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1994: The 40 Best Records From Mainstream Alternative’s Greatest Year

Green Day, Nirvana, Pearl Jam and 35 other bands who made the word “alternative” lose all meaning

At no point between “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Nookie” was the alternative bubble more booming than 1994. A record breaking eight alt-rock albums topped Billboard that year, and Lisa Loeb’s “Stay” let alternative nation plant a rare flag atop the singles charts. The Offspring sold more of their indie label record than Pink Floyd did on their major label record. Green Day stole Woodstock ’94 from Bob Dylan. New Kids on the Block broke up and Earl Sweatshirt was born. Here’s the 40 best albums from the year where the losers finally won.

Live Throwing Copper

Live, ‘Throwing Copper’

The Pennsylvania-bred Live broke out of the Buzz Bin with their first full-length Mental Jewelry, a self-righteous whirl of pummeling bass lines, arena-ready riffs, and didactic lyrics thrown down by preacher-like frontman Ed Kowalczyk. Throwing Copper (which, like Jewelry, was produced by Talking Heads' Jerry Harrison) continued down the latter path with abandon, and audiences responded in kind — the album spawned four singles that hit the top ten on the Modern Rock Tracks chart, including the jittery "Selling the Drama," the tortured slow-burn "I Alone," the kinda power-ballady "All Over You," and the mini-epic "Lightning Crashes" (Number 12 on the Hot 100) which forever seared the image of a placenta falling to the floor into radio listeners' collective cortex. Maura Johnston

Bush Sixteen Stone

Bush, ‘Sixteen Stone’

The six-times-platinum debut from the London-based Bush currently sells for as little as $.17 on Amazon, a ridiculous bargain for an album packed with the adrenaline of a Surge 2-liter, quite possibly the most notorious example of grunge excess for the sake of excess. Seasoned producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley (Elvis Costello, Dexy's Midnight Runners, Madness), sculpted frontman Gavin Rossdale's affected wails and the rotating knives of guitarist Nigel Pulsford — lobbying the first warning shot that this "grunge-as-pop" thing might be bigger than the insular arguments about West Coasters like Candlebox and Stone Temple Pilots. The album would yield three Top 40 singles — as many as Nirvana would have over an entire career — and the biggest hit, "Comedown," plays in the 2010 video of Miley Cyrus smoking salvia. Reed Fischer

The Cranberries No Need to Argue

The Cranberries, ‘No Need to Argue’

Aided by longtime Smiths' producer Stephen Street, this Irish band went unexpectedly multiplatinum with the well-tooled dream-pop of Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can't We? in 1993. Just a year later, with Street still onboard, Noel Hogan's guitar jangle was both edgier and spookier and Dolores O'Riordan's ethereal swoop was deeper and harsher — whether she was implanting a hooky protest of IRA bombings in your hey-ee-ay-ead ("Zombie"), feeling set adrift in the loneliness of early adulthood ("Ode to My Family"), or mooning with pretentious abandon at "Yeats' Grave." O'Riordan proved a key transitional figure as Sinéad O'Connor's proud yelp evolved into the Lilith Fair lilt, the stepmother to mid-Nineties commercial breakthroughs like Sarah McLachlan's swoon or Alanis Morissette's quirk. Keith Harris

Various The Crow soundtrack

Various Artists, ‘The Crow: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack’

The soundtrack to The Crow was 1994's most effective gateway drug: Taken to Number One by Stone Temple Pilots' ubiquitous modern rock staple "Big Empty," the soundtrack ripped the flannel off millions of alterna-teens, sealed them in black vinyl and minted a new generation of goths. Pantera, Nine Inch Nails and Rollins Band laid their influences bare, covering late-Seventies/early-Eighties alt-icons like Poison Idea, Joy Division and Suicide, shoving new fans down a pre-blog rabbit hole of discovery. And in the days when albums didn't leak and hunting for B-sides was a sport, The Crow was a treasure trove: Rare one-offs from the Cure, Violent Femmes and Rage Against the Machine; a pre-album look at new music from Helmet; and a quick industrial education via Machines of Loving Grace and My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult. Tom Mallon

Tori Amos Under the Pink

Tori Amos, ‘Under the Pink’

The second solo effort from Tori Amos continued marching down the path of righteous questioning — the piano-tickling redhead stormed the gates of patriarchy, religion and sexual violence on the loopy "God" and the pained "Past the Mission" (which features backing vocals from Trent Reznor). Amos's blunt poesy and audacious composition resulted in Under the Pink's initial reception being all over the map — critics couldn't quite decide if she was content or unsettled, perhaps because the clarity of her artistic vision came packaged with lyrics that poked holes in all sorts of institutions. Ultimately, though, Pink helped Amos shed the "American Kate Bush" tag that accompanied her initial turn in the spotlight. Maura Johnston

