The fourth part of our examination of the 100 Greatest Alternative Singles of the '90s, including Suede, Manic Street Preachers, Pulp, and My Bloody Valentine.
40. Suede - "The Drowners" (1992)
The first single from Suede's widely-hailed self-titled debut is a sexy glam-rock raver, Brett Anderson's flamboyantly stylized vocals rising to a shimmery falsetto before gliding headlong into Bernard Butler's churning T-Rex guitar riff. Suede elegantly fuses the grandiose melancholy of the Smiths with the soaring theatrics of David Bowie, and injects a dose of brash attitude. Suede's sonic vibe is slicked with a tincture of decadence, an aura of wading through forbidden underground sex enclaves where depravity is celebrated and hedonism is religion.
For a debut single, "The Drowners" is particularly daring. It's brazenly sexual and strongly suggestive of two men losing themselves in a primal torrent of lust. Like many Suede songs, "The Drowners" is somewhat enigmatic, but while the lyrics are open to interpretation some dots are easy to connect. Lines like "we kiss in his room to a popular tune" and "well, he writes the line / wrote right down my spine / it says 'oh, do you believe in love there?" don't leave much to the imagination, especially with Anderson's voice glistening with desire.
Anderson offers some level of resistance to giving into his partner's dominant role: "and so we drown / Sir, we drown / stop taking me over". It's no accident he uses the sexually charged title "Sir". By the end of the song, Anderson's protestations of "stop taking me over" have changed to simply "you're taking me over", repeated ad infinitum until it fades out.
Sexy, a bit mysterious, a hint of danger -- that's Suede's trademark sound, and they nailed it on "The Drowners". It's a confident debut, boldly invoking sexual power games over fiery glam rock that could be beamed straight from 1973. The single set the stage for a long string of mostly stellar releases leading up to their latest, the spectacular Night Thoughts, which hit in January 2016.
39. Mazzy Star - "Fade Into You" (1993)
The opening track and lead single from Mazzy Star's second album So Tonight That I Might See, "Fade Into You" is a gauzy midnight waltz that eases the listener into a warm candlelit pool, the air thick with an aromatic cannabis haze. "Fade Into You" is languid and lush, with Hope Sandoval's honeyed voice, kissed with reverb, casting a warm glow over the sultry brew of acoustic guitar, piano and dreamy lines of slide guitar. Sandoval imbues her vocal with just the right amount of detachment and mysterious beauty. She flows with the music, a flowering branch of blue and violet drifting slowly down a lazy southern river.
Sandoval sings to a man she's unable to reach, unable to break from his haunted view of the world. She feels love and tenderness for him that he'll never understand or reciprocate. "You live your life / you go in shadow / you'll come upon and you'll go black / some kind of night into your darkness / close your eyes with what's not there," she sings wistfully. Sandoval performs the song like she's lost in a memory of something experienced years in the past, dredged up for a moment of bittersweet regret that occupies her mind before she sighs sadly and moves on to other concerns.
Beautiful, stately and romantic, "Fade Into You" sauntered its way to #3 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart. It even scored substantial airplay at mainstream radio and very nearly hit the Top 40 in the US, reaching #44.
38. Foo Fighters - "Everlong" (1997)
After the end of Nirvana, Dave Grohl took some time off and then retreated into the studio, emerging a week later with a batch of home-spun recordings with him playing most of the instruments. These raw tracks ended up being released as the Foo Fighters' self-titled debut. The album sold well thanks to tracks like "This Is a Call", "I'll Stick Around" and "Big Me", and Grohl put an actual band together to tour. Instead of a mere side project, Foo Fighters quickly became a powerful force in alternative rock whose stature has continued to balloon over the ensuing two decades.
Foo Fighters' second album, The Colour and the Shape, recorded with the band rather than as a solo project, was much tighter than the debut. Its lead single "Monkey Wrench" was a hit, but it was eventually overshadowed by the second single, "Everlong", which reached #3 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart.
