Top 20 Albums Of 1994

For this week's Ranked!, we ranked our favorite albums of 1994. Did we get it right? Let us know in the comments!

20. Bad Religion, Stranger Than Fiction

Stranger Than Fiction takes off from "Incomplete" and doesn't stop to breathe until ten songs later. That it was Bad Religion's first major label album is almost an afterthought, so well does it fit in with the rest of their work. The title track shows their knack for packing entire paragraphs of lyrics into an incredibly catchy two or three minute song. Great lines fly by at steady clip. "Life is the crummiest book I ever read." "You're clear as a heavy lead curtain." They blend fierce intelligence with melodic sensibility and serious guitar. "Slumber" is another highlight, the rise and fall of its melody matching the gentle urgency of the lyrics. Just the thing to listen to when nothing is going well. Then there is the eerily accurate "21st Century Digital Boy," declaring "I don't know how to read but I got a lot of toys." Even if things are a bit too strange, Bad Religion can always see through it.--Amanda

19. Daniel Johnston, Fun

There is something so utterly naive and laid-bare-on-the-floor pathetically genuine about Daniel Johnston's music, the way he sings with his unaffected vocal tremble as if any moment he might break down and cry. Within the childlike simplicity of lyrics like, "I've got to really try/try so hard to get by/and where am I going to?" we discover a universal and profoundly heartbreaking sense of truth. It reminds me of this one quote from a David Foster Wallace short story called "Oblivion:" "What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant." And somehow Daniel Johnston seems capable of doing this, of gathering together the infinite weight of the world and delivering it back to us in the simplest of melodies. In Fun, however, we see less the tortured soul he exhibited in earlier albums/uneven homemade cassette tapes and more the kind of Daniel Johnston that likes to have fun. His first major-label moment (while sounding very un-major label), Fun is one of Johnston's most upbeat albums. Don't let this shift in mood fool you, however. Fun is definitely a Daniel Johnston at his best.--Jacqueline

18. Liz Phair, Whip-Smart

Exile In Guyville gets all the accolades, but Whip-Smart was more fun. "Supernova" kicked in the mainstream door (or at least the alterna-mainstream) and introduced Phair to a larger audience. Favorite tracks: "Dogs of L.A.," "Cinco De Mayo," and the title track with its strange music video.--Chris

17. Portishead, Dummy

If I were to have blindingly passionate mind-altering sex, it would probably be to this album. The sultry hue of Beth Gibbon's voice, Adrian Utley's masterful guitar work, and Geoff Barrow's heart-dropping beats pull me in to a world where all sensory experience becomes feverish and synesthetic. Choice songs to be played under the sheets include: "Mysterons," "Sour Times," "Roads," and "Glory Box."--Jacqueline

16. Various Artists, Reality Bites Soundtrack

This is another one of those albums that I strongly associate with college. You'd walk through the dorms and would inevitably hear someone blasting "My Sharona." Ben Stiller's film perfectly captured the twentysomethings of the day and set it to a killer soundtrack.--Archphoenix

15. Alice In Chains, Jar Of Flies

For a band that seemed to represent the fuzzier, scruffier, more discordant side of the Seattle grunge scene, Alice In Chains sure seemed to know how to harness their powers for grace and beauty when they felt like it. And for my money, Jar Of Flies is one of the most achingly gorgeous albums of the '90s. Melancholy, lushly textured, and deeply reflective, Jar Of Flies offers a stunning counterpoint to the bluster and bleakness of their contemporaries... as told from the inside. Despite its dark undertones, it's a soothing record; I like to put it on when I'm feeling a little introspective and need to remember that I'm not alone. Alice In Chains may have been the most talented of the grunge giants, and this is the album for me that proves it.--CroutonBoy

14. Dave Matthews Band, Under The Table And Dreaming

The album that put Dave Matthews on the map. Two words: rock violin. In all seriousness, this album had five monster singles and was a refreshingly different sound than the stuff coming out of Seattle at the time.--Archphoenix

13. Various Artists, Pulp Fiction Soundtrack

OK, let's just get this out of the way: Pulp Fiction is one of the greatest movies of all time. How many times have I seen it? A billion maybe? In addition to being a movie that ushered in a new breed of awesomeness (and film making), it also dispensed with the traditional Footloose/Top Gun soundtrack style and replaced it with something just as eclectic and provocative as the movie itself. I tend to dismiss soundtracks as cheap corporate tie-ins (see: Rocky III, Men In Black, etc.), but this album was so lovingly assembled and true to the spirit of the film that it actually was "cool" in its own right. It resurrected some stone-cold classics ("Jungle Boogie," "Son Of A Preacher Man," "Miserlou") and exposed us all to music that became instantly hip, both new ("If Love Is A Red Dress") and old ("Comanche," "Bullwinkle Part II"). Many soundtracks have tried to emulate it (see: every Tarantino movie since) but fur pure hipness and fun, Pulp Fiction still reigns supreme.--CroutonBoy

