Beavis and Butt-HeadPhoto: Everett Collection

Major record labels learned two lessons in the early nineties: (a) that some of the things they’d considered “underground” were, in fact, highly marketable, and (b) they didn’t even need to be very efficient about figuring out which things those were. Buy everything in earshot, throw it all at MTV, and let Beavis and Butt-head sit on the couch sorting it out.

That was the idea with “alternative” anyway, and it was in 1993 that this dynamic got fascinating: The difference between a novelty hit and an important new single was nonexistent; a joke-metal track about the Three Little Pigs hit the top twenty; almost anything, it seemed, could scrounge momentary access to a mainstream. The surprise is just how many of the year’s minor oddball hits marked the debuts of lasting artists: Beck, Radiohead, Bjork, PJ Harvey, the Flaming Lips …

Hip-hop rode the momentary free-for-all in the opposite direction—away from the scatter of dance singles, pop hits, and boho acts that gatekeepers had assumed constituted its palatable side. No, its commercial apotheosis would look like The Chronic, the sixth-highest-selling record of 1993: nation-conquering albums from larger-than-life “underground” artists, stars in an era when rock was abandoning stardom.

What 1993 seemed to bring to most genres, really, was a free-floating, totally synergistic belief, both from industry and fans, that something new and interesting was supposed to be happening. And since no one had entirely pinned down what that thing was, the world got to dive, momentarily, into a giddy commercial chaos of figuring it out. Sort of like the Internet is now, but with more earnest enthusiasm, and way more money.