"Everlong" has all the parts necessary for a rock and roll classic: a melodic guitar riff, a hard-rocking chorus, and ferocious playing by Grohl and his mates. It packs a tight sonic punch, thanks in large part to Grohl's pulse-pounding drum work. The song's rush of energy is understandable given it's about Grohl's experiences with the first excited blush of new love, that period when everything about you and your partner seem perfectly in sync. Things only start to go awry later, but that's a different song.
"Everlong" is basking in that glow, while at the same time harboring the fear it will ultimately end: "And I wonder / when I sing along with you / if everything could ever feel this real forever / if anything could ever be this good again." It seems to be human nature that even when things are at their best, the nagging thought of "how long will this last?" is always there.
37. Deftones - "Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away)" (1998)
The second single from California alt-metal pioneers Deftones' pivotal second album Around the Fur, "Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away)" is a blistering assault of white-hot guitars and brain searing screams. It's unremittingly bleak and deranged with a twisted gothic bent, a nightmarish hell-ride that's thrilling and disturbing to take.
Chino Moreno give a deliriously unhinged vocal performance, and he clearly gives everything within himself. There's nothing held back in the repeated anguished cries of "I don't care where / just far!" The desperation to get away from something screams through every pore. What, exactly, Moreno is escaping is ominously vague, although it seems likely he's leaving behind a fucked up situation (either of his own making, or not), and fleeing town pronto seems a pretty good idea. The lines "I dressed you in her clothes" and "it feels good that you are mine", along with the obsessively berserk nature of the recording, brings to mind some sinister possibilities. Sometimes it's best to just leave it up to the imagination.
Beyond just Moreno's phenomenal performance, the band is literally on fire. Guitars blaze like spiderwebs of lightning flashing in a late night derecho, and a barrage of drums pummels the skull like a four-alarm hemorrhage. "Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away)" is the kind of song that makes you hit repeat a dozen times as you're driving a highway late at night, screaming along at the top of your lungs until your voice is shredded beyond all recognition.
36. The Sundays - "Here's Where the Story Ends" (1990)
The Sundays' debut album Reading, Writing and Arithmetic is a sweet collection of shimmery alternative pop loaded with strong melodies and genuine heart. The album's second single, "Here's Where the Story Ends", was the English band's breakthrough hit. Set to an upbeat, jangly guitar-pop backdrop, Harriet Wheeler enchants listeners with her brisk, crystalline vocals and a crisp melodic hook. The song's feel is evocative of a breezy, moderately cool yet still lovely autumn afternoon.
It's clearly a wistful song, but the precise meaning is hard to pin down. It seems that Wheeler's character regrets a love lost as she drifts through a world of hand-holding couples beaming with purpose. They remind her of what was and what could have been. Surely she doesn't always feel this way, but at this moment she insists, "But the only thing I ever really wanted to say was wrong / was wrong / was wrong." A pang of regret that will fade, and return, and then fade again, as all of our emotions are in a constant state of flux. This song is simply a beautifully rendered snapshot. Perhaps the next day she'll remember that it wasn't she alone who accounted for that "terrible year". Maybe the story ends with putting those regrets to bed for good, and moving forward.
The lyrics read like a poem, and the song speaks to different listeners in different ways. Perhaps that's the point. It's just impressions of thoughts and memories that Wheeler doesn't want to spell out too precisely, maybe to enhance the song's inherent air of mystery and wonder, maybe because it's too personal. Either way, the end result is beguiling. Alternative radio couldn't get enough of the song and neither could fans, who sent "Here's Where the Story Ends" soaring to #1 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart in May 1990.
35. Faith No More - "Midlife Crisis" (1992)
Alt-rock/metal alchemists Faith No More's tortured masterpiece Angel Dust traces the contours of a deranged mind expressing inner demons and bizarre observations of the world around him. The first single was "Midlife Crisis", a magnificent and harrowing track in which, over a densely rumbling rhythm section, Mike Patton spits the lyrics of the spoken verses like he's expelling venom from his tongue. The chorus explodes in a cathartic release backed by jagged guitars.
