25 Years of Alternative Rock

Notes from the Shire by Chris L.

It seems like only yesterday, but 2019 marks the silver anniversary of the pop culture explosion of 1994. This chaotic year saw Olympic ice skaters getting taken out, lion kings ascending to the throne, and the most notorious Ford Bronco joyride in history. Major League Baseball experienced an audience-crushing work stoppage, The King of Pop married the King of Rock n Roll’s daughter, and a bunch of Friends moved into a New York City apartment. There was a lot going on.

Several albums released 25 years ago have since become modern classics, and we’re going to take a look at some which we still find ourselves spinning all these years later.

Beck- Mellow Gold

Whereas most of the breakout alternative acts of 1994 came from punk and hard rock backgrounds, Beck took a very different path to MTV-fueled stardom. The son of prolific composer and arranger David Campbell, Beck spent his early career as something of a freak-folk artist, as showcased on his earliest albums.

Mellow Gold, released March 1, 1994 is a weird album, there’s no other way to put it. There’s a bit of folk, some rap, some LSD-laced psychedelia, and all of it ear-grabbing. The breakout single “Loser” was all over the radio and MTV by the summer, and Beck gave some of the weirdest interviews you’ve ever read.

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I vividly remember lying on the beach with this tape in my Walkman, and being fascinated by how this guy had put together these sounds, which were unlike anything I’d ever heard before. While Beck’s later albums are far more commercially friendly, and perhaps even better than Mellow Gold, there’s something special about this one.

Green Day- Dookie

From the opening strains of kickoff track “”Burnout” singer Billie Joe Armstrong‘s slacker ethos rings out with “I declare I don’t care no more/ I'm burning up and out/ and growing bored”. After forming in the late 1980s under the name Sweet Children, the eventual Green Day had hit their stride in this third full length album and major label debut, released February 1, 1994.

The music videos for “Longview”, “Basket Case”, and others were dirty, grainy, and shockingly unglamorous. By the time Woodstock 1994 rolled around, the band was riding high on their success, ultimately culminating in a major mud fight that was shown ad nauseum on MTV, as the de facto music video for “When I Come Around.”

Years later, Green Day would once again top the charts, this time with their Bush-era politcal opera American Idiot. Though by this point, Green Day had ditched the baggy skater shorts, and bleached blonde hair in favor of tight leather pants and eyeliner, the anti-establishment creed and disillusionment felt on Dookie remained, and still sounds fresh a quarter century later.

Offspring- Smash

Following a few short months after Dookie, SoCal punk band The Offspring also released their third full-length effort, the electrifyingly adorned Smash on April 8, 1994. Chances are, if you’ve been to a pro sports game at anytime in the past 25 years, you’ve heard the familiar “You gotta keep ‘em separated!” from the seminal smash hit “Come Out and Play.”

The success of Smash’s hit singles including "Self Esteem", and "Gotta Get Away” helped The Offspring sign to a major label in 1996, where they would release Ixnay on the Hombre in 1997 and the more radio-friendly Americana in 1998. Smash was something of a dangerous album when it was originally released with “Come Out and Play” being somewhat bone-headedly cited as glamourising gang violence. This only helped in the end, as Smash...ahem...smashed records to becoming the best selling independent label album ever released.

Further Reading:

Smash!: Green Day, The Offspring, Bad Religion, NOFX, and the '90s Punk Explosion

by Scott Winwood

Hey-ay, come out and play! This first-of-its-kind look into the pop/punk explosion of the early 1990s is a head-banging read. In the midst of Nirvana's slaughter of the hair metal bands of the 80s, punk music inspired by the innovators of the 70s and 80s rose up through the lens of alternative rock of bands like Green Day and the Offspring. It was never a smooth ride to the top though, as the successful bands in the scene were often accused of being sellouts and worse. A must read for fans of the era.

Pearl Jam- Vitalogy

By the time Vitalogy was released on November 22, 1994, Pearl Jam was already one of the biggest rock bands in the world. The double-whammy of debut Ten, along with the intense follow up of Vs in 1993 catapulted Eddie Vedder and co to the forefront of the grunge movement, especially so following the suicide of Kurt Cobain in April 1994.

Featuring radio smash “Better Man”, written years before by Eddie Vedder and stashed away for fear of being too commercial, most of Vitalogy was noticeably rougher around the edges than expected. Tracks like “Spin the Black Circle” and “Last Exit” were grating, punishing, non-stop punk tracks, and experimental takes “Bugs” and “Foxy Mophandlemama” were far from the MTV sheen of “Alive” or “Jeremy” that had exploded years prior.

Soundgarden- Superunknown

Often lumped into the Seattle sound of the grunge scene, Soundgarden really had their roots in the heavy metal side of rock. Early albums like Louder than Love and Badmotorfinger gave lead singer Chris Cornell free range to explore the incredible dynamics of his voice, which was unlike that of any other band in the genre.

On Superunknown, Soundgarden downplayed the metal-esque screams and got a little darker and moodier. Tracks like “Fell On Black Days” and “Spoonman” were anchored by incredible rhythm section of Ben Shepherd and Matt Cameron, the latter of which went on to join Pearl Jam after Soundgarden began an extended hiatus in 1997.

Tragically, lead singer Chris Cornell took his own life in 2017. Recently, a fantastic 2 disc set was released featuring hits from across Cornell’s many projects including radio hit “Black Hole Sun,” which originally appeared on Superunknown.

Alice in Chains- Jar of Flies EP

Renowned for the wall-of-sound “sludge factory” guitars and transcendent vocal harmony of lead singer Layne Staley and guitarist Jerry Cantrell, Jar of Flies took Alice in Chains down a less abrasive, more emotional acoustic path.

Released early in 1994, Jar of Flies was the second EP from the Seattle band, following 1992’s Sap. This 7-track release followed a period of burnout for the band members, who notoriously battled personal demons and drug abuse throughout the 1990s. Layne Staley would eventually succumb to a crippling heroin addiction, performing a mesmerizingly beautiful MTV Unplugged in April 1996, and then retreating from the public eye until his death in 2002.

Further Reading:

Everybody Loves Our Town

by Mark Yarm

A definitive look at the grunge music scene that blossomed out of Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. The story told by those (few) who lived through it. If you're a fan of Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains or any of the other grunge bands of the era, you need to read this.

Beastie Boys- Ill Communication

New York City’s Beastie Boys were already underground heroes in 1994, having released the milestone albums Licensed to Ill in 1986 and Paul’s Boutique in 1989. This trio of hooligans had grown from unrecognizable punk rock roots to embrace hip-hop and rap just as the genre was coming of age.

Released May 31, 1994, Ill Communication was a major step forward for the band, both commercially and artistically. A wide swath of genres and influences were present here, ranging from the flute-sampling in-your-face rap of “Sure Shot” to the hard-rockin “Sabotage” which exposed the band to an entire new audience who’d previously written them off as “white rappers.”

At the 1994 MTV Video Music Awards, “Sabotage” was nominated for several categories, but was shut out from winning any of their nominations. MCA bum-rushed the stage in disguise, protesting the Beastie’s lack of hardware. At that moment, somewhere in Chicago, Kanye West felt a twinge of inspiration.

Further Reading:

Beastie Boys Book

By Mike D and MCA
 

A love letter to fans from the remaining two Beasties. This hardcover tome traces the band's revolutionary path from punk dirtbags to Buddhist hip-hop icons. Numerous guest articles, full color photographs and incredible insight make this a must for any fan.

 

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