The 1990s was a decade filled with incredible rock music. It was the decade that saw the birth of Grunge and Britpop and brought punk music into the popular music mainstream. The decade exploded in 1991 with the release of instant classic albums such as Nirvana’s Nevermind, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Metallica’s self-titled black album, and the debut albums of Pearl Jam and Temple of the Dog.
By 1994, the world had been introduced to a new landscape of popular rock music. The first half of the decade was about to peak with an incredible year of iconic releases that stands as one of the most legendary years in rock history. Here are the 11 iconic rock albums that were released in 1994 in chronological order. You can also check out some of our favourite indie releases from this historic year in music here.
JAR OF FLIES – ALICE IN CHAINS
Jar of Flies came pouring out of Alice in Chains in 1993. After the extensive touring of their 1992 album Dirt, the band returned to Seattle to find that they had been evicted for not paying their rent. Homeless, they moved into the London Bridge Studio where over the course of one week they wrote and recorded what would become Jar of Flies. The lyrics “No one to cry to / No place to call home” from “Nutshell” capture the mood that permeated the studio. The mostly acoustic tracks born out of their depression and loneliness were never intended to become a record but the collection of seven songs eventually made its way to the label who insisted on releasing it.
Jar of Flies contributed to the pattern of heavy rock LPs followed by acoustic EPs that Alice in Chains had begun with 1990’s Facelift, 1992’s EP Sap, 1992’s Dirt and then 1994’s Jar of Flies EP. While Dirt had already launched Alice in Chains into the orbit of successful grunge bands with the hits “Rooster”, “Angry Chair” and “Down In a Hole”, Jar of Flies brought them to an entire new level when they made music history as the first EP to ever debut at #1 on the Billboard 200 chart. Jar of Flies was also the first Alice in Chains album to top the charts and was home to their first #1 single, “No Excuses”. The fact that this stripped down EP remains one of the best-selling albums in their catalogue showcases the diverse talent of grunge band Alice In Chains.
DOOKIE – GREEN DAY
Dookie was Green Day’s first album to be released on a major label and it catapulted them onto radio stations and teen stereos everywhere. The album was packed with angsty punk-pop hits like “Welcome to Paradise”,” Longview”, “When I Come Around” and “Basket Case” that helped usher punk into mainstream music. Dookie‘s polished sound and widespread success paved the way for the explosion of pop-punk bands of the late ’90s and early 2000s like Blink 182, Sum 41, New Found Glory, Eve 6, Avril Lavigne, and Good Charlotte.
When reflecting on the album’s 20th anniversary for Rolling Stone, lead singer, guitarist and songwriter Billie Joe Armstrong said, “For me, it was important to have an opinion – and to be an individual. There was a lot of whining in rock at that time. By nature, we’re extroverts. So that’s what came across in our songs.” Dookie won the Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album, hit #2 on the Billboard 200 chart and has been certified Diamond making it Green Day’s best-selling album to date.
SUPERUNKNOWN – SOUNDGARDEN
Soundgarden’s fourth record, Superunknown, was the Seattle band’s breakthrough album debuting at #1 on the Billboard 200 chart and becoming one of the pivotal albums of mainstream hard rock. Superunknown was a culmination of gradual musical changes that Soundgarden had evolved into resulting in an album that was less noise and metal than their earlier works. Inspired by Sylvia Plath during the writing of the album, Chris Cornell’s lyrics dwell in the dark corners of seclusion, substance abuse, suicide, depression, fear and death while his epic multi-octave vocals range from moody baritone rasps to an insane tenor rock wail over unusual time signatures and tunings.
Packed with Soundgarden’s biggest hits, “Black Hole Sun”, “Spoonman”, “Fell On Black Days” and “The Day I Tried To Live”, Superunknown brought Soundgarden the fame they had been attempting to achieve in Seattle for years. The album won two Grammys including Best Hard Rock Performance for “Black Hole Sun” and Best Metal Performance for “Spoonman”.
THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL – NINE INCH NAILS
The Downward Spiral, a concept album about the deconstruction of a man from the beginning of his downward spiral to his suicide, is the second album by Nine Inch Nails and their highest-selling album to date. The Downward Spiral was the creation of Trent Reznor who wrote and composed every song on the album. Reznor conceived the idea for the album after the 1991 Lollapalooza tour and was in a dark emotional place when the album unfolded. After moving into the L.A. home where Sharon Tate was brutally murdered by the Manson Family in the ’70s, Reznor began recording the album in a studio within the house that he named “Le Pig” after the words that were written in Tate’s blood on the front door by her murderers. Dark lyrical themes of self-destruction, depression, and control dominate the record and are portrayed in Reznor’s vocals that range from whispers to screams throughout the album.