Mike Patton once claimed to a reporter that "Midlife Crisis" is about Madonna, but it's always wise to take such proclamations with a grain of salt, especially with someone known to fuck around with the press. The lyrics suggest that the song is, in fact, about a midlife crisis of sorts. A man is lost in a relationship which feels bereft of meaning, letting his life wane and fade because of a sense of normalcy and security that seems tenuous at best. Radiohead wrote in "True Love Waits", "I'm not living, I'm just killing time." Our guy here is also killing time, and decides to shake the order of his world.
He abandons his family and leaves them behind much like his own father did. Lyrics like "sense of security / like pockets jingling / midlife crisis / suck ingenuity / down through the family tree" and "what an inheritance / the salt and the kleenex" strongly suggest a repetition of events he experienced in childhood, which, of course, generates the bitter self-loathing which is the song's primary characteristic.
However one chooses to interpret it, "Midlife Crisis" is undoubtedly a powerful performance with striking lyrics, a malevolent spirit, and brilliant vocal by Patton. As the first single from Angel Dust, "Midlife Crisis" rocketed to #1 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart in August 1992.
34. Belly - "Feed the Tree" (1993)
Tanya Donelly, one of the '90s most underrated singer/songwriters, found the perfect vehicle for her music in Belly. The first single from Belly's outstanding debut Star, "Feed the Tree" is about the relationship between an elderly person and a youth, and an admonition to the youth to show proper respect. "Take your hat off, boy, when you're speaking to me", is of course proper manners of the kind that one hardly finds today. "Be there when I feed the tree" refers to death, and coming to the funeral to pay respect.
It's touching to think about an elderly man imparting wisdom on a young person who shimmies around a big tree like a squirrel and grins with her silver tooth that replaced the one she lost in a tumble from her bicycle. More generally, "Feed the Tree" is about showing each other respect as humans and individuals, and understanding that with age comes wisdom (presumably) and experience. In our cynical and confrontational information-overloaded world, a little respect and civility can go a very long way, but seems rarely to be found. Twenty-three years after first recording this song, "Feed the Tree" is more germane than ever. Simple respect goes a long way.
Tanya Donelly's vocals, often double-tracked to create lovely harmonies, glide above a solid groove that alternates between acoustic passages and edgy, motoric rock. Alternative radio and MTV wholeheartedly supported the song, and "Feed the Tree" topped the Billboard Modern Rock Chart for nearly a month. It will surely be a highlight of the band's set when they play their first gigs in two decades later in 2016.
33. No Doubt - "Spiderwebs" (1995)
"Just a Girl" was the first salvo from No Doubt's second album Tragic Kingdom, but their popularity really exploded with "Spiderwebs", a frenzied repudiation of an obsessive fan who incessantly called Gwen Stefani to recite bad poetry until she finally had to start screening her calls (the advent of smartphones would kinda render this issue moot, wouldn't it?) Not the most compelling tale to turn into a hit song, but Stefani and her ace bandmates knock it out of the park.
"Spiderwebs" is a high energy fusion of pop, rock, ska and even some hints of reggae. It's jumpy and manic, with a blazing brass arrangement adding to the song's highwire excitement. Gwen Stefani had not yet taken the leap to solo pop stardom, and she really lets loose here in a way rarely heard in her electro-pop solo material. Her frustration at the situation that inspired the song comes through loud and clear in her dynamic and expressive vocal. The musicianship in No Doubt is sometimes overlooked, but one listen to "Spiderwebs" jumping out of the speakers all barrels blazing should render it obvious exactly how talented and tight this group was at their peak. Adrian Young is an unstoppable machine on the drums, and bassist Tony Kanal (who co-wrote the song) and guitarist Tom Dumont keep a frantic pace.
"Spiderwebs" hit #5 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart and set the stage for Gwen Stefani's big star turn on the chart-topping ballad "Don't Speak". Like the rest of Tragic Kingdom, "Spiderwebs" was produced by Matthew Wilder, who scored a Top 5 pop hit of his own in 1983 with the reggae-tinged "Break My Stride".
