Welcome to Alternative Press’ pick of the 15 best punk albums of 1991. It was a momentous year, one in which underground culture burst into the mainstream, taking punk and all its offshoots with it. Blame it on one album: Nirvana’s Nevermind.
Many punkier-than-thou types will moan when seeing this album’s inclusion. They’d be denying history. Grunge was a punk derivative. It’s what happened when heartland youth liberated by punk saw the value in fusing the Stooges’ delinquent energy with Sabbath–oid sludge-metal riffs. Yet, no one involved in underground/alternative/indie culture saw Nirvana going supernova. Most of us then banked on Mudhoney becoming grunge’s breakout band. A years-old rock press adjective, “grunge” fit Mudhoney like a Savile Row-tailored flannel shirt. They toured their Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge LP just as “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was released. Packing larger venues than they had the last two years, their moment seemed imminent.
D.C. post-hardcore father figures Fugazi could’ve easily become punk’s mainstream breakthrough band. 1990’s Repeater sold more than 300,000 copies. Its attendant 250-date international tour regularly filled 1,000-plus-capacity venues. Steady Diet Of Nothing elicited six-month advance orders of 160,000 copies. Heady stuff for a band so cemented in D.I.Y. ethics, they kept show tickets at $5, had no merch booth and denied interviews to magazines featuring cigarette or liquor advertising.
But after two years of increasing record sales for bands such as the Cure and Jane’s Addiction, MTV airing burgeoning alt videos on 120 Minutes and that summer’s Lollapalooza alt package tour? Someone was breaking through to mass success. They’d drag punk and every other alternative genre kicking and screaming with them. You would never have to hear Poison again. And no other 1991 record had the universal songs and pop songwriting genius of Nevermind.
Nirvana – Nevermind
What propelled Nirvana out of the underground into stores monitored by SoundScan wasn’t Butch Vig’s glossy, radio-friendly production. It wasn’t even Samuel Bayer’s visually catchy “Smells Like Teen Spirit” MTV video, with the band, moshing fans and anarchy-symbol-wearing varsity cheerleaders disrupting a high school pep rally. It was Kurt Cobain’s ‘60s-pop-radio-bred compositional smarts, which sliced through the wall-of-filth guitars like a chainsaw aimed at a stack of Kleenex. Having a monster drummer in Dave Grohl helped, as did Cobain’s uncanny ability to scream on pitch. But his songs perfectly captured the ennui and frustrations of the entire latch-key-kid generation entering their early 20s. They ensured Nirvana went mega. However, a quick scan of many of Nevermind’s lyrics suggest Cobain saw stardom coming, and it repulsed him. Think of the oh-so-familiar “Teen Spirit” couplet: “I feel stupid and contagious/Here we are now, entertain us!” Or the redneck fan profiled in “In Bloom”: “He’s the one who likes all our pretty songs/And he likes to sing along/And he likes to shoot his gun/But he knows not what it means.” Like Elvis Presley or the Beatles, Nirvana opened a door and exposed the world to a new sound that had been bubbling below the surface. And nothing was ever the same again, for better or worse.
Mudhoney – Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge
Fudge dropped two months before Nevermind. Mudhoney ripping through their most garage-y songs to date, such as “Let It Slide” or “Into The Drink,” felt like a victory lap. The album boasted stronger, clearer production, courtesy of local 8-track wizard Conrad Uno. This meant Mark Arm’s and Steve Turner’s Superfuzzed and Big Muffed guitar work was no longer sludgeaholic. Dan Peters’ drums and Matt Lukin’s bass had an articulate thud they never before possessed. Arm’s Iggy–esque drawl still sat in the mix like another instrument. But better production didn’t trigger Mudhoneymania. They still make strong records, consistently packing large-ish venues.
Fugazi – Steady Diet Of Nothing
Repeater producer Ted Niceley was absent, tending to a new job as a chef. Fugazi self-produced their second studio full-length. The results struck guitarist/singer Ian MacKaye as a “conservative” sound. His terming the mix “democratic” is more accurate: Every member had equal space in the sonic picture, with no one louder or softer than the other. It was the aural equivalent of the band’s overall egalitarian philosophy. But it allowed the exemplary Brendan Canty (drums)/Joe Lally (bass) rhythm section to especially shine. And it possibly gave strong material such as “Dear Justice Letter” and “Reclamation” more breathing room.
