Hi. My name is Johnny Sparkles, and I’m a music fetishist.
As 1994 began, I was 6 months out of high school, with no idea of what to do with my life. I had some ideas, but most of my ideas had to do with how to escape adulthood. I had just barely turned 18, and I was too busy with things like silliness and wonder to worry about stuff like careers, or wearing ties. At that time, I was hellbent on being a musician, or screenwriter, but was too lazy to learn an instrument, and too scared and idiotic to focus on writing the way I needed to. It’s 2016, and I am now officially a stand up comedian. I’m still not ready for adulthood, though. I am more focused on writing these days, but still too scared to do much with it. I’m still too lazy to learn an instrument, but also busy with other things these days. And not just procrastination, I swear. So why am I here? Well, for one, I’m not alone. I have R. Kevin Garcia Doyle, a fellow music fetishist with me, and we’re here for your sake. The world just tried to eat itself a few days ago, and we feel like it’s time to for us to do something about it. I mean for us, too, but trust me, even if you don’t realize it, you guys need this. We believe that music can save this world, and we will do our part to help, by writing about it. And R. Kevin isn’t too lazy to learn an instrument, so he’s even more of an authority! So why 1994? Well. It was a pretty important year for music. SPIN even called it the best year in alternative music this one time. We’re not exactly sure if we agree with that yet. That’s kind of why we’re here. By the time we’re done, we still might have no idea, but it will be fun figuring it out.
Hi, my name is R. Kevin Garcia Doyle.
In 1994, I was in a PhD program at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. I had been a DJ in college at WRBC (Bates College, Lewiston, ME) from 1985-1989 and a DJ at KTUH (UHM) from 1989-1993. I think of 1994 as the beginning of my “musical dark ages.” I still was reasonably in touch with new music and new songs, but the fact that I wasn’t working at a college station (and the fact that, in those pre-Internet days, the ways I was exposed to new music were increasingly limited) meant that, gradually, I lost touch with all music – not just alternative music, but almost all but the most ubiquitous songs of the mid-late 90’s through the early zeds.
Two things really hit me in 1994. Kurt Cobain’s Death and Timothy McVeigh’s terrorist act. Cobain and McVeigh were both born the same year as me. I thought “wow, this is what Generation X is accomplishing.” That was the first year (of several) in my life that I felt like everything was going to blazes.
Fortunately, some really good music came out that year – and in the 22 years since, I’ve managed to, little by little, get a picture of what a remarkable year it was for all genres of music. I mean, this was the year Nas’ Illmatic came out and no other year can claim that.
JS: The death of Cobain hit me very hard. It took me a long time to really come to terms with it. I think I took it personally because I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me. Nirvana was my big introduction to this world of music, and almost overnight, they were gone basically forever. I was always intrigued by rock music, but I abandoned it for a huge chunk of what would eventually become my formative years. A few bands got me back into it, right around the time that Nevermind was about to explode, but it was that very album that sealed the deal for me. Nirvana made sure that I was now a lifer, with or without them, but it was still impossible to imagine the musical landscape with a giant hole right smack dab in the middle of it. 1994 might have been important because Nirvana was such a big part of it, but the sad irony is that the demise of Kurt Cobain probably directly spelled the end of punk rock demolishing the Top 40 errwaves, shortly thereafter. It’s hard to sustain the dominance of your dynasty when a perennial MVP performer is no longer playing for your team, and in many ways, popular music never recovered, even though tons of bands that were influenced by Nirvana – and the bands that inspired Nirvana, of course – continued to thrive on a subterranean level.
1994 as a year in general was bananas fucking foster. O.J. Simpson. McVeigh. The ballad of Tonya and Nancy. The MLB strike. And most tragic of all, Pulp Fiction not winning the Oscar for Best Picture. 1994 was the best of times, and the worst of times, in many ways. So much death, and despair, but also my favorite movie was released (Forrest Gump be damned!) and some of my favorite musicians for years to come would be introduced to me. (Hello, Beck Hansen!) But it was a weird fucking year for music, too. Just take a quick glance at what charted, and you’ll see a cornucopia of bands, songs, artists, and albums that have no business hanging out with each other. But this was a different time. A time when I had less means, but somehow still found it way easier to survive. But yeah, some of the albums that came out that year still sound certifiably fresh in 2016, while others appear to be ancient relics, and there are, as always, a few things I’m trying to forget ever happened. I mean didn’t 1994 have enough tragedy?