32. Manic Street Preachers - "If You Tolerate This, Your Children Will Be Next" (1998)
Opening with slivers of guitar that alternate between sides of the sound spectrum, the powerfully strident "If You Tolerate This, Your Children Will Be Next" by Welsh alt-rockers Manic Street Preachers has deep roots in European history. The song was inspired by the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 and the naive Welsh fighters caught up in sweeping anti-fascist fervor who flocked to Spain to fight for the leftist government against the rebellion led by Francisco Franco. The song's title comes from a Spanish government poster condemning the death of a young child killed by Franco's forces. The chilling line "so if I can shoot rabbits / then I can shoot fascists" is actually an oft-repeated quote from one of the fighters battling against Franco.
The song is more complex than just a history lesson, though. The narrator's enthusiasm for righteous battle fades as the song goes along and he's been exposed to unthinkable carnage. He eventually comes to the realization that neither side is particularly noble. By the end he's an old man, alone with "newspaper cuttings of his glory days". What did it all mean in the end? Human lives -- real people with families, stories and dreams -- used as kindling in the never ending violent games of the powerful. Even if you survive, you're scarred.
It's ultimately all about the meaningless, endless cycle of violence and war, and how your child might indeed be the next soldier caught up in the fervor of a noble cause only to die a bloody death in battle or to maybe waste away wondering what might have been. It couldn't be more timely or relevant, given the perpetual state of war in which we are engulfed.
All of this is set to a highly melodic, hard rocking anthem with strings like sheets of gilded metal glistening above the chorus. As a recording and a piece of songwriting, "If You Tolerate This, Your Children Will Be Next" rises far above what most rock and roll aspires to be, and it succeeds. The track became a huge success in the UK, becoming Manic Street Preachers' first #1 single.
31. Jane's Addiction - "Been Caught Stealin'" (1990)
In the realm of '90s alternative rock, apart from the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Give It Away" it's hard to find a more wickedly funky groove than Jane's Addiction's "Been Caught Stealin'". Perry Farrell's vocal is ballsy and mischievous and Dave Navarro unleashes a brief but absolutely savage guitar solo. All the players shine -- drummer Stephen Perkins and bassist Eric Avery (who co-wrote the song with Perry Farrell) are ridiculously tight. "Been Caught Stealin'" is an audacious moment of levity on Ritual de lo Habitual, an album that is otherwise a deeply serious collection.
"Been Caught Stealin'" works on multiple levels. While it seems like a bit of a novelty on first listen, there is an unmistakable current of desperation coursing through the song, with the barking dogs raising the spectre of a police chase. After all, the simple act of shoplifting is sometimes a necessity for survival (wasn't there a Broadway musical about that? Something set in France?) Mostly, though, Perry Farrell seems to be encouraging the simple act of rebellion against authority, which has been a recurring theme in his songwriting.
"Been Caught Stealin'" features a surreally comical video that MTV played on heavy rotation, and the track became the most successful of Jane's Addiction's storied career, lodging at #1 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart for four weeks. It helped the absolutely brilliant Ritual de lo Habitual sell more than two million copies in the US alone.
30. Beck - "Where It's At" (1996)
Any vinyl junkie's ears will perk up at the beginning of Beck's "Where It's At", as a needle hits the wax with a faint click and some light surface noise before a laid-back Wurlitzer groove gets the song rolling. "Where It's At" was the lead single from the universally acclaimed Odelay, which Beck co-produced with the Dust Brothers, known for their work with hip-hop artists like Beastie Boys and Young MC. It was a vitally important single in Beck's career as it proved he wasn't a one-hit wonder following the surprise success of his 1994 single "Loser".
