To look at the 10 top-selling albums of 1993 is to take stock of where we, as a nation, went wrong in the early ’90s.
- The Bodyguard soundtrack
- Kenny G, Breathless
- Eric Clapton, Unplugged
- Janet Jackson, janet.
- Billy Ray Cyrus, Some Gave All
- Dr. Dre, The Chronic
- Spin Doctors, Pocket Full Of Kryptonite
- Pearl Jam, Ten
- Garth Brooks, The Chase
- Stone Temple Pilots, Core
Now, The Chronic is an unimpeachable classic, don’t get me wrong. And Ten belongs in the pantheon of great albums of the grunge era. (A.V. Club music editor Steven Hyden would undoubtedly go to the mat for Core, too.) You could even make a case for janet. But they cannot escape the black hole of terribleness unleashed by the albums that brought “Achy Breaky Heart” and “Two Princes” into the world. Those two songs alone—not to mention Kenny fucking G or Whitney Houston’s treacle—are almost enough to negate anything good that happened musically in 1993.
How could 1993 look worse? Only one of the albums in the top 10 that year actually came out in 1993 (janet.). Ten came out Aug. 27, 1991, a week after Pocket Full Of Kryptonite. The others all dropped at various points in 1992.
Consider this fact, too, and reflect on how moribund the music industry is 18 years later: When Pearl Jam’s sophomore album, Vs., was released on Oct. 19, it sold 950,378 copies its first week. It broke the previous record of 770,000, set by Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion II, supplying the nation’s music critics with an easy fact to herald a changing of the rock guard. It also outsold Nirvana’s In Utero, released a month earlier, by 770,000 copies. (As mind-boggling as it seems now, the most acclaimed band in the world at that time only sold 180,000 copies the week it released its highly anticipated follow-up to the landscape-changing Nevermind. It was the 74th best-selling album of ’93.)
1993 was a topsy-turvy time, when selling nearly a million units in a single week wasn’t enough to guarantee Vs. spot in the top 10 bestselling albums of the year—and it was outsold by an album Pearl Jam released two years prior! (Vs. took No. 15 overall.) There are music executives now who’d slit a hobo’s throat to go back to those halcyon days.
They were halcyon days for me too. I turned 17 in March of 1993, roughly two years into my dismissal of commercial radio, so the endless stream of terribleness emanating from it didn’t affect me too much. Like seemingly everyone else in Texas, where I grew up, my mom was a huge Garth Brooks fan (though she disliked Billy Ray Cyrus, thankfully), so I heard plenty of him, and the shared radio at my part-time office job subjected me to a fair amount of “Two Princes” and the Unplugged version of “Tears In Heaven.” Otherwise I had my Discman, mixtapes, and KTRU (Rice University’s radio station, R.I.P.) to keep me away from commercial music and fuel my smug sense of musical superiority.
Make no mistake: I was a goddamn snob, eagerly buying vinyl from punk micro-indie labels I read about in MaximumRockNRoll and cringing at my memory of moshing during a Red Hot Chili Peppers show in December of 1991. But alternative rock led me to punk, and that show at the Unicorn Ballroom was pretty pivotal. A then baby band called Pearl Jam opened—Ten wouldn’t debut in the Billboard Top 200 until January of 1992, even then at No. 155—and the middle slot went to Smashing Pumpkins, a band I discovered that year on 120 Minutes and still loved at the height of my snobbery. I bought Gish not long after that show, and Siamese Dream would be in my heavy rotation when it came out in July of 1993.
I can’t say for certain what would’ve been my top five of 1993 at the time, but going back and looking at what I was listening to then, and what I discovered later, led me to this list.
