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Opinion: 1994, My Favorite Year In Music

“So drunk in the August sun, and you’re the kind of girl I like, because your empty, and I’m empty, and you can never quarantine the past.” -Pavement, Gold Soundz

Picking an individual year as a favorite for any form of media is ultimately a pointless task. Inspiration doesn’t follow the cycle of the seasons. If I were to expand my favorite “year” to be June 1994 to June 1995, I would be able to talk about many great albums that committed the unforgivable sin of being released after December of 1994. But people like categories. Categorizing art by the twelve month rotation of the Earth helps us keep a firm grasp on quantifiable periods that were particularly fruitful. And honestly, calendar year or not, one would be hard pressed to find a more fruitful twelve month period of music than January to December of 1994, my favorite music year.

Generally, when rock historians (yes, that’s a real thing) debate the greatest individual years in music history, the years that rise to the top are the ones that represent the zenith of a particular scene or period. 1968 get’s a lot of press for being the apex of the psychedelic explosion of the 60’s. 1988 is often cited as being the year that the hip-hop of that era hit it’s peak. What makes 1994 so interesting to me is that it is, in many ways, the height of the alternative era, while at the same time being the year the entire movement started to come apart.

On April 5th of 1994, Kurt Cobain took his own life, but not before releasing what may be the greatest live album ever recorded. Nirvana Unplugged is, in many ways, the best thing the band ever did. Filled with B-sides, covers, not “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and the brutal duality of Cobain’s wry irreverent humor and bleak self loathing, it says all anyone needs to know about the most unlikely arena band of all time. The final track, a gut wrenching take on Led Belly’s “Black Girl” (understandably retitled “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” on the record) is the whole album in a nutshell. It starts by Cobain riffing with the crowd about how David Geffen wouldn’t shell out the money for one of Lead Belly’s old guitars. It ends with him emitting such a raw expulsion of emotion that a generation later it still produces goose bumps in anyone with a soul.

With Cobain’s death there was an immediate vacuum in the musical landscape. The most important band in the world was over, and in their wake the world collectively wondered “who would be the next Nirvana?”. In retrospect this was a foolish question. Nirvana and grunge are a very unique artifact in music, rarely does such a seismic shift occur in such a sudden, overnight fashion. The Alternative movement that Nirvana had reluctantly become the figurehead for had been gestating and developing since the early 80‘s. In 1994 the veil of Grunge was lifted, and Alternatives snide, irreverent core boiled over into the mainstream.

The 50th most popular song of 1994 according to Billboard? That would be Loser by Beck. Hell, 1994 was such a kind year to alternative that Beck’s 3rd best selling album of the year, Stereophonic Soulmanure, still managed to sell 146 thousand copies. 1994 saw the release of Weezer, the bands explosive, glorious debut, as well as Green Day’s Dookie, both of which would come to define the burgeoning younger siblings of Generation X. ‘94 was also the year of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain the album where Pavement got professional and made what is almost certainly the best album of their career (“Range Life” is a song about a beef Stephen Malkmus had with the members of Stone Temple Pilots and Smashing Pumpkins over a Lollapalooza gig, can’t you just taste the ’94 zeitgeist?) Following in the wake of Pavement was a thundering new wave of Indie Rock. Guided By Voices released their seminal Lo-Fi masterpiece Bee Thousand, while Idaho natives Built To Spill would help lay the groundwork for the mainstream North Western Indie of the 00’s with their sophomore effort There’s Nothing Wrong With Love.

It speaks to the true depth of the quality of music in 1994 that if you completely ignored everything that I have mentioned up to this point, and only looked at the Hip-Hop releases of the year, it would still rank amongst the greatest in modern music history. By 1994 Hip-Hop held a firm foothold in the American pop consciousness, but nowhere near the centrifuge for mainstream culture it would become. Simply put there were Pop rappers, but most Rap Music, which was still the term de jour at the time, was decidedly not Pop. It would be another year before Mariah Carey would change the pop landscape forever and put ODB on her single (albeit the remix).The previous year The Wu Tang Clan put New York Rap back on the map, and while Method Man would release Tical, it would be young newcomers Nas and Biggie Smalls who would turn 1994 into perhaps the greatest single year in hip-hop history with Illmatic and Ready To Die. If neither of these records are in your top 5 Hip-Hop albums it’s probably because you don’t have a list. 1994 also saw the release of Resurrection by Chicago native Common, and Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik by Georgia’s Outkast, proving that Hip-Hop was no longer just an East-West niche, but an art form that was taking root all over America.