"Where It's At?" is a colorful homage to the old-school days when DJs jammed with simple setups with literally just two turntables and a microphone. No fancy mixers, no pitch shifters, no computer programs that matches the beat for ya. The slow-grooving backing track is simple, just a funky rhythm and bass with blissed-out retro organ. Over that foundation, Beck and his collaborators cunningly assemble a variety of samples that fit together like a convoluted audio puzzle. Some bits, including the line "What about those who swing both ways: AC-DC?", are taken from a 1969 album aimed at teaching sex education for middle schoolers called Sex for Teens (Where It's At). "That was a good drum break" is from the 1989 track "I Don't Care if U Disrespect Me" by the Frogs. The song's signature sample, "two turntables and a microphone", is snipped from the single "Needle to the Groove" by New York City-based electro/hip-hop pioneers Mantronix.
The song proved an outstanding choice as the high-profile first single from the all-important follow-up to Beck's 1994 breakthrough Mellow Gold. While "Where It's At?" sounds somewhat reminiscent of "Loser" with Beck once again rapping the verses, it also ties into the dynamic studio wizardry that makes Odelay such a compelling listen. It eases fans into his latest album with a sense of familiarity and a promise of exciting things to come. The song tore up alternative radio and MTV, eventually landing at #5 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart and earning Beck a Grammy nomination.
29. Green Day - "Longview" (1994)
For those of us who remember when Green Day's single "Longview" first broke on MTV, at the time it would have been hard to imagine that a quarter-century later this bratty punk-pop trio would be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Dookie became one of the decade's most prominent alternative-rock albums and the band has enjoyed enduring success ever since, especially with their 2004 classic American Idiot. It all started with "Longview", a savage rocker about feeling like a loser, sitting around the house in utter boredom, smoking copious amounts of weed and endlessly masturbating (it hardly sounds that bad, really).
"Longview" opens with 23 seconds of a rollicking drumbeat and jaunty bass before Billie Joe Armstrong begins his laconic recitation of youthful malaise with lines like, "peel me off this Velcro seat and get me moving / I sure as hell can't do it by myself / I'm feeling like a dog in heat / barred indoors from the summer street / I locked the door to my own cell / and I lost the key."
Then the chorus arrives with Armstrong's hard-charging guitar and an ardent appreciation of masturbation with an enthusiasm that is probably unmatched by any other ode to jerking off: "Bite my lip and close my eyes / take me away to paradise!" Wait… close my eyes, what? Ah yeah. This is 1994. The immediate and perpetual accessibility of countless hours of internet porn at the click of the button was a thing of the future. One needs eyes open and a hand free for the mouse these days.
With sardonic wit and youthful urgency, Green Day captures a period of adolescence (and beyond) that many of us have experienced. It's no wonder that so many listeners have been able to relate. "Longview" hit #1 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart in June 1994 and was the spark that launched Green Day into the alternative rock stratosphere. Their next single, "Basket Case", doused that spark with a spray of gasoline.
28. Pulp - "Common People" (1995)
British art-rockers Pulp have been around since the late '70s, and released their debut album It in 1983. Their popularity bloomed in the '90s, thanks in large part to their epic single "Common People". The lead single from Pulp's fifth album Different Class, "Common People" quickly became the band's biggest hit by far in their native England.
The song is a biting indictment of the entitled wealthy who view the lower classes with a sense of romantic whimsy, as if it's a quaint simple life that you can taste by walking through their streets or eating their food. Jarvis skillfully skewers these "social voyeurs" with razor sharp wit, with lines like, "I took her to a supermarket / I don't know why but I had to start it somewhere / so it started there / I said pretend you've got no money / she just laughed and said, 'Oh, you're so funny' / I said, 'Yeah?' / Well I can't see anyone else smiling in here." Few writers this side of Neil Tennant are capable of transforming mundane observation into sharply honed barbs as deftly as Jarvis Cocker.
Veteran producer Chris Thomas helps give the song a sense of sweeping drama, which perfectly suits Jarvis Cocker's feverishly intense vocal delivery. At nearly 6 minutes, the track is an anthemic and ambitious epic dripping with derision.
