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.

90. New Order – “Regret” (1993)

New Order released a string of classics in the ’80s after rising from the dust of Joy Division following the suicide of Ian Curtis. Their first offering of the ’90s came three years into the decade with Republic and its lead single “Regret”. It was a shrewd choice, as “Regret” is instantly recognizable as New Order, but is also a progression of the band’s sound for a new decade. Unlike many of their contemporaries who emerged in the ’80s, New Order were able to maintain their relevance and success after that decade collapsed under the weight of its own glittery scrapheap of excess. “Regret” spent five weeks at #1 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart, their biggest ever hit in America.

“Regret” has a dense rock sound compared with the generally sparse and mostly electronic arrangements on their prior album, Technique. Peter Hook’s bass rumbles in the midst of a simple guitar pattern and one of Bernard Sumner’s smoothest vocals. The lyrics are inscrutable and open to interpretation, but despite its upbeat nature it closes with a fatalistic stanza: “Just wait ’til tomorrow / I guess that’s what they all say / just before they fall apart.” The word “regret” is only used once, in the first verse, as Sumner insists “Maybe I’ve forgotten / the name and the address / of everyone I’ve ever known / it’s nothing I regret.” It’s not uncommon to hear someone claim no regrets when in fact the reverse is true, and the song does possess the wistful aura of someone looking back with a certain sad nostalgia.

Peter Hook told MTV news in 2013 that he considers “Regret” to be the last great New Order song, and he was right — until 2015 when the Hook-less incarnation of the band unleashed Music Complete, easily the band’s best album since Technique.

89. Bush – “Everything Zen” (1994)

“Everything Zen” was the first single by British rockers Bush, whose debut album Sixteen Stone yielded five major hits and became one of the signature albums of ’90’s alternative rock. Gavin Rossdale’s stiff sandpaper voice cuts through the massive waves of guitar, croaking out anxiety-choked lyrics of a world run amok.

Everything is turned on its head — “Everything zen? I don’t think so”. The lyrics are littered with pop culture references. For instance, “Minnie Mouse has grown up a cow / Dave’s on sale again” is an allusion to David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?”, and “Rain dogs howl for the century” refers to Tom Waits’ brilliant 1985 album Rain Dogs and Allen Ginsberg’s famous poem Howl. Rossdale also slides in lyrical references to songs by Alice in Chains (“Try to see it once my way” is nicked from their 1992 single “Would?”), and he reverses lines by Jane’s Addiction (“Your sex is violence!” from the epic “Ted, Just Admit It” becomes “There’s no sex in your violence”) and Living Colour (“Elvis is Dead” was a key track on their 1990 album Time’s Up, and Rossdale flips it with the repeated litany of “I don’t believe that Elvis is dead!”) before launching back to the chorus at the 3:43 point with guitars all barrels blazing.

It’s pretty easy to figure that, in fact, nothing is zen, the title is bitterly sarcastic and that roiling turmoil is felt in a song practically quivering with angst. It fit well the zeitgeist of its era, although some critics claimed Bush was nothing but a wan imitation of other, better bands of the period. Utter nonsense. “Everything Zen” hit #2 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart and endures today as a ’90s alt-rock essential.

88. Everclear – “Heroin Girl” (1995)

The Portland, Oregon based trio Everclear rose to alt-rock prominence with their second album Sparkle and Fade, easily the strongest of their career. “Santa Monica” was the bigger hit, but the harrowing “Heroin Girl” packs a much more potent sonic and emotional wallop.

The connection between musicians and heroin, of course, is not something unique to the ’90s. It’s a co-dependence that has persisted for decades, and seems to be worse than ever now as America struggles in the midst of a ghastly heroin epidemic stemming, in part, from rampant over-prescription of opioid painkillers. The scourge of smack addiction is part of the fabric of ’90s alternative rock, with many artists battling it, writing about it, and dying from it. Everclear frontman Art Alexakis has his own nightmares to tell, as the raging bitterness in “Heroin Girl” makes clear. The song mixes a fictional character (Esther), who ends up dying alone in a field, with elements of Alexakis’ real life. The line about the cop saying, “Just another overdose!”, which Alexakis sings in a barely controlled fury, was actually something a policeman said following the heroin overdose of Alexakis’ brother George. Alexakis was 12 at the time, and would endure his own struggles with addiction.

The shock and outrage over the police treating his brother as less than human are palpable, and there is little reason to believe this is an isolated case. “Heroin Girl” is about the co-dependency not just with the drug, but with those who supply, enable and participate in that world of addiction, as well as the often callous way those trapped in its grip are treated. Riveting and unflinchingly honest, “Heroin Girl” was perhaps a bit intense for many alternative radio programmers as it only reached #34 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart — but as we know, the highest-charting songs are not always the greatest.

87. The Church – “Ripple” (1992)

Although best known for their 1989 classic Starfish, the Church’s 1992 release Priest=Aura is arguably the Australian band’s artistic pinnacle. It’s an expansive, trippy collection that drifts from one shadowy dream to another. Priest=Aura was the band’s first album with former Patti Smith and Waterboys drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, and he brings a flowing groove to the mix that adds a bit of swing to the band’s dark psychedelia. “Ripple”, one of the album’s two singles, is a hypnotic late-night song, richly layered and lush. Steve Kilbey’s dusky baritone is in particularly fine form as he navigates the cascading guitar and strings that give “Ripple” its shadowy grace.

The lyrics are abstract and dreamlike, romantic and riven with pain. The narrator seems to be caught in the throes of love with someone who seems locked in the grip of addiction: “I lent you some collateral to buy new clothes / it went out the window and up your nose / and that’s the end of the honeymoon”. Of course, Kilbey could be indirectly referring to his own struggles with heroin during this period, about which he has been very open.

Regardless, it’s an intense and mystical song that feels like it should be played with some nice incense burning and a few candles. “Ripple” reached #3 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart and is definitive proof for the more casual fans out there that the Church is far more than just “Under the Milky Way”. The die-hard fans already know.

86. Screaming Trees – “Nearly Lost You” (1992)

Not many bands that rose to prominence in the ’90s can match Screaming Trees’ top-notch musicianship. On “Nearly Lost You”, the band plays with wild abandon, barely restrained. The track was propelled on to alternative radio thanks in part to its inclusion on the highly popular and influential soundtrack to the film Singles, which also included tracks by Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, and Alice in Chains.

There are nods in “Nearly Lost You” to ’70s-era psychedelic-tinged classic rock in the blistering jolts of guitar by Gary Lee Conner and relentlessly dynamic drum work by Barrett Martin. Mark Lanegan’s gruff voice is an instrument powerful enough to stand up to the musical hurricane that buffets him from all sides. The track seems to be about a relationship nearly derailed by some “sin” that the narrator is struggling to resist: “Did you hear the distant cry / calling me back to my sin? / Like the one you knew before / calling me back once again / I nearly, I nearly lost you there / and it’s taken us somewhere.” Drugs? Perhaps. Addiction is such a constant struggle documented by many alternative rockers in the ’90s that it’s easy to see references everywhere, even when it might not be the case.

“Nearly Lost You” stormed up to the #5 slot on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart, by far the Screaming Trees’ highest placement. Unfortunately, the song’s success couldn’t procure the band a wider audience, and they were not long for this world. Screaming Trees released one final album, 1996’s Dust, before drifting away on the winds.