The 500 Greatest Songs of the 1990s – 10 to 2
10. “Remedy,” Black Crowes. Songwriters: Chris Robinson, Rich Robinson; #48 pop; 1992. The Black Crowes were the most traditional mainstream rock band of the grunge era and they threw an old school gospel infused, Southern blues rock party on the baby-baby-why’d-you-dye-your-hair “Remedy.” From the website The Daily Guru, “From the moment the song begins, and the guitar and drums ‘drop’ onto the listener, the band creates an amazingly captivating hard rock groove. The rhythm section of bassist Johnny Colt and drummer Steve Gorman are equally impressive, yet it is perhaps the piano playing of Eddie Harsch that stands out alongside the guitars. During the bridge sections, Harsch adds amazing fills, and it is his sound that gives the song an ‘authentic’ Southern feel, making it even less like anything else in music. ‘Remedy’ is one of the finest examples in history of a band moving as a single unit.” Chris Robinson on his toking inspiration, “’Remedy’ is a song that essentially is about freedom. We were into the whole idea that the ‘war on drugs’ was just silly – it was this asinine concept to me and millions of other people. That song to me is about freedom, plain and simple, just put in a rock ‘n’ roll framework.”
9. “Trying to Tell You I Don’t Know,” Freedy Johnston. Songwriter: Freedy Johnston; Did Not Chart; 1992. Sometimes in life you have to place a bet on yourself. Freedy Johnston sold part of his Kansas family farm inheritance to fund his 1992 “Can You Fly” album, so it’s no wonder he sings with such intensity on “Trying to Tell You I Don’t Know.” Why did he sell the house where he learned to walk? First, the practical reasons: to feed the band; for a song; to use the van; to find your city; to get his guitars back from the pawn shop. Also, there were artistic aims: trying to wake up in your head, trying to cry with the red light on, trying to tell you that he’s just as confused and as impassioned about his distress as you are. Jim Connelly, “Technically, this is singer-songwriter stuff, but as Keven Salem’s guitar solo kicks in, it feels like the band has been playing together for centuries, and in the end, drummer Brian Doherty kicks the song into double-time and with organist Knut Bohn continually helping out with ‘trying trying,’ Freedy sings the title over and over and over until he can get across just how much the decision to sell the farm took out of him.”
8. “I’m the Ocean,” Neil Young. Songwriter: Neil Young; Did Not Chart; 1995. Neil Young recorded his 1995 “Mirror Ball” album with Pearl Jam and delivered a fascinating seven minute stream of consciousness solipsism conceit on “I’m the Ocean,” that concludes with, “I’m not present, I’m a drug that makes you dream/I’m an aerostar, I’m a cutlass supreme/In the wrong lane, trying to turn against the flow/I’m the ocean, I’m the giant undertow.” Young, in a rambling discussion with Dave Marsh about the song’s creation, “Maybe its kind of like, you know, a bunch of flashes of things going on all at the same time, or something. So you, so you get kind of the feeling your life is kind of flashing before you, so that makes you kind of think that you’re floating up on the ceiling somewhere, watching. But I, I think it’s uh, I wasn’t thinking about that. I just uh, I just really kind of got caught up in this, in this thing where everything just kept happening, and, and all I could do was just write it down, but it wasn’t going backwards, it was going forwards.” As good as explanation as any.
7. “Standing in the Doorway,” Bob Dylan. Songwriter: Bob Dylan; 1997; Did Not Chart. “Standing in the Doorway” is a slow, solemn look at a relationship that his died and left the narrator astray, looking for the mercy of God. Sample lyric, “Don’t know if I saw you if I would kiss you or kill you/It probably wouldn’t matter to you anyhow.” Producer Daniel Lanois found that the studio parking lot, away from the band, was often the best place to have discussions with Dylan. Lanois, “I said ‘listen, I love ‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.’ Can we steal that feel for (‘Standing in the Doorway)’? And he’d say ‘you think that’d work?’ Then we’d sit on the fender of a truck, in this parking lot in Miami, and I’d often think, if people see this they won’t believe it!” Author Tony Atwood, “’Standing in the doorway’ is an extraordinary piece of music, brilliantly played. What Dylan song has given us such lyricism, such gentleness, and all played against such a dreadful storyline? Nowhere has lost love been portrayed so exquisitely. An utter masterpiece.”
6. “Kiss Off (Live),” Violent Femmes. Songwriter: Gordon Gano; Did Not Chart; 1993. Eight years after the release of their debut album, the Violent Femmes recorded a live version of “Kiss Off” in a Norfolk, Virginia club that was later wrecked by a hurricane. The crowd sang along with every word of their impudent anthem and the band worked itself into a frenzy, having spent years sinking their fangs into the song’s sense of teenage desperation. This version sounds more like a communal event than a rock song. Steve Huey of AllMusic, “’Kiss Off’ was by turns funny, playful, vulnerable, heartbreaking, combative, furious, self-conscious, despairing, hopeful, and hopeless.” Every one of those emotions is immeasurably amplified by a crowd who loved flipping off authority figures over the content of their permanent record.
