We might not have known it at the time, but 1994 was an incredibly important year for music.
Bill Clinton was the sax-playing leader of the free world. The Lion King, Forrest Gump and The Mask were huge at the box office, but Pulp Fiction, Reality Bites and The Crow were so much cooler. A ticket to the Big Day Out cost $45 and some of the best albums of the modern indie era were released.
Whether you were into Dookie or Definitely Maybe, Monster or Mellow Gold, Ready To Die or Regulate, Chocolate and Cheese or Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, your Discman was always full of great, new music. Music that still sounds amazing today.
The Cranberries' enduring smash hit 'Zombie' topped that year’s Hottest 100, but in hindsight, there was some far more groundbreaking music released in 1994. Artists were extending themselves, pushing boundaries musically and lyrically that would go on to inspire so many others to do the same.
Britpop, pop-punk, east coast hip hop, Australian alternative rock and electronic dance music were all shaped by records that came out in 1994. In this J File, we’ll explore these albums and their effect on those genres.
What were you listening to in 1994? Tell us in the comments, on Facebook or on Twitter #jfiles.
The early-to-mid '90s were a fertile time for quality hip hop from both coasts of the USA.
While rappers like Snoop Dogg, Warren G, Dr Dre and Tupac Shakur were making brilliant and enormously successful gangsta rap records on the west coast, there were east coast acts like the Wu-Tang Clan, Gang Starr and Digable Planets offering their own take on modern hip hop.
While the Wu Tang Clan's Enter the Wu Tang (36 Chambers) may have given hard-hitting east coast hip hop a leg up in late 1993, Nas' Illmatic was a defining record for the regionalised genre.
Nas was 20 years old when he released Illmatic, but the buzz surrounding him had been building for years. He signed a deal with Columbia Records in 1992 after causing a stir with his brilliant appearance on Main Source's track 'Live at the Barbeque' the year prior. The buzz surrounding the young rapper grew in anticipation of his debut release. Thankfully the pressure didn't have any adverse effect on the teenaged Nas.
The lyrical content on Illmatic is deeply affecting. The young rapper talks about gang violence, poverty and drugs, while also acknowledging that he and his peers could rise above the nightmarish lives that were commonplace around them.
I switched my motto; instead of saying "fuck tomorrow"
That buck that bought a bottle could've struck the lotto
Critics have praised Nas' complex rapping style on Illmatic, his lyrics were conversational and his stories utterly gripping, but the songs were also densely packed with vivid imagery that made you feel like you were on the streets with him.
When I was young, at this I used to do my thing hard
Robbin foreigners, take their wallets, their jewels, and rip their green cards
Dipped to the projects flashing my quick cash and
Got my first piece of ass smokin blunts with hash
"Nas was a street poet," The Beautiful Girls' Mat McHugh says. "He really gave an accurate, descriptive, literate version of his life and his environment.
That entire record could be a Scorsese movie, you can see and smell the streets when you listen to it.Mat McHugh, The Beautiful Girls
"Really great music is a snapshot of a person's history and their culture and you can see different parts of the world by listening to songs. A great song is almost like a movie and that entire record could be a Scorsese movie, you can see and smell the streets when you listen to it."
Illmatic is also a landmark record in terms of production. While some hip hop had an overt jazz, funk and soul influence by the time Illmatic was released, it had never been executed in such a subtle manner before as on this album.
The crack team of producers who helped shape the album's production – Large Professor, DJ Premier, Pete Rock, and Q-Tip – made sure the tracks were crisp, atmospheric, dark and always fitting Nas’ street themes.
It wasn't just in the US that Nas' impact was being felt. While Australia wasn't as subject to the high crime rates of a crack-ridden New York City, the album still connected here.
"Someone growing up in Queenbeyan, listening to someone who grew up in Queensbridge, it's kind of a funny thought," says triple j Hip Hop Show host and Koolism MC Hau Latukefu.
"When Illmatic dropped it really felt like all the planets had aligned. He had the best producers at that time and someone that was so young already felt like he had been rapping for 20 years and he wasn't even 20 years old yet. He had lived a life before the album had come out."
Illmatic gave east coast hip hop an enormous boost and it not only put Nas’ stories from the dangerous streets into the mainstream, it did so on his own terms.
The Green Day of 1994 were a very different band to the one we see in stadiums around the world these days. But they were maturing. With 1992's Kerplunk, the band showed enormous promise. With Dookie, they became a sensation.
What's more, the record was one of the releases that took pop-punk to the mainstream. Less than 20 years after the punk movement gained notoriety in the mainstream, it was now conquering it. Dookie reached number two on the Billboard charts in the US, and topped the charts in Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
I rate it up there with the best Who records and stuff. It's just eternally young.Chris Cheney, The Living End
What's not to love about this vital piece of adolescent angst? These 15 songs in 35 minutes gave us tales of love, sadness, masturbation, unemployment, loss, mental distress and beautifully anthemic melodies.
