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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.

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 1950s 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.

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This article was originally published on 18 July 2016.