Music

The Best Alt-Rock Albums Of 1994, Ranked

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You might have noticed how many classic alternative rock albums are turning 25 this year. They all harken to 1994, arguably the greatest year in alt-rock history. That year alt-rock achieved a level of acclaim and popularity it would never reach again. New acts like Weezer, Green Day, and Oasis quickly established themselves as superstars, while veterans such as Soundgarden, Nine Inch Nails, and Pearl Jam built upon already impressive legacies.

But ’94 was also the beginning of the end. Many of the foundational acts of the era (including Nirvana, Alice In Chains, and R.E.M.) either disbanded or were about to enter periods of decline. Meanwhile, a band from Bakersfield, California called Korn released its self-titled debut, which would soon spark a nu-metal revolution that supplanted alt-rock as the dominant form of music on rock radio.

With a year so loaded with iconic records, it can be hard to determine which ones are the best. For this list, I used the following weighted criteria:

1. Timelessness, i.e. how good does the album sound in 2019: 60 percent
2. 1994-ness, i.e. how good did it sound then, and how well does it signify the year overall: 30 percent
3. Influence, i.e. how much are contemporary artists affected by this album: 10 percent

Okay, now let’s go back to 1994 and figure out which CD is the best!

20. Bush, Sixteen Stone

For the original alt-rock true believers, Sixteen Stone signaled the apocalypse. A Nirvana rip-off named after a Republican president was almost too on-the-nose as a harbinger of the scene’s end. Of course, these days Sixteen Stone just seems like a very good pop-rock LP loaded with a lot of rock radio jams that hold all the way up. Besides, any snob attempting to hate Bush in the mid-’90s had to come around on the album’s smash hit power ballad, “Glycerine,” or risk not making out with anybody.

19. R.E.M., Monster

Famously known as the most ubiquitous used CD of all time, back when used-CD stores were required by law to be located within five miles of every college campus in America. R.E.M. spent the 1980s on the road as a hard-touring rock ‘n’ roll band, but the massive early ’90s success of Out Of Time and Automatic For The People somehow made people forget that. When R.E.M. returned as barnstorming rockers on Monster, the kids accused them of being grunge carpetbaggers — rather than praise them as vital precursors to the ’90s alt-rock scene. No matter: Monster is one of the strangest, sexiest, dirtiest, and all-around fascinating superstar rock records of the era.

18. Liz Phair, Whip-Smart

Exile In Guyville is rightly remembered as one of the great records of the ’90s. But Liz Phair was arguably at the peak of her fame during the album cycle for the followup, Whip-Smart. She was on the cover of Rolling Stone‘s “Women In Rock” issue — back when “women in rock” were supposedly a novelty — and her profile was printed under the auspicious headline, “A Star Is Born.” Whip-Smart never quite lived up to that level of hype, which helped to set in motion a narrative that Phair was never able to match Guyville. But in fact Whip-Smart is nearly the artistic equal of its predecessor, expanding upon the witty and gritty Guyville template.

17. Jeff Buckley, Grace

Doomed martyrs were plentiful in the rock world of 1994. Jeff Buckley is now remembered as a great talent with striking good looks who died at the tragically young age of 30 in 1997. But in ’94, few people cared about Grace. (One of those individuals was Thom Yorke, who presumably started writing operatic acoustic ballads like “Fake Plastic Trees” and “Karma Police” immediately after hearing this record.) It wasn’t until Buckley passed away that Grace took on a mythic resonance. Songs like “Last Goodbye” and “So Real” speak to Buckley’s burgeoning talent as a composer, but Grace‘s signature track is the sterling, choir-boy cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” After Grace, people started covering Jeff Buckley’s cover of “Hallelujah.”

