There are certain years that, for whatever reason, a formidable number of rock albums arrive, and they're eventually deemed classics – 1967 with the emergence of psychedelia, 1976 with punk rock and arena rock and 1980 with British metal. And 1991 is another standout year.
It seemed like every month, several exceptional alt-rock, metal, or grunge releases, most of which leaned heavily on guitar, were hitting the record store racks – including timeless offerings by the likes of Metallica, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Guns N’ Roses, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, among others.
So, on the 30th anniversary of this exceptionally rocking year, we count down the 30 greatest rock guitar albums of 1991.
30. Hole – Pretty on the Inside
While it didn’t scale the compositional and commercial heights of its followup, Live Through This, Pretty on the Inside was the world’s introduction to the raucous screams and acerbic guitar playing of Courtney Love.
Accompanied by the wiry stylings of lead guitarist Eric Erlandson, Hole’s debut married the sludgehammer guitar sounds that were breaking out of Seattle with the social commentary and noise-rock leanings of New York’s Sonic Youth. The result is an arresting listen where the guitar serves to enhance the album’s no-holds-barred approach to lyrical content and vocal delivery.
29. Teenage Fanclub – Bandwagonesque
Albums such as the third full-length by Scotland’s Teenage Fanclub, Bandwagonesque, showed that not all guitar-based rock of ’91 had to be riff-heavy.
“Noise pop” may be the best description for the album that featured the strummed guitar stylings of Norman Blake and Raymond McGinley – especially on such dirty n’ sweet ditties as The Concept and Star Sign – while the tune Metal Baby predated a style with which Weezer would soon conquer the charts.
28. Blur – Leisure
Blur themselves are not the biggest fans of their 1991 debut album, Leisure. Frontman Damon Albarn called it “awful” in a 2007 interview, and – with the exception of singles She’s So High and There’s No Other Way – the album was entirely unrepresented on setlists for the band’s reunion shows from 2009 to 2015.
Now, it’s true that Leisure never scales the remarkable highs of the perennially underrated band’s masterpieces, and – particularly in the way Graham Coxon’s agile riffs are often obscured by grunge-esque distortion blankets – it does suffer from some obvious trend-chasing. Even still, the album is a vital document of how rock would be reshaped in the years to come.
In the psychedelia-tinged bliss of She’s So High lies the blueprint for the mid-90s Brit-pop explosion that followed in Blur’s wake, while the still-breathtaking Sing nods to the then-ascendant shoegaze genre and the influence of Sonic Youth with Coxon’s delay-driven six-string squall.
Blur still had a long way to go in 1991, but Leisure provides more than a subtle hint of the brilliance to come.
27. Corrosion of Conformity – Blind
Six years had passed since Corrosion of Conformity's last studio album, 1985's Animosity – which showcased a band that was equal parts hardcore, punk, and metal.
But by the time of their next offering, Blind, COC – with long-time member Woody Weatherman and new member Pepper Keenan co-handling six-string duties – had reemerged as a 100 percent pure Sabbath-esque metal band. And the riffing was remarkable – especially on Dance of the Dead and Vote with a Bullet.
26. Slint – Spiderland
Brian Eno once said of the debut album from The Velvet Underground: "The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band." The same could arguably be said of Slint’s Spiderland, though it was far more obscure upon its release than even the low-selling Velvet Underground debut.
An intensely mysterious album whose dark ambiance, unpredictable tempos and time signatures, and eerie, hair-raising riffs were tremendously influential to both the math-rock and post-rock genres, Spiderland has risen from its original obscurity to become as iconic and influential – and as much of a meme – as its multi-platinum contemporaries from the same year.
Not bad for some young guys from Louisville, Kentucky who could barely get a dozen people to their shows in their heyday.
25. David Lee Roth – A Little Ain’t Enough
After working with such exceptional guitarists as Eddie Van Halen and Steve Vai, David Lee Roth went with the fast-emerging Jason Becker next. And as heard by his sterling shredding on such tunes as It’s Showtime! – admittedly, a virtual rewrite of Van Halen’s Hot for Teacher – and Drop in the Bucket, DLR chose wisely. Tragically, Becker was diagnosed with ALS just as the album was completed, resulting in his paralysis.
24. Monster Magnet – Spine of God
Although The Smashing Pumpkins and Mudhoney seem to get all the credit for re-introducing the sublime fuzzed-out guitar tones contained within the Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi, Monster Magnet also deserve props, especially when you hear Spine of God, and in particular, the otherworldly guitar tones that Dave Wyndorf and John McBain mustered up on the album opener, Pill Shovel.
23. The Jesus Lizard – Goat
Masterfully produced by Steve Albini, The Jesus Lizard’s second record proper remains a pivotal release, and a large part of its legacy is down to the idiosyncratic genius of guitarist Duane Denison.
The joy of Denison’s playing lies in its contradictions: here is a player who has a degree in classical guitar, yet Goat finds him spitting forth abrasive riffs that owe more to punk than Paganini. That classical discipline does, however, keep the band tight underneath David Yow’s animalistic howls, while a longstanding love of rockabilly prevents things from ever becoming po-faced – check the slide playing in Nub, for example.
