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Top 10 Alternative Rock Albums Of 1994

1994 was arguably the year the alternative rock boom of the 90’s reached its pinnacle, offering some of the most creative and enduring albums of the decade. In honor of the year’s twentieth anniversary, lets take a look at some of that year’s most memorable albums…

Honorable Mention – The Crow Soundtrack

The soundtrack to the tragic cult classic film The Crow is probably one of the best representations of the era; Nine Inch Nails, Henry Rollins, Rage Against the Machine, STP, The Cure, and Helmet only top off an atmospheric, diverse album with star power.

10. Green Day – Dookie

Infusing punk in the way of the Clash with MTV generation sensibilities, Green Day’s major label debut remains one of the most popular albums of the decade. The band were hard pressed to find a truly successful follow-up until 2004’s American Idiot, but “Longview”, “Basketcase”, and “Welcome To Paradise” permeated the radio airwaves during those ten years and still do to this day.

9. Meat Puppets – Too High To Die

The storied indie cowpunk band Meat Puppets took full advantage of their association with Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged performance by releasing their first “mainstream” sounding album the following year. Produced by Paul Leary from the Butthole Surfers, Too High To Die is essentially a front-to-back rock record, featuring several classics like the radio single “Backwater”, the trippy and climactic anthem “Comin’ Down”, and a rerecorded version of the band’s (then) newly popularized tune “Lake Of Fire”.

8. Jeff Buckley – Grace

The first and sadly only fully completed album of the late, great Jeff Buckley, Grace demonstrated Buckley’s angelic and soulful vocal style. Though best known for his passionate cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, Grace also contains a number of solid rock songs, including the almost Zeppelin-esque tracks “Mojo Pin” and “Grace”.

7. Weezer – The Blue Album

One of the most highly regarded debut albums of the past three decades, Weezer’s self-titled debut (commonly referred to as The Blue Album) recently celebrated its twentieth anniversary. An acolyte of Kurt Cobain, Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo took the alternative sound popularized by Nirvana’s Nevermind and infused it with a bombastic, arena ready attitude.

6. Soundgarden – Superunknown

I’m sure most of our readers wouldn’t need an introduction to this one, but, yeah. “Black Hole Sun”. “Spoonman”. “The Day I Tried To Live”. “Let Me Drown”. “My Wave”. Enough said.

5. Stone Temple Pilots – Purple

STP’s sophomore album successfully cemented the band as being a modern classic of the 1990’s before the usual rock stardom issues tore the band apart several times over. Purple gave us some of the most endearing radio rock singles of the era: “Vasoline”, “Big Empty” (also featured on The Crow soundtrack), and “Interstate Love Song”.

4. Nine Inch Nails – The Downward Spiral

Trent Reznor tried and succeeded to make a modern classic similar to David Bowie’s Low or Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The result was one of the darkest mainstream albums of all time, popularizing industrial rock to the MTV crowd.

3. Pearl Jam – Vitalogy

Released at the height of Pearl Jam’s boycott of Ticketmaster, Vitalogy was the band’s first recorded act of rebellion towards the music industry, featuring lyrics detailing the band’s struggle with mainstream success and expanding their sound into experimental territory. The album possesses an almost manic vibe, jumping back and forth between loud and aggressive tunes like “Spin The Black Circle” and “Not For You”, somber anthems in “Nothingman” and “Betterman”, and flat out weird sounds in “Bugs” and “Satan’s Bed”.

2. Nirvana – MTV Unplugged in New York

Nirvana’s 1993 MTV Unplugged performance in New York was packaged and released in album format in November 1994 following Kurt Cobain’s April suicide. Kurt had eschewed many of his band’s radio hits, instead mostly covering old blues tunes and songs from contemporary indie bands who he wanted to expose, such as the aforementioned Meat Puppets and the Scottish indie pop band The Vaselines. The band’s haunting rendition of the standard blues tune “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” is a fitting epitaph to the band’s legendary career.

1. Hole – Live Through This

Say what you will about Courtney Love, but Live Through This is an unquestionable masterpiece, offering some of the most powerful songs of the nineties. You can feel Courtney’s anger and depression over her darkening relationship with Kurt Cobain (who guested on “Asking For It” and “Softer, Softest”) in the heart wrenching “Doll Parts”.

