The fifth and final part of our examination 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 adequately express what we humans are feeling, 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.
15. Jeff Buckley - "Last Goodbye" (1994)
With opening curves of slide guitar and then a driving acoustic-rock beat, "Last Goodbye" is, in retrospect, exactly what Jeff Buckley said it is. Buckley's voice was, like his late father Tim Buckley, a remarkable instrument: supple and sweet, shining with sincerity, infused with beautiful melancholy. Grace was the only album he'd complete before his heartbreaking death. One minute he was alive and smiling, singing Led Zeppelin and swimming in the Wolf River Harbor in Memphis, and the next he was gone. Obviously Grace took on a new significance in the aftermath of Buckley's death.
"Last Goodbye" is a song of solemn regret about a relationship that is ending. It has an overarching feel of sadness and inevitability. There's no question that love is there, but it isn't enough. It often isn't when it comes to things like this. Buckley's narrator readily admits to being at fault in the demise of the relationship, positing that the girl is better off: "You know it makes me so angry 'cause I know that in time, I'll only make you cry," he tells her. Buckley also recounts a troubling episode that may have been violent in nature: "Did you say, 'No, this can't happen to me' / and did you rush to the phone to call / was there a voice unkind in the back of your mind / saying maybe you didn't know him at all?" Despite the warm and romantic nature of the song, with its lilting melody and slurring strings, the song is a reminder that things are not always what they seem, and that it's hard to really know someone, especially in love's first bloom.
Even though the love was doomed, Buckley says to his lover, "Just hear this and then I'll go; you gave me more to live for, more than you'll ever know." Almost exactly two years later, Buckley was gone. "Well, the bells out in the church tower chime / burning clues into this heart of mine / thinking so hard on her soft eyes and the memories / offer signs that it's over… it's over".
As the second single from Grace, "Last Goodbye" reached #19 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart. It was his final chart hit in America.
14. The Verve - "Bitter Sweet Symphony" (1997)
The Verve's grandiose epic "Bitter Sweet Symphony" is the opening track and lead single from their third album Urban Hymns. The song is built on a billowing orchestral loop sample taken from an instrumental version of the Rolling Stones' '60s smash "The Last Time" (which explains why Mick Jagger and Keith Richards share in the songwriting credits). The song was produced by the band with Martin "Youth" Glover, founding member of Killing Joke and one of the '90s most in-demand producers.
"Bitter Sweet Symphony" certainly boasts a grandiose stature in large part because of the string loop, but the song itself stands up to the strings' lofty ambition. Richard Ashcroft's vocals are expansive and open, and musically the song is a bluesy acoustic-based groove that follows the string pattern closely.
Befitting the vast nature of the music, "Bitter Sweet Symphony" takes on the big question of life's purpose and finds it is, indeed, bittersweet: "'Cause it's a bitter sweet symphony / that's life / trying to make ends meet / you're a slave to money / then you die." It's a rather fatalistic viewpoint, but the joyous nature of the music belies the pessimism. We all know the reality phrased in that opening stanza, after all. As the Godfathers famously stated, "Birth School Work Death". And yet, the glorious beauty of the melody and the musical accompaniment on "Bitter Sweet Symphony" is a lesson -- life may in the end be as pointless as we all think it is, with only pain awaiting us, but it can be sweet indeed while you have it.
Of course it's not all roses and daisies and there are periods of pain and anguish, but as Ashcroft sings near the song's end, "I let the melody shine / let it cleanse my mind / I feel free now." That's the lesson we can learn from "Bitter Sweet Symphony", and there's hardly a better melody, with its vast orchestral sweep, to lift us out of our malaise into a sense of joy and freedom -- if only for six minutes.
"Bitter Sweet Symphony" reached #4 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart and did well enough to crossover to #12 on the pop chart. The song hit #2 in the UK and was a global smash, becoming the Verve's signature song and video. But perhaps in a concrete example of the bittersweet nature of life's symphony, most of the money earned by the song lined the pockets of the Rolling Stones' former manager Allen Klein, thanks to that ubiquitous string sample.
13. Alanis Morissette - "You Oughta Know" (1995)
Alanis Morissette went from the saccharine pop of two teenybopper Canadian albums (Alanis (1991) and Now is the Time (1992)) to the deluge of angst known as Jagged Little Pill. It was a remarkable transformation that lifted her to iconic status among '90s' artists. Her rise was aided by producer Glen Ballard, who collaborated with Morissette on an album that became a cultural phenomenon, selling well over 30 million copies worldwide and yielding several major hits, including "Head Over Feet", "You Learn", "Ironic" and "Hand in My Pocket".
It all started with "You Oughta Know", the album's most jagged little pill, a portrayal of emotional wreckage left behind after the dissolution of a relationship. It opens with a couplet that seems singularly insincere: "I want you to know / that I am happy for you / I wish nothing but the best for you both". Uh-huh. Right. Morissette doesn't cling to dignity or sanguinity; she seethes with rage and confrontation. The song is instantly relatable and accessible, raw emotion over edgy rock with an epic chorus that ends with Morissette yelping with fury: "You… you… you… oughta know!"
"You Oughta Know" is brash, obsessive and a bit stalkerish ("I hate to bug you in the middle of dinner"), but then, human feelings are not always neat and logical, and Morissette doesn't hold back in lashing out at the man who cast her aside. She's not swallowing her pride and slinking off into a corner like one is evidently supposed to do in these situations. No, she's pointing a finger in harsh repudiation, standing up for herself and heaving scorn upon the object of her ire. Under the fiery denunciations, there is also a touch of vulnerability that peaks through ("I'm not quite as well / I thought you should know".)
