I promised you a list of my 100 favorite rock songs from the 1990s, but after a few weeks of listing and ranking tracks I realized I couldn’t get away with fewer than 150 … which became 162 (a good baseball number, at least) … which became 175 … and finally stopped at 200, which still left a few good songs* on the outside.
* Those would include the Charlatans UK’s “Impossible,” Stereophonics’ “Local Boy in the Photograph” and “Just Lookin’,” Dodgy’s “Staying Out for the Summer,” Soul Coughing’s “$300,” Lenny Kravitz’s “Let Love Rule,” Offspring’s “Come Out and Play (Keep ‘Em Separated),” and Nirvana’s “Man Who Sold the World,” among others.
Just like the previous list for the 2000s, this is a ranking of personal preference, not an objective measure of chart performance. If I don’t like a song, it ain’t here. There’s no rap or hip-hop because I didn’t want the list to run to 250 or 300 tracks, at which point I probably would never have finished it.
All links go to amazon.com’s MP3 downloads, so if a song is unlinked, it’s not available for individual purchase, and I’m not going to suggest to anyone that they buy a whole album to get one song, since those days should be firmly behind us by now.
The last list brought a number of new readers to the site, so if you’re one of them: Welcome. If you choose to comment, I moderate the site, so new users’ comments don’t appear until I’ve cleared them from the queue.
200. Harvey Danger – “Flagpole Sitta.” The sneering slacker anthem for the second half of the decade. Overplayed by a factor of 300% in “retro” music blocks on alternative stations.
199. Auteurs – “Everything You Say Will Destroy You.” Truer words were never spoken.
198. Siouxsie and the Banshees – “Kiss Them For Me.” An ode to Jayne Mansfield and an unusually restrained song for the Banshees. It always cracked me up that Siouxsie Sioux’s first TV appearances was in the background of the infamous Sex Pistols appearance on Bill Grundy’s talk show.
197. The Descendents – “I’m The One.” This song should probably be higher up the list, but I was just about done with the ranking when I realized I’d forgotten it entirely. Definitely among the best punk-revival songs of its era, without the excess polish of Green Day, the Offspring, or even Bad Religion.
196. Sleeper – “Nice Guy Eddie.” Apparently this song is about Reservoir Dogs, which was (and is) lost on me, but it’s a great Britpop song with a few clever lines, but it’s elevated by the marriage of its lyrics and its music – there’s nothing special about the line “It may sound funny but it wasn’t supposed to,” but the specific way Louise Wener (who was kinda hot) sang it, coupled with the lines that came before, made the line something more. And Wener was, in fact, pretty clever, commenting on how the Boo Radleys received better reviews in the press because their members “look[ed] like journalists.”
195. Filter – “Take A Picture.” Filter had two moments of greatness. This was the lesser one.
194. Blur – “Country House.” The song that rhymed Balzac with Prozac. Win.
193. Ned’s Atomic Dustbin – “Kill Your Television.” Perhaps counterproductive advice given my current job.
192. Collective Soul – “Heavy.” Well, heavy for Collective Soul, at least.
191. Muse – “Muscle Museum.” From Wikipedia, which we know is never wrong: “It was named “Muscle Museum” when the band couldn’t think of a name for the song so they looked ‘Muse’ up in the dictionary, picking the words immediately before and after. “
190. White Zombie – “More Human Than Human.” White Zombie went from noise-rock band to thrash band to heavy-metal-joke band, finding not just commercial success in the last phase but a Grammy nomination for the regrettable “Thunder Kiss ’65.” “More Human Than Human” also earned a Grammy nomination, but it’s a far better, tighter song than its predecessor.
189. Cast – “Sandstorm.” I actually heard this song in a Home Depot once, which is one more time than I ever heard it on a U.S. radio station, although I believe I later caught “Beat Mama” on WFNX. Cast was founded by the bassist from alternative darlings The La’s and pushed out a number of power-pop singles worth checking out, a list that also includes “Alright” and “Fine Time.”
188. Urge Overkill – “Sister Havana.” The Neil Diamond cover was the worst thing that could have happened to these guys, as it tanked their career just as they were getting interesting.
187. Bush – “The Chemicals Between Us.” Even a crappy faux-grunge act occasionally gets it right, in this case by the addition of some electronic elements and added layering in production.
186. These Animal Men – “Empire Building.” Let’s get a hotel room in Paris/With that French girlfriend that volunteered to share us.
185. Smashing Pumpkins – “Muzzle.” Like a lost track from Siamese Dream, harkening back even to Gish.
184. Stereophonics – “The Bartender And The Thief.” I originally thought I’d have more Stereophonics on this list, but while I like a good number of their songs, it’s more a matter of liking their sound than finding individual songs so compelling. This fast-paced track presaged their biggest hit, “Dakota,” a decade later.
183. Jane’s Addiction – “Stop.” I would have had this much higher had it not been for the tempo-shattering bridge in the middle of the song (“hurrah”), without which the track would have been a three-minute adrenaline rush for the ages.
182. Travis – “Driftwood.” I’m not sure it’s a better song than “Writing to Reach You,” but “Driftwood” is one of those songs I always seem to play when I find time to pick up the guitar, so here it is.
181. The Breeders – “Cannonball.” I understand that MTV exposure helped make this song a hit, but I would have preferred it if I’d never seen the snotty video, even more obnoxious than the Pixies’ video for “Here Comes Your Man.” But good luck getting the song out of your head, inane lyrics and all.
180. Ocean Colour Scene – “The Riverboat Song.” More than their standard blues-rock hybrid, “Riverboat” has a menacing feel that wasn’t present in some of their other top songs, like “The Day We Caught the Train.”
179. Cracker – “Low.” Overrated because of the then-scandalous reference to “being stoned.” I’ll give them a few bonus points for David Lowery and Johnny Hickman’s cover of “Pictures of Matchstick Men” as part of Camper Van Beethoven.
178. Radiohead – “The Bends.” Title track from an album that would have been the best of most bands’ careers … but not theirs.
177. Pure – “Tall Grass.” Pure was a Canadian band that marketers tried to attach to the Seattle train with no success, but they were more musical dilettantes, dabbling in psychedelic rock, mixing in a brass line, or writing venomous semi-acoustic tracks like this one. “Greed,” “Anna,” and “Laughing Like a Fiend” were also standouts from their three albums and handful of EPs.
