1994- the height of grunge, the birth of Brit-Pop, Pop-Punk & a transformative year for Rap. If not the best music year of the 90’s, ’94 was definitely the most prolific- at least as far as quality music is concerned.
After the breakthrough of grunge and alternative music into the mainstream in late ’91 and early ’92, both had solidified themselves as cultural forces by ’94. Pearl Jam released their weirdest album with “Vitalogy”, which includes radio staples “Corduroy” and “Better Man”. Soundgarden released their by far most mainstream (and I think best) album with “Superunknown”- it rocked plenty while remaining still loyal to their signature sound but several of the songs geared toward a mellower, more psychedelic but radio friendly sound. Alice in Chains also seemed to lean toward a more mature sound by releasing a successful all-acoustic EP. After the tragic death of singer, and Gen-X icon, Kurt Cobain in April of ’94, Nirvana released their swan song- “MTV Unplugged in New York”, an album recorded months before Kurt’s death that also pointed toward a new musical direction for the band. Kurt’s wife, Courtney Love, released her band Hole’s second and best album “Live Through This” the same month that Kurt passed. To this day I think it’s an underrated masterpiece (no matter who wrote it!)
After all of the above bands (and more) got big in the early 90’s, the major label record companies scooped in to sign every band they could with an alternative sound who was on an indie label. This was both a blessing and a curse. Radio & MTV were beginning to get (predictably) watered down by grunge also-rans like Candlebox, Songe, Bush & Silverchair. But on the flipside some amazing bands unlikely able to gain much airplay or airtime during any other period, got to record their albums under a major label budget. Post-Hardcore music like Jawbox and Shudder to Think are two examples. Pavement also moved toward more of a mainstream sound, releasing their second standout album in a row with “Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain”.
Even with the mass of major-label signings the indie world was still doing more than fine. Stellar underground albums came out by indie stalwart Built to Spill, punk-rock Jawbreaker, spazz-core bands like Jon Spencer Blues Explosion & Brainiac, & the kings of the Lo-Fi movement Guided By Voices released their first truly noteworthy album with “Bee Thousand”. Sunny Day Real Estate also released their breakthrough album “Diary”, which would influence countless late 90’s/early 00’s Emo bands in the future. In addition to “Diary”, the much more mainstream major label band Weezer released their debut album. It would prove to be a big seller and it generated three big radio/MTV hits. As their music glutted the marketplace, there was a pretty big backlash and their next record stiffed two years later. However, both of their first two albums deservedly became touchstones several years later to accessible emo bands like Jimmy Eat World. Weezer’s power-pop sounded great juxtaposed against all of the gloomy grunge that was everywhere during the early-mid part of the 90’s.
San Francisco punk band Green Day also caught lightning in a bottle during ’94 with their third album “Dookie”. Their first two albums were very underground and only known by the punk faithful. But by ’94 Green Day had signed to a major label, gotten a top notch producer & a big recording budget, and the public was ready for their sound. Again, their urgent and aggressive sound was fresh next to all of the grunge and the band and producer new how to merge the pissed off attitude of punk with poppy hooks. The Offspring, Rancid & Bad Religion all had big, but lesser, hit albums the same year and in the same vein.
Across the pond in the U.K. music was flourishing. Brit-Pop was in full swing with two of the movement’s biggest and greatest albums released in ’94- Blur’s “Parklife” and Oasis’s “Definitely Maybe”. Though the movement had been started several years earlier by Blur, and with other great bands like Suede contributing, didn’t really hit full stride until ’94 mostly due to the Oasis-Blur rivalry- a rivalry unseen in Britain since the Stones vs/ Beatles in the early to mid 60’s, which captured the imagination of both British press and public alike. And these bands, unlike the Beatles and Stone who were actually friends, honestly seemed to hate each other. “Parklife” was arguably the pinnacle album in Blur’s career and the Oasis debut remained one of the two great albums they ever made. Speaking of Suede they released their second album in ’94 as well- the very good “Dog Man Star”. A few year’s later the Brit-Pop scene became bloated and over-done, but ’94 was the beginning of its peak.
Bristol’s Portishead also came out with their debut, which didn’t invent the trip-hop sound but did take to another level both artistically and popularly. The original inventors of the sound, Massive Attack, released theirt second album, “Protection”, which contained several classic songs but was unable to reach the heights of the debut 1991 album. Both of these bands would influence countless others as trip-hop would become one of the dominate sounds of young adults in the late 90’s- unfortunately much of it was watered down so that its primary function became dinner party music. Stereolab also released their first song oriented album- “Mars Audiac Quintet”. Their sound was dubbed ‘Space-age bachelor pad music’- they sounded futuristic while giving a nod to the mellow cocktail jazz of the late 50’s and the Moog synthesizer sound of the early 60’s. Eccentric genius and reclusive techno artist The Aphex Twin released “Selected Ambient Works Volume 2”, which is to this day the most influential ambient album outside of Brian Eno. He is considered the Mozart of the genre and would have countless influence over other techno artists.
While early 90’s Hip-Hop was dominated by the Native-Tongues conscious rap in New York City, and the G-Funk West Coast sound of Dr. Dre & the Death Row label, ’94 the New York East Coast scene again added skin in the game. Two of THE all-time rap classics were released. One from Bad Boy label-mate The Notorious B.I.G. with “Ready to Die”, and the other from Queens native Nas with “Illmatic”. Both debuts would be the best either artist ever released and both would influence up and coming NYC rappers like Jay-Z and Mobb Deep who would be featured rappers in the mid to late 90’s and beyond. B.I.G., along with the Posse cut “Flava In ya Ear” by Craig Mack (which B.I.G. also appeared on) would put the Bad Boy label on the map- their sound would dominate rap music in the mid to late 90’s for better or for worse. NYC’s The Beastie Boys released “Ill Communication”, which ran the musical gamut incorporating hardcore, rap, soul-jazz & deep funk workouts all within the same album. Their blending of genres would point the way forward for many other like-minded bands at the turn of the century. Down South, the talented Outkast also released their debut “Southernplayasticcadillacmuzik”. Though it generated some hits and was well thought of in rap circles and would prove hugely influential on rap in the south, it would be years until Outkast was a household name.
Jeff Buckley- Grace
Guided By Voices- Bee Thousand
Buy Bee ThousandAmazon
Green Day- Dookie
Buy Dookie Amazon
Buy Parklife – blur
Hole- Live Through This
Buy Live Through ThisAmazon
Buy Illmatic – Nas
Stereolab- Mars Audiac Quintet
Buy Mars Audiac QuintetAmazon
Buy Dummy Amazon
Oasis- Definitely Maybe
Buy Definitely MaybeAmazon
Nirvana- MTV Unplugged in New York
Buy MTV Unplugged in New YorkAmazon
Built to Spill- There’s Nothing Wrong with Love
Buy There’s Nothing Wrong With LoveAmazon
Elvis Costello- Brutal Youth
Buy Brutal YouthAmazon
Jeru Da Damaja- The Sun Rises in the East
*Album not available via iTunes
Buy Sun Rises in the EastAmazon
Pavement- Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain
The Beastie Boys- Ill Communication
Buy Ill CommunicationAmazon
The Notorious B.I.G.- Ready to Die
Buy Ready to Die (W/Dvd) (Reis)Amazon
The Aphex Twin- Selected Ambient Works Volume 2
*Album not available via iTunes
Buy Selected Ambient Works 2 Amazon
Weezer- Weezer (The Blue Album)
Buy Weezer – Weezer