1991 was a fantastic year for music. In the rock and metal world, AOR and melodic rock were still clinging on; the big haired bands like Skid Row and Warrant were experimenting with a heavier sound; funk metal was at its height, and the thrash metal titans had broken through to the mainstream, eventually becoming million selling acts. It seemed as if the long awaited release of Guns N’ Roses’ ‘Use Your Illusion I + II’ would be the year’s hugest event, and then something happened. Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ was a smash hit, and a growing interest in the alternative scene changed everything – in a good way. It brought the Kerrang readers and NME crowd together for a short time, ending an already great year on an unbelievable high.

Much like the avid readers of the metal press, those who purchased NME and Melody Maker week in and week out had already experienced a brilliant and exciting 1991 by the time Kurt Cobain’s heavily Pixies-indebted combo became front page stars. The noises made by shoegaze were dominant; goth – although more commercial – still had a presence, and Manic Street Preachers were showing everyone how it was possible to combine a great chorus with a sharp edged social commentary. Elsewhere, hundreds of jangly bands immersed themselves the retro sounds of the past, and continued to make them sound fresh. Names like Bleach, Bang Bang Machine and World of Twist may now be – for some – names consigned to the yellowing pages of the student-centric music press, but so many of those bands left the world with tunes worthy of more than just a nostalgic thought.

Following on from Cherry Red’s excellent ‘C90’ box set, ‘C91’ rounds up some of 1991’s more forgotten bands from the alternative scene along with several old favourites, creating something that’s far more interesting than your well-loved copy of ‘Shine’. The chance to experience the one-time regular names from the gig pages alongside several future megastars creates a listening experience that’s really satisfying. Some of the deeper cuts found on the three disc, fifty nine track set are every bit as cool as you’d hope they still are, and its also really interesting to hear a few early singles from familiar names in period context: ‘C91’ allows listeners to venture back to a brief moment in time when The Charlatans and Manics weren’t that much bigger than the Boo Radleys.

Leading the charge, Daisy Chainsaw’s ‘Love Your Money’ has lost none of its edge over the years. The combination of distorted bass groove, big band/swing inspired riff and child-like vocal sounded like nothing else at the time. It spawned various imitators, and yet the original cut still conveys a brilliantly trashy quality when heard so many decades on. It also remains the kind of tune you’ll love or hate, but few could deny it carries one of the era’s greatest basslines along with an insanely catchy hook. Numbers by half forgotten heroes The Wendys and The Dylans convey some of the best guitar pop of the age. With its organs, harmonies and very 60s melody, The Dylans’ ‘Godlike’ now sounds like the Inspiral Carpets hit that never was, and a Leslie cabinet whirring away through the rhythm guitar part gives the performance a brilliantly uneasy energy that drives the melody against a slightly lax vocal. The Wendys sound non-committal by comparison, but there’s still a lot to like about their foppish, poppish, proto-baggy ‘Biting My Fingers Off’ with its prominent bass work and shimmering rhythms, even if it now sounds a little dated.

An absolutely fantastic (re)discovery comes from West Midlands shoegazers Drop. ‘Drone 1’ (taken from their only album) has much bigger boots than most of the indie fare from 1991, coming across like a more palatable version of My Bloody Valentine meeting with Catherine Wheel. A buzzing guitar line works incessantly against a heavy drum beat, somewhere between goth and shoegaze, quickly setting up a classic 90s sound. Vocalist Jos Evans battles against the titular drone with a suitably flat vocal, yet still manages to make his presence felt. The trio works the somewhat repetitive groove effectively throughout, but upon reaching the hugely distorted, crashy climax where loud guitars reign supreme, you might just wonder why these guys aren’t as well loved as MBV. This is certainly more interesting than most of the lauded ‘Loveless’… Another fantastic slab of shoegaze, albeit from an even more melodic angle, Spectrum’s ‘I Love You To The Moon & Back’ is definitely another highlight of this set, since its lengthy duration is more sympathetic to the really hard drone used throughout, and heavily phased vocals lend a floaty melody an almost other worldly quality. Looking back, its amazing that it was released as a single; its rather slight qualities really don’t lend themselves to radio play, though its easy to suspect – in retrospect – that its genre conventions and wavering sounds would definitely have clicked with a core of NME readers at the time. Decades on, its a piece of vaguely psych-ish shoegaze that’s aged very well.

