Brainstorming for The A.V. Club’s 1994 week had me waxing nostalgic specifically about music, since that was a time in my life when I was pretty much completely immersed in it: I worked full-time at a record store, spent my off hours publishing a music zine, and wouldn’t think twice about driving hundreds of miles to see a band I loved. (I’ll still do that on very rare occasions, but it’s no longer every other week.) It helped that so many incredible records came out that year—it was my runner-up in our My Favorite Music Year series, barely edged out by 1997. So I thought I’d indulge some of that nostalgia with a 1994 mix “tape” (I still made those then), complete with some thoughts on each song. This is a mix made without the benefit of revisionist history—these are the songs I was actually listening to a ton in 1994, not the ones I would get into later, so bear that in mind before telling me I’m crazy for not including Illmatic. It’s clearly the year when the world reached peak indie-rock, and I was deep in the trenches. There’s a Spotify playlist to listen along with; unfortunately, two of the tracks— from Adorable and Silver Jews—aren’t on streaming services.
1. Archers Of Loaf, “Lowest Part Is Free!”
Between their first and second albums, Archers Of Loaf released the unimpeachable (except for its silly artwork) Vs. The Greatest Of All Time EP, a five-song blast that perfectly encapsulated the band’s energy and intricacy. “Lowest Part Is Free!” is my favorite Archers song, both for its immediacy and its weird-ass lyrics, which appear to impeach the music industry (“So full of shit, let’s write some hits!”). Archers at Lounge Ax in February of 1994 is one of the best shows I’ve ever seen—not coincidentally, they had just recorded the EP.
2. Kristin Hersh, “Your Ghost”
I count “Your Ghost” among my favorite songs of all time, not just 1994—it definitely appeared on any real mixtapes I made around that time, and for years after. It’s haunting and gorgeous and spellbinding… And it kind of ruined me for most other Kristin Hersh songs, even Throwing Muses. None are as good as this one, which I guess is a blessing and a curse. It’s not just having Michael Stipe’s voice play off Hersh’s, but that doesn’t hurt.
3. Pavement, “Stop Breathin”
Pavement pulled a neat trick between Slanted And Enchanted and Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, dialing down some of the weirdness and noise while remaining reasonably enigmatic. “Stop Breathin” is the second album’s “Zurich Is Stained,” only more gorgeously strange and tragic. (“Write it on a postcard / Dad, they broke me / Dad, they broke me.”) And though its ending—a slow build, fade, then a renewed shock of energy—seems half-jammed out, it’s actually surprisingly precise. And it proved beyond a doubt that Pavement could pop when it wanted to.
4. Silver Jews, “Trains Across The Sea”
The best Pavement album not by Pavement in 1994 was Silver Jews’ full-length debut, Starlite Walker. David Berman, aided by Stephen Malkmus, Steve West, Bob Nastanovich, and others, brought his skewed poetry to life. (He’s published books of poetry; I’m not just assigning him “poet” status.) Not as inscrutable as Pavement or as open-hearted as Sebadoh, the album is equal parts slack-rock and clever wordplay, from direct (“Half hours on Earth / what are they worth?”) to strangely perfect (“It’s been evening all day long”). Berman added to his own legend by refusing to play live until 2005.
5. Sebadoh, “Not A Friend”
Pavement and Sebadoh were more frequently lumped in together in the mid-’90s than they are now, which makes perfect sonic sense. But where Stephen Malkmus was generally cryptic with his lyrics, Sebadoh’s Lou Barlow poured his sad heart into his words. Both bands were lumped together as “lo-fi,” though that doesn’t make much sense for Bakesale, Sebadoh’s finest album—it was actually the first Sebadoh record without the group’s resident noise-monster Eric Gaffney. Without him, Barlow and bassist Jason Loewenstein were able to make sweet, noisy, reasonably well-recorded indie rock. (A Sebadoh T-shirt from the era reads, “Sebadoh. Lo-fi? Yeah, fuckin’ whatever.”)
6. Superchunk, “Water Wings”
Foolish is most certainly a dark horse in any fan’s “favorite Superchunk album” race, but it fits so beautifully between 1993’s more manic On The Mouth and 1995’s more measured Here’s Where The Strings Come In. (That’s a pretty incredible three-album run, come to think of it.) “Water Wings” still gets some live play from the band, especially the post-hiatus, bring-the-rocking Superchunk; it’s got a perfect part to sing along with now, as it did then. Mac says, “Were the wings,” then you say, “Made of wax / made of water!” Try it.