176. The Cure – “High.” I’m a Disintegration guy when it comes to the Cure, but “High” remains the highlight of their career since that breakthrough disc, an airy, bittersweet love song, as opposed to the twee-pop money-grab of “Friday I’m in Love.”
175. Days of the New – “Enemy.” The preening, the look, the vocal style that was half Vedder and half Cornell … I can see why Days of the New were lightly regarded after their first album, although “Touch, Peel, and Stand” has its merits. But “Enemy,” from their second album, represented a real expansion of their sound, with electronic elements and a different kind of song structure that, unfortunately, didn’t find an audience.
174. The Boo Radleys – “C’mon Kids.” And fuck the ones/who tell you that life/is merely the time before dying. Yeah! Unfortunately this one doesn’t appear to be available for download (at least in the U.S., which annoys me to no end), but they did have another hit with the sunnier, poppier “Wake Up Boo!.”
173. Stereophonics – “A Thousand Trees.” The lyrics here could be about anything and I’d still have it on the list, but as it turns out they tell a good story of how one damaging rumor can destroy someone’s life.
172. Screaming Trees – “Shadow Of The Season.” The very simple guitar riff that opens the song, followed by a Bonham-esque drum line, grabs your attention, and Mark Lonegan’s distinctive baritone ushers you in. How this album, Sweet Oblivion, which put another song higher up this list, didn’t go multi-platinum is beyond me.
171. The Black Crowes – “Remedy.” Their first album was the big seller, but it didn’t have a song to match “Remedy,” which is what Oasis would have produced if they’d been a southern blues-rock act, a dense, over-the-top, relentless track that borrows heavily from its influences without sounding derivative.
170. James – “I Know What I’m Here For.” James specialized in songs that were simultaneously upbeat but with lyrics filled with doubt or wistful longings; this almost bouncy song brings unusually confident lyrics that make it sound more like an anthem.
169. Alice in Chains – “Them Bones.” Usually rock songs with odd time signatures are just masturbatory exercises, but the odd meters and changes between them in this song give it an unbalanced feel that adds to the sense of doom in the lyrics.
168. Soundgarden – “Burden In My Hand.” I remember reading an interview with Chris Cornell in Newsday in the early 1990s where he talked about his lyrical influences as Kafka, Camus, and Celine. That was evident on Badmotorfinger, but he simplified his approach greatly on Soundgarden’s final two albums. This song was one exception, as I can certainly see Camus’ The Stranger in here.
167. Beck – “Where It’s At.” When this song was current, shortly after my wife and I got married, my in-laws were visiting for the weekend and we were driving to dinner somewhere while I had WFNX on, playing this song, obviously, or I wouldn’t be using it as the comment here. There’s a shrill beeping behind the chorus, spurring my mother-in-law to chime in from the back seat, “This song is really annoying.” She’s never really gotten Beck, I have to say.
166. Metallica – “Enter Sandman.” If you listen closely around the 2:43 mark, yYou can actually hear the death of thrash metal in this song. (And yes, I’ve used a variation of this joke before.) It’s a fun song to play on the guitar, but should Metallica songs actually be fun to play? How could the band that produced “Master of Puppets” or “Blackened” or “Ride the Lightning” produce this, the metal equivalent of a pop song? I’m so conflicted.
165. Sting – “Mad About You.” Outside of Prince, was there a more important single artist in rock music from, say, 1975 to 1995 – more or less my formative years as a music fan – than Sting? The Police were and remain criminally underrated by the public, although I remember them being critical darlings, and Sting’s early solo career saw him integrating multiple styles of music across tracks on a single album. Unfortunately, The Soul Cages was the end of Sting as an adventurous solo artist and the beginning of his career as an adult contemporary artist, with just one standout track for me, this acoustic ballad with lyrics rife with literary allusions.
164. Skid Row – “Monkey Business.” Skid Row’s career arc fascinates me, because I’m pretty sure that after their first album, they were absolutely doomed even if they’d followed it up with a disc that combined the best aspects of Zeppelin IV, Revolver, and Love. They were initially marketed as a hair-metal act, and after their first album spawned two crappy ballads as hits (“18 and Life” and “I Remember You”), their audience comprised a ton of teenage girls and anyone seriously into metal or rock looked on them as the critical equivalent of Warrant or Britny Fox. As it turned out, Skid Row then put out a relatively sophisticated metal album in Slave to the Grind, led by this track, which sported a surprising combination of technical guitar work, vocal gymnastics, and memorable hooks. The album’s title track is also worth checking out, and it wouldn’t have been out of place on Metallica’s black album.
163. Prince – “7.” I go back and forth on this song as much as I do on any Prince track – sometimes I think it’s brilliant, sometimes I think it’s ridiculous.
162. Stone Temple Pilots – “Vasoline.” The lyrics were on the dumb side, but it’s built on a guitar riff that burrows into your brain, and they kept the song short and tight rather than beat that riff into the ground.
161. Placebo – “Pure Morning.” A friend in need’s a friend indeed/A friend with weed is better.
160. Beastie Boys – “Sure Shot.” I’m a big Paul’s Boutique guy – that has to be one of the five most important albums of the last 30 years – but never got quite as into the Beastie Boys’ more alternative-oriented music after that album, which wasn’t a commercial success but has become a major hip-hop classic, one that won’t likely be repeated or approached because of the royalties issues around such heavy sampling. “Sure Shot” is one of the more straight-up rap songs I heard from the Boys in the ’90s, so it’s well above bigger hits like “Intergalactic” for me.
159. Blink 182 – “What’s My Age Again??” I originally thought this song’s lyrics were stupid, along the lines of everything else I’d heard from them, but after hearing it a dozen times, I caught it on WFNX while driving down Fresh Pond Parkway and reinterpreted the song as an ode not to immaturity but to retaining a sense of the frivolous in the face of the seriousness of adult life – almost a wistful look at youth against time’s inexorable pull into middle age and its attendant responsibilities. Or maybe it’s just a song about being a jerk.
158. Gin Blossoms – “Hey Jealousy.” So the guy who wrote their two best songs suffered from severe depression and alcoholism, so the band fired him, after which they never put out a song half this good … and the poor guy killed himself. That worked out well for everyone. Always liked the line “the past is gone but something might be found to take its place” – I think we lost a potentially plus rock lyricist here.