16. Sunny Day Real Estate, Diary

This album is to “best emo albums” lists what Nas’ Illmatic (another 1994 classic) is to “best rap albums” lists. You’re pretty much required by emo-dude edict to put Diary at the top. Essentially a punk band that aspired to the sonic grandeur of Unforgettable Fire-era U2, Sunny Day Real Estate was a strange animal indeed — as emotionally expressive as any caterwauling arena-rock band, and yet so averse to fame that they refused to tour in California. (When I interviewed SDRE’s mercurial frontman Jeremy Enigk in 2017, he blamed the “no California” policy on guitarist Dan Hoerner. “Then it became a funny, weird thing that ended up working for us,” he said.) The band imploded the following year, and then reformed in 1998 and recorded the career-best How It Feels To Be Something On. Though Diary will probably always be SDRE’s most important record, acting as a blueprint for each new generation of bands committed to introverted bombast.

15. Smashing Pumpkins, Pisces Iscariot

A transitional odds and sods compilation positioned between Smashing Pumpkins‘ two biggest albums, 1993’s Siamese Dream and 1995’s Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, just as Incesticide marked time for Nirvana between Nevermind and In Utero. But whereas Incesticide was intended to shore up Nirvana’s punk-rock bonafides, Pisces Iscariot underlined just how far removed the Pumpkins were from anything even remotely punk. Covering Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” is pretty much de rigueur now for any indie band, but in 1994 this embrace of ’70s boomer rock was actually kind of brave. And then there was the 11-minute “Starla,” a song so mind-blowing and epic that it would never belong in the same sentence with “Mike Watt.”

14. Pavement, Crooked Rain Crooked Rain

Slanted and Enchanted gets the “era-defining masterpiece” shine, but who actually prefers playing that album to Crooked Rain Crooked Rain? Old-school ’90s babies might wince at this record being included on an “alt-rock” list, given that Pavement was technically an “indie” band viewed as an antidote to the dominant alt-culture pervasive on rock radio and MTV. And Pavement played into that, famously snarking about Stone Temple Pilots and Smashing Pumpkins in “Range Life.” Of course, time has a way of collapsing these sorts of micro-distinctions. But even at the time, Crooked Rain sounded like Pavement’s alt-rock record, with all of the muscle and hooks that implies.

13. Ween, Chocolate And Cheese

In the wake of Nevermind, major corporate record labels famously started signing up underground bands in the hopes of finding the next Nirvana. One of the acts who unexpectedly benefitted from this feeding frenzy was Ween, a two-man band from Pennsylvania who supposedly once made an album, 1991’s The Pod, while huffing dangerous amounts of Scotchgard fumes. Elektra subsequently decided to put out the duo’s next record, 1992’s Pure Guava, which spawned a surprise hit, the demented “Push Th’ Little Daisies.” That single pegged Ween as a novelty act. Ween’s 1994 album, the musically ingenious Chocolate And Cheese, put an end to that misconception, demonstrating Gene and Dean Ween’s knack for a range of styles, from ’70s soul to Beatlesque balladry to punk songs about AIDS.

12. Tori Amos, Under The Pink

Maybe the most underrated “great record” of 1994. I fear that I’m also underrating on this list. While Little Earthquakes is regarded as Tori Amos’ defining statement of searing emotionalism and prog-like musical chops, Under The Pink seemed slightly more pervasive at the time. (The indelible singles “Cornflake Girl” and “God” were her biggest alt-rock hits of the era.) And that influence has remained. So many contemporary singer-songwriters have learned from Amos how to make painful and ultimately empowered songs sound like pop music. For as much as Kate Bush is cited now as an indie influence, you could probably replace at least half of those references with Tori Amos, whose reign as the queen of confessional art-pop in the ’90s made her a household name.

11. Guided By Voices, Bee Thousand

Back in ’94, this would have been the least famous album on this list. (Again, purists will argue that this is an “indie” album, not “alt-rock.”) However, the parts of the equation related to timelessness and importance push Bee Thousand up the list. In retrospect, this thrillingly scattershot collection of bizarro-world classic rock hits from Dayton, Ohio’s iconic lo-fi pioneers seems like a defining document of the year for the people who came to form bands a few decades later. For the kids born in or around 1994, Bee Thousand has become a touchstone for anyone interested in indie rock, and a short-hand for musicians looking to evoke that elusive mid-’90s feeling.

