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Best albums of 1991: Albums #10 through #6

Here we are, exactly three weeks into 2021 and this here will mark my sixth post of the year (though I consider the first one a continuation of the themes of 2020). And so far, I’ve been hanging out quite a bit in the early 1990s – happier and simpler times, in this blogger’s humble opinion. I’ve shared a couple of ‘Vinyl love’ posts on treasured pieces of my vinyl collection, albums originally released during a high point in my youth, and a few days ago, I wrapped up my Best tunes of 1992 series with Ride’s amazing “Leave them all behind“. So I thought I’d keep with the era and have another look back thirty years ago to explore my ten favourite albums from 1991.

As I mentioned when I counted down my thirty favourite songs from that year, 1991 was a big year for me in terms of musical exploration and discovery and because of this, it is one of my favourite years for music. To this day, a lot of my favourite albums ever were released in 1991. So as you can imagine, this one was another tough one for me to narrow down. Indeed, when the dust cleared, albums that I thought would be on this list, were not here. (Apparently, there can only be ten albums in a top ten.) Similarly, there are a bunch of iconic and influential albums that many of you might expect to be in this list that didn’t make the cut. Thus, I’ll forewarn you from now and spoil the twist ending in which you won’t find “Achtung baby”, “Nevermind”, nor “Loveless” anywhere in this particular series (though this last just narrowly missed the cut).

If you’ve been around these pages before, you’ll recognize today’s post as the tease, introducing the five albums that round out the latter part of my top ten. However, I’m changing things up with this series from here, and I’m not just talking about dropping the pretence that these first five albums are honourable mentions, though I’ve decided to do that too. Normally, after this one, I would lay out my five favourite albums for the year over the course of the next five Thursdays, one per week, but given that 1991 is one of my favourite years for music, I’ve decided to stretch things out and take my time with it. I will still focus on an album per post, doing my best to the paint each album’s importance to me and to music in general, but instead, will do so every other Thursday and wrap all this up by the beginning of April.

Are you excited? I am. So let’s do this. And of course, as we do, I’d love to hear your thoughts, both on my picks and what your own would be, if you had to rank your top ten albums for 1991, in the comments section provided with each post.


#10 Ned’s Atomic Dustbin “God Fodder”

The debut album by the five-piece from Stourbridge, England was just all kinds of energy and fun. Recorded when a couple of the band’s members were still just teenagers, “God fodder” and its songs are not deep lyrically, focusing instead on flashy and memorable titles and letting the rest just fall into place. Of course, it helped that their tight, Grebo sound that mixed punk thunder with electronic samples and dance floor rushing beats, had enough depth to cover off. The drumming was hectic and complex, the guitars loud, but it was the two bass players that really had Ned’s Atomic Dustbin standing out. I blasted so many of these songs at high volume when I originally purchased this album on CD. “Kill your television” is probably the track that most will remember from the album (it appeared on my Best tunes of 1991 list at #21) but I also really dug the track below.

Gateway tune: Grey cell green


#9 Spirit of the West “Go figure”

My introduction to the now iconic Canadian folk rock band from North Vancouver came by way of this, their fifth full length record. I caught the video for the song below, “D for democracy”, on the music video show, “Good rockin’ tonite”, and the love affair took off from there. I loved the sound but it was the depth of the lyrics that really hooked me. “Go figure” was a political record. It wasn’t that Spirit of the West didn’t venture here prior or since but there was a definite bent against the Brian Mulroney-led Conservative government at the time. This was also the point in the band’s storied history that they ‘went electric’, toying with rock, and adding drummer (gasp) Vince Ditrich to their official roster. This effectively alienated some of their previous folkie fans but drew in a larger alt-rock audience. For me, though, this is simply eleven unforgettable tunes.

Gateway tune: D for Democracy


#8 Chapterhouse “Whirlpool”

When people talk about the iconic shoegaze albums, the names often bandied about are “Loveless”, “Spooky”, “Souvlaki”, and “Nowhere”. I would humbly posit that “Whirlpool” should be considered as part of this same conversation. Chapterhouse’s debut was, for me, especially at the time, among the best that the genre could offer up. The five-piece from Reading, England collected for their debut nine beautiful tracks that walloped you from the inside. It was reverb-drenched washes of strobe lights, shoegazing with a danceable beat. It was organic but felt electronic, subterfuge and magic, perhaps foreshadowing their next move. But that’s a story for another day. We’ll just leave this near perfect single I’ve reference below for you to chew on.

Gateway tune: Pearl


#7 Blur “Leisure”

It’s funny that this album directly follows Chapterhouse’s “Whirlpool” on this list (and I swear that this wasn’t by design). I’ve mentioned before in these pages that I used to have a C90 cassette back in 1991, upon which these two albums were recorded on either side. So yeah, inextricably linked are these two albums for me. But where Chapterhouse’s debut knew exactly where its feet were planted, Blur’s wasn’t so sure. In the past, frontman Damon Albarn has called “Leisure” a bit of a mess. However, I feel that he’s being a bit hard on the album. Sure, it played both the shoegaze and baggy cards, but it played them well and there were some excellent songs that are still favourites of this big Blur fan today. You can include the one below, “Sing”, which appeared on the “Trainspotting” soundtrack”, and “There’s no other way”, which appeared on my Best tunes of 1991 list at number six.