157. The Verve – “Bitter Sweet Symphony.” Love the video. Can’t say I’m all that impressed by the Rolling Stones’ actions (or their lawyers’), and I say that as someone who generally defends the rights of IP holders.
156. Throwing Muses – “Bright Yellow Gun.” The most rock-infused song from a promising but generally uneven band. And I think I need a little poison.
155. Dinosaur Jr. – “Feel The Pain.” Hated it when it first came out, probably because of J. Mascis’ laconic delivery. I’m a fan now, although it took another Dinosaur Jr. song (much higher up this list) to convert me.
154. Beck – “Sexx Laws.” We have sex laws? Or maybe he really meant sexx laws, which aren’t about sex at all. I don’t really know. But this song works for me as the successful second attempt at what he was going for with “New Pollution.”
153. Pulp – “Common People.” One of the best – and wittiest – stories I’ve ever heard told in any song in any genre, about rich kids who think it’s fun to act poor. (The DC-area band emmet swimming hit on the same theme in their song “Arlington:” “they all have a motto/be rich dress poor.”)
152. Stereo MCs – “Connected.” Could have gone with “Step It Up” as well, but “Connected” has a little more of a trance or trip-hop feel, making its crossover more surprising and ultimately more important.
151. Cardigans – “My Favourite Game.” Better known for the saccharine “Lovefool,” but I prefer this straight-up rocker with its excellent use of the wah-wah pedal and Wild-at-Heart-like video.
150. Ash – “Kung Fu.” Given how many fake-punk bands broke through in the U.S., I’ve always been surprised that Ash found no success here; they were roughly contemporaries of Green Day but wrote better songs with more raw energy and less big-record-label production.
149. Radiohead – “Electioneering.” Album track from one of the three or four best discs of the ’90s.
148. Ruby – “Tiny Meat.” Minor hit on alternative radio that defies concise description. It’s new-wave minimalism, sounding like a girl, a guitar, and a DJ.
147. The KLF – “3 AM Eternal.” They’re justified … and they’re ancient. They were also wackos who deleted their entire back catalogue, so the song is permanently out of print.
146. Soul Coughing – “Casiotone Nation.” The 5% nation of lumps in my oatmeal. “Is Chicago Is Not Chicago,” from the same album, is almost as good.
145. Jesus & Mary Chain – “Head On.” I hate the Pixies cover of this.
144. Soup Dragons – “I’m Free.” Liked it more before AT&T drove it into the ground in commercials a few years ago.
143. Semisonic – “Closing Time.” First heard them via “Down in Flames,” from their debut album. I remember before their second album came out reading a business proposal from someone looking to start a record label for music aimed at middle-aged listeners. The writer made a point of arguing that Semisonic was destined to fail. I hope he found other work.
142. Alice in Chains – “I Stay Away.” I loved AiC’s acoustic stuff – they actually did some great harmonies, and the Sap EP had three really strong songs on it as well. I’ve heard the most recent album with Staley’s replacement, and they’re just not the same band.
141. Blind Melon – “Dear Ol’ Dad.” These guys were a lot more than just “No Rain,” with a sort of funk/jam band style that reminded me of the way the Red Hot Chili Peppers sounded before “Under the Bridge” – not the same hard faux-funk but the same energy and barely-contained-mess ethos.
140. Cake – “The Distance.” Unfortunately they have been re-recording this song for the last decade, and it gets worse every time.
139. Milla – “Gentlemen Who Fell.” That’s Milla Jovovich, who has had a hell of a career jumping from modeling to music to acting to fashion. This has to be one of the five weirdest songs on the list from her on-and-off falsetto to the hints of European folk music interspersed with riffs from an electric guitar.
138. Salt – “Bluster.” Worst band I have ever seen live; the singer introduced every song by saying “This is a rock song.” And it was loud. But this one’s okay.
137. Sublime – “What I Got.” I was never wild about these guys – I’ll flip the station if any of their other hits comes on – but this one was a lot tighter and used ska as an accent, as opposed to their other attempts to just be another crappy pseudo-ska band comprising white kids from the suburbs of California. (Seriously, I’m sorry that the guy is dead, but having a dead lead singer doesn’t make the music somehow better in retrospect.)
136. Blur – “Chemical World.” It’s very cheap.
135. David Gray – “Babylon.” Originally released in 1999, then re-released in 2000. Gray seems to have a cult following, but while I think he has a great, distinctive voice, this is the only song of his that I ever wanted to hear twice.
134. Alice in Chains – “Man In The Box.” Had more of an impact on me when I first heard it than it would today; at the time, it was kind of like a punch in the jaw, like an angry, sludgy dirge. And the video was creepy.
133. Oasis – “Acquiesce.” A B-side, probably the only one on this ranking. Another Oasis B-side, “Rocking Chair,” was also on the original list of about 240 songs.
132. Charlatans - “Just When You’re Thinkin’ Things Over.” One of my favorite bands of the ’90s, even though their lead singer can’t sing a lick without a producer’s help. Most of their best songs have a mournful quality to them, but this one is mostly upbeat, and there’s something rousing about the chorus’ main line, “You look good when your heart is on fire.” Doesn’t everyone?
131. Soundgarden – “Rusty Cage.” Bonus points for the Johnny Cash cover.
130. White Town – “Your Woman.” Another incredibly unlikely hit – a gay Indian-Englishman singing how he “could never be your woman.”
129. Texas – “Say What You Want.” I’m not a big adult-contemporary (or whatever they’re calling it these days) guy, but Texas’ White On Blonde album transcended that genre for me, including this song, the title track, and “Halo.”
128. Squirrel Nut Zippers – “Hell.” One of the best bands I have ever seen live, and the only band from that swing-revival period to make the list.
127. Mazzy Star – “Fade Into You.” It was a disappointment to hear that ethereal voice and then see that Hope Sandoval is actually quite unattractive.
126. Filter – “Hey Man, Nice Shot.” Another game-changer – I don’t think I’d ever heard a song on the radio before this one with so much screaming. But in this case, the song would have been completely forgettable without it.