Oh, Frank Black….you will always be my Teenager of the Year, but (MC) Hammer trying to go gangsta, and Vanilla Ice trying his hand at metal can go straight to hell. Man, I have to admit…right now, I’m not feeling too good about this already. If you had asked me in 1994, I think I would have thought most of the stuff that came out that year was certified gold, but having not dug too deeply yet (stay tuned), I’m expecting a bit of a letdown. But hey, worst case scenario, I’ll always have Pulp Fiction. Regardless, I’m trying real hard to be optimistic, Ringo.
RK: I turned 27 in December of 1994. Generation X had already started resigning itself to the fact that we were going to be blamed for everything. A radio station in Seattle allegedly was hyping “who would kill himself first: Kurt Cobain or Eddie Vedder?” Assuming that’s true, I hope that DJ has had a sleepless night or two since then.
But, yeah, Cobain’s suicide seemed to be inevitable. That’s just in retrospect of course – no matter how many possible futures you see laying out before you, the past looks like a straight f-ing line. Nirvana had just released Unplugged and two tracks from that – the definitive version of “All Apologies” and a decent version of “About A Girl” – were number one modern/alternative rock tracks on Billboard that year. This is a pretty good indication of where mainstream punk was traveling that year. Unplugged was the first stop on the road to Nirvana being played in supermarkets or being turned into elevator music. (Here is where I plug Our Band Could Be Your Life by Michael Azerrad, a fantastic book that looks at the antecedents to the big punk explosion of the early 90’s)
There’s a bunch of things I struggle with about my own musical taste. In the 80’s, I saw myself as a punk dude with heavy metal leanings. If I really, really look closely at what I was actually listening to though, it was quirky pop and especially quirky power pop. I rarely met an XTC song I didn’t love. I was a huge fan of Game Theory/The Loud Family. Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush still found homes on my mix-tapes. By 1994, this had turned into a growing passion for hip-hop. A Tribe Called Quest. Arrested Development. De La Soul. Beastie Boys. These were groups creating remarkable songs and albums that were intelligent, filled with crazy hooks and quirky AF. My impression about hip hop in the 90’s…
OK, not before I can share my impression, I think it’s important to note that what we listen to is often dictated by the ways we get exposed to music. When I was a college DJ, discovering new music was ridiculously easy. In the 80’s and into the 90’s, the LP was still king at WRBC and KTUH. CDs were on the rise, but we didn’t have the infrastructure to store them (i.e. our shelves were for albums not CDs) and most record companies just sent us LPs. Most copies of albums at radio stations had a white sticker slapped on them by the station’s Music Director. Since many album covers didn’t include pertinent information like the artist’s name and album title, that was written on that white sticker. The music director, program director and various DJs would often notate recommendations about which tracks were worth a listen and many DJs used those notes as a guide when they wanted to play something new on their show. Many wouldn’t, but that’s another story.
Furthermore, we had access to CMJ – the College Media Journal – which was like Billboard for college stations. You could see what other stations were playing and read recommendations from their editors (that we all assumed were just press releases from the record companies). So, while I was a DJ, I heard new music all the time and I was the one actively discovering it most of the time. Once I stopped being a DJ, my exposure to new music slowed down significantly (until the internet became a thing, but that was way after 1994). I learned about music from the radio (mostly Radio Free Hawaii, which was a thing for a few years in the 90’s), from browsing at record stores, from watching MTV and from word of mouth.
When I was a college DJ, hip-hop was part of my regular diet and fit right in with the other stuff I was playing on my show. After college, I didn’t keep up with hip-hop because I was no longer exposed to it. As a result, my impression was that hip-hop was eventually completely wiped out by mainstream gangsta rap. This was a completely ignorant view and is completely unproved by even a cursory glance at what was popular on the rap charts in 1994. For example, “Player’s Ball,” Outkast’s debut single (released in November of 1993) was the number one rap song for six weeks starting in March – and they’ve remained a major standard-bearer for mind blowing, creative hip-hop to this day.
Furthermore, I missed Nas’ Illmatic when it was released. Indeed, I missed Nas’ entire career until a few months ago when I learned that his music was a major influence on Lin-Manuel Miranda and, thus, on Hamilton. This is how out of touch I am – I’ve spent the last months listening to Illmatic and am kicking myself for missing it. I would have loved that album in 1994 and could have been listening to it for 22 years at this point if I’d only continued to be a DJ. Anyhow, yeah, 1994 man.
