The second part of our examination of the 100 Greatest Alternative Singles of the '90s includes Pavement, Suzanne Vega, Morrissey, Dinosaur Jr., and more.
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Blind Melon scored big with their electric hippie folk singalong "No Rain" from their self-titled 1992 debut, but their best work was yet to come. Their second album Soup, which hit retailers just weeks before vocalist Shannon Hoon's shattering death from a drug overdose, is the band's masterpiece. The pain Hoon was enduring courses through the veins of the album, especially in songs like "2 x 4" and "Mouthful of Cavities".
Soup wasn't as commercial as the band's debut, and of course they were unable to tour in support of the record. It was largely overshadowed by Shannon Hoon's death, and unfortunately the album never really received the attention and acclaim it deserved. The first single "Galaxie" is an edgy rocker with an imaginative arrangement and a terrific vocal by Hoon. His highly pitched voice, so relaxed and gentle in "No Rain", is tense and expressive here. "Galaxie" refers to a 1963 Ford Galaxie that Shannon Hoon owned, and he ties memories of the car into the narrative of the collapse of a relationship. He identifies with the Galaxie as representing who he is, which he perceives isn't good enough for his love interest, but he has no interest in changing. Take him or leave him, as he is. Not a bad message.
The track is short and builds to a manic climax, with Hoon's voice erupting at the end, "in my Galaxie!", before it all fades to black. "Galaxie" reached #8 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart, their final appearance on that survey. Soup became Blind Melon's last stand (apart from a collection of previously unreleased material called Nico), but if you're gonna have a last stand may as well make it a count, and they did that without question. Soup has to be near the very top of any list of the most under appreciated rock albums of the ‘90s.
With her fourth album 99.9F, Suzanne Vega took a sharp turn from her usual folk-influenced acoustic-rock by adding electronic elements and textures. The change in direction worked, and 99.9F became the second most successful in her career behind only the landmark Solitude Standing.
Not all of the songs got the digital makeover, however, and one of the holdouts is "In Liverpool", a gothic waltz with beautifully evocative imagery. The track begins with a treated piano, which is in keeping with the album's adventurous sonic spirit. A rumble of bass and a few strums of guitar keep the verses taut until the chorus emerges with a full band arrangement. The shifting dynamics between verse and chorus are one of the song's defining characteristics. "In Liverpool" sounds more in line with Vega's past work, but the spirit of experimentation that infuses 99.9F is still there.
"In Liverpool's" lyrics are opaque and poetic. They seem to be about a woman who allows herself to daydream about her surroundings as a mechanism to forget a painful separation. Vega's prowess as a composer and lyricist of the highest caliber is once again on full and glorious display here. "In Liverpool" is a piece that makes you want to know more -- it's like the first chapter of a dark book of secrets that you want to unravel but can't. Her prior album was Book of Dreams, and perhaps 99.9F is more a Book of Nightmares, flames licking at the cover and the spine, urging you on to find answers before your fingers get singed.
Although Stone Roses is often thought of as a ‘90s band, their classic debut album and many of its associated singles actually hit in the late ‘80s. For the ‘90s we have to look to their 1994 album Second Coming and its primary single, the classic-rock behemoth "Love Spreads". It ended up being their biggest hit ever, reaching #2 in the UK and also hitting the runner-up spot on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart, the band's highest ever placement on that survey.
"Love Spreads" is built on massive swirls of bluesy guitar, a fluid psychedelic groove, and vocals buried well in the mix like the Stones' "Bitch" or Bowie's "Watch that Man". It's a provocative rock and roll strut that loses none of the considerable swagger of the band's earlier singles.
At the 4:16 mark comes a long fade-in of the repetitious chorus, which essentially becomes a mantra, starting softly and then swelling in power and intensity with each pass, as the guitars build and the multi-tracked vocals become more complex. The main verse repeats: "Let me put you in the picture / let me show you what I mean/ The Messiah is my sister / Ain't no king, man, she's my queen". There is a long guitar-jam ending with one last repetition of the main hook. It's a killer tune, what rock and roll is all about.
If the Stone Roses explored ‘60s style pop with earlier singles, here they have moved onto the darker war torn late ‘60s/early ‘70s. It's a Stones meets Doors meets C.C.R. vibe, all with a very European sound and the cocksure attitude for which the Stone Roses have always been known.
Liz Phair became a critical darling following the release of her stunning 1993 2-LP debut, Exile in Guyville. Low-fi, raw, brutally honest and sometimes fragile, Phair's debut may have enchanted critics but it didn't exactly fly off the shelves. There was considerable record company pressure for Phair to translate her critical plaudits into moving units.
As a result, her next album Whip-Smart is more focused power-pop with grit and spirit. She proves quite adept at writing some pretty catchy tunes. Liz Phair has the versatility to record piercing acoustic confessionals like "Flower" and then pivot neatly to supercharged melodic pop/rock like "Supernova", the song chosen to be the all-important first single.
It proved an excellent choice, and an obvious one -- "Supernova" is by far the most obviously commercial tune on Whip-Smar. Phair's fiery vocals rest on a foundation laid by a galloping beat and bassline with a jolt of guitar to amp up the start of each measure. The song is a very upbeat appreciation of a lover, in colorful and typically frank language: "You walk in clouds of glitter and the sun reflects your eyes / and every time the wind blows, I can smell you in the sky / your kisses are as wicked as an F-16 / and you fuck like a volcano, and you're everything to me." That's pretty hot. Just watch where you shoot that lava, right? It burns!! "Supernova" reached #6 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart, also landing Phair a Grammy nomination.
"Iceblink Luck" is the first single from the legendary Scottish purveyors of otherworldly beauty Cocteau Twins' sixth album Heaven or Las Vegas. The song is Elizabeth Fraser's joyful expression of peace and bliss. "Iceblink Luck" was written about her newborn daughter Lucy Belle, and as a musical expression of elation it doesn't get more exuberant.
She opens the song unable to contain her grin. "I'm seemin' to be a little alive / I'm happy again, caught, caught in time / expose the daughter of yourself well / Me, I think that you're in her heart." Strangely, while Fraser was marveling over motherhood, guitarist Robin Guthrie was battling addiction, and he became much less influential in the overall scheme of the band's sound. Bassist Simon Raymonde stepped up to fill the slack. The result is a different version of the Cocteau Twins, still mystical faerie music but with a little more Earthly foundation. They were getting positively commercial, but no less beguiling.
"Iceblink Luck" features one of Fraser's more intelligible vocals, and most focused delivery. There's a bright, melodic guitar riff and a trippy rhythm under a prominent bass line and acoustic guitar. The main hook in the chorus, with the guitar line weaving in and out of the melody, is classically beautiful. It's a glistening folk singalong from a hidden frozen dimension. "Iceblink Luck" hit #4 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart, second only to their classic "Carolyn's Fingers" which made it to #2 in 1988.