The Top 10 Best Hit Songs of 1991

I swear to GOD if anyone asks me where “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is before checking the ‘91 year-end hot 100 I am going to permaban them from my comments section ANYWAY 1991! The year of the alternative revolution! Ten and Gish and Badmotorfinger and Loveless and Spiderland and sundry other semi-underground megadarlings predicated on naught but a finger on the fading pulse of punk rock and a keen eye towards appealing pastiches of left-field pop styles of the 70s and 80s. Right… not quite. That changeover wouldn’t be made official until Nirvana cracked the top 40 in the final weeks of the year, and as a result 1991 ends up a strange, awkward peek at a similar-but-distinct alternate evolution of the 90s, dominated by balladry struggling to move into more intellectually rewarding territory and pop jams embracing ever-zanier points of aesthetic reference to stand apart from the pack. Firmly entrenched in 80s suck though much of it still was, the highlights of 1991 are truly off the wall in the best way, throwing damn near everything and the kitchen sink into even some seemingly-innocuous singles. It feels like the charts are starting to get a bit of their mojo back, and hell, so am I- On with the show!

#10: Queensryche- Silent Lucidity

The 90s were not kind to instructional video-toutin’ solo-metal bands like Queensryche, casting a sweeping power ballad like “Silent Lucidity”, with its orchestra and its pompous, airbrushed video, as irredeemably uncool, the province of devoted hobbyists and semiprofessionals just as eager to be dazzled by a tech demo as to enjoy a well-crafted piece of music. Much as I do love to rib their scene, though, I actually have a big soft spot for this band— go ahead and throw up an honorary TWKD for, like, half the Operation: Mindcrime album? Not just the singles, even; the whole thing is packed with fantastic, catchy rock with rousing, politically-charged lyrics. But, because we never get the good timeline, the prog-rock opera about drug-addled death cults overthrowing the corrupt capitalist swine running America only netted a few minor rock chart hits, setting up this sugary bit of fluff about lucid dreaming to serve as their proper breakthrough.

I promise I’m not too bitter over it, though: the same way sturdy rock-n-roll theatrics carried the conceptual pomp of “Revolution Calling” and “Eyes of a Stranger”, it’s Chris DeGarmo’s acute songwriting know-how that lets “Silent Lucidity” get away with its manifold sins against good taste. I am, I confess, prone to getting hung up on awkward lyrics, but the cheesetastic cheese of “someone leaving the game… of life!works because the acoustic riff lilts in just the right kind of satisfying-but-not-obvious way and Geoff Tate’s voice is so good and it actually, properly builds and crescendos and every damn time some little bass gesture or violin sting lands it simply feels right. These guys just really, really knew their shit, and they show it off here in a way that feels refreshingly in touch with the sensibilities of the non-instrumentally inclined (AKA a majority of the population). Before researching this blurb, I thought it was an ode to the narrator’s newborn child— for all its proggy trappings, the emotional chords it strikes are as universal as they come.

#9: Mariah Carey- Emotions

What I wouldn’t give for a vocal showcase as jaw-dropping as this to have any title less blandly generic than “Emotions”. Sometimes being impressive and being enjoyable actually are the same thing, y’know? Carey’s songwriting is again key, using the template of the uptempo pop-soul bop much the same way “Vision of Love” used the template of the waltzing power ballad. I don’t think I’m breaking any hearts when I say that her lyrics here are a little plain, as their main function is getting the listener in the right emotional ballpark for the melody and arrangement to do the real heavy lifting, and hot dog are they up to the challenge! The sheer number of understated vocal runs and keyboard fills setting up and building anticipation for that glorious walk-up into Carey’s glass-shattering whistle register— It’s such clever songcraft, building the song out from its most exciting idea and rounding it out into a smooth front-to-back listen from there. And then she goes even higher on the outro, a genuinely thrilling flex in the same way as a guitar solo ramping up the noodling into an even noodlier and more frenetic gear. Though many of Carey’s subsequent singles do struggle somewhat to find concrete appeal outside her voice, “Emotions” nonetheless makes for a stunning showcase of just how much mileage that voice has to offer.

#8: EMF- Unbelievable

Forget 1991, year of grunge— 1991 was the year of grebo, the phenomenally corny and dated techno-rock fusion scene that came within spitting distance of becoming a true-blue Next Big Thing before it got booted back across the pond to lose the rave gear and become Britpop. Grebo’s undoing was its lack of starpower– not a lot of big personalities or powerful, distinct voices. EMF exemplified this; frontman James Atkin slouches through “Unbelievable” with an almost palpable anti-charisma, willfully disappearing into the fracas of the hook. However, where their peers in Jesus Jones strove for a pathos that Mike Edwards’ Sting-lite rasp fell short of elucidating, Atkin’s vocal non-presence much more feels as though it meets the taut, bouncy sucker punch that is “Unbelievable” exactly where it’s at. I’m always tempted to ding it for a striking underpresence of actual guitars in the mix, since it makes their core duo of influences feel a bit less balanced, but that jaunty piano and groovy bass anchor the track admirably regardless, and oh man, when the lead guitar finally kicks in with that sneering minor-key taunt-riff, the whole thing packs enough ‘tude to light up Woodstock ’99 from 8 years out.

