The third part of our examination of the 100 Greatest Alternative Singles of the '90s, including Sonic Youth, Primal Scream, Garbage, Pixies and more.
60. Mercury Rev - "Holes" (1998)
From Mercury Rev's classic fourth album Deserter's Songs, "Holes" is a swirling melancholy dream, a Grimm's fairy tale with pain and darkness coursing just under the surface of an elegant and ornate reverie of beauty and wonder. The whimsical nature of the song is partly inspired by vocalist Jonathan Donahue rediscovering recordings of fairy tales spoken over classical music accompaniment that had enthralled him as a child.
The impressionistic lyrics could mean anything, or nothing. Some suggest the "holes" in the song are those left in the arm of a junkie, and the band has been open about their struggles with drug addiction in the period leading up to this album. It hardly needs to be pinned down to a specific meaning -- the lyrics are so evocative and poetic that the song will mean different things to different people. Donahue is detached, his voice echoing in a dreamlike musical netherworld. It's the aural equivalent of floating in a chemical ecstasy, complete with the sublime alien trill of a theremin.
There's a sweet fragility to the graceful orchestral accompaniment during the verses until it becomes sweepingly powerful for the long instrumental section that acts as a chorus. "Although they make me laugh, they always make me cry," Donahue sings with a bittersweet ache, riding the high that feeds his mind. The lyrics are enchantingly beautiful, and like the music and vocals, are swallowed in a sweet opium haze. Hallucinatory lines like "got telephones for eyes" put the listener directly in the head of the narrator. From out of nowhere come various effects and even a trumpet solo, all the sonic trappings of a spectacular dream that walks the line of being a sickly sweet nightmare.
59. The Breeders - "Cannonball" (1993)
The Breeders were intended as a side-project by Pixies bassist Kim Deal and Tanya Donelly of Throwing Muses (who left after one album, 1990's excellent Pod), but they ended up being far from an afterthought. The Breeders' second album Last Splash is essential '90s alt-rock, thanks in part to its wonderfully cuckoo lead single "Cannonball".
A woozy guitar lead, Josephine Wiggs' prominent bass line, lean and precise percussion and the dynamic stop/start structure, juxtaposed with Kim Deal's sweet and nervy lead vocals, fuse to make "Cannonball" one of those freakish singles that somehow breaks out against all expectations and becomes a major hit. The verses follow the easy-going indie-rock surrounding the bending guitar line until distorted vocals and heavy guitar thunder in during the chorus, with Deal singing amongst the distortion, "Want you coocoo cannonball!! / want you coocoo cannonball!" What does it mean? Who knows. What does it matter? It's just a quirky and inventive song, with the "ooo-oooo" backing vocals adding a touch of irreverence.
The lyrics are basically nonsensical, although there are some great lines -- for instance, "I'll be your whatever you want / the bong in this reggae song." "Cannonball" is loaded with impudence, exuberance and mischievous charm. It reached #2 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart, one spot higher than any Pixies single ever accomplished ("Here Comes Your Man" topped out at #3 in 1989), and came oh-so-close to entering the mainstream Top 40, stalling out just short at #44.
58. Elliott Smith - "Waltz #2 (XO)" (1998)
The sad, far-too-young death of Elliott Smith hits hard all over again when listening to a song like "Waltz #2 (XO)". In retrospect, it's beautiful but heartrending. His gifts as a songwriter and vocalist are indisputable and he infused his work with authentic emotion. "Waltz #2 (XO)" is indeed a rock waltz built on a bed of acoustic guitar with a descending main melodic line that emerges first on guitar, and then is echoed on piano. Smith sings in his breathy voice about a woman who is a former lover and is now in a much sadder situation that she faces stoically -- and Smith can do nothing but continue to love her despite herself.
