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5. Pearl Jam - “Jeremy” (1991)
Seattle-based Pearl Jam first rose to success with their dual classics “Alive” and “Even Flow” from their acclaimed debut Ten. It was their third single “Jeremy”, a searing melodrama about teen suicide, that elevated the band to an exalted stature in alternative rock that they’ve never relinquished.
Although the Centers for Disease Control statistics indicate every 12.3 seconds an American dies from suicide, it’s not an issue typically addressed in rock music. “Jeremy” faces it head-on, with motoric power and incendiary emotion. Vocalist Eddie Vedder was inspired to write the lyrics after reading an article about a high school student in Texas — Jeremy Wade Delle — who in early 1991 walked into an English class, put a .357 Magnum revolver into his mouth, and pulled the trigger in front of a teacher and 30 of his fellow students.
The tragic scene is dramatized in the song’s surreal and powerful video directed by Mark Pellington, which ends with Jeremy’s classmates — who’d earlier been shown mocking and tormenting the boy — locked motionless, faces frozen in shock and terror, their crisp white clothes splattered with Jeremy’s blood.
Throughout the video, Eddie Vedder narrates the story with extraordinary presence and gravitas. His eyes lock only once with the camera — otherwise he’s looking away, as he relates a tale so obviously painful it’s almost unbearable. “Try to forget this! Try to erase this from the blackboard,” he wails at one point, but he can’t. Vedder’s face is riven with anguish as he plays the role of one of Jeremy’s tormentors looking back in remembrance: “Clearly I remember pickin’ on the boy / seemed a harmless little fuck”. The combination of the song’s innate power, Vedder’s dramatic retelling and the disturbing imagery so deftly handled by Pellington leaves the viewer wrapped in the cold grip of horror at the video’s conclusion.
“Jeremy” is the story of a boy lost in his own imaginary world because reality is simply too painful. He was an outcast in every facet of his life. The teen was mercilessly taunted by his classmates at school, and fighting back only wrought him more trouble. His parents were emotionally detached and too wrapped in their own private miseries to offer support. There was no solace for him, no comfort, no sense of love, no relief. His artistic imagination turned dark, and he was prone to violent fantasies. “King Jeremy the Wicked rules his world”, he imagined, drawing pictures of himself standing victorious on a mountaintop, arms raised in glory, as “the dead lay in pools of maroon below”.
The tension in the song amps and flares in tandem with Jeremy’s internal crisis until both explode during the unforgettable climax. “Jeremy” is like a train barreling toward a cliff—you know what’s coming, you can’t stop it, and you can’t look away. Jeff Ament wrote the music, which revolves around a recurring figure played on his 12-string bass that forms the basis for song’s opening and closing sequences and repeats throughout. Ament’s bass pattern is the foundation for Stone Gossard’s acoustic rhythm guitar and Mike McCready’s blistering electric riffs. The band nails the recording, but what makes “Jeremy” a true classic is Eddie Vedder’s devastating vocal performance.
Vedder’s deeply resonant voice bristles with rage at the insensibility of the tragedy. He rides the crashing hard-rock flood his bandmates provide with fully unleashed fury. Every time Vedder repeats the main hook, “Jeremy spoke in class today”, especially when he extends it during the dramatic segment from 3:24 to 3:42, a sense of dread courses through the listener’s heart. Vedder’s wordless wails of anguish as the song reaches its chill-inducing conclusion echo the mindless tumult crashing through Jeremy’s skull in the moments before he takes the only measure he can see that will bring closure to his pain.
Everything about “Jeremy” stings of regret, of letting a life slip through all of our fingers, of allowing untold potential to be wasted in a callous and hardened world that did not see a boy as a worthy human being… and he couldn’t see it himself. Jeremy was beat down by life. We all exist in a fluid and ever-changing torrent of emotions that can easily become overwhelming. It can be hard for anybody, particularly adolescents, to cope with what life hurls in our direction. The ultimate message of “Jeremy” is to inspire compassion for ourselves and those around us, because in a flash, sometimes of gunpowder and smoke, it can all be over.
