The 500 Greatest Songs of the 1990s: 210 to 201
210. “Hell,” Squirrel Nut Zippers. Songwriter: Tom Maxwell; Did Not Chart; 1996. The Squirrel Nut Zippers, a North Carolina carnival swing/retro jazz act, had a major MTV and modern radio hit in 1996 with “Hell,” which chronicled the potential lake of fire side of the afterlife. Allison Hussey of Indy Week, “The Squirrel Nut Zippers cloaked raucous rock in fast-and-loose hot jazz arrangements. Its ebullient songs were as inspired by the Pixies as they were by Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong.” Rock critic Rick Anderson on this calypso influenced number, “’Hell’ manages to be both a parody and a tribute to an all-but-lost Carribean musical tradition of clever wordplay, eschatological admonition, and bouncy beats.” Songwriter Tom Maxell, “I wrote it because we needed a closer. Crowds really liked it, but crowds really liked us.” However, Maxwell viewed the success of “Hell” is a negative in the long run, “Maybe being shot from a cannon gets you to your destination faster, but you won’t survive the trip. The real shame of it is we had such potential for deep weirdness. I don’t mean that in a contrarian way, but I think we were dialed in on a genuinely authentic and unique voice. That all went out the window.”
209. “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her,” Mary Chapin Carpenter. Songwriters: Mary Chapin Carpenter; Don Schlitz; #2 country; 1993. During the early 1970s, the health supplement Geritol ran a commercial that included a Stepford housewife meeting her husband at the door at the end of his workday with a cocktail. The ad concluded with the patronizing tagline, “My wife…I think I’ll keep her.” Over two decades later, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Don Schlitz used that bit of inspiration to write the country pop hit “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her,” a song about a woman who finds more satisfaction in a minimum wage job than being a dutiful housewife. You’d have to go back to Loretta Lynn’s heyday in the 1970s to find a more feminist hit on country radio. Carpenter, when asked about the song in 2018, “I feel like my entire life has spanned what I think of as the women’s movement. I grew up with a mother who worked, and parents who raised their four kids as hard-core liberal Democrats. I don’t know a time when I haven’t been a feminist. But I do think that song still resonates.”
208. “That Thing You Do,” The Wonders. Songwriter: Adam Schlesinger, #41 pop; 1996. Adam Schlesinger was one of many songwriters who submitted a demo for “The Thing You Do!,” a 1996 film directed by Tom Hanks about a one hit wonder act. Schlensinger, “I just went back to the early Beatles. There’s a little bit of ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ when it sort of goes to that minor chord, which I think is the best chord in the whole song.” Andrew Unterberger of Billboard, “The musical centerpiece from the Tom Hanks-directed ’60s-set comedy of the same name is more than just a theme song: It’s a central character, an action sequence, a love story, a rise and a fall in 166 glorious seconds. It not only pays worthy tribute to the British Invasion-era one-offs it’s patterned after, it roundly out-fabs nearly all of ’em. Just one of a hundred perfect moments: When the end of the opening couplet – ‘You, doing that thing you do/ Breakin’ my heart in two’ – is revealed not to be ‘in two’ but ‘into,’ as in ‘into a million pieces, like you always do,’ complete with stunning melodic and shift and gorgeously supportive harmonies.”
207. “Timebomb,” Old 97’s. Songwriters: Rhett Miller, Ken Bethea, Murry Hammond, Philip Peeples; Did Not Chart; 1997. “Timebomb” is singer/songwriter romantic angst paired with the kind of cowpunk that can set your saddle on fire. Blogger Jim Connelly, “With drummer Phillip Peeples riding his snare drum like there’s no tomorrow and bassist Murry Hammond doing everything he can to hold it together with both his bass and his ‘oooooooooooooh’ backing vocals, ‘Timebomb’ sounds like a whole series of timebombs, continually exploding, especially when they barrel into the chorus. Rhett Miller utterly kills it : alternating holding long notes on ‘Celessssssssssssste’ or letting his voice falsetto out from sheer desperation. It’s a helluva performance, and was absolutely a great way to introduce the Old 97’s to the wider audience they totally deserved but never really got.”
206. “No Diggity,” Blackstreet featuring Dr. Dre and Queen Pen. Songwriters: Chauncey Hannibal, Teddy Riley, William Stewart, Lynise Walters, Andre Young, Richard Vick, Bill Withers; #1 pop/#1 R&B; 1996. Blackstreet was formed in 1993 as a vocal group by producer Teddy Riley. The had reached the Top 40 with the new jack swing sex song “Booti Call” and the romantic angst ballad “Before I Let You Go” in 1994. The group had their biggest hit two years later with the funky, dance number “No Diggity,” a song that got its rhythm from by sampling “Grandma’s Hands” by Bill Withers, including an irresistible piano hook. Rock critic Tom Ewing, “’No Diggity’ is capitalism in its slinkiest form, in every sense classy. A hymn to money, sex, upward mobility, ‘No Diggity’ triumphs over every other swingbeat anthem because it walks it so much like it talks it.” Teddy Riley, “I wanted it to be appealing to everyone, but mostly to women. I wanted every woman to feel like they were the ‘No Diggity’ girl and that song was about them and it came across. And now, still, today, that song plays and people are on that dancefloor.” The song has also become a fan favorite at live shows by the Austin swamp rock/funk band Shinyribs.