Influenced by late ’70s rock albums Low by David Bowie and The Wall by Pink Floyd, Reznor used the elements of space, experimental sound, and texture to mirror the unravelling of the album’s semi-autobiographical character. Debuting at #2 behind Soundgarden’s Superunknown, The Downward Spiral was a major commercial success and has been regarded as one of the most innovative albums of the ’90s. Home to the NIN classics “Hurt” and “Closer”, the controversial music video for which has been inducted into the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, The Downward Spiral remains the band’s most iconic album. With innovative production and the influences of techno and heavy metal leading the way, Reznor created an album that brought industrial rock into the mainstream, paving the way for bands like The Prodigy, Korn, and Linkin Park.
SMASH – THE OFFSPRING
The Offspring’s third album Smash made music history when it became the best-selling album ever released on an independent label selling over 11 million copies worldwide. Released two months after the success of Green Day’s Dookie, Smash helped bring punk rock into the mainstream music world. Although their catchy riffs and infectious lyrics created an album with a young, fun sound, the lyrical content dealt with heavier themes such as the realities of gang culture in East L.A., gun violence and abusive relationships.
The commercial success of their singles “Come Out and Play”, “Self Esteem” and “Gotta Get Away” led to major record labels hunting down punk rock bands to sign. Smash helped define what would become known as the pop punk sound that would dominate rock radio in the early 2000s.
LIVE THROUGH THIS – HOLE
Hole’s second album, Live Through This, boasts the band’s highest-charting singles to date and revolutionized female stereotypes in the music industry. While their debut album, Pretty On The Inside, had been critically acclaimed, Hole was still relatively unknown in the mainstream music world prior to 1994. It was Courtney Love’s marriage to Nirvana’s lead singer Kurt Cobain that thrust Love into international fame. Live Through This was Love’s first chance to prove herself as an artist to the mass public – and she knew it. Intent on writing an album that would stand its ground against Nirvana and The Smashing Pumpkins’ masterpieces Nevermind and Siamese Dream, Hole’s sophomore album was deliberately more structured and melodic than their noise rock debut. Receiving wide critical acclaim and commercial success, Live Through This proved that the grunge era wasn’t just a boys club.
Whether in moments of enticing singing or hostile screaming, Love’s emotive vocals are the focal point of the album as she unveils her most private struggles. Autobiographical lyrics involving her body image issues, postpartum depression, insecurities, the tumultuous custody battle she and Cobain fought over daughter Frances Bean along with the onslaught of abusive press she received in the process fill the album with angst, fear and anger. These lyrics find homes in heavy-hitting punk rock songs like “Violet”, “She Walks On Me” and “Plump” as well as songs with softer edges like “Doll Parts” and “Miss World”. The album was released one week after Cobain committed suicide and only two months later, Hole’s bassist Kristen Pfaff died from a heroin overdose. Live Through This propelled Courtney Love to music icon status and became a testament of a woman unapologetically fighting for her own credibility in the male-dominated rock realm. She challenged frontwoman stereotypes by countering sheer dresses, red lipstick, and flowers in her hair with her fierce crowd surfing, defiant screaming and unpredictable punk rock presence. Love redefined what women in rock music could look like by being both feminine and combative, vulnerable and aggressive. Female rockers like today’s Bully, Wolf Alice, and Courtney Barnett have her to thank for booting that down door.
WEEZER (THE BLUE ALBUM) – WEEZER
Weezer’s self-titled debut album, largely known as The Blue Album, was a blissful fusion of punk rock and pop. Bright guitar tones and falsetto harmonies shape an album filled with fun energy that stood out against the bleak grunge-dominated music realm of the early ’90s. A young Spike Jones directed both music videos for Weezer’s first two singles: “Undone – The Sweater Song” and “Buddy Holly” which portray a goofy, geeky band who don’t take themselves too seriously.
The album was mostly written by lead singer Rivers Cuomo and is highly autobiographical. Heavy themes such as jealousy, divorce, addiction, broken families and failed relationships are masked by the album’s upbeat tempos, pop vocals and singalong melodies. The Blue Album has been said to have paved the way for the early 2000s Emo invasion of bands like Taking Back Sunday, Something Corporate, and Dashboard Confessional. Weezer’s debut is a timeless album filled with pop-rock anthems that sound as fresh today as they did in ’94.
PURPLE – STONE TEMPLE PILOTS
Purple, the second album from Stone Temple Pilots, proved that they were more than just another grunge rock band of the early ’90s. Despite receiving some harsh criticism, Purple debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 chart and sold over 6 million copies. A diverse album, the “12 Gracious Melodies” range from hard rock, grunge and psych rock to songs with blues and country influences.
View it as a scattered mess or a bold statement of eclectic musical ability – either way, Purple is the home of some of the highest-charting singles that Stone Temple Pilots ever released. Legacy tracks “Big Empty”, “Interstate Love Song” and “Vasoline” solidified Stone Temple Pilots as one of the biggest rock bands of the ’90s.
