Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

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.

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 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.