I've been thinking a lot about 1993 lately. I don't think I even realized it's the 20-year anniversary of the Year After Nevermind (released late in 1991, but hit #1 in January 1992). But I must have heard Nirvana on the radio recently, and that got me thinking about Kurt Cobain. Mercifully, though, I tend not to think about the tragedy of the end of his life. Nor is my enduring memory of Cobain related to "Smells Like Teen Spirit," as culturally monumental as that song was. No, usually when I think about Kurt Cobain, it is in the context of the music video for Nirvana's 1993 hit, "Heart-Shaped Box." Amid all the creepy imagery in that video, Cobain looks like he's actually having fun. When I think of 1993, it is often that closeup of Kurt's face I remember, as he yells "Hey! Way!" while barely concealing a grin.
1993 will be regarded as a classic year. And not just because of In Utero. This was the year that Pearl Jam gave us Vs. And fucking "Cannonball" by the Breeders, man. (Damn that was a good song.) And every single from The Chronic, although the album itself was released in December 1992.
1993 was also the year that MTV straddled the line between its origins in music and ambitions in television. Music was still prevalent - those of us at television-watching age in 1993 spent incalculable hours watching music videos. But it was also the year that "The Real World" (season 2 in Los Angeles) became much more culturally relevant, even while the network pushed shallow skin-fests like "The Grind" and "Beauty and the Beach" - although my barely-teenage self didn't see cause for concern at the time.
There were eleven songs that reached the #1 spot in Billboard's Hot 100, and much like every other year, ten of them were pop or R&B. (Meatloaf's "I Would Do Anything For Love" was the lone exception.) But unlike today, the modern rock charts in 1993 were vibrant and diverse. It was a time when not just titans like Nirvana could hit #1; both Belly's "Feed the Tree" and Blind Melon's "No Rain" were there for 3 weeks each, and Porno for Pyros' "Pets" occupied that spot for five. 1993 was the year America fell in love with the Bee Girl, but it would be incomplete to only focus on the big #1 singles. Down-chart hits like Pearl Jam's "Daughter" and "Black," Beck's "Loser," and Alice in Chains' "Down in a Hole" have easily withstood the erosion of memory over the last 20 years.
It's also important to remember how music movements are not as cleanly-defined as hindsight might suggest. History seems to remember acts like Soul Asylum, Gin Blossoms, Spin Doctors, and Counting Crows as post-grunge, despite all having major singles in 1993. These bands existed on the radio alongside the iconic bands whose coattails they were supposedly (but not actually) riding. Instead, their emergence owes much more to the 1980s college rock of bands like R.E.M. than they ever did to Nirvana.
Oh, and as for R.E.M., they just happened to release one of the biggest albums of the decade, Automatic For the People, in late 1992. That record's smash hit, "Everybody Hurts," was playing on every stereo in the spring/summer of - you guessed it - 1993.
There hasn't been another year in music like 1993...well, except 1994, which was also pretty great. It was also pretty awful...but like I said, I try not to think about that.