Every generation says it at some point: “Music isn’t what it used to be”. Nostalgia often wins out over objectiveness or perhaps we just grow lazy in our searches for new stimulus. The truth is that good art is always out there. Some years you just have to dig deeper to find it. Other years, well, the gold rises to the top at the slightest shifting of the earth. Creativity bubbles over and it seems there is a never-ending supply of sweet, sweet aural honey. 1994 was unequivocally one of those years. It was the year “Alternative Music” went mainstream. It was the year we returned to Woodstock. It was the year of MTV2 where underground music videos (what are those?) got their due. It was the year we lost Kurt. It was one of the final years of good radio before the corporate giants swooped in and pissed all over the airwaves.
Looking back 20 years (holy schtuff, I’m old), let’s recount some of the great pop albums from a time that was pregnant with fresh sound. This isn’t a Top 10 list or meant to be exhaustive by any means. It would be hard to document everything that came out of the studios that year. This is simply my tribute to a year that was formative to me as musician and as a rabid fan of pop music. I had a newly acquired Fender Stratocastor, a not-so-great band that called ourselves “51 Pegasus” and a huge appetite for new sounds. 1994 had a pantry full of goodies.
In ’94, we were introduced to:
Beck – Mellow Gold
(Released 3/1/94 on DGC Records)
Mellow Gold was our inaugural handshake with a sonic genius. Though not his finest record, this served as the foundational building block for a unique career. “Loser” seemed to come out of nowhere with its’ slack-jawed, white boy rap flow and folky dobro slide riff. It was a weird marriage of styles and all of us wanted to dance at the reception. A few years later would come such efforts as “Odelay”, “Mutations” and “Sea Change” that were both miles apart from each other in style & focus, but singular in their brilliance and quality.
Jeff Buckley – Grace
(Released 8/23/94 on Columbia Records)
Looking at how Beck’s career unfolded makes us longingly ache for what could have been for the son of 70’s folk icon Tim Buckley. Jeff’s voice was as authentic as it was acrobatic. Unpretentiously passionate and effortlessly cool, this record will always stand up as an emphatic statement of arrival. It’s just a damn shame the party ended so soon, as Jeff tragically drowned while swimming in the Mississippi River in Spring of ’97 while in the middle of recording his follow up to this stellar debut. Standout tracks include “Mojo Pin”, “Last Goodbye”, “So Real” and perhaps best known for the cover to end all covers, his sanctified take on Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. Note to all performers out there: STOP covering this song. Buckley did it best and you can’t out-Buckley him. Quit it. Now. Second side note: Though most remembered for his daring vocal range, Buckley was a fierce guitar player. Some of the chord structures in his songs are puzzling, but work. The guitar solo on “So Real” is one of my favorites because it’s basically just frustrated, cacophonous feedback.
Portishead – Dummy
(Released 8/22/94 on Go! Beat Records)
The same week Buckley’s “Grace” came out, this Bristol-based Trip Hop group unveiled their dark and sensuous sound to a whole group of listeners that had no idea they were thirsty for this kind of music. Led by some deep pocket drum grooves, mysterioso guitar twang and the slithering, serpentine singing of Beth Gibbons, it quickly became a critical darling. This record would go on to influence a ton of other up and coming bands and would win the coveted 1995 Mercury Prize. There’s still not a better record to put on late at night in an attempt to “get lucky”. Stand out tracks include “Sour Times”, “Numb” and “Glory Box”.
Low – I Could Live In Hope
(Released 2/18/94 on Vernon Yard Records)
Often hailed as the reluctant kings of the “Slow-Core” movement, this Duluth, MN trio ran in the opposite direction of every other band. They thought the most punk thing they could was to turn down everything to a bare minimal noise level and drench it all in wet reverb. Stark, shimmering and glacial, the music is primarily driven by the vocal harmonies of husband/wife pairing Alan Sparhawk & Mimi Parker and relies heavily on mood and atmosphere. 20 years later, this group is still making achingly beautiful music and is quite possibly my favorite band. I’ve seen them live 3 times in my lifetime so far and each time my heart grows bigger in my chest. Sparhawk’s guitar tone is the one I try to mimic the most as a six-string slinger…though I fall way short. One of the greatest 3AM records of all time, for your consideration, I Could Live In Hope.
Other notable ’94 debuts: Weezer – Weezer (The Blue Album), Sponge -Rotting Pinata, Oasis – Definitely Maybe, Bush – Sixteen Stone
’94 was the Year of Solid Sophomore Efforts:
Stone Temple Pilots – Purple
(Released 6/7/94 on Atlantic Records)
Finally developing a musical identity of their own and ditching the label of “Pearl Jam sound-a-likes”, Purple is possibly the best straight ahead rock record of a year that was chocked full of them. The DeLeo brothers were never more inventive in their phrasing and songwriting, and Scott Weiland solidified himself as one of the best frontmen of the era. ’94 was the first year I got an electric guitar and this was the first Guitar Tab book I ever bought and learned how to play from front to back. I still remember hearing the growl of the first notes of “Meatplow” and knowing I had to start a band. Standout tracks: “Vasoline”, “Interstate Love Song”, “Still Remains”, “Big Empty”.