Smith, as he frequently did, performed all of the instruments on "Waltz #2 (XO)" himself. He was certainly competent, although by no means a virtuoso, so the song has an earnest, homespun vibe that using seasoned session musicians would have erased. The overall aesthetic of the song, and the album for that matter, is typical of Smith's catalog of DYI recordings which, after all, suits the intensely personal nature of the material. If you're going to pour your heart out into your lyrics, then the music should be equally real, and it is.
Given what we know about Smith's demise, it's hard to listen to lines like, "I'm here today and expected to stay / on and on and on / I'm tired / I'm tired" and not think that he's offering glimpses into this state of mind. It certainly has the feel of simple truth.
57. Sugar - "If I Can't Change Your Mind" (1992)
Bob Mould's power-pop trio Sugar released two studio albums, an EP and a collection of B-sides during a brief but spectacular run in the early '90s. Their most immediately impactful song is "If I Can't Change Your Mind", a brisk acoustic rocker with a strong melody and a terrific vocal by Mould. It's reminiscent of some of Mould's late-era Hüsker Dü material.
The band -- Mould on guitar, David Barbe on bass and Malcolm Travis on drums -- plays super hard and ultra-tight. It's a compressed bundle of energy ready to spring through the speakers, grab the listener by the neck and scream 'turn it up'.
"If I Can't Change Your Mind" is a fascinating study in love, sorrow and ego, a lack of self-awareness that borders on parody. Mould's narrator is in the midst of a fracturing relationship, but has no inkling whatsoever of what he may have done to help contribute to the failure. He proclaims with towering arrogance and exaggerated innocent: "How can I explain away / something that I haven't done / and if you can't trust me now / you'll never trust in anyone." The blame lies squarely with the other party, and they obviously don't know how good they have it -- an exercise in self-delusion that seems to be almost ubiquitous in many break-up situations, and which Mould captures with wit.
There's a reason Bob Mould is widely recognized as one of the best alternative-rock songwriters of the last 30 years, from his work with Hüsker Dü, as a solo artist, with Sugar, and as a DJ and author. "If I Can't Change Your Mind" is one of the most convincing examples of his prowess as a songwriter. It's hard to write a truly great pop song, and Mould does that here.
56. Primal Scream - "Movin' on Up" (1991)
Scottish alternative rockers Primal Scream moved from melodic indie-rock to an enormous stylistic palette on their landmark 1991 album Screamadelica. It's a dizzying musical ride that flails wildly from bluesy rock to kinetic electronica. "Movin' on Up" has a strong Beggar's Banquet-era Stones vibe, complete with slide guitar, a piercingly simple solo, polyrhythmic percussion and protracted mantra-like repetition during the final section that are all strongly redolent of "Sympathy for the Devil". The rollicking piano sounds like Elton John somehow got in on the action. The soulful backing vocals suggest another Stones' hallmark, "Gimme Shelter". Billie Gillespie's exaggerated drawl is straight out of Mick Jagger's vocal guidebook. "Movin' on Up" can practically be considered a Stones homage.
And what a great one it is. A psychedelic folk-rock groover, "Movin' on Up" is buoyant and lively, a feast of sounds that effortlessly spans decades. There had to be time travel involved in the creation of this song. "Movin' On Up" is infectious and joyous, with the piano bubbling away under the massive vocal arrangement that flies off like a fighter jet into the skyline.
Primal Scream have enjoyed enormous mainstream popularity in the UK and Europe, but in America they've been relegated to alternative radio and Top 40 programmers just don't seem to be interested. A pity, but hardly surprising. "Movin' on Up" hit #2 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart, by far Primal Scream's most substantial American success.
55. Dave Matthews Band - "Two Step" (1996)
With its long, darkly atmospheric acoustic buildup -- five separate parts that intertwine like the exquisitely precise inner-workings of a clock -- "Two Step" is the most persuasive argument against critics who dismiss Dave Matthews Band as lightweight frat rock or self-indulgent jam-band wannabes. That characterization does them a disservice and shows a fundamental unfamiliarity with their work, which is characterized by terrific songwriting and top-tier musicianship. "Two Step" is their creative apex, the finest moment from their best album, 1996's Crash.