12. Pearl Jam, Vitalogy

Things definitely got weird for these guys in Vitalogy, but in the most wonderful way--think Eddie Vedder playing the accordion and espousing a Tom Waits-like eccentricity in "Bugs" or what about the album's last eerie song, "Hey Foxymophandelemama," in which they incorporate the looping voices of mental hospital patients? It's an album that makes you ask the question: is this music or is this sound art? Not that sound art isn't a valid musical genre, but that the obscurity of it risked alienating their entire audience is fascinating. And perhaps that was their intention. "Oh where did they come from? Stormed my room / And you dare say it belongs to you / This is not for you." It's as if Pearl Jam was asking to fail, and in that became more they could have imagined. Songs like "Nothingman" and "Corduroy" see Eddie Vedder’s voice come down like the hand of God to comfort or condemn. Others like "Whipping" and "Spin The Black Circle" find sounds that play up against each other forcefully and dynamically; there's an unremitting energy there that's hard to miss. 1994 is a year that marked a new direction for Pearl Jam, eschewing grunge standard and opening them up to experimentation and influence. Noteworthy fact: vitalogy actually translates into "the study of life," a word whose meaning Eddie Vedder discovered in an early 20th century medical book found at a garage sale. A fitting title for an album that seems to display the band's coming-of-age recognition of life with candidness and inquiry. "A truant finds a home, a wish to hold onto / but there's a trapdoor in the sun—immortality."--Jacqueline

11. Beastie Boys, Ill Communication

I think this is actually my favorite Beastie Boys album. "Root Down," "Sabatoge" (which has a crazy fun Spike Jonze video), back up support from Q-Tip and Biz Markie, but my favorite thing is the song "Get It Together." In college I used to come home and there'd be lyrics and random scribbles written on our white board from our weird/fun across-the-hall dorm neighbor. And she used to write things like "Got to do it like this, like Chachi and Joanie/Because she's the cheese and I'm the macaroni" just randomly on the board and it was not a bad thing to come home to after 3 hours of accounting and economics classes.--Archphoenix

10. The Offspring, Smash

For me, music in the mid '90s boiled down to two genres: alt-country and punk-revival. While Wilco, the Jayhawks, and Son Volt held court in the former, Green Day, Rancid, and the Offspring were the torch bearers for the latter. Dookie primed the pump for me, but Smash is what got me off the couch and into the mosh pit. It was punk with a party mentality, a sense of humor, and the types of hooks that made you yell 'til you were hoarse as you threw your body around. I still have an obnoxious Smash concert shirt that my wife hates with every fiber of her being, but which I still wear proudly to say, "I was there, and I've got the spilled beer stains on my Doc Martens to prove it." It's hard to top the pure joy of crowd-surfing to "Come Out And Play" or "Something To Believe In" and I get a little misty reminiscing about it as my hair grays. But as long as my head can still thrash about, there will be a place for Smash in my heart.--CroutonBoy

9. Weezer, Weezer (Blue Album)

I was at the ACL Festival in Austin a couple weekends back, as was pretty much everyone who lives within 100 miles of the city. Despite a lineup that featured the Black Keys, Neil Young, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Jack White, whenever I'd ask people which show they liked the best they almost invariably said "Weezer!" That's probably because no one can write a hook like Rivers Cuomo. Weezer (aka The Blue Album) had its tongue firmly planted in its cheek, and had a refreshingly poppy sound compared to so much of the gloomy early '90s rock. It's full of classics--"Undone - The Sweater Song," "Say It Ain't So," "My Name Is Jonas"--and served up one of the greatest music videos ever via "Buddy Holly." If the crowds at ACL are any indication, the greatness and significance of Weezer remains strong.--CroutonBoy

8. Oasis, Definitely Maybe

Were Oasis ever bigger than the Beatles? No, no matter what Liam Gallagher might have you believe. But in Definitely Maybe, they created one of the best debut albums of all time and the greatest album of their career, one full of bluster and swagger. The album kicks off with "Rock 'N' Roll Star," a proclamation of the coming of Oasis. An album that wears its idols on its sleeve, Definitely Maybe delivers with every track and spawned two Top 40 hits with "Supersonic" and "Live Forever," which clawed its way to the Top Ten. Favorite track: "Cigarettes And Alcohol."--Chris

