1994: The Year in Music, Restrospectively

With a look back at five seminal albums from the best-ever year for recorded arts

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Let’s face it: While 2014 witnessed the release of several great singles and a handful of very good albums, by and large it was a down year for music.

Perhaps reflecting the sociopolitical unrest that dominated headlines both domestically and internationally, the majority of the best music this year was insular, introspective and yet carried with it an angry detachment. Over time, the most outstanding of the bunch may prove to be classics, although they likely won’t hold a candle to the canon of landmark albums pressed twenty years ago.

To be fair, as someone who was alive, breathing and cultivating his aural tastes in 1994, I find it difficult to be objective about music produced in that era. With few exceptions, virtually everything sounded amazing to my then still-developing ears. Nevertheless, a vast array of musicians today continue to cite an impressive number of albums from the mid-‘90s as inspirations for their work. Moreover, history looks favorably on the bulk of the recordings from that period, as it marked possibly the last time that positive cultural impact was synonymous with profitability.

1994 was a banner year for alternative rock, and it saw many artists hit both their critical and commercial peaks. Soundgarden’s Superunknown debuted at number one, is certified triple platinum and is widely regarded as the band’s best album. Live’s Throwing Copper was well received by both critics and the public, which pushed the record to the number-one slot and past 8 million units sold. And although its highest chart position was number two, Green Day’s Dookie moved a whopping 20 million copies and ushered punk pop into the mainstream. Less commercially viable but just as exceptional and influential were truly independent albums by Guided by Voices, Dinosaur Jr., Pavement, Meat Puppets, Ween, Sebadoh and Sonic Youth.

Other musical movements also can trace their roots to that year. Though already an emerging force, Britpop officially became a ‘thing’ stateside with the release of Oasis’ Definitely Maybe and Blur’s Parklife. Trip hop was regarded as the sound of the future when Portishead’s Dummy and Massive Attack’s Protection dropped. Seeds of a late-‘90s renaissance for empowered women performers were planted with Hole’s Live Through This and TLC’s CrazySexyCool. Even film soundtracks were elevated to the level of respected art form with compilations for Pulp Fiction, The Crow, The Lion King and Above the Rim.

Darkness fueled two of the best and most iconic records of ‘94. The first, Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral, chronicled an archetypal antihero’s descent into depression and self-destruction. Though the album was a massive success, the groundbreaking music unfortunately was overshadowed at times by controversy, namely media and political figures attacking Trent Reznor for its bleak, occasionally violent subject matter. And what should have been a victory lap for Nirvana after the one-two punch to the gut of Nevermind and In Utero, MTV Unplugged in New York instead became a ghostly collection of swan songs following Kurt Cobain’s suicide.

On a brighter note, listeners were inundated with a ridiculous wealth of debut albums by a fresh crop of newcomers, many of whom forever altered the landscape of popular music. Weezer, Elliott Smith and Jeff Buckley released their first records. For better or worse – depending on who you ask – so, too, did Bush, Korn and Dave Matthews Band. Major-label debuts included Beck’s Mellow Gold, The Offspring’s Smash and Green Day’s aforementioned Dookie. Rap and hip hop greatly benefited from epic, intelligent offerings by Outkast, Notorious B.I.G. and Nas. Aaliyah and Usher edified an already-strong R&B scene with their youthful effervescence.

Call it dad-rock syndrome or whatever you will, but, as I age, I increasingly am finding it harder and harder to get excited about new popular music in the same manner that I used to (experimental music is another story; bring on Big Ears!). These days, I often find myself revisiting – and thus reassessing – albums that defined my formative years. Recently, especially, I have been returning to five albums in particular, all of which were released in ’94.

These records, though rather disparate sonically, all have a single unifying theme: They are transitional, experimental works created by established artists who (with one exception) relied on the proficiency of an experienced producer to oversee the results. Chronologically listed by release date, here are newly considered reviews of the albums from that year that made a lasting impression on this author.

 

Tori Amos – Under the Pink

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There are many from which to choose, but the most striking aspect of Amos’ sophomore effort is just how self-assured it comes across. From the instrumentation (expertly arranged and executed) to the ordering of the tracks, absolutely everything is note-perfect. The fact that the album was self-produced – making it the outlier in this list – is even more remarkable.

That isn’t to say, though, that the lyrical content isn’t Under the Pink’s most important and enduring characteristic – it is – it’s just that it melds so well into the fold that it can almost be taken for granted given the quality of the recording. But Amos’ mastery as a songwriter is on full display here; her takes on relationship dynamics, dysfunctional friendships, organized religion and an oppressive patriarchal society are sharp, witty, subversive and fierce.

Condensing eloquent critiques of weighty topics such as these into an album with a run time of less than an hour is admirable; Amos’ ability to present them in a way that is pleasurable for listeners is nothing less than extraordinary. But, with an abundance of hooks, she delivers on all fronts. Whether it’s the pop sensibility of “Cornflake Girl,” the modified reggae of “Past the Mission,” the drunken waltz of “The Wrong Band” or the haunting resonance of the upright piano on “Bells for Her,” listeners are left hanging on every halted, emotively hushed breath.

