1991 was the year of Nirvana...or was it?

September 24th of 2021 marks the 30th anniversary of the release of Nirvana's landmark Nevermind album on the same date in 1991. Nevermind, which has sold over 30 million units worldwide, is one of the best-selling albums of all time, as well as one of the most influential. The album, which mixed punk rock rage with accessible pop hooks, effectively kicked off the alternative rock revolution of the early-to-mid-'90's. We all know the sad ending to the Nirvana story: Kurt Cobain, the band's founder and frontman, committed suicide less than three years later, after repeatedly stating that he was unhappy with the trappings of fame and the demands of the music business. On a positive note, former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl went on to form the Foo Fighters, whose popularity endures to this day.

The Nevermind album is often acknowledged as a game-changer for rock and roll, and it was certainly pivotal to the history of popular music. But one debatable claim that is often made is that Nirvana -- and the Seattle-bred "grunge" genre in general -- "killed" the hair metal genre which had been so popular during much of the 1980's.

But is that an accurate way to describe the change? I remember it differently. Nevermind was not released until 1991 was 3/4 of the way through, and the album (as well as its smash single "Smells Like Teen Spirit") did not reach the top of the Billboard charts until late December. So, 1991 was not exactly the "year of Nirvana" that many pundits would have us believe it was. The impact of Nirvana (as well as such fellow Seattle grunge bands as Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains) really began to be felt in 1992. If my memory serves me correctly, grunge did not "kill" hair metal, because hair metal had largely faded on its own by early 1991. Grunge rose up to take its place.

In fact, during the first half of 1991, media pundits (among others) were wrongly declaring that rock and roll was "dead", and the reason they were able to make that case is because sales of recorded music were in a slump for rock and its various sub-genres -- including hair metal. Hair metal was well on its way out of fashion at that point, as its core audience was on its way out of high school. Unless you count Metallica (who did not fade away into oblivion after grunge) and Guns N' Roses (who did not fade so much as implode) as hair metal bands, the hair metal genre had few successes to speak of even in the pre-Nevermind portion of 1991. One exception would be Extreme, but that band's two Top 5 singles from that year -- "More Than Words" and "Hole Hearted" -- were acoustic numbers that did not represent the bulk of the band's work, and certainly did not resemble most hair metal recordings. Those songs appealed more to the MTV Unplugged crowd, a trend which Dee Snider of Twisted Sister has described as one of the factors that ruined hair metal. The only other clear-cut hair metal success I can recall from 1991 was Skid Row's sophomore album Slave To The Grind, which had the distinction of being the first album to debut at #1 on the Billboard chart after the Nielsen SoundScan system had been implemented. Although it was a double-platinum seller, and its accompanying videos received considerable airplay on MTV when the station still regularly played music videos, the success of Slave To The Grind seemed like little more than statistical noise, and like a final head-above-water gasp for the hair metal era.

So, what other rock and roll songs and albums were making waves in 1991 before Nirvana topped the charts at year's end? This YouTube playlist compiles noteworthy songs from that pivotal year in rock and roll history. The list begins with Nirvana and Pearl Jam, for the purpose of acknowledging their lasting impact and to get them out of the way early. In my opinion, this list proves the early-1991 claims about the "death" of rock and roll to have been ludicrous.

From my point of view, this playlist provides a good representation of the types of alternative rock music that were moving or were about to move into the mainstream, as well as the year's mainstream rock which was either displaced or not displaced by the coming flood of grunge.

You may notice that hair metal gets little representation on this list. The reason for this is that, like I said before, hair metal was already fading fast from the musical landscape during 1991. That's why I say that grunge really didn't kill hair metal, any more than boy bands "killed" grunge in the late '90's. Hair metal simply ran its course and went out of fashion, just like grunge went out of fashion several years later.

And, while we are examining the public's changes in musical taste circa 1991...As I recall, when Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was brand new, it was mistaken by many for a Metallica song from the Black Album era. Hard to believe now, isn't it?

Anyway, here is the list of the tracks from the above playlist, which I remember as songs from the soundtrack of life during various times in the year 1991, a truly pivotal time in rock and roll history.

Nirvana - "Smells Like Teen Spirit" Do you need any further explanation for this song being placed first on the list?