The musical arrangement and performances on "Two Step" are quite simply sensational. Listen to the dynamic interplay between the lithe guitar and squonks of baritone sax that emerge during the instrumental sections between each verse. Always-brilliant drummer Carter Beauford has a two snare set-up for his tense and jittery rhythm that gives the song its warp-drive intensity. Matthews' sly vocal eases over the frantic accompaniment with a cool air of mystery and desire. "Two Step" is an exercise in tightly wrenching tension that builds to a fever pitch, only to be released for the "celebrate we will / because life is short but sweet for certain" chorus, after which it builds right back up again.
The song's inherent tension is appropriate for lyrics inspired by a love affair during war, with a soldier knowing -- even more so than the rest of us -- that any day or moment could be his last. It's about capturing those moments of beauty and fulfillment and what it means to be human even when the world is exploding around you. "Two Step" didn't enjoy the same level of radio airplay as other singles from Crash, like "So Much to Say", "Crash Into Me", "Too Much" and "Tripping Billies", which is not surprising given the song's complexity. Those other singles are all great songs that helped Crash reach #2 on the US album chart, but none of them have the gravitas and power of "Two Step".
54. Pixies - "Alec Eiffel" (1991)
Although the Pixies' greatest work was released in the '80s, they did issue two very solid albums in the '90s --Bossanova (1990) and Trompe le Monde (1991). "Alec Eiffel" is the high point of the latter release, an amped up, manic rocker with David Loverling bashing the drums with animal abandon and Black Francis' typically idiosyncratic vocalisms as strange and unpredictable as always. Joey Santiago delivers red-hot guitar licks, and Kim Deal's bass thumps along with the rhythm like a rapid heartbeat. Clocking in at 2:50, "Alec Eiffel" is a taut jolt of rock and roll ferocity.
The track is a deranged surf-rock/post-punk hybrid with unexpected swells of eerie synths adding to the song's wonderful weirdness. "Alec Eiffel" was inspired by the French engineer Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, who designed two of the world's most iconic landmarks: the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty. Beyond that, like much of the Pixies' work, the song is hard to peg and doesn't make much literal sense. That hardly matters, as it's really more about an impulse and the way sounds work together, like squirming pieces on the world's most eclectic Tetris board.
As the third single from Trompe le Monde, "Alec Eiffel" failed to match the success of "Letter to Memphis" and "Head On", the band's cover of the Jesus and Mary Chain song, but "Alec Eiffel" bests either of them in terms of savage rock and roll adrenalin.
53. Concrete Blonde - "Joey" (1990)
With Bloodletting, Concrete Blonde takes a dark and bloody stroll through New Orleans amidst the ghosts and vampires huddling furtively in the shadows. There are very few rock vocalists with the power and presence of Johnette Napolitano. "Joey" was the lead single from Bloodletting, and it's sucess brought a much greater awareness to the band.
Napolitano, who is also the band's bassist, begins the verses in her powerful contralto before soaring through the chorus with fiery emotional power. She's in the position of trying to help someone who doesn't always want to be helped, an alcoholic with whom she seemed to be in a relationship before he pissed it away with drink. But Napolitano has an epiphany, a sudden outpouring of empathy. She realizes she hasn't been there for his "secret war", and in fact has probably made it worse by resorting to anger. Now she wants to help him battle against addiction and hopelessness.
"Joey" captures a moment when anger and confusion turn to resolve and determination. She knows she has to swallow her anger because she's his only chance. It's her or nobody else. She sets aside her feelings in an all-out attempt to save him, but it's left ambiguous as to whether or not she's successful.
