Most of this below is really hyper-technical and, frankly, indulgent. So consider this (similar to how Stephen King advised his readers not to read the final chapter of The Dark Tower) my suggestion that you skip to the list (or even stop here) while enjoying this nugget from way underrated 90s malcontents The Verve.
Here they are, my top 16 songs of the 90s (N.B. I’m sticking with 16. They’ll all fit on one CD). There is a time this list would have begun with Smells Like Teen Spirt followed by 15 Pearl Jam songs (really esoteric choices to indicate how big of a fandork I was). Then, prolly not too long ago, I would have attempted to veer generously clear of that “stuff” in search of some kind of “cred.” I think I’ve cut a fair swath through both of those ideologies. But the futility of selecting the sixteen best songs from the decade in which I aged from 12-22 (the formative years? That somehow gives them both too much and not enough credit) should be evident. Do you remember how hot and cold we burnt on (everything) music then? (thus making the $2.99 cassette single (or $4.99 CD single) perhaps the most crack-pipe ready necessity of my teenage years.) As such, my personal retrospective of the decade turned into a debate between 16 year old Matt and 33 year old Matt, the 33 with his cunning reason and crafty wit and the 16 with his youthful passion and, frankly, about 50 more lbs. So I’ve tried to respect that tension while at the same time admitting there are songs on the below list that I damn sure never heard in the 90s and prolly not till my late-twenties. As such, there are two groups (the 16s or the 33s) and I’ve tried to identify them as such.
The 16s, I have a long history with (have loved them for awhile) and have cemented themselves into my personal history of the decade. These songs would have appeared on the list had I sat down with a modicum of earnestness and done this in 2001.
The 33s, however, are the ones that through 11+ years of my retrospection (and listening to music) have wiggled their way onto the list. There are plenty of these songs I hadn’t heard, or at least listened to critically, till much later. So they define the decade in the way I think about it now and not as much (or any at all) in the way I actually experienced it (more below).
I’ve also identified two other groupings of songs. First, when you consider a decade’s worth of songs, there are those songs that “soundtrack” the decade. They tend to be more popular and were to a certain extent, ubiquitous. And, frankly, maybe not as “rubber to road” good as others, but their inclusion on a list such as this is, for the most part, unquestioned. They lend sort of a historical texturing to the times (like you always hear Stayin’ Alive in any 70s retrospective). It doesn’t mean they’re not good (or great even). They just reside in the decade differently. I will refer to these as the “ST”s the “Sound Trackers.”
And second, there are songs that “define” the decade. These songs tend to have been released later in the decade (but not always) and are certainly critical darlings. These are the songs by which the future (like the tan unitard lunar outpost future (like 2020)) will define the decade. I’ll refer to these songs as the “DD”s the “Decade Definers”
So above was my way of saying there is a lot going on this list. I’ve tried to respect all of these attributes. However, I also really tried to consider what songs were actually the best but also the songs that I personally like(d) the most. As such, given that my mind is essentially a Lotto ball machine, the fact that I’ve come up with 16, rather than 150, of these is rather personally impressive. OK, with just a bit more ado:
(N.B. there is a decided lack of (i.e. none) hip-hop considering how much I listened to it. But when I reflect on it (other than Aaron and I pounding Slam by Onyx) all I can really hear is the flash and the popular stuff and I’m just now learning that I missed a lot of really seminal stuff simply because KJ103 didn’t play it. So maybe when I update this list in ten years (from my lunar outpost), I’ll have given a decade’s worth of hip-hop its due. Till then, you’re stuck with mostly complaint rock. Apologies.)
Honorable Mention (sorry): Alive – Pearl Jam; Courduroy – Pearl Jam; All Apologies – Nirvana; Lithium – Nirvana; Nothing Compares 2 U – Sinead O’Connor; Harvest Moon – Neil Young (not sure how this couldn’t crack the top-16); Nuthin’ but a G-Thang – Dre; Without a Trace – Soul Asylum; Black Hole Sun – Soundgarden; Rooster – Alice in Chains; Would? – Alice in Chains; Mr. Jones and/or Perfect Blue Buildings – Counting Crows; Regulate – Warren G and Nate Dogg; Sunny Came Home – Shawn Colvin; 1979 – Smashing Pumpkins; Killing me Softly – The Fugees; Longview – Greenday; Interstate Love Song – Stone Temple Pilots; You Get What You Give – New Radicals; Dry the Rain – The Beta Band; Sabotage – The Beastie Boys; Rosa Parks – Outkast; Via Chicago – Wilco
16. November Rain by Guns-n-Roses (16 ST) – I imagine this song is how the 90s began. But for the insertion of Nirvana/Pearl Jam, 90s rock-n-roll might well have spun off of November Rain. From an evolution of rock standpoint, that would have been…. interesting. But it didn’t and November Rain sits in 1991 like the last great 80s rock song. And at nine minutes, it’s still as indulgent and awesome as ever. I can still see the video. Whereareya, Slash?
15. U-Mass by Pixies (33 DD) – And while Axl was courting Stephanie Seymour and selling 5.5 million of records, Pixes were dropping Trompe Le Monde to little fanfare and rocking asses off with songs like U-Mass.