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Top 10 Underrated 90’s Alternative Rock Albums

If you ask me, I firmly believe the ’90s gave us some of the best rock n’ roll of all time – including quite a few alternative titles. As you may or may not know, I put out a book a few months back, Overlooked/Underappreciated: 354 Recordings That Demand Your Attention, in which I…well, you can probably figure out from the title.

What better way to give you a taste of my book AND include what I feel were the most underrated alt-rock albums of the ’90s then by compiling 10 (actually 11 due to a controversial two-way tie) tasty titles from the book, all of which should have gotten a whole lot more attention?

10. PJ Harvey – Rid of Me [1993]

Production-wise, this album is oh-so-close to Nirvana’s In Utero, and with good reason – the same chap produced both recordings (Steve Albini). And like In Utero, Rid of Me seems at times to be an unflinching warts-and-all/view-into-the-soul snapshot of the artist. Unfortunately, the CD (along with Harvey’s stellar debut, Dry) contains probably one of the worst mastering jobs of all time – it’s so bloody “quiet” at points it’s annoying – and is in desperate need of a remastering (are you listening, Island Records?). Lastly, the tune “Missed” always reminded me of early Pretenders for some reason. Do you agree, too?

9. My Bloody Valentine – Loveless [1991]

“Shoegazing” is a style that never seemed to really take hold in America (it was far more popular in the land were it originated – England). But it certainly spawned a few classics – most notably My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. The group’s second studio album overall sounds like the perfect soundtrack to either a dream or a hallucination (or perhaps dreaming while on hallucinogens). Also, the strum-the-night-away-on-your-Fender-Jazzmaster-while-your-long-bangs-cover-your-eyes style that select guitarists would later indulge in can be traced directly back to this recording.

8. Morphine – Cure for Pain [1993]

There have been very few artists in the history of rock that could be as mood shifting as Morphine was. And while their third album, Yes, was under careful consideration for my Morphine pick for this book, I opted to go with Cure for Pain. Few rock bands – if any – were incorporating saxophone into their sound circa the mid to late ’90s, and certainly none (apart from the more mainstream-sounding the Presidents of the United States of America) included a two-string bass instrument…played with a slide. But somehow, it all adds up to create one of the most original rock sounds of the decade.

7. Shudder To Think – Pony Express Record [1994]

There weren’t many alt-rock bands of the early ’90s that embraced prog-rock/art-rock, but Shudder to Think was one of the few bold enough to do so. And Pony Express Record was a most welcomed release amongst Hootie and all the lame grunge rip-offs that were being spun by MTV at the time (the channel was even bold enough to spin S2T’s striking “X-French Tee Shirt” clip a bit…during non-vampire friendly hours, too!). Although the band has issued several other sturdy releases, Pony Express Record gets my vote for being S2T’s finest hour. One of my fav (and most listened to) rock n’ roll recordings of the ’90s.

6. Brad – Shame [1993]

When you heard that a rock band was “funky” during the early ’90s, it usually meant that they were merely a rip-off of either the Red Hot Chili Peppers or Faith No More, and perhaps the only classic funk artist they may have heard/studied was P-Funk. Brad was one of the first ’90s rockers to play it funky but not cheesy – mainly because singer Shawn Smith sang in falsetto and didn’t come off like an obnoxious fraternity boy. Also, Prince seemed to be their main funk influence, and Smith was not afraid to offer up an Elton John-like piano ballad when needed. Stone Gossard had already shown that he was quite adept at offering up killer guitar grooves on such albums as Mother Love Bone’s Apple and Pearl Jam’s Ten, but he’s even groovier here…which would continue on PJ’s next release, Vs. (while Smith and drummer Regan Hagar would launch the more metallic Satchel).

