I was twelve years old in 1994. I was in 7th grade and just started learning guitar. I played roller hockey after school, wore braces, held hands with my girlfriend, and competed with the other overachievers.
It was a good year.
Next year is the thirtieth anniversary of 1994. Thirty years! The Beatles put out their first album in 1964. In 1994, that thirty-year leap was ancient history. Today, 1994 feels much closer.
I now understand how my mom felt in the 90s, reminiscing about her teenage years with the Beatles. Distance changes with time.
The 90s music scene of my youth fell into two camps: grunge and rap. I liked some of the rap, but I loved grunge. It’s worth noting that In Utero, Nirvana’s last studio album, came out the same year as Doggystyle, Snoop Dogg’s first, in late 1993. Both albums were edgy, mature, and full of emotion. I consumed them with curiosity and awe. As an almost-teenager, these albums were portals into adulthood. Kurt Cobain and Snoop Dogg couldn’t have been more different, but they shared with me the mysteries of adolescence. Listening to them made me feel older.
I owned In Utero. I cherished it. I don’t think my mom would have let me buy Doggystyle. I’m not sure I ever asked. Instead, I listened to that album at my best friend’s house. We laughed at all the sexual references and pretended to understand the lifestyle that Snoop Dogg rapped about. We two suburban white boys couldn’t have been further from South Central LA, but something about the stories, the bravado, and the sound of that music made us listen and feel it anyway.
I’ll put Doggystyle on sometimes. I play it loud when my family is out of the house. I recall those feelings of my 12-year-old self like an old smell.
The Blue Album by Weezer and Dookie by Green Day also came out in 1994. These album covers to me are the definition of nostalgia. These were our roller hockey soundtrack. We’d listen to the entire albums on my friend’s battery-powered Sony CD boombox. In the parking lot in front of his condo, in the basketball courts at the closest elementary school, we’d listen to Weezer and Green Day and play hours of schoolyard puck.
When we weren’t playing hockey, we were jamming at someone’s house. I’d lug my guitar and amp up and down Montecito Avenue, sweat marks on my back from the strap of my guitar bag. Weezer and Green Day were heroes to us. Their songs were sweet, angsty, and the musicality was profound. They weren’t as deep as Nirvana, but sometimes we wanted a light beer rather than a smokey scotch (a metaphor I wouldn’t appreciate until the early 2000s). These two albums were the bright hues against the darker backdrop of In Utero and Doggystyle.
Stone Temple Pilot’s Core and Soundgarden’s Superunknown were not in the regular rotation with my friends. These were the albums I would play when I needed to take a break from the rest. They were good fillers then, and I appreciate them more today than I did thirty years ago. Scott Weiland of STP and Chris Cornell of Soundgarden are the two best grunge rock singers of the 1990s. Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam would be a close runner-up, and I suppose Layne Staley of Alice In Chains should be in the mix too. Critics may disagree, but I found the biting power of Weiland’s and Cornell’s voices to be unlike any other. It almost made the music too hard for me to associate with. Kurt Cobain’s voice for Nirvava was pure energy; he’s not really a singer. Billy Joe Armstrong of Green Day sounds like a choir boy, and I would go on to spend four years of choir in high school, so I must have liked that sound. Rivers Cuomo of Weezer was like Billy Joe, sweet and normal.
Weiland and Cornell are gods in comparison. There’s nobody like them. They’re the Freddy Mercury, Robert Plant, and Steve Perry of the 1990s.
Finally, I have to give a shout-out to the two best albums from the MTV Unplugged series. Nirvana’s came out in 1994, seven months after Kurt Cobain’s death. Eric Clapton’s Unplugged was released in 1992. Both albums got a lot of radio and air time on MTV, and each won a Grammy.
Fun trivia fact. Although Nevermind, released in 1991, was a HUGE album, it didn’t win anything. MTV Unplugged was Nirvana’s only Grammy award.