4. Oasis - “Wonderwall” (1995)
Sometimes regular, everyday words don’t suffice to express how you feel about someone: “There are many things I’d like to say to you / but I don’t know how.” Noel Gallagher, the songwriter and guitarist for British rockers Oasis, wrote “Wonderwall” for the band’s second album (What’s the Story) Morning Glory, and it is sung by his brother Liam. It’s a love song, but also something far more than that. It’s about a man laying his heart bare and opening up in a way he’s never done before because he knows he has no choice. “Because maybe / you’re gonna be the one that saves me / and after all / you’re my Wonderwall.”
Noel Gallagher has changed his story about the meaning behind the song. At the time of its release, he claimed it was about his then-girlfriend. But after the dissolution of the relationship, Gallagher later insisted the song wasn’t about her at all. He claimed it’s all fantasy—there is no “you”. It’s a dream that someone—and he can’t articulate who this person may be— will magically appear and rescue him from whatever emotional wreckage he’s trying to clear. It seems, given the specificity of the lyrics, that the original explanation is more likely, but the song works perfectly well in either context.
So what is a Wonderwall, anyway? This is a question many fans were asking as the song burned up alternative radio in the ‘90s. “Wonderwall” refers to Wonderwall Music, George Harrison’s instrumental soundtrack to the 1968 psychedelic film Wonderwall. The project became far more known for Harrison’s soundtrack than for the film itself. The album marked the first solo release by a Beatle and was largely recorded with exotic sounding Indian instruments. Its place in music history is ephemeral, and its title is a perfect metaphor for something to latch onto that is more than just a “rock”. “Wonderwall” is mysterious and unknowable, evoking feelings and emotions that can’t be expressed using our limited language. There is a thread of desperation here, even if Gallagher plays it cool and nonchalant in his delivery because he sees such need as a weakness.
Musically, the song is stripped down and unobtrusive, allowing Liam Gallagher’s vocal to carry the song. It’s built on acoustic guitar, a nimble drum pattern played with brushes, and a mellotron (played by Noel Gallagher) in the background mimicking a cello. The mellotron—which the Beatles used on classic songs like “Strawberry Fields Forever”—and the acoustic-pop vibe echoes back to the dreamy psychedelic pop of the late ‘60s. A simple piano countermelody repeats during the long instrumental ending, and then fades out with the mellotron and a few flickers of acoustic guitar.
Owen Morris, who co-produced the album with Noel Gallagher, places Liam’s voice, with its prominent Mancunian accent, bracingly high in the mix. His vocals are from the perspective of a tough guy, someone not used to expressing tender emotions, and he struggles doing so. He struggles to find the words that adequately describe what he feels, and ultimately comes up with “you’re my Wonderwall”. You are… more to me than I can express. An object of wonder, a tether to sanity, calm in a storm, a center to my gravity.
“Wonderwall” was a major hit on alternative radio, reigning for an astonishing 10 weeks at #1 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart at the end of ‘95 and into early ‘96. Barely a month after “Wonderwall” dropped from the top, another track from Morning Glory, “Champagne Supernova”, began its own five week reign at the top.
3. Nine Inch Nails - “Hurt” (1994)
After an auspicious debut with 1989’s Pretty Hate Machine and the much heavier 1992 EP Broken, Trent Reznor unleashed what will always be seen as Nine Inch Nails’ crowning achievement: The Downward Spiral. A concept album of sorts that traces a man’s descent into addiction, violence, despair and (possibly) suicide, The Downward Spiral is not an easy listen, nor is it meant to be.
Co-produced with one of the all-time greats, Mark Ellis (better known as Flood), Reznor presented a dense industrial wall of musical noise to a wider audience than music this extreme had ever seen. Reznor and Flood are both studio wizards, and The Downward Spiral is awash with endlessly fascinating sonic excursions and textures. The album was a massive success, buoyed by tracks like “March of the Pigs”, “Closer”, “Piggy” and “Reptile”.