It's a catharsis that feels genuine, and is certainly relatable to the millions of fans who snatched up the album. Depending on your point of view, it's the queen of all crazy ex-girlfriend songs, or perhaps an epic rant aimed at the king of all douchebag ex-boyfriends. Either way, it's a riveting drama spiked with genuine fury. "You Oughta Know" spent five weeks at #1 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart during the summer of 1995, and remains one of the decade's cultural cornerstones.
12. Alice in Chains - "Angry Chair" (1992)
Opening with a grim, stately triplet rhythm and a portentous guitar pattern, "Angry Chair" is a viscerally brutal gaze into a life scarred by neglect and nightmarish addiction. "Angry Chair" is as heartbreaking as anything you'll hear in rock, especially considering we know the sad ending to the story. Vocalist Layne Staley would eventually succumb to his demons and die of a drug overdose a decade after "Angry Chair" rode high on alternative radio and MTV.
"Angry Chair" is one of multiple harrowing tracks on Alice in Chains' unrelentingly bleak second album Dirt, which should be required listening for all high school students as part of a curriculum designed to keep them away from hard drugs. The album grabs you roughly by the skull and hauls you through a hallucinatory nightmare of anguish and despair, of watching your life circle inexorably into a dank hole that's filled with mud while you stand at the bottom, feeling the dirt dribble down your face, trying with all your might to claw your way back up. It can be done, but it's achingly hard. The best solution is to avoid those holes in the first place.
At his best, Layne Staley was a vocalist of remarkable soul and power. The harmonies he creates with guitarist Jerry Cantrell are tight and forceful. His lyrics on "Angry Chair" are based on Staley's childhood memories of his father sitting him in a chair in front of a mirror as a "time out" when he got in trouble. Consider this torturous verse: "Shadows dancing everywhere / burning on the angry chair / little boy made a mistake / pink cloud has now turned to gray / all that I want is to play / get on your knees, time to pray." There is no tenderness or understanding, and painful childhood memories cling like bruising shadows that burrow deeper and deeper into the soul through adulthood.
This verse tells the story of Layne Staley like a compact and hellish diary entry: "Loneliness is not a phase / field of pain is where I graze / serenity is far away / saw my reflection and cried / so little hope that I died / feed me your lies, open wide / weight of my heart, not the size." Staley was reportedly high on heroin, marijuana and oxycodone during the recording of "Angry Chair". The band surrounds his anguished lines with waves of acid-soaked guitars, ominous and unflinching in the face of the horrors being expressed. It's all the more powerful because it speaks of simple, unbearable truth. Producer Dave Jerden should be given credit for helping create the stunning combination of complex harmony vocals and molten rivers of guitar.
Listening to Alice in Chains is like diving into another man's inner demons and taking a long swim through a lake of fire. It's compelling and piercingly intense, but it was the pain and the addiction that made the art possible. On some level it's voyeurism at its most twisted, and yet it's impossible to turn away. At their best -- and "Angry Chair" represents that level -- Alice in Chains, and Layne Staley, were just too damn great. We should have known the toll would come due eventually.
11. Red Hot Chili Peppers - "Under the Bridge" (1991)
The wild hybrid musical machine Red Hot Chili Peppers have been purveyors of funk, soul, rock, punk, and hip-hop since they formed in Los Angeles in 1983. They slowly built a fanbase over the course of several albums and tours, finally scoring a substantial hit with 1989's Mother's Milk and the singles "Knock Me Down" and "Higher Ground". The big payoff came two years later.
After the hyperactive funk-rock freak-out "Give It Away", the lead single from their landmark Rick Rubin-produced fifth album Blood Sugar Sex Magik, ripped its way to #1 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart the Chili Peppers were bigger than ever. Who would have thought a heartfelt ballad would elevate them to international stardom?
"Under the Bridge" peers within, examining Anthony Kiedis' soul and providing some context to the manic and thunderous world the Chili Peppers normally occupy. The song started as a poem that Kiedis showed to producer Rick Rubin who, thankfully, convinced the frontman to present it to his bandmates. Despite it being such a radical departure from their usual style, his colleagues rose to the occasion and developed the musical arrangement that compliments the lyrics so perfectly.
Kiedis lays himself bare and eloquently speaks to his struggles with addiction -- a desperate need that took complete charge of his life -- and the resulting isolation and shame. The brash hyper-kinetic beats aren't here to hide behind and there's no wild strut around stage. Just a somber, stripped-down ballad that shows a different side of an artist brave enough to open up his closet and let the skeletons out for the world to examine. Kiedis reflects on the lowest points of his life, when he would hang out under a bridge in Los Angeles to shoot up. Looking back a few years later, as a sober man surrounded by people who don't follow his abstention, he still feels disconnected in many ways but never regrets for a moment leaving that Hell behind.
For someone not used to singing poignant ballads, Kiedis sure does it convincingly. The song speaks to loneliness and solitude, an inability to connect or trust -- and of his special affection for the city of Los Angeles, which has seen him at his best and at his worst. It's a change for Kiedis, but also for the band, who was forced to take a different musical approach for the poignant and personal song, but they rise to the occasion and treat the song with the gravitas and dignity it requires. "Under the Bridge" is a moment of growth and changed perceptions of what the Chili Peppers could be both within the band and among their fans. It was the pivot that allowed Red Hot Chili Peppers to become the type of supergroup capable of still going strong over 20 years later.
