The ’94 Vintage
ALL PHOTOS/IMAGES (unless credited otherwise): Getty Images
How a Single Year of Music Helped Change the World
IN a piece tomorrow...
I will look at the time when MTV ruled the box - and music-television was hugely popular. I do not want to revisit the past too fondly but, instead, ask why we do not have anything as iconic as that in the modern time. You can argue the 1970s was a finer decade than the 1990s (you’d be wrong!); you can debate 1967 produced more iconic songs/albums (see the previous parenthesis...); you can say 1994 was an overrated year (seriously?!) – I admire anyone who is willing to launch into a purely hypothetical argument. I say that because, without bias, 1994 has provided the world of music some of the greatest, most influential records ever. I looked at 1994 last year but, the more music cries for something unifying and legendary – the more my mind goes back to the year. It is not only the music that inspires me: the year saw popular culture boom and enter the stratosphere. Although John Major was in government; there was hope the nation would regain credibility and enter a new phase – Labour came in by 1997 and there was optimism things would improve! Around the Tory wallow was an entertainment industry whose best T.V. shows and films are still being talked about today...
You can make links between album themes and film styles – how diverse the year 1994 was – but the neo-noir captivation of Pulp Fiction was the Grunge-cum-Rock film (with Psychedelia, Disco and Rock ‘n’ Roll tossed in!); The Lion King and Forrest Gump charming Indie/Pop; The Shawshank Redemption a more complex work; Clerks, Four Weddings and a Funeral the comedic, lighter offerings – Heavenly Creatures the immersive and dramatic L.P. Maybe these links are spurious and unconnected - but the vibrancy and diversity of the films (the best of) are obvious. So much quality and originality: a mixture of intense screenplays and humorous concepts. Mix in U.S. comedies hitting their peak – The Simpsons, Seinfeld and Friends among them – and you can practically smell the brilliance of 1994. We have not seen a year like it in terms of entertainment and innovation – shows and films that continue to compel nearly twenty-four years after their release. ER, The X-Files and Beverley Hills, 90210 were filling the screens and, looking back, it seemed like a less troublesome and fraught world. Maybe I am misremembering but the joy projected from the T.V. screens – and film screens – was only surpassed by the music that year.
I mention these T.V. shows and films first to give an idea of what was happening in popular culture. The best music from 1994 took from what was happening in other areas of the entertainment but, if you think about it; maybe the two are unconnected. There was inspiration in the air, for sure, but such is the magnitude of 1994’s music – I am still baffled how it managed to create such an impact. 1993 and 1995 were strong: 1994 was a biblical year that seemed to drop out of nowhere. Maybe the hangover of the late-1980s was over and, inspired by the drive and quality coming from other parts of the world – musicians were on a high and willing to change the world. There is a split between the songs and albums from that year. I will collate it all in a playlist (at the end) but, if you look at the finest songs from 1994 – you get some genius from so many different genres. Chart-riding hits like !I Swear (All-4-One) and The Sign (Ace of Base) might seem cheesy today but, back then, they were massive songs that got into the collective soul Warren G’s Regulate and Black Hole Sun (Soundgarden) showed the contrasts offered up that year: Beck’s Loser and Green Day’s Basket Case provided the best Punk/slacker polemics in American music. Kylie Minogue’s Confide in Me and Boyz II Men’s I’ll Make Love to You, sultry and alluring hits that stole focus.
IN THIS PHOTO: Kylie Minogue
I will mention standout tracks from the best albums (of 1994) but I loved those phenomenal songs that sound fresh and desirable today. Who can resist the singalong, beguiling qualities of 7 Seconds (by Youssou N’Dour and Neneh Cherry) and the good-at-the-time-but-a-little-dodgy-now charms of The Cranberries’ Zombie?! Away from the Pop mainstream and radio-friendly hits was the incredible Dance/Club sounds that have not been bettered since then. We had the barbed wire of The Prodigy (who I shall talk about soon...) and the more accessible sounds of Reel 2 Reel and Ultra Nate. Although years earlier in the decade produced the biggest anthems from the scene; inclusions from Björk (Big Time Sensuality) and Real McCoy (Another Night) added a certain spice and colour – Livin Joy’s Dreamer a huge song that made November a pretty warm and memorable month! Toni Braxton, Corona and Baby D produced some standout singles; Aswad, Dawn Penn and Sheryl Crow lit up the radio; Salt-N-Peppa (with En Vogue), Take That and Madonna laid down their mark. The best one-hundred songs from 1994 – album inclusions and singles – can rival any year you throw at me! Whilst there was a split between the cool, edgier songs and the user-friendly cuts: look at the arsenal of genius albums and there is even more depth, diversity and wonder.
