The 100 Greatest Alternative Singles of the '90s
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The 100 Greatest Alternative Singles of the ’90s: 20 – 1

The fifth and final part of the 100 Greatest Alternative Singles of the ’90s, includes Portishead, Blur, Björk, R.E.M., Nine Inch Nails, and more.

20. Portishead – “Sour Times” (1994)

“Sour Times” is late-night music for a smoky, dimly lit back-alley club, with Beth Gibbons clutching the mic like it’s her only tether to sanity as she pours out her sorrow to a sparse and uncaring crowd drowning their troubles in strong drink.

Portishead’s eerily cinematic soundscapes incorporate elements of jazz, blues, ambient, and electronic textures into a midnight fusion that wisps in and around the listener’s consciousness like a ghostly apparition that slips just beyond the fingertips the closer it comes to being touched. They build their atmospheric mix over a trippy rhythm that injects a modern feel into a sound that could otherwise have originated from just about anytime in the last 50 years.

“Sour Times” could easily be the theme for a shadowy noir thriller or an erotic art film that disturbs as much as it titillates. Perhaps it’s not surprising that it also sounds like it could be featured in a spy movie — the guitar is a sample from Argentine composer Lalo Schifrin’s “Danube Incident”, originally used in the television series Mission Impossible.

There is a gothic loveliness to Gibbons’ passionate yearning. Her vocals are beautiful but haunted, like Billie Holiday trapped in a dank underground cell, singing woeful blues to the cold cement walls encasing her. “Sour Times” has a doomed quality, the claustrophobic feeling of someone trapped in a gauze of impenetrable mist. The lyrics appear to touch upon a woman in a forbidden relationship, forced to operate in secrecy and deal in deception. Although the situation brings nothing but shame and sorrow, she seems unable to or unwilling to extricate herself from it.

“Sour Times” is the second single from the British trio’s debut album Dummy, winner of the 1995 Mercury Music Prize. The track earned Portishead their only appearance on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart, where it reached #5.

19. Blur – “Girls & Boys” (1994)

The cover art to “Girls & Boys”, the first single from Blur’s celebrated third album Parklife, is appropriately enough borrowed from a condom ad. The song dives headlong into the endless hedonism and promiscuity during summer vacations in which hordes of young Europeans flock to the beaches of the Mediterranean. They party all night, load themselves with drink and drugs and fuck as many people — of either sex — as humanly possible.

The voracious partying is riddled with a strong sense of anxiety — “Love in the ’90s is paranoid / on sunny beaches take your chances” — as people try to escape their dreary and mundane lives back home and navigate their temporary world of excitement and lust while trying not to overdose or become infected with HIV/AIDS, which was near its epidemic peak when “Girls & Boys” was released in 1994.

Stylistically, the song straddles decades and genres. “Girls & Boys” is Euro-pop that harkens back to the glam-and-cocaine new romantic days of the ’80s (think Duran Duran sailing supermodel studded yachts) and throbs with disco glory in its unstoppable circular groove and thumping bass. “Girls & Boys” has a hard edge to it, a piercing danger — it captures the excitement of rampant sexual escapades with the swift current of restlessness that burrows into every moment, with the tension in Damon Albarn’s vocals, the streaks of savage guitar by Graham Coxon, and the throwback hard-grooving drum machine by Dave Rowntree. The track was produced by Stephen Street, famed producer of the Smiths.

“Girls & Boys” was a huge breakthrough single for Blur, becoming their first Top 5 in the UK and raising their international profile considerably. In America, the song found a home in gay clubs, where its sexy and dangerous vibe was eagerly embraced by sweating bodies writhing on the dance floor and emulating the raging debauchery in the song under the bright flashing lasers and strobe lights.

18. Björk – “Hyperballad” (1996)

“Hyperballad” is constant motion, like shivery waters swirling around hidden rocks submerged just below the surface. Its glitchy rhythm is redolent of loops of computer malfunction, with dizzying swells of keyboard and electronics, and Björk’s alien-pixie voice gliding above it all like a magnificent bird with incandescent rainbow plumage. The whole thing sounds like something captured by NASA on a radio broadcast beamed from a humanoid planet of paradise that exists in a far off universe where the normal rules don’t apply. To say that Björk is unique hardly does the word justice.

“Hyperballad” is an arresting recording, from the otherworldly sonic textures to the idiosyncratic mannerisms of Björk’s vocals. The soaring strings were arranged by Eumir Deodato, a multidiscipline virtuoso who’s worked with such luminaries as Frank Sinatra and Astrud Gilberto. The track is indeed a hyper ballad, especially as it picks up to more frenetic tempo near the end.