Contrasting a very 60s melody against a 90s beat and back-masked effects, Sun Dial’s ‘Fireball’ is the kind of tune that’ll instantly whisk you back to a Saturday lunchtime and The Chart Show’s indie chart. Heard retrospectively it doesn’t necessarily command any more than fleeting nostalgia, but its a competently played indie workout that works a reasonable guitar riff against vaguely dance-y beats, bridging the already narrowing gap between jangly indie-pop and the more accessible strains of shoegaze. Taking a rather lax approach to 90s beats, See See Rider seem supremely confident on ‘Stolen Heart’, a tune that pulls the listener in with a Mock Turtles inspired pop/rock sound before providing an unexpected jolt with a massive set of power chords. A chorus of any sort would’ve been nice, but as far as the music is concerned, it’s both solid and melodic, which is just about enough to see off some great guitar work. Following the band’s premature split, bassist Phil King joined the soon-to-be-more-popular Lush. As has been well documented, Lush really delivered on the shoegaze front, before reinventing themselves as a more Britpop-friendly indie band, but wherever you drop into their catalogue, there’s enjoyment to be had. They have pride of place here with ‘For Love’, their first chart hit, showing an obvious gifts for pitching filtered, ethereal vocals against massive Pixies-like basslines and cold guitar sounds. Still feeling more like a hazy fever dream than a chart hit, it remains a superb three minutes; a snapshot of a band that never stood still musically, but were always the epitome of cool aloofness.

Flying the flag for some of the era’s forgotten heroes, Swansea’s The Sweetest Ache opt for the wistful on ‘Sickening’, a jangle fuelled number that sounds like a Sundays b-side. Boasting a prominent shimmering guitar sound and some sizable melodies, it’s certainly likeable enough, but there’s a lot about it that suggests it would’ve been lost amongst a fair bit of similar noise at the time. Mexico 70, a short lived band formed by ex-Felt bassist Mick Bond, are arguably one of the era’s best bands not to make the big time. On ‘What’s In Your Mind’, Bond goes all out with a vaguely baggy groove and massive gated snare drum sound, and despite only having a one line hook, everything about the track is brilliant: the vocals have a natural tone that suits the relentless jangle perfectly, a few subtle harmonies really capitalise on a fine pre-chorus melody and a short guitar solo adds an edge without derailing the pop feel. Although the song carries a melody that feels completely intrenched in the early 90s, it still sounds vibrant and really sticks in the head. There’s a lot of unfamiliar but enjoyable stuff in this box set, but this truly is a must hear. Raintree County accentuate even more of an early 90s baggy mood, but their ‘Here It Comes’ twists its way through some very old fashioned pop in places, with a verse suggesting someone within the ranks had been keen on Aztec Camera. Wrapped in a lavishly warm production, this is another number that really should have found its place in history as an indie-pop staple. If its inclusion here brings Raintree County some posthumous love from people who perhaps missed them at the time, then ‘C91’ can be considered a more than worthy compilation.

A name not mentioned much in the twenty first century, The High were a great band capable of weaving light dream pop-ish sounds into a more obvious, early Charlatans mood. ‘Up & Down’ – their debut single, actually released in 1990 – really grabs a retro sound and runs with it. There’s an almost Byrds-like approach to some of the guitar work; between that and a couple of solid riffs, the track really shines, despite an occasionally unsure vocal. It’s very much the kind of tune that’s a pleasure to stumble upon on a collection such as this. From the more dance oriented end of the indie scene, Bang Bang Machine’s ‘Flower Horse’ sounds like a ragged ‘Fools Gold’ fronted by Saffron from Republica. There’s plenty about its iffy vocal and heavy handed approach that could have killed the groove, but some solid bass playing and a confident chorus just about lift everything enough to make this decent, nostalgic fare, whilst Paris Angels’ ‘Oh Yes!’ digs deeper into dance, but is much less user-friendly. The electronica elements of the track seem a little unfocused and the vocal is flat. Unless you happen to have a personal connection with the song, there’s no escaping the fact that it’s seldom more than a bargain basement Happy Mondays. 1991 was full of indie gold, but it’s not fair – or possible – to view everything through rose tinted specs.

On the evidence of the lengthy ‘Grey Skies’, Secret Shine’s brand of dream pop might sound slight at first, especially compared to some of the best 4AD bands, but the track also shows they were a band with a solid gift for a shiny melody. Jamie Gingell’s lead vocal is very much the kind of thing Miki Berenyi would’ve taken to glory at her peak, and the track’s gently wavering melodies certainly make more of an impact after a few plays. Also requiring a little adjustment, Medalark Eleven’s ‘Snake’ is an odd hybrid of funk and indie that really shouldn’t work. Those with keener ears might hear older influences from The Smiths and Orange Juice within the spikier bass and guitar parts, whilst the lead vocal belongs more in the then baggy present with its slightly off-key vibe. This results in an unsettling hybrid that probably won’t be anyone’s favourite tune – or every day listening – but, then, it’s the sort of track that sounds like it should be a grower. It’s fair to say you could call this a “welcome oddity”.

