The 100 Best Alternative Rock Songs of 1994
In 1994, the distinction between "mainstream" and "alternative" evaporated. Green Day and the Offspring brought hook-heavy punk to the Billboard charts, middle-of-the-road acts such as Soul Asylum and Live helped calcify "alt-rock" into a blockbuster radio format, and Nirvana's fate as future classic-rock legends was sealed with Kurt Cobain's death. Beck rebranded "loser" as a badge of honor and Trent Reznor said he wanted to... well, you know. Plenty of songs had a hand in making '94 alternative's biggest year — we've ranked the 100 best. [Ed's note: We limited it to one song per artist.]
Stick with us for the full countdown, and stream every one of the tracks highlighted (minus a small handful) on our Spotify playlist, found on the No. 1 slide.
This is the first installment in SPIN's look back at 1994, a watershed year for alternative culture. Stay tuned for more coverage in the weeks to come.
1. The 100 Best Alternative Rock Songs of 1994
2. W.G. Snuffy Walden, "My So-Called Life Theme"
It's a little over a minute long, but if you've heard it once, you'll never forget the theme song to the quintessential 1994 teen television drama, My So-Called Life. It was the show that launched Jared Leto and Claire Danes into the limelight, but Life's greatest legacy may just be its simple, clear, emotionally charged opening tune. BRENNAN CARLEY
3. Soul Asylum, "Can't Even Tell"
While it pales in comparison to the majesty of "Runaway Train" off of 1992's Grave Dancers Union, "Can't Even Tell" is the kind of song people are talking about when they tell you that Soul Asylum was originally more of a scuzzy bar-rock band (there's a certain kind of person who really enjoys explaining this, for some reason). Released as part of the Clerks soundtrack, the video was directed by Kevin Smith. GARRETT KAMPS
4. Toad the Wet Sprocket, "Something's Always Wrong"
Those dooming yet cooling opening tones. Glen Phillips' sad but soothing voice. Those lyrics about "spaces in between," which could also describe this song's occupation of a sweet-spot bookended by R.E.M. and Hootie (sans dolphins). One imagines that their flannel was softer to the touch than most, but the ennui was as earnest as it was of-the-moment. CHRIS MARTINS
5. Disco Inferno, "It's a Kid's World"
It's hard to call Disco Inferno alternative, because that implies that a mainstream exists in their universe to compare them to — their jams were so off the map in the early-to-mid-'90s that it's best to not even attempt a genre label. Of those non-hits, the most fun was probably "It's a Kid's World," a "Lust for Life"-sampling paean to apocalyptic despair disguised in a zippy production that could be shoehorned into a '90s Nickelodeon theme with minimal effort. ANDREW UNTERBERGER
6. Dishwalla, "It's Going to Take Some Time"
We could have picked any track of the marvelous 1994 Carpenters tribute, If I Were a Carpenter: Cracker's "Rainy Days and Mondays," the Cranberries' "(They Long To Be) Close to You." We chose this one to remind you that the band Dishwalla once existed. Isn't that weird? You're welcome. G.K.
7. Jamiroquai, "Space Cowboy"
Here we have the band that took acid jazz and turned it into jam-band territory. "Space Cowboy" fed off hippy-bro vibes (free jazz filtered through a haze of weed smoke) and gave them a soulful vocal and break-boy edge. With their breakout single, Jamiroquai created '90s lounge music — a place where trip-hop and R&B could coexist in matching tracksuits and beanies. PUJA PATEL
8. Sponge, "Plowed"
That opening note of feedback leading into that clarion call of a guitar riff provided one of '94's most visceral alt-rock radio moments, and "Plowed" lived up to the intro's promise with its supremely angsty singalong chorus ("In a world of human wreckage..."). It was used in a party scene in Empire Records the next year, because of course it was. A.U.
9. Prong, "Snap Your Fingers, Snap Your Neck"
Toiling at the intersection of thrash metal and industrial rock, Prong were onto something, even if they couldn't hold a candle to Nine Inch Nails and Helmet. "Snap Your Fingers, Snap Your Neck" is the kind of song that would soundtrack dystopian leather-bar scenes in B-movie sci-fi for the next decade. It's "scary." G.K.
10. Whale, "Hobo Humpin Slobo Babe"
Of all the interesting things you can say about this tune — its unlikely MTV dominance (for about five minutes), its weird video, the fact that Whale were Swedish — the fact that it's basically Kid Rock's "Bawitdaba" is the most interesting. Seriously, they're practically identical. G.K.
11. Lisa Germano, "Geek the Girl"
The title track to one of the year's most underrated albums, "Geek the Girl" was far too restrained to ever hope to go mainstream in the "Women Who ROCK!" era, but you'll find few songs in '94 more coolly unsettling than this. Germano's repeated insistences of "I'm not too cool" start off sounding assuredly defiant but descend into frightening insecurity as the music gets tenser, and what that half-hearted whistling breakdown at the end is supposed to mean is anybody's guess. A.U.
12. Insane Clown Posse, "Chicken Huntin'"
Oh, you hate Insane Clown Posse? Tell me more. [Condescending Wonka face.] One of the most misunderstood aspects to this horrorcore rap duo is that their identity was not born out of reverse minstrelsy, but rather a violent rejection of the hillbilly racism that members Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope both encountered growing up as dirt-poor Midwesterners. So when the childhood friends banded together as serial-killer clowns, one of their first fantasy calls-to-action was this goofy road-trip song about heading down South and chopping rednecks' necks (a.k.a. chickens). Say whatever you want about this band, but this Juggalo anthem had far more of a social impact than anybody realizes. CAMILLE DODERO
13. Neil Young, "Sleeps With Angels"
Though not generally considered canonical, Neil Young's Sleeps With Angels, his 21st studio album and seventh with Crazy Horse, packs the emotional wallop of On the Beach or Zuma. The album is haunted by Kurt Cobain's suicide, which occurred during its recording, and the title track addresses the event directly: "He sleeps with angels / Too soon." G.K.
