As we look back 20 years later through slightly rose-tinted glasses, 1994 seems a gloriously seether-fighting, sweater-undoing, fantastic voyage of 100% pure love. But lest we get cynical about 2014 pop in comparison, it’s worth remembering that not only is there still plenty of great stuff on the radio, but a lot of the artists who were calling the shots back then are still around today — either returned from long absences or having never left in the first place. Many of them might have downsized from arenas to auditoriums or gone from the sales racks to Spotify and Bandcamp, but all of ‘em are still putting out quality releases for those of us willing to search them out, and a handful are still even topping sales charts and year-end lists.
These are our favorite 2014 songs by artists who were around and relevant in 1994. Artists didn’t have to release an album in ’94 to have been eligible, but they had to have had some quantifiable impact on the year — an EP, a couple singles, a song that charted, etc. — and they had to have been at least somewhat known by then. In the interest of being as true to the spirit of ’94 as possible, we also excluded solo artists who were only famous as parts of non-eponymously-named groups back then (so no Thurston Moore, Ghostface Killah or Damon Albarn), or newer groups featured around an artist famous for a different group in the mid-’90s (Ex Hex, Shabazz Palaces).
So, saving you the price of a new Delorean — you’re welcome — here’s our list of the 40 best 1994 songs of 2014.
40. Bush, “The Only Way Out”
It didn’t quite get the attention that his wife’s did, but Mr. Gwen Stefani had himself a nice little comeback in 2014, with sixth Bush album Man on the Run and its lead single, “The Only Way Out.” The song was Gavin’s hookiest in ages, with a buzzing riff, near-power-pop chords and a chorus that almost rates as intelligible by Rossdale standards: “The only way out is through / Lost my mind over you.” Just don’t tell Trent Reznor about the title lift, lest we risk another “Starfuckers, Inc.” ANDREW UNTERBERGER
39. Boyz II Men, “What Happens in Vegas”
Yes, Robert DeNiro and Morgan Freeman killed whatever remaining patience we may have had for Nevada desert tomfoolery. But when the Boyz are doing immaculately produced doo-wop throwbacks, with Wanya “The Whiny One” Morris singing lead about falling in love with a stripper (“All you need is love / Love, and 100 bucks”), it’s intoxicating enough to be worth the eventual hangover. A.U.
38. Shellac, “Dude Incredible”
“Let’s leave this place directly / And go where the females congregate / Perhaps they’ll let us fuck them / And on the way, we’ll have adventure.” Welcome back, Steve. A.U.
37. Souls of Mischief, “Meeting of the Minds”
At the time, ’93 ’til Infinity was slept on more than Rugrats bedsheets, but folks with their antennae up in the Golden Age thrilled to the Oakland crew’s effortless cool. One of those folks was Adrien Younge, the high-concept reanimator behind recent efforts by Ghostface Killah and the Delfonics’ William Hart. There Is Only Now is a based-on-a-true-story revenge tale; “Meeting of the Minds” lays out a key love triangle over Younge’s live-band rhythm section. The Souls trade bars and psychological insights, riding the broken-meter bass line like the east Bay Bridge does an earthquake.BRAD SHOUP
36. Juliana Hatfield, “Needle in the Hay”
Hatfield made time to record this Elliott Smith evergray around the sessions for the second Juliana Hatfield Trio record in 22 years. Recorded for, of all fripperies, a Wes Anderson tribute album, “Needle” hews to the original. The tempo’s a bit quicker, and she double-tracks herself for the song’s entirety. But the (tasteful) inclusion of chintzy drum programming and mellotron cleverly point to Smith’s eventual creative direction. Hatfield, of course, has been elaborating on the same strong sound — taut, melodic alt-rock — since her debut. B.S.
35. Corrosion of Conformity, “Brand New Sleep”
The underrated Raleigh sludgeheads released their appropriately titled ninth album IX in 2014, led off by this six minute Sabbath-observing jam. Twenty years on, CoC still hasn’t gotten rid of their “Albatross,” and in their case that’s a good thing — “Sleep” alternately lurches and soars the way the group’s breakout hit did back in ’94, with nearly the song’s whole second half taken up by a Woody Weatherman guitar solo that’d put Beavis and Butthead’s necks in traction. A.U.
34. Coolio, “Take It to the Hub”
When porn actors and recording artists intersect, it’s usually not to make, uh, music. There are exceptions, sure: your Andrea Trues, your Dennis Parkers, your Dirk Digglers. But nobody depicted a wanksta’s paradise quite like Coolio. He raps about porn like only a dude in his fifties can: huffing and puffing, mispronouncing studio names, talking about actually paying for the stuff. “I saw a pussy and a titty, a asscheek,” he reports. But the man’s raWorldmusicfestsg all the way to the spank bank: the video got more views than every Cookin’ With Coolio combined. B.S.
33. Jeru the Damaja, “Point Blank”
The savior that hip-hop was probably unaware that it needed, Jeru the Damaja did his best to crack 2014 rap with The Hammer, a vitriolic eight-track EP about how crappy the game has gotten in the Brooklyn MC’s absence. On album highlight “Point Black,” the truthbombs can be a little too old school for his own good (“Rappin’ used to be hard, but now it’s so effeminate”), but his passion is refreshing and surprisingly focused, and the production (from ’90s East Coast great Large Professor) is out-of-this-world enough with its sci-fi bleeps-and-bloops to make it seem like Jeru really has missed the better part of the last decade of genre devolution in interstellar travel. After seeing the way the maniacs blew it up, he may never leave again. A.U.
32. Cracker, “Waited My Whole Life”
Cracker released their first album of the 2010s this year with the double-LP set Berkeley to Bakersfield, isolating the group’s So-Cal punk and alt-country influences between the two discs. Single “Waited My Whole Life” is the bridge between the two halves, a twangy but insistently chugging bar-rock love song that seems custom-designed to be the first half of a “One for us, one for them” encore at the band’s live show. And yes, the song’s groove does sound a whole lot like the Wallflowers’ “One Headlight,” but if in the year 2014 you still think that’s a bad thing, you’re on yer own, bub. A.U.
31. Ice Cube, “Sic Them Youngins on ‘Em”
It’s harder to rap about copping guns and drinking 40s when you’re a family friendly movie star that’s actually in your 40s, but that’s no problem: Ice Cube’s old and wise enough to know how to deputize. So when haters “try to play chicken with a fuckin’ rooster,” Cube just lets his “army of boosters” at it, and the dramatic strings take care of the rest. There’s sequels to be filmed, boy. A.U.