Let’s say you own a rock radio station in 2016. First, condolences. Second, there’s a very good chance that you will base your playlist off of six albums that were released in August and September of 1991: Nirvana’s Nevermind, Pearl Jam’s Ten, Metallica’s Metallica (a.k.a. “The Black Album”), Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion I and II, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Majik. If ’90s rock is the new classic rock, then these albums have assumed the “deathless warhorse” mantle previously bestowed on much-played records by Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and the Who.
Incredibly, they all came out within about six weeks of each other. Somewhat less incredibly, I’ve decided to determine which 1991 rock classic is most important.
How do you go about making this unnecessary but nonetheless extremely necessary distinction? First, you need to establish some criteria, such as the following:
1. Historical significance, i.e. how these albums are regarded now.
2. Day-of-release excitement, i.e. how people regarded these albums back then.
3. Innate ’90s-ness, i.e. the degree to which each album encapsulates the era, for better or worse.
4. Music videos, i.e. the quality of the music videos that the albums spawned.
5. Cultural penetration, i.e. the degree to which the average person, particularly a non-fan, is familiar with each album.
6. Musical quality, i.e. the degree to which I, the person writing this story, personally like these records.
Now that we have our criteria, we must rank the albums in each category. Then, we will compile an average ranking for each LP, and arrange these average scores from lowest to highest. The album with the lowest score wins. (For the sake of this discussion, the Use Your Illusion albums will be considered a single entity.)
Make sense? Didn’t think so, but let’s proceed anyway.
4. Blood Sugar Sex Majik
5. Use Your Illusion I and II
“Historical significance” is a slippery term most often associated with long-term critical acclaim and record sales. For our purposes, we’re going to table the conversation about record sales for a brief moment, and focus solely on critical acclaim. To keep it simple, let’s rely on Rolling Stone‘s Top 500 Albums list from 2003, which functions as a convenient (if imperfect) snapshot of how these classic albums have come to be regarded by critics.
Nevermind, unsurprisingly, comes out ahead at no. 17, distantly followed by Ten (207), Metallica (252), and Blood Sugar Sex Majik (310). Neither Use Your Illusion album ranked in the top 500. (GNR did clock in at no. 61 for Appetite for Destruction, however.)
Of course, you don’t really need statistics to know that Nevermind is the most revered rock record of 1991. After all, Nevermind has been the subject of roughly 942 hours of critical analysis in the form of books and documentaries. Whereas the Use Your Illusion albums merely contain 942 hours of music. The difference is pretty obvious.
1. Use Your Illusion I and II
4. Blood Sugar Sex Majik
In September 1991, Nirvana was an up-and-coming indie band about to put out its eagerly anticipated major-label release. They were about as big as Car Seat Headrest is now. The Chili Peppers were known primarily for a crappy but popular Stevie Wonder cover. Pearl Jam was a brand new band and virtually unknown to anyone who hadn’t bought Mother Love Bone’s Apple.
The only bands that carved out actual cultural moments on the respective release dates were Guns N’ Roses, probably the biggest band in the world at that time, and Metallica, the most popular “underground” metal act. “The Black Album” did incredible business in its first week, moving nearly 600,000 units, but GNR was a true behemoth, selling an estimated 500,000 albums in just two hours after both Use Your Illusion LPs went on sale at midnight on Sept. 17, 1991.
Anecdotally, I don’t think I’ve ever personally anticipated anything musically as much as the Use Your Illusion albums. I was 14 when the Use Your Illusion tapes dropped, which means I had been waiting for a new GNR album for nearly 25 percent of my life. Was it worth the wait? Let’s consult the Use Your Illusion I Wikipedia entry.