Nirvana, U2, Pearl Jam, and Metallica may have ruled 1991, but Tom Petty stood above them all


Much has been made of the greatness that was the fall of 1991 in the music world. Over the span of a few short months, some of the most seminal albums ever created were shipped to record stores (back when shipping physical copies of things to record stores was a thing that happened). Some of these releases are getting boldfaced reissues, like Nirvana’s Nevermind and U2’s Achtung Baby. But there are plenty of others that simply stand the test of time, like Metallica’s Metallica, Pearl Jam’s Ten, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend, and Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger. And 1991 wasn’t all rock albums, either, as A Tribe Called Quest dropped The Low End Theory, Tupac made his solo debut with 2Pacalypse Now, Ice Cube wrote Death Certificate, and Michael Jackson became Dangerous.

All of these albums are great accomplishments in their own right, and they all hold up surprisingly well. Having recently sat down with the men responsible for Nevermind and also having written a book that centers around alternative rock’s rise in ’91, it’s not a mystery that Nirvana’s second album stands above and beyond the rest of them as my favorite album from that year.

However, that was not actually true in 1991. The big joke that came up while I was writing my book was that I didn’t know who Kurt Cobain was until the day I heard the news of his suicide. That’s completely true, as I don’t think I heard Nevermind until 1995, which was after I had already heard In Utero first. I was 13 years old then, and just beginning to be able to fully ingest popular music and process what rock really meant (unsurprisingly, that was the same year my friend Zack turned me on to punk rock, mostly via the Ramones).

In ’91, I was only nine years old, and though I was interested in listening to music, my tastes didn’t really have any definition. Like most kids that age, I was really into “Weird Al” Yankovic. I spent most of the early part of ’91 memorizing the lyrics to “Ice Ice Baby” and missing the double-meaning in Warrant’s “Cherry Pie.” I thought “Do the Bartman” rocked, and a friend of mine played me Guns N’ Roses’ “Get in the Ring,” which I thought was amazing because it had so much cursing in it. Basically, I approved of things that floated into my transom, but I never really made the next step into fandom, or even going as far as buying a cassette.

That changed in the summer of that year, when I was at a friend’s house. His older brother was watching MTV, and I became completely transfixed by the video for “Into the Great Wide Open,” which is why Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ Into the Great Wide Open became my favorite album of that year. If you’ve never seen it, the clip for “Into the Great Wide Open” is almost alarmingly prosaic, which is probably why it appealed to my childhood brain. The song tells the story of a rock star named Eddie Rebel, who moved to Hollywood, became a star, indulged in parties and women, and ultimately crashed and burned. The images in the video matched perfectly with the lyrics of the song, and I thought the whole thing was pretty incredible. I hadn’t had much experience with music videos, and I thought that the idea of actually acting out the story of a song was pretty brilliant.

“Into the Great Wide Open” is sort of a strange song for a kid to get into, mostly because it contains a lot of weird insider references to A&R men and getting matching tattoos with your girlfriend. Still, there was something about it that really appealed to me, and I found myself singing the chorus a lot. In fact, I was singing it so much that my dad became something of a fan, and that naturally led to a trip to Sam Goody to pick up Into the Great Wide Open on cassette.

My exploration of Into the Great Wide Open represented the first time I really dove deep into an album. As far as Tom Petty albums go, it doesn’t have a ton of hits. Outside of the title track and “Learning to Fly,” nothing else from the album left much of an impact, and on balance it probably seemed like a comedown from 1989’s Full Moon Fever, which contained the smash hit “Free Fallin.”

That being said, Into the Great Wide Open is nothing to sneeze at. I thought the title track was incredible, and I loved “Two Gunslingers” for the same reasons, because it contained a pretty solid narrative that I could picture in my head. (As I wasn’t entirely clear on the concept of how a band performed at the time, I assumed that Petty dressed up in cowboy gear and did complicated Broadway-esque pantomime when he played that song live.) I also liked the “Whoa-oh-oh-ohs” on “All the Wrong Reasons,” which probably informs my love of the Hold Steady today. And “Makin’ Some Noise” was great because it was fast and loud, which was completely foreign to me at the time.

On balance, Into the Great Wide Open is also sort of weird. At the end of the first side, there’s a message from Petty encouraging you to turn the tape over, which at the time I thought was super-strange. I remember thinking “The Dark of the Sun” was a strange-sounding song back then, and I maintain that opinion today. And I couldn’t believe how angry “All or Nothin'” sounded to my nine-year-old ears, though it hardly sounds aggro today.

Petty ended up being a real gateway drug for me. His 1994 album Wildflowers was probably the first new release I really anticipated (that was the album that had “You Don’t Know How It Feels”), and a tour stop in Hartford in the summer of 1995 represented my first real rock concert (Pete Droge opened, and it was the first time I ever smelled marijuana). Shortly thereafter, I discovered the underground and joined punk bands, which led me to reject Petty’s long-haired, hippie-dippie laid backness, though it should be noted that one of the bands I was in did a sped-up hardcore cover of “Even the Losers.”

