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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

40 Mainstream Alternative Albums of 1994 weezer

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.

Alice in Chains Jar of Flies EP

Courtesy of Columbia Records


Alice in Chains, ‘Jar of Flies EP’

The bleakest of the big bands to emerge from Seattle during the Great Grunge Land Rush, Alice in Chains were adept at creating indelible music from hard times — take this short follow-up to 1992's arid Dirt, which came about after the band wound up getting evicted from their living space post-Lollapalooza 1993. The band, including new bassist Mike Inez, relocated to the familiar climes of Seattle's London Bridge Studio and spent seven days writing and recording this comparatively airy and mellow EP, which showcases the band's ability to set a dark mood without the aid of massive amps. Its brevity makes it hard to pick a standout: "I Stay Away," which split the difference between the band's softer and harder sides (and even included strings!), rightly remains an alt-rock radio staple; Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell's harmonies skate along the groove of "No Excuses"; and "Rotten Apple" closes with a shimmering, feather-light guitar freakout. Maura Johnston

Beck Mellow Gold

Courtesy of DGC Records


Beck, ‘Mellow Gold’

Sure, the breakthrough was "Loser," an independently released mush-mouthed novelty rap 12-inch that walked on Johnny Jenkins' "Gilded Splinters" and tried its best to evoke a beat-poetry Chuck D — the "I'm a loser, baby" chorus wasn't some slacker-generation zeitgeist-grab, it was Beck's honest reaction to his own rapping skills. "I mean, I never had any slack," he told Rolling Stone in 1994. "I was working a $4-an-hour job trying to stay alive. I mean, that slacker kind of stuff is for people who have the time to be depressed about everything." He was picked up by Geffen and the single vaulted into the Top 10 — but anyone expecting a full album of quirky goofs was in for a shock. Recorded on an 8-track, Mellow Gold was an ambitious genre pastiche of coffeehouse strum, blasts of Melvins feedback, screwed ballads, sludge-punk and offbeat raps for a generation that grew up with hip-hop as their folk music. Christopher R. Weingarten

Beastie Boys Ill Communication

Courtesy of Capitol Records


Beastie Boys, ‘Ill Communication’

The first (and maybe only) record where the Beastie Boys felt comfortable being Adam, Adam and Mike — none of the beer-spraying slapstick of Licensed to Ill, none of the clever Wikipedia carpet-bombing of Paul's Boutique, none of the feeling-around-our-instruments reinvention of Check Your Head. The moral center of Ill Communication was Adam "MCA" Yauch, who side-stepped rap brags in order to admit to his grey hairs, take responsibility for his misogynist missteps and talk about quitting cheeba. The trio just explored anything that was going through their heads: vintage New York hardcore ("Tough Guy"), mic-passing cyphers with Q-Tip ("Get It Together") or Tibetan Buddhist chants ("Bodhisatta Vow)." Was their first Number One record since 1987 an act of brilliant curation? "I think we are creative, but in terms of being masterminds, no," Ad-Rock told Rolling Stone in 1994. "We're just making some music we like." Christopher R. Weingarten

Pearl Jam Vitalogy

Courtesy of Epic Records


Pearl Jam, ‘Vitalogy’

In 1993, no band felt bigger than Pearl Jam — not just the cover of Rolling Stone, but the cover of Time — and by 1994, they were biting the hand that feeds, bashing Ticketmaster to a House of Representatives subcommittee and writing songs about how the spotlight is a drag. Probably the most famous band to ever see fame as nuisance, Vitalogy almost plays like an attempt at commercial suicide — Neil Young in 5/4, Wipers-style punk tantrums, tape-loop slurry and one buggy detour on a thrift-store accordion. Instead it was, as Rolling Stone wrote in a four-star review, "a portrait of an artist in crisis." Christopher R. Weingarten

Hole Live Through This

Courtesy of Geffen Records


Hole, ‘Live Through This’