14. Archers of Loaf, "Lowest Part is Free"
"Got nothing to say, and you say it anyway," "So full of shit, let's write some hits." That you could never tell if Archers of Loaf were critiquing the alt-rock scene for pumping out assembly-line singles or bemoaning their own inability to do the same (or both!) was one of the biggest reasons they were such an endearing mid-'90s indie act — the searingly discordant riffs and perfectly croaked vocals were probably the others. A.U.
15. The Stone Roses, "Love Spreads"
Some people were responsive to the Stone Roses returning from a near half-decade respite with a six-minute, Hendrix-aping road-tripper with totally unintelligible lyrics ("The Messiah is my sister / Ain't no king man, she's my queen"), others less so. Twenty years later, you can ignore the weight of expectation and disappointment and just groove to John Squire's aces riffage and Ian Brown's whispered cautioning: "I forgive you, boy / But don't leave town." A.U.
16. Luscious Jackson, "Deep Shag"
The Beastie Boys' Grand Royal empire (label, magazine) dissolved in 2001, but for a minute there it was the coolest thing going, thanks in part to signee Luscious Jackson. Focused on grooves and moods, the three Luscious ladies scored a hit with "Naked Eye." "Deep Shag" is from their '94 debut, and exemplifies their dub-funk hybrid. G.K.
17. Bad Religion, "Infected"
If you grew up watching journeymen punk rockers Bad Religion play basement punk shows throughout Southern California in the early '90s, you found it surreal that they'd be embraced by mainstream audiences, which is what happened when "Infected" colonized the airwaves. Suddenly their critique of modern culture was being aired on MTV. What a trip. G.K.
18. Velocity Girl, "Sorry Again"
Along with U.K. label Sarah Records, Oakland-via-D.C. imprint Slumberland released a legion of great indie-pop bands in the early '90s, including Velocity Girl. While it was put out by Sub Pop, "Sorry Again," from '94's Simpatico!, epitomizes the two labels' sound: skipping beat, keening vocals, super-scratchy guitars. Olé! G.K.
19. Rancid, "Salvation"
Rancid is rightfully grouped with bands like Green Day and the Offspring for kicking off the punk revival of the early '90s, but they had slightly more cred, as Tim Armstrong and Matt Freeman were veterans of Operation Ivy, one of the great unsung punk bands. Like most of their stuff, "Salvation" sanded down punk's rough edges in its attempts to channel the Clash. There are worse heights to aspire to. G.K.
20. Echobelly, "Insomniac"
By '94, cocaine usage in the Britpop world had gotten so out of control that it fell to under-appreciated scene newbies Echobelly to caustically parody the phenomena: "Whatever turned you on / You put it up your nose, deee-ahhhrrr..." And as if to prove how manic the whole thing had gotten, the song provides a totally unnecessary (but still enjoyable) Johnny Marr-like guitar coda, a nod to the noodling aimlessness of the eternally sleep-deprived. A.U.
21. Meat Puppets, "Backwater"
Nirvana may have been trying to rip off Pixies with "Smells Like Teen Spirit," but that creaky atonal warble they borrowed from songs like "Plateau"? That came from the Meat Puppets. Of course, the Meat Puppets' one big radio hit, "Backwater," sounds like standard slacker-rock fare, but the rest of their stuff is great and weird and widely influential. G.K.
22. Manic Street Preachers, "Faster"
Underproduced vocals aside, "Faster" is one of those songs that holds up way better than you'd ever imagine possible. It's youthful, angry rock that sizzles with an anthemic chorus and an intensely strong drum track. B.C.
23. Low, "Lullaby"
Fans of Green Day and Stone Temple Pilots were undoubtedly not listening to slowcore stalwarts Low's I Could Live in Hope in 1994, especially not its gorgeous, nearly ten-minute centerpiece, "Lullaby." If they had, they might have been so emotionally devastated and physically drained by the time of its final echoing guitar riff that dying their hair green and waiting around for the X Games to be invented would quickly lose all meaning. A.U.
24. Ash, "Petrol"
They wouldn't really hit their stride as pop-punk wunderkinds until 1996's 1977, but Ash's "Petrol" was a glorious tune-up, a chugging rocker with a riff so sparkling that singer Tim Wheeler sings in hushed tones and doesn't even bother to write a chorus, presumably out of fear for distracting from it. The lyrics are either about political violence in Northern Ireland or a sequel to Maximum Overdrive, it's kind of hard to tell. A.U.
25. L7, "Shirley"
Following the chart domination of slacker anthem "Pretend We're Dead," L7 joined up with the '94 lineup of Lollapalooza and released Hungry for Stink (seriously great album title). Spastic and sludgy, "Shirley" satirizes the novelty of females doing stuff they're not supposed to, such as drag racing or performing in a snot-nosed punk band. G.K.
26. Frente!, "Bizarre Love Triangle"
New Order's "Bizarre Love Triangle" may have been the crown jewel of '80s synth-pop, but with its lush, intricate production and lengthy run time, it was nobody's idea for a song in need of a two-minute acoustic cover with zero rhythmic accompaniment. This cover from Australian folk-poppers Frente! was just so darned lovely in its simplicity, though, that it became one of 1994's most unlikely Hot 100 hits — charting higher in the U.S. than the original ever did, even. A.U.
27. Stereolab, "Ping Pong"
Stereolab were both ahead of and behind their time. Their "refried" analog synth grooves were inspired by '70s sci-fi and the prog-rock of acts like Neu!, but you could stick one onto a 2014 playlist and fool someone into thinking it's the new hot shit. "Ping Pong" is so warm and bubbly you want to take a bath in it. G.K.