The lyrics are typical of Björk’s obtuse and poetic nature. Björk has such a unique way of viewing the world that it’s hard to imagine any other lyricist penning these words. She recounts a dream in which she throws various objects off a cliff, watches them as they crash amongst the rocks, and then imagines if she threw herself off the edge and ponders what her body would look like. It’s an evocative concept that Björk pulls off brilliantly with her usual economy of language: “I’m back at my cliff still throwing things off / I listen to the sounds they make on their way down / I follow with my eyes ’til they crash / imagine what my body would sound like slamming against those rocks / when it lands, will my eyes be closed or open?” Chilling, but ultimately for the purpose of allowing herself to feel safe in her lover’s arms.

“Hyperballad” is the fourth single from Björk’s second album Post, and like the rest of the album, it was co-produced with Nellee Hooper. It became a substantial international hit, but in America, it was, of course, nothing Top 40 radio programmers were interested in playing. Still, the numerous remixes ensured its success in dance clubs, and esteem for it has only grown over the years.

17. Depeche Mode – “Enjoy the Silence” (1990)

After a long string of synthpop hits in the ’80s, British electronic pioneers Depeche Mode reached their artistic and commercial zenith with their seventh album Violator, released just as the decades turned in March 1990. The first single “Personal Jesus” had been released months earlier, building anticipation, and when the full album appeared it didn’t disappoint. Violator is loaded with top-notch songwriting and incorporates a precise, stark, stripped-down sound that suits the material well. “Enjoy the Silence” was released as a single on 16 January 1990, making it the earliest song eligible for this list. It eventually became by far the band’s biggest crossover hit in America. It hit #1 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart and reached #8 on the pop chart, helping Violator sell over three million copies in the US alone.

David Gahan’s smooth baritone is precise and almost clinical as it flows over the brooding electronic rhythm and layers of keyboard. The main riff is a simple guitar pattern that rings over the pulses of synth. Martin Gore adds a high harmony part that doesn’t jump out at first but adds drive and color. “Enjoy the Silence” seems stately and restrained until you begin to feel the immensity and depth of human emotion coursing through its electronic circuitry.

The lyrics involve the human capacity to hurt each other with words. Instead, we should trust in feeling and emotion to maintain an unbreakable connection with the person we love. Thoughts are fleeting and words can wound before they can be taken back. The tongue can be a finely honed razor. It’s true; just imagine holding your loved one in your arms, laying back, staring at the ceiling, feeling the love emanate through that physical bond. There is nothing to be added by speaking — words are imperfect, anyway. They’ve never been able to express what we humans are feeling adequately, and never will… and they too often cause problems that were never meant to be caused. “Vows are spoken / to be broken / feelings are intense / words are trivial.” Or, stated another way, “Words are useless / especially sentences / they don’t stand for anything / how could they explain how I feel?” — Madonna via Björk.

16. PJ Harvey – “Down By the Water” (1995)

PJ Harvey has always been able to portray the tormented and demented with startling conviction and veracity. “Down By the Water” is a twisted gothic blues narrated by a deranged woman who intentionally drowns her daughter. Harvey’s vocals are tightly controlled but the strong current of madness is palpable.

“Down By the Water” borrows from the traditional folk song “Salty Dog Blues”, with Harvey echoing its chorus of “Lil’ fish, big fish, swimmin’ in the water / come on here and give me my quarter / you salty dog / you salty dog.” Harvey interpolates this macabre refrain in a chilling whisper. She changes “quarter” to “daughter” and creates a menacing nightmare that allows us to peer into a deeply disturbed mind.

It’s clear that Harvey’s narrator really doesn’t understand what is happening, but is swept up in her hallucinatory visions and feelings, inspired at least in part by religious delusions. She is untethered from reality, and Harvey inhabits that role with a genuine sense of dire lunacy. Of course, with a songwriter of Harvey’s talent and dexterity, it’s also possible that the song is not meant to be taken at face value, but could have another meaning entirely. It’s certainly open to speculation and interpretation.

Harvey worked on her triumphant third album To Bring You My Love with long-time collaborator John Parish and renowned British producer Flood, and the end result is much more polished than Harvey’s first two albums Dry and Rid of Me. Musically, “Down By the Water” is a malevolent, sensual sway. A synthesized distorted organ, which sounds just like a fuzz-toned bass, fills much of the song’s sonic space. Icy synths, skeletal percussion, faint plucks of string, and chilling sound effects all fuse to create the sinister frame of mind in which the narrator is trapped.

As the lead single from To Bring You My Love, “Down By the Water” received substantial MTV and alternative radio airplay, leading it to reach #2 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart, by far PJ Harvey’s highest ever placement on that survey.