The third part of our examination of the 100 Greatest Alternative Singles of the '90s, including Sonic Youth, Primal Scream, Garbage, Pixies and more.
From Mercury Rev's classic fourth album Deserter's Songs, "Holes" is a swirling melancholy dream, a Grimm's fairy tale with pain and darkness coursing just under the surface of an elegant and ornate reverie of beauty and wonder. The whimsical nature of the song is partly inspired by vocalist Jonathan Donahue rediscovering recordings of fairy tales spoken over classical music accompaniment that had enthralled him as a child.
The impressionistic lyrics could mean anything, or nothing. Some suggest the "holes" in the song are those left in the arm of a junkie, and the band has been open about their struggles with drug addiction in the period leading up to this album. It hardly needs to be pinned down to a specific meaning -- the lyrics are so evocative and poetic that the song will mean different things to different people. Donahue is detached, his voice echoing in a dreamlike musical netherworld. It's the aural equivalent of floating in a chemical ecstasy, complete with the sublime alien trill of a theremin.
There's a sweet fragility to the graceful orchestral accompaniment during the verses until it becomes sweepingly powerful for the long instrumental section that acts as a chorus. "Although they make me laugh, they always make me cry," Donahue sings with a bittersweet ache, riding the high that feeds his mind. The lyrics are enchantingly beautiful, and like the music and vocals, are swallowed in a sweet opium haze. Hallucinatory lines like "got telephones for eyes" put the listener directly in the head of the narrator. From out of nowhere come various effects and even a trumpet solo, all the sonic trappings of a spectacular dream that walks the line of being a sickly sweet nightmare.
The Breeders were intended as a side-project by Pixies bassist Kim Deal and Tanya Donelly of Throwing Muses (who left after one album, 1990's excellent Pod), but they ended up being far from an afterthought. The Breeders' second album Last Splash is essential ‘90s alt-rock, thanks in part to its wonderfully cuckoo lead single "Cannonball".
A woozy guitar lead, Josephine Wiggs' prominent bass line, lean and precise percussion and the dynamic stop/start structure, juxtaposed with Kim Deal's sweet and nervy lead vocals, fuse to make "Cannonball" one of those freakish singles that somehow breaks out against all expectations and becomes a major hit. The verses follow the easy-going indie-rock surrounding the bending guitar line until distorted vocals and heavy guitar thunder in during the chorus, with Deal singing amongst the distortion, "Want you coocoo cannonball!! / want you coocoo cannonball!" What does it mean? Who knows. What does it matter? It's just a quirky and inventive song, with the "ooo-oooo" backing vocals adding a touch of irreverence.
The lyrics are basically nonsensical, although there are some great lines -- for instance, "I'll be your whatever you want / the bong in this reggae song." "Cannonball" is loaded with impudence, exuberance and mischievous charm. It reached #2 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart, one spot higher than any Pixies single ever accomplished ("Here Comes Your Man" topped out at #3 in 1989), and came oh-so-close to entering the mainstream Top 40, stalling out just short at #44.
The sad, far-too-young death of Elliott Smith hits hard all over again when listening to a song like "Waltz #2 (XO)". In retrospect, it's beautiful but heartrending. His gifts as a songwriter and vocalist are indisputable and he infused his work with authentic emotion. "Waltz #2 (XO)" is indeed a rock waltz built on a bed of acoustic guitar with a descending main melodic line that emerges first on guitar, and then is echoed on piano. Smith sings in his breathy voice about a woman who is a former lover and is now in a much sadder situation that she faces stoically -- and Smith can do nothing but continue to love her despite herself.
Smith, as he frequently did, performed all of the instruments on "Waltz #2 (XO)" himself. He was certainly competent, although by no means a virtuoso, so the song has an earnest, homespun vibe that using seasoned session musicians would have erased. The overall aesthetic of the song, and the album for that matter, is typical of Smith's catalog of DYI recordings which, after all, suits the intensely personal nature of the material. If you're going to pour your heart out into your lyrics, then the music should be equally real, and it is.
Given what we know about Smith's demise, it's hard to listen to lines like, "I'm here today and expected to stay / on and on and on / I'm tired / I'm tired" and not think that he's offering glimpses into this state of mind. It certainly has the feel of simple truth.
Bob Mould's power-pop trio Sugar released two studio albums, an EP and a collection of B-sides during a brief but spectacular run in the early ‘90s. Their most immediately impactful song is "If I Can't Change Your Mind", a brisk acoustic rocker with a strong melody and a terrific vocal by Mould. It's reminiscent of some of Mould's late-era Hüsker Dü material.
The band -- Mould on guitar, David Barbe on bass and Malcolm Travis on drums -- plays super hard and ultra-tight. It's a compressed bundle of energy ready to spring through the speakers, grab the listener by the neck and scream ‘turn it up'.
"If I Can't Change Your Mind" is a fascinating study in love, sorrow and ego, a lack of self-awareness that borders on parody. Mould's narrator is in the midst of a fracturing relationship, but has no inkling whatsoever of what he may have done to help contribute to the failure. He proclaims with towering arrogance and exaggerated innocent: "How can I explain away / something that I haven't done / and if you can't trust me now / you'll never trust in anyone." The blame lies squarely with the other party, and they obviously don't know how good they have it -- an exercise in self-delusion that seems to be almost ubiquitous in many break-up situations, and which Mould captures with wit.
There's a reason Bob Mould is widely recognized as one of the best alternative-rock songwriters of the last 30 years, from his work with Hüsker Dü, as a solo artist, with Sugar, and as a DJ and author. "If I Can't Change Your Mind" is one of the most convincing examples of his prowess as a songwriter. It's hard to write a truly great pop song, and Mould does that here.
Scottish alternative rockers Primal Scream moved from melodic indie-rock to an enormous stylistic palette on their landmark 1991 album Screamadelica. It's a dizzying musical ride that flails wildly from bluesy rock to kinetic electronica. "Movin' on Up" has a strong Beggar's Banquet-era Stones vibe, complete with slide guitar, a piercingly simple solo, polyrhythmic percussion and protracted mantra-like repetition during the final section that are all strongly redolent of "Sympathy for the Devil". The rollicking piano sounds like Elton John somehow got in on the action. The soulful backing vocals suggest another Stones' hallmark, "Gimme Shelter". Billie Gillespie's exaggerated drawl is straight out of Mick Jagger's vocal guidebook. "Movin' on Up" can practically be considered a Stones homage.
And what a great one it is. A psychedelic folk-rock groover, "Movin' on Up" is buoyant and lively, a feast of sounds that effortlessly spans decades. There had to be time travel involved in the creation of this song. "Movin' On Up" is infectious and joyous, with the piano bubbling away under the massive vocal arrangement that flies off like a fighter jet into the skyline.
Primal Scream have enjoyed enormous mainstream popularity in the UK and Europe, but in America they've been relegated to alternative radio and Top 40 programmers just don't seem to be interested. A pity, but hardly surprising. "Movin' on Up" hit #2 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart, by far Primal Scream's most substantial American success.