28. Sheryl Crow, "Leaving Las Vegas"
Sheryl Crow's Tuesday Night Music Club is better than you remember. "All I Wanna Do" has a goofy Harry Nilsson charm to it, and bits of Hall & Oates' funky R&B crop up throughout. Released as a single in '94, "Leaving Las Vegas" could be a lost Steve Miller song. It's a stony-hangover of a tune. G.K.
29. The Jesus Lizard, "Fly on the Wall"
Lecherous, menacing bass lines creep through the opening track to the Steve Albini-produced Touch and Go release, Down. What is lead garbler David Yow saying, you ask? Sweet Jesus Lizard, you're missing the point. C.D.
30. NOFX, "Linoleum"
NOFX were never able to approximate the crossover success of some of their West Coast pop-punk peers, and "Linoleum" is a pretty good example of why: Despite being the group's biggest (only?) alt-rock radio hit, the song is just two minutes and ten seconds of a stream-of-consciouness rant about being hella broke, one supremely quotable verse without a single hook or chorus. Nobody ever pronounced the word "floor" with two syllables quite like Fat Mike, though, gotta give him that. A.U.
31. Saint Etienne, "Like a Motorway"
Without songs like "Motorway," modern-day albums like Katy Perry's Prism simply couldn't exist. The proof? Note Saint Etienne's subtle use of synthesizers and breathy vocals on this Kraftwerk-light track. One could even say Saint Etienne paved the pop-culture (motor)way. B.C.
32. Jawbreaker, "Boxcar"
"You're not punk, and I'm telling everyone." If there was a better opening line in all of '90s punk rock, it certainly wasn't accompanied with a riff or chorus this catchy. A.U.
33. Bjork, "Big Time Sensuality"
Björk's Debut landed in 1993, but her house-assembled "Big Time Sensuality" frolicked and twirled its way to the top of Billboard's Dance Club Songs chart in February of '94. It takes courage to enjoy the hardcore and the gentle, the Icelandic phenom harmonizes here, and she's right. She just makes bravery feel effortless. KYLE MCGOVERN
34. Rage Against the Machine, "Freedom"
UUUUUUUUAH! Duh-nuh-nuh-naaahh-nah-dah-nah-dah-dah! Floppy disk rejection as political signifier! Music video subtitles! Guitar solo that sounds like a turntable scratch! "The militant poet in once again, check it!" But yo, check it: The crazy thing about vintage Rage is how silly it seems written out, but how viscerally revolutionary it all still sounds. Freedom! C.M.
35. Rollins Band, "Liar"
A song and video custom-made for a classic Beavis and Butt-Head review, "Liar" traded on singer Henry Rollins' uncanny ability to simultaneously be one of rock's most articulate, cuddly, and absolutely fucking terrifying frontmen. He's probably even creepier when he's smiling furtively and promising devotion over mildly portentous coffee-house jazz than when he's painted red and promising soul-arson over demonic sludge-metal, but he's dangerously captivating doing either. A.U.
36. Lush, "Hypocrite"
One of the unfortunately lost U.K. bands of the '90s, caught between the shoegaze and Britpop scenes and never totally belonging to either, Lush still wrote some of the decade's most enduringly lacerating pop-rock songs. Best of all may have been "Hypocrite," a blistering kiss-off whose righteous indignation towards a duplicitous ex turns inward when singer Mikki Berenyi realizes she's guilty of the same offenses, winkingly concluding, "I know you think it's wrong / Well maybe you're right, but this is my song!" A.U.
37. The Jesus and Mary Chain, "Sometimes Always"
A woozy, sensual duet between Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval and the Jesus and Mary Chain frontman Jim Reid, this reconciliatory pas de deux is a lovely, albeit brief, lilt of alt-rock incandescence. Hope she didn't really accept his miserable excuse for an apology, though. "I always knew you'd take me back"? Dude's a dog. C.D.
38. Tricky, "Aftermath"
With all the grunge and jangle-pop on the charts, it's easy to forget that electronic music was beginning to come into its own circa 1994. Released in January of '94 as a precursor to Tricky's seminal Maxinquaye, "Aftermath" was an opium den in song form, a menacing blend of dub and hip-hop that would come to be known as trip-hop. G.K.
39. The Juliana Hatfield Three, "Spin The Bottle"
With Become What You Are, Juliana Hatfield cemented herself as the resident manic pixie dream girl of 1993 alt-pop, making confessional jangle-pop songcraft look easy with tunes like "My Sister" and "Spin the Bottle." The latter, released as a single in '94, was anything but: it was written in 5/4 time, joining a small club of such tunes (e.g. Dave Brubek's "Take Five") to ever receive mainstream radio airplay. G.K.
40. Supergrass, "Caught By the Fuzz"
This song literally sounds like a bad coke jag. Everything's frenzied and blown-out, yet also dazzling and glam. Further, it packs an entire story arc into 150 seconds, as Gaz Coombes sings about getting busted by the cops as a Britpop teen. The band was never weirder or punker, nor so naive as to think a cut that sounded like this would fit as well as it did. C.M.
41. Material Issue, "Goin' Through Your Purse"
In the era of post-grunge and pop-punk, audiences had little time for Material Issue's brand of Squeeze-via-Cheap Trick power-pop, and 1994's Freak City Soundtrack was a bust. But the album was full of gems like "Goin' Through Your Purse," a typically insecure (but totally rocking) confession of snooping where singer Jim Ellison risks his relationship for potential clues into what kind of guy his girlfriend will inevitably leave him for. A.U.
