In February 1994, we were just over a year into the first Clinton administration, Nancy Kerrigan’s knee was still healing, and a strangely compelling hipster urged us to get crazy with the Cheez Whiz. Twenty years ago this week, Beck sat atop Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks chart with his breakout single, “Loser.” As we prepare for the release of Morning Phase, let’s flip through the February 19, 1994 issue — which featured telling headlines such as “House Panel to Examine Gangsta Rap Lyrics” and “Blockbuster Tops $2 Billion: Revenues Rise 70% During 1993” — and check out what other alternative gems were lurking in the top 30 that week.
30. The Other Two, “Selfish”
In the early ’90s, the two most-famous founding members of New Order turned their attention to side projects: Singer-guitarist Bernard Sumner teamed with Johnny Marr to form Electronic and bassist Peter Hook was dabbling in Revenge. This left the other two — drummer Stephen Morris and keyboardist Gillian Gilbert — with some time on their hands, which they used to push out some synth-pop under the clever the Other Two banner. “Selfish” had all the icy beats of New Order with none of the angst, and it should be made available as an anti-depressant.
29. Fury in the Slaughterhouse, “Every Generation Got Its Own Disease”
By 1994, I had clumsily fooled around with maybe three dudes, and here’s how gripped with ignorant AIDS paranoia I was: Any time this song came on the radio, I immediately changed the station. (The fact that the German band’s song wasn’t very good helped; I have a much more complicated relationship with Suzanne Vega’s “Blood Makes Noise.”)
28. Kirsty MacColl, “Angel”
Kirsty’s 1991 single, “Walking Down Madison,” co-written with Johnny Marr, fused her traditional pop style with dance beats a full four years before Todd Terry remixed Everything But the Girl’s “Missing.” And that was a dozen years after MacColl released her timeless “They Don’t Know” (which Tracey Ullman made famous in 1983), six years after she somehow improved upon Billy Bragg’s “A New England,” and four years after she and the Pogues dropped “Fairytale of New York,” otherwise known as the greatest Christmas song ever written. On “Angel,” she takes it comparatively easy and just beats Beth Orton at her own game, five years before Beth Orton had a game. Kirsty MacColl was the best, is what I’m trying to say here. Un-fun fact: In 2000, she was run over and killed, at age 41, by a speedboat in Mexico, and the full penalty eventually meted out to the alleged, although much-disputed, perpetrator was a fine of just over 1,000 pesos, or roughly $90.
27. The Cranberries, “Linger”
The Cranberries sold 5 million copies of their debut album Everyone Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?, and if you’re wondering why every white girl on this season of American Idol sounds like she has the hiccups, Dolores O’Riordan is why.
26. Meat Puppets, “Backwater”
After Nevermind and Ten went multi-platinum, record labels fell over themselves trying to turn their alternative acts into the next Nirvana and Pearl Jam. It didn’t work, but it did yield one radio hit each for Butthole Surfers and Meat Puppets, which seemed impossible only a couple of years before. And will you check out this video, please? If there’s one thing I miss about the grunge years, it’s front men with Laraine Newman hair.
25. One Dove, “White Love”
A shimmering example of a genre I call W Hotel Lobbycore.
24. U2, “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)”
The members of U2 are basically saints at this point, and deservedly so. Which is why it hurts me to remind you that on the Zoo TV Tour, Bono would perform in character as a glittering, dissipated rock-star Euro-demon called MacPhisto and deliver long monologues to the audience. Every generation gets its own Shia LaBeouf.
23. Peter Gabriel, “Lovetown”
Despite a video that represents the very best of 1994 of computer animation, there’s not much to talk about here. So consider this: Somewhere right around this time, Alanis Morrissette was giving Dave Coulier the movie-theater blow job heard ’round the world. What movie do you think they were watching? Had to be Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, right?
22. Dig, “Believe”
To each generation a forgotten classic, and here’s Gen-X’s. The icy wall of Catherine Wheel–esque guitars is the perfect complement to some good, solid early-1994 Weltschmerz, and while Sponge would ride a similar sound to greater success a little while later, I think Dig perfected it. In fact, I’m calling this particular guitar tone the official Sound of the Mid-Nineties (with the Soul Coughing/Morphine/G. Love & Special Sauce upright bass running a very close second). Also, this video is the most 1994 thing that has ever happened. Grainy film footage of some kind of psychedelic nightmare pool party? Check. Sunglasses you wore to Lollapalooza, and then threw away, and then destroyed all photographic evidence of? Yes. Delicious fringy bangs and a loose-fitting sweater on a desperately earnest lead singer? Mais oui. It is like digging up a 20-year-old time capsule, and I’d bet actual money that this video’s stylist went on to work on the one for the True Lost Classic of 1994, the Grays’ “Very Best Years.”