125. Mercury Rev – “Young Man’s Stride.” Great overlooked band of the ’90s and early 2000s, with this, “Goddess on a Highway,” and “Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp.” The ease with which they changed musical directions, even within a single album, always impressed me.
124. Primitive Radio Gods – “Standing Outside A Broken Phone Booth With Money In My Hand.” Granted, the song wouldn’t have been a hit without the sample.
123. Toad the Wet Sprocket – “Walk On The Ocean.” Never liked “All I Want,” which was the bigger hit; this song has more of an edge to its lyrics.
122. Propellerheads – “History Repeating.” A jazz/big beat fusion that sounds like the theme to a James Bond film with a dominating vocal performance from Dame Shirley Bassey.
121. 10,000 Maniacs – “Candy Everybody Wants.” A biting commentary on the decline of American news coverage? I suppose it’s open to interpretation, but the backing music has that trademark Maniacs melange of American styles from bluegrass to big band.
120. Helmet – “Unsung.” The most overhyped (major-label) debut album of the 1990s? Helmet weren’t pioneers, but had they come out in the late ’90s or early 2000s they might have found a better commercial response. This was the only track from them I found listenable, about as close a crossover to the mainstream as thrash ever got.
119. Sundays – “Summertime.” How did the Sundays never break out of the alternative bin in the U.S.? They made clever, sometimes beautiful pop songs, led by this cheerful jangle-pop number, but their final album, Static and Silence, failed to chart here despite “Summertime” getting some alternative radio play. Also, Harriet Wheeler was cute.
118. Peter Murphy – “Cuts You Up.” A little bloated – Murphy’s ego? – but subtle and crafty as it insinuates itself into your subconscious.
117. Danzig – “Mother 93.” I’m not much of a Danzig fan, and this song is almost a joke musically, but the tempo changes and Glenn Danzig’s threatening growl give it entertainment value.
116. Shelter – “Here It Goes.” A Krishna-punk band that never seemed to break out of the NY hardcore scene, but I swear a dozen bands that came later ripped off their sound one way or another.
115. Third Eye Blind – “Semi-Charmed Life.” I debated not including this because it’s such a cheesy pop song … but it’s a really good cheesy pop song. If you wanted to explain a “hook” to someone unfamiliar with pop music, this would be a good place to start. Also, I smile when I hear this song because it reminds me of Pat Summerall calling them “Third Blind Eye” when they played at the halftime show of an NFL game (on Thanksgiving, I think).
114. Soul Coughing – “Janine.” You might have to hear this one live to appreciate it. “Janine/I drink you up/Like you were the Baltic Sea/And I were a cup” doesn’t have the same impact in print.
113. Sponge – “Plowed.” They were kind of viewed as a knockoff of a knockoff (Stone Temple Pilots), but this is one of the better amp-up songs of the decade, and it’s better than “Molly,” their biggest hit and the song they claim had nothing to do with Molly Ringwald despite the “Sixteen candles down the drain” chorus. Sure thing, fellas.
112. Civ – “Can’t Wait One Minute More.” Speaking of NYC hardcore, Civ at least found a little mainstream play between this song (with its hilarious, no-budget video spoofing gonzo daytime talk shows) and “Secondhand Superstar.”
111. Letters to Cleo – “I See.” I’ve got a dozen or so songs on here that changed my opinions on rock or alternative music, and this is another – I’d never heard anything like Kay Hanley’s frenetic, tongue-twisting delivery on this or its follow-up, “Here and Now.” The now-defunct WBCN gave them a lot of love during my senior spring in college, when I was counting the minutes until I graduated and listened to even more music than ever.
110. Dishwalla – “Counting Blue Cars.” My opinion of the song improved when I realized the vocals were from the perspective of elementary school kids, musing about life’s big questions. I’m still convinced the band flopped because their name sucked, though. Band names matter.
109. Our Lady Peace – “Superman’s Dead.” Had four OLP songs on my original list but ended up with just one; “Starseed,” “Naveed,” and “One Man Army” were the others. “Superman’s Dead” seems, with hindsight, the peak of their energy-filled-teenaged-angst style.
108. Meat Puppets – “Backwater.” Speaking of bad band names, I bring you the Meat Puppets, and their one pop song. They rode the grunge wave and support from Kurt Cobain to a ton of MTV airplay, but this is way too clean and polished to be properly called grunge.
107. New Order – “Regret.” From 1994 till 2001, it looked like this would be New Order’s swan song – they released a few more singles from Republic, but “Regret” was a huge hit and almost seemed like a fitting way to go out. Of course, they came back with a new album (Get Ready) in 2001, and even during the hiatus bassist Peter Cook recruited a Bernard Sumner soundalike and put together the band Monaco, churning out a couple of NO-like songs in “What Do You Want from Me?” and “I’ve Got a Feeling.”
106. Smashing Pumpkins – “Rocket.” Siamese Dream was a real watershed album that ended up mistakenly lumped in with the deluge of grunge acts of the time. I didn’t think Mellon Collie was close to this good, and nothing from that double disc is on the top 150, although “Muzzle” was on the original list of 200+.
105. Rage Against the Machine – “Killing In The Name” I like this song in spite of myself.
104. Jane’s Addiction – “Been Caught Stealing.” It just hasn’t aged well, but at the time, the fact that this song got airplay on mainstream rock and even pop stations was earth-shattering. For the record, I don’t believe for a second that Perry Farrell was just trying to make art with his risque album covers. He wanted controversy, and he got it. Well done. Just don’t pretend it was about some high-minded principle instead of filthy lucre.
103. Buffalo Tom – “Torch Singer.” First heard this over some montage of snowboarding footage, a weird juxtaposition for a simple acoustic song that could easily have just been a guy and his guitar.
102. Muse – “Sunburn.” Apple was way ahead of the U.S. on Muse, using “Sunburn” in a commercial in 2000 or 2001. I think I’d take this, “Muscle Museum,” or “Cave” over almost anything they’ve put out since Showbiz, their 1999 debut album.
101. Crystal Method – “Busy Child.” I guess I didn’t know. I liked this song before the Gap khakis commercial.
100. Stone Roses – “I Am The Resurrection.” Not exactly the fifth gospel. Seven brilliant minutes punctuated by one of the most memorable bass licks I have ever heard.