Top 5 Albums

1. Weezer, Weezer (The Blue Album)

Some albums get more press for their importance or influence than they do for their actual quality. Weezer’s self titled debut is not one of those records. From the power pop perfection of “My Name Is Jonas” to the cathartic release that closes “Only In Dreams”, Weezer is an album everyone can agree on. Putting this record on is something of a universal signifier that it’s time for the fun to start. Everyone at the party will feel an instant breath of fresh energy, everyone between everyone under 40 will know every word.

2. Nas, Illmatic

A strong contender for the greatest Hip-Hop album of all time, there is nothing that is less than astounding about this record. All grimy samples and boom bap drums, the instrumentals alone could double as a greatest hits collection for some of the best producers of all time. Then there’s Nasir Jones, who, minus a single jaw dropping verse from AZ, spits 40 minutes of unadulterated brilliance. As ferocious as it is contemplative, Illmatic stands as perhaps the greatest lyrical achievement of the rock n roll era.

3. Guided By Voices, Bee Thousand

The greatest “why didn’t I think of that?!” album of all time, Robert Pollard and the criminally underrated Tobin Sprout cobbled together dashed off, classic rock influenced tracks from as far back as the early 80’s and wound up creating the greatest lo-fi album ever recorded. From the four (track) on the floor production to the five drink minimum performances, Bee Thousand is 20 tracks and 36 minutes of pure, unstoppable energy. Forget The Velvets, forget The Strokes, forget everything in between, this is the rock n roll album that saves lives.

4. Pavement, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain

Slanted Enchanted was unrepeatable. Rather than trying, Stephen Malkus gathered his road tested band, got a less acid washed drummer, and recorded one of the tent pole albums of Indie Rock. While staying true to their lazy, shrugging roots, Crooked Rain is Pavement consciously making a pop record, and what a pop record it is. The album that launched a thousand Weezers, this is indie rock at it’s finest, which is to say it’s irreverent enough to announce “we’re coming to the chorus now.”

5. Notorious B.I.G. Ready To Die

If Ready To Die isn’t the hardest album ever recorded, well, I really don’t want to know what is. Brutally unrelenting, Notorious B.I.G. and his ace production staff drag the listener kicking and screaming into the grimy, desperate world of The Streets. Disturbing and graphic throughout, Biggie still manages to render himself a sympathetic character. Barely out of his teens, he creates stories of youths that slipped through the cracks, resorting to violence and hedonism not out of choice but desperation and confusion. Periodically however, the clouds part and Biggie drops one of his classic singles, a well needed reminder than even in the bleakest of situations hope is unstoppable. Oh and then he literally shoots himself at the end of the album.

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2 Legacy Comments

  • Comment by erik posted August 26, 2013 at 12:37

    In my humble opinion, you’re off by one year. 1993 is untouchable:
    Uncle Tupelo – Anodyne, Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese dream, Bjork – Debut, Breeders – Last Splash, Nirvana – In Utero, Wu Tang – 36 Chambers, Liz Phair – Exile in Guyville, Melvins – Houdini, Jawbreaker – 24 Hour Revenge Therapy, Fugazi – In on the Killtaker, PJ Harvey – Rid of Me, New Bomb Turks – Destroy Oh Boy!, New music from Unrest, Unsane, Yo La Tengo, GBV, Nirvana, Tribe Called Quest, Royal Trux, Sebadoh, Stereolab, Frank Black, Husker Du, Buffalo Tom, Bratmobile and of course, the No Alternative sampler. Sorry, I got a little carried away.

  • Comment by Aldo Donadel posted August 29, 2013 at 19:14

    What you say about Bee Thousand (loud cheer) goes double for the followup , Alien Lanes(1995) , or if you wanna be a stickler for ’94, the companion piece to BT, King Shit & the Golden Boys, or the full hog Director’s Cut of BT. I owe MY life to these. Cheers