205. “Girlfriend,” Matthew Sweet. Songwriter: Matthew Sweet; Did Not Chart; 1991. Matthew Sweet brought guitarist Robert Quine (Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Lou Reed) into the world of commercial power pop on this 1991 Modern Rock hit “Girlfriend.” Mark Deming, perhaps the best rock critic of the modern era, “On the surface, ‘Girlfriend’ is a model up-tempo pop tune, with delicious multi-tracked harmonies on the chorus that beg the listener to sing along and a propulsive energy that would make any pop aficionado get up and dance. But laid over the top is a wildly fragmented guitar lead from Robert Quine, whose bitterness is a bracing counterpoint to the sweetness (no pun intended) of Sweet’s vocals, while drummer Fred Maher is bound and determined to make this song rock, and his manic energy drives this performance the way Keith Moon would send the Who’s early singles into overdrive. ‘Girlfriend’ has a pure pop heart and a noise rock soul, and it’s hard to imagine a time when the mass audience would have embraced it as eagerly as in late 1991 and early 1992, when the sudden and explosive success of Nirvana and the alternative rock revolution briefly changed the rules on what constituted a radio-ready pop tune.”
204. “Celebrity Skin,” Hole. Songwriters: Courtney Love, Eric Erlandson, Billy Corgan; #85 pop; 1998. That jet rocket guitar riff at the beginning of “Celebrity Skin” is impossible to ignore, even if the rest of the song doesn’t match those heights. Priya Elan of NME, “Aided by a balls-in-the-air guitar riff the size of Australia and a production sheen that was the sonic equivalent of looking directly at the sun, Hole’s return showcased Courtney Love’s effortless way with words. With passing reference to the tumult of the last few years (calling herself ‘a walking study in demonology,’) ‘Celebrity Skin’ charts Courtney’s trajectory from indie rock grind to Hollywood A-list with a shamelessly eyes-on-the-prize sense of victory whilst choking on the ridiculous vacuity of it all.” Love on working with Billy Corgan, “It is fun to have a rival. When I sit down with Billy Corgan, and I bring him an arrangement and he makes it better, and I leave and feel shitty because he’s made it better, and so I take apart everything he’s done because there’s no way I’m going to let him win — that’s a great feeling. That’s just a great tension to have and to hold.”
203. “Gravity Fails,” The Bottle Rockets. Songwriters: Brian Henneman, Scott Taylor; Did Not Chart; 1994. “Gravity Fails,” as jubilant as song that you will hear in the Bottle Rockets catalogue. It replicates the theme of The Only Ones’ “Another Girl, Another Planet,” in that the narrator is so flushed with romance that the laws of physics are transformed. Brian Henneman on the song’s pop structure, “That’s something I had never done before. I don’t even know how that came out. (Co-writer) Scott (Taylor) said, ‘Make it like a pop hit, make the lyrics fit the music.’” The chorus: “Gravity fails and I’m falling down/Glued to the ceiling, spinning around/Well, that’s when I’m counting on you.” In short, it’s a roots rock meets power pop party even if the lead singer can’t close the deal romantically.
202. “Welcome to the Terrordome,” Public Enemy. Songwriters: Keith Shocklee, Eric Sadler, Carl Ridenhour; #15 R&B; 1990. Professor Griff (Richard Griffin), Public Enemy’s so called Minister of Information, created a firestorm of controversy in 1989 by making anti-Semitic comments that the band responded to with more defensiveness than atonement. Sampling The Temptations’ “Psychedelic Shack” and James Brown’s “Funky Drummer,” “Welcome to the Terrordome” was Chuck D’s sorry/not sorry response to the uproar: “Crucifixion ain’t no fiction/So-called chosen frozen/Apology made to whoever pleases/Still they got me like Jesus.” Chuck D, “If I mention the word ‘Jew’ on a record, if I’m not explicitly praising the Jewish community, that record will be deemed anti-Semitic because people would just hear that word in a rap song by a group that allegedly said something about the Jewish community and interpret it accordingly. But I had to tell people what happened and how it happened, and a line like ‘Tell the rab to get off the rag’ is about what happened. I told Rabbi Cooper, ‘Listen, I’ll take care of the situation, don’t worry about it, calm down,’ and his attitude was, like, ‘Everything’s cool, I just want to know what’s going on. These things can’t happen, and if this is your group member, it doesn’t make things look good for the rest of the group.”
201. “Pepper,” Butthole Surfers. Songwriters: Gibby Haynes, Paul Leary, King Coffey; #26 pop; 1996. Austin acid enthusiasts/freak rockers the Butthole Surfers seemed like the least likely candidates of their era to have a pop hit. I mean, besides the icky name, this is a group that would regularly perform in front of a film that showed penis reconstruction surgery. Yet, after recasting Beck’s “Loser” as a psychedelic rock song, they found mainstream success. Carl Petit of Diffuser, “This jam starts off with ultra-slow guitars and beat-like poetry spread across a sparse drum track before heavier guitars kick in, and Gibby Haynes digs into the chorus, ‘I don’t mind the sun sometimes/The images it shows /I can taste you on my lips and smell you in my clothes.’ The song grooves on regardless of the fates of the fictional people inhabiting the musical space. ‘Another Mikey caught a knife while arguing in traffic/Flipper died a natural death/He caught a nasty virus.’ Cheerful stuff, isn’t it?” They were all in love with dying, they were doing it in Texas.