Courtney Love became a widow just days before her band Hole released their breakthrough album, giving Live Through This a grueling, ripped-from-the-headlines intensity. Written while her husband Kurt Cobain's life was spinning out of control and recorded by a band mired in drug problems (bassist Kristen Pfaff would overdose in June '94), it still managed to move past the scabrous noise of Hole's 1991 debut Pretty on the Inside with a clear, catchy urgency that made songs like "Miss World," "Doll Parts" and "Violet" instant alt-rock classics. Debate raged about how much Cobain had assisted in Love's amazing transformation as a songwriter (his backing vocals appear on the album, and his influence his everywhere). But this was Love's show and she stormed through it, demanding to be "the girl with the most cake" and eating it too. Jon Dolan

Johnny Cash American Recordings

Courtesy of American Recordings


Johnny Cash, ‘American Recordings’

He was once one of most visible establishment performers, boasting 13 Number One Country singles and his own TV show. But with 23 years since since his last Top 100-charting solo outing and an "outlaw" presence as timeless as blue jeans, his 1994 comeback was marketed as "alternative" with grace and ease. With American Recordings, producer Rick Rubin established a production technique that he would later use with artists like Metallica, Kanye West and Black Sabbath: He stripped the Man in Black's sound down to its bare essentials. Johnny Cash's rawest-sounding record in decades found him revisiting the themes that defined his career early on, including songs about shooting people ("Delia's Gone"), culling from a diverse collection of iconic songwriters (Leonard Cohen, Kris Kristofferson, Tom Waits, Glenn Danzig) and a few of his own stark, haunting numbers ("Redemption," "Like a Soldier"). No longer a cog in Nashville's well-polished hit-making machine, putting out sleek and comparatively mediocre pop-country numbers like 1991's "Goin' by the Book," American Recordings was a declaration of freedom. Kory Grow

Soundgarden Superunknown

Courtesy of A&M Records


Soundgarden, ‘Superunknown’

Nirvana had fused punk and metal on Nevermind but no band wore its hesher, Zeppelin-loving integrity with as much as pride as Soundgarden. Having proven themselves masters of Seattle sludge, the band worked to expand their sound on Superunknown and came up with grunge that's aged as well as anything else from the era. "There is a degree of maturity at work," said guitarist Kim Thayll. "You can hear it in our decision not to rev the engine so high. In the end I think it's more powerful." Emphasizing fluid rhythm and sinewy dynamics as much as torpid, throbbing riffs, songs like "Black Hole Sun" and "Head Down" opened up new emotional possibilities for singer Chris Cornell who emerged as Nineties metal's greatest druid existentialist: "When the whole thing washes away don't run to me," he growls on "Limo Wreck." We wouldn't think of it! Jon Dolan

Nirvana MTV Unplugged in New York

Courtesy of DGC Records


Nirvana, ‘MTV Unplugged in New York’

Shake the image of Kurt Cobain, hunched in his cardigan, wracked by a voice extracting greater demands than his frail body could handle, intimating mortality more than poetic license can excuse. Think instead of the newly matured artist, showcasing his overlooked craftsmanship, championing his favorite music, displaying not just the intensity of his fandom (three consecutive songs from Meat Puppets II) but the range of his taste (Vaselines hymn, Bowie obscurity, Leadbelly showstopper). Hear the most soulful white singer of his generation explore nuances of pain — from gasping anxiety to writhing agony — that language can only approximate. Interpret it not as a desperate cry for help but as a man mastering the sources of that pain, if just momentarily, through his art. Believe nothing was inevitable. Keith Harris

Jeff Buckley Grace

Courtesy of Columbia Records


Jeff Buckley, ‘Grace’