 

Johnny Cash – American Recordings

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Not only is it likely true that most everything the last two generations of Americans know about Cash stems from this album, but it is entirely possible that his iconic reputation as the Man in Black was borne of it, as well. After decades of having his work diluted with saccharine embellishments, Cash was sought out by legendary producer Rick Rubin, who promised to brighten the crooner’s fading star.

With Rubin at the helm stripping the music of all accoutrements and tracking only guitar and that distinctive, rich baritone of a voice from Cash’s living room, these minimalist compositions are powerful in their starkness and intimacy. Only “Tennessee Stud” and “The Man Who Couldn’t Cry,” recorded live and thus containing audience reactions, offer a respite from the unrelenting gravity and immediacy.

As with future collections in the series, the first set of Recordings comprises an intriguing mix of originals, traditionals and covers. The latter category features tracks written by a wide array of performers, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and Glenn Danzig chief among them. Cash’s willingness to embrace artists in diverse genres accords these sessions bonus cool points, but the stately seriousness of these renderings is a lasting reminder of his uncanny ability to make anyone’s song his own.

 

Beastie Boys – Ill Communication

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The most eclectic record on this list, the Beasties’ fourth, is both timeless and reminiscent of a specific time. Most hip hop albums date themselves referentially; Adam Horovitz, Michael Diamond and the late Adam Yauch (R.I.P., MCA) were guilty of this from time to time over the years, but most of the of-the-moment allusions on Ill are to former NBA stars. The rest (the vast majority) are reserved for pop-culture icons, underground rap pioneers and New York City misfits.

Even twenty years after its release, encapsulating in just a few words an album that provided a soundtrack to my teenage years proves difficult. My adult reaction, however, is that it is extremely strong both musically and lyrically; the first third, in particular, shines with classic tracks like “Sure Shot,” “Root Down,” “Sabotage” and “Get it Together.” Another impression is that Mario Caldato, Jr. deserves a lot of credit for his contributions while manning the boards.

Yauch’s travels to the Himalayan region and subsequent conversion to Buddhism occurred in the time leading up to the recording sessions for this album, and these experiences imbue the music with a worldliness previously unheard from the group. Unlike the jams on 1992’s Check Your Head, instrumental pieces like “Eugene’s Lament,” “Futterman’s Rule” and “Shambala,” the latter of which features chanting Tibetan monks, sound focused and intense.

It is a more mature effort content-wise, as well. “Sure Shot” finds Diamond boasting about being a newlywed and Yauch acknowledging his premature grayness before calling for an end to violence against women. “Bodhisattva Vow” as a whole espouses the kind of social responsibility for which the Beasties would later be known after founding the Milarepa Fund and organizing the Tibetan Freedom Concert series.

 

R.E.M. – Monster

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From the distorted opening riff of “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” you can tell that Monster is a different beast than its predecessor, the landmark Automatic For the People. Perhaps realizing that recreating the same kind of magic on this follow-up was a near-impossible task, the Athens foursome instead turned up the amps and crafted its most blistering rock record.

Nary a dud amongst its twelve tracks, the record’s momentum builds and releases with each minor-to-major chord change. The funky “Crush With Eyeliner” sashays sexily from the speakers, dripping tremolo as it moves. Peter Buck’s dirty arpeggios and 3rd-bridge harmonics complement Mike Mills’ patient bassline on the moving ballad “Strange Currencies.” And the charred desertscape of “Bang and Blame” hints at the sweeping majesty of New Adventures in Hi-Fi, the band’s next – and, in my opinion, best – album.

The only really disappointing aspect of this album is Michael Stipe’s reversion to once again warping his vocals with effects and/or burying them in the mix as he did in R.E.M.’s early days. While the affectation often fits the tone of the music, it is frustrating knowing that he is a songwriter with something to say but being able to comprehend only half of it.

 

Pearl Jam – Vitalogy

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The third album in the venerable Seattle band’s discography finds them striking out in a direction few could have envisioned based on their epic debut, Ten. Even Vs., their slightly more diverse sophomore record, didn’t hint at the kind of sounds they would employ on Vitalogy.

In retrospect, everything here sounds tame by today’s standards, of course, if not perfectly at home in the band’s catalog of songs. But the fierce punk outburst of “Spin the Black Circle,” the stabbing brutality of “Tremor Christ” and the inclusion of “Pry, To” and “Bugs” elicited a fair amount of head scratching and hand wringing amongst critics upon the album’s release.

This is a shame because the album also contains some of the most accessible music Pearl Jam has ever recorded. “Corduroy” is a clear highlight, the raging “Not For You” a close second among the up-tempo offerings. “Nothingman” and the revered “Better Man” are hands down the best ballads in the band’s oeuvre. And the pensive “Immortality” sounds just as good today as it did when I first heard it on the radio back in ’94.

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1 Comment

  1. Jordan Knight

    This is wonderful! I have the same trouble with new music in comparison to the early 90’s. Thank God for Jack White, Portugal the Man, MMJ, and The War on Drugs, etc.. to carry the torch.

    Reply

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