I could write a book on 1994. Like I’ve probably written 6 introductory paragraphs before conceding I need to just admit 1994 was a complicated year. It was a year defined by a lot of darkness. The murder of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman and the arrest and eventual acquittal of OJ Simpson was what people remember from the year. You had a violently mixed bag in movies with greatness and atrocity. And you had the end of the Golden age of grunge.
What happened? It’s hard to say. If you look at the charts this was honestly the best year. Soundgarden had a ton of hits. Pearl Jam had the iconic Better Man. STP too. It was a great year for the genre. But the next year would look wildly different with a more polished modern rock sound taking over. The bands I listed had last gasps and the age was over.
I think three things happened. The movement got coopted with Reality Bites really souring people on Generation X. Inevitably a lot of the groups would release subpar follow up discs. But here’s the thing that loomed large. On April 5, 1994 the brightest light of grunge Kurt Cobain killed himself. And with that the era ended.
This list is a mixed bag. There’s a lot of country because that was what I listened to the most. There’s also a lot of pop. A bit of rock. Some very hard cuts. I had to cut songs that I worshiped in 1994 but as an adult feel if not nothing then not as much love for. But this is my list. And I own it. Any one of these songs I could put on right now.
What do I kick this crazy year off with? Look it’s 1994. You need something very much of that moment. There’s a certain sound that’s hard to define. It’s not really grunge. It’s too polished. But it’s only really possible between 1993-1996. It’s an Empire Records type sound. Ok. I’m going with an easy pick.
10 Gin Blossoms- Allison Road. I absolutely love this song. I actually hard vibe with this band. We will be back here in 1995. This is just kind of a perfect song. Which is weird because hell if I know what it’s about. It’s a lot of imagery that works but it means nothing really. But that’s fine. It’s all so effective. The sound is somewhere between perfect bubble gum pop and just great modern rock. This is driving music.
Time to celebrate an underloved great. John Anderson rules. He has voice like smoked hickory. He has one hell of a catalog. And by 1997, he was so forgotten he played the county fair in Huntsville, Arkansas. Hell I initially thought he was dead writing this! John Anderson deserves more love. And on a list like this I get to give it.
9 John Anderson- Bend it Until It Breaks. I am a sucker for a good song about struggling. And this is a great one. A song about confronting the toll of infidelity is as classic as country gets. It’s here that Anderson shines. Dan + Shay aren’t going to make it sound agonizing. Anderson, who was actually only in his late 30s singing this but sounded at least 10 years older, kills it. The fiddle is everything too. A great fiddle gives a song a soul. This might be a bit obscure. It’s gold.
There was one trend in the 90s I want to run through with a spear. The entire new age bullshit angels trend was the worst. People felt ok stealing other cultures as happened with Return to Innocence. If you want to get metaphysical then fine. Just try to be good at it. And you know who’s good at music? Seal and Trevor Horn.
8 Seal- Prayer For The Dying. I’m writing this the day after a car accident so a song talking about confronting death should be a lot for me to deal with. But that concept is what makes this a must for me to write on now. The song stares the reality of death in the eye and sees it as it as it is. It’s a powerfully humane song lyrically. Seal sounds great. But the big area this shines is production. This is a sweeping epic song. Big ideas work here.
Were we unfair to Madonna? In all honesty the 90s were as good for her as they would be for any artist. I’ll get to 98/99 especially. But she was a joke for so much of the decade. And I don’t really think she deserves it. Was she explicit sexually? Yes. So? Madonna rules because of that. Not in spite of that. That said, even she was ready to go in a different direction. And it was fantastic.
7 Madonna- I’ll Remember. This is oddly almost a forgotten song in 2022 which is weird because it hit #11 for the year. Like Prayer for the Dying, this is another immaculate production, this time by Madonna and her frequent collaborator Patrick Leonard. It’s a sound that’s as smooth as it gets. And it’s a beautifully upbeat song. The topic of moving on looms large in 1994 for me as I moved to Arkansas and so I have to love a song about leaving a relationship happily. This is joy. Also I really have to stress. Madonna might not be a belter but she shines in her range and she has rarely sounded as good as she does here. There’s so much warmth in her polished vocals. And I stress. This decade will end. We’re going to get back to her.
So this might be a hot take but I hate most R.E.M. from their classic days. Losing My Religion? Not for me. Everybody Hurts? I suffer from crippling depression and no. Stand and Shiny Happy People are too irony drenched. And even though I’m a massive Andy Kaufman geek, not a fan of Man on the Moon (the song, the film I will get to.) But you know what I love? Monster. That album rocks mostly because they went all in on rocking. Let me explain.