JS: Music nerd prowess is definitely very much, if not all about who you know, and what you’re exposed to (and how you’re exposed to it). The people I needed to meet to find the path to my musical righteousness weren’t around when I was younger. My sister got me into a few essential things, but none of them had to do with rock music, really. I think through her and my step brother, I found out about hip hop and reggae, but I feel like I took my minimal knowledge of rap music and really ran with that first, and my knowledge soon surpassed that of most people I knew. By the time I was 14 or 15, I was pretty well versed in rap, but I still listened to a lot of horrible things in other genres.
My first saving grace was Z-Rock, a pirate hard rock station that got me back into things like Metallica, Queensryche, and Soundgarden, which got me interested in music with guitars again. After that, I borrowed some punk albums from a friend (Minor Threat, Descendents, Dinosaur Jr), which blew my mind all over my face. But the real game changer was the aforementioned Radio Free Hawaii. The impact that revolutionary radio station had on me is impossible to state in such few words, but if I get too far into it, this will literally turn into another piece. My only regret is that I didn’t find it sooner, and it didn’t last longer. But without Radio Free Hawaii, I wouldn’t even be writing this. RFH took everything I was starting to get into, magnified and amplified it infinitely, then injected it straight to my heart, brain, and soul. I was never the same once I served for Sheriff Norm’s army. And the only PTSD I suffer from is post-punk triumphant spirit disorder. Luckily, the only side effect I’ve experienced, is going down a lifelong wormhole of music discovery. Once I was exposed to my missing lifeline, I kept going back, and before too long, I realized that I would be a little bit behind on things for the rest of my life, but that’s only because I started so late, and pay attention too much. It’s a labor of love that I’m sure I’ll never retire from.
Being that I was already deeply immersed in rap music, this was an extremely exciting time for me, as I now had a new layer of music to sift through, and fawn over. But upon doing (re-)research over these last few days, 1994 was a bit of a bummer, and not just because of Kurt Cobain’s death. Thanks to the assist by Sir Doyle, I’m brought back to the night of his death. I’m at a friend of a friend’s house, and we’re watching Unplugged. My buddy Darett and I are still somber and in shock, though we’ve now known the news for almost an entire day. Other people at the house are totally oblivious to what’s going on, which bums me out in a big way. Maybe I had an inkling that while this was alternative rock music’s biggest year commercially, the exit of its most important band was going to directly lead to its demise, through no fault of their own. I assure you that there is tons of music being made currently, that is on par with the very best music out at that time, and this has been the case for the last 22 years, but it’s also undeniable that mainstream radio has ignored almost all of it across the board since, oh, I don’t know, the very early 2000s? And it all started slowly declining in 1994. But mostly I was just sad because my hero was gone.
I know it sounds like I’m challenging 1994 to a duel, but it wasn’t awful. (Not all of it, anyway.) It was still a magical time. A time when I would go to Tower Records once every week or two, and buy a huge handful of CDs, sometimes without even being overly familiar with the artist. If you knew what was good, and who else knew what was up, you kinda knew which bands to trust, and you could pick things out simply on a gamble, and they would often become favorite artists of mine for life. I’ll save my very favorite teleases of that year for the end of this article, but right now, I’ll touch on a few musical moments that were on my radar in a big way that year:
This was the year that Weezer, Oasis and Notorious B.I.G. made huge impacts, with bold, confident beyond their years, larger than life debuts. Weezer, and the brothers Gallagher stuck around much longer, but Biggie Smalls is recognized by many as the greatest rapper of all time, while the other acts had hit or miss moments over the years. Another landmark debut, Nas’ Illmatic, is recognized by a lot of the same people as the greatest rap album of all time. I love that album, but for me, it’s not as extremely essential as other pieces. I can’t even explain to you why. Certain things just don’t hit us the way we want them to sometimes, but it is undeniably a great, great moment in hip hop.
Toadies had a huge hit with “Possum Kingdom”, and then seemed to fall off the face of the earth almost immediately. Craig Mack similarly went Houdini on us after dropping the sure shot single “Flava In Ya Ear”. And Outkast presented us with a delicious first course from their potluck of sounds, but it only gave us a small glimpse of what they were truly capable of. Rodan was an indie darling that I fell pretty hard for out of the box, but seemed to go extinct shortly thereafter, and the Offspring didn’t debut with “Come Out and Play”, but they definitely came out of nowhere with it, and then proceeded to make a decade’s worth of disappointing albums after that, but made a shitload of money doing so. I wish I had that problem. I was also one of the few people that I knew of to buy the debut album of a little group known as the Fugees. I really liked the album, but had no idea they’d be huge stars in a couple years.