#7: Heavy D & the Boyz- Now That We Found Love

As their dudes-hanging-out moniker so eloquently indicates, Heavy D and the Boyz traded in the kind of energetic, slick party-rap that really only suffered a momentary fall out of fashion before the gangsta craze receded and everyone realized spitting goofy bars over catchy beats is actually awesome as hell. Heavy D himself never really caught the brunt of that backlash, though, and listening to his hits it’s easy to see why. The guy was a larger-than-life force on the mic, boasting flows so fast and smooth that the occasional stretched word or odd phrasing become downright lovable, let alone forgivable. His booming come-ons never curdle into entitlement or objectification, either: it’s just a great, impassioned sex jam, of the kind mainstream R&B had sadly lost the ability to reliably produce years ago. Hell, they even lift the hook from an old Gamble/Huff O’Jays tune, directly invoking the sensual greats of decades past to drive home the timeless appeal of gettin’ it on with a special lady.

#6: DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince- Summertime

For how much I dug Heavy D’s energetic rhyming, The Fresh Prince’s chill, laid-back charisma all across “Summertime” made for the year’s best pure hip hop jam, an iconic piece of early-90s vibe-rap that holds up a treat more than 30 summertimes later. Sure, Will Smith’s infamous inability to make it through a song without poo-pooing the tougher stuff he was sharing the airwaves with does bring it down a little, but he pulls off far more fantastically goofy quotables than jealous duds, and when the beat offers every bit of the “soft, subtle mix” he requests, it’s damn near impossible to not get caught up in the sheer pleasantness of the track as Smith describes summer fun in the most tantalizing terms he can muster. If kicking back with a bunch of friends, checkin’ out some hotties, and enjoying a grilled piece of meat and/or cold beverage holds any kind of allure for you, then “Summertime” earns its place as the 90s’ ultimate ode to sunny good times.

#5: Boyz II Men- Motownphilly

What a sad irony that my favorite Boyz II Men song touts their ability to hit a sort of tonal Goldilocks zone— “Not too hard, not too soft”— when damn near their entire singles catalog from this point falls so squarely into “too soft” territory. Before they were the 90s most reliably competent balladeers, Nate, Mike, Shawn and Wan were the hottest new jack swing upstarts on the block, and “Motownphilly” was their theme song and introduction to the world. Forget those dorks in NKOTB- far as I’m concerned, THIS is history’s first truly successful crack at boy-band pop. Those seamless hand-offs between vocalists, the boisterous horns, all the harmonization; it’s technically unimpeachable pop, directed wholly towards making a group of fresh-faced youngsters look far more hip than they really are. And yeah, the fashion in that music video is certainly of a bygone moment in time, but not even a brief barbershop-style detour can derail the focused precision of that slammin’ beat (complete with a “GO! GO! GO! GO!” in the first chorus) and the immaculate melodies the Boyz adorn it with so liberally. The slice-of-life chill of the lyrics cements it as an ideal launching pad for a formidable vocal group, and even if most of what they did afterwards isn’t really to my tastes, they prove their bonafides hard enough here that I’ve never quite been able to find it in me to hold their “End of the Road”s and “On Bended Knee”s against them.

#4: Extreme- More Than Words

Extreme was mostly a pretty lame glam-funk band that owed much of its success to lead axeman Nuno Bettencourt’s shredding skills, but I will die on this hill: “More Than Words” is one of the best ballads of the 90s, mostly by being so disarmingly simple. Just Bettencourt’s acoustic guitar- no flashy arpeggios or soloing- and his and Gary Cherone’s interweaving vocals, delivering a heartfelt plea to the narrator’s lover to express their love with more than just their words. It’s elemental in the same way as “Yesterday” or “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, so unencumbered by stylisation or pastiche that you’re forced to just sit with the words and the melody, the plain-spoken yearning for affection simultaneously casting Cherone and Bettencourt as heartbreakingly naive and wise far beyond their years. It’s only a shame it wasn’t written 30 years earlier, gifting the pop world the most eminently interpretable tune of the band’s whole career just as we were seemingly losing our taste for covers.