99. Pearl Jam – “Alive.” I imagine this will be a little controversial. I loved Pearl Jam’s first album before it was played to death, revived, and then played to death again for good measure. I liked the second album. I was disappointed in the third album, and I was done. I haven’t heard anything by these guys since to change my mind, and if we’re talking full albums I’d sooner listen to Temple of the Dog or Mother Love Bone, although “Alive” was a stronger single than just about anything from those two preceding acts.
98. Jesus Jones - “Right Here Right Now.” Liked it when it came out, but it has grown on me over the last twenty years, in part for its in-the-moment take on one of the biggest world events of my lifetime. “International Bright Young Thing” gets an honorable mention.
97. Chemical Brothers – “Block Rockin’ Beats.” Grabs you right from the initial call to action and (fake) bass line. The beat does, actually, rock the block.
96. Clockhammer – “Greying Out.” The most obscure song in this list, I’ll bet – it’s really just about one guitar riff, which opens the song and appears in the chorus. They weren’t edgy enough to be alternative, not grungy enough to be grungy, and not heavy enough to be metal, so they didn’t have much hope for airplay.
95. Barenaked Ladies – “The Old Apartment.” I’m not a rabid BNL fan, but liked this song and its clever lyrical twist. Plus it came out right as my wife and I moved out of our first apartment together, one we really loved but couldn’t justify paying for given how small it was.
94. Garbage – “Supervixen.” I originally thought I’d have several Garbage songs on this list – “Vow,” “Queer,” and “Only Happy When It Rains” – but when I started ranking songs this was the only one to survive the various cuts, partly because it was never overplayed (I don’t need to hear “Stupid Girl” for another nine years, at least) and partly because it was their best song when I saw them live on their first tour.
93. Depeche Mode – “It’s No Good.” DM peaked with Violator and began a steady and recently painful decline into caricature. I don’t think there was a better synth-pop band in the ’80s, since they took their new wave sound and extended it into rock and industrial territory, but once they got away from their roots, almost everything they did felt like a nerdy kid trying too hard to be tough. Be the nerd, boys.
92. Chumbawamba – “Tubthumping.” The members of this band/anarchist collective have said for years that the song is meant as a celebrating of the working (and drinking) man, but I have always suspected there was an element of irony or maybe outright parody in it, since it doesn’t exactly paint the greatest picture of Joe Working Class.
91. Charlatans – “Sproston Green.” The closer from their debut album and the closer in every concert they’ve given since. I have no idea what this song is about, but I have always found the music intoxicating, one of the best tracks of the short-lived “Madchester” movement. The Charlatans, for what little it’s worth, were one of my first-ever successful prospect calls, as I wrote a short review for a school paper forecasting a great career from them, one I think they made good on for about a decade.
90. Suede – “Metal Mickey.” I know I’ve probably beaten the joke into the ground, but this should be Brett Anderson’s intro music. It’s aggressive, raw, and unpolished, so it didn’t go far in the U.S., but there’s something invigorating about a grinding rock song that hasn’t been produced into bland, radio-friendly submission.
89. Blur – “Song 2.” It’s a little bit of a shame that this is the song for which Blur will forever be known, since it’s hardly representative of their music – but it’s brilliant and the perfect length for a song of its ilk.
88. Oasis – “Some Might Say.” Not so much Britpop as Brit-arena-rock. I love that Oasis was so unapologetic about making big, loud guitar-driven songs made to be played outdoors in front of 20,000 raucous fans.
87. Nirvana – “Lounge Act.” The best album of the ’90s, for my money, although it’s hard to pick a second standout track after the obvious one. “Lounge Act” always grabbed me because the meter has you slightly unbalanced for the entire song, and the more obvious choices, like “Lithium” and “Come As You Are,” have been played to death since the album’s release.
85. Black Grape – “Yeah Yeah Brother.” I was never huge on the Happy Mondays – not even the “Come Together” ripoff “Step On” – but this insidious dance track sounded to me like the collision of pop and anti-pop in the sky over an all-night rave.
84. Space – “Neighbourhood.” Mister Rogers’, it ain’t.
83. Jars of Clay – “Flood.” Unbeatable harmonies and a lot of energy for what is fundamentally a Christian folk song.
82. James – “Just Like Fred Astaire.” I’m not wild about most love songs – the very term calls to mind cliches and boring music – but this track avoided both issues, and as a Fred Astaire fan I appreciate the simile at the heart of the song.
81. Spacehog – “In The Meantime.” It’s that one guitar lick during the chorus, isn’t it? I mean, without that, this song doesn’t get a quarter of the airplay it did.
80. Longpigs – “Blue Skies.” If and when I have a regular podcast or even radio show, this will be my intro music. The first thirty seconds or so feel like a delta-blues stomp, and during their brief career Longpigs were usually good for a clever line or two (“If there were no gods at all/I know I’d probably fear them still”).
79. Tasmin Archer – “Sleeping Satellite.” Talk about one-hit wonders. I’ve never heard another song quite like this one, although I did think at the time that Des’ree stole her thunder with that “Gotta Be” garbage – it was like “Sleeping Satellite” dumbed down for the masses.
78. Eels – “Novocaine For The Soul.” Jesus and his lawyer/are coming back.
77. Travis – “Why Does It Always Rain On Me?” I thought this song was stupid when I first heard it, until I thought about the lyrics – Travis was never much for intelligent lyrics, but the core lament about the nature of luck in life is a profound one, although I’d probably lay even money that they didn’t intend it as such.
76. An Emotional Fish – “Celebrate.” A forgotten modern-rock classic that probably came about four or five years too soon. It got a lot of airplay in Boston because the band was Irish. Well, that and the fact that the song is catchy.
75. Beck – “Loser.” I actually like Beck, but it’s more that I generally like his music than a fondness for a particular song or two. He’s ridiculously clever and inventive; I’m not sure there are five better lyricists working in the realm of popular music right now, and this song had some outstanding wordplay. Jason Mraz is just a pretender to this throne.
74. Radiohead – “High And Dry.” The Bends gets better every time I listen to it. A song that would be the high point in many rock bands’ careers is maybe the third- or fourth-best track on Radiohead’s second-best album.
73. James – “Laid.” Somehow this song avoided me until after its run on the charts was over. Fun one to play on the guitar with a bunch of friends to sing along, generally when we’d all had a little too much to drink.
