10. Veruca Salt, "Seether"
This song was still climbing the charts in October of 1994, before it became a big crossover hit. A simple, classic, hard hitting rocker. This song showed how many alternative bands were grounded in a punk aesthetic but had grown up listening to AC/DC. Veruca Salt got dissed for the hard rock-iness of their sound (which they fully embraced on their second album), but this one still holds up for sure.
9. Toad the Wet Sprocket, "Something's Always Wrong"
Here's a band that was definitely NOT grounded in the punk aesthetic. Like Counting Crows they combined a more heartland/roots rock vibe with the mopiness that dominated the 90s. As a melancholic person that combo suited me fine. There's a catchy folk guitar riff but this song does not have hooks as sharp as the band's bigger hits.
8. Live, "I Alone"
It is not cool to like Live anymore, but I will always have a soft spot for them. They like me came from a small rural town and like me did not give into big city cynicism. Throwing Copper had some great hard-edged songs with emotional heft, and this one fits the bill. Sure there's the usual "loud-quiet-loud" formula but it's executed better than most. Bonus points for a throwback video where the band vamps and makes faces at the camera.
7. Liz Phair, "Supernova"
Yes yes yes. Great alternarock tune with Liz at her absolute sultriest. It was kind of amazing to hear a song this blatantly carnal on the local alt-rock station. Alternative rock tended to be pretty sexless compared to traditional rock music, but Phair was a pathbreaking exception. I had such a massive crush on her, musically and otherwise. When I moved to Chicago in the late 90s I got to see her live and it was absolutely fantastic.
6. Offspring, "Self Esteem"
Well this is a bit of a contrast with its male self-pitying. The Offspring were such an unlikely success, a California punk band that had a massive chart busting album on an independent label (Epitaph) started by members of Bad Religion. In this song you can begin to hear the seeds of the future, when what was known as "alternative" became the same old macho butt rock with more distorted guitars and fewer solos.
5. Dinosaur Jr, "Feel The Pain"
No song takes me back to hanging out in my dorm room my freshman year of high school like this one. In a lot of ways 1994 was the absolute peak of alternative rock. Dinosaur Jr, an indie scene stalwart that had existed well below the surface for years all of sudden were getting significant MTV airplay. This song has some of my favorite J. Mascis guitar pyrotechnics, but what's more amazing is that a song with his broken voice on it got airplay. That was the magic of the year of our Lord 1994.
4. Nirvana, "About A Girl"
It is extremely difficult for me to hear Nirvana's Unplugged in New York without getting super emotional. Before the album got an official release my college debate coach had taped the episode off of TV and we played it on our long college debate road trips. Kurt Cobain's death had shaken me and playing this album on those dark nights crossing the prairie was like sitting shiva. This song came from Nirvana's pre-fame first album, and sounds even better acoustically. It's the first song of the set, and when those acoustic guitars churn it sets off something very deep inside of me. I once even started an aborted novel with that particular moment. The novel didn't go anywhere, and neither has the feeling this song gives me.
3. Stone Temple Pilots, "Interstate Love Song"
In the autumn of 1994 I professed to hate Stone Temple Pilots. In my new life as a college student I wanted everyone to know how deep and sophisticated and BETTER my musical tastes were. Having read too many rock critics I sneered at this band as a bunch of Johnny-come-latelys. And yes, they were not original but in time and with wisdom I could at least acknowledge that they were a decent rock band with a handful of bangin' singles. This is one of them. ("Big Bang Baby" is actually transcendent.)
2. The Cranberries, "Zombie"
With over twenty years of peace it is easy to forget how awful and bloody the Troubles were for Northern Ireland. The Cranberries, who had made their name with beautiful, ethereal singles, got hard and loud on this topical song. The sound is dated but the message is not. As Fela Kuti knew, "zombie" is a good metaphor for a person who commits violence unthinkingly. This is the kind of angry cry against hate we need more of today.
1. REM, "What's the Frequency Kenneth?"
I have commented before how REM's Monster is the 90s alternative rock album you'll always find multiple used copies of at record stores. It was a rocking, feedback-laden follow up to their two folky smashes, Out of Time and Automatic for the People. A lot of people bought on the strength of hits like this, then tossed it aside. I am a Monster apologist. A couple of songs near the end are weak, but there are some amazing tunes all over that album, and a drone-y, psychedelic sound that's pretty unique. This song is certainly on the weird side, with the title being a reference to a man attacking Dan Rather in the street and most of the lyrics being mumbled by Stipe in ways we hadn't heard since Fables of the Reconstruction. On this song in particular it was nice to hear Peter Buck cut loose on the guitar after years of mandolin-ing.