The 500 Greatest Songs of the 1990s – 120 to 111
120. “Joey,” Concrete Blonde. Songwriter: Johnette Napolitano; #19 pop; 1990. Concrete Blonde formed in Los Angeles in 1982 and were a one hit wonder act from a mainstream pop perspective. Singer Johnette Napolitano displayed a startling whisper to a scream vocal range on “Joey,” a song about loving an alcoholic that begins with the famous drum roll from The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby.” From the Don’t Forget The Songs website, “There’s something about the honest desperation from Johnette’s aching vocal. Her lyrics reflect a yearning to help the helpless, making ‘Joey,’ a literal rallying cry anthem for the soul that’s just about to give in—Johnette is there loudly and urgently moving you with her heartfelt vocal. And that’s what we connect to, Johnette’s urgent sincerity.” Napolitano on her singing, “What it’s really about is just surrendering to the entire emotion of it. That is what you hear: the emotion that’s behind it, not the singing, but the emotion. You can play a solo with one note, and that one note better have your life and death in it. And I want to be coming from that place.”
119. “Cryin’,” Aerosmith. Songwriters: Steven Tyler, Joe Perry, Taylor Rhodes; #12 pop; 1993. Aerosmith’s second ride on the fame carousel, which started when Rick Rubin hired them to work with Run-DMC in 1986, lasted longer than their first. Their best song of the 1990s was the bombastic power ballad “Cryin’,” where Steven Tyler is dumped by a woman who has the devil in her kiss and Tyler grinds away in his classic rock mode. Sarah Grant of Consequence of Sound, “If the ‘Mama Kin’ riff was the prelude to the band’s first act, then the guitar/brass strut of ‘Cryin’’was the prelude to their second. The gut is Perry’s blues serenading the brusque saxophones and driving Tyler into a twitchy, harmonica-biting craze.” Steven Tyler on the inspiration, “Listen to the lyrics. It was country – we just Aerosmith’d it.”
118. “Canary,” Liz Phair. Songwriter: Liz Phair; Did Not Chart; 1993. Liz Phair’s 1993 debut album, “Exile in Guyville,” was the critical sensation of that year, placing in the top slot of the Village Voice’s Pazz and Jop, as well as Spin magazine’s critic’s poll. Phair used a flat, deadpan delivery with lyrics about deeply personal sexual and emotional issues on songs like “Fuck and Run” and “Divorce Song.” “Canary” sounds claustrophobic, almost like someone trapped in an abusive relationship whose only coping mechanism is to revert to childhood instructions of good behavior (“I write with a number two pencil/I work up to my potential/I earn my name”). Phair, “It’s about the loss of innocence and facing the pressures of being a young woman in the world and what men want from you while you’re still kind of on the cusp of your childhood. There’s a period of time where you pretend to still be a little girl, but you’re confronting all this bullshit in the world that is suddenly your new role. A lot of the songs on ‘Exile in Guyville’ have a tough front, and ‘Canary’ is much more like my real internal (monologue), the way it plays out in my mind quietly and silently.”
117. “On the Way Out,” Freedy Johnston. Songwriter: Freedy Johnston; Did Not Chart; 1997. Freedy Johnston had built his reputation as a songwriter by 1997 on music about his personal challenges (“Trying to Tell You I Don’t Know”), lost loves (“Bad Reputation”), and character studies about gamblers (“The Lucky One”) and domestic abuse (“Evie’s Tears”). “On the Way Out,” the lead track from his 1997 “Never Home” album, was quite a departure – a tough rocking track about a cat and mouse game between a shoplifter and a store clerk (“On the way out I’m smilin’/Look nice, you might be photographed/On the way out you’re thinkin’/Looks like he never put it back”). Scott Rosenberg, “Longtime Tom Petty drummer Stan Lynch and bassist Graham Maby kick into a nervous, tight groove and never let it go.” Also, the guitar work of producer Danny Kortchmar hums with sparkling intensity.
116. “Not Superstitious,” Leatherface. Songwriter: Frankie Stubbs; Did Not Chart; 1991. Not a pro wrestler, rapper, or horror film character, Leatherface was a U.K. punk act that four albums from 1989 to 1993. “Not Superstitious” is in that Husker Du zone, a melodic punk tune filled with rage at a dishonorable, personal relationship based target. James McMahan of The Guardian on Leatherface’s appeal, “Frankie Stubbs is central to the band’s brilliance. He became the singer because he was the only member of the then fledgling band to bother to write any lyrics. Yet it’s those words, and that voice, a bit like Lemmy singing the blues or Elvis gargling gravel, which has lead to Frankie becoming such a revered figure.” Rock critic Alex Ogg on the “Mush” album, “One of the most intense records of the ’90s, with some of the fiercest playing and song dynamics.