Gateway tune: She’s so high


#6 Levellers “Levelling the land”

I’ve already told the story on these pages about how I discovered these guys watching MuchMusic’s City Limits when their video for “One way” was played on the show. I bought “Levelling the land” on cassette tape just based on hearing this one song. (We did such things back in those days.) And it became my Sony Walkman’s favourite cassette for a time. The fiddle/mandolin/harmonica/foot-stomping folk punk on the band’s sophomore release was great for walking around my small town, something I did a lot of in those days, because there wasn’t much else to do. It got so that I was singing along under my breath to each and every song and the many upbeat numbers put a hop in my step. Levellers are still a going concern today with many great tunes to their name but this is still quite possibly their high water mark.

Gateway tune: Liberty song


Check back two Thursdays from today for album #5 on this list. In the meantime, you can check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.

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Albums

Best albums of 1989: #5 The Wonder Stuff “Hup”

Much like I said of their debut album’s appearance at number two on my Best Albums of 1988 list, the inclusion of The Wonder Stuff’s sophomore album here can be chalked right up to the nostalgia factor.

Indeed, I’ve already admitted a few times on these pages that Miles Hunt’s group of hooligans were my favourite band throughout the first half of the 1990s. It all started off when a friend of mine turned me on to them with their debut long player, “Eight legged groove machine”. I would later purchase a copy of their third album, 1991’s “Never loved Elvis”, on cassette tape and after the initial surprise at the change in sound, proceeded to wear it out with countless plays on my Walkman. Then, another of my friends, Tim, purchased a copy of “Hup” on vinyl and made a recording of it for me on cassette tape. It was like the missing puzzle piece, the light switch that illuminated the previously obscured path between the first and third albums.

“Hup” was the first album on which we hear the contributions of multi-instrumentalist, Martin Bell, though as I recall, he didn’t become an official member of the group until “Never loved Elvis”. “Hup” was also the last album on which appeared the original bass player, Rob ‘The bass thing’ Jones. (A changing of the guard of sorts.) The bass thing would leave the group a couple of months after “Hup”‘s release, head off for the United States to pursue other musical interests, and die a handful of years later. It’s very possible that the first change had a precipitous effect on the second. Jones left the group because he was unhappy with the direction things were moving in and you could clearly hear the change coming through various songs on the record. On certain tracks, you could feel the peppy, catchy, and thunderous guitar rock that playfully toys with samples, all reminiscent of the debut, but perhaps less succinct and bigger in scope. On other tracks, the folk and country influence was more slightly creeping in, an apparent result of touring stateside, a sound they would hone and go on to make their own on the two following albums.

Reading the above, you might get the impression that “Hup” is a disjointed and unsatisfying listen and that might certainly have been the case had frontman Miles Hunt not been quite as good a lyricist or had as good a grasp on writing a catchy pop song. Of the three songs I‘ve picked for you below, two were highly successful singles and the other one likely would have been had it been released as planned. Enjoy.


”Piece of sky”: Machine gun fire drumming and handclaps. Backwards guitar effects drudged in to muddy the rainbow jangles. Malc and Miles harmonizing snarls and swoons. The odd vibraslap thrown in for good measure. Not even two and a half minutes long, “Piece of sky“ was originally meant to be released as the third single but was shelved after Rob Jones left the band. And later, after he died, fans wanted to hear the Stuffies play this track at shows, not because they had necessarily written it about him or with him in mind, but the hard living themes were apt and hit home. “How did you get so very high? You got so high you almost touched the sky. Lady luck couldn’t wish you more luck than I so take a jump and steal your piece of sky.”

”Don’t let me down, gently”: The first single released off the album and the first of their singles to hit the UK top twenty, a trend that continued for a string of their next bunch. It features Gilks’ floppy and heavy handed drumming, lots of roaring guitars, the call and response sounding intro is particularly fun, and of course, there’s James Taylor’s whirling Hammond organs. “It would be great to die together on the first day of the year, ‘cos then we’d be quite legendary. Could you volunteer?“ Yeah, it’s another fun track that packs a punch in a very short time frame. High energy and ammo for doing the pogo. Right? Right.

”Golden green”: “She’s taken all my vitamins, used up my lighter fuel, I’m sure she stole all of my pencil lead in school. Don’t flap. I’ll give it back, but woman its not the lack of my possessions that is making me feel cruel.” The second single to be released off the album is a real stomper. A song about a love gone sour or about to do, the two-facedness of it all, the good times and bad. And it’s set to an old Country theme, albeit with a Wonder Stuff tinge. It’s got Martin Bell’s fingers all over it, twanging banjo, as well as screaming fiddles. And The Bass Thing shines here as well, the bass line definitely feeling upright and solid and jumping, especially on that outstanding bridge. If you hadn’t known better, you might’ve thought a hoe down had exploded all over the place, sending hay flying and beer glasses smashing. So much fun.