Affiliated releases by members of Wu-Tang Clan and Rocket From the Crypt almost shredded mainstream music to pieces, but they were more leftfield hits, ultimately. Drive Like Jehu’s Yank Crime, and Gravediggaz’ 6 Feet Deep both featured moments that I didn’t hear any other artist at that time doing, and I still count those as very important albums. Superchunk’s Foolish, Guided By Voices’ Bee Thousand, Mark Lanegan’s Whiskey For the Holy Ghost, Jawbox’s For Your Own Special Sweetheart, and Sebadoh’s Bakesale were all very deserving indie successes, and I love all of those records, as well as Shudder To Think’s Pony Express Record, which I wholeheartedly adored, but had a hard time getting friends to share that love with me.
Beck burst onto the scene with three albums, and Mellow Gold and One Foot In the Grave helped solidify him as a definite MVP candidate of 1994, as well as its Rookie of the Year. Veterans Helmet, Sugar, Pantera, Melvins, NoFx, Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, Stone Temple Pilots, Mavericks, MC Eiht, Gang Starr, Redman, Toad the Wet Sprocket (shut up, you know you bought it), and Sonic Youth all put out stellar albums, but none of them was quite good enough to be considered classic, but Sunny Day Real Estate and Scarface came very close to reaching that status with their two, very different Diaries. There are bands that I had long relationships with that put stuff out that year, too, but I don’t remember being nutty about them at the time. Shellac, the Coup, Luna, and two of my very favorite bands-Lagwagon, and Lungfish-didn’t make the hugest of impacts on me then, but I would revisit them in later years, and be infatuated by the results. Bone Thugs N Harmony caught my attention with a mystifyingly unique EP, and Johnny Cash even hooked up with Rick Rubin for the first time, and embarked on what would end up being quite a fruitful series of American Recordings, not to mention a captivating final act, for one of music’s most iconic voices.
Before I even think about getting to my picks for the very elite of 1994, I can’t resist touching on a couple artists that I thought would stay with me forever. Some didn’t even last, and others I kind of just outgrew, but I’d be lying if I denied buying albums from G. Love and Special Sauce, MC 900 Foot Jesus, and 311 that year, and enjoying all of them, as well as hit-or-miss soundtracks that made a lot of money, from the Crow and Reality Bites, to Clerks, and Above the Rim, which basically only has staying power thanks to the eternally essential “Regulate”, by Nate Dogg & Warren G. And I’m also embarrassed that I still haven’t gotten fully into Portishead’s Dummy. I don’t even have a reason for it. I have it queued up, and have gradually dug a few cuts here and there, but really, I should have heavily digested it by now. But nothing could be more embarrassing than having an album called Your Filthy Little Mouth. Man, if I had half the confidence of David Lee Roth, I would have conquered the world by now.
But were any of these albums–all of which had a sizable impact on me–enough to join forces with my top picks, in conquering every other year of music…? Eh, you and your filthy little mouth will find out soon enough.
(Note: Tom Jones also put out an album that year, and it was called The Lead and How To Swing It, but I don’t think we need to go into any more detail about how Mr. Jones may, or may not swing his “lead.” Ain’t nobody need to hear about that.)
RK: 2016 has just put me in a position where I need to defend a 1994 Tom Jones album. What the hell, 2016?
Let’s talk about Jones’ The Lead and How To Swing It. I think I can swing this back to 1994 in general.
In 1988, Tom Jones was invited to sing lead vocal on the Art of Noise’s cover of Prince’s “Kiss.” Before 1988, that is a sentence that I’d have never imagined I’d have to write. The song was just as bonkers as it sounds but it taught me a very valuable lesson – a great singer can make bonkers stuff work and Tom Jones is a great singer. He may be the greatest cover artist of our lifetime. He knows what songs work well for his voice and style and once he’s locked on to a song he sings the hell out of it.
Anyhow, The Lead and How To Swing It could have been a big deal in 1994. It was a direct response to his success with “Kiss” but the album was at least five years too late to capitalize on it. Furthermore, he decided to go with a bunch of original tunes instead of covers. Now, Jones sings the hell out of all of them (really, he gives some great performances) but with the exception of the lead track – the delightful and fun “If I Only Knew” – the songs aren’t equal to his voice.