"Under the Bridge" reached #6 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart and crossed over to substantial success at Top 40, going all the way to #2, unable to dislodge the chart-topping novelty rap number "Jump" by Kriss Kross; another stark reminder that chart positions don't tell the whole story.
10. Smashing Pumpkins - "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" (1995)
Billy Corgan snarls "the world is a vampire" to open "Bullet With Butterfly Wings", the first single from Smashing Pumpkins' two-CD opus Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. That old cliché "taking blood from a stone" is apt. Like a vampire, the world sucks and sucks, takes and takes, until there is nothing left but a shriveled coil of rage lashing out, as Corgan does like a rat in a cage.
Mellon Collie is a pandora's box of beauty and nightmare, raging guitars and soaring strings. It's a vast sonic universe that hurls the listener through Corgan's elaborate and tortured fantasy world of fragility and desolation. Is it self-indulgent? Most double albums are to a degree, but who cares? It's crammed full of great material, and "Bullet with Butterfly Wings" is one of the album's cornerstones.
Corgan snarls like a feral cat stalking through a wasteland wrought by mankind's innate destructive tendencies. The song alternates between the sullen verses with Corgan singing mostly in his lower register over rumbling bass, to the blistering repetition of "in spite of all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage!" It's a meditation on the human condition, the pain we must endure, which seems mystifying, meaningless and completely at odds with the notion that there is an all-knowing, all-powerful and benevolent deity. "And what do I get, for my pain?" Corgan asks. Later, he compares himself to the mythological biblical figure Job, who, according to legend, was inflicted with endless miseries but whose faith in his God never wavered. Corgan doesn't seem quite so sanguine.
Part of the song is the existential rage of recognition that humans are on the same plane as a rat or any other animal. There is nothing to be saved, nowhere to escape but the vampiric world that engulfs us in abject pain, and then at some point death takes us. It's a denial of the divine, the angst of being lost and disconnected from a higher power, all the while wishing there was a benevolent presence to save us all at the end and give our lives meaning. Wishing, but not quite being able to believe. Humanity is one animal raging against another, every dog for himself. The song ends with a manic repetition of "And I still believe that I cannot be saved! / and I still believe that I cannot be saved!"
That's not the only thread running through the track, though. "Bullet with Butterfly Wings" can also be seen as a rumination on life in the music industry, how one gets on the hamster wheel of the record industry machinery that can be hard to escape. Corgan reflects on how fakery and malaise sets in, and how a performer can feel like a caged animal doing tricks for the applause of humans watching from outside the cage: "Now I'm naked / nothing but an animal / but can you fake it / for just one more show?"
"Bullet with Butterfly Wings" spent six long weeks at #2 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart, bizarrely unable to overtake three different songs that jumped ahead of it into the top spot: "Name" by the Goo Goo Dolls, "My Friends" by Red Hot Chili Peppers, and "Glycerine" by Bush.
And yeah, it's still true 20 years later and probably always will be -- the world is a motherfucking vampire.
9. Sinéad O'Connor - "Nothing Compares 2 U" (1990)
Irish firebrand and powerhouse vocalist Sinéad O'Connor swept to massive success with her cover of an old Prince song that she elevates far beyond the original and completely owns. "Nothing Compares 2 U" first appeared on the 1985 album by the Prince side-project The Family, and like most of the tracks on that album, Prince wrote, produced, and performed most of the instruments himself. Paul Peterson sings the soulful lead vocal and the venerable Clare Fischer, who would become a frequent Prince collaborator, handles the orchestral accompaniment. "Nothing Compares 2 U" by the Family wasn't even released as a single, and was quickly forgotten except by the most ardent Prince aficionados. It wouldn't remain an obscurity for long, though. O'Connor unearthed it five years later for her second album I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got, and delivers a jaw-dropping vocal performance over a haunting, stripped-down arrangement.
A solemn hymnal accompaniment, with mournful church organ, melancholy strings and a skeletal, trip-hop rhythm, allows O'Connor's voice to be front and center where it belongs. O'Connor shows her usual impressive vocal dexterity, veering from a full-throated wail to a tremulous whisper to convey meaning and raw emotion, and jumping octaves with remarkable ease. Her tearful performance in the song's iconic video (winner of three MTV Video Music Awards, including Best Video) helped cement the song's massive success.
Sinéad O'Connor takes a pretty but hardly earth-shattering R&B ballad and turns it into an electrifying hymn seething with the palpable pain and the vulnerability of a broken relationship. "Nothing Compares 2 U" would turn out to be O'Connor's only crossover pop hit in America, as most of her material is firmly outside the mainstream. "Nothing Compares 2 U" beguiled Top 40 radio programmers who'd never dream of playing O'Connor classics like "The Last Day of Our Acquaintance", "Troy", "Mandinka" or "I Am Stretched on Your Grave". "Nothing Compares 2 U" reached #1 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart in March 1990, and was also a #1 pop hit.
Of course, after O'Connor turned the song into a chart-topping hit, Prince quickly reclaimed it, performing it live and issuing a duet with Rosie Gaines on his 1993 hits collection. It's hard to blame him for trying and he certainly showed himself more than capable of turning out knockout performances of the song. It's O'Connor's cover, though, that packs the most emotional power. Her version is one of transcendent beauty and transparent anguish. You can feel the heartbreak in her voice and in the graceful elegance of the accompaniment. It's one of those magical recordings in which all the elements come together with sheer perfection to create something that is truly timeless.