42. Gin Blossoms, "Allison Road"
Though the Gin Blossoms' New Miserable Experience came out in August of 1992, "Allison Road" didn't impact radio until a full two years later. The twangy guitars and warbling verses both speak to the song's nostalgic glance at a love gone by. B.C.
43. Candlebox, "You"
Many songs throughout history have used "You" as their title, but no more than a couple have been as purposeful in their finger-pointing (or as repetitive in their second-person references) as Candlebox's unavoidable radio hit. Of course, what "You" exactly is here is shape-shifting throughout the song — drugs, love, sex, control, grunge, whatever — but that doesn't stop you from screaming at the top of your lungs with each successive chorus: "And I CRY for you as I DIE for you!!..." A.U.
44. The Lemonheads, "Big Gay Heart"
The Lemonheads got way more credit for their cover of "Mrs. Robinson" and Evan Dando's supermodel good looks than their erudite songwriting, proving that some things never change. But these guys were smart. Released as a single in '94, "Big Gay Heart" has echoes of Roy Orbison and Gram Parsons. These guys smuggled classic rock onto the alt airwaves — genius! G.K.
45. Danzig, "Can't Speak"
For those who mostly know Danzig from "Mother" and the Misfits — myself included — "Cantspeak" can be disarming, a pulsating slow-burner, more crooned than shouted, which never achieves full eruption. But the song is ultimately as brutal as any of Danzig's better-known anthems, downright unnerving with its disorienting guitar riff (achieved by playing a different Danzig song backwards), creepy paralytic verse chant, and jarringly abrupt ending. A.U.
46. Cracker, "Get Off This"
In between founding Camper Van Beethoven and policing the Internet, David Lowry fronted Cracker. "Low" was the band's huge hit from '93's Kerosene Hat, and "Get Off This" was released as a single in '94 to follow it up. While the former was driving grunge-pop, the latter was snappy jangle-rock a la Gin Blossoms. It suited the times perfectly. G.K.
47. Superchunk, "Like a Fool"
After ending their romantic relationship in 1993, Superchunk's Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance remarkably managed to keep their band (and record label) intact. Common sense dictates that holding the tethers together was difficult, as does Superchunk's masterful 1994 LP, Foolish, and its first track, "Like a Fool." The song's weary opening sets the mood: The frenetic pacing of the group's '93 full-length, On the Mouth, had morphed into something slower, sadder, and more potent. This is the sound of wide-eyed, early-20s energy and drive succumbing to disappointment, resignation, and, eventually, crow's feet. K.M.
48. Cowboy Junkies, "Sweet Jane"
While "Jane" was originally released in the '80s, it hit its peak in 1994 thanks to the Trent Reznor-curated soundtrack to Natural Born Killers. It provided the perfect, melancholic musical counterpart to Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis' mass-murdering lovers. B.C.
49. Dinosaur Jr., "Feel the Pain"
The success of Nirvana paved the way for zillions of alt-rock bands to find mainstream success, but few were as deserving as Dinosaur Jr., who'd been putting out delectable slabs of scuzzed-up jangle-pop since 1985. Not only was "Feel the Pain" one of their catchiest songs, but its Spike Jonze-directed video depicted frontman J Mascis beating up stock brokers with golf clubs. They don't make 'em like that anymore. G.K.
50. Tori Amos, "God"
Amos' disappointment and rage bounces off the walls with "God," a dissonant sonic mash of noise-pop and folk-rock that comes together thanks to the singer's impassioned vocal delivery. Plus, she writhes around in a bathtub with a live rat in the video, so you know she means business. B.C.
51. Ween, "Freedom of '76"
For Philadelphians, civic pride in popular song is power-ranked as follows:
1. Boyz II Men - "Motownphilly"
2. Bill Conti - "Gonna Fly Now (Theme From Rocky)"
3. Ween - "Freedom of '76"
4. Entire Hall & Oates discography
5. MFSB - "TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)"
Hall & Oates were great, but I don't think any of their songs tell you what Philly department store Mannequin was filmed at. A.U.
52. Lilys, "Ginger"
One of the best '90s bands that nobody ever bothered to put on Spotify, Lilys hopped all over the musical map that decade, but their finest landing spot was within the lush summeriness of "Ginger," a note-perfect pop-rock song with one of alternative's finest Manic Pixie Dream Girl protagonists ("Ginger disappears with the snow / And she comes and goes, but she mostly goes"). A.U.
53. KoRn, "Blind"
Eight seconds of persistently tapped cymbal, four strums of a gashing guitar riff, six notes of foreboding bass bubble, a grunting counter-riff, and singer Jonathan Davis hurling the three-word question with all the vocal ferocity he can muster: "ARRRRREEEEYOUUUUUUREEEEAAADDYYYYYY????" By the time the drums kick in to cap the minute-long intro to "Blind," the damage was done: KoRn had invented (and arguably perfected) what we would soon come to know as nu-metal. A.U.
54. The Breeders, "Saints"
Everybody knows "Cannonball," and rightfully so, but the third single from the Breeders' seminal Last Splash persists as one of the alt-rock icons' very best songs. A nearly perfect ode to summer exuberance and carnival blur, Kim Deal embodied give-no-fucks inclusion, purring, "I like all the different people / I like every kind of fair / In the crowd, you bet I'll be there!" Thankfully, she was. C.D.
55. Jawbox, "Savory"
Hard rock guitar squalls never really got prettier than Jawbox's "Savory," a song about misogyny and the male gaze disguised as a love song, a sort of exercise in alt-rock paradox. At least one disciple was paying attention: Singer Chino Moreno, who with the Deftones would carry similar musical and lyrical contradictions to far greater commercial success, covered "Savory" with the band Far in 1997. A.U.