KYLE RYAN’S TOP ALBUMS OF 1993
1. Fugazi, In On The Kill Taker
Fugazi engendered an almost religious devotion among fans (myself included), and the seminal D.C. post-hardcore band was at the peak of its powers for its third album—fourth if you counted the EP collection 13 Songs—which debuted at No. 153 on the Billboard Top 200 for July 3, 1993, a first for the band. While Fugazi’s two preceding records expanded the group’s palette, In On The Kill Taker took a leap forward creatively into experimental sounds that previous albums had only hinted at. The spare, repetitious beginning of “23 Beats Off” segues into more than three minutes of swirling distortion from vocalist-guitarists Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto, with only a receding snare hit (and tom roll) from drummer Brendan Canty to anchor it. Everything eventually blends into a low hum punctuated by the occasional feedback squeal. It was Fugazi’s most experimental moment at the time, yet it perfectly segued into an instrumental, “Sweet And Low,” with a lilting, contemplative chorus. Those songs, tracks six and seven right in the middle of 12 songs, set a bold course that subsequent albums would further explore.
That said, In On The Kill Taker offers plenty moments of pure, cathartic pleasure, particularly the one-two punch of openers “Facet Squared” and the explosive “Public Witness Program.” With its “Cha-cha-champion” chorus, “Smallpox Champion” may be the catchiest song ever written about genocide—“Bury your heart, U.S. of A / history rears up to spit in your face”—and MacKaye’s searing “Great Cop” is one of the great kiss-off songs of all time. (“Distrusted / I look for wires when I’m talking to you / you’d make a great cop.”) In On The Kill Taker showed Fugazi finding its equilibrium; it wasn’t that the band had outgrown its punk-rock foundation (and the community its members treasured); Fugazi had expanded punk’s palette. You could find no truer believers in the empowering spirit of punk rock, for whom “do it yourself” wasn’t simply an option until something better came along, but an uncompromising reality. Fugazi famously played only all-ages shows, never charged more than $6 for them, sold its CDs for cheap, and turned down lucrative offers from major labels. Fugazi is a religion I still practice.
2. Sugar, Beaster
I was only 11 when Hüsker Dü broke up, so my introduction to Bob Mould came in 1992 via the video for “Helpless” on MTV’s 120 Minutes. I probably haven’t watched the video since, but it was seared into my memory, because it was one of those rare moments in life where you know you’ve found it. I knew it when I met my wife, when I read The Onion for the first time, and the first time I heard a couple of bands. I immediately purchased Sugar’s damn near perfect 1992 debut, Copper Blue, but it was Beaster—recorded at the same time, but released as an EP the following spring—that really blew my mind. Mould himself would likely agree he’s never been on a bigger roll creatively than he was at the genesis of Sugar. He’d written 30 songs: 10 became Copper Blue, a dozen or so became B-sides and outtakes, and what remained was “a six-song suite that had a heavier feel,” Mould writes in his memoir, See A Little Light.
They became the appropriately named Beaster, an absolutely ferocious EP practically quaking with despair. Religion provides the overarching theme, but Mould’s personal life gives it the gut-punch. While recording the songs, a fight with his boyfriend sent Mould on a sort of creative bender, as he holed up in the studio’s attic for a day and a half “writing and writing and writing,” he says in See A Little Light. “I was out of my fucking mind with white-hate-light-energy-noise,” and the feeling is palpable on standout tracks “Tilted,” Mould’s most aggressive song since Hüsker Dü’s early days, and “JC Auto,” which finds parallels between the religious and the personal, as Mould seems to address both God and his partner simultaneously: “I can’t believe in anything / I don’t believe in anything / do you believe in anything / do you believe me now?” Beaster opens (“Come Around”) and closes (“Walking Away”) much more calmly, but the EP offers proof that personal misery can create the greatest art. “I like to close the darker albums leaving the listener wondering if I’m all right,” Mould writes in See A Little Light. Mission accomplished.
