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.

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 humanity’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 obvious 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 skewer himself neatly, 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.