5 of the Best American Rock Songs From 1994

Between Nirvana’s Nevermind and Bush’s Sixteen Stone, grunge music became the most popular form of rock and roll. While the latter marked the beginning of the end of grunge, the former’s legacy endures beyond the decade’s biggest trend in music.

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The peak year of alternative music’s reign was 1994. But this list holds more than alt-rock’s biggest names. A legend recorded one of his best albums 18 years into his career amid grunge and alternative rock dominance.

In a year full of colossal albums, here are five of the best American rock songs from 1994.

And someday you will ache like I ache.

“What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” by R.E.M.

For R.E.M.’s ninth studio album Monster, Peter Buck traded his jangly, shimmering arpeggios for fuzzed-out power chords. Buck, with Michael Stipe, Mike Mills, and Bill Berry, self-consciously rejected their past catalog for a reinvention.

However, the noisy result wasn’t to compete with the era’s culture-dominating grunge bands. Instead, R.E.M. created a masterwork combination of glam rock and punk. The increased volume awoke the beast from Athens, Georgia, from its slumber as R.E.M. toured for the first time since 1989.

“What’s the frequency, Kenneth?” is your Benzedrine, uh-huh
I was brain-dead, locked out, numb, not up to speed
I thought I’d pegged you an idiot’s dream
Tunnel vision from the outsider’s screen

“Cut Your Hair” by Pavement

There’s an episode of Beavis and Butt-Head featuring Pavement where the cartoon slackers urge the band to try a little harder. Beavis says, “If you’re going to be horrible, at least, like, kick a-s like Jesus Lizard. I mean, they suck but they kick a-s.”

If you’ve followed Pavement’s career, you will have noticed they almost seem to try not to be successful. It’s also what makes them one of the most endearing and influential indie rock bands. “Cut Your Hair” is as close as Stephen Malkmus and his band came to having a hit single. Turn it up (just a little).

Charts are like a puzzle
Hit men wearing muzzles
Hesitate, you die
Look around, around
The second drummer drowned
His telephone is found

“You Don’t Know How It Feels” by Tom Petty

Though alternative music dominated the mid-90s, Tom Petty, Mike Campbell, and Rick Rubin made a classic rock masterpiece called Wildflowers. The amazing thing about Petty and Rubin is how they were stubbornly indifferent to the artistic trends happening around them.

In the previous decade, Rubin helped bring hip-hop to the masses with Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys. Then he began the ’90s by producing the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ groundbreaking album Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Meanwhile, Petty wanted freedom from his band, the Heartbreakers, though they do appear on the album minus drummer Stan Lynch. “You Don’t Know How It Feels” sounds like harmless soft rock but MTV and VH1 censored the bits about rolling another joint. It’s wild to think back on the things that used to trigger the stiffs.

But let me get to the point, let’s roll another joint
And turn the radio loud, I’m too alone to be proud
And you don’t know how it feels
You don’t know how it feels to be me

“Closer” by Nine Inch Nails

Speaking of censors and stiffs, Trent Reznor came up with a chorus built to test the bowdlerizing system. Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” is a lesson in writing concisely, directly, without ambiguity: “I want to f–k you like an animal!”

On the track, Reznor and his co-producer Flood sampled Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing” to create a totem of obsession. For the video, director Mark Romanek negotiated with MTV what exactly would be permissible to air. There’s S&M, leather, shackles, a ball gag, a monkey—well, you get the idea.

Through every forest
Above the trees
Within my stomach
Scraped off my knees
I drink the honey
Inside your hive
You are the reason
I stay alive

“Buddy Holly” by Weezer

After Rivers Cuomo discovered KISS, he began dreaming about being a rock star. Cuomo soon became a virtuoso metal guitarist and like many with heavy metal dreams, moved to Los Angeles. Once in California, something profound happened. Cuomo’s co-workers at Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard introduced him to a different kind of music: Pixies, The Velvet Underground, and Sonic Youth. Then he heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and became angry because he didn’t write it. What did he do next? Well, he wrote a perfect album.

The Blue Album, as Weezer’s debut is colloquially called, features 41 minutes of geek jokes, self-conscious anthems, and massive riffs. Though Cuomo didn’t write “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” he wrote “Buddy Holly,” which became just as ubiquitous.

He wanted to become a rock star because of KISS, an outrageous band with a comic book image. Cuomo became a rock star, but also the poster boy for the anti-frontman who resembled an English teacher more than he did Paul Stanley’s Starchild.

What’s with these homies, dissing my girl?
Why do they gotta front?
What did we ever do to these guys that made them so violent?

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Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images for iHeartMedia

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