After Jeff Buckley shrugged off comparisons to a father he barely knew, avant-folk pioneer Tim Buckley, a few tone-deaf critics lumped him in with saccharine soul propagator Michael Bolton. Suddenly, drooling record execs, including Arista's Clive Davis, frequented his Lower East Side solo shows in coffeehouses like Sin-é. His revenge was the schizophrenic, jazz-rock fever dream Grace. The only full-length released during Buckley's all-too-short life reveals a misunderstood man inspired by the boundless, and often androgynous, spirit of Led Zeppelin, Miles Davis, Edith Piaf and Nina Simone. From the barreling "Eternal Life," to the quieter riot of "Last Goodbye," to the dewy cover of "Lilac Wine," Buckley's emotional honesty is the strongest tie. His essential, falsetto-rich rewrite of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," eventually became a go-to for talent shows and sentimental singer-songwriters, but deeper listens reveal an adventurous spirit owing nothing to anyone. Reed Fischer


Courtesy of DGC Records


Weezer, ‘Weezer’

Plenty of Nineties rockers had reps for shrugging off their success, but only one applied to Harvard at the height of his band's debut-album acclaim and said, "I really want to disappear, grow a beard, not talk to anyone, not make any friends. I just want to disappear and study." We present Rivers Cuomo, ladies and gentlemen, the bespectacled, Kiss-loving guitar god who grew up on an ashram before relocating to L.A. to live out his metal dreams. But rather than turn into a grizzled Sunset Strip lizard, Cuomo wrote power-pop songs about decomposing sweaters and his love of Dungeons and Dragons, and became one of the most endearing anti-stars of his generation. Weezer's 1994 album Weezer was the first of three eponymous albums and one of the strongest debuts of all time, from the loud-quiet-loud chug of "My Name Is Jonas" to the jangly punch of "Say It Ain't So" to the spaced-out closer "Only in Dreams," which is where the awkward, angsty Cuomo — like many of the band's fans — seemed happiest living out his fantasies. Caryn Ganz

Nine Inch Nails – The Downward Spiral

Courtesy of Nothing Records


Nine Inch Nails, ‘The Downward Spiral’

Every generation needs its shock-rock icon and Gen X's was undeniably Trent Reznor. "Nine Inch Nails are theater," Reznor told Rolling Stone in 1994. "What we do is closer to Alice Cooper than Pearl Jam." How else could he explain lyrics like "I want to fuck you like an animal" and "God is dead and no one cares" — as well as the fact that he had recorded his second record, The Downward Spiral, in the house where the Manson Family murdered Sharon Tate, at a time when Eddie Vedder was asking not to be called "daughter" over acoustic guitars? But while Cooper's shock tactics often included a moralistic twist, Reznor's allegories were mostly about nihilism and hopelessness: Reznor said that "Big Man With a Gun" was a satire about misogyny in gangsta rap after drawing scorn from the National Political Congress of Black Women, who thought NIN were hip-hop. "I can make something loud, but how can I make it the loudest, noisiest, most abrasive thing I've ever heard?" he asked in 1994. "Can I go 10 steps past the goriest horror film you've ever seen in a way that's more disturbing than cheesy? I know I can." Kory Grow

Green Day Dookie

Courtesy of Reprise Records


Green Day, ‘Dookie’

If Pearl Jam were too epic was for you, Nirvana too oblique, if your suburban teen inertia sprang from tedium not trauma — well, these nagging brats were here to spill hair dye on your living room carpet. Tré Cool's stop-start drum swats, Mike Dirnt's back-talk bass melodies, Billie Joe Armstong's nuanced machine-gun chording — each element in these 15 simple little tunes (save the goof bonus track) had a twitchy precision that'd get a fancier band called "arty." The noodling bass line for "Longview" may be Mingus compared to the heavy-thumbed pulse Dee Dee Ramone bequeathed to punk's low-end, but it's also every bit as aimless as a song about jerking off in front of the TV demands. "Basketcase" belittles its own stoner panic, "When I Come Around" is a punchy shrug of lovers' squabble, and the fierce sweep of "Welcome to Paradise" hints at the rock operas to come once they grew up to become a fancier, even artier band. Keith Harris