21. Sheryl Crow, “Leaving Las Vegas”
That’s correct: Sheryl Crow, who has since topped the “Adult Contemporary,” “Country,” and “Looking Like a Young Shaun White” charts, actually made her debut on the “Alternative” top 30. I attribute this to radio programmers simply throwing everything against the wall and waiting to see what would stick.
20. The Smashing Pumpkins, “Today”
I worked in college radio in the early 1990s, and though we all knew one of our core bands was going to explode into the mainstream, I had no idea it was going to be Nirvana. (My money was on Superchunk. May I borrow some money?) We were similarly blindsided when the Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard albums chart. Immediately, it became clear: This wasn’t just a tremor; the ground was legitimately shifting beneath our feet. Our music was taking over, our viewpoint was informing American culture, in a time when there was still such a thing as a single American culture. We had won. As Ethan Hawke’s character in Reality Bites reveals, we celebrated by being nightmare people.
19. The Breeders, “Cannonball”
The Breeders are also known as the Unkempt Catherine Keener Experience.
18. Pearl Jam, “Daughter”
Oh, here’s another fun thought: Late February is the peak of pilot season, so at right around this time in 1994, Jennifer Aniston and Matthew Perry were likely sitting in separate Starbuckses, going over the sides for an unnamed NBC Courteney Cox vehicle.
17. Nick Heyward, “Kite”
In 1994, radio programmers were so puzzled by this new alternative format that they actually gave the former lead singer of Haircut One Hundred a fair shake. And in 2014, one of life’s true pleasures is reading Nick Heyward’s Twitter feed; follow him for a glimpse into British country life that makes satire redundant: “Nice out. Gentle market. Town life. Victorian lemonade. Olives. Plimsoles.”; “Happiness is rife when you spread with a butter knife.” These are actual tweets. Get into it. (And while you’re at it, give Heyward’s classic 1983 album North of a Miracle a listen. You will, like, grow a cravat.)
16. The Lemonheads, “The Great Big No”
The Lemonheads are one of the ‘90s most overlooked acts, and Come On Feel the Lemonheads should have been a much bigger deal. It is a great album from start to finish (except for the obligatory album-closing 15-minute heroin jack-off), and I place it in my Top Three Most Slept-On Things From the ‘90s (the other two being the WB’s Popular and Saturday Night Live alum Melanie Hutsell).
15. The Smashing Pumpkins, “Disarm”
Just as alternative radio was struggling to find its identity, the 22-year-old me was trying on personalities and attitudes like so many J. Crew rugby shirts. If memory serves, in February 1994, I was somewhere in between “flannel and clove cigarettes” and “backward Kangol hat and adjectival use of the word hype.” I kept a journal through all of college, and it exists now as a stack of double-density floppy discs in my desk drawer. There is no commercially available drive that will read these discs and translate them to my MacBook, and I’m dying to know what was going through my feverish, self-destructive mind during these years, but finding out would mean putting my diary in the hands of a stranger. You understand the spot I’m in.
14. Gin Blossoms, “Found Out About You”
When you’re trying to launch a new act, especially one with a debut album as strong as New Miserable Experience, definitely make a video where all of their faces are hidden in shadow. It’s just Marketing 101.
So here’s my memory of this song: In 1994, the conservative Catholic college that I inexplicably voluntarily attended assembled a support group for its gay and lesbian students. (Not a social group, mind you. Not even an activism group — a support group, like we all had the same disease …) I enthusiastically signed up, picturing it as the field of Bee People at the end of Blind Melon’s “No Rain” video; at last, the iron gate would swing open, and we’d all hug and laugh and dance. “There you are” we’d say.
In reality, of course, it ended up being me and two very serious women from the field hockey team. Until a month or so later, when a shatteringly handsome sophomore joined the group. We had coffee after the meeting, and I told him I was in love with him approximately three hours later. You see, to be a gay kid of the ‘80s who bumbles out of the closet in the mid-’90s is to grow up with no fucking idea how to behave. Your basic human need to give and receive love bumps around inside you for years before you’re ever able to express it; you’re like a single can of beer that’s been in the trunk of a car, and when someone finally comes and pops your top off, your insides spill out everywhere. After a few weeks, he realized that he was in a relationship with an unstable person, and — as “Found Out About You” played in my Jetta — wisely broke it off. I reacted by smoking all of the cigarettes and listening to Lisa Loeb’s “Stay” 8,000 times in a row.
