The 500 Greatest Songs of the 1990s – 20 to 11
20. “ When You Say Nothing at All,” Alison Krauss and Union Station. Songwriters: Paul Overstreet, Don Schlitz; #53 pop/#3 country; 1944. Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz were having an unproductive songwriting session during the late 1980s and penned this song about implicit communication. At first, they didn’t think too much of their composition, but Keith Whitley told them it was an instant classic and his version went to #1 in 1988. Alison Krauss recorded “When You Say Nothing at All” in 1994 for the “Keith Whitley: A Tribute Album” project, an album of Whitley covers by contemporary country acts. Krauss sings her version with a perfectly understated fragile beauty, projecting the strength and comfort she receives from her speechless, yet steadfast, companion. For a performer who started on the bluegrass circuit as a child prodigy fiddle player, she has superb natural instincts on how to modulate her fluid soprano voice. (I considered leaving this entry blank, as a low rent performance art tribute to the song title).
19. “Can’t Truss It,” Public Enemy. Songwriters: Carlton Ridenhour, Stuart Robertz, Gary “G-Wiz” Rinaldo, Cerwin “C-Dawg” Depper; #50 pop/#11 R&B; 1991. Public Enemy used fifteen different samples on “Can’t Truss It,” with four of those being percussion, building a machine gun attack sound while rapping about the relationship between literal slavery and modern day corporate America. Jesse Ducker of Albumism, “’Can’t Truss It’ is an undeniable monster cut. The Ministers of Funk (production team) come close to recreating the Bomb Squad sound, with the layers of horns, whistles, shifting drums, piano solos, scratches, and vocal samples filtering in and out. Meanwhile Chuck, bolstered by Flav’s spirited adlibs, tackles the way the American system oppresses African Americans and works to instill self-hatred throughout their community.” Chuck D, “White people have jobs because they have business. They have institutions that teach them how to live in America. Black people don’t have institutions that teach them how to deal with shit. The Number One institution that teaches you how to deal is the family, but slavery fucked that up. So the song is about the ongoing cost of the holocaust. There was a Jewish holocaust, but there’s a black holocaust that people still choose to ignore.”
18. “Lake Marie,” John Prine. Songwriter: John Prine; Did Not Chart; 1995. “Lake Marie” is a wonderfully eccentric John Prine song, one where he quotes “Louie Louie” and contrasts the peacefulness of a lake with the chaos of his personal life and the world around him. Rolling Stone, “’Lake Marie’ combines three different stories — one about how two lakes on the Illinois-Wisconsin border got their names, one about a failing marriage, and one about a gruesome murder — into a classic that’s part modern folk tale, part chugging, big-chorused singalong.” John Prine on his song inspired by the Twin Lakes on the Wisconsin/Illinois border, “I had this idea for a song that was going to have half talking, half singing in it. It was going to have a strong chorus to it and it was going to start out with something that had a historical nature to it. The second verse about meeting a girl and the Italian sausages cooking, that was kind of autobiographical, me and my high school sweetheart, we used to go to Crystal Lake and Lake Marie, the chain of lakes, you know? So did everybody else, we used to go there on weekends and have picnics. Just different lakes. Everybody bring their best-lookin’ car. You go there, cook up Italian sausage and have a game of baseball.”
17. “Welfare Music,” The Bottle Rockets. Songwriters: Brian Henneman, Scott Taylor; Did Not Chart; 1994. “Welfare Music,” an empathetic look at an unwed teen mother that resurrects the spirit of Woody Guthrie, was penned by Bottle Rockets frontman Brian Henneman with Scott Taylor, a high school teacher who was a mentor to the band. Brian Henneman, “We don’t write fiction–every song we do is a documentation of an actual event. That’s just how we do it.” Name checking Carlene Carter and Loretta Lynn, “Welfare Music” is powerful and touching, painting a picture of an economically trapped girl, representing a class of people targeted by right wing politicians and pundits. Billboard magazine, “’Welfare Music’ is in a class all its own – a stunner mixing acoustic guitar, dobro, mandolin, and fiddle, it’s a poignant but clear-eyed take on the odds of just getting by. Literate and kickass.” “Welfare Music” sounds like a folk classic updated for realities of 1990s America.