So that’s what my favorite 1991 album was in 1991. What was yours, both then and now? Reminisce along with me in the comments.

Nirvana celebrate 20 years of ‘Nevermind': Read the extended roundtable interview and backstory — booze! corn dogs! transvestite karaoke! — here!
Pearl Jam’s drunken MTV debacle: Cameron Crowe looks back — an EW Exclusive
Jack White, Depeche Mode, Patti Smith to cover U2’s ‘Achtung Baby’
Review: Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Into the Great Wide Open

Comments (22 total) Add your comment
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  • MD

    Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers one of the greatest rock bands of all time and sadly somewhat under appreciated.

  • Yo Yo YO

    He was good until he made that solo crap and carried the same sound over with the Heartbreakers.
    I blame Jeff Lynne.

  • Buffy Freak

    Really Yo Yo? I love his solo stuff…Full Moon Fever is a great album and the other two albums are just a notch below. My seminal Petty album is Long After Dark…great rock and roll album. And his videos, especially Don’t Come Around Here No More, Into the Great Wide Open and Last Chance with Mary Jane are terrific.

    • Yo Yo YO

      I just felt he went too poppy.

  • outside agitator

    amen…Nevermind is a slick version of the Sex Pistols, both Achtung Baby and Metallica are loaded with filler and are mostly production. Tom Petty’s meat and potatoes rock n roll won’t get old.

  • G.R.

    Good call on Tom Petty! I think “Learning to Fly” was another great song from that album…

    Didn’t R.E.M.’s ‘Out of Time’ come out that same year? My older sister really got into them at the time, and she turned me onto them too (she and I even had crushes on Michael Stipe and bassist Mike Mills, respectively); that band and that album pretty much ruled our world. As for how I feel about it now: There are some parts I don’t think have aged well (particularly “Radio Song” and “Shiny Happy People”); but more obscure tracks like “Texarkana” and “Me in Honey” have really grown on me, and I still love “Near Wild Heaven” as much as I did when I first heard it.

    • Frank from

      Good call about R.E.M.’s “Out Of Time”. Lately, there is a sense of revisionist history going on about 1991. But that album was huge that year, with “Losing My Religion” becoming R.E.M.’s biggest hit. I personally think it was the best album of that year too, and every bit as innovative as “Nevermind”, “Achtung Baby”, “Ten”, and “Metallica”.

  • Ben

    Paul Abdul “Spellbound” hahaha…I was obsessed with her back then.

    • Yo Yo YO

      Was that the one with the video for Promise of a New Day where it was stretched to make Paula look thin at the time?

    • PN

      I loved Paula’s second album! Lots of fun energetic dance numbers and those few ballads. I even liked Vibeology more than Promise of A New Day and even the funky Spellbound!

      • J

        I always thought that Spellbound should have been released as the fifth single and not Will You Marry Me?.

  • Dinosaur1972

    Live’s “Mental Jewelry”, P.M. Dawn’s “Of the Heart…”, “De La Soul is Dead”, R.E.M.’s “Out of Time”. Those were the big ones for me in 1991.

  • James

    Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend all the way. His new album Modern Love is out now and is soooooo good. He deserves a new feature story.

  • PN

    That was a great music period back in the fall of 1991. They still talk about those albums some 20 years later! I also remember Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album too! One of their best albums. And Nirvana, Metallica, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Nirvana all within a month of each other that fall –all solid rock albums and all influential to today’s bands! They were million sellers,multi platinum all the way over!

  • homerox13

    “Great Wide Open” will always be special, as I wrote my first-ever music review of it for my HS newspaper. Sadly, it also marked the end of the “classic” Heartbreakers sound from the 70’s and 80’s, something I still miss!

  • Curious Khan

    Into the great wide open’s video is one of the coolest things Johnny Depp has ever done. I was knee deep in USE YOUR ILLUSIONS….they will never be as good as the original 5 and APPETITE is unbeatable…I still was holding a flag for them in 1991.

  • 1980 justin

    nice nostalgia. tom petty is great. i remember hearing a red hot chili peppers song only once on the radio (greater and more soothing than “my friends”) and i’ve never heard it again. i wish i could figure out what song it is. its been troubling me for over a decade. AAAAAAAHHHH

  • Kay

    Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers still rule. See them live if you have not already.

    A correction to your article: Full Moon Fever is the record where Tom tells us to turn over to Side 2.

  • JR

    It probably should be mentioned that Pearl Jam actually reissued a mastered version of Ten in different packages a few years back. Also, Johnny Depp starred in the “Great Wide” video.

    U2 Achtung Baby was the best album of 91 and of the past 25 years.

  • juicycoutureuk

    Great article. I cant wait to hear more about your research tool. If it is as good as your other products, then you will have another winner. Your article pretty much summed up what I have been seeing too. Great to see some hard data.

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