"Common People" reached #2 in the UK and their album Different Class is widely regarded as one of the decade's best, but Pulp has largely been ignored by radio and MTV in America. In that way they are like other witty art-pop bands like Sparks and Roxy Music that seems to fly right over the heads of the average American radio programmer.
27. Rage Against the Machine - "Bulls on Parade" (1996)
Rock and roll has always been about raging against the machine -- from the very beginning it was anti authority. Very few have raged with as much fervid intensity and passion as Los Angeles-based Rage Against the Machine, whose electrifying alt-rock, metal and hip-hop hybrid merge with biting social commentary to create full-throttle head-music that's both cerebral and primal.
The first single from the band's second album Evil Empire, "Bulls on Parade" is about the military industrial complex, a gaping maw perpetually fed with countless dollars and human lives. Countries like the US and the UK, among others, have engaged in ongoing warfare for three decades, and it shows no sign of abating. The inexorable parade of the bulls, the march of the tanks, the slaughter of the innocents, keeps often poor young soldiers dying while huge corporations led by rich fat cat war profiteers keep funneling more and more money to crooked politicians to ensure their insatiable thirst for blood, money and power is never quenched.
Ever notice how the 'family values' politicians are the ones who most staunchly advocate for armed intervention? Rage Against the Machine notices, as the line "They rally 'round the family / with a pocket full of shells," the central thematic element in "Bulls on Parade", clearly shows. De la Rocha spells out the treacherous business of war, the fucked up priorities of many politicians and the human toll in stark terms: "Weapons not food, not homes, not shoes / Not need, just feed the war cannibal animal / I walk the corner to the rubble that used to be a library / line up to the mind cemetery now."
Rage Against the Machine is a tight musical unit, with machine gun guitar riffs by Tom Morello, Tim Commerford's thundercrack bass, powerhouse drumwork by Brad Wilk and of course Zack de la Rocha spewing his rapid-fire vocals as if firing up a riotous crowd with a bullhorn. "Bulls on Parade" is notable for its dizzying solo which is actually Morello sliding his hands along the guitar strings to create an effect that sounds like a DJ scratching vinyl. The track landed like a meteorite upon release, reaching #11 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart and helping catapult Evil Empire to the top of the US album chart.
26. Soundgarden - "Black Hole Sun" (1994)
Seattle-based Soundgarden enjoyed multi-platinum success with their fourth album, Superunknown, thanks largely to the bluesy psychedelic-rock dreamscape "Black Hole Sun". There's a stately Black Sabbath doom-metal vibe to the song, dark and forbidding, with macabre and surreal imagery that stirs feelings of impending horror.
Vocalist Chris Cornell wrote the song after he misheard a newscaster say what he thought was "Black Hole Sun". The phrase stuck in his head, and he wrote the song rather quickly. The lyrics have no literal meaning. They are meant to paint a mood with evocative imagery, and that they do. "Boiling heat / summer stench / 'neath the black the sky looks dead / call my name through the cream / and i'll hear you scream again," Cornell sings at one point.
The dark tenor of the lyrics jives with brooding instrumentation, especially during the chorus when Kim Thayil's malevolent heavy guitar riff comes in like a flood of dark water. Thayil also engages in some wickedly intricate guitar work during the solo that comes before the short final verse and then the quickly escalating climax.
Cornell's vocals go from smooth and soulful to a ragged near-scream as the song builds to a dramatic climax. "Black Hole Sun" has the feel of trying to run and escape something and being unable to do so, like a memory of a nightmare.
MTV played the video in heavy rotation, and the single garnered substantial airplay on both alternative and mainstream rock radio. "Black Hole Sun" eventually climbed to #2 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart and became part of the fabric of '90s alternative rock.
25. Tool - "Sober" (1993)
Maynard James Keenan personifies addiction in the chilling "Sober", a song inspired by an acquaintance who could only function well while high. Keenan steps in the shoes of a man haunted by a debilitating need that overwhelms every aspect of his life. The overwhelming urge for another hit stalks him like a ghost.
