The 100 Greatest Alternative Singles of the '90s - Part 1 (100 - 81)
The first part of our examination of the 100 Greatest Alternative Singles of the '90s, starting with 100 through 81. Stay tuned for part two on July 11th.
311 released their self-titled third album during the summer of 1995, but it really blasted off the following year thanks in large part to its audacious second single, "Down". It's a slice of hyper-kinetic rock, the restless groove of youth in the form of three potent minutes of radioactive spunk. 311 blends genres seamlessly, incorporating elements of rock, hip-hop, metal and even reggae into their sound. They do it so naturally it sounds effortless. "Down" is meant as a 'thank you' to 311's fans who helped carry the band from small-town midwestern obscurity to multi-platinum success.
"Down" is built on hot-wired guitar, skittery drumwork, turntable scratches that zip around like ninja knives, and a brash dancehall-inspired vocal by Nick Hexum. The band recorded the song live in the studio and delivers a knockout performance bristling with swagger and energy. 311 is the type of skater-rock band critics love to hate, but sometimes folks forget what rock and roll has always been about: attitude. 311 delivers plenty of that, with impressive musical chops to back it up.
"Down" spent four weeks at #1 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart during the fall of 1996, well over a year after the album's release. Along with the two other singles "All Mixed Up" and "Don't Stay Home", "Down" helped 311 move over three million units -- the band's biggest selling album by far.
The lead single from Bermuda-born singer/songwriter Heather Nova's second album Oyster is "Walk This World", a dramatic acoustic rocker bleeding with desire. It opens with a quick snarl of guitar before launching into a descending bass pattern that forms the backbone of the verses, sometimes anchored with a subtle cello (which I was hearing as a baritone sax all these years).
Nova's breathy vocals intensify the sense desperation in her search for meaning and connection -- for someone to help navigate life's unpredictable maze of travails. It's not easy to trust, as she's obviously been scarred by past experience and has built up a wall: "I'm sucked in by the wonder / and i'm fucked up by the lies / and I dig a hole to climb in / and I build some wings to fly". She's taking a chance, laying herself bare, willing to try again -- perhaps some of the desperation comes with the thought that she might not get another chance.
Nova weaves a deft melody during the chorus, her multi-tracked vocals simmering with urgency as she sings, "I'm not touched, but i'm aching to be". The song doesn't have a bridge per se, just a dreamy instrumental interlude with a double-tracked electric guitar that bends subtly, as if underwater. The atmosphere is turbulent and uncertain as Nova grapples with an unrequited need.
Although Heather Nova has continued to release one solid album after another, "Walk This World" was her only substantial hit (so far) -- it reached #13 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart. Her most recent album released just last year, The Way it Feels, is well worth a good listen.
Veteran fringe-rockers Butthole Surfers scored a surprise hit with "Pepper", an oddity in the band's mostly experimental hardcore catalog. It's not difficult to understand why "Pepper" connected with a large audience -- it's a wonderfully surreal slow motion acid trip that blurs the lines between "Strawberry Fields Forever" and Paul's Boutique. Gibby Haynes deadpans the spoken-word lyrics during the verses, gusting wind audible in the background, and then jolts us back to attention during the hard-rock chorus. "Pepper's" sonic universe includes backwards guitar, tremolo effects during the chorus, weird vocalisms and other bits of inventive reality-twisting.
The lyrics deal with random chance, as Haynes relates an oddball cast of characters and their sometimes deadly foibles (inspired by his youthful memories in the Texas punk-rock scene): "Another Mikey took a knife while arguing in traffic / Flipper died a natural death he caught a nasty virus / then there was the ever-present football player rapist / they were all in love with dying, they were doin' it in Texas."
"Pepper" was a breakthrough single from the band's Electriclarryland album, spending three weeks at #1 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart during the summer of '96. Self-destruction and record company troubles prevented the band from building on the song's momentum, and "Pepper" remains a solitary bubble that somehow floated to the surface of a backwoods Texas swamp and popped onto the airwaves.
Nobody sounded quite like Morphine. The Boston-based band, led by singer and bassist Marc Sandman, followed their own rules about what rock and roll should be. They perfected a sound in which electric guitar is not the driving factor. Sandman was famous for his oddly-tuned two-string bass guitar, which he often played with a slide. The main instrumental hooks and solos were handled by Dana Colley's deep and resonant sax. Two drummers played for the band at various times: Billy Conway and Jerome Deupree. The band's unusual bottom-heavy sound thrilled critics but never lifted them beyond cult status in the US, although they did enjoy some degree of commercial success in Europe.
The woozy "Cure for Pain" is the title track from the band's superb second album. The song is relaxed enough to have popped a few Xanax, but the necessity for self-medicating to numb whatever pain Sandman is experiencing is laid out starkly. Even in this darkness Sandman never loses his acerbic sense of humor: "I propose a toast to my self-control / you see it crawling helpless on the floor". The wry couplet makes clear that the prospect of quitting drugs is painful enough to justify continuing on his destructive path, but he understands it is what it is.
Sadly, Morphine would cease to exist in 1999 when Sandman died suddenly of a heart attack at age 46 while on stage at a concert in Italy. Morphine left behind a tremendous musical legacy, with "Cure for Pain" a good first dose for the uninitiated.
"Somebody to Shove" is a searing garage-rocker from Minneapolis-based Soul Asylum's sixth album Grave Dancer's Union, by far their most successful release. Dave Pirner's restless vocals ride along with the churning guitar riff before finally ripping free during the raucous chorus. The performance is tight -- drummer Grant Young (or more likely Sterling Campbell, who producer Michael Beinhorn brought in because he was dissatisfied with Young's performances) amps up the energy and provides a rock-solid foundation.
Pirner's lyrics jive with the song's fidgety tone, as he sits in despondent boredom yearning for someone to stir him into some kind of action that will tear through his sullen malaise. Long days that fade endlessly into one another with nothing ever happening, a life spent watching the clock turn day after day after day -- Pirner perfectly captures the frantic need to escape the incessant tedium. "Somebody to Shove" rocks and grooves with manic abandon, a runaway train of pressure that finally bursts into a fit of frustration. His desperation heats to a boil as the song hits its climax: "And I'm waiting by the phone / Waiting for you to call me and tell me I'm not alone / Yes, I'm waiting by the phone / I'm waitin' for you to call me, call me / And tell me i'm / tell me i'm not alone!" It's hard not to be struck by the strong suspicion that the call ain't ever gonna come.
The first of four major hits from Grave Dancer's Union (along with "Black Gold", "Without a Trace" and "Runaway Train"), "Somebody to Shove" hit #1 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart in December 1992. Soul Asylum's killer performance of the song on MTV Unplugged remains one of the best moments in that series' history.