20 Albums Turning 20

  • Posted by: Anthony Toto

The lasting image of the early 1990s is one of a cultural revolution where unorthodox musicality managed to strike a chord with Generation X. The early portion of the decade ignited a period of originality where a new wave of artists made genre-defining statements without meeting some corporate model. One year in particular represented the pinnacle of this era with albums ranging from Notorious B.I.G.'s Ready To Die to Soundgarden's Superunknown receiving Grammy nominations.

When revisiting the entire musical output from 1994 you'll notice that an album Renaissance occurred. During the same year that Harding clubbed Kerrigan and that Ross and Rachel were first introduced to American audiences, we were graced by one of the most eclectically brilliant years in musical history. Twenty-years ago, these 20 albums etched their legacy into our ears. Scroll through the iconic year below, and enjoy a playlist of its singles while you read.

1994 Playlist

1. Alice In Chains - Jar of Flies - January 25, 1994

Written and recorded in one-week, Jar of Flies became the first EP ever to debut at number one on the Billboard Charts. By 1994, the music industry exploited the Seattle music scene with a whoring amount of copycat acts stealing from the originals. On the track "Rotten Apple," vocalist Layne Staley states, "What I see is unreal / I've written my own part / Eat of the apple, so young / I'm crawling back to start." Disgruntled with this trend, Alice In Chains distanced themselves from the surrounding musical infestation with Jar of Flies. Highlighted with ambient acoustic interplay and hollow vocal harmonies, the band known for its sludgy riffs successfully charted new territories with this approach. The short writing span of Jar of Flies outshined a slate of albums with twice the amount of time spent recording.

2. Green Day Dookie - February 1, 1994

It's impossible to revisit 1994 without mentioning Green Day's Dookie. The band's riotous attitude and sense of humor ignited a pop punk revolution for an entire generation of future bands. As grunge slowly started to crack, Green Day inherited the fallout with its infectious melodies drawing mainstream listeners into punk culture. Billie Joe Armstrong's frustrations resonated with young listeners that felt vindication through the aggressive attitude in now classic tracks like "Longview" and "Welcome to Paradise".

3. Beck - Mellow Gold - March 1, 1994

Popular albums often result in a long list of artists ripping off the originator. Twenty-years later, Beck's Mellow Gold remains as culturally relevant as ever with its blend of howling blues, acoustic folk, hip-hop samples, and distorted guitars miraculously merged together with coherent perfection. When listening to Mellow Gold, Beck's imagination opened up the possibilities of mixing these sounds together to create a new form of musical expression. With lyrical content finding humor in bleak territory, Beck's unorthodox approach asked audiences, "Why can't all these genres coexist among one another?" Mellow Gold found its answer towards the latter half of the decade when a number of artists found success by combining rock, rap, and pop.

4. Soundgarden: Superunknown - March 8, 1994

Rarely does an album title truly preview the musical experience that lies ahead quite like Superuknown. As the first Seattle band signed to a major recording contract, Soundgarden built their momentum at a slower pace compared to that of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Alice In Chains. In 1994, however, the stars aligned for the Seattle outfit to break out. As vocalist Chris Cornell states on the title track, "Alive in the superunknown / First it steals your mind /And then it steals your soul." Few albums achieved the artistic palate of tones, emotional passages, and dynamic sounds that were emitted from this record. It's best known for hit singles "Black Hole Sun" and "Spoonman," however, the bulk of the brilliance lies in b-sides like "4th of July". Songs like this brought an equally enthralling sense of direction demonstrating a collective wisdom for testing unknown rhythmic and tonal limits.

5. Nine Inch Nails The Downward Spiral - March 8, 1994

The Downward Spiral stands out as one of the most intense listening experiences of the 1990s. The lyrical content carried a theme of a character whose mental instability had him plummeting into a pit of despair. Expect the unexpected; the concept album kicked aside the notion of 'musical limits' with chaotic instrumental passages and heart-rattling electronic samples detailing the destruction of a depressed and tortured soul, presumably related to Trent Reznor's own battle with depression. From a production perspective, the album was way ahead of its time as it used an assortment of pro-tools and digital programs. Reznor's progressive imagination helped The Downward Spiral become a groundbreaker for industrial music.

6. Pantera - Far Beyond Driven- March 18, 1994

The heaviest album to ever debut at number one on the Billboard Charts, Pantera's Far Beyond Driven signaled a major change for the direction of heavy metal over the following two decades. Far Beyond Driven pushed the boundaries of heaviness with an aggressive onslaught indicative of Pantera's relentless drive for domination. Twenty years later, its blueprint of extremely fast precision, head banging grooves, trailblazing solos, and crowd raising breakdowns remain as the foundation of heavy metal.

