Previously, we brought you the “100 Greatest Alternative Singles of the ’80s”, a five-part series that attracted thousands of readers from all over the world and explored the best alternative music the ’80s had to offer. Now, we move forward in time and examine what many consider the “golden age” of alternative rock, with the “100 Greatest Alternative Singles of the ’90s”.
The understanding of “alternative” was different in the ’90s. The term was becoming more widely-used, replacing such ’80s descriptions as college rock, indie pop, post modern and underground. It also exploded in popularity — from huge radio-stations like WHFS in Washington, D.C. and KROQ in L.A. to the airwaves of MTV, alternative music dominated the rock and roll landscape. Festivals like Lollapalooza and Lilith Fair cropped up and alternative rock bands were selling millions of albums and headlining arenas — often without the benefit of a Top 40 crossover hit. Top 40 had dwindled almost solely to R&B, hip-hop, diva ballads and dance pop. There was very little room for rock and roll, and suddenly bands that would have been considered mainstream rock or even Top 40 in prior years were lumped in under the amorphous “alternative” label.
A word about labels: obviously “alternative” is a label, with an enormous umbrella. Other sub-genres like “grunge” and “Britpop” became a crutch for lazy writers who couldn’t think of anything else to say about a song or an artist. They were phony movements invented by the press to loosely describe music that was superficially similar. Sometimes it can’t be helped, but with very few exceptions, I’ve avoided using these labels when possible, as they’re arbitrary, often misused, and don’t really say anything about the song itself.
In compiling this list, the first question one asks is simple: what is “alternative”? It’s not a question with an easy answer. In many ways it’s in the ear of the beholder. One person’s “alternative” is another fan’s “mainstream rock” or “pop” — we are operating in shades of grey. “Outside the mainstream” isn’t really enough of a definition. After all, there are plenty of artists who reside outside the limited universe of Top 40 radio who wouldn’t be considered alternative: folk, metal, country, reggae, bluegrass, orchestral, jazz, blues, some hip-hop and others. “Alternative” requires a certain edge, a particularly adventurous vibe, a very specific sensibility. It’s hard to put your finger on it exactly, but you know it when you hear it.
Consider a few examples. The Wallflowers had six singles hit both the Billboard Modern Rock Chart and the Billboard Mainstream Rock Chart — but only two of the six charted higher on Modern Rock than the Mainstream chart. Their rootsy style sounds more in the vein of the Band than anything alternative, yet they were lumped into that category. For our purposes here, we’ve weeded out artists like the Wallflowers who may have been considered “alternative” at the time of their popularity, but with the benefit of hindsight and looking at an artist’s overall career arc, we know now they are not. We should be able to learn from two decades of reflection what is truly alternative or not, as we look beyond temporary labels and view an artist’s musical arc and career thread in a larger context, including what was acceptable to Top 40 radio. It’s all about the big picture.
Other artists that received heavy airplay on alternative radio in the ’90s but in retrospect seem more like mainstream rock or pop include Sheryl Crow, Third Eye Blind, Sarah McLachlan, Gin Blossoms, Shawn Colvin, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Paula Cole, Joan Osborne, Matthew Sweet, Sophie B. Hawkins, Semisonic, Collective Soul and many others. There is no question that all of these artists recorded great songs and may have once been considered alternative, but with the passage of time we can see things more clearly. Thus, they are not included here.
Others, like Massive Attack, the Prodigy, the Shamen, Chemical Brothers, Underworld, DJ Shadow, Sunscreem, and Tricky fit more comfortably in the realm of electronica. Of course, many of these artists blur the lines of multiple genres, and there are no hard and fast rules to determine which are “alternative” or not. Sometimes, it’s simply a judgment call.
The Billboard Modern Rock Chart is a useful guide but not a definitive reference. Many artists who are clearly not alternative have appeared on the chart since it debuted in September 1988, including: the Rolling Stones (twice), Seal, Lenny Kravitz, Ace of Base, Tom Petty, Enya, Rickie Lee Jones, John Hiatt, Deee-Lite, Paul Simon, Chris Isaak, Dire Straits (twice), Robbie Robertson, Terence Trent D’Arby, Shaggy, and the Rembrandts for their much reviled theme fromFriends, “I’ll Be There For You”. Even Hootie & The Blowfish and Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” made the Modern Rock chart. The chart is just one piece of information to consider, and certainly not the determining factor as to whether or not a song makes the list, or where it should be ranked. One certainty: the most successful song does not always correlate to being the “greatest” song. In fact, oftentimes it does not.
So how were the songs selected? Initially, there was a list of several hundred songs that were potential candidates. Each was seriously considered. As with the ’80s list, only one song per artist is selected. The list continued to grow along with the wide net that was cast for the extensive research behind this project. Eventually, the winnowing began, and — in a very painful exercise that involved cutting some truly amazing songs — the final 100 were compiled.
Artistic value is the most important factor in selecting a song, with cultural significance and influence also considered. This list is reserved for songs that were released as mxsome form of single, whether commercial or promotional.
Some artists released critically hailed albums that are unquestionably essential recordings of the ’90s, but didn’t have a standout single that demands inclusion, or in some cases had no singles at all — examples include Uncle Tupelo’s No Depression, Slint’s Spiderland, Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock, Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs, Dismemberment Plan’s Emergency & I, Spiritualized Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space and Belle and Sebastian’s If You’re Feeling Sinister among many others. Their exclusion here should not lead one to infer that these aren’t considered essential albums of the ’90s, but this is a singles list. An albums list might have a very different roster of artists.
It’s a given that there are many great songs that are not included. 100 is an unforgiving number. Imagine, in a decade with as many killer alternative tracks as the ’90s, selecting on average only 10 singles per year — 1995 alone could easily yield a list of 100 classic alternative tracks. Considering the variables involved in deciding what is in fact “alternative”, which songs should be included by a particular artist, and then determining how to rank them, there are a lot of decisions to be made. I worked very hard to be as objective as possible in an exercise that, by its very nature, is subjective. Of course, this isn’t intended to be a catch-all of the great alternative singles of the ’90s — that would require a much larger list. This is just the very tip of a massive and wonderful iceberg.
Ultimately, this piece is one snapshot of a remarkable decade, and an homage to the great music that emerged from this era. Everyone else who lived through this period of music and loves it might have a different vision of it. Even if you don’t agree with the list, surely we can at minimum celebrate this phenomenal time in alternative music and these 100 truly fantastic songs.
Special thanks to Gina Gerard for her invaluable feedback, editorial and moral support, and to Andrew Tinker, the amazing copy-editing machine, for his tireless assistance. Also many thanks to Michael English, Malcolm Lee, Christopher McKay and Daniel Miron for editorial feedback.