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.
35 - 31
Atl-rock/metal alchemists Faith No More's tortured masterpiece Angel Dust traces the contours of a deranged mind expressing inner demons and bizarre observations of the world around him. The first single was "Midlife Crisis", a magnificent and harrowing track in which, over a densely rumbling rhythm section, Mike Patton spits the lyrics of the spoken verses like he's expelling venom from his tongue. The chorus explodes in a cathartic release backed by jagged guitars.
Mike Patton once claimed to a reporter that "Midlife Crisis" is about Madonna, but it's always wise to take such proclamations with a grain of salt, especially with someone known to fuck around with the press. The lyrics suggest that the song is, in fact, about a midlife crisis of sorts. A man is lost in a relationship which feels bereft of meaning, letting his life wane and fade because of a sense of normalcy and security that seems tenuous at best. Radiohead wrote in "True Love Waits", "I'm not living, I'm just killing time." Our guy here is also killing time, and decides to shake the order of his world.
He abandons his family and leaves them behind much like his own father did. Lyrics like, "sense of security / like pockets jingling / midlife crisis / suck ingenuity / down through the family tree" and "what an inheritance / the salt and the kleenex" strongly suggest a repetition of events he experienced in childhood, which, of course, generates the bitter self-loathing which is the song's primary characteristic.
However one chooses to interpret it, "Midlife Crisis" is undoubtedly a powerful performance with striking lyrics, a malevolent spirit, and brilliant vocal by Patton. As the first single from Angel Dust, "Midlife Crisis" rocketed to #1 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart in August 1992.
Tanya Donelly, one of the '90s must underrated singer/songwriters, found the perfect vehicle for her music in Belly. The first single from Belly's outstanding debut Star, "Feed the Tree" is about the relationship between an elderly person and a youth, and an admonition to the youth to show proper respect. "Take your hat off, boy, when you're speaking to me", is of course proper manners of the kind that one hardly finds today. "Be there when I feed the tree" refers to death, and coming to the funeral to pay respect.
It's touching to think about an elderly man imparting wisdom on a young person who shimmies around a big tree like a squirrel and grins with her silver tooth that replaced the one she lost in a tumble from her bicycle. More generally, "Feed the Tree" is about showing each other respect as humans and individuals, and understanding that with age comes wisdom (presumably) and experience. In our cynical and confrontational information-overloaded world, a little respect and civility can go a very long way, but seems rarely to be found. Twenty-three years after first recording this song, "Feed the Tree" is more germane than ever. Simple respect goes a long way.
Tanya Donelly's vocals, often double-tracked to create lovely harmonies, glide above a solid groove that alternates between acoustic passages and edgy, motoric rock. Alternative radio and MTV wholeheartedly supported the song, and "Feed the Tree" topped the Billboard Modern Rock Chart for nearly a month. It will surely be a highlight of the band's set when they play their first gigs in two decades later in 2016.
"Just a Girl" was the first salvo from No Doubt's second album Tragic Kingdom, but their popularity really exploded with "Spiderwebs", a frenzied repudiation of an obsessive fan who incessantly called Gwen Stefani to recite bad poetry until she finally had to start screening her calls (the advent of smartphones would kinda render this issue moot, wouldn't it?) Not the most compelling tale to turn into a hit song, but Stefani and her ace bandmates knock it out of the park.
"Spiderwebs" is a high energy fusion of pop, rock, ska and even some hints of reggae. It's jumpy and manic, with a blazing brass arrangement adding to the song's highwire excitement. Gwen Stefani had not yet taken the leap to solo pop stardom, and she really lets loose here in a way rarely heard in her electro-pop solo material. Her frustration at the situation that inspired the song comes through loud and clear in her dynamic and expressive vocal. The musicianship in No Doubt is sometimes overlooked, but one listen to "Spiderwebs" jumping out of the speakers all barrels blazing should render it obvious exactly how talented and tight this group was at their peak. Adrian Young is an unstoppable machine on the drums, and bassist Tony Kanal (who co-wrote the song) and guitarist Tom Dumont keep a frantic pace.
"Spiderwebs" hit #5 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart and set the stage for Gwen Stefani's big star turn on the chart-topping ballad "Don't Speak". Like the rest of Tragic Kingdom, "Spiderwebs" was produced by Matthew Wilder, who scored a Top 5 pop hit of his own in 1983 with the reggae-tinged "Break My Stride".
Opening with slivers of guitar that alternate between sides of the sound spectrum, the powerfully strident "If You Tolerate This, Your Children Will Be Next" by Welsh alt-rockers Manic Street Preachers has deep roots in European history. The song was inspired by the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 and the naive Welsh fighters caught up in sweeping anti-fascist fervor who flocked to Spain to fight for the leftist government against the rebellion led by Francisco Franco. The song's title comes from a Spanish government poster condemning the death of a young child killed by Franco's forces. The chilling line "so if I can shoot rabbits / then I can shoot fascists" is actually an oft-repeated quote from one of the fighters battling against Franco.
The song is more complex than just a history lesson, though. The narrator's enthusiasm for righteous battle fades as the song goes along and he's been exposed to unthinkable carnage. He eventually comes to the realization that neither side is particularly noble. By the end he's an old man, alone with "newspaper cuttings of his glory days". What did it all mean in the end? Human lives -- real people with families, stories and dreams -- used as kindling in the never ending violent games of the powerful. Even if you survive, you're scarred.
It's ultimately all about the meaningless, endless cycle of violence and war, and how your child might indeed be the next soldier caught up in the fervor of a noble cause only to die a bloody death in battle or to maybe waste away wondering what might have been. It couldn't be more timely or relevant, given the perpetual state of war in which we are engulfed.
All of this is set to a highly melodic, hard rocking anthem with strings like sheets of gilded metal glistening above the chorus. As a recording and a piece of songwriting, "If You Tolerate This, Your Children Will Be Next" rises far above what most rock and roll aspires to be, and it succeeds. The track became a huge success in the UK, becoming Manic Street Preachers' first #1 single.
In the realm of '90s alternative rock, apart from the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Give It Away" it's hard to find a more wickedly funky groove than Jane's Addiction's "Been Caught Stealin'". Perry Farrell's vocal is ballsy and mischievous and Dave Navarro unleashes a brief but absolutely savage guitar solo. All the players shine -- drummer Stephen Perkins and bassist Eric Avery (who co-wrote the song with Perry Farrell) are ridiculously tight. "Been Caught Stealin'" is an audacious moment of levity on Ritual de lo Habitual, an album that is otherwise a deeply serious collection.
"Been Caught Stealin'" works on multiple levels. While it seems like a bit of a novelty on first listen, there is an unmistakable current of desperation coursing through the song, with the barking dogs raising the spectre of a police chase. After all, the simple act of shoplifting is sometimes a necessity for survival (wasn't there a Broadway musical about that? Something set in France?) Mostly, though, Perry Farrell seems to be encouraging the simple act of rebellion against authority, which has been a recurring theme in his songwriting.
"Been Caught Stealin'" features a surreally comical video that MTV played on heavy rotation, and the track became the most successful of Jane's Addiction's storied career, lodging at #1 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart for four weeks. It helped the absolutely brilliant Ritual de lo Habitual sell more than two million copies in the US alone.