Toadies Rubberneck

Toadies, ‘Rubberneck’

Emerging from the alt-rock desert of Fort Worth, Texas, the Toadies scored a gold record via some weirdo Southern gothic doom-choogle that existed somewhere between Kiss, the Blasters, ZZ Top and the Pixies. Not really punk, not really pop, not really metal, their hit, "Possum Kingdom" rode an errant bar of 2/4 years before "Hey Ya" — but with lyrics about a lake murder. "I roamed around all sort of places in Fort Worth actively trying to get murdered and it never happened," lead singer Todd Lewis told Austin Monthly with a laugh. "It was a pretty sketchy town. In that era there was always a part of town that people didn't want to go, and that's where bands would get together to drink beer and play." Due to label drama that left an entire second album stashed in the Interscope vaults, Rubberneck was the first and last commercial gasp from the band — but you can see their legacy in other place. "Everybody thinks it's hilarious that my favorite band is the Toadies," fellow Texan Kelly Clarkson told MTV. Christopher R. Weingarten

Neil Young Sleeps With Angels

Neil Young and Crazy Horse, ‘Sleeps With Angels’

Bob Dylan? Not alternative. Paul McCartney? Not alternative. Eric Clapton's laid-back unplugged "Layla?" Come on, now. But Neil Young, whose Eighties output was a spotty as any Sixties rock icon's, rebounded into punk relevance once a new generation of noisemakers admitted to his influence. Nineteen-ninety's slovenly Ragged Glory was "grunge" before that marketing term stuck, his 1991 tour openers Sonic Youth inspired him
to release the noise composition Arc, and Pearl Jam backed Young on 1995's Mirror Ball. But Sleeps With Angels is the ornery coot's most coherent recorded message to the kids. Though only the title track was written after Kurt Cobain's suicide, that event lends an elegiac tone to the album, especially its centerpiece, the extended workout "Change Your Mind," a pricklier counterpart to R.E.M.'s "Everybody Hurts."
 Keith Harris

Soul Coughing Ruby Vroom

Soul Coughing, ‘Ruby Vroom’

What was the elevator pitch for these guys? Slam-poet, pulp fiction enthusiast, and occasional rock critic from the downtown NYC avant-jazz scene teams with a heavy cocktail-funk rhythm section and a sampler player prone to bursts of Ren & Stimpy's favorite composer, Raymond Scott. Oh yeah, and producer Tchad Blake is gonna run the vocals through mufflers and bullhorns sometimes. If leader Mike Doughty's memoir, The Book of Drugs, is to be believed, then his bandmates were musically gifted egomaniacs whose quirks kept him from making the songs he wanted to hear. But maybe it was that very friction that made Ruby Vroom an unlikely hit. Christopher R. Weingarten

Dinosaur Jr. Without a Sound

Dinosaur Jr., ‘Without a Sound’

In 1994, "Feel the Pain" served as the friendliest entry point into Dinosaur Jr.'s spiraling, hazy, feedback-drenched catalogue, hooking newcomers with a clean arrangement and Spike Jonze–directed golf-in-Manhattan music video. ("I was into the aspect of violence and having violence in golf carts — you know, beating people with the clubs," singer-guitarist J Mascis said in the commentary of Jonze's DVD anthology.) Its album, Without a Sound, a disappointment at the time, was the band's least ear-bleeding but most country. Mascis' flat delivery and exhausted songwriting gave listeners the idea of what Uncle Tupelo might sound like had they added a rack of guitar pedals and dropped some of the rural affectation. Nick Murray

Corrosion of Conformity Deliverance

Corrosion of Conformity, ‘Deliverance’

Corrosion of Conformity have always been scene-hoppers, starting life as a hardcore band in 1983, becoming a groove-minded Sabbath-gone-thrash hybrid by 1991's Blind, and riding the crest of alternative to commercial success for 1994's Deliverance. Sure, the record as a whole was a big toke of stoner metal, but thanks to frontman Pepper Keenan's Muppet-like snarl and a singles with radio-friendly guitar lines that sounded like Stone Temple Pilots in reverse ("Clean My Wounds") or Pearl Jam on 'ludes ("Albatross"), the group finally broke. The album's non-metal legacy stretched a lot farther than the band, whose popularity petered out after releasing the more metal-focused follow-up Wiseblood in 1996. Deliverance B-side "Big Problems" made it onto the Clerks soundtrack and the interlude "Mano de Mono" and opening track "Heaven's Not Overflowing" got placement in Robert De Niro and Michele Pfeiffer movies, respectively. Kory Grow

