Over The Hill (Halfway): My Life in Records According to 1994 (Part 1)

I'm not big on nostalgia.  At least, not normally.

It's rare that I bask in the warm glow of fond remembrances or gaze at photos or relics of my youth satisfied with the experiences they depict or the joyous interactions we've shared.  The past for me is empty and I find myself looking ahead most of the time as the unchanging and meaninglessness of yesterday falls deeper and deeper from the grasp of recollection.  Any time I've allowed myself even a second's worth of self-examination via personal history, I wind up irretrievably sunk into a vast network of "what ifs," rethinking my way out of mistakes I've made, pissed off at being young and stupid and incapable of doing things differently.  Truth be told, childhood and adolescence were both obstacles for me, something that had to be negotiated and worked through before being finally rewarded with adulthood.  There wasn't much to enjoy about being young.  I wanted autonomy.  I don't envy the young.  I never have.  I never will.

Having said all that, youth does have its benefits.  The only thing I truly miss about my youth, especially my adolescence, is being relevant and current to my era's music.  This is when albums become YOUR albums.  I would love to be able to experience music like a kid, again.  I would love to have that visceral, life-altering engagement with an album, to be fully shaken to my core and made to see the world differently.  As an adult, I'm no more than an appreciator.  As a kid, I was the demographic, I was affected.  Filing through the CDs I'd acquired in 1994, which wound up a less-than-diverse grouping of albums that I'd listened to extensively over the course of that year, (and in some cases, beyond), was met with both feelings of elation and heartache.  1994 wasn't a great year for me personally, although it was a great year for discovery.  And, because my own life was met with a series of ups and downs, much of what I'd listened to became both therapeutic and cathartic, my company through many lonely nights and my means of escape.  Consequently, many of these albums have become difficult to consider without their contextual and personal connections to me.

My copy of Jar Of Flies by Alice In Chains with the Wall-To-Wall guarantee proudly affixed.

But, aside from where I was in '94, where was music?  Oasis and Blur were happening, though neither were relevant to me at the time.  Kurt Cobain had offed himself, which signaled the beginning of the end as far as "alternative music" was concerned.  His death also meant that every Wall-To-Wall Sound & Video was ready with every Nirvana album they could stock, priced to gouge because you really needed that $16.99 copy of the "Magnolia" single.  As if in the midst of eulogizing the newly grief-stricken "alternative nation," Green Day released Dookie, which led to a very weak punk rock "renaissance" that was cynically appropriated by record execs and a host of emerging/reemerging punk bands.  Direct beneficiaries of this disingenuous trend, The Offspring released its hit-riddled album Smash and "Self Esteem" consequently remains a staple of FM rock radio to this day.  And, Korn's self-titled debut hit the shelves, which inevitably spawned more over-the-counterculture mall rock bullshit than one thought possible and more or less tainted the latter half of the decade.  I'll fully admit that I'd completely bought into that sales pitch myself, resulting in a bad stretch for me musically.  I'll still give Korn's first album some credit, even if I'll never listen to it again.

I learned more about hip hop later, so apologies for leaving out Nas, Method Man and Murder Was The Case.

Here's what I was listening to:

Okay, so I'm not starting off with a favorite.

Cleansing was my first and last foray into the very simplistic and mostly dry Prong, who with this release sounded like they were heavy into the industrialized traits brought to the spotlight by Ministry, Nine Inch Nails and KMFDM.  It's a very thin album and revisiting something as diabolically corny as "Broken Peace" made me question why this album still resides in my library.  Still, I remember "Cut-Rate" made it onto more than a couple of mixtapes I'd crafted back then, so it's not as if Cleansing was completely bereft of merit.