"Joey" is riveting personal drama made real by Napolitano's utterly convincing vocal. Anybody who has seen a loved one struggle in the grip of addiction will understand the tumultuous feelings going through her head -- guilt, uncertainty, helplessness, and most of all, love. Anybody going through addiction who has a rock to cling to will one day be grateful for those ice chips, and the wiping of sweat from his forehead, and will never forget. "Joey" spent four weeks at #1 on the Modern Rock chart during the summer of 1990.
52. Ben Folds Five - "Brick" (1997)
"Brick" captures a young couple in a moment crisis. The setting is a cold and dreary day after Christmas, a day that symbolizes the passing of celebration and the dreaded return to reality. The cold may as well be the couple's leaden hearts. A circular piano riff, a dark wave of strings, and lightly brushed drum work set the somber mood. There is no bass guitar -- the bottom end comes from the cello, the lower range on the piano and the bass drum.
The song is a recitation of Folds' character taking his girlfriend to have an abortion, keeping the secret from their family who are out of town. Folds' vocals capture the matter of fact, cold, clinical state of a man barely holding on. "Brick" relates an important life lesson. A young couple, who probably lived a mostly carefree and fun existence that young lovers tend to do, now have to grow up and confront a difficult reality beyond their idealistic and youthful dreams, one in which they are ill-equipped to cope.
Eventually the emotional trauma of their decision weighs them down to the point of collapse, and they can't hide it from their family. "As weeks went by it showed that she was not fine / they told me, 'Son, it's time to tell the truth' / and she broke down / and I broke down / 'cause I was tired of lying." Sometimes the pain is strong enough that the carefully cultivated facade of adulthood is cracked and we wish to ease back into a time when we could cry and let mom and dad wash away our troubles. Only it doesn't work like that any longer.
Earlier in the song, as Folds is driving his girlfriend to the abortion clinic, he thinks to himself, "Now that I have found someone / I'm feeling more alone than I ever have before." It's a feeling many people who have been in relationships can understand. If someone you love is suffering, and you feel helpless, and you're numb inside from your own pain, it can feel you are shouldering burdens that never existed before you were in a relationship and cared so much. That's why it's "for better or worse," because life generally ping pongs between the two with unpredictable frequency.
Although "Brick" leaves the status of the relationship unresolved at the end, it seems unlikely it survived. "Driving back to her apartment / for the moment we're alone / but she's alone / and I'm alone / and now I know it." He knows it. Despite its heavy subject matter, "Brick" proved so powerful and moving that it soared all the way to #6 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart.
51. The Flaming Lips - "Race For the Prize" (1999)
The Flaming Lips might have been considered a one-hit wonder after the surprise success of their trippy 1994 single "She Don't Use Jelly", but they proved to be too good for that. The Oklahoma band took a huge artistic leap forward with their 1999 classic The Soft Bulletin. It's the first of back-to-back masterworks, including 2001's Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, that represent the band's artistic peak. Both are breathtaking, immaculately crafted albums of the Lips at their most focused and creative before they zoomed off the planet into an interstellar acid trip of self-indulgence from which they've yet to return.
"Race For the Prize" is a swooning solar glide about scientists racing to perfect the atomic bomb. It's a race against time and against the enemy, and in their view civilization itself could be hinging on the necessity of perfecting it first, and getting it right. Wayne Coyne's vocals are brimming with compassion as he explores the intense pressure these people feel in their frantic race against time. It's an interesting and unusual topic for a song, but Coyne has always shown the ability to look at the world sideways and beam directly into the human heart and explore what's brewing inside. He emphasizes that these scientists are really just everyday humans like the rest of us, with families and children, working feverishly "for the good of all mankind" to create something that could destroy us all.
The irony is even more pronounced thanks to the lush musical accompaniment sweeping with orchestral grace and a buoyant embrace of humanity. There's a certain absurdity inherent in the entire exercise. Once the prize is reached is mankind indeed safer, or is the world a far more dangerous place?
