There has been a lot of “twenty years since…” features this year on “classic” albums. But then, the more I think about it, 1994 really was quite an awesome year for what we call alternative music in its various forms. I was sixteen that summer, and the torrent of new music covered all kinds of bases, pushed forward genres into new realms, resulted in some strikingly unusual and unique releases. Notably I still listen to many of the albums regularly today, even while I try and keep up with new music too. So, in a slightly self-indulgent post, here are ten albums from that time that still mean something to me today. It could actually have been twenty or thirty albums that I featured, and I may return to this in one form or another later in the year to cover those that I couldn’t fit in here (and at least two suggested featured in my perfect album series recently).
Interestingly, by the way, six of the albums on this list have been, or are due to be, re-issued at some point – well, seven if you include that one was fully covered by a live album too – the others never were, and I’d be surprised if they were either.
Many artists have tried to follow the path Jeff Buckley did subsequently, but in reality no-one has come close. A man blessed and cursed with a heavenly voice, extraordinary vocal range and a musically curious nature that took him down any damned direction he wanted to take, while constantly having to fend off comparisons to his father (the folk legend Tim Buckley, who curiously died at a similar age to his son), and in hindsight it seems amazing that many labels saw Jeff Buckley’s early material to be a hard sell. Somehow, Grace manages to balance rock, soft soulful balladry, classical choral work and a still-extraordinary Leonard Cohen cover (that retains it’s brilliance even after just about everyone else has tried their hand at it too) within ten songs, with not a single weak moment. That he never survived to complete a follow-up perhaps only strengthens the legend around the album, but really, could he ever have bettered this? (This entry was partially inspired by this NME post and a brilliant recent BBC radio documentary that covered Buckley’s first visit to London, that is well worth a listen while it is still online).
The Holy Bible
Death also stalks and haunts this album. I’m fairly sure that I don’t need to expand upon the history of this album – their last with Richey Edwards, who disappeared after the release and was only officially recorded as deceased in late 2008 – but it isn’t just that bleak story that tinges this album – the subject matter is one of disgust and fury, at politics and politicians, at murderers, at the self, at the world in general. That this album doesn’t collapse under the weight of its own anger is a miracle in itself. Instead, the emotions involved in making the album simply make it a scorching, thrilling ride that the band never even came close to matching – and as the major feature in the NME noted, the impact of this album on those listeners was far wider than in just musical terms. The sheer density of literary, political and social references in the lyrics was enough to provide reading material for months…
The re-issue/remaster/vastly expanded version – including the US mix, which sheds a whole new light on the album, in my opinion, and is worth buying the deluxe edition for alone – was actually ten years ago, for this anniversary the debate is over whether they tour doing the whole album or not. My fiancÃ©e and others are literally shouting “SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY” every time there is any hint, as there has been again in the past few days…
Prong’s best album straddles two genres, really, and seems to appeal even now to both sides. Yes, Beg to Differ and Prove You Wrong put the band on the map, but the band never sounded as good as on this album. Everything is streamlined, honed to a shiny metallic sheen. Paul Raven’s bass work underpins it, with John Bechdel’s subtle synths bubbling to the surface here and there, but more than anything it is Ted Parsons’ near-mechanical drumming that combined with Terry Date’s industrial-style production makes this sound like nothing else. This album grooves like a motherfucker, with a number of the more uptempo tracks happily filling an industrial dancefloor just as much as a metal moshpit (Whose Fist Is This Anyway and Snap Your Fingers, Snap Your Neck of course being the obvious ones to pick). The album was a very different take on industrial metal to everyone else, the band realising that the guitars didn’t have to be buried in electronics – it was a case of using them sparingly for maximum effect. The ecstatic reaction of the crowd at Bloodstock when they rolled out those latter two monstrous tracks to close their set suggests that this album endures for many metalheads, including me. Also worth reading.
One of my favourite electronic albums of all – and the beginning of a period in the nineties where Underworld were untouchable. Yes, Born Slippy made them stars a few years later – although the intricacies of Second Toughest In The Infants was perhaps a tough sell to those drawn in by Born Slippy and the Trainspotting soundtrack, and Beaucoup Fish had its fair share of stellar moments too – but this album blows them all away and is far more interesting on every level. This is techno, Jim, but not as we know it. There are guitars, ambient passages, stream-of-conciousness vocals, funky breaks and skyscraping epics. There is my favourite electronic track ever (the never-want-it-to-end peaks of Cowgirl, although sister track Rez remained on the single releases only until later compilations), the downbeat Dark & Long, the soul-infused, heart-wrenching Dirty Epic, and then the towering, modernist hymn Mmm…skyscraper I love you, only of the only tracks I’ve ever been able to think of that glorifies the built environment of the modern city in musical form in such a perfect way.
After years of only looking forward, I have to say I was surprised to find the band agreeing to do a retrospective show covering the album this autumn. Despite the apparent immense demand – it seemed to sell-out purely on pre-sales – no other shows were added, and nor does it look likely that they will. Still, the re-master of the album should be interesting, although quite what else they can do with such an elegantly produced album in the first place will be interesting to see.