8. R.E.M. - "Losing My Religion" (1991)
R.E.M. spent the '80s as college radio darlings, beloved by critics and a small legion of fans that steadily grew as the decade progressed. They scored Top 10 hits with "The One I Love" and "Stand" as the decade drew to a close, but it was only the beginning of their monumental impact. R.E.M.'s 1991 album Out of Time was their biggest yet while still not actively seeking crossover appeal (apart from the defiantly chirpy "Shiny Happy People"). "Losing My Religion" is Stipe at his finest -- his lyrics are typically enigmatic, hard to penetrate and fascinating, and he unloads perhaps his sharpest vocal performance.
Scott Litt produced the song, which started life as a few chords guitarist Peter Buck had captured on his mandolin, which he was still learning to play. Mike Mills' bass line helps anchor the vocal melody and allows Buck's chiming mandolin to shine as the main instrumental hook. The song simmers with self-doubt and unrequited love. The title comes from an old Southern phrase -- "I almost lost my religion" -- that Stipe frequently overheard as a child. It basically means you're at the end of your rope, and Stipe's narrator, overwhelmed by self-doubt, clearly is at that point. He doubts everything.
"I thought that I heard you laughing / I thought that I heard you sing / I think I thought I saw you try / but that was just a dream". He's so uncertain he's ginned himself up into a tizzy of indecision and doubt: "Oh no, I've said too much / I haven't said enough." It's an unrequited love story from the point of view of a man struggling with anxiety -- beautiful, endearing, a little sad, and recognizable to those who have been in that exact same state of mind.
Touring guitarist Peter Holsapple plays the acoustic rhythm part upon which Berry's mandolin rides like sunshine glistening on a wave. Veteran producer and composer Mark Bingham arranged the string part which was performed by members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
"Losing My Religion" doesn't sound like a typical pop song -- there is no chorus and the main melodic hook comes from a mandolin -- yet it became a monster hit, spending two full months at #1 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart during the spring of 1991 and reaching #4 on the Hot 100. It also helped launch Out of Time to the top of the album chart.
"Losing My Religion" was the rocket fuel that propelled R.E.M. to the pinnacle of their success, with albums like Automatic for the People and Monster on the horizon, and they did it without giving in to formulaic pop/rock convention.
7. U2 - "The Fly" (1991)
After the earnest arena rock of The Joshua Tree made them global superstars, and their self-important homage to rootsy Americana influences on Rattle and Hum exhibited egos inflated to unsustainable heights, it became very clear that U2 needed a new direction. The band relocated to Berlin to begin sessions for an album that would become the finest of their career, Achtung Baby!. The project marked one of the sharpest left turns by a major artist in pop/rock history, and it proved to be exactly the right move at the right time.
Bono famously described the album's first single, "The Fly", as "the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree", and that description could not be more apt. "The Fly" is an edgy, dizzying piece of hellish electro-rock. Bono's breathless and distorted vocals during the verses relate a series of aphorisms that are meant to be wisdom learned in Hell, as told via a phone call from the dimension of torment itself.
The lyrics are some of Bono's sharpest — the song is loaded with terrific lines, including the particularly memorable verse in which he impales himself with his own self-righteousness: "It's no secret that a conscience can sometimes be a pest / it's no secret that ambition bites the nails of success / every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief / all kill their inspiration and sing about the grief." This is a moonshot to another stratosphere from songs like "New Year's Day" and "Pride (In the Name of Love)".
The Fly became a new character for Bono on the Zoo TV Tour in which the band embarked in support of Achtung Baby!. He was obviously aware of the towering pretensions he'd perpetrated on recent projects, so he used The Fly to neatly skewer himself, and others. While in character, Bono would deck himself out in leather, sport the flashiest sunglasses, and stalk around the stage like a flaming hair-metal tart, parodying the world's most stereotypical egomaniacal rock Gods. It was a remarkable exercise in self-awareness, but it must have been great fun as well.
Beyond that, the song itself is simply genius, and utterly unlike anything U2 had ever released. The band allowed themselves to disentangle completely from the sound for which they'd become famous, and the result is exhilarating. "The Fly" is a trippy flight through an underworld buzzing with shards of electronic and industrial elements, chainsaw guitar riffs and fiery solos by the Edge. Larry Mullen, Jr. provides the raucous rhythm that propels the song into hyperdrive.
The vocal arrangement is brilliantly conceived, with Bono shifting from a semi-demented falsetto to a restless and nuanced half-whisper that grows increasingly frantic as the song progresses. Daniel Lanois and Flood, two of the best in the business, piece it all together expertly until "The Fly" is as sharply honed as a scalpel ready for surgery. It was the beginning of a new U2 — "The Fly" roped the old version of the band and pulled them staggering out of a ditch and onto a triumphant future that still blazes forward today.
6. Tori Amos - "Spark" (1998)
Classically trained pianist and songwriter Tori Amos first rose to prominence with her solo debut, 1992's Little Earthquakes, and singles like "Silent All These Years" and "Crucify". Her arresting piano-based confessionals, especially her a cappella retelling of a savage rape in "Me and a Gun", are startlingly personal. Amos released two more influential albums heavily reliant on her prowess with the piano: 1994's Under the Pink (featuring alternative radio staples "God" and "Cornflake Girl") and the brilliant quixotic odyssey of fire Boys for Pele (highlighted by "Caught a Lite Sneeze" and "Talula") two years later.
