Every year offers music both good and bad, but some years have a special pull. In My Favorite Music Year, A.V. Club music writers choose the years that speak to them most deeply, however fresh in memory or far in the past.
Chris Rock has a bit about how we end up gravitating toward the music we were listening to around the time we first got laid. Nostalgia and sex are a potent combination. When you’re 18, as I was in 1994, sex and pop music are inextricably intertwined. I will go even further: When I was 18 years old and living in a group home on the North Side of Chicago in 1994, pop music was sex. It was certainly how I expended most of my pent-up sexual frustration. I was not alone in sublimating my ferocious primal urges into the socially sanctioned stupidity of the mosh pits that were depressingly ubiquitous at the time. (It got so ridiculous that I once saw people moshing to Collective Soul at a festival.)
I hate to wax all Bob Seger here, but back when I was 18, music seemed to matter in a way it didn’t before and hasn’t since. Maybe it was the pummeling intensity of adolescence and the way it makes everything, even the very trivial, seem like a matter of life and death. Or maybe it was just that we had so little money, so few resources, and such meager access to music, especially new music, that we treasured each cassette in a way that would be imaginable today. At 18, the idea that one day I would have a little portable computer that could hold 10,000 songs at a time would have blown my mind.
Today, for example, if we got in a promo of the new Beck CD, I might rip it to my computer, then maybe listen to it at some point over the next few years or so. Or not. But when I was 18 and my group home roommate got the cassette of Beck’s Mellow Gold in from the Columbia House record club as the selection of the month, it rocked our collective world. We lived inside that album for weeks, just as we’d live inside Dookie, In Utero, and Doggystyle. It was all we could listen to. It was as if Beck had made the album specifically for us, that he somehow had geeky, sexually frustrated, Jewish group-home residents in mind as his ideal audience. As poor kids, we had almost no access to music, so the music we possessed we prized disproportionately.
At 18, I felt like pop music was created for me because pop music is created for 18-year-olds. They are the living gods of the pop-music world. And 1994 was a great year to be an 18-year-old passionately in love with music. My antennae were wide open. I took everything in. The sum of pop music seemed to be exploding with energy and genius and electricity and life in 1994.
It was a year of death and renewal. To me and to many across the pop-cultural spectrum, it will always be remembered as the year that Kurt Cobain died. Cobain may have viewed his designation as the voice of his generation as a crown of thorns, but before 9/11, his death was the defining tragedy of my generation. Cobain’s life—and more specifically, his death—casts a long shadow over 1994. Cobain was such a towering presence over the year that it can be hard to even read the titles of songs or albums by contemporaries, rivals, or friends released that year outside the context of Cobain’s suicide. Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral alone has songs called “Mr. Self Destruct,” “I Do Not Want This,” “The Downward Spiral,” and “Big Man With A Gun.” Hole released the suspiciously Nirvana-like Live Through This, an album that would have forever been associated with Cobain even if it didn’t have such an ominous title. And the Meat Puppets, whose career received a huge boost from Nirvana covering two of their songs on its Unplugged album, released Too High To Die.
Those titles could all just be an ominous coincidence, but Cobain’s suicide nevertheless seemed to represent the most extreme, dramatic representation of a principled repulsion toward the emptiness of fame and celebrity that rippled through the whole of pop music at the time. It was a resonant, recurring theme that found poetic expression in songs like “Corduroy” from Cobain’s rivals in Pearl Jam. On “Corduroy,” the standout track from the group’s Vitalogy, Vedder wrestles with the compromises and costs of superstardom when he howls in a voice filled with righteous indignation, “I don’t want to take what you can give / I would rather starve than eat your bread” and “I’m already cut up and half dead / I’ll end up alone like I began.”
In the authenticity-crazed world of the ’90s, fame was supposed to be something you ran from, an unwanted burden. Pearl Jam addressed this profound ambivalence with furious anger; Pavement took a more ironic, smartass approach on “Cut Your Hair,” a cheeky indictment of the cynical commercial calculation of the ’90s alt-rock boom that, in one of the era’s signature ironies, also afforded it an opportunity to cash in on the ’90s alt-rock boom with its first big hit, the album Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain.
Authenticity was a huge prize in 1994. But authenticity was a resource that could only be sold once. Then it was all used up. Thankfully, there were plenty of ersatz acts in case a major label wasn’t able to snag the real thing. Dig Nirvana and Pearl Jam? Then Atlantic was willing to bet audiences in 1994 would be willing to settle for the insta-grunge-revivalists in Stone Temple Pilots, whose Purple went six times platinum. Enjoy your derivative grunge screeching with a slight British accent? Then you’re the perfect audience for Bush’s Sixteen Stone, which also went on to sell 6 million copies.