He drops a line on Facebook every couple of years, and when he does, I get the pang of remorse you feel when you see a picture of yourself with your worst haircut.
13. Possum Dixon, “Watch the Girl Destroy Me”
Only in 1994 could a bunch of guys this brainy-looking get a video on MTV. They seemed like the kinds of guys you could talk about Joseph Campbell with for a whole evening, yet here they were among the Ace of Bases and Real McCoys of the world. For a moment, we thought this might become the new normal: geeks ascendant. But no, it quickly curdled into the old normal: just different-looking one-hit wonders, lots of flannel in the Gap, and Janeane Garofalo being pressured to lose weight for romantic comedies.
12. Stone Temple Pilots, “Creep”
There are plenty of credible bands that I have listed among my favorites, when, in reality, I only liked a couple of their songs. (I’m looking at you, Dinosaur Jr.) And then there’s Stone Temple Pilots, who have probably two dozen songs to which I will gleefully sing every word, yet I would never call myself a Stone Temple Pilots fan. In this way, STP were the Pink of their time.
11. The Cure, “Purple Haze”
Coast to coast, what had once been known as album-oriented rock stations changed their formats to alternative, and re-branded from “Z-94” or whatever to things like “The Edge” and “Alice.” Their program directors must have been terrified. And that must have been why they gravitated to Robert Smith & Co.’s forgettable alternative remake of an AOR classic.
10. Alice in Chains, “No Excuses”
A lumbering example of a genre I call “Lynyrd Skynyrd on different drugs.”
9. Crowded House, “Locked Out”
This song comes from the Reality Bites soundtrack, the likes of which they simply do not make anymore. The movie holds up, but what you can’t help but notice in 2014 is that it’s the last movie made about young people before the internet. If it had come out even six months later, every character would have had a kicky start-up job. Lelaina would have been a blogger and Vickie would have wasted time in sexy chat rooms. But no: These kids had to exist in the physical world. They had to work at the Gap. They had to start bands and play shows for people. If they had a quip to share, they had to go to where their friends were and say it to their faces. From today’s perspective, Reality Bites might as well be Downton Abbey. (For a closer look at Janeane Garolfalo’s indelible Vickie Miner, I refer you to Rebecca Colesworthy’s brilliant tribute. And for the record, I’m #TeamMichael ’til I die.)
8. James, “Laid”
I always thought it was awfully sly of them to sneak the lyric “she only comes when she’s on top” into a pop song (just as Michel’le threw a “shit” into “No More Lies” four years before and nobody noticed), but everyone knows “Born of Frustration” is the crucial James track. Hilariously, this very week over on the Hot 100 Singles chart, “Laid” was sitting at number 69.
7. Björk, “Big Time Sensuality”
This Björk song is the Björkest song ever. (It’s tied for this honor with every other Björk song.)
6. Cracker, “Get Off This”
If you told me this video was part of a Spike & Mike’s Twisted Festival of Animation, I would believe you.
5. Tori Amos, “God”
Years later, I would have the pleasure of interviewing Tori Amos for 120 Minutes, and while she could not have been nicer, when she focuses her giant blue eyes on you, it is like she is gazing into your very soul. What Marina Abramovic has spent years cultivating is what Tori Amos calls “just doin’ me.”
4. Nirvana, “All Apologies”
This is as close as a person can come to sacrilege in 2014, but I have to be honest: I hate this fucking song. For me, it all boils down to the line “I wish I was like you: easily amused,” which is a nauseating mixture of self-pity and smugness. It’s petulance presented as virtue, and every time I hear it, I feel like I’m being sneered at from beyond the grave by a person who left an infant in the care of Courtney Love.
3. Crash Test Dummies, “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm”
A plodding example of a genre I call “brunch-rock.”
2. Counting Crows, “Mr. Jones”
At around this time in 1994, Adam Duritz had no idea he was about to fuck his way through the cast of an unnamed NBC Courteney Cox vehicle.
1. Beck, “Loser”
Let’s be honest: We all thought Beck was going to be a one-hit wonder. But here we are, 20 years later, and he’s about to release his best album yet. Before our eyes, he’s become credible, something of an elder statesman, a more accessible Leonard Cohen. And it all started with this near-novelty song and its oddly spooky video. Does this mean we’ll still be listening to Ylvis in 2034?