For 1998's epic From The Choirgirl Hotel, Amos plugs in, brings in the band, and suddenly sparks of electricity light up the night. It's a dramatic shift from songs that were largely stripped down and stark to full-throttle arrangements with quavery electronics, hard-edged guitars and synths. Despite the presence of other instruments, the piano still weaves through the chaos like a hand reaching up from the murk in desperation to grasp hold of something concrete. It's an electric dreamscape where nightmares and wonders overlap in a stream of evocative imagery. From The Choirgirl Hotel is a radical departure from her prior sound, but Amos nails it, hard.
The lead single and opening track is "Spark", a fierce and penetrating piano freakout with a wildly passionate vocal and a pulse-gripping, hyper-dramatic climax. It's music for letting your emotions get the better of you; it's not an escape, like some music is, but a shared human experience. The song's wrenching emotion is borne from a traumatic miscarriage that Amos suffered; several songs on Choirgirl Hotel deal directly with this tragedy, especially "Spark", "iieee" and "Playboy Mommy".
"Spark" is a torrent of bitterness, doubt and shame. If only she could have done something, been somehow better or more worthy: "She's convinced she could hold back a glacier / but she couldn't keep Baby alive / doubting if there's a woman in there somewhere". When she's not blaming herself, she's blaming God -- who doesn't always come through, as we know from a song not so long before: "If the divine master plan is perfection / maybe next time I'll give Judas a try / trusting my soul to the ice cream assassin," she sings with palpable rancor, while in the background there's a faint, mournful counter-melody, "swing low / swing low sweet chariot".
As usual, Amos' lyrics veer from sharply direct to obtuse and metaphoric, sometimes within the span of the same verse. The epic heart of the song is the frantic and desperate segment that begins "How many fates turn around in the overtime? / ballerinas that have fins that you'll never find". Amos slams the piano keys with as much power and fury as she can summon, playing not just with her hands but with the full force of her body, a barrage of heavy drums crashing behind her. Every facade is swept away, all defenses are withdrawn, her rage and agony laid bare for all to hear. "You thought that you were the bomb, yeah, well, so did I," she sings, dripping with scorn. It's a vocal performance of staggering power and complexity, wrought with despondency ripped from the heart. It's as real as rock and roll gets.
"Spark" ends where it begins, Amos alone in the dark, staring at the clock, wondering where the life that had been growing inside her has gone. There is no resolution, no happy ending, just silence.
About 28 months after "Spark" was released as a single, a new light encroached on the darkness, as Tori Amos gave birth to her daughter Natashya. The ice cream assassin came through after all.
5. Pearl Jam - "Jeremy" (1991)
Seattle-based Pearl Jam first rose to success with their dual classics "Alive" and "Even Flow" from their acclaimed debut Ten. It was their third single "Jeremy", a searing melodrama about teen suicide, that elevated the band to an exalted stature in alternative rock that they've never relinquished.
Although the Centers for Disease Control statistics indicate every 12.3 seconds an American dies from suicide, it's not an issue typically addressed in rock music. "Jeremy" faces it head-on, with motoric power and incendiary emotion. Vocalist Eddie Vedder was inspired to write the lyrics after reading an article about a high school student in Texas — Jeremy Wade Delle — who in early 1991 walked into an English class, put a .357 Magnum revolver into his mouth, and pulled the trigger in front of a teacher and 30 of his fellow students.
The tragic scene is dramatized in the song's surreal and powerful video directed by Mark Pellington, which ends with Jeremy's classmates — who'd earlier been shown mocking and tormenting the boy — locked motionless, faces frozen in shock and terror, their crisp white clothes splattered with Jeremy's blood.
Throughout the video, Eddie Vedder narrates the story with extraordinary presence and gravitas. His eyes lock only once with the camera — otherwise he's looking away, as he relates a tale so obviously painful it's almost unbearable. "Try to forget this! Try to erase this from the blackboard," he wails at one point, but he can't. Vedder's face is riven with anguish as he plays the role of one of Jeremy's tormentors looking back in remembrance: "Clearly I remember pickin' on the boy / seemed a harmless little fuck". The combination of the song's innate power, Vedder's dramatic retelling and the disturbing imagery so deftly handled by Pellington leaves the viewer wrapped in the cold grip of horror at the video's conclusion.
"Jeremy" is the story of a boy lost in his own imaginary world because reality is simply too painful. He was an outcast in every facet of his life. The teen was mercilessly taunted by his classmates at school, and fighting back only wrought him more trouble. His parents were emotionally detached and too wrapped in their own private miseries to offer support. There was no solace for him, no comfort, no sense of love, no relief. His artistic imagination turned dark, and he was prone to violent fantasies. "King Jeremy the Wicked rules his world", he imagined, drawing pictures of himself standing victorious on a mountaintop, arms raised in glory, as "the dead lay in pools of maroon below".
The tension in the song amps and flares in tandem with Jeremy's internal crisis until both explode during the unforgettable climax. "Jeremy" is like a train barreling toward a cliff -- you know what's coming, you can't stop it, and you can't look away. Jeff Ament wrote the music, which revolves around a recurring figure played on his 12-string bass that forms the basis for song's opening and closing sequences and repeats throughout. Ament's bass pattern is the foundation for Stone Gossard's acoustic rhythm guitar and Mike McCready's blistering electric riffs. The band nails the recording, but what makes "Jeremy" a true classic is Eddie Vedder's devastating vocal performance.