16. “Common People,” Pulp. Songwriters: Jarvis Cocker, Russell Senior, Steve Mackey, Nick Banks, Candida Doyle; Did Not Chart; 1995. “Common People,” Pulp’s almost six minute long anthem about sex and class slumming with synth sounds from the new wave era, was a #2 U.K. hit and was anointed by NME as the best song of the 1990s. Songwriter Jarvis Cocker, “I’d met the girl from the song many years before, when I was at St Martin’s College. I’d met her on a sculpture course, but at St Martin’s you had a thing called Crossover Fortnight, where you had to do another discipline for a couple of weeks. I was studying film, and she might’ve been doing painting, but we both decided to do sculpture for two weeks. I don’t know her name. It would’ve been around 1988, so it was already ancient history when I wrote about her.” That nameless woman gave Cocker his song inspiration when she mentioned she “wanted to move to Hackney (England) and live like ‘the common people.’” From the Pop Matters website, “It is one of the most witty, intelligent left-of-center pop songs to have ever achieved such widespread (critical) consensus. ‘Common People’ isn’t simply a great song, it is an occasion. That synth streaking out of the sky is like the snare whack in ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ signaling that a story is about to begin, and it will hold you through every word. Pulp had made a long career up to this point representing for the outsiders. This ageless anthem was one of those moments when the outsiders took over and everyone wanted in.”
15. “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” Lucinda Williams. Songwriter: Lucinda Williams; Did Not Chart; 1998. “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” is a remembrance of a sad childhood – the childhood of Lucinda Williams. The lyrics describe a rootless loneliness, with her pain being reinforced by domineering parenting tendencies. Williams, “I moved around a lot as a kid because my dad was teaching in different places, but I also think it’s part of the American folklore tradition. My mother suffered from pretty severe mental illness. It wasn’t always there, but she suffered from manic depression. There was some horrible medicine with some horrible side effects that she was supposed to take and, of course, she wouldn’t want to take it. Some of the little trips with my dad was to actually get out of the house, ’cause my mother was having a bad day. So that’s the darkness underneath the song.” The reaction of her father Miller Williams after hearing “Car Wheels” for the first time: “Honey, I’m sorry.” The gold selling “Car Wheels” album not only raised Lucinda’s profile, but was also won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album.
14. “Steal My Sunshine,” Len. Songwriters: Marc Costanza, Gregg Diamond; #3 pop; 1999. Toronto siblings Marc and Sharon Costanza formed Len in 1991, inspired by alternative bands such as My Bloody Valentine, Mystery Machine, and the Descendents. The band later brought in deejays and moved to a more Human League inspired electronic sound. Len replicated the male/female dynamics of the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” on “Steal My Sunshine,” a song built from a sample from the Andrea True Connection’s “More, More, More.” Marc Costanza of Len, “I was at an outdoor electronic music festival up north, like a rave, and I just got caught up in the night. The song is about how I felt, and then it was exaggerated by the fact that I’m sitting in the middle of a field looking at the stars, about 1000 feet away from the stage, watching everybody dancing at 3 a.m. And I wrote part of it on my leg and a lot of it on a napkin. And then we were hanging out at Brendan (Canning, of Broken Social Scene)’s place, and Brendan ended up playing that Andrea True Connection record, and I just sampled it right then. I looped it and I just tied the two together.” Richard Riegel of The Village Voice’s summary of the song’s beat, “(Jazz pianist) McCoy Tyner playing the Kraftwerk songbook, outlined in aural neon.” Stephen Thomas Erlewine, “This sun-kissed, sun-bleached blend of hip-hop, pop, disco, post-Beastie Boys cleverness and California culture is a priceless, timeless confection that instantly calls up sweltering, shimmering beaches the second the looped keyboard plays. It’s a monumentally great single.” Also, Sharon Costanza’s vocals are wonderfully lighter than air.
