1991 was the greatest year ever
Entering 2016, I began reflecting on a quarter century ago, 1991. As a tail-end Gen-X’er, this was my 7th and 8th grade year, with an epic summer nudged in between. Bikes. Video games. Movies. Music (much more on that below.)
Hanging out with friends felt like the adventure pack in “Goonies,” the gang on the tracks in “Stand By Me,” the fleeing teens in “E.T.” or, most accurately, the inspiration for the ragtag buddies in 1993's “The Sandlot.”
Why was it a good year, and why should you care? Check out these nuggets below and tell me you can’t relate to at least one of them.
Rose Bowl! What better way to start the year than watching the Iowa Hawkeyes in the Rose Bowl on its first day? It had been a long five years since they had been there in ’86 — nearly 1/3 of my whole life! Watching Hawkeye running back Nick Bell bound through the hash marks was transcendent. Sure, they lost but they’d go to the Rose Bowl again, right? Yep — 25 years later, in 2016.
Gulf War: This was the first war of my memory, led by our Commander-in-Chief George H.W. Bush. And it was the first time I had really seen what patriotic pride really looked like. Everyone was flying flags and watching the only 24-hour-news network, CNN, as our military fed cutting-edge night vision video of buildings getting blown up. It was awesome.
Super Bowl! Not gonna lie, I had to look up who was in this one (Bills vs. Giants) but there were two big moments in this game. The first: Whitney. Her performance of the Star Spangled Banner was talked about more than the ads, and went on to become a best-selling single. Keep in mind, this was a war-time performance.
The second was the music I heard blaring in the stadium as they headed into commercial break. Martha Wash’s “EVERYBODY DANCE NOW!” kicked on with a sick beat following, and I couldn’t help but perk up and wonder what this sweet music molasses was all about, but you couldn’t just turn on your handheld Google machine and know in an instant. I learned later that C+C Music Factory was the band, and they continued filling radio with hits throughout the year, including “Here We Go (Let’s Rock and Roll)” and “Things that Make You Go Hmmmm,” the video of which I watched on MTV (sorry, Mom) when it was the “Exclusive Video Premiere” — they used to hype these for days on end until the special date and time arrived. It was a suggestive video, but I didn’t know what half of it meant at the time.
Lights, Camera, Action!: The HUGE movie that seemed to be everywhere in 1991 was “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” starring Kevin Costner. In retrospect, it was truly awful. But its staying power was captured with the inescapable, record-breaking song “(Everything I Do) I Do it for You” by Bryan Adams (hellloooooo middle school slow dances!)
The BEST movie to come out that year was “The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear.” I had never laughed so hard in my life. And thanks to pre-reality show summers that still relied on re-runs, CBS ran 1982's “Police Squad!” which also starred Leslie Nielsen and was the basis for the movie. The classics age so well.
The Addams Family came out that fall, and as an avid childhood watcher of the campy 1960s black and white TV show on Nick-at-Nite, this was a mind-blowing development. Even better? The soundtrack had a song from the biggest rap star on the planet: M.C. Hammer
Other notables: Point Break, The Silence of the Lambs, Hook, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Boyz N the Hood, Thelma & Louise, City Slickers, JFK, What About Bob?, The Rocketeer, The Doors, Doc Hollywood.
Addendum: This is the year they thought Vanilla Ice could carry a movie in “Cool as Ice” and Brian Bosworth could pack a theater in “Stone Cold.” As their titles accurately foreshadowed, they never got very hot at the box office.
The Music: This is what really brings it back for me. Yes, I’ve mentioned C&C Music Factory and the Bryan Adams song that played on loop during the whole month of August. But this was the final, true year for the Modern Rock genre.
I was exposed to this music throughout my childhood thanks to older brothers in college. But that’s all it was: “college rock” that only ran on college radio stations. Something changed that year, which I discovered when I visited my brother in Pittsburgh. It was April, and we walked by a record store plastered with posters for the new R.E.M. album “Out of Time.” They were treating the album as if it was a new release from Madonna or Michael Jackson. I hadn’t seen that kind of exposure for an alternative college band before.
“Losing my Religion” was the album’s huge hit, with regular play on MTV. Given the commercial success, it ushered in the era of mainstream alternative music. Modern Rock eventually handed the baton over to Grunge (more on that below), which in turn carried it through the mid-’90s, while industrial rock artists like Nine Inch Nails saw their peak during this run as well.