10. Alice In Chains, Jar Of Flies

This 30-minute release — technically classified as an EP, though it has the weight of an album — is somewhat overshadowed by Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged In New York in the annals of acoustic, funereal grunge records released in 1994. Jar Of Flies came out in January of that year, so at the time everything appeared to be on the up and up for alternative rock. With the benefit of hindsight, however, this album sounds like a downbeat overture for the malaise, dysfunction, and ultimately self-destruction that overtook the crew of Seattle bands as the year unfolded. A moody, sleepy, and often beautiful set of folk-metal tunes punctuated by the most manic-depressive talkbox guitar solos ever, Jar Of Flies is the Goats Head Soup of grunge — an exhausted elegy for a combustible period of music.

9. Green Day, Dookie

Weirdly, this culturally ubiquitous pop-punk watershed was something that Green Day had to live down for almost a decade. It wasn’t until they finally embraced being a stadium-filling classic rock band on American Idiot that Green Day stopped apologizing for the deservedly massive popularity of Dookie. Before then, Dookie was the record that launched a million arguments about punk authenticity. Billie Joe Armstrong, to his detriment, internalized a lot of that. (The follow-up to Dookie, 1995’s Insomniac, sounds like it was recorded in a back-alley dumpster.) But Dookie was always a super-hooky, larger-than-life rawk record, with plenty of old-fashioned mythology baked in. “Bite my lip and close my eyes / take me away to paradise” is the “It’s a town full of losers and we’re pulling out of here to win” of the ’90s.

8. Stone Temple Pilots, Purple

After Scott Weiland died in 2015, music critics came out of the woodwork to praise him as one of the best rock singers and most charismatic frontmen of his era. But in their prime, Stone Temple Pilots were the most unfairly derided band in alt-rock. “With Kurt Cobain dead, to hear his misery and his intelligence transformed so blithely into someone else’s kitsch commodity is sickening,” wrote the venerable rock critic Greil Marcus, who likened STP to Deep Purple. With all due respect to Mr. Marcus, anyone uses a Deep Purple comparison as an insult might not have the best feel for what makes thunderously melodic hard rock so … awesome. But for the millions who loved STP despite constant admonishments from critics, it was clear that singles like “Interstate Love Song” and “Big Empty” were the sort of grabby ear candy that Nirvana and Pearl Jam had stopped making by ’94. And those songs still sound great when you hear them on the radio. That’s some powerful kitsch.

7. Hole, Live Through This

Putting out Live Through This just one week after Kurt Cobain died has to be one of the most horrible and queasily advantageous accidents in rock history. The urban legend that Cobain helped Courtney Love write the bulk of Live Through This was ultimately unsubstantiated, though not entirely implausible given how much more melodic and just all-around better Live Through This was than Hole’s previous work. (When diehard fans complained about the record’s relative poppiness, “I was like ‘Uh, I’m really glad you’re here, girls, but check it out: I can write a bridge now,'” Love told Rolling Stone.) No matter what detractors might have wanted to believe, the undeniable power of Live Through This derives from the force of Love’s singular point of view. This record is a howl of pain, and in defiance of pain.

6. Oasis, Definitely Maybe

If Live Through This is the definitive post-Cobain mourning album, then Definitely Maybe is like the morning after. Oasis was in many ways the antithesis of the grunge archetype: They boasted instead of brooded, they preferred cigarettes and alcohol to angst and heroin, and they longed to be rich and famous instead of acting defensive about selling out. At the time, Oasis’ barroom-friendly singalongs were precisely the sort of feel-good, blustery rock that felt necessary to chase away so much sadness. “You and I are gonna live forever” wasn’t just chesty bravado, it felt like a call to arms after so much gloom.