3. J Church, Camels, Spilled Corona And The Sound Of Mariachi Bands
I’ve written about J Church for The A.V. Club to the point of obnoxiousness: an AVQ&A about one-man cults; an old blog post about my CD collection; at least three Inventories (I have a theory that J Church has a song that could work in any Inventory); an obituary for frontman Lance Hahn; and most germane to My Favorite Music Year, a Permanent Records post about this very album. Will I ever shut up about J Church? No, because it was love at first sight. I can get with nearly four minutes of feedback in Fugazi’s “23 Beats Off,” but I love well-done pop-punk. I’ve always been a sucker for a good hook, and Lance Hahn had an unparalleled ability to turn a three-chord pop-punk song into a cerebral discourse on, say, anarchists in the Spanish Civil War. (The cover of the album comes from a book about the Durruti Column, an anarchist sect fighting on the republican side of the Spanish Civil War.) Opener “Bomb” may be the catchiest song ever written about terrorism, but it’s more character study than term paper. Hahn had a knack for personal stories, and many of J Church’s innumerable songs are incisive character portraits. On Camels—a singles collection that preceded the band’s debut, Quetzalcoatl, also released in 1993—there’s one about a young terrorist (“Bomb”), two lost souls in Hollywood (“Katrina And Paul”), a friend who disagrees with vegetarianism (“Kathi”), and a suicidal model (“Girl In A Magazine”). They may sound simple, or even pedantic, quickly summarized like that, but Hahn was a keen lyricist and a deft songwriter, able to imbue his subjects with humanity and wrap them in a catchy melody.
4. A Tribe Called Quest, Midnight Marauders
To be honest, I remember little, if anything, of Midnight Marauders’ release on Nov. 9, 1993. I wouldn’t discover A Tribe Called Quest until a few years later, but it remains one of my top three favorite hip-hop releases of all time. I grew up in Houston, where Geto Boys were king, but gangsta rap didn’t do a whole lot for me then. I’d been a Public Enemy fan since It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, but I found acts like Geto Boys and N.W.A. intimidating. I think the tough-guy posturing always turned me off, like these dudes were just jocks in different clothing. I warmed up to gangsta rap with The Chronic, but I found groups like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest—both part of the Native Tongues scene—to be more my speed. (Yup, I’d bought Arrested Development’s debut the year before, too. It was on heavy rotation with Faith No More’s Angel Dust.) Midnight Marauders is the kind of album I have on my iPod, phone, and computer, so I have it with me at all times. When we shot our Pop Pilgrims segments in New York, I made a special trip to Queens the last day for my own pilgrimage to Linden Boulevard, which ATCQ references repeatedly in its songs, none more memorably than the beginning of Midnight Marauders’ “Steve Biko (Stir It Up),” which opens with “Linden Boulevard represent, represent-zent / A Tribe Called Quest, represent, represent-zent…”
Before a recent taping of Reasonable Discussions, Nathan, Scott, and I debated which was the superior Tribe album, Midnight Marauders or 1991’s The Low End Theory, and while I’d have to admit the latter is stronger as a whole, the former still has my favorite ATCQ songs—and it’s hard to beat the progression of “Steve Biko,” “Award Tour,” “8 Million Stories,” “Sucka Nigga,” “Midnight,” and “We Can Get Down.” Much of Tribe’s charm lies in the interplay between MCs Q-Tip and Phife Dawg (not to mention the production and DJ work of Ali Shaheed Muhammad), who found the right balance of swagger and smarts. They weren’t overly cerebral, but they also bucked the gangsta rap paradigm that had taken over the mainstream hip-hop discourse. Dre had a top-selling album, Ice Cube had his highest-selling solo album in 1992 with The Predator, Snoop Dogg would release his solo debut, Doggystyle, in November of ’93, and reactionary types delighted in glibly reducing all of hip-hop into crime-glorifying, woman-hating trash. (They still do.) But Midnight Marauders was no secret; it spent 29 weeks on the Billboard Top 200 and debuted at No. 8. I wouldn’t find it until long after it dropped off the Top 200, but it has stayed close to me ever since.
