Best Alternative Singles of the '90s
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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.

95. The Jesus and Mary Chain – “Reverence” (1993)

Jesus and Mary Chain’s fourth album Honey’s Dead was so named because the Scottish duo wanted to serve notice they had expanded beyond the boundaries of their breakthrough single “Just Like Honey” from their landmark 1985 debut Psychocandy. Ironically, there are strong echoes of that classic song in the distorted guitar and electro-rock of “Reverence”, the edgy and provocative first single which became an improbable Top 10 hit in the UK.

With its repeated calls of “I want to die just like Jesus Christ”, “Reverence” incorporates a gritty industrial vibe, heavy electronic beats, and dense snarls of reverbed guitar. Jim Reid’s tense vocals are deep in the mix, almost buried by the abrasive sonic machinery as if he’s coated in grime from crawling on a factory floor. The song is a call to go down in a blaze of glory, to be mythologized in death like Jesus Christ and JFK. Reid equates those two fabled figures with rock stars whose deaths bring near deification and reverence that becomes, in some cases, bigger and more substantial than the music itself.

94. Rancid – “Time Bomb” (1995)

Amped with fitful energy, the ska/rock alloy “Time Bomb” was the second single from Rancid’s greatest album, …And Out Come the Wolves. Rancid rose from the ashes of Operation Ivy, an influential ska band that never broke through to a wide audience but helped shape the thriving ’90s ska scene with bands like Pietasters, Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Reel Big Fish and others.

“Time Bomb” is a compact little pill that you swallow and suddenly feel like bouncing around like a haywire kangaroo. The song describes a guy who is unpredictable in all the worst ways, waiting to explode as he slides in and out of a life of danger and crime. Tim Armstrong’s husky vocals are so slurred sometimes that you can barely make them out without a lyric sheet, but it only adds to the song’s bedraggled realness. It’s clear these guys would know a time bomb when they see one.

Everything on “Time Bomb” moves with supercharged velocity. The infectious rhythm is bolstered by rolling whirls of organ, and the simple guitar solo cuts through the bedlam briefly before we dive quickly back into the implacable groove. Clocking in at only 2:24, “Time Bomb” is a tight musical punch, and one catchy enough to pogo around in your brain for days. It hit #8 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart, Rancid’s highest-ever placement on that survey, and the track sounds as fresh and alive as the day it was baked.

93. Jars of Clay – “Flood” (1995)

Spiritual pain and doubt can result in deeply compelling art, whether through music or another medium — even if one doesn’t subscribe to the beliefs being espoused. Religion can consume one’s heart, mind, and soul. If you believe down to your bones that you are an inherently flawed sinner in need of a jealous God’s forbearance, you might indeed consider yourself “one with the mud” as Jars of Clay singer/songwriter Dan Haseltine does on the band’s epic single “Flood”. The song is clearly wrenched from deepest despair: “Downpour on my soul / splashing in the ocean, I’m losing control / dark sky all around / I can’t feel my feet touching the ground.”

Taken from the Tennessee-based contemporary Christian band’s self-titled debut, “Flood” became an unlikely hit on alternative radio. The song is a torrent of the type of guilt upon which religions flourish. The chorus, rich with vocal harmonies, hangs on a single note — ratcheting up the tension while we await relief that never comes. “Flood” finds Haseltine on his knees, begging for redemption, beseeching his God to save him from “drowning again”. It’s one of two tracks (along with superb “Liquid”) from the band’s debut masterfully produced by the great Adrian Belew. From the subtle effects on Haseltine’s vocal to the glistening string section in the song’s middle to the hard-driving acoustic guitar riffs which ring like heavy sheets of black rain on the pavement, “Flood” is musically evocative of the emotional tumult Haseltine expresses in the lyrics.

Jars of Clay would go on to score numerous hits on Christian radio while often straddling the line between secular and spiritual, but “Flood” was their only substantial crossover success — it reached #12 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart.

92. Indigo Girls – “Galileo” (1997)

We go from beseeching an all-knowing spirit to entreating a symbol of science and rational thought who was persecuted for teaching beliefs that contradicted religious dictates, but has since been vindicated by history. The beautifully lush “Galileo” was the second single from Indigo Girls’ fourth album, Rites of Passage, and has become one of the highly influential duo’s signature tunes. Emily Saliers wrote the song and sings with graceful poignancy, while partner Amy Ray provides exquisite harmonies (also joined by rock legend David Crosby).

Produced by Peter Collins, a well-traveled rock veteran who was at the helm for many of Canadian rock titans Rush’s greatest works, “Galileo” builds to a stirring climax with a swirl of harmony vocals over the syncopated rhythm. The bridge glows with pulsing strings and then a lovely dual acoustic guitar solo leads into the final verse and chorus. The ending is a whirlwind of sound that closes the song with an enchanting flourish.

“Galileo” is a daydream about reincarnation, a query as to when “my soul will get it right”, and a call to the famed astronomer and truth-seeker Galileo for celestial guidance. It’s a fantasy that’s sparked by that all-too-human impulse of imagining a different and better life in the wake of failures and troubles that seem to weigh down our current existence, and our innate wonder about the mysteries of the afterlife and where we fit in the universe. “Galileo” is an expansive song that asks big questions, but is performed with intimate sincerity and beauty. It became the iconic duo’s highest-ever chart showing in the US, reaching #10 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart.

91. Sparklehorse – “Sick of Goodbyes” (1998)

Mark Linkous had a gift for sweet melodies swaddled in dark swirls of melancholy. Good Morning Spider was the second album Linkous released under the Sparklehorse name. It was written and recorded after his near-fatal overdose caused by mixing alcohol with the medication he took to battle his crippling depression, and the album unquestionably bares those scars.

Good Morning Spider radiates otherworldly beauty, fragility and an undercurrent of despair. “Sick of Goodbyes” is one of its most immediate and compelling tracks. Linkous co-wrote the song with fellow Virginian David Lowery of Cracker, whose comparatively drab recording of the song appeared on their 1993 album Kerosene Hat. Linkous was wise to take it back and get the most out of it. The Sparklehorse version is melodic and engaging with an insistent groove, a chiming wall of sound from the fusion of acoustic and electric guitars and, weaving through it all, a thick alien drone pulsing from an old analog synth.

The lyrics are poetic, but relentlessly bleak: “The night comes crawling in on all fours / sucking up my dreams through the floor,” Linkous sings at one point. There’s an almost wry resignation to the song, no spark of hope that change for the better is in the cards, at least on this “vampire planet”. “Sick of Goodbyes” is wrenching sadness wrapped in a glow of a heartbreaking beauty that you somehow know is temporary.

After years of trying to cope with debilitating depression and addiction, Mark Linkous took his own life in March 2010, another in the seemingly endless string of casualties to depression and addiction that has been such a blight on society, in the ’90s and beyond. It’s hard to hear him sing, “I’m so sick of goodbyes, goodbyes,” and not think, “so are we”.