7. Hole - Live Through This - April 12, 1994

Debuting shortly after the tragic death of Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love's greatest effort accidentally resembled the airing of a dark cloud following the loss of her husband. With a new group of musicians, Hole clicked on all cylinders by pushing for a pop direction with the strongest songwriting of its existence. Songs including "Violet" and "Miss World" provided Love with the ability to scream about her frustrations over hooky guitar riffs. The album proved critics and doubters wrong when it came to Hole's ability to make a noisy impact on the music world. Live Through This became Courtney Love's way of channeling her husband's songwriting spirit into her own music.

8. Live - Throwing Copper - April 19, 1994

Live's Throwing Copper absorbed the sonic environment surrounding grunge and alternative before consummating the energy into one of the finest records of the mid-90s. Live didn't sound like the contemporaries of either of these genres. Throwing Copper showcased the Pennsylvania-bred group crafting a batch of songs packed with catchy undertones with uplifting messages of overcoming obstacles. With organic production allowing the music to breathe, the real emotions pouring out of the songs caught the attention of audiences around the world hooked by the power of the band's honesty.

9. Nas - Illmatic - April 19th, 1994

Nas' Illmatic became the benchmark for brilliance among rap artists across the country after its release. His iconic wordplay on this record is equivalent to a Webster's Dictionary as its immaculate lyrical content becomes a rollercoaster for vocab excellence. Track after track, Nas perfectly paces himself as he spits out rhymes with high velocity before cooling down on a steady flow to get his message across. His stylistic tale shined light on growing up in Queens in a rap scene that included Mobb Deep and A Tribe Called Quest. On N.Y. State of Mind, Nas states, "I never sleep, cause sleep is the cousin of death/Beyond the walls of intelligence/life is defined." At many points on Illmatic the beats quietly rest as Nas showcases his finest instrument; the mic.

10. Outkast - Southernplaya - April 26, 1994

As media attention focused on the dividing line between rappers from the East and West Coasts, Outkast's southern brand of soulful rap mixed funk rhythms with high-speed lyrical delivery. Bringing the attention of hip-hop to Atlanta, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik became the world's first glimpse of the blossoming chemistry between Andre 3000 and Big Boi. Both rappers intuitively complemented each other's polarizing personalities. They both commanded the microphone but with an admirable sense of compromise. As a result, both rappers needed to bring their best hooks and lyrical content to maximize their time spent on each track. From top to bottom, the Atlanta duo kept the music flowing with innovative approaches providing highly entertaining moments of lyrical flow unlike any contemporary rapper at the time.

11. Weezer - Weezer (The Blue Album) - May 10, 1994

Fun-loving pop mixed with the self-expression of hard rock, Weezer's self-titled debut bridged the musical gap between The Beach Boys and Nirvana. Rivers Cuomo's songwriting brought listeners into his world of suburban confusion by pouring his heartfelt emotions onto each self-reflecting track. His powerful guitar riffs mash perfectly with each and every ear candy hook. By not taking their image too seriously, Weezer's nerdy sense of humor brought a distinct element of approachable fun that was missing from rock music at the time. With the ability to ignore the cliche's of MTV, The Blue Album remains one of the definitive pieces of rock music in the 1990s.

12. Beastie Boys - Ill Communication - May 24, 1994

In the most unpredictable album of the Beastie Boys' catalog, New York's finest broke all the predictable rules of rap music by being daringly loud, rude, and crude on Ill Communication. Whether they incorporated elements of funk or new sound samples, the group stripped away any conventional wisdom in a free for all attempt to expand the dynamics of rap. The album's adventurous tone remained aggressive as the group returned to their punk roots. The radical assortment of guitars, scratchboards, and drums boosted a sense of chaos to an eclectic collection of songs entertaining in every shape and form.

13. Oasis - Definitely, Maybe - August 30, 1994

Aside from the Gallagher's lasting image of brotherly disorder, Oasis cultivated a streak of brilliant album during the mid-90s. Definitely, Maybe tops the group's catalog with organic songwriting melding pop with rock n' roll at a level reminiscent of the British Invasion of the 1960s. Often uplifting, each track captures the imagination with top-notch choruses and melodies of addicting proportions. Definitely, Maybe is sonically layered with a variety of guitar tones and musical precision, which complement the raspy snarl of Liam Gallagher's vocals. While some fans argue the band received unfair comparisons to The Beatles, the relationship alone is one that would be revered by any band or artist.

14. Notorious B.I.G. - Ready To Die - September 13, 1994

It was the career-defining moment of Biggie's legacy. Each track on Ready To Die played out like a novel with remarkable storytelling that kept listeners on their feet as the drama poured. Alternating between the highest and lowest points of Biggie's life including depression and success, audiences resonated with the rapper's open-book approach. Once the album drops, it's tough to turn away as each song builds into a climactic conclusion; realizing Biggie overcame his circumstances as "Just Playing (Dreams)" fades.