A once semi-regular name in the indie weeklies, Bleach still sound like one of the era’s great guitar driven outfits on ‘Bethesda’, with a full compliment of distortion pedals and a Pixies fixation. Salli Carlson’s clean vocals provide an excellent counterpoint to the rhythmic noise, and their abilities to take a couple of obvious influences and twist them into something that sounds equally influential shouldn’t be overlooked. Levitation, meanwhile, waver on the the side of slightly irritating with ‘Nadine’, a number that forces crooned, wordless vocals into spaces where they shouldn’t belong, whilst a heavily treated guitar clangs in an almost non-committal fashion. In and out in less than ninety seconds, this makes it very hard to hear why the band were briefly considered a big deal – big enough to be invited onto the bill for the XFM launch gig in 1994. They didn’t show up; their last minute replacements Kingmaker were far more suited to the already brilliant line-up. …And Kingmaker are the superior act here too, even though their spiky ‘When Lucy’s Down’ is arguably nowhere near as catchy as their eventual hit, the Wonder Stuff-esque ‘Ten Years Asleep’.

Very little says “1991” like Saint Etienne’s ‘Foxbase Alpha’ album. Its combination of samples, dance loops and twee pop created such a vibrant crossover sound, it appealed to a huge cross-section of listeners. The one-time darlings of the NME are represented in classic style here with their third single ‘Nothing Can Stop Us’, a concoction of funky bass sounds, sampled flute loops and natural vocals. Sarah Cracknell rarely sounded better (although the semi-sultry ‘Spring’ challenges this for her best early performance) and the way she places a very retro melody over various elements of an old Dusty Springfield number certainly sets the mould for Etienne’s best future endeavours. More essential sounds are supplied by Sheffield’s World of Twist. Had they been around during the peak Britpop years, they would have been major stars. As part of the 1991 landscape, they only really had James and The La’s as obvious peers, and the Lee Mavers outfit were already floundering and close to burnout. ‘Sweets’ remains a wonderfully uplifting tune; a throwback to the 60s yet still sounding like the work of a contemporary guitar band, its four minutes burst with pop harmonies worthy of James, with a friendly vocal set against a pulsing keyboard and vaguely baggy rhythm. There’s a feeling that they seemed fairly generic at the time, but revisiting this track – and their sole album ‘Quality Street’ – strongly suggests otherwise.

Turning to a few of the future (super)stars, it’s a pleasure to hear the fledgling Cranberries, years before honing their sound into huge radio friendly and corporate rock. ‘Them’, an old EP track, is by turns echoing and wistful, making it easy to hear why they might have caught the ears of the dream pop crowd. Although, musically, it sounds more like The Sundays meeting with a 4AD band on a cloudy Sunday afternoon, this light tune more than suggests that Delores O’Riordan’s already distinctive voice is headed for greatness. Sneaking under the wire with a December ’91 release, The Sultans of Ping’s ‘Where’s My Jumper?’ could be accused of over-exposure over the years. It’s grown from being a frivolous indie club banger to an anthemic shout-along that’s found its way to TV and film soundtracks. Regardless of this, Niall O’Flaherty and his friends score hugely on the nostalgia scale here, and the track’s mixture of forthright vocals, shouty hook and frivolous music holds up well.

The Manics’ ‘Stay Beautiful’ – arguably C91’s most famous cut – retains its sneer and never seems to get old; The Charlatans’ brilliantly mechanical ‘Over Rising’ evokes early nineties club nights with its choppy sound, hard edged guitars and busy piano, and Dodgy’s ‘Summer Fayre’ harks back to when Nigel Clark and friends had more of a punch. A decent mod-inflected number sounding like Ocean Colour Scene in a bad mood, it gets the best from a great guitar sound and harmonious chorus, and shows how Dodgy were a band with great potential. It’s a shame they’ll be remembered by most for ‘Good Enough’, a mid 90s hit that sounds like a jingle for a double glazing advert. Still, unlike some of the bands featured on ‘C91’, at least they will be remembered.

With relative unknowns rubbing shoulders with old favourites, you’re never more than three tracks away from something essential here. There are a few names that are conspicuous by their absence (there’s nothing included from Carter USM’s career defining ‘30 Something’, despite Jim Bob’s associations with the label, and presumably The Milltown Brothers, Ride, and The Blue Aeroplanes are met with licencing issues) but, in the main, this is a very well curated and interesting look back at a pivotal, ever evolving period in indie and pop history. It might not offer anything unreleased, but its attempts at aiming to be just a little different without alienating the casual buyer are more than commendable. If you’re one of those people who couldn’t live without the new NME every week and the thought of bands like The Fatima Mansions, The Pooh Sticks and The Dylans makes you feel wistful and, just maybe, a little misty eyed, then ‘C91’ is definitely for you.

November 2021