The albums that arrived in 1994, I feel, are stronger than those of 1967 and 1991. It is a close call but, look at the 1994 inclusions, and you can hardly argue. Sheryl Crow’s Tuesday Night Music Club and Hole’s Live Through This showed how two very different American female (stunning) songwriters (Courtney Love of Hole) could impress and stun in unique ways. The Americans, perhaps, had us pipped when it came to the number of ground-breaking albums that year. Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York was one of their last recordings – Kurt Cobain’s suicide (in the same year) not only affected the Grunge community but inspired a wave of new, compelled bands/artists. Beastie Boys showed they had plenty of magic left in the tank – after the sublime Paul’s Boutique ended the 1980s – with Ill Communication; Weezer’s eponymous album (the first one, at least!) dazzled critics; Green Day’s Dookie remains the Punk band’s finest album to date. We have not really seen an inventive Hip-Hop album like Beastie Boys' Ill Communication in a long while – with samples and so much invention – or something as catchy, intense and hard-biting as Dookie. It is all very well listing albums aimlessly but, look at why they were so popular makes me wonder why we have not tried to replicate them. Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain showed how prolific the band were but, a few years later, it would inspire a flagging British band and provide a new lease of life – I will mention them when I look at the Britpop best.
IN THIS PHOTO: Tori Amos
There was no shortage of quality Rock and anthemic pummel in 1994. Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy did not have the same level of quality as Ten (1991) but, no less, was a wondrous album that got into the public's hearts. Soundgarden’s Superunknown was a biblical statement from a band that was among the forerunners of the Grunge movement. Now, with Chris Cornell (their lead) gone; I hope new bands listen to that album and realise why we sorely need a new version of Superunknown. Alice in Chains brought us Jar of Flies whilst, at the other end of the spectrum, there was something more emotive and tangible from Madonna (Bedtime Stories) and Tori Amos (Under the Pink). R.E.M.’s Monster was an album befitting of its title whilst Beck’s Mellow Gold proved the Odelay creator was starting to hit his stride (Odelay would arrive in 1996). Perhaps the greatest, and most overlooked, American album of 1994 was Jeff Buckley’s Grace. Its year of arrival was slightly unfortunate: mingling with muscular, cool-kids-records that were inspiring Alternative, Grunge and Rock fans. There was some muscle on Grace but, for the most part, it was a romantic and tender thing that appealed more to the lovers and thinkers – at a time when nothing like it really existed. Buckley’s sole studio album would gain the respect it deserved years down the line - but it was implanted into music at a time when the market was looking for something else. Regardless; it showed the diversity of 1994 and how insanely-good music was!
I have mentioned the brilliance of American music that year but, perhaps, I was too rash with my conclusions. 1994 was a year that saw the best of the U.K. align and rouse the people. The acerbic and cerebral Pulp gave the musical world His ‘N’ Hers. The Sheffield band would create finer records – 1995’s Different Class is considered their masterpiece – but any album that contains Babies and Do You Remember the First Time? cannot be ignored! It was a hot time for British bands who dug deeper than the commercial chart acts. We do not really have the same working-class warriors assessing real-life and what is happening in this country. Look back at the glory of 1994 (and how the likes of Pulp and Oasis ruled 1995) and we have a case study of how music should be. Supergrass – who would come into their own on their 1995 debut, I Should Coco – provided a tantalising insight into their world with the classic, Caught by the Fuzz. I will end the piece by looking at why the British Electronica/Dance/Techno is another reason why we need to look at the past – and why the best from the genres surpassed anything the rest of the world was pumping out...
The Britpop movement was in full-swing by 1994 and, although it would peak in 1995; there were outsiders like Suede, Pulp and Radiohead – with core/leaders Blur and Oasis fronting the movement. British music was changing and, whilst there were big hopes regarding The Stone Roses’ sophomore album (Second Coming did not match their debut, ironically); it was all about the new breed and what they were offering. Suede and Pulp produced the more refined, intellectual and dramatic music – flourishes and mini-dramas of modern life and romance. They had their core but were not commercial enough to truly break into the spotlight. Pulp would gain more ground in 1995 – as would Radiohead – but 1994 was all about the battle between Oasis and Blur. For the latter band; Parklife was their third, and finest, album. They got a smattering of applause with Leisure (the 1991 debut); Modern Life Is Rubbish was one of 1993’s best releases: Parklife was them at full-chat; an album that boasted songs like Girls & Boys, Parklife and This Is a Low. Manchester’s Oasis were the working-class alternative to the more middle-class and academic Blur. Unlike the Essex band; Oasis produced their first album in 1994. They did not need a warm-up and gradual ascent to glory: Definitely Maybe was a spectacular debut that many argue is the best record of 1994. It was unexpected and just what the music world needed!
