Best Alternative Singles of the '90s
Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

The 100 Greatest Alternative Singles of the ’90s: 100 – 81

The first part of our examination of the 100 Greatest Alternative Singles of the ’90s looks at the “golden age” of alternative rock.

Previously, we brought you the “100 Greatest Alternative Singles of the ’80s”, a five-part series that attracted thousands of readers from all over the world and explored the best alternative music the ’80s had to offer. Now, we move forward in time and examine what many consider the “golden age” of alternative rock, with the “100 Greatest Alternative Singles of the ’90s”.

The understanding of “alternative” was different in the ’90s. The term was becoming more widely-used, replacing such ’80s descriptions as college rock, indie pop, post-modern, and underground. It also exploded in popularity — from huge radio stations like WHFS in Washington, DC and KROQ in Los Angeles to the airwaves of MTV, alternative music dominated the rock and roll landscape. Festivals like Lollapalooza and Lilith Fair cropped up, and alternative rock bands were selling millions of albums and headlining arenas, often without benefiting a Top 40 crossover hit. Top 40 had dwindled almost solely to R&B, hip-hop, diva ballads, and dance-pop. There was very little room for rock and roll, and suddenly bands that would have been considered mainstream rock or even Top 40 in prior years were lumped in under the amorphous “alternative” label.

A word about labels: obviously, “alternative” is a label with an enormous umbrella. Other sub-genres like “grunge” and “Britpop” became a crutch for lazy writers who couldn’t think of anything else to say about a song or an artist. They were phony movements invented by the press to describe music that was superficially similar. Sometimes it can’t be helped, but with very few exceptions, I’ve avoided using these labels when possible, as they’re arbitrary, often misused, and don’t really say anything about the song itself.

In compiling this list, the first question one asks is simple: what is “alternative”? It’s not a question with an easy answer. In many ways, it’s in the ear of the beholder. One person’s “alternative” is another fan’s “mainstream rock” or “pop” — we are operating in shades of grey. “Outside the mainstream” isn’t really enough of a definition. After all, there are plenty of artists who reside outside the limited universe of Top 40 radio who wouldn’t be considered alternative: folk, metal, country, reggae, bluegrass, orchestral, jazz, blues, some hip-hop, and others. “Alternative” requires a certain edge, a particularly adventurous vibe, a very specific sensibility. It’s hard to put your finger on it exactly, but you know it when you hear it.

Consider a few examples. The Wallflowers had six singles hit both the Billboard Modern Rock Chart and the Billboard Mainstream Rock Chart — but only two of the six charted higher on Modern Rock than the Mainstream chart. Their rootsy style sounds more in the vein of the Band than anything alternative, yet they were lumped into that category. For our purposes here, we’ve weeded out artists like the Wallflowers who may have been considered “alternative” at the time of their popularity, but with the benefit of hindsight and looking at an artist’s overall career arc, we know now they are not. We should be able to learn from two decades of reflection what is truly alternative or not, as we look beyond temporary labels and view an artist’s musical arc and career thread in a larger context, including what was acceptable to Top 40 radio. It’s all about the big picture.

Other artists that received heavy airplay on alternative radio in the ’90s but in retrospect seem more like mainstream rock or pop include Sheryl Crow, Third Eye Blind, Sarah McLachlan, Gin Blossoms, Shawn Colvin, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Paula Cole, Joan Osborne, Matthew Sweet, Sophie B. Hawkins, Semisonic, Collective Soul and many others. There is no question that all of these artists recorded great songs and may have once been considered alternative, but with the passage of time we can see things more clearly. Thus, they are not included here.

Others, like Massive Attack, the Prodigy, the Shamen, Chemical Brothers, Underworld, DJ Shadow, Sunscreem, and Tricky fit more comfortably in the realm of electronica. Of course, many of these artists blur the lines of multiple genres, and there are no hard and fast rules to determine which are “alternative” or not. Sometimes, it’s simply a judgment call.

The Billboard Modern Rock Chart is a useful guide but not a definitive reference. Many artists who are clearly not alternative have appeared on the chart since it debuted in September 1988, including: the Rolling Stones (twice), Seal, Lenny Kravitz, Ace of Base, Tom Petty, Enya, Rickie Lee Jones, John Hiatt, Deee-Lite, Paul Simon, Chris Isaak, Dire Straits (twice), Robbie Robertson, Terence Trent D’Arby, Shaggy, and the Rembrandts for their much-reviled theme fromFriends, “I’ll Be There For You”. Even Hootie & The Blowfish and Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” made the Modern Rock chart. The chart is just one piece of information to consider and certainly not the determining factor as to whether or not a song makes the list or where it should be ranked. One certainty: the most successful song does not always correlate to being the “greatest” song. Often, it does not.