The production, on the other hand, is top notch. Flood, Teddy Riley and Trevor Horn all took turns on different tracks. The album sounds great. So we have an unfortunate situation where a great singer, fantastic producers and a really tight band are doing their best to make diamonds from coal.
Original songs are outside of Jones’ normal comfort zone, so kudos to him for trying that. He followed the same formula and did an album of covers called Reload in 1999 that blew the roof off the joint. Its one of the finest albums of his career and I don’t think he could have gotten there if he didn’t do The Lead and How To Swing It first. He was 54 in 1994 and still trying new things. We should all be like Tom Jones.
I’ve created a bunch of playlists related to 1994 in my own library and on Spotify. I encourage you to listen to the 10 songs that reached #1 in 1994 (a very brief list since Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love To You” was #1 for most of the year), even if it’s painful for you.
The list is pretty much would you expect from Top 40 music, but I want to point out three oddballs.
First, Lisa Loeb and Nine Stories had a number one hit with “Stay.” How on Earth did that happen? This was a quirky song that doesn’t have a proper chorus. It would not seem completely out of place on a Neutral Milk Hotel album. In a year dominated by slick produced adult contemporary pop by huge names, this song gave hope to everyone in a coffee shop with a guitar.
Second, alleged white supremacist front group Ace of Base (google that and leap down a rabbit hole that will consume your life) had a huge hit with “The Sign.” This is unforgivable. “The Sign” is objectively awful. It is a song that sounds 15 years out of its era and I have no idea who listened to it unironically. If this had been a minor top ten hit in 1978, I could forgive it. But in 1994? Holy cats people.
The most interesting number one track of the year though was Ini Kamoze’s “Here Comes The Hotstepper.” Boyz II Men were enjoying their second number one hit of the year – “On Bended Knee” – and up comes a Jamaican dancehall number to knock it off its pedestal for two weeks. Then “On Bended Knee” became the number one song again. Anyhow, for two weeks, America loved Jamaican dancehall. Not quite pop, not quite reggae, not quite rap. I’m thrilled that such a different sound broke through in 1994. This is unfair, perhaps, to Ace of Base who also sounded different, but they were different in an awful way.
I’m not going to write much of anything about these lists, but here’s the number one songs on the the Billboard Rap and Modern Rock charts for 1994:
Tori Amos is the only woman with a number one on the Modern Rock chart. Da Brat and Salt N Pepa are the female artists that topped the Rap chart. These two charts are also pretty much divided up by skin color. Our Mainstream Rock number 1’s have a better balance of ethnicity and gender than our less-mainstream music forms in 1994. Maybe still. I’d have to look at the contemporary charts to know this. Do my work for me, somebody.
JS: I was kind of hoping I wouldn’t have to come to face to face with the top hits of 1994, but it was inevitable, and some labors of love are more labor-heavy, and filled with far less love. This is an absolutely dreadful list of #1 hits. The first thing that blew my mind, was that Sting and Bryan Adams did a song together. And it was a #1 single. I remember that year pretty vividly, and I don’t remember ever hearing that song. Sting is the only person on this list who is still a highly respected artist by many other highly respected artists in 2016, though. (Before I hear any arguments, remember, I said highly respected.) R. Kelly is close, and actually a pretty phenomenal vocalist, and artist when he wants to be, but I think some unfortunate public events might keep many other artists from mentioning him at all. Boyz II Men were great at what they did, but they were more of a right place, right time type of act, though they had a string of amazing hits, and I definitely dug a few of them at the time, and have even been known to do karaoke versions of a couple to this day.
I always hated that Ini Kamoze song, because I always thought of songs like that as the reason why more songs from that given genre didn’t get more airplay. If people think that’s what great dancehall sounds like, then they need to listen to more dancehall, in my opinion, but it was definitely more refreshing than Celine fucking Dion. In spite of that, I can’t tell you how genuinely ecstatic I was, though, when one day, Kamoze randomly followed me on Twitter. (And how utterly heartbroken I was when he randomly unfollowed me a year or so later.) I agree wholeheartedly with the Loeb sentiment, though her career has surely fizzled to a screeching halt. I know a lot of “cool people” (you know who I mean) who loved that song when it came out, and it deserved it. It was simple, and a little corny, but it was quirky and sincere enough, and she was just adorable enough to make it all work. And after hearing what you said about Mr. Jones, I feel a little bad about poking fun of him earlier, but not bad enough to listen to that album. Sha-la-la-la-la-la-yeah.
