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The 100 Greatest Alternative Singles of the ’90s: 60 – 41

The third part of our examination of the 100 Greatest Alternative Singles of the ’90s, including Sonic Youth, Primal Scream, Garbage, Pixies and more.

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 a 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 of 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?