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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.

Bad Religion Stranger Than Fiction
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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
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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
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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
25

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
24

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
23

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
22

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
21

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
20

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
19

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
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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
17

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

Blur Parklife
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Blur, ‘Parklife’

For American Anglophiles, it was wonderful being in a neutral country during the great Oasis/Blur wars of 1995. The proper warm-up for Team Blur was 1994's Parklife: All snot-nosed, neo-mod, track-jacket guitar-pop proudly in the tradition of the Kinks, the Jam and anything ever described as "cheeky." Conceived by Damon Albarn as a concept album a bit like Martin Amis' novel London Fields (its working title was "London"), Parklife was a zippy reminder that middle class didn't necessarily mean middle-brow. In spite of four hit-in-England singles (and one minor U.S. hit with "Girls & Boys"), Pulp went on to do all of this about a billion times better the following year on Different Class. Still, it's one of the most London-y albums that ever Londoned. Joe Gross

R.E.M. Monster
15

R.E.M., ‘Monster’

Guitarist Peter Buck called Monster a "rock record with 'rock' in quotation marks." R.E.M. turned up the guitars for the first time since 1987's Document and came up with a searing album about the wages of celebrity — from the media-study "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" to the noise-drenched "Let Me In," an elegy for the recently departed Kurt Cobain and River Phoenix. At the height of an alternative moment that would've been unthinkable without them, R.E.M. came up with a critique of star culture from the inside that didn't get bogged down in self-indulgence or feel like old-timer moralizing. The following year drummer Bill Berry would suffer a brain aneurysm, forcing him to eventually retire from music, removing the driving force behind their sound. They wouldn't even try to rock like this again for years. Jon Dolan