The Modern Rock list is still pretty hopeful, though. There’s not a song here that makes me sick, and that’s pretty impressive for a list that old. There are a few I’d be fine never hearing again, but none that would make me want to throw my laptop through the window. I still listen to a lot of these songs in 2016, come to think of it. Even ones you might not expect if you know my taste. I do have to say that while Dolores is the only lady in Cranberries, she was still the driving force of that band, so I’ll have her join Tori in the rally against the boy’s club, but this was still the grunge era, and a lot of chicks weren’t into wearing flannel yet, back then, unless they were wearing their boyfriend’s around their waist as a “skirt.” I also should say here that I probably wouldn’t include any of these in my top songs of the year list, but “Come Out and Play” comes close. (I’m sure people realize this, but it’s also worth noting that some of these songs were from albums that came out in the previous year, or way earlier than that, if you count the Unplugged versions.)
I’m a hip hop snob, and therefore, the list of #1 songs on that chart, in that year, kind of depresses me. It was at this point, that I decided to make my own Spotify playlist of my favorite songs (any genre) of 1994. If you’re wondering why there are only 30 songs, and why it’s not supremely diverse, one reason is probably because I purposely left off songs from any of my favorite albums of the year, because I would hope that you would want to hear those entire albums, or maybe you already have, but regardless, here is that very playlist:
And now that you’ve seen the 30 songs that I chose that weren’t on my favorite albums of 1994 list, welp, I can’t think of a better time to present to you the 15 albums that made the cut for my favorite of said year. The albums at the very top of this list are ones I consider to be landmark releases, but that should be the case for any year, really, if you listen to enough stuff. Even though these are my final favorites, near the end of it, I already see some watering down starting to show up, and that’s a bad sign. And I’m going to go ahead and say right now, that this wasn’t even close to being one of the best years in music, but I do envy all the artists who bought islands based on the sales of lackluster albums that they put out. More power to them. I can’t wait to hear what Professor Doyle has to say about all this, but before I kick it back to him one last time, here is my best albums list, presented without any further commentary. I think I’ve given you enough to read already. Just trust me, if you haven’t heard of the artist, and like my other picks, check out said artists, because it is unlikely that they own islands, though I know at least two of them are from one.
JOHNNY SPARKLES’ TOP 15 ALBUMS OF 1994
15. Keali`i Reichel – Kawaipunahele
14. Jawbreaker – 24 Hour Revenge Therapy
13. Boogiemonsters – Riders of the Storm: the Underwater Album
12. Café Tacvba – Re
11. Beastie Boys – Ill Communication
10. Skankin’ Pickle – Sing Along With Skankin’ Pickle
9. Pavement – Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain
8. Meat Puppets – Too High To Die
7. O.C. – Word…Life
6. Nirvana – MTV Unplugged in New York
5. Frank Black – Teenager of the Year
4. Tantra Monsters – Tantra Monsters
3. Built To Spill – There Is Nothing Wrong With Love
2. Jeff Buckley – Grace
1. Ween – Chocolate & Cheese
If there’s one saving grace for 1994, other than that incredible Buckley album–how big do you think his death would be in the internet age? It seemed virtually ignored back then–it’s that my top album, may also be my favorite album of all time.. So it has that going for it, even if the rest was a bit lackluster. But now it’s time for the R to close things out. Thanks for the memories 1994. And for not giving me too many nightmares. Now, show us how to swing that lead, Dr. Doyle!
RK: Really, that Top 30 playlist The Esteemed Mr. Sparkles shared is as good an encapsulation of 1994 as one could hope to get. Best to skip over everything I have to say and just listen to that for the rest of your life. Best to start listening to it before the inauguration so you have enough time to listen to all the tracks before the inevitable bombs start falling.
In fact, his list is so complete that I figured the way I could best contribute at this point is to share 30 songs for 1994 that you might have missed in 1994.
I’ve also included “Secret” by Madonna on that list. I tried to avoid listing any bands that Mr. Sparkles included on his list, but I figured my Sonic Youth track features Kim Gordon on vocals and even though Group Home was a Gang Starr project, they’re not actually Gang Starr. I also chose a track from the terrific “If I Were A Carpenter” tribute to The Carpenters, but it is Dishwalla’s sublime cover of “It’s Gonna Take Some Time” which may actually be the only song on that album superior to The Carpenter’s original (though it doesn’t hold a candle to Karen Carpenter vocally).