"I rate it up there with the best Who records and stuff," says The Living End frontman Chris Cheney. "It's just eternally young."
For all its punk attitude, Dookie also had a distinct pop sensibility. It was the best example of Billie-Joe Armstrong's melodic brilliance to date, and the drums, guitars and harmony vocals were enormous thanks to the slick LA production of Rob Cavallo. It was a record made for the mass market and was one of the first pop-punk records to ever cut through in such a huge way.
Five tracks from it were hits and each of those songs ('Longview', 'Welcome To Paradise', 'Basket Case', 'When I Come Around', 'She') sound as vital and energetic now as they did 20 years ago. It wasn't just the hits that connected though. Dookie opens up with three non-singles that, to fans, are as iconic to the sound of the record as any of the radio favourites.
Another band who helped bring pop-punk to the masses was The Offspring, who released their Smash LP in 1994. With huge singles like 'Self Esteem' and 'Come Out and Play', they challenged Green Day as the biggest pop-punk band of the year.
Other heavy music to also make its mark in 1994 includes Soundgarden's Superunknown, Nine Inch Nails' The Downward Spiral, Stone Temple Pilots' Purple and Pearl Jam's Vitalogy.
Indie rock was also flourishing around this time. Weezer's debut album took the world by storm in '94, while Pavement gave us Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain and Ween became more accessible than ever on Chocolate and Cheese.
Female-fronted heavy rock bands were beginning to gain some serious success around 1994 as well, with Veruca Salt's American Thighs record and Hole's now classic Live Through This two of the most raved-about rock records of the year.
While their albums may not have hit as powerfully as other work, Sonic Youth's Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star gave us 'Bull in the Heather' and Dinosaur Jr.'s Without a Sound offered 'Feel The Pain', two massive songs from the '90s indie era.
Trip hop was strong by the time 1994 rolled around, thanks to Massive Attack's first couple of records, DJ Shadow's earliest singles and other releases through the Mo'Wax and Ninja Tune labels. By the time the year was over, the genre was booming, largely due to British trio Portishead’s debut album, Dummy.
Despite protests that Portishead was not intended to be a trip hop outfit, their album’s jazz-influenced breakbeats typified the burgeoning style perfectly. They were as good, if not better, than anything that had emerged prior.
Dummy was met with enormous acclaim upon its release. It was considered Album of the Year by publications like Melody Maker, Mixmag and The Wire and it is a regular fixture in "best albums" polls around the world to this day.
The critical acclaim is hardly surprising. It's an ambitious and brilliantly executed piece of work, but the way the record crossed over to the mainstream was what made it so important. It was the first time the mainstream really connected with the trip hop musical movement and they connected in a massive way. Dummy has sold almost four million copies worldwide.
What appealed to the public so much is anyone's guess. This was not a typical mainstream success story. As a record, Dummy is not only very dark but just plain weird. Beth Gibbons' voice was undoubtedly gorgeous, but otherworldly, and her lyrics were without linear narrative.
Some of the sounds on the record were bizarre – the unnerving Theremin on opening track 'Mysterons', the twisted-round, sped-up sample of Lalo Schifrin's 'Danube Incident' that made up single 'Sour Times', the uncomfortable cry of the awkwardly scratched turntables in 'Numb' – just about every song has a certain perplexing oddity.
Writing for The Georgia Strait in 1997, John Lucas said the record "seemed to come from the past and the future at the same time."
In his book about the record, part of the 33 1/3 series, R.J. Wheaton noted the absence of qualities abundant in popular music on Dummy, among them "uncomplicated tenderness, unconditional love, sexual desire uncomplicated by things that include reality, moments that lend themselves to dancing, reassurance that things will, actually, be okay..."
Portishead initially did not want to perform live and Beth Gibbons wouldn't conduct interviews. Instead they made an 11-minute short film. To Kill a Dead Man was a film noir style spy flick, ensuring the band would never be able to distance themselves from (obvious but deserved) comparisons to soundtracks of the noir era.
The UK was pumping out massively important electronic music in 1994, including The Prodigy's Music for the Jilted Generation, Underworld's dubnobasswithmyheadman, Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Volume II, Future Sound of London's Lifeforms and Orbital's Snivilisation.
In Australia, dance music culture had captured the youth of the nation. Itch-E and Scratch-E had just released their Itch-E Kitch-E Koo debut the year prior and were one of the bigger acts in the country, while Boxcar's final album Algorhythm, Single Gun Theory's Flow, River of My Soul and Southend and Nik Fish had a massive pop hit with 'The Winner Is...'.