50. Counting Crows - "Round Here" (1994)
"Mr. Jones" is the bigger crossover hit, but "Round Here" is the true emotional centerpiece of Counting Crows' magnificent debut album August and Everything After, produced by the great T-Bone Burnett.
Adam Duritz' is an idiosyncratic vocalist, following in the tradition of greats like Dylan, Van Morrison and Lucinda Williams, who are all masters of infusing meaning and feeling into their lyrics via phrasing and nuanced vocal delivery. Duritz does that brilliantly on "Round Here", rattling off the poetic and impressionistic lyrics with grace and authority.
The song is about a man losing touch with himself and who he used to be. He's been drifting in the wind, untethered, all his dreams and the promises of youth seeming to evaporate before his eyes. Everything concrete seems untouchable, like trying to grab smoke with his fingers. He moves on from family, friends, loved ones, and in the process leaves pieces of himself behind. He personifies those feelings in the character of Maria, a woman who's mysterious and unknowable. You can hear the empathy and frustration in Duritz' voice as he keeps trying and keeps failing to get through and help someone almost unattached from reality, who doesn't see her own value, and is bent on self-destruction. That frustration, of course, is really directed at himself.
Duritz wrote "Round Here" with his early band the Himalayans, and reworked it upon joining Counting Crows. It's a good thing he kept it. At the powerful climax he unleashes a torrent of emotion, singing "but the girl on the car in the parking lot / says 'man, you should try to take a shot / can't you see my walls are crumbling? / then she looks up at the building / says she's thinking of jumping / she says she's tired of life / she must be tired of something!"
Duritz excels at transforming abstract thoughts and feelings into powerful imagery that he sings deeply from the soul, and his collaborators provide just the right musical tone. "Round Here" is full of deep thoughts, beauty, sadness and regret -- music as therapy. It reached #7 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart.
49. The Cure - "Friday I'm in Love" (1992)
Robert Smith knows how to write a killer pop song, and "Friday I'm in Love" is one of his best. It's giddy with dizzying euphoria, swirling and swathed in joyful and intricate acoustic guitar patterns. Only Smith could get away with lines like, "It's a wonderful surprise to see your shoes and your spirits rise" and "it's such a gorgeous sight to see you eat in the middle of the night" and make them endearing instead of irredeemably cheesy. Smith's lyrical gifts are underrated, as is his overall songcraft.
Released as the second single from the band's most successful album in America, Wish, "Friday I'm in Love" is as close to a perfect pop song as you can get with just enough of that wonderfully delightful Cure weirdness. It's not just the charming lyrics, though -- those dueling acoustic guitar countermelodies that chime throughout the song really bring the enchantment. The Cure has never been a mainstream band in America, but "Friday I'm in Love" is so charming and catchy that it reached #18 on the pop chart, their second highest placement behind only "Lovesong" (#2 in 1989). On the Billboard Modern Rock Chart it spent four weeks at number one during the summer of 1992.
The Cure has often been overlooked by "serious" music critics, perhaps because of Robert Smith's wild hair and makeup, perhaps because they are seen as "mope-rockers" without much artistic merit. That couldn't be further from the truth. Robert Smith is ridiculously talented, and "Friday I'm in Love" is just one of many gems in the Cure's vast and enormously impressive body of work. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame selection committee should take heed -- the fact that the Cure has not been inducted, given their enormous influence and superb body of work, is nothing short of a travesty.
48. Sponge - "Plowed" (1994)
The hard-rocking Detroit-based quintet Sponge released their debut Rotting Piñata in August 1994. The album's tightly-wound second single "Plowed" pried open the jaws of MTV and alternative rock airwaves by sheer force. Opening with a savage guitar riff, "Plowed" is tight as fuck, a massive big rig careening down a mountain highway at unstoppable velocity.
