The fourth part of our examination of the 100 Greatest Alternative Singles of the '90s, including Suede, Manic Street Preachers, Pulp, and My Bloody Valentine.
The first single from Suede's widely-hailed self-titled debut is a sexy glam-rock raver, Brett Anderson's flamboyantly stylized vocals rising to a shimmery falsetto before gliding headlong into Bernard Butler's churning T-Rex guitar riff. Suede elegantly fuses the grandiose melancholy of the Smiths with the soaring theatrics of David Bowie, and injects a dose of brash attitude. Suede's sonic vibe is slicked with a tincture of decadence, an aura of wading through forbidden underground sex enclaves where depravity is celebrated and hedonism is religion.
For a debut single, "The Drowners" is particularly daring. It's brazenly sexual and strongly suggestive of two men losing themselves in a primal torrent of lust. Like many Suede songs, "The Drowners" is somewhat enigmatic, but while the lyrics are open to interpretation some dots are easy to connect. Lines like "we kiss in his room to a popular tune" and "well, he writes the line / wrote right down my spine / it says 'oh, do you believe in love there?" don't leave much to the imagination, especially with Anderson's voice glistening with desire.
Anderson offers some level of resistance to giving into his partner's dominant role: "and so we drown / Sir, we drown / stop taking me over". It's no accident he uses the sexually charged title "Sir". By the end of the song, Anderson's protestations of "stop taking me over" have changed to simply "you're taking me over", repeated ad infinitum until it fades out.
Sexy, a bit mysterious, a hint of danger -- that's Suede's trademark sound, and they nailed it on "The Drowners". It's a confident debut, boldly invoking sexual power games over fiery glam rock that could be beamed straight from 1973. The single set the stage for a long string of mostly stellar releases leading up to their latest, the spectacular Night Thoughts, which hit in January 2016.
The opening track and lead single from Mazzy Star's second album So Tonight That I Might See, "Fade Into You" is a gauzy midnight waltz that eases the listener into a warm candlelit pool, the air thick with an aromatic cannabis haze. "Fade Into You" is languid and lush, with Hope Sandoval's honeyed voice, kissed with reverb, casting a warm glow over the sultry brew of acoustic guitar, piano and dreamy lines of slide guitar. Sandoval imbues her vocal with just the right amount of detachment and mysterious beauty. She flows with the music, a flowering branch of blue and violet drifting slowly down a lazy southern river.
Sandoval sings to a man she's unable to reach, unable to break from his haunted view of the world. She feels love and tenderness for him that he'll never understand or reciprocate. "You live your life / you go in shadow / you'll come upon and you'll go black / some kind of night into your darkness / close your eyes with what's not there," she sings wistfully. Sandoval performs the song like she's lost in a memory of something experienced years in the past, dredged up for a moment of bittersweet regret that occupies her mind before she sighs sadly and moves on to other concerns.
Beautiful, stately and romantic, "Fade Into You" sauntered its way to #3 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart. It even scored substantial airplay at mainstream radio and very nearly hit the Top 40 in the US, reaching #44.
After the end of Nirvana, Dave Grohl took some time off and then retreated into the studio, emerging a week later with a batch of home-spun recordings with him playing most of the instruments. These raw tracks ended up being released as the Foo Fighters' self-titled debut. The album sold well thanks to tracks like "This Is a Call", "I'll Stick Around" and "Big Me", and Grohl put an actual band together to tour. Instead of a mere side project, Foo Fighters quickly became a powerful force in alternative rock whose stature has continued to balloon over the ensuing two decades.
Foo Fighters' second album, The Colour and the Shape, recorded with the band rather than as a solo project, was much tighter than the debut. Its lead single "Monkey Wrench" was a hit, but it was eventually overshadowed by the second single, "Everlong", which reached #3 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart.
"Everlong" has all the parts necessary for a rock and roll classic: a melodic guitar riff, a hard-rocking chorus, and ferocious playing by Grohl and his mates. It packs a tight sonic punch, thanks in large part to Grohl's pulse-pounding drum work. The song's rush of energy is understandable given it's about Grohl's experiences with the first excited blush of new love, that period when everything about you and your partner seem perfectly in sync. Things only start to go awry later, but that's a different song.
"Everlong" is basking in that glow, while at the same time harboring the fear it will ultimately end: "And I wonder / when I sing along with you / if everything could ever feel this real forever / if anything could ever be this good again." It seems to be human nature that even when things are at their best, the nagging thought of "how long will this last?" is always there.
The second single from California alt-metal pioneers Deftones' pivotal second album Around the Fur, "Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away)" is a blistering assault of white-hot guitars and brain searing screams. It's unremittingly bleak and deranged with a twisted gothic bent, a nightmarish hell-ride that's thrilling and disturbing to take.
Chino Moreno give a deliriously unhinged vocal performance, and he clearly gives everything within himself. There's nothing held back in the repeated anguished cries of "I don't care where / just far!" The desperation to get away from something screams through every pore. What, exactly, Moreno is escaping is ominously vague, although it seems likely he's leaving behind a fucked up situation (either of his own making, or not), and fleeing town pronto seems a pretty good idea. The lines "I dressed you in her clothes" and "it feels good that you are mine", along with the obsessively berserk nature of the recording, brings to mind some sinister possibilities. Sometimes it's best to just leave it up to the imagination.
Beyond just Moreno's phenomenal performance, the band is literally on fire. Guitars blaze like spiderwebs of lightning flashing in a late night derecho, and a barrage of drums pummels the skull like a four-alarm hemorrhage. "Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away)" is the kind of song that makes you hit repeat a dozen times as you're driving a highway late at night, screaming along at the top of your lungs until your voice is shredded beyond all recognition.
The Sundays' debut album Reading, Writing and Arithmetic is a sweet collection of shimmery alternative pop loaded with strong melodies and genuine heart. The album's second single, "Here's Where the Story Ends", was the English band's breakthrough hit. Set to an upbeat, jangly guitar-pop backdrop, Harriet Wheeler enchants listeners with her brisk, crystalline vocals and a crisp melodic hook. The song's feel is evocative of a breezy, moderately cool yet still lovely autumn afternoon.
It's clearly a wistful song, but the precise meaning is hard to pin down. It seems that Wheeler's character regrets a love lost as she drifts through a world of hand-holding couples beaming with purpose. They remind her of what was and what could have been. Surely she doesn't always feel this way, but at this moment she insists, "But the only thing I ever really wanted to say was wrong / was wrong / was wrong." A pang of regret that will fade, and return, and then fade again, as all of our emotions are in a constant state of flux. This song is simply a beautifully rendered snapshot. Perhaps the next day she'll remember that it wasn't she alone who accounted for that "terrible year". Maybe the story ends with putting those regrets to bed for good, and moving forward.
The lyrics read like a poem, and the song speaks to different listeners in different ways. Perhaps that's the point. It's just impressions of thoughts and memories that Wheeler doesn't want to spell out too precisely, maybe to enhance the song's inherent air of mystery and wonder, maybe because it's too personal. Either way, the end result is beguiling. Alternative radio couldn't get enough of the song and neither could fans, who sent "Here's Where the Story Ends" soaring to #1 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart in May 1990.