Since Mr. Sparkles and I started working on this, there was this meme that spread around Facebook about sharing the top ten albums that influenced you as a teenager. This is an impossible task for many reasons, but the main one (and I think we addressed this earlier) is that the year a song was released might be different from the year when a song became popular and (in many cases) is entirely different from the year that you first became aware of the song. For example, most of my knowledge of post-1993 hip hop was absorbed post-2010. So how do we define “music of 1994?” Well, here are my “5 Greatest 1994 Tracks.”
Nas “New York State of Mind”
As I mentioned, it’s completely unfair that I only learned about Nas and Illmatic this past year. I would have listened to this album endlessly if I’d heard it back in the day. I’ve listened to it endlessly since I heard it. It’s probably my favorite album of 2016 and at least part of the reason I wanted to discuss 1994. I suspect this is the most cliche song to like from Illmatic but I don’t care – it’s new to me and I’ve been able to experience its genius for the first time in 2016. We live in an age of miracles.
Nirvana “You Know You’re Right”
Fine, fine it wasn’t released until years later, but it was recorded in 1994. Nirvana’s last single – indeed, their last recorded song – was one of the clearest expressions of Cobain’s struggle with depression and success. “Things have never been so swell/I have never failed to fail” is such a perfect couplet that captures what it’s like to have the stuff you want and to still be profoundly unhappy. Depression is a bear. I don’t think I could have handled this song in 1994, but by the time it came out in 2002 with the cushion of a few years between it and Cobain’s suicide, I was able to listen to it with enough perspective to recognize its genius without spiraling into suicidal ideation myself. Depression, as I just said, is a bear.
I fell in love with Madonna in the 90’s. I wasn’t a fan through most of the 80’s, but Bedtime Stories and Ray of Light made me a huge fan. “Secret” is maybe her finest song – it’s certainly one of her best vocal performances. Madonna made a deliberate choice to move in a strong R&B direction on Bedtime Stories but also started moving towards her embrace of electronica on Ray of Light. Her use of acoustic instruments supported by an is-it-live-or-is-it-drum-machine rhythm (it was live – drums were played by producer Dallas Austin) makes the song irresistible to my tin ear. Her interpretation of the lyrics is tinged with sorrow and longing – it’s always felt to me like it’s a song about an emotional itch that can never be scratched. I could listen to this song on loop for hours and be pretty ok with that.
“Sure Shot” by The Beastie Boys
“I want to say a little something that’s long overdue
The disrespect to women has got to be through
To all the mothers and sisters and the wives and friends
I want to offer my love and respect to the end”
Also, between the distorted vocals (that give the album Ill Communication its title), the beat (officially a mad beat) and the delivery, “Sure Shot” is the Beastie’s finest of finest hours.
“Connection” by Elastica
“Connection” is my perfect pop rock/song of 1994. It’s all of like 30 seconds long, it has that just this side of overproduced feel to it, and it’s composed entirely of hooks. Seriously, everything from that descending vocal line of the chorus to the “BWOING” sound to the moment after the chorus where the music stops then restarts feels like it was designed in a lab for maximum ear-worm value. I remember almost swerving off the road when I first heard this song because these were the days before Soundhound and there was no way I could guarantee that I’d remember the song’s name or who performed it.
Of course, this is my top five today. I’ve left out Ween, Sheryl Crow, Pearl Jam, Weezer, Blur, REM and a whole slew of other artists (Freedy Johnston? Hell yes) who released songs that I absolutely loved in 1994, but there’s only so much time and, hopefully, this will be enough evidence to suggest that even though 1994 wasn’t perfect (what year is?), there’s evidence that it was a pretty damn good year musically.
Oh, 10 albums that I remember listening to a ton during the year of 1994 (as opposed to later):
Monster by REM
Weezer (AKA the Blue Album) by Weezer
Vitalogy by Pearl Jam
Parklife by Blur
Live Through This by Hole
Bedtime Stories by Madonna
Tuesday Night Music Club by Sherryl Crow
Chocolate and Cheese by Ween
Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain by Pavement
Ill Communication by The Beastie Boys
Thank you for sticking with us and we’ll be moving on to a different year soon, assuming there’s an internet to share it on in the Trumpiverse.
JS: May God/Tom Jones have mercy on our souls.