5. fIREHOSE – Flyin’ the Flannel [1991]

Not only did fIREHOSE sound differently than most rock bands at the time – they also looked different (namely, the scruffy-yet-charming Mike Watt). And arguably, their best album was their major label debut, Flyin’ the Flannel (its title is a tip of the cap to Watt’s favorite shirt material). “Tight yet loose” is a fitting description for the performances here, but it remains bewildering as to why not more people knew about this band/heard this album (especially since it was issued around the same time that alt-rock was finally infiltrating the mainstream, and Flyin’ the Flannel would have been a perfect fit).

4. [2-WAY TIE!!] Faith No More – King for a Day…Fool for a Lifetime [1995]

What the heck was Faith No More going to sound like without Jim Martin supplying his trademark Sabbath riffs? The question was answered quickly upon hearing King for a Day…Fool for a Lifetime – Mr. Bungle guitarist Trey Spruance had no problem supplying metalloid guitar when called upon. However, the focus was placed more on singer Mike Patton, who certainly delivers, with an outstanding performance throughout, and expertly handling a variety of styles – soul ballads, Portishead-like fare, death metal, country, prog-rock, etc. Surprisingly, the album didn’t sell all that well Stateside.

Mr. Bungle – Disco Volante [1995]

As I state in my 2013 book, The Faith No More & Mr. Bungle Companion, I feel that there have been only a few times in rock history where a band has grown leaps and bounds artistically between albums as much as Bungle did between their self-titled debut and Disco Volante. While Bungle’s debut was juvenile and relied too much on funk metal clichés, DV touches upon numerous styles, that helps create a completely original recording – and sounds like no other artist before or since. Admittedly, it’s a challenging listen at times (the Bungle boys could never resist assaulting the listener with unexpected noise detours here and there), but Disco Volante was a much-needed antidote to the Hooties, Alanises, and Bushes that were clogging the radio airwaves, MTV, and charts at the time.

3. Truly – Fast Stories…From Kid Coma [1995]

Truly’s Fast Stories…From Kid Coma gets my vote as one of the most underrated rock recordings of the ’90s (or even perhaps of all time, for that matter). When I think of the blah doo-dah that MTV and radio was championing at the time (Live, Bush, Silverchair, etc.) and they could have been playing bands like Truly, the Beautiful, and Brad – that were both musically and artistically far more deserving – it really gets my goat. Picture a psychedelic take on grunge (without coming off as pretentious or indulgent), or a hybrid of Nirvana and Radiohead (without sounding like copycats), and you’re close to what the material on Fast Stories…From Kid Coma sounds like.

2. The Beautiful – Storybook [1992]

One of the more obscure bands and releases of the early ’90s alt-rock movement – I’ve never seen or read about the Beautiful besides the aforementioned items [listed in the book], and have crossed paths with few human beings who stated they fancied them (or even knew who the heck they were). This is unfortunate, as Storybook is a very interesting recording that should have been popular – and one of the few bands that possessed a cool Jane’s Addiction influence/vibe (for as popular as Jane’s was at the time, if you think about it, there wasn’t a wave of impersonators of Perry and his pals…unlike the grunge groups, who did have their fair share of copycats). The album also has some artsy fartsy bits between the tracks – something else that wasn’t very common during the era.

1. Blind Melon – Soup [1995]

It seems like my mission in life has been to turn as many people as possible on to this woefully underrated release. You have to give oodles of credit to Blind Melon for not taking the easy way out and issuing an album comprised of “No Rain”-like ditties (similarly, the same could be said about FNM’s Angel Dust, as the band wisely chose not to merely put out a bunch of “Epic” knock-offs), but rather, a pretty darn original and challenging album. And possibly only outdone by Layne Staley’s “my life is an open book” style of lyric writing, it appears as though Blind Melon singer Shannon Hoon somehow knew his life was rapidly approaching its end, as he wonders if the birth of his baby daughter will bring new life to him (“New Life”), writing what seems like a description of what heroin use feels like (“2×4”), and trying to pick himself up and get his life back on track (“Walk”). For reasons unknown, Soup was panned upon release by most critics (Google Rolling Stone‘s original review to see what I mean) and took a dive on the charts. And most obviously, Hoon’s tragic death barely two months after the album’s release served as the main reason why the album was never properly promoted. But in ensuing years, Soup has seemed to – deservingly – build a cult following. If I had to pick one favorite all-time rock album, it may very well be this one.