Vedder's deeply resonant voice bristles with rage at the insensibility of the tragedy. He rides the crashing hard-rock flood his bandmates provide with fully unleashed fury. Every time Vedder repeats the main hook, "Jeremy spoke in class today", especially when he extends it during the dramatic segment from 3:24 to 3:42, a sense of dread courses through the listener's heart. Vedder's wordless wails of anguish as the song reaches its chill-inducing conclusion echo the mindless tumult crashing through Jeremy's skull in the moments before he takes the only measure he can see that will bring closure to his pain.
Everything about "Jeremy" stings of regret, of letting a life slip through all of our fingers, of allowing untold potential to be wasted in a callous and hardened world that did not see a boy as a worthy human being… and he couldn't see it himself. Jeremy was beat down by life. We all exist in a fluid and ever-changing torrent of emotions that can easily become overwhelming. It can be hard for anybody, particularly adolescents, to cope with what life hurls in our direction. The ultimate message of "Jeremy" is to inspire compassion for ourselves and those around us, because in a flash, sometimes of gunpowder and smoke, it can all be over.
4. Oasis - "Wonderwall" (1995)
Sometimes regular, everyday words don't suffice to express how you feel about someone: "There are many things I'd like to say to you / but I don't know how." Noel Gallagher, the songwriter and guitarist for British rockers Oasis, wrote "Wonderwall" for the band's second album (What's the Story) Morning Glory, and it is sung by his brother Liam. It's a love song, but also something far more than that. It's about a man laying his heart bare and opening up in a way he's never done before because he knows he has no choice. "Because maybe / you're gonna be the one that saves me / and after all / you're my Wonderwall."
Noel Gallagher has changed his story about the meaning behind the song. At the time of its release, he claimed it was about his then-girlfriend. But after the dissolution of the relationship, Gallagher later insisted the song wasn't about her at all. He claimed it's all fantasy -- there is no "you". It's a dream that someone -- and he can't articulate who this person may be -- will magically appear and rescue him from whatever emotional wreckage he's trying to clear. It seems, given the specificity of the lyrics, that the original explanation is more likely, but the song works perfectly well in either context.
So what is a Wonderwall, anyway? This is a question many fans were asking as the song burned up alternative radio in the '90s. "Wonderwall" refers to Wonderwall Music, George Harrison's instrumental soundtrack to the 1968 psychedelic film Wonderwall. The project became far more known for Harrison's soundtrack than for the film itself. The album marked the first solo release by a Beatle and was largely recorded with exotic sounding Indian instruments. Its place in music history is ephemeral, and its title is a perfect metaphor for something to latch onto that is more than just a "rock". "Wonderwall" is mysterious and unknowable, evoking feelings and emotions that can't be expressed using our limited language. There is a thread of desperation here, even if Gallagher plays it cool and nonchalant in his delivery because he sees such need as a weakness.
Musically, the song is stripped down and unobtrusive, allowing Liam Gallagher's vocal to carry the song. It's built on acoustic guitar, a nimble drum pattern played with brushes, and a mellotron (played by Noel Gallagher) in the background mimicking a cello. The mellotron -- which the Beatles used on classic songs like "Strawberry Fields Forever" -- and the acoustic-pop vibe echoes back to the dreamy psychedelic pop of the late '60s. A simple piano countermelody repeats during the long instrumental ending, and then fades out with the mellotron and a few flickers of acoustic guitar.
Owen Morris, who co-produced the album with Noel Gallagher, places Liam's voice, with its prominent Mancunian accent, bracingly high in the mix. His vocals are from the perspective of a tough guy, someone not used to expressing tender emotions, and he struggles doing so. He struggles to find the words that adequately describe what he feels, and ultimately comes up with "you're my Wonderwall". You are… more to me than I can express. An object of wonder, a tether to sanity, calm in a storm, a center to my gravity.
"Wonderwall" was a major hit on alternative radio, reigning for an astonishing 10 weeks at #1 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart at the end of '95 and into early '96. Barely a month after "Wonderwall" dropped from the top, another track from Morning Glory, "Champagne Supernova", began its own five week reign at the top.
3. Nine Inch Nails - "Hurt" (1994)
After an auspicious debut with 1989's Pretty Hate Machine and the much heavier 1992 EP Broken, Trent Reznor unleashed what will always be seen as Nine Inch Nails' crowning achievement: The Downward Spiral. A concept album of sorts that traces a man's descent into addiction, violence, despair and (possibly) suicide, The Downward Spiral is not an easy listen, nor is it meant to be.
Co-produced with one of the all-time greats, Mark Ellis (better known as Flood), Reznor presented a dense industrial wall of musical noise to a wider audience than music this extreme had ever seen. Reznor and Flood are both studio wizards, and The Downward Spiral is awash with endlessly fascinating sonic excursions and textures. The album was a massive success, buoyed by tracks like "March of the Pigs", "Closer", "Piggy" and "Reptile".
In the end, though, it all comes down to "Hurt", the moment of reckoning. "I hurt myself today / to see if I still feel / I focus on the pain / the only thing that's real / the needle tears a hole / the old familiar sting / try to kill it all away / but I remember everything". Shooting up doesn't numb the pain -- nothing does. It sears within him, unquenchable. He's horrified at himself… "What have I become, my sweetest friend?" How many people listening to this song have looked in the mirror and asked that same question in the same stunned disbelief: what have I become?