There are few post-hardcore bands who wouldn’t cite The Jesus Lizard as an influence, and this album is probably the reason why.
22. Pixies – Trompe le Monde
Trompe le Monde (English translation: “deceives the world”) was admittedly not the best Pixies LP – especially when stacked up against the lofty likes of Surfer Rosa and Doolittle. But there was an understandable cause: the band was on the verge of splitting.
However, the quartet – who were an obvious influence on Nirvana, particularly the “quiet verse/loud chorus” formula – rocked ‘til the very end, as evidenced by the slashing guitar lines provided by Frank Black and Joey Santiago on such standouts as U-Mass and Planet of Sound.
21. Motörhead – 1916
With certain bands, you already knew what a new album would sound like. Case in point, the Ramones, AC/DC, and especially, Motörhead. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially when you take into account that the group led by the larger-than-life Lemmy – and featuring the semi short-lived era of guitar duo Phil “Wizzö” Campbell and Michael “Würzel” Burston – offered up one of their best albums in several years, 1916. Listen to I'm So Bad (Baby I Don't Care), No Voices in the Sky, and R.A.M.O.N.E.S. for the proof.
20. Skid Row – Slave to the Grind
Skid Row scored high on the charts with their 1989 self-titled debut, combining hair metal, power balladry, and tough guy rock. But on their sophomore album, Slave to the Grind, the group made one thing perfectly clear: they were now a metal band. And the twin guitar attack of Dave “The Snake” Sabo and Scotti Hill is gloriously on display on such hair-raising rockers as Monkey Business and the title track.
19. Sepultura – Arise
It is impressive how much Sepultura transformed when you compare their earlier extreme-metal offerings to the highly original style they introduced circa the mid-late ‘90s: Brazilian sounds merged with tribal drumming.
And they hinted at this change on their first album of the ‘90s, Arise – especially on Dead Embryonic Cells and Altered State, while the title track showed that guitarists Max Cavalera and Andreas Kisser could still speed riff with the best of ‘em.
18. Mr. Bungle – Mr. Bungle
Those expecting The Real Thing Part II from Faith No More singer Mike Patton’s side band, Mr. Bungle, were in for a rude awakening – the group’s self-titled full-length debut was an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink stylistic proposition, with easy to digest song structures kept to a bare minimum.
And guitarist Trey Spruance was certainly up for the challenge, as his playing continuously shape-shifts – just give a listen to Travolta (aka Quote Unquote) and the charmingly titled My Ass Is on Fire.
17. Fishbone – The Reality of My Surroundings
For seemingly most of the ‘80s, the style of rock that MTV and radio was airing was not particularly lyrically thought-provoking nor socially aware. But that all changed with the emergence of bands like Fishbone.
And their most commercially successful LP, The Reality of My Surroundings, saw the group – one of the few rock acts at the time to feature horns – offer up a potpourri of musical styles. However, they rocked the hardest on Sunless Saturday – featuring a shred solo from guitarist Kendall Jones.
16. Primal Scream – Screamadelica
For Primal Scream, the third time really was the charm. Thanks in part to Rolling Stones producer Jimmy Miller, Screamadelica put on an ahead-of-its-time display of acid house, psychedelia, funk and good old fashioned rock ‘n’ roll.
Underpinned by the slinky-yet-romping guitar work of Andrew Innes and Robert Young – evident from Movin’ On Up’s overdriven motifs and Damaged’s acoustic hook – the album also experimented heavily with unorthodox arrangements, and scooped the inaugural Mercury Music Prize for its efforts. Screamadelica would cement the band’s reputation in the annals of rock history forever. And for good reason.
15. Lenny Kravitz – Mama Said
With squeaky clean production, cannon-esque drums, and electronics running rampant through rock music, Lenny Kravitz brought it all back to an unmistakable ‘70s sound and approach with his 1989 debut, Let Love Rule.
And he honed and improved upon it further with his follow-up, Mama Said – an album best-known for the Curtis Mayfield-sounding soul-pop hit It Ain’t Over ‘til It’s Over, but also played host to the Zep-style rocker Always on the Run, featuring special guest – and old school pal – Slash.
14. R.E.M. – Out of Time
R.E.M. continued their winning streak with one of their most commercially successful albums, Out of Time. While not as guitar-heavy as some of their other titles, like 1994’s Monster, the album shows once more that Peter Buck had no trouble juggling a variety of styles – and even plucked a mandolin for Losing My Religion.
13. Temple of the Dog – Temple of the Dog
What started out as a few songs penned in tribute to late Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood soon expanded to a full-length album – the one and only by grunge supergroup Temple of the Dog – featuring members of Soundgarden (Chris Cornell and Matt Cameron) and Pearl Jam (Eddie Vedder, Stone Gossard, and Mike McCready).
And while the best-known track, Hunger Strike, is guitar solo-less, the 11-plus-minute-long Reach Down more than makes up for it.