115. “ Marie,” Townes Van Zandt. Songwriter: Townes Van Zandt; Did Not Chart; 1994. Townes Van Zandt was only fifty years old when the 1994 album “No Deeper Blue” was released but decades of hard living made him sound like an octogenarian. Singing as if he was teetering on the edge of death reinforces the despair of “Marie,” one of the bleakest songs you’ll ever hear. A description of a homeless man with no support system, the tale ends when his girlfriend dies under a bridge, while carrying the couple’s unborn child. Townes often worried that his lyrics could turn into self-fulfilling prophecies, but he also had a premonition about his own fate, once musing, “I don’t envision a very long life for myself. I think my life will run out before my work does.” Townes passed away on January of 1997 and will always be an enigmatic figure, one who seemed quite comfortable in psychic dark places that most of us work to avoid.
114. “Wonderwall,” Oasis. Songwriter: Noel Gallagher; #8 pop; 1995. Oasis had release five U.K. Top Ten singles in 1994 and 1995 before having their U.S. breakthrough with the relationship reassurance number “Wonderwall.” Kenneth Partridge of Billboard, “Featuring one of the most memorable guitar intros of the ‘90s, ‘Wonderwall’ is vague enough to mean lots of things to lots of people and sincere enough to make every meaning stick. As Mellotron rubs up under the music like a mournful cello, Liam lets himself sound uncharacteristically vulnerable: ‘Maybe you’re gonna be the one that saves me.’” Noel Gallagher, “After (the) Morning Glory (album) came out, I was in Manchester and went into this guitar shop and there was a sign banning people from playing ‘Wonderwall.’ When I walked in they all groaned, ‘Fucking hell, man, do you realize how many times we’ve heard ‘Champagne Supernova’ and ‘Wonderwall’ over the last six months?” Yet, Gallagher has noted, “The Who always play ‘I Can’t Explain’; and we’ll always play ‘Wonderwall.’ People ask us if we get bored of it. You can’t get bored of 15,000 people shouting for ‘Wonderwall.’ That’s better than drugs. You get a hard-on when you hear that.”
113. “Ray of Light,” Madonna. Songwriters: Madonna, William Orbit, Clive Muldoon, Dave Curtiss, Christine Leach; #5 pop; 1998. Curtiss Maldoon, an English folk duo, released an eccentric acoustic ballad/dirge titled “Sepheryn” in 1972. “Ray of Light” takes much of the lyrics from “Sepheryn” and unleashes them into the world of highly produced techno music, again putting Madonna at the center of a pop music trend. Journalist Mattew Rettenmund described the song’s appeal as “an orgiastic declaration of freedom and transition.” Christopher Rosa of Glamour, “Widely credited for helping drive electronica into mainstream pop, ‘Ray of Light’ is an absolute rush of techno euphoria, a spinning, sparkly ode to the universe and all its wonderment. It’s a song that doesn’t just compel you to dance but makes you feel everything around you, like ecstasy without the drugs. And you’ll never want the high to end.”
112. “Waitin’ on a Train,” Bottle Rockets. Songwriter: Robert Parr; Did Not Chart; 1997. Musician Robert Parr, the brother of one-time Bottle Rockets guitarist Tom Parr, penned “Waitin’ on a Train.” The song was inspired by a conversation Parr had with his father about his impending divorce and is written from the perspective of a man who feels like a failure as a parent (“I’m so tired of being lonesome/I’m so tired of being blue/I’m so tired of waiting only/For the days I can see you”). Blogger Steve Knowlton reviewing the “24 Hours a Day” album, “When the songwriting is hitting right, it’s fabulous. The best number is ‘Waiting on a Train,’ with its chugging riff and a stream-of-memory lyric from a man stuck at a railroad crossing. The brief but powerful bridge, followed by just two bars of intense guitar wailing, is simply cathartic.” Drummer Mark Ortmann has stated that recording this song felt like being in a fistfight.
111. “Cowboy, Take Me Away,”Dixie Chicks. Songwriters: Martie Maguire, Marcus Hummon; #27 pop/#1 country; 1999. Dixie Chicks fiddle player Martie Maguire co-wrote “Cowboy Take Me Away” with Nashville pro Marcus Hummon. Maguire, “It was inspired by my sister finding the love of her life. I always kind of worried about her, and I’m just so glad she found a good guy.” Conceptually, it has a similar feel to “Wide Open Spaces,” in that the narrator is looking for a chance for personal growth, but, in this instance, she has a supportive partner along for the ride. Rock critic Rick Anderson, “Natalie Maines’ tight, crystalline voice sounds as if it was designed by God for the express purpose of singing it.” Taylor Swift, “To this day, when I hear ‘Cowboy Take Me Away’ by the Dixie Chicks, I instantly recall the feeling of being 12 years old, sitting in a little wood-paneled room in my family home in Pennsylvania. I’m clutching a guitar and learning to play the chords and sing the words at the same time, rehearsing for a gig at a coffee house.”