The year 1994 was a tumultuous time for music. Grunge was still kicking, riot grrl bands were starting to get their due, Kurt Cobain was found dead in his Seattle home, Woodstock ’94 turned into a mud-slinging riot, and TLC’s Lisa “Left Eye” Lopez burned down her boyfriend’s house in a jealous rage. Here’s a look at some of the most important albums released that year and which will be celebrating their 20th anniversary this year.
1. Hole, Live Through This
Live Through This was released just days after frontwoman Courtney Love’s husband, Kurt Cobain, was found dead in their Seattle home. Love went through with the promotional efforts and tour for the album, which ranked 460 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. Love was a complete disaster throughout the tour and often got into altercations with audience members or collapsed into enraged ramblings. The album is full of Love’s signature piss and vinegar and unique poetry, this time showcased in better-crafted songs than on Hole’s pre-Kurt debut, Pretty on the Inside. Live Through This is so undeniably good that Courtney haters still insinuate Kurt wrote it. It was a good year for girls who rock, as other riot grrl bands — including L7, 7 Year Bitch, and Veruca Salt — also released albums in 1994.
2. Green Day, Dookie
Dookie was the record that introduced the bratty stoner-punk trio Green Day to the masses and launched the beloved and hated genre known as “pop punk.” Dookie is full of catchy guitar riffs and sarcastic anthems about the frustration inherent in living in suburbia. After the brooding gloom of grunge, Dookie was a welcome relief. “Just as disaffected but brimming with humor, Dookie’s success proved to record label, film and TV execs that the teen rock revolution they had been witnessing for much of the early ‘90s didn’t have to be all gloomy nihilism and angsty sonics. Dookie made rock fun again,” says NME. The record was ranked No. 193 on Rolling Stone’s greatest albums of all time.
3. Nirvana, MTV Unplugged in New York
MTV Unplugged was Nirvana’s last album, released to great acclaim six months after Cobain’s death. The band performed on MTV Unplugged in November 1993, and Cobain famously insisted that the set be decorated with candles and flowers to look like a funeral. The intimate performance involved less-familiar Nirvana songs like “About a Girl” from the band’s first record, as well as many covers of artists that inspired Cobain and company, including David Bowie, the Meat Puppets, and Leadbelly. Cobain’s solo rendition of “Pennyroyal Tea” and his anguished howl on Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” give the closest glance into Cobain’s tortured genius available on record. “As the dust has settled, the last traces of sensationalism have disappeared into oblivion and serious retrospection has begun, this album makes its makers sound legendary. Your hankies should be at the ready,” writes NME.
4. Oasis, Definitely Maybe
Definitely Maybe is the debut album from Oasis that spurred a revitalization of British pop music, noted for being more optimistic and lighter than the American grunge that dominated the charts at the time. “Oasis have encapsulated the most triumphant feeling. It’s like opening your bedroom curtains one morning and discovering that some fucker’s built the Taj Mahal in your back garden and then filled it with your favourite flavour of Angel Delight. Yeah, that good,” NME reports. Definitely Maybe was voted as the greatest album of all time by NME readers. The album introduced the world to the talents of the Gallagher brothers and for a time was the fastest-selling record in the history of British music.
5. Beck, Mellow Gold
Beck’s debut album introduced the world to the folky punk “loser” who would go on to become one of the most prolific musicians of the last 20 years and collaborate with artists including Jack White and Cat Power. Beck released two other albums on indie labels in 1994 after making his major-label debut with Mellow Gold and netting a hit single with “Loser.” Beck is looking to repeat the multiple-albums-in-a-year thing again in 2014, with two albums in the works that he said he plans to release this year. “He became a Nineties rock star by making it all sound so easy, people fell for the idea he wasn’t trying very hard — just a blonde L.A. surfer-poet boho with a guitar and a dazed grin, the happy-go-lucky Snoopy to Kurt Cobain’s Charlie Brown,” said Rolling Stone.
6. Weezer, Weezer (The Blue Album)
Weezer’s self-titled record, also known by fans as The Blue Album, was released in 1994 to much commercial success, although the positive critical reception came a bit later. While the band first came off like a novelty act, it has remained relevant to sad suburban punks with a bad case of the nostalgia blues ever since singing an idealistic ditty about life in the 1950s. Frontman Rivers Cuomo shamelessly indulged his inner hook, writing catchy melodies and big choruses at a time when sounding poppy didn’t exactly make you popular in the American rock scene. “Whereas Nirvana launched thousands of imitators who cranked up the distortion and plunged into darkness, Cuomo blended white-guy self-consciousness and personal pain into big, vibrant pop-rock that would inspire thousands of emo kids,” according to Rolling Stone, which ranked the band’s debut record No. 299 on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
7. Johnny Cash, American Recordings
1994 was the year that the unlikely pairing of Johnny Cash and producer Rick Rubin, who was best known for his work in heavy metal and hip-hop, first resulted in pure Americana gold. The collaboration between Rubin and Cash would continue until Cash’s death, and it revitalized the country singer’s career by exposing his music to a younger audience. As in future American Recordings albums, the record is a mix of traditional songs, Cash classics, and unexpected covers, all exhibiting a more stripped-down aesthetic that made Cash sound better than he had in years. The album was ranked No. 366 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. “This is such an obvious idea that it’s unbelievable that nobody had thought of it before; an album of Johnny Cash stripped bare, just the voice and an acoustic guitar. Simple. The fact that ‘hip’ ‘young’ producer Rick Rubin was the man the put this out is all the more remarkable,” NME said of the album.
8. Pearl Jam, Vitalogy
With the release of Pearl Jam’s third album, the band was poised to pluck the grunge crown out of the void left by Nirvana. The single “Better Man” is still a rock radio staple, and the record was named No. 485 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. The group’s anti-establishment ethos landed it a hefty amount of press coverage after the band infamously sued Ticketmaster and boycotted all Ticketmaster-sponsored venues for the tour supporting the album. The song “Immortality” was thought by some to be about Cobain’s suicide, but frontman Eddie Vedder refuted those claims. Many Pearl Jam fans still believe Vitalogy is the group’s best record.
Some more records that were released in 1994 and didn’t make this list due to time constraints include Nas’s Illmatic, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ Let Love In, the Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral, Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, the soundtrack to Pulp Fiction, and Blur’s Parklife.
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