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Top 10 Rock Album Covers Of The 90’s

While the 90’s were a great time for rock music, the creativity extended to other aspects of music as well, like music videos, which we recently discussed with director Mark Pellington, and album artwork.  Below are the 10 greatest rock album covers of the 90’s, and some stories behind them.

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10. Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese Dream (1993)

The Siamese Dream cover is so iconic that Billy Corgan was able to make headline news a couple of years ago by claiming that then Smashing Pumpkins bassist Nicole Fiorentino was one of the girls on the cover.  Fiorentino told AlternativeNation.net,  “That was all started in the head of Billy Corgan.  That was just a fun Twitter play that we had one day, and it blew up and was on the front page of Yahoo.  I actually stayed off my computer for like three days because I had like Rolling Stone wanting to interview me.  I was like (sarcastically) ‘I don’t want to be known for this lie, this is blasphemy!’  It’ll pass, like anything else, which it did.  But, I still get asked it in interviews to this day.”

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9. Pink Floyd – The Division Bell (1994)

The album itself is a snoozefest, especially compared to the Pink Floyd classics, but the cover is awesome.  Storm Thorgerson put up two large metal heads in a field near Ely to create the cover. Keith Breeden designed the sculptures, which were constructed by John Robertson.

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8. Alice In Chains – Dirt (1992)

Model/actress Mariah O’Brien is featured on the cover to Dirt. She wore a wig for the shoot, which she left in the dirt after she left the 8 hour shoot according to FeelNumb. O’Brien told Revolver in 2010, “Everyone always asks if that is Demri Parrott on the Dirt cover. I think Demri’s name might have been mentioned as a possible model once or twice, but it was never a serious consideration.”

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7. Sublime – Sublime (1996)

Tattoo artist Opie Ortiz was responsible for the tattoo shown on the back of Bradley Nowell on Sublime’s iconic 1996 self-titled album.

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6. Rage Against The Machine – The Battle of Los Angeles (1999)

Artist LA Street Phantom/Joey Krebs/Joel Jaramillo created the artwork for the cover of The Battle of Los Angeles, which was inspired by the lyrics and themes on the album.

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5. Jeff Buckley – Grace (1994)

Jeff Buckley’s lone complete album features a great reflective photo of the legendary singer.

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4. Jane’s Addiction – Ritual de lo Habitual (1990)

Perry Farrell’s artwork for Ritual de lo Habitual was a visualization of the song “Three Days,” which was inspired by a drug and sex filled weekend he had with Casey Niccoli and Xiola Blue.

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3. Nirvana – Nevermind (1991)

Probably the most famous cover on this list, Nevermind shows a three month old Spencer Elden in a pool chasing a dollar. Cobain originally wanted an image depicting an underwater birth, but that was too graphic an idea for Geffen Records to agree to.

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2. Smashing Pumpkins – Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995)

Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is arguably the most ambitious album of the 90’s, a sprawling double album, and the cover art is one of the most memorable the 90’s, later inspiring the “Tonight, Tonight” video which paid homage to the 1902 film A Trip To The Moon.

John Craig remembered creating the cover in an interview with NPR, “I believe they had contacted a photographer in France that they were interested in. He was going to come over here and they were going to build this Victorian set, almost like a stage. All the Pumpkins would be in costume, and it would be a pretty elaborately designed photograph for the cover — until he wanted $50,000, I guess. So he was out. By that time, Billy seemed happy with the booklet illustrations, so I said, “Why don’t you give me a shot at the cover?” We talked about it and he sent me some more faxes, and I looked through a lot of the period books I had and showed him some examples of other people’s paintings that related to the celestial idea he was looking for. He was really talking about a ship’s maiden — you know, the ones carved into the front of old ships.

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1. Mad Season – Above (1995)

The late, great Layne Staley designed the cover art for Mad Season’s lone album.  The art work was inspired by a photo of Layne and his girlfriend Demri Parrott.  Especially knowing what tragically happened to Staley and Parrott (Parrott died in 1996, Staley in 2002), the album’s cover art is a beautiful depiction of star crossed lovers.