6 R.E.M.- What’s the Frequency Kenneth. This is a case where research really made me glad I was planning to put this on the list. Because just as a rock song, this thing kills. Every element is electrifying. Michael Stipe sounds alive and for once neither too whiny nor too irony drenched. The guitar work by Peter Buck is searing in a way it hadn’t been before. But then you look at the lyrics. Obviously a key theme of art in 1994 was confronting Generation X culture and I think one of the pillars of it was the right group to do it. The song is from the perspective of someone outside the culture who knows only mass media, which would seem to describe Dan Rather whose attack gave the song its title but he tweets like a 20 year old anarchist. It’s funny, slick satire that acknowledges the culture is bullshit. Great work. Bang and Blame is also off this album and it kills too.
I want to briefly discuss personal mythology. We all have moments that loom large in ours. May 13, 1994 is one for me. My mom took us to the beach for a couple of nights. I remember so much of it. I even have the complete Houston Chronicle from that day on my tablet. An ad for Night of the Demons 2 clawed at me until I saw that awesome film. It was a great trip. And what was the score?
5 Clint Black- A Good Run of Bad Luck. This should just be a nostalgia song. Except I’ve listened to it repeatedly in the intervening 28 years. This is just a damned good country song. Using poker metaphors for flirting isn’t new and it wouldn’t stop getting used. Black is one of those singers who was rarely great but he was also never bad. Here he just sells the song. There’s a great flow to this song. It moves good and brisk. Consider this a personal favorite.
Staying in country, I want to discuss an artist who never really broke as big as he could have due to the material he had. Lee Roy Parnell has a modest voice and a modest catalog. He’s not anything that different from anyone else in his field. Except in one area. He’s probably the greatest guitar player in country of the 90s. And he put it to great use here.
4 Mary Chapin Carpenter- Shut Up and Kiss Me. Here is a song with a great gimmick. A song about a woman impressed with her strong silent type lover with his side reflected through guitar. Parnell provides that and he utterly sets the song on fire. Or he would if Carpenter wasn’t already doing so. Carpenter didn’t play seductive often in her music but she goes full on intense seductress here and she sells the hell out of it. In an age of very raunchy sexual music, this is one of sexiest songs of the decade and it could not be better.
I want us all to think back to 2016. Remember how Star Trek Beyond looked like an irritating Fast and Furious version of Star Trek with the first trailer. Remember how it used Sabotage which felt odd. Then remember how the film was a spot on Trek film. And how the use of Sabotage in the film was beyond epic? Yeah that’s the intro I’m going with here.
3 Beastie Boys- Sabotage. This could be a very short entry. Because what do I say about this song. It’s pure adrenaline. The guitar work by Adam Horovitz is unlike anything this decade, which wasn’t shy of great guitar work. It’s funny that we think of the Beasties as a rap group so much we forget they were a killer rock band too. This is just so perfectly paced, so intense, so loud in the best way. It is what it is. Kirk was right. It rocks.
Let’s meditate on a piece of music that has lasted through the centuries. Johann Pachelbel couldn’t have foreseen his long his Canon in D would last. But it’s THE piece of classical music. And it’s been used over and over. We’ll look at an example next year. This year, time to get a major player on the board.
2 Green Day- Basket Case. Green Day arrived as a force of juvenilia to be reckoned with on their first album and especially their breakout single. Unlike a lot of songs that need a lot of analysis, this is simple. A guy is having a nervous breakdown. And it’s set to a punk version of Pachelbel’s Canon. And it could not work better. It’s almost hard to talk about from this perspective because the band would grow and evolve so far. But this itself remains such a fantastic debut. It’s so tight, so funny. Armstrong is fully formed as a lead. This is as good as first hits get.
So here’s something that does not make my list. Disney songs do not make my list. There’s been opportunities for them to. But I hate most of them because they’re crummy covers by people far removed from the original work. The adult contemporary version of Beauty and the Beast just isn’t as good as Angela Lansbury performing Menken and Ashman. But in 1994, Elton John wrote the music for the songs for The Lion King. And I’m damned happy to have this at number one.
1 Elton John- Circle of Life. Where to start with how fantastic this song is? This is a song about the sweep of life and it feels like the sweep of life. This is a big bold song that is so soaring. Honestly Circle of Life is the best part of the film anyway. The lyrics by Tim Rice are as great as you expect from him. But of course what elevates this is John. The years were a gift to his voice. He sounds like a man who knows what life is like. The result is a timeless work of power. Do I prefer it to the film version? I don’t know. I think it’s as complementary as the opening is to the closing. And that’s the point. This song is a flat out masterpiece. I love that I get to top this list with this classic.