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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.

Soundgarden Superunknown

Courtesy of A&M Records

6

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

5

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

4

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

Weezer

Courtesy of DGC Records

3

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

2

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

1

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

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