Various Reality Bites Soundtrack

Various Artists, ‘Reality Bites: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack’

This blend of tweaked radio standards (Squeeze's revisiting of their pensive "Tempted"; Big Mountain's island-tinged cover of Peter Frampton's "Baby, I Love Your Way") and new tracks from alt-nation flag-bearers (Juliana Hatfield, Dinosaur Jr.) was more of a hit than the slacker romantic comedy that spawned it. The inclusion of "My Sharona" helped spark a mini-comeback for the Knack ("[The song] sends me right back to my high-school lunch room," Bites director Ben Stiller told USA Today) and Lisa Loeb's breakup-chronicle "Stay (I Missed You)" brought lady-led confessionals to the top of the Hot 100 a full year before Jagged Little Pill. Loeb was quite literally the "girl next door" for Ethan Hawke, the movie's enfant terrible — the two lived near each other in New York City, and Hawke wound up directing the song's single-shot video. Maura Johnston

Smashing Pumpkins Pisces Iscariot

Smashing Pumpkins, ‘Pisces Iscariot’

In the days before file sharing, odds 'n' sods comps were the ultimate in fan service. Between their numerous B-sides, EPs, and compilation cuts, Smashing Pumpkins had enough material to release a rarities collection a mere two albums into their career, and, as Rolling Stone declared upon its release, "It's better than a lot of albums that bands labored hard to put together." This pile of songs cohered because of Billy Corgan's musical vision being squarely at its center, though there are a few clear standouts. "Starla" is an 11-minute opus of guitar pyrotechnics, and "La Dolly Vita," which originally appeared on the Pumpkins' contribution to the Sub Pop Singles Club (which the band recorded the day they met Butch Vig) begins placidly then opens up into a pummeling coda. Maura Johnston

Bad Religion Stranger Than Fiction

Bad Religion, ‘Stranger Than Fiction’

As if a major-label deal floating towards a hardcore punk band in their 14th year wasn't unlikely enough, Bad Religion's Stranger Than Fiction somehow united Rancid's Tim Armstrong (he duets on furious lambaste "Television"), Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski (he directed the video for "21st Century [Digital Boy]") , and CHiPs cop Erik Estrada (he cameos in the clip for the hook-filled, sinister "Infected."). Following seven records on guitarist Brett Gurewitz's indie stronghold Epitaph, the Los Angeles veterans released their venomous Atlantic Records debut, a Taser-proof preview for the end time and home of their three highest-charting Modern Rock singles. Even if life is the crummiest book Ph.D.-holding frontman Greg Graffin ever read, he absorbed enough to make these rants feel awfully cathartic. Reed Fischer

Sugar File Under Easy Listening

Sugar, ‘File Under Easy Listening’

Many indie trailblazers of the Eighties grew embittered as Nineties alt-rock youngsters eclipsed them commercially. But Bob Mould was inspired by these newer bands, particularly My Bloody Valentine, and he formed a new power trio dedicated to yoking the transcendent noise of their Loveless to the concise pop-punk he pioneered with Hüsker Dü. Mould's obsessive attention to detail (he scrapped the initial sessions and started from scratch) paid off in the enormous yet nimble guitar sound he captured, all muscular jangle, hydraulic pulls and a reminder that you can only call them "hooks" when they draw blood. We'd heard the power and thrust of Mould's guitar before, but not its three-dimensional electronic nature. This time we got not just the burst of the bottle rocket, but the vast twinkling of its afterglow. The results made Hüsker Dü LPs sound like field recordings. Keith Harris

Frank Black Teenager of the Year

Frank Black, ‘Teenager of the Year’

"I'm into just doing all kinds of things," Frank Black told an interviewer who'd asked a question about the "sprawling" sound of second solo album Teenager of the Year. "People get bent out of shape when someone that isn't country tries to do country, or someone that's country tries to do rock." After the Pixies broke up, the former Black Francis reinvented himself as an eclectic L.A. rocker with a wry view of the alt-rock scene he'd helped invent. The 22-song double-album Teenager of the Year produced a minor hit in "Headache," and Pere Ubu keyboardist Eric Drew Feldman helped Black get a spacey sound that incorporates everything from ska to vintage rock & roll to surf-pop to punk. The best moment is "Freedom Rock," a biting yet loving song about an alterna-dude that's worthy of Randy Newman: "My name is Chip and I'm different/I don't conform/I wear a different uniform," Francis sings, before adding what might be a maxim for the album's freewheeling spirit: "Nobody owns the pleasure of tones." Jon Dolan