15. Dave Matthews Band - Under The Table And Dreaming - September 27, 1994

Kick starting the jam band resurgence of the mid 90s, Dave Matthews Band's Under The Table And Dreaming turned the group into a festival staple as one of the world's premiere live acts. The Dave Matthews Band overthrew the notion that highly skilled musicians often don't make great songwriters. Topped by the tone of Matthews' voice, the production captured the band's enormous live sound while crafting shorter material focused on song structure and accessible hooks. Twenty-years later, the boundless instrumentation and vibrant personality of each song remains timeless.

16. Common - Resurrection - October 3, 1994

Common's Resurrection still stands as one of the decade's definitive rap albums. While the record wasn't a runaway smash hit, perspective often allows overlooked pieces of music to eventually achieve its rightful recognition. Before Common became a prominent actor, his greatest performance could be found on Resurrection. Never fitting into a category or subgenre as a rapper, Common's music reads like poetry; highly indicative of his intelligent wit because he rhymed with reason. On the track "Book of Life," he states, "Adjacent to the situation / I want an occupation that I'm into / Cause yet have I have I began to live to my potential / I went to school for fourteen years and my best teacher was experience." When Common goes into such a state of self-reflection, it makes the listener pause for a moment to appreciate the full validity of Common's outside the box message.

17. Nirvana - Unplugged - November 1, 1994

With the world ill-prepared to comprehend the loss of their fallen idol, Nirvana's Unplugged became an everlasting memory for fans to cherish in remembrance of Kurt Cobain. The popularity of the album itself became an emotional sendoff for fans looking to pay their respects. Kurt Cobain poured his heart and soul into singing "Lake of Fire," "Pennyroyal Tea," and "All Apologies." When witnessing the emotional expression of Cobain's cold stare, the pain inside his soul is audible for the world to hear. While showcasing his personal struggles, he managed to create magic in a once in a lifetime performance.

18. TLC - CrazySexyCool - November 15, 1994

CrazySexyCool became the world's introduction to TLC's essential 'it-factor.' At a time where R&B, hip-hop, and new jack swing all enjoyed mass success; TLC managed to take the best elements of each genre and meld it together to form an individual sound. On its signature hit, "Creep" Tione "T-Bozz" Watkins, Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes, and Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas sing with the same harmonized effort used by classic RnB singers from the 1950's. By singing the melody of "Creep" over a hip-hop beat, the Atlanta trio's single brought a modern flare, irresistible elegance, and massive hook to its hit single. With videos showcasing innovative dance choreography and fashion sense, TLC managed to reach the public eye during a time where hip-hop and RnB peaked in popularity.

19. Method Man Tical - November 15, 1994

With signature toughness indicative of his New York upbringing, Method Man held nothing back when instilling his presence on listeners on his solo debut Tical. Maintaining the core elements of the underground Wu-Tang sound, Method Man organically creates his own identity with fellow Wu member RZA's eerie beats providing a platform to lash away with venomous rhymes. On Tical, Method Man often interjects with lines that leave the listener's jaw on the floor. On the albums hit-single "Bring The Pain," Method Man opens the track by saying, "I came to bring the pain hardcore from the brain/ Let's go inside my astral plane/Find out my mentals based on instrumental records hey, so I can write monumental." With Outkast and TLC changing the dynamics of hip-hop, the lyrical intensity of "Bring The Pain" resonated with listeners. There were no sugar coated hooks or poppy elements anywhere to be found; this was a hardcore rap album for real fans of rap music.

20. Pearl Jam - Vitalogy - November 22, 1994

Debuting with one of the highest weekly sales in the history of music, Vitalogy found Pearl Jam stripping down their sound to find a greater balance in songwriting. Vitalogy represented the peak of the band's popularity after they inherently became inflicted with higher pressure after the death of Kurt Cobain. On the track "Not For You," Eddie Vedder summed up his personal frustrations with fame by stating, "If you hate something/Don't you do it too." The group refused to let outside pressures of living up to reputation as the world's most popular band clamp their songwriting. By pushing for simplicity, the overall dynamics of the album greatly benefited from the clean guitar tones and straight-to-the-point pacing of each song. With a growing maturity, Eddie Vedder's grandiosity reached new levels of brilliance on the self-reflective tracks "Corduroy," "Betterman," and "Last Exit." Vitalogy remains one of the best produced rock albums of all-time; it perfectly balanced each instrument in the mix while maintaining the looseness of hearing a band perform in a room together.


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