5. Digable Planets, Reachin’ (A New Refutation Of Time And Space)
I discovered Digable Planets a lot more quickly than Tribe, probably because “Rebirth Of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” was inescapable in the spring of 1993, shortly after the release of the Brooklyn trio’s debut, Reachin’ (A New Refutation Of Time And Space). The album spent 22 weeks in the Billboard Top 200, peaking at No 15. In the wake of De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, jazz-inflicted hip-hop had grown trendy, but the bohemian trio—frontman Butterfly (who’s currently making waves in Shabazz Palaces), Doodlebug, and Ladybug Mecca—weren’t poseurs. Jazz samples formed the base of each song, and on “Appointment At The Fat Clinic,” Doodlebug offers a mini-lecture on the current state of jazz. (Unsurprisingly, it’s one of the album’s weaker tracks.) While Reachin’ fades toward the end, it has an incredible first half, opening with “It’s Good To Be Here,” “Pacifics” (my favorite song), “Where I’m From,” “What Cool Breezes Do,” “Time & Space (A New Refutation Of),” “Rebirth Of Slick,” and “Last Of The Spiddyocks.” Digable Planets would go in a much different direction for 1994’s more cohesive Blowout Comb, which spent only seven weeks on the Billboard Top 200 and peaked at No. 32. Like The Low End Theory to Midnight Marauders, Blowout Comb is overall superior to Reachin’, but Reachin’ has my favorite Digable Planets songs.
Several albums are basically interchangeable with DigPlan in the No. 5 spot on my list. As I mentioned, Siamese Dream was in heavy rotation until its songs became ubiquitous—curiously, none charted on Billboard—and I grew disillusioned with the band. In November of ’93, Smashing Pumpkins played a gig in Houston that I’d looked forward to for months. Just a few songs into the set, someone in the audience hit Corgan in the head with a shoe, and that was the end of the show. He stormed off and vowed never to play Houston again. (I ended up seeing them in Austin the following spring in a much larger venue.) As Hyden wrote in his typically fantastic Whatever Happened To Alternative Nation? column on 1993, Siamese Dream would finally push Corgan into the rock-god status the mercurial artist had always imagined for himself. He also writes the album hasn’t aged particularly well, though I so infrequently listen to it I can’t agree or disagree. But during the second half of the summer of ’93, it was practically all I played in my car.
Another album that could taken the No. 5 spot: Anthem For A New Tomorrow by Screeching Weasel. The past year has really dampened my love for one of the best pop-punk bands of all time, and not just because frontman Ben Weasel freaked out at SXSW and punched a couple of women. His ridiculous response to the backlash against him following SXSW made him look delusional, and the unpleasant experience I had writing an oral history of the band (before the SXSW mess) only made things worse. But back in ’93, Ben Weasel was still a loveable curmudgeon, and Anthem For A New Tomorrow is his band’s most accomplished album, full of pop-punk gems that I still love.
A couple other albums that could have been No. 5: On The Mouth, Superchunk’s fantastic third album (featuring one of the best opening tracks of all time, “Precision Auto”), and Icky Mettle, the debut by Superchunk’s fellow North Carolinians, Archers Of Loaf. It has my favorite AOL song, “Wrong,” as well as “Web In Front” and “Plumb Line.” (“She’s an indie rocker / nothing’s going to stop her.”)
No, Nirvana’s In Utero didn’t even come close to my Top 5. It’s not because I don’t think it’s a fine album—I do, and it is—but I was over Nirvana by 1993. (Like I said, I was a goddamn snob.) I didn’t buy In Utero until years later, which is a shame, because my punkass 17-year-old self would’ve really liked the rawer sound (particularly “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter”) if he weren’t so busy burrowing his head into the underground’s sand. Hey Mr. Obscure Punk Guy, you’re gonna regret having never seen Nirvana. In that kid’s defense, fatigue comes with ubiquity; I practically didn’t need to buy In Utero because I heard about it constantly. Ditto Vs.
I was also over U2, whose awful Zooropa came out that July. I had intensely disliked Achtung Baby, and I thought the band went totally off the rails on Zooropa. (“Lemon,” anyone?) I’ve come to appreciate Achtung Baby more—though I still hate “Mysterious Ways”—but I haven’t even bothered trying to give Zooropa a second chance.