56. Suede, "The Asphalt World"
It wasn't one of the singles pulled off of Dog Man Star, but "The Asphalt World" is the song that really defines where Suede was at in '94: druggy, pansexual, decadent and squalid. A nine-minute, mini-operatic account of singer Brett Anderson's love triangle with his girlfriend and her female lover, punctuated by guitarist Bernard Butler's Ronson-esque guitar wailing, "Asphalt" was glamorous and repulsive, and so deeply enthralling it's no surprise the U.K. needed Oasis to snap them out of it. A.U.
57. Sugar, "Gee Angel"
The most seamless integration of Bob Mould's Huskers-era merciless guitar attack with his Sugar-era sense of accessibility, with one of his best lyrics to boot. Should've been about 50x bigger a hit than it was, but you could say the same about how many dozens of other songs Mould released in his first decade-and-a-half? A.U.
58. Frank Black, "Headache"
Songs like Frank Black's "Headache" are what kept 120 Minutes in business: unspeakably catchy jangle-pop from an alt-rock icon who lacked the good looks for prime time. Perfect! G.K.
59. Liz Phair, "Supernova"
Few things are more romantic than getting serenaded with the lyrics, "You have got my favorite face." Liz Phair cheekily eschewed subtlety for the cold hard truth, and this song is all the more timeless for it. B.C.
60. The Toadies, "Possum Kingdom"
A song about rape, murder, vampirism or possibly some combination of the three, Toadies' "Possum Kingdom" was one of the most evil fucking one-hit wonders of the '90s, mostly because it had so much damn fun with its villainy, and forced you to do the same. An alt-rock fan can only resist so much whammy bar, you know. A.U.
61. Urge Overkill, "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon"
The original version of "Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon" was recorded in 1967 by Neil Diamond, but Urge Overkill's rendition brought the song back to the charts in 1994 when Quentin Tarantino used the Dutch cover on the soundtrack of his Oscar-winning crime epic, Pulp Fiction. The song plays out as a drunk and high-on-life Mia (Uma Thurman) celebrates herself and the trouble she's about to get into while her husband's henchman, Vincent Vega (John Travolta), tries to talk himself down from doing the same. P.P.
62. Sebadoh, "Magnet's Coil"
The beloved Sebadoh could be almost comically lo-fi at times (it was part of their charm), but '94's Bakesale actually had a bit of polish to it, relatively speaking. "Skull" and "Rebound" could have easily made this list, but "Magnet's Coil" gets the salute for its deceptively catchy chorus. Lou Barlow's slacker drawl is an American treasure. G.K.
63. Counting Crows, "Mr. Jones"
Who was Mr. Jones? Where was this New Amsterdam and what's the name of their sommelier? As the story goes, Adam Duritz was sitting in a bar with a buddy when he wrote this song about how it'd be easier to get laid if he was famous. Then he got famous, and famously laid. Seriously, what were they pouring that night? We looove Spanish dancing and could always stand to be a little more funky. C.M.
64. Edwyn Collins, "A Girl Like You"
Over a decade after scoring a lone hit with his old band Orange Juice's fluke-y one-off "Rip It Up," Edwyn Collins joined the esteemed ranks of the two-time one-hit wonders with his solo smash "A Girl Like You." "Rip" was awesome, but "Girl" even moreso, a mysterious, shadowy, and swinging blue-eyed soul romp with some of the most esoteric lyrics to ever still register as seductive: "You made me acknowledge the devil in me / Hope to God I'm talking metaphorically..." A.U.
65. Sonic Youth, "Bull in the Heather"
The best song about a racehorse ever written. C.D.
66. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, "Red Right Hand"
"He's a god, he's a man, he's a ghost, he's a guru." Cave may as well be singing about himself. Take a cross-section of any musical era of the past three-and-one-half decades and you'll find him there, timeless and twisted, a cracked lounge singer crooning about the evil that men do. No one does mortal sins like Nick, and mortal sins never go out of fashion. C.M.
67. Morrissey, "The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get"
The only Morrissey song to chart on the Hot 100 (and inspire a parody segment on Bill Nye the Science Guy), "The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get" finds the Pope of Mope tempering his singular severity with his singular sense of whimsy. He warns that he'll haunt your mind’s landscape like a bad debt, but does so with intoxicating vocals splayed over curled guitar chords. Heed the man's words and give in. K.M.
68. The Flaming Lips, "She Don't Use Jelly"
Even though the Flaming Lips' Transmissions from the Satellite Heart — and it's biggest single — first came out in June of 1993, "She Don't Use Jelly" didn't find its way onto the radio until it was featured on MTV's Beavis and Butt-Head in 1994. (Later, the band would perform the single at Beverly Hills, 90210's Peach Pit.) While the Oklahoma City weirdos saw the departure of Jonathan Donahue and Nathan Roberts and arrival of current drummer Steven Drozd in the same year, the Lips' '94 will forever be defined by their college-rock sing-along about creepy, sneezy, slimy fluids… and how to clean them up. P.P.
69. Elastica, "Connection"
Elastica provided brilliant counter-programming to the dominant strain of fanciful Brit-rock popularized by Blur and Pulp. Snarling, acerbic, and decidedly feminine, their jams brought no-wave weirdness to the party, as exemplified by the abrasive yet still insanely catchy "Connection," released as a single in 1994. G.K.
70. The Afghan Whigs, "Gentlemen"
The title track from the Whigs' 1993 masterpiece, "Gentlemen" has everything that made this band so great: peripatetic, soul-inflected rhythms, Rick McCollum's screeching guitar licks, and, of course, Greg Dulli's wailing lothario vocals. The song, along with "Debonair," made the album the Whigs' best-selling release. G.K.
