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.

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 sort of 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 a 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 held sacred by devotees, in part because of their 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 frontman, 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 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.

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This article originally published on 1 August 2016.