In the end, though, it all comes down to “Hurt”, the moment of reckoning. “I hurt myself today / to see if I still feel / I focus on the pain / the only thing that’s real / the needle tears a hole / the old familiar sting / try to kill it all away / but I remember everything”. Shooting up doesn’t numb the pain—nothing does. It sears within him, unquenchable. He’s horrified at himself… “What have I become, my sweetest friend?” How many people listening to this song have looked in the mirror and asked that same question in the same stunned disbelief: what have I become?
“Hurt” is the ultimate conclusion to the hour-long barrage of crushing despondency that precedes it. It unfolds slowly, emerging like a doomed spirit crawling through some dark purgatory. The song’s shifting dynamics are key to its effectiveness. Much of “Hurt” is spent in a state of smoldering tension, with eerie effects like shifting sands in the wind and the buzz of insects swaying in the background over flickers of acoustic guitar. Reznor plays every instrument and creates every sound on the recording, apart from the drums by Chris Vrenna, as the song builds to its heart-pounding climax. Reznor is a master at gradually ratcheting up the pressure and using his vocal phrasing to heighten the sense of drama, progressing from a tortured half-whisper to a feverish howl as needed to convey nuance and emotion. He inhabits the song’s character as if it’s his own story. Perhaps it is.
With all the audio tricks that Reznor has tucked up his sleeve—and there are many—none of it would work without the listener believing this man is truly at the end, the moment when addiction and depression and loss have trampled him so brutally that his only solution is a permanent one. Perhaps. Reznor leaves the ending ambiguous. The Downward Spiral is ostensibly just that, a cycle of despair that ultimately leads to suicide. “Hurt” is laden with bitter self-loathing and disgust. The pain is so palpable you can reach into your speakers and feel its evil pulse. “You could have it all / my empire of dirt / I will let you down / I will make you hurt.” Why would we doubt it? After all, he’s speaking from experience. He still slams needles into his veins to get the fix he hates and needs. He sees no worth of value in himself, why should anybody else? He’s undoubtedly caused endless anguish to himself and others. He’s interminably tormented. What use, then, to go on living?
Yet there is a faint spark of hope and ambiguity at the very end. “If I could start again / a million miles away / I will keep myself / I would find a way.” That’s a very telling “if”. Even at his bleakest moment, when he can no longer face himself, or the pain… Even then, to a shockingly sudden squall of electronic noise that’s like a serrated knife to the jugular, he can’t quite give in. He can’t let go. He can’t quite surrender to the inevitable. Reznor never completely extinguishes hope. After the lyrics end and we’re left to ponder, the song fades to black with those now-familiar shifting winds. Does he find a way?
We don’t know how the story ends, how deeply downward the spiral twists. Maybe it ends differently for each person listening, feeling the song in their bones, understanding exactly the anguish Reznor is expressing. The page is blank, the possibilities are there. He leaves a chance, which is, after all, the most any of us can ever expect. Past is prelude, and we all have stories yet to be written.
2. Radiohead - “Paranoid Android” (1997)
When “Creep” first debuted on MTV back in 1992, nobody could possibly have envisioned that Radiohead would become the single most important band of the next three decades. It was a great song, sure, with an amazing vocal by Thom Yorke, and the debut album, Pablo Honey was not without moments of promise. But Radiohead didn’t sound substantially different from a dozen other bands all treading the same musical territory around the same time period, trying to break through and usually failing.
Opinions changed very quickly when The Bends arrived in 1995. The artistic progression in such a short span was nothing short of stunning. Songs like “[Nice Dream]”, “Fake Plastic Trees”, “My Iron Lung” and “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” weren’t even in the same galaxy as what they had been peddling two years prior. The Bends produced a number of hits in the UK and even started to grow the band a larger following in America thanks to successful videos for “Just” and “High & Dry”.
