the hit Insane in the Brain and marijuana culture, but this album went on to be copied by artists for decades. The track "How I Could Just Kill a Man" was covered by Rage Against the Machine. At the time, Cypress Hill wasn't for me, but A Tribe Called Quest was up my alley. 

     

    The tracks on The Low End Theory weren't the type that my friends and I would blast in Bob's car. They were much more sophisticated and smooth. The tracks on "Low End" were the stuff I played through my headphones at night, trying to catch all the nuances and understand lyrics. This album introduced me to the artist Q-Tip, and to this day I've listened to much of his music. I can't drive through Southern California without thinking of the song "I Left My Wallet in El Segundo." This track was released before The Low End Theory and coincidentally has the track named Public Enemy on its B-side.  

     

    I understand that many audiophiles won't be into the aforementioned rap and hip hop, but if anything, A Tribe Called Quest's blend of jazz and hip hop on The Low End Theory is the most accessible of anything I've mentioned and it has been listed as one of the best albums ever made on many lists over the years. 

     


    Wrap Up, and There's More

     

    1991 was a magical musical year. Fortunately, before my 16th birthday near the end of November, even more magic was released. On November 5, 1991 Stevie Ray Vaughan's posthumous album The Sky is Crying came out. At the time, this album was way beyond my reach. In the years since, I purchase the MFSL version (UDCD 723) and love this album as much as any in the genre. 

     

    The last album of 1991 that I purchased remains an album to which I listen today. U2's Achtung Baby came out 11/18/1991. I wasn't a fan of U2 prior to this album, but that all changed with "Mysterious Ways." This track has a perfect mix of seriousness and fun, with a great beat and guitar riff that's unforgettable. I played tracks such as "Zoo Station," "Even Better Than The Real Thing," "One," and "So Cruel" endlessly through my Sony Discman as my family drove to relatives' houses over the holidays in 1991. Achtung Baby remains my favorite U2 album of all time, and it isn't even a close contest.

     

    One last note about the equipment used to play all this life changing music. At home I had a Technics receiver and a pair of Kenwood speakers my parents purchased for me for $32 each. I still owe them $64 plus tax, no interest though. While on the go, I had a Sony Discman and whatever headphone came with the unit, until I discovered upgraded Sony headphones. I have no clue which model they were, but the sound was fantastic and it's something that'll be in my head forever. I remember listening to Toad The Wet Sprocket's album Fear before a hockey game, through these headphones, and letting a friend listen because I loved the album. She was very impressed by the sound quality, not so much the album. My friend Mike, who I still text daily, talk to weekly, and see monthly, had an RCA stereo that seemed like separates but it was really just indented where the separate chassis would be in a real separate system. This was connected to giant RCA speakers. Man we had fun cranking that system. 

     

    By audiophile standards, all of these systems were laughable. Judging by how much fun we had listening back then, I don't think it really mattered. 1991 was a special time to be alive, and to be a 15 year old kid with nothing but time on his hands, to listen to music.

     

     

     

     

     


    A small sample of the albums released in 1991, chronologically 

     

     

     

     

     


     




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    50 minutes ago, Priaptor said:

    The 1972 Iran blizzard, which caused 4,000 reported deaths, was the deadliest blizzard in recorded history. Dropping as much as 26 feet (7.9 m) of snow, it completely covered 200 villages. After a snowfall lasting nearly a week, an area the size of Wisconsin was entirely buried in snow.

     

    Holy crap!

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    1 hour ago, AudioDoctor said:

     

    Holy crap!

    Amazing.
     

    Your post inspired me to look up bad blizzards as well as largest snowfalls. It turns out in the USA, Syracuse has more snow than any other city. 

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    2 hours ago, Priaptor said:

    Amazing.
     

    Your post inspired me to look up bad blizzards as well as largest snowfalls. It turns out in the USA, Syracuse has more snow than any other city. 

     

    Syracuse New York? That doesn't surprise me, Lake Effect snow is a thing and that's why upstate NY gets so much snow.

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    21 hours ago, Priaptor said:

    I think for me, 71 was the the year regarding music. Allman Brothers Live at the Fillmore, 4 Way Street, Elton John's 11-17-70, Rolling Stones Sticky Fingers, Low Spark of High Heeled Boys and Aqualung with some filling in from 1970 including Layla, Morrison Hotel, American Beauty, Band Of Gypsies and Abraxas.

     

    However, the two albums that dominated that year were Live at Fillmore and 4 Way Street. We literally played them so much that I think ingrained in my hippocampus are the grooves of the records from both of Southern Man and In Memory of Elizabeth Reed and if dissected could be played back. 

     Late 60's the 70's and the 80's for me.

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    Wow 1991 !!. Just started grad (medical) school that year. Any year with Achtung Baby will be always be special.

    Wanted to add Live's debut album (not great, but throwing copper was coming), Frazier Chorus Ray, and - if cover albums are allowed - a fantastic tribute to Leonard Cohen - "I'm Your Fan" - his songs sung by REM, Ian McCulloch, Pixes, John Cale, and more.

     

     

     

     

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    A great article and some interesting comments. Looking at the '91 albums list, I am happy to say that I own and cherish (and still play) a few of those listed. I also think that I like Nirvana's Nevermind somewhat more than our host does. It actually stands as the only album on the list that I have bought more than once. I have an original copy, and also some re-released box set thing.