Early in 1994, everything changed for Australian rock music. Three 16-year-old kids from Newcastle cut a monstrous four-and-half minute rock opus at the triple j studios in Sydney. It was released in September and saw silverchair quickly rise to become one of the biggest bands on the planet.
1994 was the year I discovered triple j via Sidewinder's beautiful song 'Day After Day'. Growing up in sleepy Canberra and hearing a local band played on national radio inspired my 16 year old imagination, and when silverchair's 'Tomorrow' was released it seemed like anything was possible.Anthony, Sydney via SMS
But before all that, the first rumblings of Austraila’s indie/alternative rock boom had begun. In May 1993, The Cruel Sea broke through with The Honeymoon Is Over and, seven months later, You Am I released their acclaimed debut Sound As Ever. Ratcat's dominance of 1990 and 1991 was still fresh in the minds of bands, record labels and fans. While everyone was undoubtedly looking out for the next Nirvana, the next Ratcat might have been a welcome consolation.
Brisbane's Custard were a familiar name on the Australian indie circuit by 1994. They had already released an album, as well as a couple of EPs and singles, but their 1994 record Wahooti Fandango was to be the clearest indication of this band's idiosyncratic approach. The part-country, part-punk rock 'Teensville' opened the album and almost served as a warning to the listener that there would be no predicting what would unfold over the ensuing 40 minutes. It's telling that while the album opens with a twang, it ends with the comedically anarchic jazz scatting of frontman Dave McCormack over the loungey piano and trumpet of the title track.
Lashings of punk, indie rock, jazz, pop and country are littered throughout Wahooti Fandango, but the album never loses focus. It's a thrilling and constantly engaging musical journey, not a directionless amble.
Speaking with Richard Kingsmill in 1994, McCormack attributed the album's cohesion to its producers.
"[It was] one of the most enjoyable records we've ever done," he said. "We went with Simon [Holmes] from the Hummingbirds and Wayne [Connolly] from the Welcome Mat, they have a great knowledge and could contribute where we would never think of doing things.
Everyone was throwing in these ideas and whatever idea would get a giggle we'd try and do.Dave McCormack
"Everyone threw in as many ideas as they could and the good ones stayed, hopefully. Everyone was throwing in these ideas and whatever idea would get a giggle we'd try and do. But they sort of controlled it a bit."
While its playful tone was at odds with the earnestness of the scene around that time, Wahooti Fandango stands up as one of the best Australian records from this era.
It didn't sound like Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds' Let Love In, or silverchair's 'Tomorrow' (which dwarfed the success of any other Australian music upon its release), not even Underground Lovers' acclaimed Dream It Down LP. Custard’s unique approach and McCormack's unaffected Australian middle-class vocals and lyrics made this record a strong link in a chain of distinctly Australian indie records.
Britpop was a wee foetus in 1994 and was about to undergo one almighty growth spurt following Blur's breakthrough album, Parklife.
This LP, the third from the London band, was a huge success. The public connected immediately with the infectious first single and opening track , 'Girls & Boys', and the album's title track – both eccentric, jolly and anthemic cuts of indie pop. But with tracks like 'End of a Century' and 'To the End' the band showed their considered and slightly more serious side.
Damon Albarn's subject matter was typically witty, occasionally cutting and overall, very British. The album covered themes including midlife crises ('Tracy Jacks'), the sex-driven holiday culture ('Girls & Boys'), suicide ('Clover Over Dover') and general observations of the greater British public ('Bank Holiday').
Even Blur's arch-enemy Noel Gallagher praised the record in an early NME interview, saying Parklife was "like Southern England personified", before the acrimony between the two big Britpop bands escalated. Albarn himself called the record "a loosely linked concept album involving all these different stories."
Parklife was the biggest Britpop record of 1994, but it wasn't the sole soundtrack.
Oasis burst onto the scene with their debut Definitely Maybe, though their biggest splash was yet to come. Suede's Dog Man Star was a gripping follow-up to their defining eponymous debut. Elastica proved they were a band to watch with their singles 'Line Up' and 'Connection'. His 'n' Hers was Pulp's fourth album but their first to really break though thanks to singles like 'Do You Remember the First Time?' and 'Lipgloss'.
1994 was one of the most important years in music. These five records released in 1994 were so integral to their burgeoning genres, which boomed in the months and years after their release.
Britpop would not have been the same without Parklife, pop-punk may have never found such a wide audience without the perfect balance of anarchy and accessibility that Dookie gave us, and east coast rappers might not have had the same recognition without Illmatic.
Of course, these are merely five albums out of hundreds of excellent releases that were born in 1994. Listen to The J Files to hear a stack of more great music from such an important year.