71. Elastica, "Connection"
Elastica provided brilliant counter-programming to the dominant strain of fanciful Brit-rock popularized by Blur and Pulp. Snarling, acerbic, and decidedly feminine, their jams brought no-wave weirdness to the party, as exemplified by the abrasive yet still insanely catchy "Connection," released as a single in 1994. G.K.
72. Alice in Chains, "No Excuses"
Alice in Chains' gorgeous acoustic '94 EP, Jar of Flies, was a jarring departure from the grunge-in-so-very-many-ways of 1992's Dirt, but "No Excuses" was a sort of olive branch to fans. A laid-back strummer with typically spine-tingling harmonies, but enough soloing and lyrics about drugs and poisonous relationships to not sound a world away from "Them Bones," "Excuses" remains an essential track from one of the decade's key bands — and remarkably, the group's only Mainstream Rock No. 1 with original singer Layne Staley. A.U.
73. Pulp, "Babies"
In Pulp's England, bespectacled bookish types learn the joys and perils of sexual discovery from firsthand experience, that is, after engaging in a fair bit of voyeurism. The Brits' signature blend of kink, curiosity, and up-in-arms confusion is distilled to a tee on "Babies," a marvelously (and mostly) innocent ode to losing one's innocence. K.M.
74. R.E.M., "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?"
Arguably the most famous non sequitur ever, "Kenneth, what is the frequency" was what two assailants yelled at journalist Dan Rather as they beat the crap out of him on a New York City street. Certainly the high point of R.E.M.'s middling Monster, the crunchy fuzz-bomb was one of the band's last truly memorable singles. G.K.
75. Radiohead, "My Iron Lung"
The Bends is one of the great transitional records of all time, bridging the gap between the wide-eyed Brit-rock of Pablo Honey ("Anyone Can Play Guitar"!) and the sardonic cultural criticism of albums like OK Computer and Kid A. There are also a ton of great tunes on it: "Just," "High and Dry," "Fake Plastic Trees," and "My Iron Lung" among them. The latter gets a nod here for hinting at the dystopian jams these guys would eventually become legendary for — and for being released on an EP in '94. G.K.
76. The Offspring, "Self Esteem"
Thanks largely to the Offspring and Green Day, 1994 was the year suburban punk went mainstream, with "Self Esteem" joining "Longview" to express the restless boredom of a generation. Sales of chain-wallets skyrocketed. We could have picked "Come Out and Play" for this list, but that song is more musical than it is snot-nosed, and Offspring were known primarily for being the latter. G.K.
77. The Cranberries, "Zombie"
This protest song features a music video in which an overly militarized police force takes control of a small town, which is surprisingly reminiscent of newspaper headlines in 2014. It also sports that growly, inescapable earworm of a chorus that is still impossible to ignore 20 years later. B.C.
78. Built to Spill, "Twin Falls"
Here's what "Twin Falls" doesn't have: guitar heroics, a chorus, and a run time exceeding two minutes. Here's what "Twin Falls" does have: simple but insightful lyrics, a view of childhood that's somehow both misty-eyed and clear-eyed, and a bittersweet center. Or, in a word, heart. K.M.
79. Smashing Pumpkins, "Disarm"
The third single from the Smashing Pumpkins' power-alt masterpiece is by far its most operatic. For "Disarm," Billy Corgan and co. peel back the layers of sunbeam-shoegaze that dominate much of 1993's Siamese Dream, instead arranging (s)weepy strings, tubular bells, and timpani — a pocket symphony set to some of Corgan's most evocative lyrical imagery. K.M.
80. Portishead, "Sour Times"
This was Portishead's second single, ever, and it's noirish perfection. Like a remixed memory of a Philip Marlowe moment in a smoky bar — who's the impish man with the black gloves and what's his angle on this sordid affair? — the trip-hop track rattles forth practically begging some MC to rough it up. Instead, it's Beth Gibbons sing-sighing our future lament that the band would be so callous as to dissolve into the night too soon, like a bored lover. C.M.
81. Sunny Day Real Estate, "Seven"
Some say Sunny Day Real Estate's Sub Pop debut, Diary, gave birth to emo. It did more than that. As "Seven" demonstrates, the band introduced Rush-like prog-rock and Floyd-ish textural richness to grunge, with Jeremy Engik's strained vocals providing welcome contrast to the Seattle sound's husky-voiced alpha males. Dave Grohl nicked both Sunny Day's rhythm section and its soaring sound when constructing the Foo Fighters. G.K.
82. Bush, "Glycerine"
He really couldn't have been easier on us. "Glycerine" was the post-grunge power ballad — cello and all — sung by a dreamy British growler with a gym membership and an uncanny Jordan Catalano thing going on. Bush? Yeah, he can get it. Did Gavin Rossdale ever figure out what he was singing about? Did Catalano ever learn to read? Who knows! Who cares! C.M.
83. Guided By Voices, "I Am a Scientist"
Throw a dart at the track list to Bee Thousand and you'll hit a song that deserves to be this high on our list, but the most enduring song on the album has been "I Am a Scientist," mostly for its simple guitar lick, straightforward (by GBV standards) lyrics, and understandable (by GBV standards) themes: the struggle for mental and emotional clarity, the influence of narcissism (and drugs!) on our self-perception, and the simple desire to get meaning out of life. Or not; with Guided By Voices you can never really tell. A.U.
84. Jeff Buckley, "Last Goodbye"
"Hallelujah" gets a lot of the glory, but "Last Goodbye" endures as the late Jeff Buckley's most transcendent work, a dazzling torch song blessed with a spark that refuses to flame out. K.M.
85. Soundgarden, "Fell on Black Days"
Soundgarden may hail from Seattle, and they may delve into the cosmos on their career zenith, 1994's Superunknown, but that album's finest moment, the contemplative "Fell on Black Days," feels best suited for a dusky desert drive, cruising away from a karmically effed past and into an uncertain future lit by the faintest traces of sunrise. K.M.