Bikini Kill – Revolution Girl Style Now
Meet ‘90s punk’s feminist version of Martin Luther tacking those 95 Theses on the church door. There was nothing quiet about what was essentially riot grrrl’s opening manifesto. Revolution Girl Style Now resembled singer Kathleen Hanna and drummer Tobi Vail’s Bikini Kill fanzine, set to an abrasive, uber-distorted version of 1977 punk. It set off a bomb inside the ultra-macho hardcore culture that shoved women outta the mosh pit and off the stage. Bikini Kill shoved back: “Don’t you talk out of line,” Hanna snarled on “Double Dare Ya.” “Don’t go speaking out of your turn/Gotta listen to what the Man says/Time to make his stomach burn!”
Les Thugs – I.A.B.F.
Formed in Angers, France by brothers Eric and Christophe Sourice in 1983, Les Thugs were weaned on late ‘70s U.K. punk. Live and on record, their peculiar noise resembled 50 copies of Buzzcocks B-side “Just Lust” played simultaneously through Motörhead’s backline. They had melody and gobs of drive, but their most prominent sonic characteristic was their Tom Lyle-thick guitar sound. Eric’s vocals submerged in the six-string din echoed one of the autumn’s big releases, My Bloody Valentine’s drone fest Loveless. With such corruscating material as “I Love You So” and “Stop The War,” I.A.B.F. remains Les Thugs’ best full-length.
Leatherface – Mush
This writer joked for years that he wanted Motörhead to detonate the Police‘s horrendous yet massively successful 1979 hit “Message In A Bottle.” Some idea of how that’d sound surfaced when England’s Leatherface ended their third album with that song. After all, leader Frankie Stubbs’ sandpapered larynx resembled Lemmy’s legendary gravel throat, and the band’s attack resembled the punk/metal heroes gone pop. Mush had to be their apex release, with an enormous, shiny production couching such killer songs as “Not Superstitious” and “Springtime.” It’s easy to see how future catchy aggro-punks such as Hot Water Music and Dillinger Four spun Mush smooth.
Green Day – Kerplunk!
39/Smooth sold well enough that Lookout! Records chief Larry Livermore approved a bump in Green Day’s second full-length’s production budget. Kerplunk! sounded less like a good demo, giving new drummer Tré Cool plenty of sonic space to beat 10 shades of hell outta his drums. Several breakneck tours between the two albums had hardened the band’s collective musical physique into a Charles Atlas shape. And Billie Joe Armstrong’s songwriting was constantly improving, to the point of providing a peek into their future: “Welcome To Paradise.” Its complex arrangement and dub breakdown display an ambition Gilman Street couldn’t contain. Next stop: Dookie.
Down By Law – Down By Law
Dave Smalley (DYS, Dag Nasty) went almost immediately from Descendents spinoff ALL to Down By Law. “I originally had no plans of DBL becoming what it became,” he recently explained by email. “I was really planning on just a simple practice space band with some friends.” For their debut LP, those friends included Chemical People’s rhythm section (bassist Ed Urlik and drummer Dave Naz) and Claw Hammer guitarist Chris Bagarozzi. Popcore anthems such as “Vision” and “Down The Drain” not only broadened lessons from ALL and Dag Nasty but were signposts to emo’s future. Smalley also played guitar from this point forward.
Billy Childish – I Am The Billy Childish
By 1991, if you had Britain’s dyslexic garage-punk polymath Billy Childish’s phone number, you could release a single by Thee Headcoats. Or if you prefer, your label could host something from their sister act, Thee Headcoatees—their girlfriends fronting the band (including future garage-blues heroine Holly Golightly). Sub Pop issued this comprehensive 2xCD retrospective, likely at megafans Mudhoney’s behest. It provided America’s first peek at past Childish music as the uber-punk Pop Rivets, the garagier Thee Milkshakes and even the master himself reading some of his Bukowski-esque poetry. It was a real public service from the house that grunge built.
