Looking back at 1994, a seminal year for alternative rock music

Three decades ago the genre went mainstream, thanks to a string of critical and commercial successes

Kurt Cobain of Nirvana during the recording of MTV Unplugged at Sony Studios in New York City. The album turns 30 this year. Getty Images
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There is no doubt that 1994 was a year of extremes for rock music. It was a year when some bands introduced themselves with youthful promise, while another ended in sudden tragedy.

Three decades ago the popularity of grunge made way for a broader and more expansive guitar-based sound, one that spanned both sides of the Atlantic, welcoming various scenes from North American punk and nu-metal to Britpop in the UK.

The popularity translated to commercial success with albums by Soundgarden, Nirvana, Oasis and The Offspring topping the charts. The latter's Smash, which is marking its 30th anniversary this week, went on to become one of the biggest-selling releases from an independent label, with more than 11 million albums sold.

This all goes to show that 1994 is the year when alternative music went mainstream. Here are 10 albums, in alphabetical order, blazing the way forward.

1. Definitely Maybe by Oasis

Released: August 29, 1994

While the range of seminal records released in the UK that year deserves a list of its own, including Blur's Parklife and No Need to Argue by The Cranberries, it was Oasis's thrilling debut that attracted the most global attention.

Brash and full of swagger, songs such as Supersonic and Live Forever channelled the hopes and dreams of working-class communities, while influencing a generation of British bands from Kasabian to the Arctic Monkeys.

2. Dookie by Green Day

Released: February 1, 1994

Dookie is fun and funny.

Unlike Green Day's often abrasive and bleak-sounding peers, the pop-punk trio weren't afraid of melodies or making a song pretty, best exemplified in the pinpoint harmonies of Pulling Teeth and Basket Case.

The public responded to the album's charms with more than 20 million albums sold and ­Dookie's success helped shift the US punk community away from its restrictive independent principles to embrace a more mainstream sound.

3. The Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails

Released: March 8, 1994

It's not an album to play at parties, but the foreboding opus by Nine Inch Nails remains one of the most influential industrial rock albums. Dense and full of intricate song arrangements, the dark majesty of the songs are carried through singer Trent Reznor's wounded vocals, as found on the emotional Hurt and Closer.

4. Grace by Jeff Buckley

Released: August 23, 1994

For such a celebrated album, it is hard to believe Grace was released to a relatively muted response.

While sales were initially poor, Buckley’s debut album generated word-of-mouth acclaim, through critical praise and championing by the likes of Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant and actor Brad Pitt.

Looking back, it's not surprising Grace went on to sell millions of copies. Grace is subtly eclectic, fusing Buckley's emotive vocals with elements of folk and rock, blues and jazz.

Such a freewheeling approach allowed Buckley to reinterpret classic songs, such as Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah and James Shelton's Lilac Wine, and make them his own.

5. Korn by Korn

Released: October 11, 1994

The lead single from Korn's self-titled debut album, Blind is viewed as the track that kicked off nu-metal.

The rest of the album has all the signature elements: low-tuned guitars, heavy bass lines and a vocal style by singer Jonathan Davis that combines singing, rapping, metal growling and screaming.

With potent lyrics, touching on mental health and alienation, the dark and fiercely vulnerable subject matter was a new element to the metal landscape, one that largely favoured visceral aggression over self-therapy. The end result is ultimately cathartic.

6. Live Through This by Hole

Released: April 12, 1994

The 1994 rock scene wasn't an all-boys club.

Veruca Salt released the classic anthem Seether and Courtney Love shined in her own light with Live Through This by her band Hole. Raw and lyrically unflinching in its dissection of broken relationships and mental health, the album finds Hole branching out from fuzzy grunge roots to embrace more melodic and dynamic arrangements.

Released in the US four days after the death Love's husband and Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, Live Through This faced unfair sexist accusations by some fans, who suggested he had written the songs. Then again, such was the pedigree of the album that it matched some of Nirvana’s best material.

7. MTV Unplugged by Nirvana

Released: November 1, 1994

Where Nirvana's breakout release Nevermind ushered grunge into the mainstream in 1992, the 1994 live recording reinvigorated the unplugged rock format.

Recorded in New York in front of an intimate audience, the group's stripped-back versions of mid-tempo rock hits About a Girl and On a Plain are heartfelt. Nirvana's covers of three songs by grunge forebears the Meat Puppets, especially the bluesy swing of Lake of Fire, resulted in a reappraisal of the group.

While tragedy hovers over the record, which was released nearly seven months after Cobain's death in April 1994, MTV Unplugged in New York is Nirvana’s swansong, which went on to influence generations of confessional indie singer-songwriters.

8. Smash by The Offspring

Released: April 8, 1994

Talk about breaking into the mainstream.

After nearly a decade building a devoted following in Los Angeles, The Offspring found global success with third album Smash. Powered by zany hit Come Out and Play, featuring a memorable Middle Eastern-inspired guitar riff, and the heavy angst of Self Esteem, the 11 million copies sold made Smash one of the biggest-selling albums released by an independent label.

Paired with the runway success of Green Day’s Dookie, released two months prior, Smash helped set the scene for the wave of pop-punk bands to come.

9. Superunknown by Soundgarden

Released: March 8, 1994

Big and bold, Superunknown represents a creative zenith for the alternative rock scene. Soundgarden's masterpiece is both muscular and intensely vulnerable with songs veering from existential laments, such as Black Hole Sun, to character sketches in Spoon Man.

That versatility is matched with virtuosic playing by the four piece, which sees them fuse their bedrock grunge sounds with doses of metal and psychedelia.

10. Weezer by Weezer

Released: May 10, 1994

Commonly known as the Blue Album, Weezer's self-titled debut album is an equal mix of brains and brawn, as the group marries heavy guitars with pristine melodies.

The result is a power-pop classic, featuring introspective and slightly self-depreciating lyrics about the fleeting nature of youth. The largely sunny album, led by euphoric hit Buddy Holly, served as antidote to the dark and brooding rock releases of the era.

Updated: April 19, 2024, 6:02 PM