Alice In ChainsJar Of Flies EP
I didn't begin with Facelift or Dirt.  Instead, I waited on acquiring any Alice In Chains albums until Jar Of Flies was released, which is a mostly acoustic seven-song EP that convinced me of the band's worth and remains one of my true favorites of the decade.  I remember seeing the very gnarly, crudely animated "I Stay Away" video, falling in love with Layne Staley's shrill lead into the hook, plus that beautiful phrase Jerry Cantrell uses to introduce the song, and just NEEDING to own this album.  I was late to the game with Alice In Chains, most of my friends having already allowed "Man in the Box" and "Them Bones" to resonate well enough to warrant knowledge of the two albums (and two other EPs) I'd skipped.  I'm happy I started here, though.


Green DayDookie
Yeah, I know, I know.  In the early 90s, Kerplunk was a standard topic amongst skateboarding folk and I was still desperately seeking membership.  When I saw a new Green Day CD available, a band I'd only known at that point from a song in a skateboarding video, I figured I'd give it a shot.  I don't remember "Longview" being a hit at the time, so I'd no preview of its contents to consider.  I don't even think I'd seen any printed reviews, as I would routinely scour through back issues of Rolling Stone and SPIN at my high school's library during study hall.  I had no prior wisdom to help me qualify my purchase other than occasional references in Transworld SKATEboarding or Thrasher.  I bought a promo copy of Dookie from my then-favorite record store, Record Revival, which was located inside the Quakertown Farmer's Market. I was there just about every other weekend when I would visit my Dad.  Prices weren't ridiculous and you could usually find what you were looking for.

So, Dookie...

I wanted something aggressive and Green Day didn't deliver.  They had speed (some of the time) and attitude (very tame), but pop sensibilities that notably surpassed some of the more sugarcoated moments in Nirvana's Nevermind, (of which there were many).  Initially, I liked the album and I still consider some of it worthwhile, ("When I Come Around" will bounce within your head for days), but it just wasn't what I was looking for and it became very stale.  At some point, I put the CD away and never cracked it open again.  I finally pulled it from my collection a couple years ago and exchanged it for new music.


JawboxFor Your Own Special Sweetheart
It dawned on me while making this list of albums that Record Revival was a key resource for many of my findings.  My introduction to Jawbox for instance was a $4 EP, Savory + 3, which had been in heavy rotation through much of '94.  And, while I'd had my sights on it for some time, I didn't have a copy of For Your Own Special Sweetheart until late December, either a Christmas or birthday gift.  It was given to me by my brother, who shares in my love of this album and the preceding EP. 

Jawbox were yet another post-Nirvana major label signing, leaving Dischord behind after a two-album stretch.  I consider, with no hesitation, For Your Own Special Sweetheart to be one of the best albums ever made, regardless of era.  Every riff or bass phrase, every chord in either its sharply askew or rapidly loose articulation, songs from the clattering arrangements of "Savory" and "Cruel Swing" to the attempted delicacy of "Cooling Card" and "Whitney Walks," it's a perfect rock album from start to finish.  To have lived when I could call this album my own is reason enough to be happy I grew up when I did.


Beastie BoysIll Communication/Some Old Bullshit
A summer soundtrack like no other.  "Sabotage" was always on the radio and its video, helmed by Spike Jonze, seemed MTV's lifeblood at the time. Following Paul's Boutique, Beastie Boys had managed to carve out this interesting and strange punk rock/hip hop niche through which they could continue to rhyme and steal while both revisiting their roots in hardcore and composing funk and groove-based instrumentals.  Ill Communication was the second of these releases, (the more mature progression of Check Your Head's formula), to cultivate this highly diverse, yet somehow cohesive, dialect which became quintessentially "them."  For all my "older is better" grandstanding earlier in this entry, Ill Communication is one album that makes me long for youth, its feel permanently affixed to the frame of mind I would experience from time to time: When things felt alright; when the sun was shining and the warm air felt invigorating.

As far Some Old Bullshit, I'd remembered hearing some of the Pollywog Stew EP from a friend who'd owned it on cassette.  While I would never say that the Beastie Boys really excelled at hardcore, (though I still enjoy listening to Aglio e Olio from time to time), it was a good novelty item.  Plus, with regard to "Cooky Puss," the band's early experimentation with record scratching and the hijinx of prank phone calls were damn amusing.

More to come.

Letters From A Tapehead


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