Although I heard The Breeders’ “Cannonball” a lot, I still loved Last Splash. Rancid by Rancid also received a lot of play in my stereo, and their show the following summer in Houston would go down in local history: As part of a bungled insurance scam, the owners of the club torched the place after Rancid played. Another great punk debut that year: !!Destroy-Oh-Boy!! by Ohio’s New Bomb Turks. My high school punk band, Casper (formerly Schooled Stupid), covered “Last Lost Fight” from the “Trying To Get By” single at a school show in ’94. I wiped out trying to do a big punk-rock jump when the song got to the fast part, nearly knocking over our guitarist in the process. Sigh. Other good punk albums from ’93: Bikini Kill’s Pussy Whipped, the band’s best, and Seaweed’s Four.
Looking back on ’93 now, it had a pretty stunning group of important debut albums: Radiohead, Pablo Honey; Björk, Debut; Liz Phair, Exile In Guyville; Built To Spill, Ultimate Alternative Wavers; Tool, Undertow; and Suede, Suede. Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle came out in late November of ’93 in a month stacked with future hip-hop classics: Midnight Marauders dropped on Nov. 9, the same day as Wu-Tang Clan’s debut, Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). The same day! I wouldn’t get into Wu-Tang until much later, but it boggles the mind that those albums came out simultaneously. Another important hip-hop group made its debut that year, The Roots, with Organix coming out in mid-May.
Other artists hit their stride, like Stereolab (Space Age Bachelor Pad Music), Guided By Voices (Vampire On Titus), Yo La Tengo (Painful), Urge Overkill (Saturation), PJ Harvey (Rid Of Me), Primus (Pork Soda), and 2Pac, (Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z.). The Melvins would jump to a major label for Houdini, and The Flaming Lips released Transmissions From The Satellite Heart, which would produce the left-field hit “She Don’t Use Jelly.”
While those bands hit their stride, others had their last hurrah; New Order and The Lemonheads may have continued after Republic and Come On Feel, respectively, but never as well. Juliana Hatfield’s Blake Babies broke up in ’93, releasing the excellent best-of collection, Innocence & Experience, that fall. Uncle Tupelo released Anodyne in October, but would bitterly breakup the following year, playing its final show in St. Louis May 1 (sadly, just months before I moved to Missouri to go to school). Depeche Mode began its second or third comeback with Songs Of Faith And Devotion in March, and Perry Farrell attempted to move on from Jane’s Addiction with Porno For Pyros. Who knew we’d come to appreciate that band a decade later, when Ferrell debuted something even worse, Satellite Party?
On the mainstream side: “Linger” by The Cranberries would take over the pop charts when Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We? was released in March. The title track from Lenny Kravitz’s Are You Gonna Go My Way also assaulted eardrums when the album dropped in March. Aerosmith began yet another comeback with Get A Grip and, with the accompanying videos, introduced Liv Tyler to a nation of grateful teenage boys (and even paired her with Alicia Silverstone for double points).
A trio of debut singles from soon-to-be big shots in the indie world: Seattle post-hardcore band Sunny Day Real Estate released a pair of 7-inches, Flatland Spider and Thief Steal Me A Peach; Steve Albini’s second post-Big Black band, Shellac, released The Rude Gesture: A Pictorial History 7-inch, which has one of the band’s best tracks, “Billiard Player Song”; and Tortoise dropped a pair of 7-inches, Mosquito and Lonesome Sound.
Although Counting Crows’ major-label debut, August And Everything After (produced by T-Bone Burnett), came out in September of ’93, it wouldn’t make a dent until “Mr. Jones” quickly ascended the pop charts in March of ’94. “Round Here” followed that summer, and, before you knew it, frontman Adam Duritz was banging the cast of the new hit show Friends. The album’s successor would go to No. 1.
The release of two of my top-five favorite albums ever, Jawbreaker’s 24 Hour Revenge Therapy and Jawbox’s For Your Own Special Sweetheart, makes 1994 one of my top music years. It was a big year for the punk scene I knew—the goofballs in Green Day blew up with Dookie—with several of my favorite bands signing to major labels and sparking a particularly bad sellout witch-hunt. Jawbox signed, as did another one of my favorites, Samiam, whose Clumsy (released that August) remains one of the band’s best. But if I were sent to a desert island with only two albums, 24 Hour Revenge Therapy and For Your Own Special Sweetheart would keep me happy.