12. Van Halen – For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge
Not particularly pleased with the sonics of their last few albums, Van Halen re-enlisted producer Ted Templeman – who had overseen their Roth-era recordings – and brought in Andy Johns – who many credit helping John Bonham obtain his colossal drum sound on many classic Zep LP’s – for the third “Van Hagar” offering.
The result was an expected rockin’ good time, with Eddie Van Halen letting his fingers fly free on Poundcake and Judgment Day, as well as offering up the melodic solo guitar piece, 316, titled after the birthdate of his son, Wolfgang.
11. My Bloody Valentine – Loveless
There are few records that you can pinpoint as the birth of a rock subgenre. But Loveless is a rare accomplishment, ushering in the sunrise of shoegaze. Guitarists Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher cranked their fuzzed-out amps and lazily strummed their Jazzmasters, as heard on such hypnotic tracks as Only Shallow and Sometimes.
10. The Smashing Pumpkins – Gish
Psychedelia. Alternative. Metal. Classic rock. The Smashing Pumpkins incorporated all these ingredients into their scrumptious sonic stew – and offered up a classic straight away, Gish. One of rock’s most underrated guitarists, Billy Corgan, is on remarkable form throughout – paired with second guitarist James Iha – especially on Siva, Rhinoceros, and Window Paine.
9. Primus – Sailing the Seas of Cheese
Many rock bands were far too serious in the ‘80s. To borrow a phrase from Frank Zappa, does humor belong in music? Primus offered a much-needed antidote with their major-label debut, Sailing the Seas of Cheese.
Featuring the atonal guitar stylings of Larry LaLonde and the expert bass thumping of Les Claypool – either on a four-string with a whammy bar or a fretless six-string – the album spawned such whacked classics as Jerry Was a Race Car Driver and Tommy the Cat.
8. Ozzy Osbourne – No More Tears
Although Ozzy’s late ‘80s albums were commercially successful, they lacked that certain something that made the Randy Rhoads-era albums so darn special. No More Tears was the sound of Ozzy revitalized – thanks in large part to the high-spirited guitar work of Zakk Wylde, especially his solo on the album’s title track.
7. Queen – Innuendo
The last Queen album released during Freddie Mercury’s lifetime saw the iconic singer go out on a high note – literally – singing as impeccably as ever, with an album’s worth of strong tunes. And guitarist Brian May continued to play the heck out of his Red Special – particularly on Headlong and the epic title track.
6. Guns N’ Roses – Use Your Illusion I and II
It seemed to take an eternity for Guns N’ Roses to issue a proper follow-up to Appetite for Destruction – which was a mere hiccup compared to how long it took Chinese Democracy to appear. But Axl and co made up for lost time by issuing a double disc worth of tunes, Use Your Illusion I and II, And no matter if it was rocking (You Could Be Mine) or bombastic (November Rain), Slash sounded fantastic.
5. Red Hot Chili Peppers - Blood Sugar Sex Magik
On BloodSugarSexMagik, the Peppers united with super-producer Rick Rubin – and the results were a much more organic-sounding recording than its more metallic predecessor, Mother’s Milk.
And this was especially evident by bassist Flea forgoing his then-trademark slapping/popping, and in the guitar work of John Frusciante – particularly on the album’s hits Give It Away and Under the Bridge, and one of their all-time great riffs on the title track.
4. Metallica – Metallica
Ah, the return of bass guitar to a Metallica recording! The Black Album saw the band eschew the treble-y/prog-y approach of …And Justice for All for a more succinct and to-the-point slant – both sonically and compositionally. And Hetfield and Hammett were certainly up to the task – particularly on riff-heavy headbangers such as Enter Sandman and Sad But True.
3. Soundgarden – Badmotorfinger
Over the course of several releases during the late ‘80s, Soundgarden showed great promise… but never truly “put it all together” on a single disc. That all changed with the arrival of their brilliant breakthrough, Badmotorfinger. Chris Cornell and Kim Thayil offer up oodles of tricky time signatured/Sabbath-worthy riffs throughout, especially on Rusty Cage, Outshined, and Jesus Christ Pose.
2. Pearl Jam – Ten
Even the members of Pearl Jam themselves had to have been caught off-guard by the sudden wild success of their debut record, Ten. Switch on MTV or open up a music mag, and you were bound to soon see or hear Eddie Vedder’s crew. And the work of Stone Gossard and Mike McCready played a large part in what made such tunes as Alive and Even Flow all-time rock guitar classics.
1. Nirvana – Nevermind
With the arrival of Nevermind, it seemed like automatically, guitarists no longer had to spend hours practicing scales on a high-priced instrument in their bedroom – before being deemed “worthy.” Now, all you needed was a handful of chords, a second-hand instrument, and something to say.
And Kurt Cobain was fully equipped with righteous riffs – like Smells Like Teen Spirit and Come as You Are – and simple-yet-paint-peeling solos – take Breed and In Bloom, for example – providing a seismic shift in rock guitar playing that lasted through most of the ‘90s.