13. “A Thousand Miles from Nowhere,” Dwight Yoakam. Songwriter: Dwight Yoakam; #2 country; 1993. One of popular music’s hardest hitting songs about heartbreak, Dwight Yoakam doesn’t go for self-pity while describing his loneliness on “A Thousand Miles from Nowhere.” The impact is even greater because he is simply resigned to his hopelessness as being a permanent reality. Rick Moore of American Songwriter, “Pretty much everyone experiences the pain of love at some time in their lives, but seldom has the agony of having had one’s soul gutted been communicated in a song the way Yoakam does in this one.” As a producer, Pete Anderson’s wide open spaces arrangement reinforces the theme of displacement. As a guitarist, Pete Anderson’s solo reinforces that he was always the unsung hero in the Dwight Yoakam phenomenon.
12. “I Am I Be,” De La Soul. Songwriters: Kelvin Mercer, David Jolicouer, Vincent Mason, Paul Huston, Berry Gordy, Brenda Holloway, Frank Wilson, Patrice Holloway; Did Not Chart; 1993. Black pride as celestial beauty, with musical accompaniment by R&B legends Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley, and Pee Wee Ellis, “I Am, I Be” is a cherish the twilight mission statement with a groove: “I’ve always walked the right side of the road/If I wasn’t making song I wouldn’t be a thug selling drugs/But a man with a plan/And if I was a rug cleaner/Betcha Pos’d have the cleanest rugs, I am.” Key samples include a dark organ riff from the intro of Lou Rawls’ “You Make Me So Very Happy” and a slamming beat from “The Soil I Tilled for You” from the obscure Chicago R&B act The Shades of Brown. Critic Andrew Nosnitsky on the “Buhloone Mindstate” album, “At times that stream-of-consciousness gives way to straight-up consciousness. Check the album’s emotional centerpiece “I Am I Be,” a pageant of selfdefinition that draws Posdnuos back down to earth for a minute to paint the record industry as a modern-day slave system and to shout out his daughter and late mother by name. Dove, on the other hand, stays in the abstract, letting trees fall for ink playgrounds and spilling H20 drops, but does so with such sentimentality that you would swear he was speaking simply.” Also, the psychedelic guitar sample from Jimmy Ponder is a non-verbal cue of hippie turned Afro-American idealism.
11. “Cut Your Hair,” Pavement. Songwriter: Stephen Malkmus; Did Not Chart; 1994. “Cut Your Hair” combines the sardonic humor of Camper Van Beethoven with Pavement’s lo fi, but always combustible indie rock sound for a withering look at how fashion can impact personal and professional relationships. Laugh out loud moments abound with my favorite being the lyics, “I don’t care/I care/I really don’t care/Did you see the drummer’s hair?” Arnold Pan of Pop Matters, “Piling on one absurdly catchy element on top of another, from the earworming ooo-ooo-ooo’s to the mock fist-pumping chorus to the riffy guitars, ‘Cut Your Hair’ was proof positive that Pavement knew what the game was all about and how to win it, if only the band had decided to play along.” The always quotable Jim Connelly, “Given how utterly pure pop for now people ‘Cut Your Hair’ was, had they just gone for anything resembling a conventional guitar solo after the second chorus — like maybe doing the melody a la ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ – it could have even broken the pop charts, but instead they fuck it all up by dropping into a rave-up. Well, not really a rave-up, more like a rave-around: Steve West breaking into rolls; Scott Kanneberg bouncing notes back and fourth while Malkmus ends up shredding his guitar into a thousand pieces.” Like all the best satire, “Cut Your Hair” knocks you out by simultaneously hitting you with jokes and jabs.