The Bends is a once in a career album, though, surely. Common wisdom would suggest that they had zero chance to best it. Fortunately, for them and us, Radiohead just kept getting better, a progression that has continued through their brilliant new album, A Moon Shaped Pool.
Nothing captures the zeitgeist of isolation, frustration, and cynicism in an increasingly digital world like 1997’s OK Computer, Radiohead’s third album. It defines the time in which it was released. The first single was Radiohead’s most ambitious work yet, “Paranoid Android”. The song is the album’s anthem and centerpiece, a monument to disillusionment that can’t be expressed in words. It must have been considered a mad gamble by Parlophone Records to release this chaotic 6:24 epic as the lead single, but the song is so earth-shakingly brilliant that it became a no-brainer.
“Paranoid Android” has three distinct moods, notable both for stubbornly enigmatic lyrics and guitar-work capable of cauterizing the brain. The first mood begins as a brisk acoustic shuffle, Yorke’s voice rising nimbly to a glistening falsetto before quickly descending again. Yorke’s malicious reading of the lines, “When I am king, you will be first against the wall / with your opinion which is of no consequence at all” adds a certain sinister, rebellious piquancy to the song.
The second section begins at about 1:58, where the acoustic guitar pattern turns darker. Yorke sneers, “Ambition makes you look pretty ugly / kicking squealing Gucci little piggy”, after which Johnny Greenwood’s wildly distorted guitar drills through the speakers like a spear of white-hot metal burrowing into the listener’s ear.
Then, at 3:34, comes the solemn third section, with mournful choral vocals, a funereal death march, and Yorke singing like a man standing in the rain, face up at the sky, wondering if there’s a God who has brought us to this state. “Rain down on me / rain down on me / from a great height,” he wails, before entering into the bitterly acerbic verse around which the entire song revolves: “That’s it, Sir, you’re leaving / the crackle of pigskin / the dust and the screaming / the yuppies networking / the panic, the vomit, the panic, the vomit / God loves his children / God loves his children, yeah,” the last two lines snarled in bitter irony. Jonny Greenwood’s berserk guitar returns in a protracted freakout as the song eventually fades to black.
Magnus Carlsson directed a surreal animated video for the song that couldn’t be more suited to its cryptic and perverse nature. Part of “Paranoid Android”‘s appeal is that no matter how hard you try, there’s no cracking the code, like an ancient scroll with alien text that we just can’t quite make out. How seriously can one take a song called “Paranoid Android” in which the vocalist complains of “unborn chicken voices in my head”? But even if it makes no literal sense, you sorta know what he’s talking about through osmosis, that incessant yammering that will make you go mad. It’s the combination of words and music to express the noise of the world, the treachery, the corruption, the bulldozing of the have-nots by the haves.
“Paranoid Android” distills the melancholy grandeur spiked by molten blast of aggression that characterizes all of OK Computer. Like the rest of the album, it surges through airy acoustic passages and molten guitar explosions while attempting to come to grips with the dispassionate world around us. Nobody’s been able to do it yet, but at least they’re trying.
1. Nirvana - “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (1991)
When compiling the 100 Greatest Alternative Singles of the ‘80s, there wasn’t a moment during the entire weeks-long process when it wasn’t absolutely clear that Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” would be #1. No other option made sense.
It’s strange how true that has been for the ‘90s as well. Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is one of those rare songs that changes the entire trajectory of rock music; it’s a turning point. Mainstream rock was careening happily along one road and an enormous meteor from Seattle hit without warning and, through the dust and debris, somehow the road had branched off in a new direction. Suddenly the glittery spandex of the ‘80s that was so tight your balls couldn’t breathe was replaced by flannel and thrift-store sweaters. The music was more cathartic, too, more expressive and genuine, often more confessional.