7. Guided By Voices, “Echos Myron”
But the “new” indie-rock band everybody was talking about in 1994 was Guided By Voices, which released its seventh album, Bee Thousand, that year. It’s a monstrous, amazing mash of classic-rock songwriting and no-fi recording techniques, with perfect mistakes coloring every minute. “Echos Myron” is everything great about this era of the band: It reaches into the British Invasion for its simple chord progression, and it features one of Robert Pollard’s purest vocal performances delivering lyrics both brilliant and silly, one right after the other. To wit: “He tells you of the dreamers, but he’s cracked up the road / and he’d like to lift us up but we’re a very heavy load / and we’re finally here / and shit, yeah, it’s cool.”
8. Aphex Twin, “#1”
I fell asleep many 1994 nights listening to disc one of Aphex Twin’s opus Selected Ambient Works, Volume 2. If I was lucky, it was to what the streaming services call “#1,” but which is in fact—like every song save one on the collection—technically untitled. (Fans call it “Cliffs,” since each track was represented by an image.) Many of the instrumental, mostly beat-free songs were supposedly inspired by Richard D. James’ dreams, so it makes sense as a nighttime tonic.
9. Tortoise, “Cornpone Brunch”
On the more organic side of instrumental music was the game-changing Tortoise debut, which re-launched (with a new definition) the notion of “post-rock” as a genre. In this case it meant guys from rock bands switching things up into mannered, groovy, intricate songs like the gliding, fantastic “Cornpone Brunch.” For my money, Tortoise is even better than its lauded follow-up, Millions Now Living Can Never Die, and it can also take more of the credit/blame for inspiring a thousand imitators.
10. Luna, “Into The Fold”
When I first came across Luna, it was difficult to find the albums by its frontman’s former band, Galaxie 500. (They were eventually reappraised, box-setted, and critically vaunted.) But for me, Luna’s first two albums—1992’s Lunapark and 1994’s Bewitched, from which the sultry, beguiling “Into The Fold” comes—are as good as the Galaxie records.
11. Heatmiser, “Collect To NYC” / Elliott Smith, “No Name #3”
It’s hard to believe there was a time when Elliott Smith was known better as part of Heatmiser than as a soul-baring solo artist, but in 1994 he released excellent albums in both incarnations. Heatmiser’s Cop And Speeder features some amazing songs that are delivered with a fully rocking three-piece (but are still recognizably Smith); Roman Candle was initially a solo demo tape that yielded some of his greatest quiet songs, including the gorgeous “No Name #3.” It ended up playing a role—along with a newer song, “Miss Misery,” on the Good Will Hunting soundtrack.
12. Low, “Words”
Low’s debut album helped change my taste in music; I had never heard anything so deliberately slow and beautiful and downcast—and clearly neither had some of the bands that formed in the trio’s wake. It all starts with “Words,” the catchiest song from I Could Live In Hope, and one that I saw the band play twice in one show in 1995, because somebody showed up late and asked if they’d do it again. Sure, it’s dark and depressing, but that doesn’t mean its creators aren’t incredibly polite. The band has evolved so much and so distinctly over 20 years, but every era has something to recommend it.
13. Bedhead, “Bedside Table”
The Texas band Bedhead, together with Low, were the prime perpetrators of what was jokingly—an then, later, seriously—called “slowcore.” Bedhead always had a bigger, more daunting sound—probably due to the fact that it had three guitarists—but exercised so much restraint. “Bedside Table,” from 1994’s debut Whatfunlifewas, builds from nearly nothing into a crushing wall so gradually you’ll barely notice. The band’s entire catalog is getting a much-deserved box set via Numero Group later this year.
14. Adorable, “Kangaroo Court”
Adorable was supposed to be the next big thing for British rock, and specifically for Creation Records, whose pedigree is incredible. I thought they’d be huge, but their excellent second album—Fake, from 1994—didn’t even get an American release. “Kangaroo Court” was to be the album’s hit single; instead, it’s barely a footnote, though the band is spoken of in reverent tones by a small group of diehards.