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.

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.