"Hurt" is the ultimate conclusion to the hour-long barrage of crushing despondency that precedes it. It unfolds slowly, emerging like a doomed spirit crawling through some dark purgatory. The song's shifting dynamics are key to its effectiveness. Much of "Hurt" is spent in a state of smoldering tension, with eerie effects like shifting sands in the wind and the buzz of insects swaying in the background over flickers of acoustic guitar. Reznor plays every instrument and creates every sound on the recording, apart from the drums by Chris Vrenna, as the song builds to its heart-pounding climax. Reznor is a master at gradually ratcheting up the pressure and using his vocal phrasing to heighten the sense of drama, progressing from a tortured half-whisper to a feverish howl as needed to convey nuance and emotion. He inhabits the song's character as if it's his own story. Perhaps it is.
With all the audio tricks that Reznor has tucked up his sleeve -- and there are many -- none of it would work without the listener believing this man is truly at the end, the moment when addiction and depression and loss have trampled him so brutally that his only solution is a permanent one. Perhaps. Reznor leaves the ending ambiguous. The Downward Spiral is ostensibly just that, a cycle of despair that ultimately leads to suicide. "Hurt" is laden with bitter self-loathing and disgust. The pain is so palpable you can reach into your speakers and feel its evil pulse. "You could have it all / my empire of dirt / I will let you down / I will make you hurt." Why would we doubt it? After all, he's speaking from experience. He still slams needles into his veins to get the fix he hates and needs. He sees no worth of value in himself, why should anybody else? He's undoubtedly caused endless anguish to himself and others. He's interminably tormented. What use, then, to go on living?
Yet there is a faint spark of hope and ambiguity at the very end. "If I could start again / a million miles away / I will keep myself / I would find a way." That's a very telling "if". Even at his bleakest moment, when he can no longer face himself, or the pain... Even then, to a shockingly sudden squall of electronic noise that's like a serrated knife to the jugular, he can't quite give in. He can't let go. He can't quite surrender to the inevitable. Reznor never completely extinguishes hope. After the lyrics end and we're left to ponder, the song fades to black with those now-familiar shifting winds. Does he find a way?
We don't know how the story ends, how deeply downward the spiral twists. Maybe it ends differently for each person listening, feeling the song in their bones, understanding exactly the anguish Reznor is expressing. The page is blank, the possibilities are there. He leaves a chance, which is, after all, the most any of us can ever expect. Past is prelude, and we all have stories yet to be written.
2. Radiohead - "Paranoid Android" (1997)
When "Creep" first debuted on MTV back in 1992, nobody could possibly have envisioned that Radiohead would become the single most important band of the next three decades. It was a great song, sure, with an amazing vocal by Thom Yorke, and the debut album, Pablo Honey was not without moments of promise. But Radiohead didn't sound substantially different from a dozen other bands all treading the same musical territory around the same time period, trying to break through and usually failing.
Opinions changed very quickly when The Bends arrived in 1995. The artistic progression in such a short span was nothing short of stunning. Songs like "[Nice Dream]", "Fake Plastic Trees", "My Iron Lung" and "Street Spirit (Fade Out)" weren't even in the same galaxy as what they had been peddling two years prior. The Bends produced a number of hits in the UK and even started to grow the band a larger following in America thanks to successful videos for "Just" and "High & Dry".
The Bends is a once in a career album, though, surely. Common wisdom would suggest that they had zero chance to best it. Fortunately, for them and us, Radiohead just kept getting better, a progression that has continued through their brilliant new album, A Moon Shaped Pool.
Nothing captures the zeitgeist of isolation, frustration, and cynicism in an increasingly digital world like 1997's OK Computer, Radiohead's third album. It defines the time in which it was released. The first single was Radiohead's most ambitious work yet, "Paranoid Android". The song is the album's anthem and centerpiece, a monument to disillusionment that can't be expressed in words. It must have been considered a mad gamble by Parlophone Records to release this chaotic 6:24 epic as the lead single, but the song is so earth-shakingly brilliant that it became a no-brainer.
"Paranoid Android" has three distinct moods, notable both for stubbornly enigmatic lyrics and guitar-work capable of cauterizing the brain. The first mood begins as a brisk acoustic shuffle, Yorke's voice rising nimbly to a glistening falsetto before quickly descending again. Yorke's malicious reading of the lines, "When I am king, you will be first against the wall / with your opinion which is of no consequence at all" adds a certain sinister, rebellious piquancy to the song.
The second section begins at about 1:58, where the acoustic guitar pattern turns darker. Yorke sneers, "Ambition makes you look pretty ugly / kicking squealing Gucci little piggy", after which Johnny Greenwood's wildly distorted guitar drills through the speakers like a spear of white-hot metal burrowing into the listener's ear.
Then, at 3:34, comes the solemn third section, with mournful choral vocals, a funereal death march, and Yorke singing like a man standing in the rain, face up at the sky, wondering if there's a God who has brought us to this state. "Rain down on me / rain down on me / from a great height," he wails, before entering into the bitterly acerbic verse around which the entire song revolves: "That's it, Sir, you're leaving / the crackle of pigskin / the dust and the screaming / the yuppies networking / the panic, the vomit, the panic, the vomit / God loves his children / God loves his children, yeah," the last two lines snarled in bitter irony. Jonny Greenwood's berserk guitar returns in a protracted freakout as the song eventually fades to black.