Vinnie Dombrowski's ragged growl rides the hard-driving groove like he's singing into the very teeth of a moderate gale. Jimmy Paluzzi pounds his drums with reckless abandon, bassist Tim Cross rumbles along gamely and guitarists Michael Cross and Joe Mazzola bash away at their instruments with a fierce intensity -- the whole thing sounds like it might go off the rails at any moment, but somehow we survive 'til the end. The song seems to be about a man trying to fight for his dreams and obsessions against the constant obstacles and tragedies that reality plants in his way. We often only have one chance, and if we blow it, our dreams could be shattered forever. Dombrowski sings in the first verse, "Will I wake up / is it a dream I made up / No I guess it's reality / what will change us / or will we mess up / our only chance to connect / with a dream."
The song's potency can perhaps be credited to the speed with which it was recorded. Dombrowski has said the idea came to him like a lightning bolt while he was outside shoveling snow. He quickly sketched out the song, assembled the band, and they recorded it that very night in one frantic session. The band was able to capture that manic urgency in the song, sparking it with electricity and anxiety. "Plowed" reached #5 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart and set the stage for an even bigger follow-up single, "Molly (16 Candles Down the Drain)".
47. Hole - "Celebrity Skin" (1998)
Everything had changed since Hole's critically acclaimed 1994 breakthrough Live Through This, released barely a week after Kurt Cobain's death and two months before Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff died of a drug overdose.
Courtney Love needed someone to help get her kickstarted, and she turned to Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan, who contributed songwriting ideas to much of the album. We don't really know exactly how much of the title-song was penned by Corgan, but it's easy to imagine the Pumpkins' leader singing the sinuous melody of "Celebrity Skin", especially on lines like, "When I wake up in my makeup / it's too early for that dress / wilted and faded somewhere in Hollywood / I'm glad I came here with your pound of flesh". Love doesn't even try to mask the obvious Corganisms in the turn of melody and in her vocal phrasing (it sounds like she's singing along to a guide vocal). The lyrics could easily be interpreted to refer to Love herself and, if she indeed wrote them, perhaps there is some degree of autobiography to them.
The track is a powerhouse of electric supercharged glam guitar riffs and decadence. Like most of the Celebrity Skin album, the title-song boasts a polish and precision absent from Hole's prior work, which tended to be more raggedly visceral. The song was a perfect vehicle for Courtney Love -- it's easy to slice through the glittery surface to the oozing depravity seeping through. The lyrics deal with the empty artifice of celebrity culture (or wannabe celebrity culture), with beauty on the outside of a rotting decadent husk -- a Heroin Chic Barbie, complete with her own dirty syringe and an elastic band for times when those much-maligned veins refuse to cooperate.
"Celebrity Skin" was a major hit, becoming the only Hole single to reach #1 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart and helping to propel the album into the Top 10.
46. Sonic Youth - "Kool Thing" (1990)
"Kool Thing" is Kim Gordon's sardonic response to an interview she did with rapper LL Cool J for Spin Magazine in which it was clear the two were on totally different wavelengths. The lyrics are loaded with references to the rapper and his work, including the repeated "I don't think so", a sly allusion to his hit "Going Back to Cali". Mischievous and clever, "Kool Thing" also rocks pretty damn hard. Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo's guitars are fizzy with electricity, and the Steve Shelley's drum work is deliriously unhinged. The song speeds along at a frenetic pace, more accessible than the typical Sonic Youth tune but still with their usual raw and feedback-heavy sound.
"Kool Thing" was the first single Sonic Youth released after signing to their first major label, Geffen Records, and while it may be more straightforward than some of the band's more esoteric work it still has the raw edge one would expect. Gordon's honeyed vocals are pure badass, anchored by a dense wall of sound rock foundation. Chuck D. of Public Enemy guests, adding random exclamations of hip-hop clichés designed to lampoon the affectations that LL Cool J expressed to Deal during their interview, and to emphasize the different worlds that Deal and the rapper inhabit.