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Top 10 Pearl Jam Live Songs

Pearl Jam kick off their 2014 U.S. tour on Wednesday in Cincinnati at the US Bank Arena, and to celebrate, AlternativeNation.net has a list of Pearl Jam’s Top 10 Live Songs. While the list is subjective, we feel if Pearl Jam ever decided to mail it in (they never will, but hypothetically!) and have shorter setlists like some of their contemporaries, these are 10 songs they would have to play!

10. Yellow Ledbetter

9. Jeremy

8. Baba O’Reilly

7. Alive

6. Spin The Black Circle

5. Given to Fly

4. Rockin In The Free World

3. Porch

2. Animal

1. Release

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Top 10 Layne Staley Songs

To celebrate the late great Layne Staley’s birthday today, I have compiled a list of (at least what I believe) to be the Top 10 Layne Staley penned songs! Feel free to post yours in the comments section.

10. Mad Season – Long Gone Day (1995)

This is a beautiful dark jazzy song, featuring some of Layne’s most experimental work melodically, along with Mark Lanegan. It’s a shame Layne only got to scratch the surface with material like this, but we’ll always have Above.

9. Alice In Chains – Again (1995)

“Again” has some of Layne’s most unique vocal production/layering techniques. The way Staley wails during the chorus, harmonizing under his own lyrics, is what makes him one of a kind.

8. Alice In Chains – Love Hate Love (1990)

While Staley was just developing his unique melodic/lyric writing abilities on Facelift, there’s a loose swagger to his voice that is present in his voice on this record, especially on “Love Hate Love.”

7. Alice In Chains – Angry Chair (1992)

“Angry Chair” was Alice In Chains’ first radio hit that was solely written by Staley (music and lyrics). There’s a sense of desperation in the verses with lines like ‘Loneliness is not a phase’ and ‘Saw my reflection and cried/so little hope that I died,’ but there’s almost a sense of acceptance during the angelic chorus.

6. Mad Season – Wake Up (1995)

“Wake Up” features one of Layne’s best lyrics ‘Slow suicide’s no way to go.’ The song is a slow burner, and the type that may take time to grow on you, but once it does it will be one of your favorite tracks off Above.

5. Alice In Chains – Man In The Box (1990)

Arguably Alice In Chains’ signature hit, “Man In The Box” is still heard on radio today, with it’s thunderous chorus being one of Staley’s best hooks.

4. Alice In Chains – Get Born Again (1999)

Arguably Staley’s darkest song is one of the last tracks he ever recorded. Staley sings from a place of utter despair, ‘Can you protect/me when I’m wrecked/I pretend you’re still alive.’ Part of the song touches on religious themes, with Staley also singing about his struggles with his ex-girlfriend passing away. While Staley spent his final years out of the spotlight and struggling with his demons, “Get Born Again” and “Died” show that he still was one of the most creative singers on the planet.

3. Alice In Chains – Nutshell (1994)

Jar of Flies found Staley reach new highs, with his part on “Don’t Follow” being one of his most memorable performances, along with the triumphant “I Stay Away.”  “Nutshell” though is Layne’s most personal track on the album, with stream of conscience lyrics, ‘And yet I fight/This battle all alone/No one to cry to/No place to call home.’

2. Alice In Chains – Hate to Feel (1992)

“Hate to Feel” is another Alice In Chains track solely written by Staley, and it is arguably his best AIC track, with a chaotic energy that escalates throughout the song.  The song tells the story of Layne’s relationship with his father, and his fear of becoming like him.  Layne sings manically, ‘All this time I swore I’d never be like my old man/what the hey it’s time to face exactly who I am/I can see/wish I couldn’t see at all.’

1. Mad Season – River of Deceit (1995)

“River of Deceit” is the quintessential Layne Staley song.  Lines like ‘My pain is self-chosen/at least so the prophet says’ and ‘I could either drown/Or pull off my skin and swim to shore/Now I can grow a beautiful/Shell for all to see’ make this one of the most autobiographical and self-aware songs of Layne’s career.