In one brilliant verse, Keenan exposes the treachery and betrayal every addict goes through. "There's a shadow just behind / shrouding every step I take / making every promise empty / pointing every finger at me / waiting like a stalking butler / who upon the finger rests." Shrouding every step I take… the specter of need never dissipates. Every promise empty… everybody knows he's not to be trusted, he will do anything or say anything for the next fix. Pointing every finger at me… Everybody knows, and instead of empathy or compassion he faces only scorn.
"Sober" exists in that shadowy sonic space created by Paul D'Amour's hard elastic bass, razor shards of metallic guitar by Adam Jones, Danny Carey's spidery drumwork, and Keenan howling like a tormented soul from purgatory. He instills the deepest self-loathing in lines like "I am just a worthless liar / I am just an imbecile / I will only complicated you / trust in me, and fall as well." He sees no self-worth at all and warns others to stay away lest he bring them down with him. Keenan inhabits this character with a searing authenticity.
"Why can't we not be sober?" he asks plaintively. Why not allow us to just go along our business of getting high, peacefully, living life in an unfeeling cocoon, away from pain and lies and deceit? It's an impossible wish, a cry from the soul of a man who has given up.
As the lead single from Tool's second album Undertow, "Sober" earned substantial MTV play thanks to a chilling stop-model animation video. The single reached #10 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart and launched Tool on the path of becoming an alternative progressive metal behemoth.
24. Afghan Whigs - "Debonair" (1993)
There's nothing debonair about the man singing "Debonair", or the character at least. Greg Dulli's sweetly smoky voice, emotive and dripping with suggestion, is positively the opposite of debonair as he cheats and uses and abuses someone he truly loves but can't stop himself from hurting.
Dulli suavely plays his dramatic vocal phrasing on the taut rhythmic tension like a tightening vice. A lurid bass, handclaps, the propulsive rhythm and overlapping guitar parts guide the song through its beautiful vampiric underworld. "This ain't about regret", Dulli insists over and over again, and he means it. He's a man who does what he wants, no matter the destruction wrought to himself and those around him. "This ain't about regret / my conscience can't be found / this time I won't repent / somebody's going down."
The song is an exposure of the truth, a declaration of the real man underneath a pose. Dulli starts the song with the telling couplet, "Hear me now and don't forget / I'm not the man my actions would suggest." Dulli can't really control his self-destructive impulses ("and once again the monster speaks / reveals his face and searches for release"), but while he may have some sense of doom he's not willing to go through the wrenching change that would be required to reverse course ("this time I won't repent / somebody's going down"). Dulli puts the "monster" down to his innate human nature and considers his course irreversible.
A moody and eerie psychological study in compulsive behavior and co-dependence in a dysfunctional relationship, "Debonair" also doubles as a kick-ass rock track that needs to be played at maximum volume to be appreciated. The first single from the band's fourth album, the ironically titled Gentleman, "Debonair" reached #18 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart.
23. Fiona Apple - "Criminal" (1996)
Fiona Apple's debut album Tidal was released in July 1996 and began a slow-boil of increasing visibility and acclaim, thanks to singles like "Shadowboxer" and "Sleep to Dream". It finally peaked in late 1997 with its third single "Criminal", a song that exudes guilt and sordid sensuality. It's a complex production, a swaying burlesque that rides the dynamic interplay between Apple's piano and studio ace Matt Chamberlain's stellar percussion, with strings and alluring musical effects buffeting from all directions.
"Criminal" is sung from the point of view of someone using sexuality to get her way. She's ostensibly wracked by guilt by her behavior, but she sure doesn't sound like it. Apple sings her role convincingly, her rich voice conveying just the right amount of brazen naughtiness barely touched with contrition. Musically the song's dark groove gels with Apple's smoky vocal and the sensuality of the lyrics. The instrumentation is orchestral and exotic. The flute sound is not made by a woodwind, but instead a Chamberlin (an old-fashioned mechanical keyboard) played by Jon Brion. The haunting keening helps bring a vintage, retro feel to the song.