The song's parent album Goo was widely-praised upon its release, and became the first Sonic Youth album to dent the US album chart, reaching #96. "Kool Thing" hit #7 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart.
45. Weezer - "Buddy Holly" (1994)
Weezer first made waves on alternative radio with "Undone (The Sweater Song)", but it was the second single from their self-titled debut that propelled the band to prominence. "Buddy Holly" is a zany power-pop send-up that's cheeky and playful but also has a bit of a bite. It reached #2 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart, their highest placement on that survey until 2005 when they hit #1 with "Beverly Hills".
There's an endearing quality to "Buddy Holly" and its tale of two adolescent social outcasts falling for each other. A large part of the song's appeal is that it's instantly relatable -- "Buddy Holly" is an anthem for the oddballs who try to navigate a world in which they don't always belong. At the same time it's hard not to imagine that under the veneer of playfulness is real hurt, as anybody who has been marginalized, bullied or harassed at school can attest. Victims are often beset by shame and embarrassment, and sunny denial and assurances that everything is A-OK can often be an outward front. Vocalist Rivers Cuomo insists, "I don't care what they say about us anyway / I don't care 'bout that," but then in the edgy bridge they seem to be under attack: "Oh no, what do we do? / Don't look now, but I lost my shoe / I can't run and I can't kick / what's a matter babe, are you feelin' sick?"
If "Buddy Holly" sounds somewhat reminiscent of the Cars with its crunchy guitars and madly whirring old-school synth, it's no accident -- Ric Ocasek produced the band's debut album. The brilliantly conceived video (winner of four MTV Video Music Awards) injects the band seamlessly into the set of Happy Days, where they pay homage to the halcyon days of '50s and '60s style rock with an undercurrent of subtle mockery and lasciviousness.
44. Marilyn Manson - "The Dope Show" (1998)
Mechanical Animals is the strongest album of Marilyn Manson's career, and its flamboyant lead single "The Dope Show" is a big part of the reason why. It's a decadent glam metal strut that's equal parts David Bowie, T-Rex and Alice Cooper brushed with the rust of tangling with Trent Reznor's industrial wires.
Manson combines electronic elements with classic rock power chords, all set to a sauntering sway that could be the theme for a vampiress catwalk. Manson incorporates his usual devilish theatrical spin, but here it's more controlled than on some of his work. The cover of Mechanical Animals shows Manson as an androgynous robot zombie, and the music has a sexy, hard-edged almost new romantic vibe that shows Manson flaunting his musical influences like never before. "The Dope Show" is music for a chem-fueled sex dungeon, whips cracking, slings tested to their endurance (will those chains hold?)
The glam is on the surface, and the rot -- sickly sweet, putrid candy -- festers on the inside. It's about the grip that drugs have on you and the belief that you are in some uber-hip world when really you're just dialing up your own destruction. The fame, the glamour, the empty artifice, the drugs all seem appealing from the outside, but fall under their spell and they'll "leave you low and blow your mind". The world of Mechanical Animals and the "The Dope Show" will chew you up and spit you out. You'll awake lying naked in pools of blood and other bodily fluids on a grimy stone floor, aching from every muscle, nauseous, stumbling for your clothes, a glass of water, craving another hit, and wondering what the fuck happened the night before.
"The Dope Show" is fiendishly sexy macabre rock by a brilliant conceptual artist with musical and songwriting chops to back up his outlandish characters and ideas. As the lead single from Mechanical Animals, "The Dope Show" reached #15 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart and was nominated for a Grammy.
43. The Cranberries - "Zombie" (1994)
Following the sweet melodic guitar pop of previous hits "Linger" and "Dreams" from their debut album Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can't We?, the Cranberries surprised their fans by going full-throttle with heavy guitar riffs and a pounding backbeat on "Zombie", the first single from their smash second album No Need to Argue.