86. Veruca Salt, "Seether"
Veruca Salt just finished up a round of improbable reunion shows, but it's hard to imagine the band sounding any more raw than they did on this track, which makes feeling tortured feel oh-so-good. Deep down, we're all snarl-toothed seethers. B.C.
87. Blur, "Girls and Boys"
Blur's first big hit took them out of the world of Brit indie-rock and, after getting a remix from Pet Shop Boys, made them a global success. "Girls and Boys" is full of romping, sexual innuendo that lives and breathes in cross-sexual and omnisexual play (alongside pretty much anything else you fancy). Sneering, scoffing comments on work, love, and politics are squeezed through the disco-addled bass lines and grunge-splattered guitars. In the end, this song is a sum of its parts: It has a smart, focused frivolity that makes it one of the best Britpop songs of all time. P.P.
88. Live, "Lightning Crashes"
If you can't play "Lightning Crashes" on the guitar, then it's because you've never picked up a guitar: It's that simple. But simple is often best. Three chords, a flange pedal, and quasi-mystical lyrics about life and death: It was the formula for one of the biggest grunge-pop tunes of the era. G.K.
89. Mazzy Star, "Fade Into You"
All that dream-pop that's been working its way through the ether for the past few years? Mazzy Star did it first, and better, in '94, with Hope Sandoval's wilting vocals doing much more heavy lifting than meets the eye. B.C.
90. Stone Temple Pilots, "Interstate Love Song"
STP weren't as sludgy as Mudhoney, as unhinged as Pearl Jam, or as dangerous as Alice in Chains, but they're arguably the best songsmiths of the bunch, as evidenced by "Interstate Love Song," which dominated alt-radio despite not even having a real chorus. That takes chops. G.K.
91. Pearl Jam, "Better Man"
Pearl Jam's Vitalogy remains the most fascinating listen in the band's bulky catalog because of its intentional inconsistency — it's a studio album built to resemble a misshapen and vexing odds-and-ends collection; but "Better Man" stands as the record's highlight because it's the finest out-and-out song in the set. For a mad-eyed, accordion-crumpling aside that's meant to freak you out, dig up "Bugs." For a top-notch ballad that either lifts or dashes your hopes depending upon how closely you listen, look no further than "Better Man." K.M.
92. Lisa Loeb, "Stay (I Missed You)"
Twenty years ago this month, this preciously evocative lead single from the Reality Bites soundtrack became a Billboard number one. As far as 1994 anthems go, this love song is a consummate specimen of the era: a MTV-looping video with one-continuous shot directed by Ethan Hawke; a lyrical narrative of Gen X-relationship angst; those proto-hipster glasses. C.D.
93. Beastie Boys, "Sabotage"
Separate, if you can, this track from its video, which was one of the best ever made. (That it lost in five of five VMA categories only speaks to MTV's chronic short-sightedness. Also, they gave it a belated Moonman in 2009.) Unmeet "The Rookie," "The Chief," and Cochese, and forget about that guy they threw from a bridge. Here's what you're left with: Ad-Rock shredding guitar, Mike D pounding his kit, and MCA's grimy bass pushing the whole screaming masterpiece into near-constant overdrive.
It's the three Beasties in their original formation, hollering about crystal balls and Watergate ish and clueing us into their compact drama without ever actually telling us what they're so fired up about. It's like they predicted the arrival of Linkin Park (who'd cover "Sabotage" regularly as part of their 2012 live set) and issued an early "fuck you" to the clownish, bro-powered rap-rock explosion to come. (Did Elvis Costello barge in on Limp Bizkit's "Nookie" when he made his return to SNL in 1999? Nope.) Better still, "Sabotage" sits nestled in the guts of Ill Communication, one of the Boys' most vibrant and diverse albums, which came complete with lush jazz-funk zone-outs, weird-rap cyphers, hardcore punk wilding, Mantan Moreland jokes about penises and potatoes, and an honest-to-God "Bodhisattva Vow." C.M.
94. Oasis, "Live Forever"
"Live Forever" was and is many things. It was the first Oasis track to crack into the U.K.'s top ten singles chart and, by extension, the first song to establish the blue-collar Manchester outfit as a force to be reckoned with. It was a refutation of the self-loathing — both genuine and fashionable — that dominated American alt-rock in '94. It was a refreshing bit of escapism and childhood wish fulfillment following the death of Kurt Cobain.
It still is, to this very moment, powerful enough to almost warrant the cocksure, chest-beating bravado that Noel and Liam Gallagher rubbed in everyone's faces throughout the mid-'90s. (Almost.) But, most importantly, it's an anthem in the truest, most sublime sense of the word. Maybe I don't really want to know how your garden grows, or even know what that actually means. But it doesn't matter — this one is going to live forever. K.M.
95. Pavement, "Gold Soundz"
A large and loud faction of '90s nostalgists may call bullshit on this selection and argue that Pavement's "Cut Your Hair" is more of a quintessential '94 (near-)hit — and they might be right. But consider a few other factors first:
1. Somewhere in the last 20 years, "Gold Soundz" became, at the very least, a worthy challenger for the title of "go-to Pavement song."
2. Like the best tracks on this list, "Soundz" feels tied to its release year, but also independent of it, something that the preoccupied-with-selling-out "Cut Your Hair" doesn't quite manage.
3. With its dreamy-but-shaggy pedigree, superb instrumental break, and swift run time, "Gold Soundz" is actually more fun to listen to than "Cut Your Hair."
