Was 1994 the best year for pop music in history? Quite possibly.
Sure, some of it was terrible, but overall it was amazing: Nordic black metal, Britpop, pop punk, trip hop, and the best R&B of the ’90s. (Boyz II Men were peaking). Hip-hop’s Golden Age was winding down, but a new, arguably more compelling era for the genre was beginning, with the debut works from Nas and Biggie Smalls. Green Day would establish pop punk as a force for years to come, while across the pond Oasis and Blur were stirring the pot. Hole, meanwhile, unleashed a powerful post-feminist statement. It was also the year Beck gave slackers a good name.
But that’s just part of the story. Here are 10 reasons why 1994 was the best year for music, ever.
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10. Black-Metal Renaissance
If the ’80s were metal’s glory days, 1994 was Nordic black metal’s renaissance. Darkthrone released Transilvanian Hunger — a masterpiece that set Norway on fire. Emperor’s In the Nightside Eclipse was Nordic black metal’s boldest statement, making black metal into fine art.
9. The Glory Days of Pop
Pop music was ridiculously diverse in 1994. In the same year, R Kelly’s “Bump n’ Grind” became one of R&B’s biggest singles, and Ace of Base’s “The Sign” ruled the charts. The sweet satisfaction of rock-pop classics like Counting Crows’ “Mr. Jones” and Sheryl Crow’s “All I Wanna Do” will never happen again, in the same year where Mariah Carey released the greatest Christmas album in history.
8. Britpop Was Born
When a new sense of hope drove the British youth to chew up “anti-grunge” bands like Blur and Oasis, the two groups would ignite nationalistic pride that culminated in the release of Oasis’ Definitely Maybe, a working-class rocker that went on to become one of England’s most popular albums ever. Twenty years later, the Brits are still losing their shit over a possible Oasis reunion.
7. Women Ruled
Part of Sarah McLachlan’s inspiration for Lilith Fair was rooted in the goings-on of 1994, when Liz Phair and Tori Amos were in their creative primes, The Cranberries were writing protest songs, and Hole were body slamming men on tour. It also signaled the debut of Veruca Salt, and the first time a woman (Roseanne) would host the MTV VMAs.
6. The Best Film Soundtracks
Besides the goth gems off The Crow soundtrack, 1994 also was the year of The Lion King soundtrack, Above the Rim, Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia” and Pulp Fiction. And while the Reality Bites soundtrack wasn’t particularly great, it did give us Lisa Loeb singing “Stay” in an NYC apartment — filmed by Ethan Hawke (true story).
5. Underrated Year for Indie Rock
While pop was booming, Pavement released Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, their best album. At the same time, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Sebadoh, and Dinosaur Jr. were all putting out great music. Former Pixies frontman Black Francis renamed himself Frank Black and released Teenager of the Year, an unrestrained masterpiece that could have been a great Pixies record had they still been together.
4. Mainstream Rock Didn’t Suck
Radio-friendly rock was actually great at one time. Alice in Chains, Nine Inch Nails, and Soundgarden all released brilliant records that got radio play in 1994. But it was Nirvana, with the release of their MTV Unplugged album that year, that ruled mainstream rock. Kurt Cobain behind an acoustic guitar, barely able to project his voice, was the closest we’d ever get to John Lennon. It was depressing but, at the same time, with his death that year, a touching adieu to the “Seattle Sound” from its greatest voice.
3. Punk Becomes Pop
In 1994, Green Day’s Dookie was released, Blink-182’s first studio album hit, and Bad Religion signed to a major label. The emergence of “pop punk” also gave rise to Rancid’s blistering sophomore effort, Let’s Go, and the introduction of Weezer, whose video for “Buddy Holly” imitated Nirvana, but also rebelled against them with a bright blue album cover and catchy hooks. For the kids, pop punk replaced grunge and, like it or not, gave us the Warped Tour in 1995 and loads of anthemic hits in the 2000s.
2. Hip-Hop Gets ill
If the debut of Notorious B.I.G, Lauryn Hill and Outkast wasn’t big enough, on the West Coast, Snoop’s “Gin and Juice” and Warren G’s “Regulate” raised the stakes. Then of course there was the Beastie Boys’ Ill Communication (“Sabotage” took over MTV in 1994) and underground hip-hop’s storytelling epic Illmatic — which lived up to all the hype behind Nas that year. Hip-hop may never be as good again.
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1. Great Debuts
In 1967, Janis Joplin, David Bowie, the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors and Velvet Underground all debuted in the same year. But 1994 remains a close second, because in just one year, record labels decided they needed either the new Nirvana or the next underground-turned-pop success story. The result was magic: Weezer, Outkast, Beck (his major-label debut), Notorious B.I.G., Jeff Buckley, Warren G, Marilyn Manson, Oasis, Korn, Aaliyah, Elliott Smith, Nas, Portishead, the Magnetic Fields, and Brandy all debuted in 1994. (OK, so did Bush and the Dave Matthews Band.) 1994 had something for everyone and, unlike any other year, it was a time when the pop and underground scenes melted together to give us greatness.