14. Violet by Hole (33 DD ST) – She’s a cliche now. This song is not. Total face-melter.
13. Fade into You by Mazzy Star (16, 33, DD) – Where were you the first time you heard this? It’s the only song on this list for which I have a definitive answer. I’m not telling you, but I know the answer.
12. California Stars by Wilco and Billy Bragg (33) – Not even on my radar until at least ’05 when a band formed by my buddies from law school started covering it. Heard it, fell in love with it, played it at my wedding (it was the last song for those too bombed (Aunt Lu, Ford) to remember). Oklahoma’s Woody Guthrie wrote the lyrics. Wilco set them to music. Hopeful and perfect.
11. Last Goodbye by Jeff Buckley (33 DD) – I think if you are doing a list of the singular artists of the 90s, you lead-off with Cobain, then maybe Tupac or who else? But before long, you get to Jeff Buckley. Is he overrated because he died? Maybe. Is Cobain? Grand, sweeping, magical, virtuoso, keep flipping through the thesaurus.
10. Waitin’ for Superman by The Flaming Lips (33 DD) – I asked you a question / but I didn’t need you to reply.
9. Loser by Beck – (33 DD ST) There were plenty of songs I considered for an overall “Pathos of the Decade” entry (Bulls on Parade (too angry); Baby Got Back (too awesome); Crash Into Me (too __________ ); Losing my Religion (too R.E.M.y) What’s Going On (too lesbian); No Rain (too overdosey) Under the Bridge (too….. I don’t know. This one was really close. It should prolly be in the top 16). Loser is the one that you can still hear, bob your head, fumble through the verse, then belt out the chorus. Do it. It still feels good.
8. Everlong by Foo Fighters (33 DD) – This is the majestic centerpiece of an album I adored. What’s funny is that I’m not sure it was ever my favorite during the time I thought The Colour and the Shape/Foo Fighters were the hottest of hot shit. Only circling back to it a few years later did recognize its greatness. And I wonder / when I sing along with you / If everything could ever feel this real forever
7. Given to Fly by Pearl Jam (16, 33, and maybe some DD too) – I’ve written it already. But watch this.
6. Creep by Radiohead (DD) – What to do with Radiohead…..? The SMCs put Paranoid Android or Karma Police here (or higher). The 33 would prolly do that, but the 16 likes Creep a lot more. The more they back away from it (i.e. refuse to play it live) the more vital they make it. What the hell am I doing here?
5. Don’t Look Back in Anger by Oasis (16 ST (but also kind of DD in a weird way) – Oasis were pretty much England’s only concrete rock soirée into the U.S. in the 90s (excepting Radiohead, but kinda not really). Funny since that quaint little island perfected rock-n-roll, but nonetheless. I listened to this song on repeat so many times in the fall of ’96 that I never really thought about the lyrics, but simply walked around mumbling slip inside the eye of your mind / don’t you know you might find / a better place to play. Clearly, the lyric that should have taken hold was please don’t put your life in the hands / of a rock-n-roll band / we’ll throw it all away.
4. Bittersweet Symphony by The Verve (33 ST DD) – Definitely the best titled song of the decade. There is a very particular context for this song. Very late 90s, the banal of the dot-com boom zeitgeist. This song feels like it came wrapped in that but hoped to slip its way out as something original with a perfectly delicate string intro……. that they totally ripped of from The Stones. That might be ironic. It’s still a fabulous song.
3. Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana (16 DD ST) – What else can be said? Listen to it one more time.
2. One by U2 – (16, 33, DD and ST (the quadruple!)) There is an argument that this is the last truly great U2 song. Of one of those points I’m certain. Of the other, I’m not. It is truly great. You know it the first time you hear it. There aren’t many like that. In your head after the first 8 bars. Something special’s going on. I think U2 would tell you this is best song they ever recorded. It was the steady current amidst Nirvana’s cannon ball. Is it getting better / or do you feel the same?
1. Yellow Ledbetter by you know who (16 33 DD ST) – Hey, I got it down to two Pearl Jam songs, OK. I’ve got to be honest with you, I’m a little shocked by this also. No matter how much I loved it then, I always felt YL was little more than a novelty. Like “yeah, it’s great. It’s based on that Hendrix song and there aren’t really any words to it.” The more I immersed myself in Pearl Jam, the less relevant it seemed. Like it was becoming their…..I don’t know, Yellow Submarine? Now, strangely, it’s become the song that is Pearl Jam. There’s something transcendent about it that lay beneath the surface, below Mike’s guitar and the ona combine onaway / i said i don’t where there’s a box or a bag. It’s the decade’s pulse. It encapsulates everything (Gulf War, Bush, Clinton, Murrah Building, Monica, The Real World, Dot-Coms, single mother, teenager, high school, Impala, singing out loud, dirt roads, Cherokee Texaco, cargo-pants, college) that both the history books and Matt’s history book will say about the 90s. I’m amazed I hear all that now. I’ve waxed enough about Pearl Jam, so I’ll spare you. But what struck me was how a song with very few discernible lyrics could be that decade’s song. Appropriate, I guess.