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by Mosi Reeves

April 24, 2014

The 50 Best Songs of 1991

by Mosi Reeves  |  April 24, 2014

Welcome to The 50, a Rhapsody scheme in which we attempt to compile the biggest, best, most historically remarkable songs of every year. Our list of 50 tracks -- presented here in no particular order, ideally flowing like a time-traveling DJ set -- has been argued over and (grudgingly) agreed upon by our full editorial staff. Please enjoy.

1991: The Year Punk Broke. That was the title of Sonic Youth's documentary chronicling their European tour with then-new DGC labelmate Nirvana, and it proved prescient as Nirvana's second album, [Nevermind], became the kind of too-overwhelming success that could (and did) make a man turn to drink and drugs. It was the birth of Alternative Nation, flannel and lumberjacks, Pearl Jam's [Ten] and Perry Farrell's Lollapalooza. But it wasn't the only thing that happened in the third year of Bush I.

First and foremost, there was the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which we valiantly undertook to secure Kuwait's oil reserves -- I mean, save the kingdom from Saddam Hussein. We self-servingly consoled ourselves with Oleta Adams' "Get Here" as we imagined our soldier boys calling to us "across the desert like an Arab man," even though those soldiers were more likely to die from friendly fire than Iraqi bullets. Less cynically, the Scorpions' "Wind of Change" (or at least its heartrending video) celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall, and hoped for a brighter decade for an Eastern Europe torn apart by the Cold War. Democracy was on the move.

Optimism rang throughout the pop charts. Big Audio Dynamite landed a surprise hit with the cheery "Rush." Canadian rocker Tom Cochrane came out of nowhere with the feel-good "Life Is a Highway"; another Canadian, Bryan Adams, topped the Hot 100 for weeks with his sappy-but-sincere ballad "Everything I Do, I Do It for You," a breakout track from the Kevin Costner blockbuster Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. It was a good year for soundtracks. New Jack City was not only a sloppily directed crime tale for the ages, but also a compilation that represented a final gasp for the creatively exhausted New Jack style of R&B. At least we got Wesley Snipes and Color Me Badd's "I Wanna Sex You Up" out of it. It was easier to fall in love with the nice guys of Boyz II Men and the bad boys of Jodeci, two dynamic quartets that were the yin and yang of R&B's immediate future.

Rap music was evolving, too. Some critics -- mostly mainstream folks still struggling with the notion that hip-hop was a genre worth taking seriously -- thought the future lay with P.M. Dawn's cuddly alterna-rap musings. But it was really in the scathing anger of Ice Cube's [Death Certificate], which portrayed a racially divided Los Angeles on the eve of the 1992 uprising (or riots, depending on your view), and the emergence of G-funk. The East Coast rap scene drew lines in the sand, too, whether it was Main Source's "Live at the Barbeque" and Nas' verse about "I went to hell for snuffing Jesus," or Black Sheep's dis of "crossover" pop rap on "The Choice Is Yours."

Most Americans were just getting their first taste of Madchester, thanks to the Happy Mondays' "Step On." But England was already over it: After all, Manchester's legendary Haçienda club shut down that year, though it would soon reopen. Judging from the press coverage in New Musical Express, British blokes were excited about ambient music à la The Orb, "shoegaze" à la RIDE and My Bloody Valentine (who detested the critic-generated term), and, uh, Nirvana. Yes, the U.K. tastemakers went gooey-eyed over the Seattle trio before the American kids, as evinced by a titanic performance the band gave at the 1991 Reading Festival. Nirvana was about to blow up, but other innovators needed more time for discovery. The post-rock band Slint's second and final album, Spiderland, nearly sank without a trace and wouldn't get its proper due until over a decade later. Moby's "Go" was the clarion call for an American rave scene that didn't peak until the end of the '90s.

No moment epitomized 1991's split personality like Michael Jackson's scandalous 11-minute video for "Black or White," which premiered on November 14, 1991, to a global audience of 500 million. He spent its first half chirping alongside Anotha Bad Creation and Macaulay Culkin in a happily generic tune about overcoming prejudice; and the last four minutes smashing cars, grabbing his crotch, ripping off his shirt and screaming in a violently interpretative dance so unnerving to us that he subsequently removed the clip from circulation. God bless America … we were so naïve back then.

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