The risqué video is provocatively redolent of a seedy, cheaply made porno filmed circa 1976.Considering that Apple has been quite open about her struggles with an eating disorder and her traumatic history of being raped as a 12 year old girl, "Criminal", both the song and video, takes on added significance in terms of the complex emotions that individuals battling from these types of traumas may feel, including guilt and lack of self-worth. The song's sexual tension and uneasy vibe proved compelling enough to fuel it all the way to #4 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart.
22. My Bloody Valentine - "Only Shallow" (1991)
The second album by My Bloody Valentine, Loveless, is one of those legendary musical works shrouded in lore. The perfectionist singer/songwriter/musician Kevin Shields took two years and burned through an enormous amount of money to create Loveless, which ultimately contributed to the band's label Creation Records going bankrupt. Loveless didn't sell particularly well when it was finally released, but it was immediately hailed by critics, and remains one of those albums often pointed to as a reference point. Countless imitators of the band's gauzy guitar-based sound sprung up in their wake, collaborative forming a sub-genre often labeled "shoegaze".
The single "Only Shallow" was never going to be a big hit, but it really didn't need to be. Written by Shields with vocalist Bilinda Butcher, "Only Shallow" features Shields' distinctive "glide" guitar sound which he creates by relying heavily on the tremolo bar. Shields' technique results in the strings swaying slightly in and out of tune, which helps contribute to My Bloody Valentine's uniquely off-kilter vibe. The guitars are such a massive wall of sound that it sounds like there are a mountain of overdubs, but that's not the case. All of the instruments, apart from Colm Ó Cíosóig's drumming, is played by Shields, who also uses samples of guitar distortion to twist and turn and add to the hurricane of sound.
Butcher sings "Only Shallow" gently, her voice well down in the mix so that it quavers in the midst of all the haywire guitar. The surreal lyrics are as dreamy as the music's opiate sway. The words seem to refer to a tentative sexual experience, perhaps imagined in a dream. The title is possibly a reference to a line in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray -- "only the shallow know themselves" -- but it's impossible to say for certain. In fact the words hardly seem to matter -- it's the sound that's important. Butcher's vocal is like a velvet ribbon caught in a heavy industrial machine, winding through the metallic inner workings until it emerges miraculously unscathed at the other end.
Although Loveless beguiled critics and the fans that could penetrate its glorious sonic chaos, it wasn't a big seller. As the album's primary single, "Only Shallow" reached #27 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart, the only single by My Bloody Valentine to hit that survey. Despite its mediocre chart performance, "Only Shallow" and its parent album have attained an exalted status in the history of '90s rock given their significant influence not to mention their sheer brilliance.
21. Beastie Boys - "Sabotage" (1994)
The hyperkinetic tricksters Beastie Boys pulled off their biggest sleight of hand ever with the savagely indolent "Sabotage", an arresting barrage of sonic explosion and brash wordplay. As the lead single to the trio's stellar fourth album Ill Communication, "Sabotage" immediately blasted into heavy rotation on MTV with a popular video directed by Spike Jonze that parodies '70s-era police shows.
"Sabotage" was originally intended as an instrumental, with the vocals added at the very last minute only weeks before the album's release. The trio bashes out the track on live instruments, Adam Horovitz on guitar, Adam Yauch on a wicked distorted bass, and Mike Diamond on drums (check out those ruthless snare blasts that helps keep the action at a fever pitch). Horovitz dashed off some lyrics about frustration with scheming, underhanded tactics, and people working against him (perhaps in the music industry) and screams them into a basic recorder, adding to the song's raw, almost punk-rock urgency. It was all done very quickly, but sometimes that's the key to capturing an energy that's impossible to achieve grinding away for endless days in the studio.
"Sabotage" is a merciless two minutes and 58 seconds of pure adrenalin injected right into the listener's brain. It was a late lucky strike that slams the exclamation point on Ill Communication. "Sabotage" reached #18 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart and helped propel its parent album to the top of the US album chart with sales in excess of three million copies.