The other, forward-looking electronic act of 1994 in my eyes were the now somewhat-forgotten FSOL. I say forgotten in the way that they aren’t really recognised by many as the pioneers that they were, unlike, say Underworld. Very much ambient-based, but by no-means exclusively, after their early success with massive dance hits like Papua New Guinea, here they went in a curiously futuristic pastoral direction, somehow managing to invoke the sounds of nature in electronic, mechanical forms, aided by extraordinary manipulation of the contributions of guest musicians (particularly those of Elizabeth Fraser and Toni Halliday) – and the result is a beautiful, enthralling ninety-three minutes. The album is made all the more pretty when compared to the dark, clanking urban decay that the follow-up Dead Cities invoked…
I would have used the term “otherworldly” for FSOL, but frankly Portishead’s debut is the one album from 1994 that personifies it. Despite being lumped in with the “trip-hop” scene from their native Bristol region, aside from using a few similar samples and a leisurely pace, Portishead’s sound was out of time, never mind light years from their peers. The sound was one of sixties film soundtracks, the darker, murkier corners of human nature and relationships, oh-so-slow hip-hop-esque beats, and a frontwoman in Beth Gibbons who wracked vocals suggested she wanted to be anywhere but other than with a microphone in front of her. The genius, of course, is in how it all came together, how it all seemed so effortless, and how despite the darkness inherent in almost every single song, it struck a chord with so many. The re-issue, due in the autumn, is simply a release on vinyl. There is no need to mess with perfection.
How to Make Friends and Influence People
Fuck Tequila, Bradford rockers Terrorvision hit their creative high-point with the joyous How to Make Friends and Influence People, a feel-good rock album that was just as keen to be a pop-crossover and didn’t give a fuck about fashions of the time. Needless to say, the irrestistable pop-hooks of the likes of Oblivion (the doo-wop(!)-influenced lead single), Discotheque Wreck, Pretend Best Friend, Middleman – and that was just the singles! – made them even Top of the Pops regulars for the following few years, having crash-landed in the mainstream despite remaining broadly true to what they did. Never especially fashionable, but who cares? This remains a fantastic album, and after hearing Alice… and Oblivion again for the first time in a while writing this, I’m going to be humming them for days…
A band that were dismissed by many – and in some cases still are – as Nine Inch Nails knock-offs, Stabbing Westward started very strongly indeed with a pitch-dark debut that balanced the guitars, electronics and brooding atmospheres well. Yeah, so later on they lightened up and lost their impact (just avoid their self-titled final album, although the two inbetween aren’t too bad), but this album retains a hell of a punch. In particular, vocalist Christopher Hall avoids sounding like the annoying, whiny ex-partner despite endless tales of relationship-based betrayal and woe – and indeed the flashes of fury at points suggest these were very, very real emotions he was revealing – while the rhythmic base is provided by bass and drums pushed to the front of the mix, with the guitars deep down, fighting it out with the synths to provide a combustible mix that erupts like a volcano when needed. The title track is a perfect example, the moody, nearly-too-quiet intro and verses absolutely blasted away by the scorched-earth riffage that supports the chorus (and the riff was later used to devastating effect in Filter’s breakthrough Hey Man, Nice Shot, too, as guitarist Stuart Zechman worked with both bands around the time). Stabbing Westward never came near the emotional impact of this album, but as this recent (and fascinating) interview with Stuart Zechman explained, it is probably best for the mental health of all concerned that they didn’t.
Also a stressful album for all concerned – and one that resulted in the end of the band (at least until they reformed later on) was the Poppies’ darkest album by far. They’d gradually been drifting from their light-hearted origins anyway, with an increasing electronic and industrial influence, but even after the industrial-metal of Urban Futuristic on The Looks or the Lifestyle, the grinding darkness of Dos Dedos was still a bit of a shock (especially as the single R.S.V.P. / Familius Horribilus released the year before – both tracks made it onto the album – were perhaps the least heavy tracks on it). Their move to this sound, though, suited them well – a number of their most enduring, not to mention best live tracks, come from this album for sure – and also provided them with a minor breakthrough in the US, too, with them working with Trent Reznor’s label (and touring with NIN, too, as I recall). An intriguing “what might have been” arrived last year, too, with the re-issue of this album backed with the incomplete tracks for what would have been the follow-up – and they were even darker and heavier than this.
Stanford Prison Experiment
Absolutely the least known of the bands on this list, this LA band were contemporaries of Rage Against The Machine and Quicksand, but their taut, political hardcore never got the respect and sales that their peers did, and the band were over by the turn of the millenium, and a more recent interview confirmed that vocalist Mario Jiminez has moved far away from the music industry. This album was their debut, too, but Super Monkey blew me away on MTV Europe and I snapped up the album – follow-up The Gato Hunch was a better, more-rounded album too. They eventually ended up signed to Island, although third album Wreckreation never gained much traction (certainly it never had a UK release) and the band disbanded soon after. So no reunion ever likely here, but maybe sometimes things are better left in the past. That doesn’t mean I won’t continue to listen, though.
That is the lesson from this, though. I and many of my friends don’t get stuck in the past musically. We look forward and backward, often with a critical eye, sometimes with an emotionally-charged mind. Music is about memories, emotions, a buzz. That the albums listed here still give me that buzz, or remind me of good (and bad) times, is surely a sign that they endure for a good reason.