There are, of course, similarities between Joy Division and Nirvana. Both recorded material that is held sacred by devotees, in part because of its paucity. Then there is the visceral emotional power that characterizes both bands; an absolute unburdening of the soul, unflinching honesty, and the ability to infuse their music with gut-wrenching power. In both cases, after the death of the front man, other band members blazed their own trails in music while never able to eclipse the almost mythic quality of their original group.
Musically, Joy Division and Nirvana were tight and powerful units, a distillation of combined influences into something new. The influence of both were enormous; the ‘90s were as littered with bands that were directly impacted by Nirvana as much as the ‘80s were with bands standing in Joy Division’s shadow. Certainly happenstance is part of it—both singles hit at the start of the decade, a bookend that allows for easy recognition of their places in the decades’ musical fabric. And then, of course, it’s impossible to overlook that both frontmen were wracked by insurmountable inner turmoil, and that each would end up taking his own life.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” is ragged garage rock that flips from mid-tempo verses dominated by Krist Novoselic’s loping bass and Cobain half-mumbled expressions of insolent boredom, to a chorus that explodes with titanic power-chords, Dave Grohl’s missile-strike drumming and Cobain’s ragged screams that sounds anything but disinterested. Perhaps drawn from Cobain’s oft-acknowledged admiration of the Pixies, it’s a clever use of dynamics to replicate youthful malaise with the manic restlessness that bubbles just barely under the skin, ready to break out—and sometimes it does. Produced by Butch Vig, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is magnificent as a recording. It’s crisp and sharp, with Cobain’s guitar-riffs double-tracked to create a colossal explosion of speaker-rattling sound.
In “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, Nirvana instills the very essence of adolescent rebellion that every parent has known throughout history. While the lyrics seem to be meaningless, each couplet offers a vivid mental image. “Load up on guns, bring your friends / it’s fun to lose and to pretend / she’s over-bored and self-assured / Oh no, I know, a dirty word”, Cobain sings in the first verse, words that really make no literal sense but, combined with his laconic delivery, present an exaggerated boredom and indifference, that sense of isolation that so many experience.
Then comes the bracingly cathartic chorus, an acidic outburst of mania wrought from the sheer madness of inaction: “With the lights out, it’s less dangerous! / here we are now, entertain us / I feel stupid and contagious! / here we are now, entertain us!” The aggression isn’t directed at a single source—it’s just a lashing out at the universe, which doesn’t give instructions as to what to do with your life, or how to be happy, or how to fit in. It’s adolescent confusion from a thousand thoughts and emotions that can’t even be articulated. Adulthood is, to a large degree, coming to terms with the fact that these questions have no answer and stewing over them only gets you on larger doses of anti-depressants.
The ending is savage, with Cobain reciting a blistering series of non-sequiturs, “A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido,” before his throat-shredding screams of “A denial! A denial! A denial! A denial!” bring the song to a sudden, shocking conclusion. It’s five minutes of hair-raising, electrifying, completely primal and visceral rock and roll that defines what alternative rock is all about.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” is restless, wary, cynical, and innately mistrustful. Producer Butch Vig sums up the song perfectly when he tells Rolling Stone Magazine: “That ambiguity or confusion, that’s the whole thing. What the kids are attracted to in the music is that he’s not necessarily a spokesman for a generation. He doesn’t necessarily know what he wants but he’s pissed. It’s all these things working at different levels at once. I don’t exactly know what ‘Teen Spirit’ means, but you know it means something and it’s intense as hell.”
For all its impact, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” only spent one week at #1 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart in November 1991, two months after the release of Nevermind. It’s interesting to imagine what the rest of the ‘90s would have sounded like had Nirvana remained an undiscovered power-trio playing small clubs in the Pacific Northwest. It’s hard to believe that the decade would have become so dominated by dark-edged hard rock.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” is about a time and a place as much as anything else—it detonated at the precise moment when it could make the most impact. We needed something to shake the cobwebs out of our attics. It just happened to be three guys out of Seattle with a song good enough to jolt the very foundations of popular music that did it.