Pegboy – Strong Reaction
John Haggerty, one of the best U.S. punk guitarists from the ’80s, left Naked Raygun in 1989 after six years. He almost immediately teamed with drumming brother Joe, a former Effigie, and ex-Bhopal Stiffs Larry Damore (vocals/guitar) and Steve Saylors (bass) to form Pegboy. Having teamed with Naked Raygun producer Iain Burgess for debut EP Three-Chord Monte in 1990, the association continued for the first LP. This meant John’s enormous trademark guitar sound carried over from his old band, alongside a fundamentalist punk sound that eluded 1977 nostalgia. Songs such as “Not What I Want” and “Superstar” indicated an uneasy transition into adulthood.
Motörhead – 1916
Motörhead should’ve been on all these lists. Centered around stalwart bassist/vocalist Lemmy, they’re the first band who connected punk’s attitude and velocity with hard-rock dynamics. Their penchant for playing beyond Ramones speed surely made them hardcore forefathers. They paid homage to Da Brudders (“R.A.M.O.N.E.S.”) on their ninth studio album. They also tried using classic Ramones producer Ed Stasium, until Lemmy objected to his adding tambourines behind his back. Pete Solley stepped in for drummer Phil “Philthy Animal” Taylor’s final LP, adding dense sonics to vintage Motörhead bangers such as “The One To Sing The Blues.”
Didjits – Full Nelson Reilly
Punk fundamentalism was in fine hands, as long as Mattoon, Illinois’ premier pogo-rock trio were on the case. Former Big Black mastermind Steve Albini, when not assaulting ears in Rapeman and then Shellac, was building a parallel career recording A-list underground bands. (Just don’t call him a “producer”—he hates the term.) So he helmed drummer Brad Sims’ final Didjits studio album. Albini caught the now-road-hardened rockers live in the studio, detonating some of Rick Sims’ most tightly wired originals. Highlights: Opener “Top Fuel” and “Lou Reed” (which claimed he’d seen the Velvet Underground legend “giving head down in Soho”).
Dwarves – Thank Heaven For Little Girls
The third LP from the pornocore kings saw singer Blag Dahlia and crew transitioning to a metal-punk sound. It was recorded at future Garbage members Vig’s and Steve Marker’s Smart Studios in Madison, Wisconsin. Thank Heaven achieved a dense production with a clear, midrange-y mix perfect for FM radio. Well, it would’ve been had it not housed typically scabrous songs such as “Fuck ‘Em All” and “Who’s Fucking Who.” But the middle-finger aesthetics and thick, raw guitar drive belied Dahlia’s talent for crafting gorgeous melodies and infectious hooks. Which helped make this one of 1991’s best punk albums.
Jeff Dahl – Ultra Under
For his second album under his new contract with Los Angeles indie Triple X, primo Stooge mutt Jeff Dahl did virtually everything. He produced and mixed. He played any instrument with strings—guitar, bass. What’s more, he wrote all the songs, save for a revved-up cover of the Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb.” The only non-Dahl musicians were John Manikoff playing Mike Garson-oid piano, Chemical People drummer Naz and Jeff Dahl Group bassist Bruce Duff on backing vocals. Most tracks further refined his trademark glam-punk hybrid, including “Touchy, Touchy Baby” and “Somebody.” But desolate cocktail piano ballad “Just Amazin’” was a leftfield surprise.
Superchunk – No Pocky For Kitty
Superchunk formed in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in 1989 by singer/guitarist Mac McCaughan and bassist Laura Ballance. Their Merge Records issued their anthemic single “Slack Motherfucker”—one of indie rock’s classic debuts—the following year. 1990’s self-titled Matador full-length showed more indebtedness to such early melodic Britpunk bands as Buzzcocks than typical indie heroes like the Velvet Underground. Follow-up album No Pocky featured an even louder production from Albini. It added a much harder undercut to new rousers such as “Skip Steps 1 & 3” and “Punch Me Harder.” It all added up to one of 1991’s best punk albums.