72. Oasis – “Wonderwall.” Much as Blur shouldn’t be remembered just for “Song 2,” Oasis shouldn’t just be remembered for this half love-song/half-lament/full homage to George Harrison. But it is a great song.
71. Alice in Chains – “Would?” I think posterity will be – or is already – unkind to Alice in Chains, consigining them somewhat to the grunge dustbin, and their new incarnation as a generic aggro-metal band won’t help matters. They were boundary-pushers in their brief heyday, and they were grunge more for reasons of geography than legitimate musical similarities.
70. Animals that Swim – “Faded Glamour.” I’ve never heard a better song about the decay of an old city. Underrated band even within the U.K., and almost completely unknown here, since their sound was so British and almost cheerfully dated.
69. Soundgarden – “Spoonman.” A guilty pleasure. Just move on.
68. Cracker – “Teen Angst (What The World Needs Now).” Very few rock songs make me laugh the first time I hear them; this is one of a handful that made me laugh the second time. “Another folk singer” is a great code phrase to use with people who know the song.
67. K’s Choice – “Not An Addict.” Memorable enough that fifteen years later, my wife and I can hum the intro to each other (like when I see her playing Farmville) and get the entire message across. This song always reminded me of an obscure track from about two years prior by Fledgling called “Solomon’s Crown.”
66. Trash Can Sinatras – “Hayfever.” I discovered this song and band because of Beavis and Butthead. I still have a hard time with that.
65. Drugstore – “El President.” The story goes that the lead singer of Drugstore didn’t want the job because she didn’t like her voice. I can’t imagine a larynx better suited to singing rock songs than hers. Guest vocal by Thom Yorke – he got around a bit, including a star turn on P.J. Harvey’s “This Mess We’re In” – puts it over the top, although I imagine the Secret Service wasn’t a fan.
64. Matthew Sweet – “Girlfriend.” One of the best power-pop songs of all time. Two good guitar solos, too.
63. Eels – “Last Stop: This Town.” When Eels were good, they combined strong melodies with unusual arrangements, so you’d always get something unexpected like the two-octave drop for one line in the chorus. Excellent video.
62. For Squirrels – “8:02 PM.” They had one minor hit with “Mighty K.C.,” a half-baked tribute to Kurt Cobain that came after their own lead singer and manager were killed when their bus crashed during a tour. Their debut album had a lot of promise, led by this nervous, fast-paced rock track.
61. Ian Brown – “Set My Baby Free.” Who knew that Brown was such an essential part of the Stone Roses’ genius? It would make the list just for the main lyric in the chorus, “Hey, you ugly people/I want you to set my baby free.”
60. 10,000 Maniacs – “These Are Days.” I’m not a fan of any of their work except for their final album, when they turned in a poppier direction.
59. Soul Asylum – “Black Gold.” Sort of the transition song from classic, frenetic Soul Asylum to folky crap like “Runaway Train” that sent their indie-rock cred boat on to the rocks. It seems like tons of bands have songs like this, one great song that veers from their standard sound and leads them in a more commercial direction, after which they’re unlistenable. Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” is the canonical example for me, but “Black Gold” is probably a better example for my taste in music – a song I loved that marks the end of my fandom of a great band.
58. Depeche Mode – “Enjoy The Silence.” It’s easy to take this song at face value as another synth-pop song along the lines of “Just Can’t Get Enough,” but there’s a gothic/industrial undercurrent to this song, which sounds like a lost B-side from 1983 recorded by Evil Depeche Mode.
57. Soul Coughing – “Circles.” Doughty refers to this as “the hit” when he plays it in solo concerts, and it was probably the closest thing to a pop song they ever recorded – and the highest-charting- but it’s certainly not my favorite SC song and you could argue it’s not even the best song on El Oso.
56. Blur – “There’s No Other Way.” I love Albarn’s laconic singing style and the slightly off-kilter drumbeat, and the fact that it’s underproduced – the whole thing sounds like it was recorded in a swimming pool – just adds to its psychedelic feel. Or something.
55. Better than Ezra – “Good.” They peaked with their first song, but at least it was a memorable one, among a handful on this list that put me back to a specific time and place. Great chorus with a brief but somewhat potent story in the lyrics.
54. Smashing Pumpkins – “Cherub Rock.” They had a great run for four albums, but nothing quite matched this song’s combination of intensity and sludge for me, like grunge but distinct enough that they couldn’t be lumped into the Seattle scene. The words never made a lick of sense to me, though.
53. Marcy Playground – “Sex And Candy.” So I had this song on a compilation CD a year before it became an alternative-radio hit, and only discovered it after hearing the song on whatever that crappy faux-alternative station was when we lived in Pittsburgh. (I remember that they only played the version of Sugar Ray’s “Fly” that didn’t have Super Cat’s added vocals, and it annoyed my face off.) “Sex and Candy” has to be one of the greatest one-hit wonder hits ever, and the whole thing sounds like it took 20 minutes to write and an hour to record, tops. But it’s a less-is-more classic, like they put all their good ideas into one song and could have called it a day afterwards.
52. Oasis – “Supersonic.” Sneering and unapologetic, masculine rock. I love the fact that sixteen years on they’re still making the same music. I hate the fact that they seem to have run out of hooks. This track was a smack upside the head at a time when grunge had played itself out and we needed a fresh wave of guitar-based rock.
51. Charlatans – “Tellin’ Stories.” The decision to omit this from their first greatest hits package defied any and all explanation. The long cold open builds up this tremendous tension that never quite dissipates before the song ends.
50. Alice in Chains – “No Excuses.” It’s funny that Alice in Chains did so much great acoustic work – this, “I Stay Away,” the Sap EP – yet their Unplugged show was joyless and perfunctory. The three-part harmonies here are a revelation from a band known for sludgy, bummed-out rock.
49. Handsome Boy Modeling School – “Rock N’ Roll (Could Never Hip Hop Like This).” Prince Paul and Dan the Automator? Sign me up. This track, built around a sample from a young LL Cool J (or someone who sounds a hell of a lot like him), is now my ringtone.
48. Squirrel Nut Zippers – “Put A Lid On It.” Save it for another night. The swing craze didn’t last – and frankly Swingers wasn’t good enough to survive a second viewing – but this is one of a small number of songs from that brief revival that still sounds great today, instead of like a money-grab anachronism.