Dolores O'Riordan's voice is prominent in the mix so she doesn't get lost in the sweltering grind of guitar. She wails like a banshee, her intakes of breath leading to unique vocal phrasing that is almost like half a yodel. There's a blazing passion and seething rage to the song, particularly evident in O'Riordan's vocals. The track was inspired by the killing of two young English boys in 1993 after an explosion from a bomb planted by the Irish Republican Army.
In "Zombie," O'Riordan laments the never ending wave of violence, and how we've all become desensitized to it to the point where we're practically zombies. While tensions between England and the IRA are no longer prone to outbursts of violence, a perpetual state of war hasn't subsided in the 22 years since "Zombie" was released. If anything, things are worse. The fabric of society and civil discourse has been tearing slowly but surely and now with increasing amplitude. War is rampant, hunger and violence, uncertainty, inequality, misery on a global scale. The song couldn't be more relevant today.
"Zombie" was a hit on alternative radio, spending six weeks at #1 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart starting in late October 1994. It would launch No Need to Argue to #6 on the US album chart with sales of over seven million and counting in the US alone.
42. Elastica - "Connection" (1994)
With its fierce rhythm and jagged guitars, "Connection" is like a bullet zig zagging in the air around the listener when it's blasted at full volume, as it should be. The third single from the English band's self-titled debut, "Connection" is post-punk revivalism at its most fierce and convincing. Wire is obviously the most prominent influence in the band's sound, particularly with "Connection", in which the recurring keyboard riff is borrowed from Wire's "Three Girl Rhumba".
If you're gonna borrow, may as well borrow from the best, and Elastic updates Wire's edgy and minimalist sound for a new generation. Justine Frischmann's laconic, uber-cool vocals are like a siren over the taut rhythm, fire alarm synths and serrated guitars. The track has a propulsive energy that's like a shot to the chest. Frischmann's vocals are somewhat reminiscent of new wave singers like Debora Iyall or Lene Lovich. Like those pioneers, her delivery is spiked with attitude and confrontational brashness.
At only 2:21, "Connection" is gone almost before it gets started, but that rigidly compact vibe is a perfect fit for the song. Alternative radio couldn't get enough, sending the track to #2 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart. Elastica wasn't around for long; just a flash in the night that quickly faded to black. After a five year wait, the band released their second and final album The Menace in 2000, after which they disbanded and Frischmann slipped away from the music industry for good.
41. Garbage - "#1 Crush" (1996)
"#1 Crush" is a boldly provocative and sexual strut of obsession. Shirley Manson delivers mysterious sexiness and decadent sophistication in equal doses. Her vocal is swelteringly hot and infused with palpable longing. Manson exposes her character's obsession without reservation or hesitation -- she steps into the role of dangerous diva with aplomb.
The spare musical accompaniment, a fusion of slow sex-club trip-hop beats and pulses of synthesizer, creates a sensual background for Manson's feverish recitation of how she will die for the object of her obsession (she also will kill, steal, do time, make room, sink ships, lie, beg and steal, burn, feel the pain, and twist the knife and bleed her aching heart for him).
"#1 Crush" is about the classic femme fatale. "I will never be ignored," Manson warns with menace, and, from the conviction in the vocal, it's hard not to believe her. If you're the object of her affection, your head is telling you to run in the opposite direction as fast as you can, but on a primal level the intoxicating mix of lust and animal passion is hard to fight off. But, in the end, the heightened obsessive mania is just too much. One wonders how quickly "I would kill for you" would flip to "I would kill you" if the vengeful siren is thwarted.
"#1 Crush" originally appeared as the B-side to Garbage's first single, "Subhuman". The song was later given a fresh remix by Marius de Vries and Nellee Hooper and nabbed for inclusion on the soundtrack to Baz Luhrmann's modern take on Romeo + Juliet. The former B-side was suddenly a smash, becoming the only Garbage single to reach #1 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart where it spent four weeks starting in January 1997.