5. Pearl Jam, Vitalogy

How popular was Pearl Jam in 1994? They were so popular, they put out an album that ended with a freeform sound collage called “Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me” that no Pearl Jam fan has ever played in its entirety, and they still managed to go quintuple platinum. After putting out two of the most popular rock records of the ’90s with 1991’s Ten and 1993’s Vs., Pearl Jam decided to make Vitalogy their version of the Beatles’ White Album, commingling zany ideas with some of their very greatest songs. In the moment, Vitalogy might have seemed like a defensive gesture by a band whom detractors dismissed as middle-of-the-road rock. But 25 years on, the diversity and adventurousness of Vitalogy has made it one of Pearl Jam’s most beloved records.

4. Nine Inch Nails, The Downward Spiral

At the peak of Nine Inch Nails’ popularity in the mid-’90s, Trent Reznor was regarded as the bard of petulant adolescent noise. The Downward Spiral was the go-to soundtrack for kids scheming to get back at the world while tucked behind locked bedroom doors. The song titles spoke to Reznor’s rebellious irreverence: “Mr. Self-Destruct,” “Piggy,” “Big Man With A Gun.” In the album’s surprisingly funky hit “Closer,” Reznor snarled about wanting to “f*ck you like an animal.” But looking back, Reznor’s prodigious talents as a composer, musician, and producer are what ultimately shine through. For all the sadomasochistic bluster of Nine Inch Nails’ music videos, Reznor was capable of writing a genuine American standard in “Hurt,” a song famously reclaimed and deepened by Johnny Cash.

3. Weezer, Weezer

The never-ending “Is Weezer terrible or nah?” debate wouldn’t still inflame the passions of alt-rockers everywhere if not for the brilliance of The Blue Album. Whether you think Weezer peaked in 1996, or believe that covering “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” in 2019 is a fun artistic choice, anyone who cares about this confounding band can agree that Rivers Cuomo unquestionably got it right on the debut. To this day, it sounds like a perfect guitar-pop record. It’s one of those albums where every single song — including radio hits like “Buddy Holly,” “Undone – The Sweater Song,” and the immortal “Say It Ain’t So” — has been heard blasting through the high school parking lots of American suburbia. But it’s also guided by an idiosyncratic weirdo with a fascinating if occasionally problematic sensibility. It feels universal and accessible and also strange and insular at the same time. And it still has the power to start fights among music fans.

2. Nirvana, MTV Unplugged In New York

One of the saddest side effects of Kurt Cobain’s death is how it retconned every other aspect of his life and career into an explainer of his eventual fate. In light of his suicide, many could only hear MTV Unplugged In New York as a kind of pre-funeral performance. Significance was attached to how many songs seemed to address death. Even the stage design was scrutinized for its resemblance to a mourning area at a burial. But when MTV Unplugged In New York originally aired on TV in the fall of 1993, it seemed to project so much hope creatively. Here was Cobain radically remaking Nirvana’s sound in a style that was reminiscent of Automatic For The People, a recent hit by one of his favorite bands, R.E.M. (Mark Lanegan’s fantastic 1990 LP The Winding Sheet, which includes a cover of Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” that Cobain performs on, was another crucial influence.) MTV Unplugged In New York seemed for a moment like a transitional work that would lead to a gentler, more melancholy artistic direction. Instead, it became a stunning epitaph.

1. Soundgarden, Superunknown

No other album better captures the sense that 1994 was both a pinnacle for alternative rock as well as an ending. For Soundgarden, Superunknown was the big breakthrough the band had been seeking for a decade, spinning off numerous rock radio hits (including “Black Hole Sun” “My Wave,” “Fell On Black Days,” and “Spoonman”) and selling five million units. Artistically, it was both the poppiest album the band had ever made, as well as the most experimental, somehow straddling the gap between Black Sabbath-style sludge and Beatles-inspired psychedelia. After looming in the shadows of more famous friends in bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Alice In Chains, Superunknown briefly put Soundgarden at the top of grunge mountain as the year’s most popular and most respected rock band. And then … Soundgarden started to fall apart. By the time the band was touring in support of 1997’s Down On The Upside, Soundgarden was ready to break up. Alternative rock was also on the ropes. The dream was ending. But what a dream it was.

Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.

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