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best alternative singles
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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.

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 help 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 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.


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This article was originally published on 25 July 2016.

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