The Cranberries – No Need to Aruge
(Released on 10/3/94 on Island Records)
Following up a highly successful debut that combined the sounds of The Smiths and The Cocteau Twins, Dolores O’Rierdan and her Irish male companions took on the pressure with this offering. The biggest attention it seemed to get was them changing up their sound a little with distorted guitars and more aggression with the first single “Zombie” – aside from that the Berries don’t veer too far off course from what made their debut so great. Here, though, the songwriting is stronger and O’Rierdan seems more confident as a front-woman. Stand out tracks include: “Ode to My Family”, “Twenty One”, and “Ridiculous Thoughts”. I was 13 at the time of it’s arrival and I still have a mad crush on Dolores.
Liz Phair – Whip-Smart
(Released on 9/20/94 on Matador Records)
Liz established herself as the indisputable indie-rock queen with her surprisingly suave and dirty-mouthed debut LP “Exile in Guy-Ville” the year prior and she doesn’t disappoint with this stellar sibling. Phair is just so stinkin’ cool. Maybe it’s her lack of musical proficiency or maybe it’s on purpose, but her songs are so unpredictable to the trained by-the-number musician – and that’s why I love it so much. Lyrically and musically, she always does what I don’t think she’s gonna do. Her sh00t-from-the-hip unpredictability is what makes this work so well. Also, my wife would throw a fit if I didn’t include this on the list. Liz Phair is her ultimate of ultimates. Stand out tracks: “Cinco De Mayo”, “Nashville”, “Whip-Smart” and “Supernova” which boasts one of the coolest guitar riffs of the decade.
Nine Inch Nails – The Downward Spiral
(Released on 3/8/94 on Interscope Records)
Taking nearly 5 years to follow up Pretty Hate Machine, NIN brainchild Trent Reznor scared the poop out of us all when this hit the airwaves. He is a dark, disturbed man making some dark and disturbed music and it hit a major minor chord with the growing youthful cynics of the day. Forging the way into the industrial and heavy techno genre, Reznor recorded this opus of angst in a converted studio where formerly the infamous Charlie Manson/Tate murders happened in the late sixties. If that ain’t F’ed up, I’m not sure what is. Reznor is known for his sonic de-constructionalistic approach to recording, which makes a lot of the instrumentation hard to recognize. The point being, this record is big, angry and violent and we would have it any other way. Stand out tracks: “March of the Pigs”, “Piggy”, “Closer” and “Hurt”.
Other Fantastic Follow Up Records of ’94: Tori Amos – Under the Pink, TLC – CrazySexyCool, Hole – Live Through This
Crowning Achievements by the Decade’s Musical Pioneers:
Pearl Jam – Vitalogy
(Released on 11/22/94 on Epic Records)
There wasn’t an album I anticipated more in ’94 than Vitalogy. My best friend Matt (RIP) and I stood in line at the mall waiting for the gate to go up at Camelot so I could retrieve the cassette (YES! CASSETTE!) first. Pearl Jam had turned the music scene on it’s head earlier in the decade, placing a huge pushpin on the musical map smack dab in the center of Seattle, Washington. Vitalogy saw them spread their wings creatively and step firmly into the avant-garde with little hesitation. The result left critics scratching their heads and crying the word “self-indulgent”. To some, it seemed like a big middle finger to everything and everyone who had made them the rock idols they had become. Me? I loved every second of this record. The enigmatic inserts and liner notes made the mystery surrounding this release even more alluring to me. This will forever be my favorite PJ record. Standout tracks: “Last Exit”, “Spin the Black Circle”, “Betterman” and “Immortality”.
Soundgarden – Superunknown
(Released on 3/8/94 on A&M Records)
Holy moly this is a good record. Fellow Seattle residents and friends of the Pearl Jam fellas, Soundgarden finally made their impact felt with this offering, being their 4th studio release. Grinding guitars, thundering rhythm sections and the abrasive warble of frontman Chris Cornell rounds up this relentless rocking record. If you don’t have this in your collection, don’t tell anyone and then go find the 20th anniversary deluxe vinyl reissue. It’s an album worth celebrating excessively. Standout tracks include: “My Wave”, “Fell on Black Days”, “Spoonman”, “Black Hole Sun” and “The Day I Tried to Live”. Subsequently, the music video for the single “Black Hole Sun” has got to be one of the creepiest ever shot and it didn’t even have David Lynch in the director’s chair, thought it feels like it should’ve.