5. “Praise You,” Fatboy Slim. Songwriters: Norman Cook, Camille Yarbrough; #36 pop; 1999. “Praise You” demonstrates the eclectic genius of Norman Cook, mixing lyrics from “Take Yo’ Praise,” an obscure 1975 R&B song by Chicago singer Camille Yarbrough, with a piano sample from the 1973 JBL “Sessions” album, an audio guide to how records are made. Added to that mix was a funk guitar lick from a 1979 disco version of Walt Disney’s “It’s a Small World After All,” background vocals from the theme to the “Fat Albert” television show, an organ riff from Steve Miller’s 1968 album track “Lucky Man,” and a beat picked from Tom Fogerty’s post CCR outfit named Ruby. All these elements are built into an irresistible dance number, a song that feels like a retro yet fresh celebration not just of club culture, but of life itself. Fatboy Slim on his technique, “On the whole I would only sample records that weren’t hits in the first place because for me it would be like shooting fish in a barrel just to use a well-known chorus and then do something else with it. I love the juxtaposition. I love the idea of musical collage where you’ve taken so many tiny little bits that the vocal is the only thing you have to clear and everything else is fragmented so it’s unrecognizable. If you look at famous collages, they didn’t have to clear every single scrap or chunk they used to make up the color. For me, there was a tremendous amount of excitement about what you could get away with and how much you could pervert things. And to see how you could just recycle records that sold 15 copies when they came out, but find that one little bit of magic in them and turn it into a hit.” Slim on the lyrics by Camille Yarbrough, “Her vocal just had a beautiful quality to it. The sentiment fits so many different occasions. The beauty of the lyrics is that they work at football matches, they work at gigs where we’ve all had a great night, or it’s been raining all day at a festival but we’re here. Just the phrase ‘we’ve come a long long way together through the hard times and the good’… It’s kind of a universal, communal thing. It’s affirmative and uplifting and those things do tend to stand the test of time.”
4. “Losing My Religion,” R.E.M. Songwriters: Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, Michael Stipe; #4 pop; 1991. “Losing My Religion” is about unrequited love and about the type of unhealthy romantic obsession where a spurned party constantly questions the motives of the person he desires. Peter Buck, “I started it on mandolin and came up with the riff and chorus. The music was written in five minutes. The first time the band played it, it fell into place perfectly. Michael had the lyrics within the hour, and while playing the song for the third or fourth time, I found myself incredibly moved to hear the vocals in conjunction with the music. To me, ‘Losing My Religion’ feels like some kind archetype that was floating around in space that we managed to lasso. If only all songwriting was this easy.” Evan Schlansky of American Songwriter, “Stipe, who comes from a long line of Methodist ministers and is an admirer of Buddhism, was merely giving a little known southern saying (‘losing my religion’) a poetic facelift, by building a wall of evocative words around it. The gravity he conjures with his hurt, reedy keen is immense. ‘I thought that I heard you laughing, I thought that I heard you sing.’ When he gets to the line ‘oh no, I’ve said too much,’ it sounds devastating.” Peter Holsapple of the dB’s provided balanced to the high pitch of Buck’s mandolin playing by contributing acoustic guitar work. Buck, “It was really cool: Peter and I would be in our little booth, sweating away, and Bill and Mike would be out there in the other room going at it. It just had a really magical feel.”
3. “Gold Soundz,” Pavement. Songwriter: Stephen Malkmus; Did Not Chart; 1994. “Gold Soundz” is such a beautifully constructed guitar song, and Stephen Malkmus sings with such conviction, that the lyrics, which are all about images that can’t be tied to a specific narrative, become somewhat irrelevant. Rolling Stone, “All the boyish heart-on-sleeve urgency of ‘Pet Sounds’ packed into three minutes. Stephen Malkmus and his slack-ass crew don’t waste a second of this song – every guitar twang, every breathy mumble fits into a note-perfect emotional surge. Almost like they care or something.” Pitchfork, in naming “Gold Soundz” the best song of the decade, “It sounded like a memory in the best possible way. The first two words are ‘go back,’ and that’s exactly what it does: It was easy, light, and tinged with nostalgia, with a radiant guitar tone and drums that float along, joyously uncommitted. Some of the lyrics match the music’s wistfulness (‘so drunk in the August sun’ is the one many remember, because it sounds like the first line of good yarn), but Stephen Malkmus always did like a good puzzle, so there are cryptic lines that hint at uncertainty, confusion, and doubt, too. But this song feels especially hard to pull apart; everything seems to fuse together.”
2. “Sabotage,” Beastie Boys. Songwriters: Michael Diamond, Adam Horovitz, Adam Yauch; Did Not Chart; 1994. The Beastie Boys originally penned “Sabotage” as an instrumental track, but added the lyrics of persecution after having studio battles with engineer Mario Caldato Jr. Adam Horovitz, “We were totally indecisive about what, when, why and how to complete songs. Mario was getting frustrated. That’s a really calm way of saying that he would blow a fuse and get pissed off at us and scream that we just needed to finish something, anything. I decided it would be funny to write a song about how Mario was holding us all down, how he was trying to mess it all up, sabotaging our great works of art.” Musically, the band returned to their hardcore roots, merging their natural aggressiveness with studio tricks learned in the world of hip hop. Flying off the handle like Buddy Rich, “Sabotage” is a pure adrenaline joy ride – the scream coming off the instrumental break feels like speed blast, roller coaster drop. And how weird is it that rapper Adam Yauch executed one of the most memorable bass performances of all time?