It wasn’t just the amorphous entity known as grunge that was exploding in 1994. It felt as if something new and exciting was happening everywhere in the world. In Great Britain, Blur and Oasis waged a war of words and attitude (the main weapons of both bands) over the soul of British music. They were a study in contrasts. Damon Albarn and Blur were art-school brats looking down at the world around them from a place of ironic detachment. Oasis, on the other hand, was the anti-Nirvana. Neanderthal frontman Liam Gallagher—a man seemingly incapable of forming and expressing coherent thoughts, let alone writing catchy songs with clever lyrics—had a message for the world: Being a rock star fucking rules. You even get to shag birds and do blow and drink whiskey and everything.
I devoured New Music Express and Melody Maker every week as an 18-year-old in part because British music seemed so much more fun than the homegrown variety. It seemed devoid of the guilt and shame that characterized so much of what passed for serious American music. A debauched dandy named Jarvis Cocker and his confederates in Pulp made literary class resentments and zealously nursed grudges seem sexy and liberating on His ’N’ Hers, an album that placed them decidedly on the foppish side of the great British music divide alongside Divine Comedy, Suede, and Blur. And since it would be difficult to imagine the Brit Pop explosion without the enduring influence of the Smiths, Morrissey, a little older, wiser, and worse for wear, returned to show the young folks just how it’s done on Vauxhall & I, an agreeably grown-up, lived-in return to form that scored a hit in “The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get.”
If 1991 was the year punk broke, accordingly to the documentary of the same name, 1994 was the year it broke through by going pop. Green Day was once considered a band of facile punk pretenders, but history has been kind to it. Seventeen years on, Green Day’s mainstream breakthrough, Dookie, feels less like a sell-out move than a statement of purpose from a deceptively savvy singer-songwriter (Billie Joe Armstrong) with as much Tin Pan Alley as CBGB in his soul. Even before he became an unlikely Broadway star—but let’s face it, not too unlikely—Armstrong favored rock-solid songcraft, strong melodies, hooks, and smart lyrics over raw energy. For a group whose breakout hit is about jerking off, Green Day has always been more mature musically than its detractors gave it credit for. Pop-punk was big business in 1994, whether that meant the abysmal but very popular Offspring, which was inching its way toward the reactionary dad-rock of “Why Don’t You Get A Job?” with its breakthrough hit Smash, or Tim Armstrong channeling the blue-collar roughneck rasp of Joe Strummer on Rancid’s terrific Let’s Go.
1994 had something for everyone. If you were a spooky teenaged girl who jotted pictures of fairies in your college notebook, you could commune spiritually with the beatific Tori Amos on Under The Pink. If you were a teenaged white girl with dreadlocks who shopped at a food co-op and once made out with a girl, there was Ani DiFranco’s Out Of Range. And if you were a pretty hate machine luxuriating in adolescent anger and despair, you could sleep a little easier at night knowing that Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails shared your pain and expressed it far more eloquently than you ever could with songs like “Hurt” from The Downward Spiral.
For hip-hop, it was an age when established acts like Gang Starr and Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth released classics like Hard To Earn and The Main Ingredient, and three acts that would go on to make an indelible impact on hip-hop debuted: Blunted On Reality introduced the world to a preternaturally gifted young woman named Lauryn Hill and to a much lesser extent, Wyclef Jean and Pras; Nas premièred with Illmatic; and the Bad Boy era kicked off with Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready To Die.
The title of B.I.G.’s magnum opus captures much about a year dominated by a man who would rather die than play the pop game anymore. But it was also a year filled with new beginnings. Notorious B.I.G. may have been born ready to die, but his debut came out in a transitional year paradoxically bursting with life.
NATHAN RABIN’S TOP ALBUMS OF 1994
1. Notorious B.I.G., Ready To Die
It’s ironic that the album that kicked off the super-glossy, style-over-substance, insanely materialistic Bad Boy era is a relentlessly downbeat, gritty, and quietly despairing meditation on the cruelty of life as a young black man, and was produced by a morbidly obese rapper who, in his own words, was a “heartthrob never, black and ugly as ever.” It’s an album that covers a broad spectrum of emotions, from the heartrending despair and hopelessness of “Suicidal Thoughts” and “Everyday Struggle” to the rapturous celebration of “Juicy.” Ready To Die excels as a complete portrait of a man’s life, from conception to death, with all the joy and pain that entails. Think of it as hip-hop’s Citizen Kane, only with slightly more profanity.
2. Nas, Illmatic
There aren’t many perfect albums in hip-hop. Hell, there aren’t many perfect albums in any genre, but 1994 saw the release of two perfect hip-hop debuts: Ready To Die and Nas’ Illmatic. Nas was barely out of his teens when he released Illmatic, but he was already wise beyond his years, an old soul with the insouciant energy of a kid, the verbal dexterity and internal rhymes of an urban griot, and the musicality of a jazz musician, like his father Olu Dara. It’s telling that when Nas’ old nemesis Jay-Z made The Blueprint, he worked from the same template that made Illmatic such an enduring masterpiece: a brief running time, minimal guest appearances, cohesive production from the best beatsmiths in the world, and a hungry rapper desperate to make his mark.