Many felt disenfranchised and dislocated; politicians were not speaking for them and the country they lived in was changing – Oasis came along and provided guidance, anthems and plenty of great times! They were not your average pub-bound band talking about booze and girls with no intelligence and wit. Sure, they covered excess and the Rock lifestyle on a few numbers (Cigarettes & Alcohol and Rock ‘n’ Roll Star among them) but those chunky-riffed songs paled compared to the standout track: the country-uniting Live Forever. If that were waged into the 1995 chart battle between Oasis and Blur then the final result would have been different – both bands put up songs that were not up to their usual high. The cobwebs had been forming since The Stones Roses’ late-1980s debut and nothing had come along to suggest rebellion and revolt. The insouciance and clutter-freeing charge of Definitely Maybe was a swagger and scattershot – mixing Punk, Rock and Glam seamlessly – record that quenched the thirst and created a massive hunger in its wake. Oasis would start a creative decline by 1997 - but Definitely Maybe was the start of a two-year reign that meant they were the most important and celebrated band on the planet. 1995 would see Blur and Oasis compare new tattoos (Blur’s The Great Escape found them blocked in a tunnel and unable to reach the surface; Oasis’ (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? elevated their profile and meant they were untouchable).
IN THIS PHOTO: Oasis/PHOTO CREDIT: Kevin Cummings
By 1997, fortunes shifted. Blur looked to U.S. bands like Pavement and rejuvenated their ranks with their eponymous L.P.; Oasis, instead, looked more into themselves and swapped influential substances: cocaine replaced alcohol. The overblown Be Here Now gave power back to Blur: 1994 was a year when the scrappy and unfiltered northerners owned music and provided us all hope! Whilst Rock and Pop was doing sterling business in the U.K.; the fantastic movement of Dance and Electronic was gaining credibility and crowds in the underground; Bristol innovators Portishead produced Dummy: songs such as Glory Box, Sour Times and Numb became staples and club gems. Away from great British icons like Morrissey (Vauxhall & I was his best solo work to that point) and Manic Street Preachers (The Holy Bible, a remarkable work); we had the daring and high-fuelled pioneers doing something truly fantastic! British Dance and Club music would stagnate later in the decade – Basement Jaxx’s debut provided the colour and cross-pollination it was crying out for… - but, in 1994, we saw another band begin a remarkable one-two. The Prodigy's debut, Experience, was a brilliant record with stone-cold classics like Jericho and Out of Space featured. If Liam and Noel Gallagher drove Oasis’ music to the forefront; Damon Albarn the catalyst for Blur’s glory; Jarvis Cocker the wit and lead that helped mould Pulp into icons – the production and songwriting skills of Liam Howlett brought The Prodigy to the masses...
Music for the Jilted Generation took the brilliance of the debut and notched it up to another level. There were few samples but, rather than rely on other people’s work; Howlett created a dizzying cocktail of sounds that meant cheap music did not need to be poor – it was invaluable, dark and shape-shifting. Voodoo People and No Good (Start the Dance) became two of the biggest bangers of 1994 – both very different songs but each irresistible and defiant. Break & Enter and One Love are instantly recognisable, whilst some of the more minor tracks – Full Throttle and the three-song suite that ends the record among them – still had their place. It is a kaleidoscopic cocktail of ecstasy, marijuana and cocaine; beer, wine and tranquillisers – all mixed in the musical stomach and, somehow, coherent. There is no loss of stomach lining, memory of blood when those contrasting substances unite: it is an effusive and rainbow-bright epiphany that showcased a band like no other! 1997’s The Fat of the Land did not quite match the peaks of Music for the Jilted Generation – even if Breathe and Firestarter become two of the best-known songs from The Prodigy. The fact the band needed three years between releases proved how much work went into the seamlessly 'easy' and ramshackle recordings! 1994 was a phenomenal year - and one that has yet to be surpassed. I am hopeful modern music will make strides to match the brilliance (of 1994) but, twenty-four years down the tracks…
PHOTO CREDIT: Unsplash
MUSIC has not managed to reach such mesmeric heights!