Check back next Monday for album #4. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. The Jesus And Mary Chain “Automatic”
9. Galaxie 500 “On fire”
8. The Beautiful South  “Welcome to The Beautiful South”
7. The Grapes of Wrath “Now and again”
6. New Model Army “Thunder and consolation”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.

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Albums

Best albums of 1988: #2 The Wonder Stuff “The eight legged groove machine”

You can pretty much file this album under nostalgia for me. I won’t deny it. The Wonder Stuff weren’t particularly ground-breaking or influential but I was a rabid fan of the band throughout the 90s. In truth, I fingered them as my favourite band for a great many years. Much of this leads back to my initial discovery of the band, way back in 1990.

A friend at the time, Elliott, loaned me a cassette tape copy of “The eight legged groove machine”. This friend was mostly into thrash metal and hardcore punk so I was a bit dubious. However, he assured me that The Wonder Stuff weren’t of that ilk and that the only reason he had the album at all was that he had liked its cover (yes, we used to do that in the old days). I think I had the album for about a week before I put it on while doing some chores around the house. What struck me immediately was the band’s energy. After a few songs, the lyrical content caught my attention even more. With titles like “Give, give, give me more, more, more” and “It’s yer money I’m after baby”, they were songs that weren’t being played on commercial radio and they appealed to my typically instilled angst and ennui. It was love at first listen.

The Wonder Stuff formed in 1986 in Stourbridge, England and came out of the music scene based in the Midlands, curiously titled ‘Grebo’, that also spawned such luminaries as Pop Will Eat Itself, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, and Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine. This scene was popular in England at the time but never really took hold here in North America. The Wonder Stuff released a total of four albums before splitting up in 1994, much to my chagrin.* After a few years in which the band members undertook various solo projects, the band re-formed in 2000 as they were at dissolution in 1994, with the exception of the bass player (the original bass player, Rob Jones, had died in 1993 and Paul Clifford wasn’t included in the reunion). Miles Hunt, Malc Treece, Martin Gilks, and Martin Bell, along with Pete Whittaker and a new bass player, played a series of sold out shows at the Forum in London. Since then, there have a been a number of lineup changes and a few new albums released but the only constant from the original lineup now is frontman, Miles Hunt.

“The eight legged groove machine” was The Wonder Stuff’s debut album. Running in at just under 40 minutes in 14 tracks, it was snarling, raucous pop, music that snuck up behind you and sucker punched you every time. The songs were short, fast, rabidly catchy, and the lyrics biting but playful. Each song is a large part of my memories of my late teen years because they were so often the soundtrack that accompanied me on my walkman in those days. Admittedly, the album sounds a bit dated when I listen to it now but there are tracks here that I still count amongst my favourite tracks. Here are my three picks for you, along with some of the Miles Hunt lyrical gems contained within.


”Give give give me more more more”: The cash register ka-ching that starts the song, feels like an echo throughout its three minutes, and frontman Miles Hunt starts in. “Well I hope I make more money than this in the next world. I hope there’s a lot more in it there for me. I’d like my trousers pressed and my shoes shined up by a rich girl, who’s only care in the world is me.” Never demanding much, is he, that Miles. Just everything and more. And it becomes a clarion call with the pounding beat and rifling guitars that bounce and climb, not-so-gently requesting everyone into some pogo action (just don’t stage dive, whatever you do).

”A wish away”: A danceable beat and jangly guitars and you want to jump out on the dance floor to sing along with the repeated chorus line. It all feels so happy and upbeat but the song is anything but about all that. Like much of this album, the short, energetic jolts have dark and cynical undertones. The singer here is never really needing his lover around except at his low times. “But now I need a hug and now I need a love and I really, really wish you were here.” On the title, frontman Hunt has said that they came up on it by way of a recording accident and hearing the vocals sung backwards. The extra line to include it at the end was just a tease.

”It’s yer money I’m after baby”: There’s one thing you can say for Miles Hunt and his lyrics. He doesn’t really use vagaries, at least not in his early work, but he always could deliver a line. “Don’t give me love, oh no none of that stuff ‘cos it’s yer money I’m after, baby.” What The Wonder Stuff as whole does, though, is take the biting wit and sugarcoat it in rip-roaring and peppy pop tunes. Like the previous two, this track clocks in around the three minute sweet spot and deliveries on the catchy and the danceable. The acoustic strumming, the wiry bass line, the almost silly electric guitar high, and of course, Martin Gilks’ super fun drumming. Just another great track that I would listen to over and over again as a teen and that I still know word for word today.


Check back next Thursday for album #1. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. The Sugarcubes “Life’s too good”
9. Erasure “The innocents”
8. Billy Bragg “Worker’s playtime”
7. Jane’s Addiction “Nothing’s shocking”
6. Leonard Cohen “I’m your man”
5. R.E.M. “Green”
4. Pixies “Surfer rosa”
3. The Waterboys “Fisherman’s blues”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.

*True story: I learned of The Wonder Stuff’s break up on a camping trip, while cutting down a tree for firewood. After my friend Tim mentioned this piece of news, the tree came down in short order.