Stone Temple Pilots–Purple
STP’s second album had an audible chip on its shoulder, and the songs were all the better because of it. The sessions for Purple spawned a number of rock radio hits throughout 1994, beginning with “Big Empty,” continuing with “Vasoline,” and then “Interstate Love Song,” a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Dancing Days,” and finally, “Unglued,” released to radio just prior to the end of the year. Scott Weiland and company wrote and recorded in an intentionally different sound and style than their breakthrough debut LP, 1992’s Core, to break away from grunge rock cliches and comparisons to the sounds of other established acts. Ironically, they created some of the earliest post-grunge cliches along the way, but they weren’t old hat in ’94. STP set a new tone for others to imitate. Arguably, this LP is the band’s best work.
They Might Be Giants–John Henry
Brooklyn indie-alt rock duo, They Might Be Giants, took the plunge in 1993 by expanding from a duo performing with backing tapes to a full band, including live drums, bass, and horns. Their fifth LP, from 1994, was their first full-length to feature the new band and to introduce a much richer sound to their dedicated base of fans. While the explorations of new sounds and this new arrangement caused a split within the band’s following, TMBG forged ahead, focusing on the music and attracting a wider and larger audience. Tracks like “Snail Shell” and “AKA Driver” introduced them to the new generation of college radio listeners, and a steady presence on the touring circuit that is maintained to this day has kept the band vital. Without this album and the change it brought along with it, the project may very well have not made it into the 21st century.
Ween–Chocolate and Cheese
The fourth LP by this beloved alternative duo features a little bit of everything they do well. Dean and Gene Ween are notorious for their irreverent humor, marathon concert performances, and die-hard fans, and this album is great supporting evidence. Classics like “Freedom of ’76” and “Roses are Free” balance pop music satire with the group’s trademark vocal manipulations, and live favorites like “Voodoo Lady” and “Mister, Would You Please Help My Pony” keep the album engaging to even the uninitiated. While some of Ween’s other albums may be more approachable or follow a specific theme, Chocolate and Cheese shows all sides of their creative style and is probably the best of their records to put on if someone ever asks, “Who the hell is Ween?”
Alice in Chains–Jar of Flies
This excellent EP continued Alice In Chains’ pattern of alternating between heavier material and more acoustic-based songs from one major release to the next. While there are plenty of notable electric guitar moments from Jerry Cantrell throughout the 7 songs included here, the mood is dark and introspective rather than angry and loud. Hits like “I Stay Away,” “No Excuses,” and “Don’t Follow” connect the equally strong non-singles and bridge the gap between 1992’s Dirt and 1995’s self-titled album. Vocalist Layne Staley infuses these songs with pain and heavy emotion, and bassist Mike Inez makes his debut taking over for the departed Mike Starr. While many no longer remember some of the other unique elements of this particular release, such as the experimental enhanced CD portion released years later or the gimmicky plastic flies that appeared in randomly selected copies of the CD’s clear spine, the music remains as strong and memorable as it did 20 years ago.
This divisive LP, the band’s ninth, is also its loudest, most rock-based, and one of its most experimental, lyrically and musically. Best known for the guitar-driven singles, “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?,” “Bang and Blame,” and “Crush With Eyeliner,” the album features many memorable ballads such as “Strange Currencies,” the awkwardly comical, “Tongue,” and the haunting elegy, “Let Me In,” written for the late Kurt Cobain on one of his guitars that had been given to R.E.M. by Cobain’s widow. Aside from being the second to last R.E.M. album to feature founding drummer Bill Berry, the band would never again be this guitar-driven, for better or worse, and in 1994, their decision to go this particular direction allowed their new music to be featured right next to the grunge and post-grunge greats that were dominating rock and alternative radio at the same time.
Beastie Boys–Ill Communication
Seemingly reinventing themselves for a new generation of music fans, the legendary Beastie Boys honed their musical abilities and desire to experiment which allowed them to release this fantastic LP, their fourth overall, and arguably their best. While it is a given the Beasties will always be most known for “Fight for Your Right” and their ignorant frat-character image from the 1980s, for which the group later expressed public regret, they knew the early ’90s were the perfect opportunity to re-launch the project by performing eclectic and creative hybrids of rock, hip hop, punk, and jazz over the course of the 20 tracks included on Ill Communication. “Sabotage” is the landmark Beastie Boys song to music fans in their 30s compared to those in their 40s who might say “Paul Revere” without thinking about it. “Sure Shot,” “Root Down,” and “Get it Together,” featuring Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest, bring a fresh-for-the-time hip hop element to the record while it is also balanced with the hardcore punk of “Tough Guy” and “Heart-Attack Man” and the Jazz-Funk instrumentals like “Ricky’s Theme,” and “Sabrosa.” An album diverse enough to engage listeners throughout its 60 minutes, Ill Communication is representative of a time, place, and sound in American music.
This California punk group’s major-label debut, and its third LP overall, launched pop-based punk rock into the stratosphere, and in fairness, it has never really come back down. While not all groups inspired by this majorly successful album are of equal value or importance, it is safe to say that without it, an entire sub-genre of rock music in the ’90s and early ’00s may not have existed and certainly would not have been on the radio and MTV every ten minutes (back when MTV featured music-based content, of course). Throughout 1994 and ’95, Dookie went platinum again and again, more than once for each single that was released from it, including the band’s biggest hits, “Longview,” “Basketcase,” and “When I Come Around,” but also fan favorites and rock radio hits like “Welcome to Paradise” and “She.” This punky trio set a standard for sound and style for many others to follow and the remain true to their original ideals to this day, though they have a much broader perspective now than they did when they cut this album.
The Rolling Stones–Voodoo Lounge
Living-legends 20 years before this album was released, and looking back on it now, 20 years after its release, Voodoo Lounge is an important album in The Rolling Stones’ catalog for many reasons. Aside from introducing and attracting younger fans with new, crisp tunes, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger and the gang extend their legacy into a third decade becoming one of the most respected and longest-lasting rock bands of all time in the process. To imagine they would still be an active project in 2014 is mind-boggling. “Love is Strong” and “You Got Me Rocking” are the most memorable and successful tracks, but the ballad “Out of Tears” received a good deal of pop radio support in 1995 as well. Voodoo Lounge built a bridge from the sometimes-awkward Rolling Stones of the 1980s to their era as elder statesmen of rock in the 21st century by allowing them to embrace being a classic rock band rather than keeping up with trends or fads, even in their own genre.
Other albums celebrating 20 years:
Tori Amos-Under the Pink
Neil Young-Sleeps with Angels
Dinosaur Jr.-Without a Sound
Corrosion of Conformity-Deliverance
Bad Religion-Stranger than Fiction