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.

85. Stereolab – “French Disko” (1993)

Stereolab are one of the most innovative and endlessly fascinating bands of the ’90s. They developed their own unique sound, a hodgepodge of sorts that borrowed from alternative rock, new wave, krautrock and ’60s influences, and they infused it with their unique beauty and weirdness.

The British band’s French vocalist Lætitia Sadier has a distinct voice, oddly mannered and almost atonal — reminiscent of Nico but with a lighter touch. One of their finest tracks is “French Disko”, a piece of hard-driving space-rock. During the verses, Sadier’s monotone vocal oscillates over the rhythm like licks of blue flame wafting above a raging pyre, with a vocal countermelody weaving sinuously throughout. During the chorus, her voice alights with furious intensity for the heated exclamations of “La resistance!”

The song flatly rejects the inevitability of violence and the abject acceptance that the world is doomed to perpetual warfare: “I’ve been told it’s a fact of life / Men have to kill one another / Well I say there are still things worth fighting for.” Instead of retreating, Sadier urges us to engage in “acts of rebellious solidarity” that “can bring sense in this world.” The “La resistance!”, obviously a slogan borrowed from the French Resistance to the German occupation of World War II, in this case, refers to a different kind of human resistance — “French Disko” is a call for peaceful resistance to war.

Stereolab originally recorded “French Disco” for the 1993 EP Jenny Ondioline before revamping and improving it later that year, slightly changing the spelling to add the “k”, and releasing it as a limited edition vinyl and CD single. “French Disko” was later included on Stereolab’s stellar 1995 collection of stray singles and rarities, Refried Ectoplasm: Switched on, Vol. 2 and again in 2006 on the compilation Serene Velocity: A Stereolab Anthology.

84. Whipping Boy – “We Don’t Need Nobody Else” (1995)

Irish rockers Whipping Boy are one of the great unsung bands of the ’90s. Their 1995 album Heartworm, a seething collection of viscerally intense hard-edged rock, deserves a much wider audience than it received upon release.

“We Don’t Need Nobody Else” is a brutally chilling narrative from the point of view of a violent sociopath. The verses are spoken with cold malevolence: “I hit you for the first time today / I didn’t mean it / It just happened… / Christ we weren’t even fighting, I was just annoyed / Silence / And you started to cry / ‘That really hurt’, you said / Yeah, and you thought you knew me!” The chorus is a savage repetition of “We don’t need nobody else… just you and me!” over bracing squalls of guitar. Normally a line like this would be in the midst of a tender love song, but here it’s deliberately cruel and obsessively controlling. It’s a nightmare scenario for the woman in the song, as she is awakened for the first time to the brutal nature of her lover.

The narrator’s dissatisfaction and bitterness at the world drip from every line, like in his disdainful reaction to his countryman Bono’s success, “They build portholes for Bono / So he could gaze out across the bay and sing about mountains / Maybe / You are what you own in this land / You can be King and it all depends on the view and what you can see.” We are privy to the caustic asperity and rage of a man who feels the world has passed him by and he’s been cheated by life. He flexes his power over someone he can (or thinks he can) control. It’s a powerful glimpse into a disturbed mind, and vocalist Fearghal McKee convincingly and fearlessly inhabits the manic rage and obsessive need for control that his character exhibits.

83. Veruca Salt – “Seether” (1994)

Veruca Salt was the hot band of the moment when they emerged from Chicago at the very peak of alternative rock’s popularity in the mid-’90s. Led by vocalist/guitarists Nina Gordon and Louise Post, who each sang lead on their own compositions, Veruca Salt’s mix of ragged garage rock and strong melodic hooks was a natural fit for alternative radio. “Seether” was their first single, a frazzled rocker sung by Nina Gordon about a sorta Jeckyl & Hyde scenario.

The “seether” is an aspect of her personality that is irrational, with a vicious temper, quick to anger, and self-destruction. It flexes its power without warning and whenever seems appropriate (which can be the worst possible moment), and is nearly impossible to hold back. Gordon tries to keep it down, but doesn’t seem to be able to: “I try to keep her on a short leash / I try to calm her down / I try to ram her into the ground, yeah.”

“Seether” reached #8 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart and helped launch the band’s debut album to significant success and acclaim. Other key tracks from American Things include “Forsythia”, “Victrola”, and “Number One Blind”. Veruca Salt released one more album with their classic lineup — 1997’s Eight Arms to Hold You — but Nina Gordon soon left and Louise Post carried on the band for years with a revolving cast of musicians. In 2015 that all changed as the original lineup reunited for the album Ghost Notes.

82. Live – “Lightning Crashes” (1994)

Live’s earnest brand of emotional rock is the kind that critics enjoy bashing, but there is no denying the power and impact of their 1994 smash “Lightning Crashes”. As the third single from their album Throwing Copper, “Lightning Crashes” became by far the band’s biggest hit. It was a spectacular smash on alternative radio, spending an incredible nine weeks at #1 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart starting in February 1995.

Produced by former Talking Heads’ guitarist and keyboardist Jerry Harrison, “Lightning Crashes” gains much of its power from Ed Kowalczyk’s impassioned vocal. He begins in a half-whisper then builds intensity as the song winds to its epic climax. On the surface, it’s simply about the circle of life, but it goes deeper than that. The lyrics are carefully considered. In an instant — like a flicker of lightning — a new child is born, just as an elderly woman takes her last shuddering breath. One family is jubilant and full of visions of hope and the future, one family grieves and remembers. Life can change for us all in the flash of an instant, something we all know and don’t often appreciate when the rigors of day-to-day existence leave us wan and drained. We’re all in this together, sharing humanity’s innate confusion.

After the song was written, Live dedicated it to Barbara Lewis, a friend who was killed by a drunk driver, whose organs were donated to save the lives of others. “Lightning Crashes”, with its blinding sincerity, has become a song of healing and understanding grief as part of a never-ending process of which we are all a part.

81. Slowdive – “Alison” (1993)

British “shoegaze” pioneers Slowdive released their second album Souvlaki to mostly uneven reviews in 1993. It’s a great example of an album that takes time to digest and appreciate. Over two decades later, Souvlaki is nearly universally hailed as a masterpiece of its genre.

The languid drifts of melody married to dense guitars is exemplified in the album’s only single, “Alison”, a gorgeously narcotized piece that bestirs slowly like a hazy dream and builds to a glowing beauty. The album’s opening lyrical passage could describe the song itself: “Listen close, and don’t be stoned / I’ll be here in the morning / cause I’m just floating”. Neil Halstead is indeed floating, but no need to suggest we not be stoned. After all, if there was ever music perfectly suited for drifting in an altered state of consciousness, this is it. Halstead’s lead vocal is leisurely and sedate, and during the chorus, Rachel Goswell joins to harmonize in a luscious wall of sound that blends with the woozy guitars to create a glorious swell.

It couldn’t be mixed more perfectly — the vocals blend with the guitar like they are all the same instrument, the same river of sound. There’s a detached solemnity to it, like you can never quite penetrate its secrets, but that only adds to the song’s mystique. “Alison” fades out like a half-forgotten dream, solemn and airy.

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This article was originally published on 8 July 2016. It has been reformatted and updated.