47. Jesus & Mary Chain with Hope Sandoval – “Sometimes Always.” Not the typical J&MC track, and I’m not sure it really had to be Hope Sandoval, but the combination works as a fake ballad with an ironic lyrical twist.
46. Drugstore – “Spacegirl.” Isabel Monteiro, the Brazilian lead singer of this British band, has an unmistakeable smoky voice, almost a baritone, that could turn the phone book into riveting lyrics.
45. The Primitives – “Crash – the ’95 Mix.” I’m cheating here, since the original “Crash” was released in 1988, but 1) I didn’t hear the song until the remix/re-release and 2) the remix/re-release was better. Plus, it’s my list, and I can do what I want. “Sick of It” was probably their other main college-radio hit, but for me “Secrets” is just a shade behind “Crash” for best Primitives song.
44. Morrissey – “The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get.” Beware/I bear more grudges/Than lonely high-court judges. Sung with a smirk, as most Morrissey songs should be.
43. Sugar – “If I Can’t Change Your Mind.” A near-perfect acoustic power-pop song. Bob Mould’s ear for melody poked through from time to time with Hüsker Dü, but it shone once he shifted to more radio-friendly fare, both in his solo work (“See a Little Light”) and with Sugar (“Your Favorite Thing,” “Helpless,” and this track).
42. U2 – “Until The End Of The World.” This song has a dark, desolate quality I had never heard before in a U2 rocker, which turned out to be true of much of the Achtung Baby disc, almost as if they took the success of “With or Without You” as a clue that they should add that layer of complexity to all of their songs.
41. Sneaker Pimps – “Six Underground.” Trip-hop never did much for me, but the more traditional song structure and the sultry vocals made this more of a trip-pop song. Without Kelli Ali, the Pimps haven’t done much, although I did like their 2002 single “Sick.”
40. Mother Love Bone – “Crown Of Thorns.” I wore out their only full-length CD, Apple, for at least a full year after it came out, but in the last ten years have barely gone back to it. (MLB’s lead singer, Andrew Wood, died of a heroin overdose before the album came out; he was the subject of the Temple of the Dog song “Say Hello 2 Heaven,” and Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament of MLB went on to found Pearl Jam.) The great loss with Wood was his poetic lyrics, as he used more concrete imagery in the average song than you’ll find on a typical top 10 album.
38. Stone Temple Pilots – “Trippin’ On A Hole In A Paper Heart.” As good as the song is, it also seemed a little rock-by-numbers even at the time. It’s built on a great riff – a tremendous riff – but there’s not much to back it up.
37. The Verve – “Lucky Man.” You know, the great Verve song they actually wrote all by themselves.
36. Ash – “Girl From Mars.” Catchy punk-pop with clever lyrics, and they were just 19 when the album came out. These guys put Green Day in their back pockets.
35. U2 – “Mysterious Ways.” This video always cracked me up, as it consists largely of Bono preening for the camera.
34. Dandy Warhols – “Not If You Were The Last Junkie On Earth.” My introduction to the Dandys’ brand of snarky indie rock, well before they got all polished and produced. How could you not like a song with “Heroin is so passé” as its refrain?
33. Prince – “Sexy M.F..” Prince’s 1990s output paled compared to what he produced in the 1980s, but this funk masterpiece harkened back to his earliest work but with more polish and unplayable lyrics.
32. Soul Asylum – “Somebody To Shove.” A last gasp for their original post-punk/garage sound before they morphed into a radio-friendly country-rock act.
31. Ozomatli – “Cut Chemist Suite.” Guest vocals by Chali 2Na from Jurassic 5 and guest scratching by Cut Chemist elevate this over Ozomatli’s typical jazz/funk/Latin hybrids.
30. Manic Street Preachers – “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next.” I can’t say I ever agreed much with their politics, and often their rhetoric outshone their fairly straight-ahead Brit-rock, but this atmospheric lament retains some of the energy on their less focused polemics. If you’re not familiar with MSP, their non-musical claim to fame is that their main lyricist, Richey James Edwards, disappeared in 1995 and was eventually presumed dead after a long battle with depression and anorexia; he’s is probably most remembered in Britain for carving the letters “4 REAL” into his arm during a live televised interview.
29. Faith No More – “Midlife Crisis.” These guys were doomed after “Epic,” a one-off joke song from the otherwise strong hard-rock album The Real Thing, became a crossover hit, even though the disc featured some far better songs like “From Out of Nowhere,” “Falling to Pieces,” or the title track. The follow-up disc, Angel Dust, was uneven, but included two standout tracks that should have had commercial appeal, but the market wanted another “Epic” and FNM, to their credit, didn’t give them one.
28. Moloko – “Fun For Me.” I’ll quote myself: I first heard this on WFNX in 1997 when it was playing as my alarm went off one morning, and despite not hearing it again for years, I remembered enough of the lyrics to track it down during what one might call the Napster era. It sticks in your head like treacle – and I know it’s not just my head, because everyone for whom I’ve played this song hasn’t just loved it, but become a little obsessed with it, regardless of what type(s) of music they typically liked.
26. These Animal Men – “Sharp Kid.” These Animal Men melded new wave and post-punk with makeup and glam-rock tales of drugs and debauchery, and were promptly swept aside by the more muscular rock of Oasis. Good luck getting the shouted “ba-ba-da” line out of your head; it’s been in mine for a decade.
25. Soundgarden – “Fell On Black Days.” They deviated from their hard-rock roots on the Superunknown album, but as good as “Big Dumb Sex” was, I can at least understand their desire to evolve musically, and for two albums the results were pretty solid. The one disappointment on this and the follow-up album was Chris Cornell’s lyrics, which took a step back even as their sound continued to advance; this was the one song on Superunknown where I saw glimpses of the writing Cornell showed on Badmotorfinger.
24. Oasis – “D’You Know What I Mean?.” Aside from the song’s length, I don’t see a reason why this wasn’t a bigger hit here. If the market was looking at Oasis for another “Wonderwall” or “Champagne Supernova,” they completely misread what the band was all about and obviously hadn’t listened to much of the album from which those songs came. “D’You Know…” is a huge, bombastic, balls-out, driving rocker, seven minutes of testosterone wrapped in guitars.