REM – Monster
(Released 9/26/94 on Warner Bros. Records)
To be fair, REM had been influencing and heralding the way of awesome tunes since the early 80’s, which might fit them in the “elder statesman” category by ’94. But to me, REM was almost a different band when you find them in the early 90’s with such gigantic and gorgeous albums as “Out of Time” and “Automatic For the People”. Wherein those last two were reflective, melodic and primarily acoustically driven, Monster was a 180 in the other direction boasting big fuzzed out guitars and layer after layer of studio effects. It proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Stipe and crew could sound hip and fresh while still hailing from a bygone era. Not my favorite REM record, but definitely the coolest. Standout tracks: “What’s the Frequency Kenneth?”, “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream”, “Star 69”, “Bang & Blame” and the touching tribute to Mr. Cobain “Let Me In”.
Sonic Youth – Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star
(Released 5/3/94 on DGC Records)
Speaking of cool….I talk about this album a lot because I basically don’t hear anyone else talk about it. Which I call a shame. I’m not sure I wore out a cassettte tape more in ’94 than this one. It was strange. It was noisy. It was anti-precision. To me, it sounded like the after party wind down where everyone is passed out on the basement floor and you’re still looking for that one girl to kiss before you call it a night. Much like REM, Sonic Youth had been cranking the amps since the early 80’s, but were finally getting their due credit 10 years later with this release and its more succesfsul predecessor “Dirty”. Probably in my top 10 all-time list strictly because of its’ impact on me as a musician. It got me thinking outside of I-IV-V chord changes and the idea that beautiful sounds don’t come in the same packages all the time. I still remember hearing “Bull in the Heater” for the first time on a local radio station that was formatted to play the new “alternative” sounds, and thinking “wait…you can do that?” Standout tracks: “Bull in The Heather”, “Skink”, “Self-Obsessed and Sexxee”, “Androgynous Mind” and one of the best closing tracks ever, “Sweet Shine”.
Other totally firm releases in ’94: Nirvana – Unplugged in NYC, Beastie Boys – Ill Communication, Green Day – Dookie, Alice in Chains – Jar of Flies
’94: The Year of the Veterans
The Jesus and Mary Chain – Stoned and Dethroned
(Released 8/15/94 on American Recordings)
The Scottish born Reid brothers had sorta invented a whole genre more than a decade earlier with their shoegazing tendencies. It wasn’t a complete surprise to hear almost reinvent themselves with this ’94 release where the voices came more to the foreground and the signature reverb wash had evaporated. Present still were the jangly guitars and speak-sing vocal approach, but somehow in a more comfortable and worn way than before. It certainly helped featuring Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval on the first single and it also helped they had the best track on 1994’s soundtrack of the year from the movie The Crow (which also should get an honorable mention for shaping up the year’s sonic landscape). As Jack Black’s character in the film “High Fidelity” said…”The Jesus and Mary Chain were always kinda awesome”. Dig it.
Morrissey – Vauxhall and I
(Released 3/4/94 on Sire/Reprise Records)
Everybody’s favorite enigmatic, celebate, whiny-but-witty pretty boy dropped a heck of a record in ’94 with this one. Sure, he had some solid solo efforts after parting ways with supergroup The Smiths years earlier, but this one seemed to be more cohesive than it’s older brothers. Plus, the single “The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get” could easily be the best song of the decade. It’s more sombre than most of his previous work due to a lot of personal losses in the years leading up to it’s recording. Morrissey once stated he thought this might serve as his final recording ever, since at the time he felt like he couldn’t top it. I personally don’t believe he ever did – but I’m never opposed to more music from Mr.Morrissey. Stand out tracks: “Hold On To Your Friends”, “I Am Hated For Loving” and of the course the fore-mentioned single.
Pink Floyd – The Division Bell
(Released 3/28/94 on EMI Records)
Decades and 13 prior studio albums under their belts, greying progressive rock champions Pink Floyd delivered what would be their final studio effort, albeit their second one without primary songwriter Roger Waters. With David Gilmour firmly in the role as captain, this record is actually quite pleasant and full of some inspired moments galvanizing the enduring legacy. They could still write a tune, create an atmosphere, and dang could Gilmour still play a guitar. Focusing on the theme of communication, launching an enormous world tour and mostly recorded on Gilmour’s houseboat (must be nice) this serves as the swan song of one of the most beloved rock bands of all time and certainly one of the most influential. Shine on, your crazy diamonds. Standout tracks: “What Do You Want From Me”, “Take It Back”, “Coming Back to Life” and “Keep Talking”
Other awesome releases from the old guys in ’94: Plant & Page – No Quarter, Tom Petty – Wildflowers, Johnny Cash – The American Recordings
This blog post might seem like sensory overload, but that’s what the year in music felt like to me as a wide eyed 13 year old wondering where to start first in the buffet line. I could’ve spent a million more words on other releases – so tell me what I’ve missed. What were you favorites of this unique year? Have a year in the 90’s that was more fruitful than ’94?
Don’t worry, soon I will devote a whole post to the most important musical year in the 20th Century…that being 1967.