3. Nirvana, MTV Unplugged In New York
Nirvana’s posthumously released Unplugged In New York offered audiences still deep in mourning for Cobain a heartbreaking glimpse of the peaceful, rewarding life Cobain may have enjoyed as a distinguished elder statesman had he survived the decade he helped define. In such a polite, quiet setting, the rage in Cobain’s voice stands out in even sharper relief, particularly during a captivating performance of the old murder ballad “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” There’s an almost unbearable intimacy to performances of songs like “Come As You Are” and “All Apologies,” a sense of melancholy grace and sad urgency. On “Pennyroyal Tea,” Cobain sings dreamily of wanting a “Leonard Cohen afterworld” so he can “sigh eternally.” Unplugged In New York affords him that opportunity, though here his world-weary sigh sounds like the saddest, most beautiful music in the world.
4. Portishead, Dummy
Trip-hop gave the sample-heavy, gritty sonic cinema of RZA’s Wu-Tang Clan production a continental spin. In the case of Portishead’s Dummy, producer/multi-instrumentalist Geoff Barrow sampled Isaac Hayes, Lalo Schifrin, War, and Johnnie Ray to create ominous soundscapes straight out of a bootleg ’60s James Bond knockoff, while Beth Gibbons sang cryptically and movingly about incest, lost loves, and loneliness. Dummy is a masterpiece of bad-mood music perpetually tuned into the grey skies and free-floating despair of London. It’s sad, enigmatic, and has provided the soundtrack to countless fucked-up college romances.
5. Weezer (The Blue Album)
“I’ve got a Dungeon Master’s guide / I’ve got a 12-sided die” and “I’ve got posters on the wall / my favorite rock group, Kiss” sings River Cuomo in a voice trembling with adolescent emotion on “In The Garage,” references that say just about everything about Weezer’s geeky early aesthetic and underdog charm. The group’s self-titled debut, rock-solid from start to finish, provides a refreshing reminder that while concerns about authenticity and integrity may come and go, the essence of pop music remains the same: catchy songs about girls. That’s as true today as it was back in 1994.
Where to begin? 1994 offered such an embarrassment of musical riches that it would be impossible to cover every important album in detail without expanding this column to book length. I haven’t even gotten to Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, the debut album of OutKast, a group that forever changed the sound, look, and style of Southern hip-hop while announcing the arrival of two of its flashiest and most gifted talents: pimp-talking Big Boi and his space-cadet compatriot Andre 3000. Beastie Boys returned with Ill Communication, an album that stunningly synthesized everything the trio had achieved up to that point in terms of connecting the no-longer-disparate worlds of hip-hop, funk, dub, punk, and hardcore.
A rapper still known as Common Sense moved away from the facile cleverness of his debut in favor of a more mature, socially conscious style that would flower in later albums like Be when he released his 1994 album Resurrection. Though he’s now dismissed as a walking punchline, Coolio released a fantastic, funny album of light-hearted West Coast rap, It Takes A Thief, which goes way deeper than “Fantastic Voyage.” Guided By Voices further refined its lo-fi take on the British Invasion with Bee Thousand, and R.E.M. returned with a new, hipper attitude and some really loud fucking guitars on Monster.
But when contemplating the glory of 1994, it’s important to remember that it was also a year filled with crap. We might think of it as the year of Illmatic, Ready To Die, and Definitely Maybe, but to a record industry in a state of flux, it was the year the beyond-mediocre Hootie And The Blowfish album Cracked Rear View began a path to glory that would end in sales of 16 million, and Dave Matthews Band sold 6 million copies of Under The Table And Dreaming. While pining for pop’s past through nostalgic lenses, it’s wise to remember that even in the best of times, an awful lot of crap rises to the top.
Early Warnings: Cornershop released a debut, Hold On It Hurts, that paved the way for the success of “Brimful Of Asha” off When I Was Born For The Seventh Time. Cake roared out of the gate with Motorcade Of Generosity and its ultra-timely single “Rock ‘N’ Roll Lifestyle” (as in “how do you afford?”), while Blink-182 lagged after the rest of the pop-punk pack with its debut, Cheshire Cat.
Runner Up: It would be difficult to top 1977, the year that punk broke the first time and the Sex Pistols and The Clash battled one another for the genre’s soul. Would punk be socially conscious and expansive in keeping with the Clash’s sweeping, ambitious vision, or a ferocious tool of eviscerating nihilism, as per Johnny Rotten’s ominous intentions? Like 1994, 1977 felt like a year when it was all wide open, when the aforementioned punk pioneers shared an uncertain pop realm with the art-school neurotics in Talking Heads (whose debut album was simply titled 77) and a disco boom at its peak. Meanwhile on the streets of New York, a new kind of music and culture was brewing in underground jams and impromptu parties. For so much in our music, 1977 was the year it all began.