Magnus Carlsson directed a surreal animated video for the song that couldn't be more suited to its cryptic and perverse nature. Part of "Paranoid Android"'s appeal is that no matter how hard you try, there's no cracking the code, like an ancient scroll with alien text that we just can't quite make out. How seriously can one take a song called "Paranoid Android" in which the vocalist complains of "unborn chicken voices in my head"? But even if it makes no literal sense, you sorta know what he's talking about through osmosis, that incessant yammering that will make you go mad. It's the combination of words and music to express the noise of the world, the treachery, the corruption, the bulldozing of the have-nots by the haves.
"Paranoid Android" distills the melancholy grandeur spiked by molten blast of aggression that characterizes all of OK Computer. Like the rest of the album, it surges through airy acoustic passages and molten guitar explosions while attempting to come to grips with the dispassionate world around us. Nobody's been able to do it yet, but at least they're trying.
1. Nirvana - "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (1991)
When compiling the 100 Greatest Alternative Singles of the '80s, there wasn't a moment during the entire weeks-long process when it wasn't absolutely clear that Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" would be #1. No other option made sense.
It's strange how true that has been for the '90s as well. Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is one of those rare songs that changes the entire trajectory of rock music; it's a turning point. Mainstream rock was careening happily along one road and an enormous meteor from Seattle hit without warning and, through the dust and debris, somehow the road had branched off in a new direction. Suddenly the glittery spandex of the '80s that was so tight your balls couldn't breathe was replaced by flannel and thrift-store sweaters. The music was more cathartic, too, more expressive and genuine, often more confessional.
There are, of course, similarities between Joy Division and Nirvana. Both recorded material that is held sacred by devotees, in part because of its paucity. Then there is the visceral emotional power that characterizes both bands; an absolute unburdening of the soul, unflinching honesty, and the ability to infuse their music with gut-wrenching power. In both cases, after the death of the front man, other band members blazed their own trails in music while never able to eclipse the almost mythic quality of their original group.
Musically, Joy Division and Nirvana were tight and powerful units, a distillation of combined influences into something new. The influence of both were enormous; the '90s were as littered with bands that were directly impacted by Nirvana as much as the '80s were with bands standing in Joy Division's shadow. Certainly happenstance is part of it -- both singles hit at the start of the decade, a bookend that allows for easy recognition of their places in the decades' musical fabric. And then, of course, it's impossible to overlook that both frontmen were wracked by insurmountable inner turmoil, and that each would end up taking his own life.
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" is ragged garage rock that flips from mid-tempo verses dominated by Krist Novoselic's loping bass and Cobain half-mumbled expressions of insolent boredom, to a chorus that explodes with titanic power-chords, Dave Grohl's missile-strike drumming and Cobain's ragged screams that sounds anything but disinterested. Perhaps drawn from Cobain's oft-acknowledged admiration of the Pixies, it's a clever use of dynamics to replicate youthful malaise with the manic restlessness that bubbles just barely under the skin, ready to break out -- and sometimes it does. Produced by Butch Vig, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is magnificent as a recording. It's crisp and sharp, with Cobain's guitar-riffs double-tracked to create a colossal explosion of speaker-rattling sound.
In "Smells Like Teen Spirit", Nirvana instills the very essence of adolescent rebellion that every parent has known throughout history. While the lyrics seem to be meaningless, each couplet offers a vivid mental image. "Load up on guns, bring your friends / it's fun to lose and to pretend / she's over-bored and self-assured / Oh no, I know, a dirty word", Cobain sings in the first verse, words that really make no literal sense but, combined with his laconic delivery, present an exaggerated boredom and indifference, that sense of isolation that so many experience.
Then comes the bracingly cathartic chorus, an acidic outburst of mania wrought from the sheer madness of inaction: "With the lights out, it's less dangerous! / here we are now, entertain us / I feel stupid and contagious! / here we are now, entertain us!" The aggression isn't directed at a single source -- it's just a lashing out at the universe, which doesn't give instructions as to what to do with your life, or how to be happy, or how to fit in. It's adolescent confusion from a thousand thoughts and emotions that can't even be articulated. Adulthood is, to a large degree, coming to terms with the fact that these questions have no answer and stewing over them only gets you on larger doses of anti-depressants.
The ending is savage, with Cobain reciting a blistering series of non-sequiturs, "A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido," before his throat-shredding screams of "A denial! A denial! A denial! A denial!" bring the song to a sudden, shocking conclusion. It's five minutes of hair-raising, electrifying, completely primal and visceral rock and roll that defines what alternative rock is all about.
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" is restless, wary, cynical, and innately mistrustful. Producer Butch Vig sums up the song perfectly when he tells Rolling Stone Magazine: "That ambiguity or confusion, that's the whole thing. What the kids are attracted to in the music is that he's not necessarily a spokesman for a generation. He doesn't necessarily know what he wants but he's pissed. It's all these things working at different levels at once. I don't exactly know what 'Teen Spirit' means, but you know it means something and it's intense as hell."
For all its impact, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" only spent one week at #1 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart in November 1991, two months after the release of Nevermind. It's interesting to imagine what the rest of the '90s would have sounded like had Nirvana remained an undiscovered power-trio playing small clubs in the Pacific Northwest. It's hard to believe that the decade would have become so dominated by dark-edged hard rock.
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" is about a time and a place as much as anything else -- it detonated at the precise moment when it could make the most impact. We needed something to shake the cobwebs out of our attics. It just happened to be three guys out of Seattle with a song good enough to jolt the very foundations of popular music that did it.