Pearl Jam - "Alive" An almost equally important song that helped bring Seattle grunge rock into the national -- and worldwide -- mainstream.

Extreme - "Hole Hearted" This is one hair-metal band who did have success in early '91, but this song and their other chart-topping smash "More Than Words" were acoustic ballads, not typical hair metal songs.

The La's - "There She Goes" This jangly alt-pop song from a Scottish one-hit-wonder band was released in 1990, but made waves in early '91.

Crowded House - "Weather With You" Crowded House are mostly remembered as an '80's band, but their impressive third album Woodface was released in '91.

Roger McGuinn - "King Of The Hill" The 1991 comeback hit from the Byrds co-founder, featuring a guest vocal from his famous follower Tom Petty.

R.E.M. - "Texarkana" The 1991 album Out Of Time began to show the gentler side of these alternative giants. "Losing My Religion" and the sarcastic "Shiny Happy People" were bigger hits, but this was my personal favorite track from the album.

John Mellencamp - "Love and Happiness" What a great track from this once-important '80's artist, who inexplicably lost his vitality soon after. Whenever We Wanted was his last essential album before his Falling From Grace.

Temple Of The Dog - "Hunger Strike" A Seattle grunge supergroup from before grunge's big breakthrough, featuring members of Soundgarden and Mother Love Bone; the latter band morphed into Pearl Jam that year.

Metallica - "Enter Sandman" The '80's metal band that did not fade at all during the grunge era. Metallica's "Black Album" (actually self-titled) was huge before (and after) Nevermind was released. In fact, when "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was new, some people mistook it for a Metallica song!

Guns N' Roses - "November Rain" An epic track from one of the two Use Your Illusion CD's, which were released the same month as Nevermind. GNR did not really fade after grunge came along; it's more accurate to say they imploded.

Soundgarden - "Outshined" Like Alice In Chains, Soundgarden were slightly ahead of the curve before grunge exploded beyond Seattle.

Matthew Sweet - "Girlfriend" This American singer-songwriter never quite achieved the stardom he deserved, but he was a darling of alternative radio for most of the '90's. This was the title track from his 1991 album.

Blur - "There's No Other Way" Yes, this Britpop song was released in '91, although it got more airplay (in America, at least) a few years later.

My Bloody Valentine - "When You Sleep" There was something in the water in 1991, causing plenty of creative risk-taking. This Irish band's '91 album Loveless was an avant garde shoegazing masterwork which sounded like almost nothing that came before it.

Teenage Fanclub - "Alcoholiday" This Scottish band's '91 album Bandwagonesque was a modernized variation on the sound of Alex Chilton and Big Star, a few years before it became fashionable for alternative bands to emulate that early-'70's cult band.

Red Hot Chili Peppers - "Under The Bridge" This band's Blood Sugar Sex Magik album was released on the same day as Nevermind, and was almost equally important to the alternative rock revolution of the '90's.

Genesis - "No Son Of Mine" A nearly seven-minute pop song from the long-running English band who evolved from prog to pop. Their '91 album We Can't Dance was their last studio album with Phil Collins.

Bryan Adams - "Can't Stop This Thing We've Started" This Canadian rocker was purveying too many hit ballads at this point, but this song had some of his earlier zest.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers - "Learning To Fly" The late Mr. Petty was riding high in '91 after the successes of his solo album Full Moon Fever and the Traveling Wilburys.

Smashing Pumpkins - "Tristessa" The Pumpkins' indie-label debut album Gish was released in '91. It was a college radio hit, and this song resembled their later mainstream radio hit "Cherub Rock".

Bonnie Raitt "Something To Talk About" The queen of the slide guitar was enjoying the greatest commercial success of her career during this period.

Van Halen - "Top Of The World" The band that inspired so many '80's metal bands was still big in '91.

Tom Cochrane - "Life Is A Highway" A late-'91 #1 hit in Canada, and a Top 10 hit in the U.S. several months later. Unfortunately, the Rascal Flatts cover version from 2006 seems to have gained more prominence.

Eric Clapton - "Tears In Heaven" The guitar legend's heartbreaking ballad about the death of his 4-year-old son Conor. This Grammy-winning song was recorded for the soundtrack of the 1991 movie Rush.

U2 - "One" U2's '91 Achtung Baby album was another quintessential part of the '90's alternative revolution.