best alternative singles
Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

The 100 Greatest Alternative Singles of the ’90s: 40 – 21

The fourth part of our examination of the 100 Greatest Alternative Singles of the ’90s includes Suede, Manic Street Preachers, Pulp, and My Bloody Valentine.

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 six 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.