7. Jeff Buckley, Grace

Grace is full of the gospel-tinged blues Jeff Buckley's voice was made for. He whispers, sighs, soars, and climbs, captivating the whole way through. It's a troubled but hopeful album. "Lilac Wine" builds slowly, declaring "I drink much more than I ought to drink, because it brings me back you." The bright guitar tones of "Grace" balance the longing in the lyrics. Then of course there is "Hallelujah," the last word in cover songs. It proved that Buckley was older than his years and wiser too. Like when he sang "maybe I'm too young to keep good love from going wrong" in "Lover, You Should Have Come Over." It's the kind of album that lets you slow down and think, gathering poise for the next hurdle. If you only have the chance to make one album, this is the one to make.--Amanda

6. Hole, Live Through This

Live Through This might have been the hardest-hitting album on this list, but it was definitely Hole's finest work. This album was hard-hitting and unapologetic, and spoke to many people, male and female. Nowadays, people seem more interested in Courtney Love's meltdowns and public humiliation than her music, but we'll always have Live Though This. Favorite songs: "Miss World," "Doll Parts," "Credit In The Straight World," "Olympia," and the album's first and most blistering track, "Violet."--Chris

5. TLC, CrazySexyCool

I was six when this came out, and I can still call it a monumental album in my life (of course, I didn't realize that until many years later). The title represents the three girls, and the album was always meant to have a more mature tone to it than their first. It was a work of art, in my opinion, built very precisely with interludes and arrangements to evoke feelings and thoughts throughout. "Waterfalls" will always be an important song, and probably the best one from this album to boot. As this would be their last album for the next five years (we'll get to that when we hit 1999 hopefully), fans were left to listen to CrazySexyCool to get their TLC fill, and that time really did create an impact on women everywhere in the '90s.--J-Hawke

4. Nirvana, MTV Unplugged In New York

This is the one Nirvana CD I actually currently own. Don't get me wrong, I've heard the rest, but this is the CD I found in a store first when I was younger and wanted to add the band to my collection. This is a really cool collection of live songs performed in Sony Studios in NYC in 1993. MTV Unplugged was one of the greatest music shows and this album was a collection of what aired in December of '93. The other significant fact about this? It was the first album released after Kurt Cobain's death. It debuted at number one and went on to be their best seller. "All Apologies" is still the one that has always struck me the most, with such sadness and passion rolled into one intense acoustic performance. Live albums don't always make these lists, but when they do, you can be sure it's amazing like Nirvana's.--J-Hawke

3. Nine Inch Nails, The Downward Spiral

This was the last album I purchased at a midnight sale. I had become enamored with Nine Inch Nails with Pretty Hate Machine, so I had to have The Downward Spiral the minute it was released. And I wasn't disappointed. The Downward Spiral featured layers upon layers of sounds, noises, and effects (save "Hurt") accompanied by Trent Reznor's hurting screams and painful whispers. The main themes are pain, misery, and depression, with special guest appearances by religion and sex. This album was angry and punched you in the gut, forcing you to become part of the album, rolling down the windows and screaming along. Favorite tracks: "March Of The Pigs," "Ruiner," "The Becoming," "I Do Not Want This," and possibly my all-time favorite Nine Inch Nails song, "Mr. Self Destruct."--Chris

2. Tori Amos, Under The Pink

In Under The Pink, Tori Amos's voice appears like a specter from the shadows to heal our deepest and most agonizing wounds. A follow-up to her much applauded first album, here we find a more experimental Tori Amos who shows off her lyrical acrobatics with deftness and whimsy. "God sometimes you just don’t come through/Do you need a woman to look after you?” Favorite songs: "Bells For Her" and "Cornflake Girl"--Jacqueline

1. Green Day, Dookie

"I'm not growing up, I'm just burning out. And I stepped in line to walk amongst the dead." It sounds as true today as it did 18 years ago. It also explains why Dookie was such a smash hit. Every song precisely pins down a feeling, whether it be frustration, love, or the sneaking suspicion that you might be going crazy. There it is laid out. It gives you control, and it's a huge relief. Nothing is ever quite as bad once it has a name. Just as important is the music itself. The addictive opening riff of "When I Come Around." The rolling bass line of "Longview" and its wiseass snarl. "My mother says to get a job, but she don't like the one she's got." There is nothing to do but rip furniture, so grab a knife. "Pulling Teeth" is a surprisingly tender pause before everything spirals down into "Basket Case." It's all of the angst and glory of teenage life at teenage speed, which is to say, perfect.--Amanda

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