23. Prince – “Pope.” You can be the President/I’d rather be the Pope. Seems more true now than when he wrote the lyrics, doesn’t it?
22. Depeche Mode – “Policy Of Truth.” Not my favorite Mode song – that would be “Never Let Me Down Again” – but it’s second. There’s a creepy, gothic quality to this that marked much of their best post-Vince-Clarke material.
21. Charlatans – “The Only One I Know.” The opener to a solid album and a great career, this Madchester anthem is a throwback to the psychedelic rock of the late 1960s, complete with Hammond organ.
20. School of Fish – “3 Strange Days.” One of the great unrealized careers of 1990s rock was that of School of Fish and their lead singer, Josh Clayton-Felt, who died of testicular cancer at age 33 less than nine years after this song became an alternative-radio hit. School of Fish’s second CD, Human Cannonball, was a better overall disc than the first, but didn’t have a breakout hit like this track (although “Take Me Anywhere” and “Kerosene” were favorites of mine), and the band broke up shortly thereafter. Clayton-Felt may have had some great music left in him, but he was dead within six weeks of the diagnosis. So listen to this song, and make sure you check your boys often.
19. Ned’s Atomic Dustbin – “Grey Cell Green.” I remain convinced that using the word “dustbin” in their names helped sink Ned’s chances of commercial success in the U.S., in part because I find it hard to believe this song didn’t cross over for at least a little airplay on mainstream rock stations. This song and “Kill Your Televison” presaged a lot of the harder side of Britpop and its descendents, including Oasis, Radiohead, and Muse.
18. U2 – “One.” Although I never really needed to see these guys in drag.
17. Stone Temple Pilots – “Big Bang Baby.” It was almost like someone dared STP to write a pop song, and Weiland covered it with the same lament about fame and success that filled much of the Tiny Music disc. This was sort of the end of their most fertile period of songwriting – they had a few strong singles afterwards, but the writing became as uneven as Weiland himself was.
16. Radiohead – “Just.” The song that made me a Radiohead fan, and a sound I think Muse has been emulating for a decade now. One of the funniest comments I saw on the old Baseball Primer was from Dan Szymborski, who said that the whispered secret in the video for “Just” was (I’m paraphrasing) “pitchers have little to no control over the results of balls in play.”
15. Mansun – “Wide Open Space.” The only Mansun song to receive any airplay in the U.S., although their debut album, Attack Of The Grey Lantern, is strong, with a half-dozen other songs worth your time; I always thought President Bush should have used the opener, “The Chad Who Loved Me,” at his 2001 inauguration.
14. Dinosaur Jr. – “Start Choppin’.” If there’s a better adjective for the guitar in this song than “crunchy,” I’d like to hear it. This song actually hit the top 20 on the U.K. Pop singles chart, which is another sign that the Brits are more highly musically evolved than we are.
13. Faith No More – “A Small Victory.” About as melodic as FNM ever got, almost poppy, but lead singer Mike Patton managed to slip a little growl or two in there.
12. Portishead – “Sour Times.” Also known as “Theme to a Nonexistent Spy Film.”
11. Butthole Surfers – “Who Was In My Room Last Night?” If you know the Surfers at all, it’s probably because of alternative-radio hit “Pepper,” or perhaps from Gibby Haynes’ guest spot on Ministry’s “Jesus Built My Hotrod,” but this is by far their best track, the best song ever written about a bad dream, with a guitar riff that could have come from Tony Iommi’s best work with Black Sabbath.
10. Radiohead – “Fake Plastic Trees.” Another song that grew on me the more I heard it. Thom Yorke’s vocals – plaintive, even whining – and the added layers of sound behind the final verse elevate it beyond your standard acoustic-number-by-rock-band tune.
9. Prince – “Gett Off.” Prince was much, much funkier when he sang about sex rather than about how funky he was.
8. Stone Temple Pilots – “Plush.” Memorable for two reasons beyond its status as a great grunge song: its meaningless (or so I believe) lyrics, and that one chord that every guitar player couldn’t quite figure out. It’s also the rare song that worked just as well in an acoustic version as it did in its original plugged-in version.
7. Screaming Trees – “Nearly Lost You.” The grunge revolution on pop radio skipped the Trees despite this radio-friendly gem, which also appeared on the Singles soundtrack, a must-own at the time for any college student into alternative or grunge. I saw the Trees twice in concert, and despite the fact that neither guitarist was much to write home about technically, they gave a great show, with drummer Barrett Martin playing with what seemed like six arms.
6. Stone Roses – “Love Spreads.” My ring tone for years was the intro to this song, a blues-rock song with heavy use of the slide that owed a debt to Jimmy Page and yet was unmistakeably Roses. Odd fact: The Stone Roses’ original record label, Silvertone, was owned by Zomba Records, best known as the home of boy bands N*Sync and the Backstreet Boys a few years after the Roses bolted for Geffen.
5. Soul Coughing – “Super Bon Bon.” Move aside/And let the man go through. Homicide: Life on the Street used a long chunk of this song in the intro sequence to one of its best episodes, over a scene where the detectives raided a chop shop, something that remains, for me, among the best uses ever of a current song in a television program.
4. Pigeonhed featuring the Lo-Fidelity All-Stars – “Battleflag.” Quoting myself again: I first heard this during my summer in Seattle in 1998 while pulling into the parking lot of the Safeway on Queen Anne Ave., and I sat in the car until the damn thing was over because I was riveted to the seat. Rock meets electronica meets funk with a vocalist doing his best homage to Prince.
3. Beth Orton – “Stolen Car.” Nothing against Dido, but the reason she was successful in the U.S. while her contemporary Orton was not was her looks. Orton wrote better lyrics and better music, capped off by this sinuous, haunting slow-rocker whose words aim at shifting targets.
2. Radiohead – “Paranoid Android.” I once saw a reference to this song as the strangest single to ever hit the British Top 10. I can’t think of a mainstream rock song this musically complex other than the faux-operetta “Bohemian Rhapsody,” forever ruined as serious music by Wayne’s World. Let’s hope no similar fate awaits Radiohead’s masterpiece.
1. Nirvana – “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The song and album that redefined rock music, destroying one entire movement (hair metal), ushering in a new one (grunge), inspiring countless singers and lyricists, and keeping alive the punk/post-punk ethic for at least a few more years.