     

    Although '91 was perhaps not the best year for some of the artists listed. For example, if I felt like listening to the Pixies or Michael Jackson one day, I would almost certainly not go for Trompe Le Monde or Dangerous. Other opinions are available, of course.

     

    With all that said, personally I think of '91 somewhat differently, more of a transition year.

     

    In the late '80's through to the early noughties, I spent some of my time DJ'ing. Also in the late 80's and early 90's, my big brother was arts editor for a UK newspaper. One of big bro's tasks was to write music and record reviews. As a consequence of this, he was sent all kinds of music and promo material from record companies, big and small. Much of this he received in multiple formats, so maybe a CD, vinyl and cassette tape.

     

    Being the generous soul that my brother is, often he would keep the CD copy, and send the vinyl or tape version to me, if he thought that the music was something I might be interested in. To this day I have very many strange and obscure LP's and 12" singles, most of which have little "Promo copy not for resale" stickers on them. (which somewhat ironically makes them more valuable if you want to sell them) 

     

    Amongst this strange array of music would be the odd electronic / EDM / rave type track, including some fairly extreme type material. On occasion I would play some of this stuff whilst on DJ duties. In the late 80's to 1990, this would very often result in the audience looking at me like I was a child murder or something, a kind of "what the hell is this" stare. I was probably at the wrong venues, as this was very much the time that the "illegal rave" scene was taking off in the UK.  Time moves on, by the time we get to '92, this same type of material has become Top 20 style mainstream. Indeed, some of that "extreme" late 80's material that would have been considered "underground" at the time had been re-released and seemed to have turned into a radio friendly Top 10 hit. So for me, '91 was not some kind of foundational year, more of time I could see things changing, with some types of music at least, and certainly in terms what was drifting into mainstream culture.

     

    So as some additions to the "transitional year" '91 list, we have Orbital's self titled "Orbital", The Future Sound of London's Accelerator, 808 State's ex:el, The Orbs Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld, I could go on.

     

    As an aside, some of those 90's ravers were also 30 years ahead of their time in terms of fashionable yet socially responsible facial wear.....

     

    image.png.b93d8dcd7afae9ee9bd5e37e791fd825.png

     

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    What interests me is the transition, roughly around this time, where aggressive music has to be played at a volume using equipment not capable of doing it accurately - meaning savage distortion and clipping of what you hear. That is, the music does not sound "rough enough", as recorded - so it has to be remastered by the playback chain to add an order of magnitude dirtiness to the sound in the room. To the point where many people believe this is the true nature of playback of music of this type ...

     

    Was never into Nirvana, and I find it curious that people want to play stuff like Smells Like Teen Spirit so that it sounds like it's coming from an overloaded, small PA speaker - the actual, original version of the track is as clean as a whistle, and a delight to listen to - as good as any, umm, audiophile material :D. But things are what they are - says a lot though about where the whole music game has come to, these days :).

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    23 minutes ago, fas42 said:

    What interests me is the transition, roughly around this time, where aggressive music has to be played at a volume using equipment not capable of doing it accurately - meaning savage distortion and clipping of what you hear. That is, the music does not sound "rough enough", as recorded - so it has to be remastered by the playback chain to add an order of magnitude dirtiness to the sound in the room. To the point where many people believe this is the true nature of playback of music of this type ...

     

    Was never into Nirvana, and I find it curious that people want to play stuff like Smells Like Teen Spirit so that it sounds like it's coming from an overloaded, small PA speaker - the actual, original version of the track is as clean as a whistle, and a delight to listen to - as good as any, umm, audiophile material :D. But things are what they are - says a lot though about where the whole music game has come to, these days :).

    I’ve never known anyone to do anything close to what you’re talking about. 

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    5 minutes ago, The Computer Audiophile said:

    I’ve never known anyone to do anything close to what you’re talking about. 

     

    Obviously we have been bumping into different crowds - that song is on many YouTube clips, where it's pushed well into clipping territory; it's almost guaranteed to be so presented.

     

    I got a bit of a shock when that audio friend up the road, in the middle of presenting other material at normal volume, then did that song so that the dirtiness was injected at a high level - to him, that was how the particular song should be heard; it was the norm.

     

    Of course, if that song is played anywhere in any public setting, it is done in a way to emphasize its aggressive qualities - pump up the volume thinkin' :) ...

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    This article really conjured up the memories.  Thank you.

     

    The 80's and 90's was a great era for music.  I never thought Sweet Child O'Mine would be considered an oldie.  I remember blasting GnR while driving through town in my '91 Pontiac Trans Am with the T-tops off and my lifeguard muscle tee on.  So many groups that will survive the test of time with iconic voices that stand on their own.  Van Halen, Aerosmith, Journey, Patty Smyth, Heart, Fleetwood Mac, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Tom Petty, Starship, Bryan Adams, Pretenders and the list goes on.

     

    In 1990, my system was an Adcom 535 amp with a Carver Z-band coupler connected to a Harmon Kardon receiver and AR 58 speakers fed with a first gen Sony CDP.

     

    "Where do we go now, where do we go noooooooow..."

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    1 minute ago, photonman said:

    So many groups that will survive the test of time with iconic voices that stand on their own.  Van Halen, Aerosmith, Journey, Patty Smyth, Heart, Fleetwood Mac, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Tom Petty, Starship, Bryan Adams, Pretenders and the list goes on.

    Absolutely!

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