Rollins Band Weight

Rollins Band, ‘Weight’

Weight wasn't beat poetry, it was beat-down poetry. A decade after Henry Rollins made his spoken-word debut on Black Flag's hodgepodge Family Man, his heavily slammed verses on the 1994 track "Liar" became an alt-rock staple, crashing the MTV Buzz Bin with screams of "Hahahaha, sucker!" In the seven years since Rollins formed his eponymous band, the group had evolved into a jazz-metal hybrid with tight grooves that could either play it cool or sizzle and seethe along with him as he preached about being an individual ("Disconnect"), pondered sexism ("Wrong Man") or condemned gun culture ("Civilized"). Though it was a hit at the time, Rollins did not expect his newfound mainstream popularity to last long. "When everyone who is now 18 turns 40, they're not going to be saying 'Oh, Henry Rollins,'" he told Rolling Stone in 1993. "They're going to be saying, 'Oh, Eddie. Oh, Kurt.' That's the way it is." Kory Grow

Rancid Let's Go

Rancid, ‘Let’s Go’

Twenty-three songs recorded in just six days, Rancid's second album — and their first recorded with blazing guitarist Lars Frederiksen — hit just as bands like Green Day and the Offspring were having radio hits, helping the young East Bay punkers reach Number 97 on the Billboard charts. Rancid proved that speedy, catchy, class-conscious thrashing could make sense to Beavis & Butt-head fans. "Salvation" was breakthrough shout-along hit, while "Nihilism" and "Radio," the latter co-written by Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong, were infectiously optimistic, cutting against alternative-rock's tone of whining self-analysis. Comparisons to the Clash abounded. But the band was hardly retro. "I mean, look at 'Let's Go,'" said bassist Matt Freeman. "They never played anything that fast." Jon Dolan


Korn, ‘Korn’

Korn's debut album wasn't a huge success when it was first released but it eventually sold more than 10 million copies — one of the most prophetic rock records released in 1994. The Bakersfield, California band fused the grim, angsty side of alt-rock, industrial metal's turgid grind and — most importantly — the syncopated aggression of gangsta rap to create the nü-metal fusion that would dominate the last half of the decade. Singer-lyricist Jonathan Davis indulged images of predatory violence that made Kurt Cobain's most harrowing moments seem cozy — reading evil, disease, and racism in nursery rhymes on "Shoots and Ladders." The deeply uncomfortable crowning achievement is "Daddy," where Davis addresses the trauma of being sexually abused as a child, ending the track by breaking into tears. Though the song topped a fan-request poll taken in 2003, the band hasn't played it live since Korn was released. Jon Dolan

Stone Temple Pilots Purple

Stone Temple Pilots, ‘Purple’

Spawning three big rock hits and a couple smaller ones, topping the Billboard 200, and selling six million or so, Purple served as sweet vindication for fake grunge's most archetypal ensemble. Seeing how their 1992 debut had sounded suspiciously similar to a certain yaaarghling band who'll remain nameless here (plus STP were clearly phonies because Long Beach isn't really San Diego), cool kids hoped they'd whiff bigtime like the Seattle Pilots they weren't. But they foiled haters by upping the glam-hook quotient — especially in sticky masturbation ode "Unglued," which bops along approximately like the Ramones covering Pete Shelley's "Homosapien," and carefully misspelled fly-in-ointment smash "Vasoline." "Interstate Love Song" and "Big Empty" are (purple)-hazy, dusky, rustic road-trippers — unabashed inspirations for Hootie and the Blowfish, who covered the former live. At album's end, hidden saloon croon "My Second Album" even shouts out to Johnny Mathis. Who needs Eddie Vedder? Chuck Eddy

Veruca Salt American Thighs

Veruca Salt, ‘American Thighs’

Two Chicago women harmonizing on voice and guitar in front of two guys smart enough to stay in their place, Veruca Salt had been together for barely a year before they hit with "Seether," a song that churned like a less self-conscious Breeders and bombarded you with neither/nor constructions either about a cat, a female body part, just plain seething or none of the above. Years later, the single's title would inspire a perplexingly popular corporate post-post-post-grunge band who no more resemble "Seether" than American Thighs resembled AC/DC. But the album's juxtaposition of chunky crunching, wallflower whispering, and intermittently violent young adult literature (Veruca Salt being a Roald Dahl character) held undeniable charms, chasing Spiderman with spider monkeys and shambling toward two diary entries about being set in one's ways — though the fuzz-riffed "25" repeatedly quotes the American Breed's 1968 soul-rock nugget "Bend Me, Shape Me" in search of free alterations. Chuck Eddy