DEFINITELY, MAYBE – OASIS
Oasis’s debut album, Definitely, Maybe was a massive commercial and critical success debuting at #1 on the British charts and setting the record for the fastest-selling debut album of all time in the UK. Much of the album was written by Noel Gallagher in 1991 while he was working for a building company signing company equipment in and out of the store room after he was injured by a heavy gas valve. Amidst the height of grunge, Noel rejected the trend of self-loathing lyrics and instead wrote about the lighter side of life with enough snotty sneers, moody electric guitar and drum racket to capture the adoration of the grunge-crazed youth. His songwriting and optimistic lyrical themes were praised by critics who welcomed the shift away from the prominent grunge gloom.
Recording the album was a hellish process. Oasis recorded their entire record twice and hated the results both times. Finally, producer/engineer Owen Morris got his hands on the album, stripped away the several layers of guitar that Noel had piled onto it, and mixed the album with a technique that Morris called “brick-walling” in which the volume during mixing is set at the very limit of what a CD can produce without distortion. This technique resulted in Oasis’s album sounding louder than other records at the time. Along with Blur’s 1994 album, Parklife, Definitely, Maybe sparked the wave of Britpop that would hit America in the mid ’90s with bands like The Verve, Supergrass, and Pulp. While Blur may have been there first, Oasis’s combination of both commercial and critical success was unrivaled in 1994. Tracks like “Live Forever”, “Supersonic”, and “Shakermaker” secured Definitely, Maybe’s role as the seminal album of the Britpop scene.
MTV UNPLUGGED IN NEW YORK – NIRVANA
Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York is considered to be one of the greatest live albums of all time. The first Nirvana album to be released after Cobain’s death, it debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 chart. Recorded only five months before Kurt Cobain’s suicide, Unplugged captured a rare intimate performance by Nirvana. Surrounded by lilies, black candles and chandeliers, the stage was decorated to Cobain’s specifications. When describing the setting, he told producer Alex Coletti that he wanted it to look “exactly like a funeral.” He had been apprehensive about performing an acoustic show and after two days of frustrating rehearsals – drummer Dave Grohl was almost omitted from the performance until his drum sticks were replaced by wire brushes and sizzle sticks – he showed up nervous, irritable, and suffering from drug withdrawal. Despite being an acoustic performance, Cobain insisted on feeding his acoustic guitar into effect pedals and an amplifier that was hidden inside a fake monitor wedge. Ignoring MTV’s expectation of performing their hits, they instead played an eclectic set of B sides and covers with the exception of “Come As You Are”.
The most moving moment of the album comes in the very last line of the last song. Cobain’s gut-wrenching rendition of the Lead Belly arranged traditional, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” is said to be the greatest ever live performance of a single song. In the last line of the song, Cobain’s vocals jump up an entire octave as his voice breaks over the word “shiver.” Afterwards, Cobain refused to do an encore because he didn’t think he could top the performance. Unlike other shows in the series, Nirvana filmed the entirety of the performance in one single take. The album earned the highest first week sales of Nirvana’s career and won a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Performance.
VITALOGY – PEARL JAM
By the time their third album Vitalogy was released, Pearl Jam had been through a whirlwind of success and public exposure. The massive acclaim of their debut album Ten followed by Vs. being released a year later pushed the band into spotlights all over the world. Struggling with pressures from the media as well as internal tensions within the band, the creation of Vitalogy documents a pivotal point in Pearl Jam’s career. During the recording process, lead singer Eddie Vedder began asserting more control over the band while guitarist Mike McCready went into rehab and drummer Dave Abbruzzese was fired and replaced by original Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Jack Irons. Mostly written and recorded while on tour for Vs., the album has a sense of confrontation and urgency in its sound. Many of the songs were created during soundchecks or 20 minute jam sessions.
Themes of loss of privacy and pressures from fame fill the album. Vitalogy is considered to be their first experimental album and contains unexpected instrumentation such as an accordion that Vedder found at a vintage shop and real recordings of psychiatric hospital patients. First released on vinyl, Vitalogy held the record since the beginning of SoundScan in 1991 for the most vinyl sales in one week for 20 years. It also made music history as being the first album to chart on the Billboard 200 chart based on vinyl sales alone. Two weeks after the vinyl release, Vitalogy was released on CD and cassette and went straight to #1 becoming the second-fastest selling album in history only behind their previous album Vs. “Spin The Black Circle” won the Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance while “Better Man” – which Vedder wrote while still in high school – spent eight weeks at #1 on the Mainstream Rock charts.
Stephanie Horak is a contributing writer and is also the founder and editor of Stories Behind The Songs.