#3: D.N.A.- Tom’s Diner (feat. Suzanne Vega)

There is, I feel, something quintessentially gen-X about “Tom’s Diner”; its dusty boom-bap percussion and deadpan lyrics hold some key to decoding the beliefs and attitudes that made this decade shake out the way it did. I don’t think I trust myself to attempt to put my finger on it, so let’s talk around the issue instead. It’s kind of a funny song, isn’t it? Not funny ha-ha, more like it’s leaning into that bemused feeling of non-event-ness each verse concludes with, the “doo-doo-doo” refrain becoming a repository of sorts for the dozens of stray thoughts the song accrues. It’s a bit self-aware too, with that line about the woman who “doesn’t see me, she sees only her reflection” almost serving to lampshade the narrator’s motives for describing all these seemingly-mundane goings-on. And maybe, like, writing about other people just inadvertently causes one to reveal more of themself, and maybe even boring old coffee shops aren’t really an escape from the prison of ego woah mind blown #sodeep. For as listless as it is, “Tom’s Diner” reads smart and observant and maybe detached and maybe somewhat uncomfortable with that detachment, prickling against its own complacency in an unmistakably modern, unmistakably 90s way. It’s about people-watching in what strikes me as a very honest sense, and to top it all off production duo DNA offer Suzanne Vega the exact right palette of bouncy proto-trip-hop to make the whole thing catchy as the flu. Overall, it’s one of the most singular hits of a year teeming with unusual pop crossovers.

#2: R.E.M.- Losing My Religion

Before those punks from Aberdeen mucked it all up, R.E.M. was the music nerds’ last, best hope of guitar pop, and even after all the VH1 specials and Rolling Stone retrospectives a part of me is still convinced the decade’s soul belongs at least as much to Michael Stipe as it does to Kurt Cobain. “Losing My Religion” was the year’s true watershed moment, a song so unbelievably well-constructed and rich with meaning that it changed the face of lower-key pop rock forever. The indie world is still trying to figure out how to turn this thing into a repeatable formula, but they never will, because “Losing My Religion” lives and dies by its smallest details. Peter Buck’s indelible mandolin riff slips in and out of the hook like it’s as ashamed and insecure as Stipe’s narrator, while Bill Berry’s iron-tough backbeat anchors the song in red-blooded rock to heighten the drama of losing track of all the lies you’ve told and all the secrets you’ve kept and all the people you were when you told and kept them. Many interpretations of these lyrics have been offered; to my ears, it’s about growing up in the closet, and god if “Every whisper / every waking hour / I’m choosing my confessions” doesn’t put the perfect words to the tightrope act of having to socialize while constantly appearing as something other than what you really are. This song lives inside that paranoia, that crippling fear that sharing any amount of yourself could be too much to keep you safe, that false comfort of anonymity. In the 1990s, the world got bigger, we all got a little lonelier, and “Losing My Religion” was there to make sense of it all, and to remind us: you’re not the only one who feels this trapped. Life is bigger than you, and you are not me.

#1: The KLF- 3 a.m. Eternal (Live at the SSL)

It’s three full decades in the rearview now, and when that beat kicks in, it still sounds like I’m listening to the future. The beat to “3 A.M. Eternal (Live at the S.S.L.)”, the stateside breakthrough of experimental techno act and radical left-wing activist organization The KLF, is so good that I don’t even know how to begin describing it. It sounds like there are a million tiny flickering cymbal samples, shuffling snare fills and flavorful auxiliary percussion tidbits all interlocking perfectly into the most propulsive, ridiculously catchy four-on-the-floor dance beat you’ve ever heard in your life. And they throw in a dozen other things that provide LITERAL TONS of sonic interest, from those crunchy, effects-laden guitar chords to the “ancients of Mu Mu” chant to that weird vocoded synth choir. There is so much to listen to here. It provides the dayglo sensory overload of any worthwhile techno rave, but presents it with a laser-focus and cohesion that makes it a perfect candidate for the pop charts.
Here I have to give mention to the song’s dual stars, singer Maxine Harvey and rapper Ricardo Da Force. Harvey’s passionate vocal hooks and Ricardo’s energetic, slick verses combine to give the song the illusion of a traditional pop structure without actually trying to force it into one (a common mistake that has gravely hurt a good deal of charting EDM). While I could see an argument that some of Ricardo’s sillier lyrical choices (like rhyming “technology” with “the ‘ology”) hurt the song, I personally couldn’t care less. This isn’t a rap song, it’s an EDM song, and in EDM the name of the game is mood. Ricardo brings the fuckin’ mood here, as does every other aspect of the song. As far as pure dancefloor bangers go, “3 A.M. Eternal” remains my personal gold standard; if any techno tracks manage to top it over the 3 decades I have left to cover, I’ll be very impressed.

One thought on “The Top 10 Best Hit Songs of 1991

  1. Todd in the Shadows tweeted that Losing My Religion did to adult alternative (Michael Bolton, Richard Marx, Wilson Phillips, Chicago/Peter Cetera, Bryan Adams, etc.) what Smells Like Teen Spirit did to hair metal. Adult alternative got so bad in 1991 that Contemporary Christian Music crossed over into the mainstream (Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith). P.S. Amy Grant never would have charted in the Top 40 in the era of Lilith Fair (1994-1998).


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