My personal favorite at the time was EMF’s “Unbelievable.” I loved the video, the album artwork and the Andrew Dice Clay expletive that I still can’t believe they got away with using on commercial radio. A lot of people presume this to be the ultimate dance song of the summer, but in reality this was a part of the so-called “Madchester” scene and considered alternative in its own right. It ended up topping the Billboard charts in July before it got bumped by — you guessed it — Mr. Adams’ love song.
Competing with EMF was Jesus Jones, whose “Right Here, Right Now” played second fiddle to “Unbelievable,” but carried with it the heavier message of The Wall coming down in ’89, the collapse of communism and the freedom enjoyed as a result. This was echoed by The Scorpions’ “Winds of Change.”
The other notable songs blasting out of my tape-deck boom box, over the swimming pool PA, and in cars that year contained a number of first-time artists that are still recognizable today, 25 years later, as well as some names that stretched back to the ’70s. There are one-hit wonders and songs withstanding the test of time. See how many you recognize:
“It Ain’t Over ’Til It’s Over” — Lenny Kravitz
“Crazy” — Seal
“3 a.m. Eternal” — KLF
“Now That We Found Love” — Heavy D and the Boyz
“Place in this World” — Michael W. Smith
“Something to Believe In” — Poison
“Don’t Treat Me Bad” — Firehouse
“Love of a Lifetime” — Firehouse
“Wicked Game” — Chris Issak
“Silent Lucidity” — Queensryche
“Groove is in the Heart” — Deee-lite
“O.P.P.” — Naughty By Nature
“Rico Suave” — Gerardo
“Shiny Happy People” — R.E.M.
“The Motown Song” — Rod Stewart
“You Could Be Mine” — Guns N’ Roses
“Learning to Fly” — Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
“I wanna Sex You Up” — Color Me Badd
“More Than Words” — Extreme
“Hole Hearted” — Extreme
“Iesha” — Another Bad Creation
“High Enough” — Damn Yankees
“Good Vibrations” — Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch (you know him now as the actor Mark Wahlberg)
“Joyride” — Roxette
“Enter Sandman” — Metallica
“Thunderstruck” — AC/DC
“I’m Too Sexy” — Right Said Fred
“Motown Philly” — Boyz II Men
“Baby Baby” — Amy Grant
“The One and Only” — Chesney Hawkes
Summer turns to autumn: Just as I got to 8th grade, king of the hill at our middle school, the leaves began to change, we prepared for the homecoming parade and music was making its major turn.
“Use Your Illusion I and II” by Guns n’ Roses was an epic, two-disc masterpiece that served as the capstone on the so-called “Hair Bands” of the 1980s. Think Poison, Motley Crue, Winger and the like. Not only did GnR have the coolest song on the coolest soundtrack, “You Could be Mine” from “Terminator 2,” but when “November Rain” came out, accompanied with a stirring video,” they had their magnum opus. Little did we know, it would be the last true hair band moment.
U2’s “Achtung Baby” was just an incredible album, start to finish. This was the follow-up to the incomparable, seminal “The Joshua Tree,” of which all subsequent U2 albums would ultimately be compared against. I was SUCH a The Joshua Tree homer that I didn’t think anything they ever completed again would come close. When “Mysterious Ways” debuted on MTV it sounded so different from The Joshua Tree I initially thought it was a disappointment. To me, at least.
But I gave the album a shot. From The Edge’s strong guitar introducing the album to its listeners on “Zoo Station,” all the way through to “Love is Blindness,” the album was and still is an incredible piece of art. I listened to it endlessly, until I thought the once unthinkable: Is this better than The Joshua Tree?
Ultimately it comes down to the style you like, and the mood you’re in. But song-for-song, Achtung Baby holds its own with The Joshua Tree and that, in and of itself, is a supreme accomplishment. I should mention — U2 also was a college rock band that ended up making it big.
Just when I thought 1991 couldn’t get any better, perhaps the most jarring moment occurred in the fall, as the greatest year entered its final phase. I remember it vividly, when I was at a friend’s house watching MTV (again, sorry Mom.)
Grainy footage of some cheerleaders set in a high school gymnasium, an unforgettable guitar riff, driving drums and words I couldn’t understand in loud, quiet, loud patterns. It was “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana. It was magical, and I couldn’t help but think “This is gonna be big.” I didn’t know at the time what “this” was, but you could feel it. There was nothing like it ever before. This was Grunge.
A ton of great music followed that next summer, and throughout my high school years. The style, attitude, pop culture and music defined a generation as the alternative music page turned from heavily European-inspired Modern Rock to the quintessentially West Coast Grunge movement, and became mainstream.
And that’s why 1991 is the greatest year.