Helmet Betty

Helmet, ‘Betty’

Helmet made rhythmically complex, steely-riffed alterna-metal that punished your body from odd angles (when forming, they placed an ad in The Village Voice searching for an "asexual bass player"). Touted as the "next Nirvana," their 1992's Interscope debut Meantime made the New Yorkers the most successful band to come out of the thuggy, noise-cretin Amphetamine Reptile scene; and while Betty wasn't as immediately exciting as its predecessor, it spun their sound into jazz, blues and improv, challenging their art-jock fanbase ("Beautiful Love" begins as a Brazilian guitar piece then explodes into abstract free-rock jamming). They still managed to score a minor modern rock hit with "Milquetoast" and deliver one of the year's truly crushing major label rock albums. Jon Dolan

Oasis Definitely Maybe

Oasis, ‘Definitely Maybe’

Like a Britpop Dr. Dre, guitarist-songwriter Noel Gallagher made multi-platinum pop by liberally lifting recognizable hooks from his heroes. On Oasis' brash and noisy debut, Definitely Maybe, bits from the Beatles and the Jam ranged from affectionate ("Live Forever" was inspired by the Stones' "Shine a Light") to the obvious ("Cigarettes and Alcohol" bangs T. Rex's gong pretty heavily), to the potentially illegal (the repurposing of a Coca-Cola jingle for the infectious "Shakermaker" sparked a lawsuit). Impressively, Noel and bratty lead singer bro Liam's dust-ups with each other (and Blur) didn't bleed into pessimistic songs, and "Live Forever" turned out as jangly an antidote to Nirvana's dourness of the day as any. (You wouldn't know it from Liam's funeral-face performance style, though.) Production-wise, Definitely Maybe's semi-botched studio sessions yielded rough-edged, mid-fi salvage miracles replete with fuzz, studio banter and an alertness they've tried (and failed) to recreate ever since. Reed Fischer

Liz Phair Whip-Smart

Liz Phair, ‘Whip-Smart’

In October '94, a month after her second album arrived, Liz Phair appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone in a story titled Liz Phair: A Rock & Roll Star Is Born, in which she explained her follow-up to Exile in Guyville (a sort of concept album twisting the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street into a feminist sexual statement) was a sort of concept album about — a relationship. "I made a rock fairy tale," she said. "A little myth journey – from meeting the guy, falling for him, getting him and not getting him, going through the disillusionment period, saying, 'Fuck it,' and leaving, coming back to it." It seems even at that early moment, Phair knew her slightly shinier second effort had left some alienated. "The first album is for Your People," she explained. "The second is for the People; the third is for Everybody. Your People hate your second album because it isn't for them, but you have to attract the attention of the People, who will get a sound, get an idea, digest and spit it out. And the next time you can get revolted by that and go back to the original Your People mentality, which is more intimate." Phair didn't end up following her own formula exactly, but fuck the haters. Whip-Smart has a fuzzy radio-friendly hit ("Supernova") sitting right next to a spare doodle about foreplay ("Chopsticks"). It's dirty and confessional and atonal and tuneful and above all, honest and ballsy — she did, after all, stick her face in the middle of a star on its album over. Not very '94, and therefore bolder than you'd remembered. Caryn Ganz

Offspring Smash

Offspring, ‘Smash’

In the early Nineties, Brett Gurewitz's Epitaph label put out plenty of albums featuring straightforward punk stomps — and the Offspring's Smash was certainly no exception. But thanks to two breakout singles, they convinced millions of kids they loved straightforward punk stomps, ultimately enough to make Smash the best-selling indie album of all time. Pop-punk as double-edged novelty music, "Come Out and Play" recognized inner city turf warfare, for all its murderous consequences, as a kids' game at its core, with Noodles' surf guitar indicating the breadth of the band's Cali roots. "Self Esteem," which started suspiciously like "Smells Like Teen Spirit," rendered angst as drunken sing-along, helped ordinary kids get in touch with their inner loser. When Dexter Holland protested "I'm not a dweeb!" in his nasal bark while complaining about getting laid too much, suddenly teen sexual confusion sounded aggro enough for regular dudes to admit to. Keith Harris