So how were the songs selected? Initially, there was a list of several hundred songs that were potential candidates. Each was seriously considered. As with the ’80s list, only one song per artist is selected. The list continued to grow along with the wide net that was cast for the extensive research behind this project. Eventually, the winnowing began, and — in a very painful exercise that involved cutting some truly amazing songs — the final 100 were compiled.

Artistic value is the most important factor in selecting a song, with cultural significance and influence also considered. This list is reserved for songs that were released as mxsome form of single, whether commercial or promotional.

Some artists released critically hailed albums that are unquestionably essential recordings of the ’90s, but didn’t have a standout single that demands inclusion, or in some cases had no singles at all — examples include Uncle Tupelo’s No Depression, Slint’s Spiderland, Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock, Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs, Dismemberment Plan’s Emergency & I, Spiritualized Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space and Belle and Sebastian’s If You’re Feeling Sinister among many others. Their exclusion here should not lead one to infer that these aren’t considered essential albums of the ’90s, but this is a singles list. An albums list might have a very different roster of artists.

It’s a given that there are many great songs that are not included. 100 is an unforgiving number. Imagine, in a decade with as many killer alternative tracks as the ’90s, selecting on average only 10 singles per year — 1995 alone could easily yield a list of 100 classic alternative tracks. Considering the variables involved in deciding what is in fact “alternative”, which songs should be included by a particular artist, and then determining how to rank them, there are a lot of decisions to be made. I worked very hard to be as objective as possible in an exercise that, by its very nature, is subjective. Of course, this isn’t intended to be a catch-all of the great alternative singles of the ’90s — that would require a much larger list. This is just the very tip of a massive and wonderful iceberg.

Ultimately, this piece is one snapshot of a remarkable decade, and an homage to the great music that emerged from this era. Everyone else who lived through this period of music and loves it might have a different vision of it. Even if you don’t agree with the list, surely we can at minimum celebrate this phenomenal time in alternative music and these 100 truly fantastic songs.

Special thanks to Gina Gerard for her invaluable feedback, editorial and moral support, and to Andrew Tinker, the amazing copy-editing machine, for his tireless assistance. Also many thanks to Michael English, Malcolm Lee, Christopher McKay and Daniel Miron for editorial feedback.

100. 311 – “Down” (1995)

311 released their self-titled third album during the summer of 1995, but it really blasted off the following year thanks in large part to its audacious second single, “Down”. It’s a slice of hyper-kinetic rock, the restless groove of youth in the form of three potent minutes of radioactive spunk. 311 blends genres seamlessly, incorporating elements of rock, hip-hop, metal and even reggae into their sound. They do it so naturally it sounds effortless. “Down” is meant as a ‘thank you’ to 311’s fans who helped carry the band from small-town midwestern obscurity to multi-platinum success.

“Down” is built on hot-wired guitar, skittery drumwork, turntable scratches that zip around like ninja knives, and a brash dancehall-inspired vocal by Nick Hexum. The band recorded the song live in the studio and delivers a knockout performance bristling with swagger and energy. 311 is the type of skater-rock band critics love to hate, but sometimes folks forget what rock and roll has always been about: attitude. 311 delivers plenty of that, with impressive musical chops to back it up.

“Down” spent four weeks at #1 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart during the fall of 1996, well over a year after the album’s release. Along with the two other singles “All Mixed Up” and “Don’t Stay Home”, “Down” helped 311 move over three million units — the band’s biggest selling album by far.

99. Heather Nova – “Walk This World” (1994)

The lead single from Bermuda-born singer/songwriter Heather Nova’s second album Oyster is “Walk This World”, a dramatic acoustic rocker bleeding with desire. It opens with a quick snarl of guitar before launching into a descending bass pattern that forms the backbone of the verses, sometimes anchored with a subtle cello (which I was hearing as a baritone sax all these years).

Nova’s breathy vocals intensify the sense desperation in her search for meaning and connection — for someone to help navigate life’s unpredictable maze of travails. It’s not easy to trust, as she’s obviously been scarred by past experience and has built up a wall: “I’m sucked in by the wonder / and i’m fucked up by the lies / and I dig a hole to climb in / and I build some wings to fly”. She’s taking a chance, laying herself bare, willing to try again — perhaps some of the desperation comes with the thought that she might not get another chance.

Nova weaves a deft melody during the chorus, her multi-tracked vocals simmering with urgency as she sings, “I’m not touched, but i’m aching to be”. The song doesn’t have a bridge per se, just a dreamy instrumental interlude with a double-tracked electric guitar that bends subtly, as if underwater. The atmosphere is turbulent and uncertain as Nova grapples with an unrequited need.