4. And while "Cut Your Hair" made it appear as though Pavement could maybe achieve some modicum of commercial success, "Gold Soundz" stalled the indie-rock kings' progress but eventually rose in esteem. What speaks better to Pavement's larger narrative (or, dare I say, career arc) than that? K.M.
96. Nirvana, "All Apologies" (Unplugged)
As swan songs go, "All Apologies" is about as pained, tender, tragic, and beautiful as they come. The studio version — the final track on what sadly became the final proper Nirvana album — carries its own emotional and historical heft. But the MTV Unplugged variant — which was recorded and aired on television in 1993 but given an official live-album release in November '94, roughly seven months after Kurt Cobain's suicide — lingers as the definitive rendition. Its power lies in those chilling cello lines; the candle-lit intimacy that can be felt even without watching the iconic performance footage; and that final mantra, gently sung by Cobain and Dave Grohl: "All in all is all we are," an epitaph equal parts puzzling, comforting, and devastating. K.M.
97. Hole, "Miss World"
For just a moment, let us forget the last 20 rhinoplastied years of defamation suits, conspiracy theories, and the crazy-talk hurricane. Let's even forget the Oxycontin overdose and personal fuck list that's probably longer than the Dead Sea Scrolls. Let's instead focus on the sheer brilliance of this feminine-riot alt-rock rager, a furiously glorious testament to damage, solipsism, and theoretical reciprocity that's genius is often eclipsed by the fact that the cantankerous singer's husband's death was the 9/11 of the modern-rock era. But let the record show: "Miss World" is not only one of 1994's best songs, it might just be one of the best rock songs ever written. C.D.
98. Weezer, "Undone - The Sweater Song"
From that unsure opening drum sputter, to the laconic riff that follows, to the all-American axe solo butting in halfway through, all the way to the sickly-sweet ooh-ooh-oohs that bring this angsty marvel to a close, "Undone" is perfectly askew. It's as if someone made an excellent alt-pop radio hit, and then whacked it on the shoulder with a Flying V. Spike Jonze must have sensed this when he had Weezer play the song sped-up so he could slow the film down for the final video, in which Rivers Cuomo and co. simultaneously seem to float on their unlikely effervescence and drag like little boys forced to go somewhere fraught with mundanity and real-life concerns (like the mall, or a career making music).
And lest we forget, this was our actual introduction to this band — their first single and an incredible power-play as interest in grunge faded into a return to hooks. Plus, as far as metaphors go, the sweater thing is as tangible as they come, illustrating the very '90s concern of gradually losing every last stitch of your big fluffy world-buffer because the people out there are greed-heads and psychic vampires who want nothing more than to see you naked, lying on the floor, wearing a Superman onesie because in you're heart you're still that kid hiding in the clothes racks while your mom shops the Macy's unmentionables section. The nerds never get their revenge, but they (we) got a motherfucking anthem. C.M.
99. Green Day, "Longview"
"Longview" was like the bizarro "Smells Like Teen Spirit": sarcastic instead of solemn, literal instead of abstract, goofy instead of desperate. And like Nirvana's tune, it started its own revolution, albeit a much more lighthearted one: the punk rock revival that expressed the angst of millions of bored suburban kids. Most improbably, Green Day eventually made it all the way to Broadway with their American Idiot musical, but their snot-nosed characterization of disaffected youth coalesced on this breakout track. G.K.
100. Beck, "Loser"
It was an era for self-deprecation and also for white dudes rapping oddly. That could have made 1994 the worst of times, but Beck brought irreverence and glee to the proceedings (which were eventually paid tribute on Glee). He came out swinging — slashing at plastic-eyed junkies, even — over a junkyard pile of sitar, slide-guitar, and sampled drums. He swore that those lyrics about butane veins and cheese whiz were just scratch vocals to accompany a sick beat, and that the "Loser" line was actually born of his frustration at being an inadequate MC. But whether he cops to it or not, Mr. Hansen's career was predicated on the exact moment when he became Slacker Bob Dylan (Slob Dylan?) — a comparison that not only fit at the time thanks to his freewheeling word-stacking and N.Y. busking blues, but which seemed even more apt as the years went on and Beck's music became as mercurial as his character did elusive.
He's said he didn't care for the song much at the time, but the fact that he revisited the characters from the "Loser" video in this year's "Heart Is a Drum" clip is, well, heartening. And, really, anyone who makes an album that has the glorious nerve to sample the Melvins, Care Bears, and Billy Squier — as Mellow Gold does — should count his lucky Lone Star beer cans that he became an icon of anything. And so should we, since this loser's oeuvre has been making music stranger and more poignant ever since. C.M.
101. Nine Inch Nails, "Closer"
Twenty years after it was recorded for 1994's The Downward Spiral in the house of the Sharon Tate murders, "Closer" remains the most outré jam that Tommy Lee has ever had sex on a swing to. The direct vulgarity of the chorus ("I wanna fuck you like an animal") helped the song cross over in the most mid-'90s of ways, but today what remains fascinating and shocking about "Closer" is the depth of the production — every 808 tick, bass squelch, synth echo, and feedback growl — and how it still congeals into a beat so darkly, ecstatically funky that it must've made the guys in Depeche Mode slam their heads against the wall. With his demanding studio obsessiveness and howling personal demons, Trent Reznor was basically the Brian Wilson of the alt-rock '90s, and "Closer" was his perverted, self-loathing "God Only Knows."
Compared to a slacker anthem like "Loser" or "Longview," "Closer" may not seem like a definitive 1994 song at first blush, but that's only because it's so transcendent as a pop song that it could have been released at just about any time between now and then and been just as brutally effective. Ten years from now, some unprepared kid will accidentally stumble across the video for "Closer" and be so terrified that they won't be able to sleep at night, but they'll still end up streaming The Downward Spiral for the first time the next day. A.U.