Although Heather Nova has continued to release one solid album after another, “Walk This World” was her only substantial hit (so far) — it reached #13 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart. Her most recent album released just last year, The Way It Feels, is well worth a good listen.

98. Butthole Surfers – “Pepper” (1996)

Veteran fringe-rockers Butthole Surfers scored a surprise hit with “Pepper”, an oddity in the band’s mostly experimental hardcore catalog. It’s not difficult to understand why “Pepper” connected with a large audience — it’s a wonderfully surreal slow-motion acid trip that blurs the lines between “Strawberry Fields Forever” and Paul’s Boutique. Gibby Haynes deadpans the spoken-word lyrics during the verses, gusting wind audible in the background, and then jolts us back to attention during the hard-rock chorus. “Pepper’s” sonic universe includes backward guitar, tremolo effects during the chorus, weird vocalisms and other bits of inventive reality-twisting.

The lyrics deal with random chance, as Haynes relates an oddball cast of characters and their sometimes deadly foibles (inspired by his youthful memories in the Texas punk-rock scene): “Another Mikey took a knife while arguing in traffic / Flipper died a natural death he caught a nasty virus / then there was the ever-present football player rapist / they were all in love with dying, they were doin’ it in Texas.”

“Pepper” was a breakthrough single from the band’s Electriclarryland album, spending three weeks at #1 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart during the summer of ’96. Self-destruction and record company troubles prevented the band from building on the song’s momentum, and “Pepper” remains a solitary bubble that somehow floated to the surface of a backwoods Texas swamp and popped onto the airwaves.

97. Morphine – “Cure For Pain” (1993)

Nobody sounded quite like Morphine. The Boston-based band, led by singer and bassist Marc Sandman, followed their own rules about what rock and roll should be. They perfected a sound in which electric guitar is not the driving factor. Sandman was famous for his oddly-tuned two-string bass guitar, which he often played with a slide. The main instrumental hooks and solos were handled by Dana Colley’s deep and resonant sax. Two drummers played for the band at various times: Billy Conway and Jerome Deupree. The band’s unusual bottom-heavy sound thrilled critics but never lifted them beyond cult status in the US, although they did enjoy some degree of commercial success in Europe.

The woozy “Cure for Pain” is the title track from the band’s superb second album. The song is relaxed enough to have popped a few Xanax, but the necessity for self-medicating to numb whatever pain Sandman is experiencing is laid out starkly. Even in this darkness Sandman never loses his acerbic sense of humor: “I propose a toast to my self-control / you see it crawling helpless on the floor”. The wry couplet makes clear that the prospect of quitting drugs is painful enough to justify continuing on his destructive path, but he understands it is what it is.

Sadly, Morphine would cease to exist in 1999 when Sandman died suddenly of a heart attack at age 46 while on stage at a concert in Italy. Morphine left behind a tremendous musical legacy, with “Cure for Pain” a good first dose for the uninitiated.

96. Soul Asylum – “Somebody to Shove” (1992)

“Somebody to Shove” is a searing garage-rocker from Minneapolis-based Soul Asylum’s sixth album Grave Dancer’s Union, by far their most successful release. Dave Pirner’s restless vocals ride along with the churning guitar riff before finally ripping free during the raucous chorus. The performance is tight — drummer Grant Young (or more likely Sterling Campbell, who producer Michael Beinhorn brought in because he was dissatisfied with Young’s performances) amps up the energy and provides a rock-solid foundation.

Pirner’s lyrics jive with the song’s fidgety tone, as he sits in despondent boredom yearning for someone to stir him into some kind of action that will tear through his sullen malaise. Long days that fade endlessly into one another with nothing ever happening, a life spent watching the clock turn day after day after day — Pirner perfectly captures the frantic need to escape the incessant tedium. “Somebody to Shove” rocks and grooves with manic abandon, a runaway train of pressure that finally bursts into a fit of frustration. His desperation heats to a boil as the song hits its climax: “And I’m waiting by the phone / Waiting for you to call me and tell me I’m not alone / Yes, I’m waiting by the phone / I’m waitin’ for you to call me, call me / And tell me I’m / Tell me I’m not alone!” It’s hard not to be struck by the strong suspicion that the call ain’t ever gonna come.

The first of four major hits from Grave Dancer’s Union (along with “Black Gold”, “Without a Trace”, and “Runaway Train”), “Somebody to Shove” hit #1 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart in December 1992. Soul Asylum’s killer performance of the song on MTV Unplugged remains one of the best moments in that series’ history.