The 500 Greatest Songs of the 1990s: 220 to 211
220. “Surf Medley,” Junior Brown. Songwriters: Bob Spickard, Brian Carman, Johnny Smith, P. F. Sloan, Steve Barri; Did Not Chart; 1996. While primarily marketed as a novelty/comedy act, Junior Brown is one of the best guitarists in any genre and no other performance displays his skills like the 1960s’s guitar homage of “Surf Medley.” Merging “Pipeline” by The Chantays, “Walk, Don’t Run” as popularized by The Ventures, and the Johnny Rivers hit “Secret Agent Man,” Brown nimbly tosses out licks, changes tunings, and melds surf into twang. “Surf Medley” is slightly over seven minutes long and doesn’t drag for a second. The man plays guitar like he has an individual brain in each of his fingers.
219. “Being Boring,” Pet Shop Boys. Songwriters: Neil Tennant, Chris Lowe; Did Not Chart; 1990. The Pet Shop boys stopped being commercially relevant in the U.S. in the 1990s, but released twenty seven Top Twenty U.K. hits from 1990 to 2009. “Being Boring” is one of their dance tracks big enough to fill an arena with breathy vocals that suggest dark emotions. Neil Tennant, “AIDS entered my life in 1986. A very good friend of mine, whom I grew up with in Newcastle, was diagnosed with AIDS in that year, and he died two and a half years later. That is a very autobiographical song. We had grown up together and both moved to London together at the same time. When we were young we had the philosophy that our lives should never become boring. The lyrics describe what happened to us.” In the nothing too trivial department, “Being Boring” was, at one time, Axl Rose’s most beloved song in the Pet Shop Boys catalog.
218. “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” Richard Thompson. Songwriter: Richard Thompson; Did Not Chart; 1991. Radhika Jones of Time magazine, “Richard Thompson’s ‘1952 Vincent’ wins the prize for fusing his sound and storytelling into a glorious example of what one guy can accomplish with just a guitar, a voice, an imagination and a set of astonishingly nimble fingers. A ballad about a ne’er-do-well teen with a fetish for fast bikes and redheaded, leather-clad girls, ‘1952 Vincent’ takes you to the emotional edge of love and theft, then soars right over it. Why a Vincent Black Lightning? It’s a specialty English motorcycle — fewer than 30 were made in 1952 — which makes it ‘an object of myth,’ Thompson said in an interview, ‘a rather wonderful, rare and beautiful beast.’ It’s fitting, then, that the song he wrote about it has become an object of cult adoration.”
217. “The Beautiful People,” Marilyn Manson. Songwriters: Marilyn Manson, Twiggy Ramirez; Did Not Chart; 1996. “The Beautiful People” hits with the type of bare-fisted pummeling that is sole purpose for metal to exist, with also, you know, some really heavy social commentary about something or other. Jason Schafer of Stereogum, “As a vocalist, he pushes every facet of his limited range to the extreme here, juxtaposing hoarse crooning with punk screams, and most crucially providing a choral counterpoint to the chugging rhythm guitar. Lyrically he swings for the fences as well, referencing Nietzsche, critiquing capitalism, making dick jokes, and providing a subtle body-positive message as well. He does it all in the most surface-level way possible, but earns points for ambition.” Musically, Manson revitalized metal triplets from the hair band and thrash eras.
216. “Winter,” Tori Amos. Songwriter: Tori Amos; Did Not Chart; 1992. Singer/songwriter Tori Amos was never afraid to let her freak flag fly, because it was the only one in her kit. “Winter” is a dramatic ballad about pride and failure, a song that Amos reportedly wrote for her minister father. The song became an inspirational favorite for, of all people, professional wrestler Mick Foley. Foley, “Most listeners would interpret ‘Winter’ as a song about a father’s love for a child. But the question in the refrain (‘When you gonna make up your mind? When you gonna love you as much as I do?’) always appealed to the scared part of me, the part that believed I wasn’t strong enough, or big enough, or good enough. It never made me think of doing wild and dangerous deeds inside a wrestling ring. It helped me believe that I was strong enough to do the things I already knew needed to be done.”
215. “Live Forever,” Billy Joe Shaver. Songwriter: Billy Joe Shaver; Did Not Chart; 1993. Billy Joe Shaver has always embodied the concept of the unregenerate hell raiser who also happens to be a God fearing Christian. By 1993, he had found one of the hottest guitar slingers in Texas, his son Eddy, and had moved further into the realm of outlaw country. Byproducts of this lifestyle including Eddy dying of a heroin overdose and Shaver infamously shooting a man in the face. However, the subject matter at hand is “Love Forever,” the most beautiful song about the Christian ideal that I’ve ever heard. The verse about parenting becomes even more poignant when you consider Eddy’s fate. There have been several covers of “Live Forever,” Billy Joe even recorded the song again in 1995 with then chart hotshots Big & Rich, with Joe Ely’s 2011 release perhaps being the best.
214. “Wish the World Away,” American Music Club. Songwriter: Mark Eitzel; Did Not Chart; 1994. Nobody working a Suicide Prevention Hotline has ever recommended that a caller should listen to the American Music Club, Mark Eitzel’s San Francisco based band that specialized in despondency. The fast paced rocker “Wish the World Away” is probably the most commercially accessible sound that AMC ever delivered, despite the lyrics wondering, “Where’s the message in the bottle? Where’s the miracle in the pill? Where’s the nurse with that needle? Where is all of my free will?” From the Blog Culture Connection, “Mark Eitzel is famously regarded as a miserablist and accounts of their gigs regularly referred to his fragile emotional state However, many of their songs have a power and majesty that defies such simple characterization. ‘Wish the World Away’ is one of their lively but still utterly melodically enchanting pieces.”
213. “Outbound Plane,” Suzy Bogguss. Songwriters: Nanci Griffith, Tom Russell; #9 country; 1991. Texas folk/country singer Nanci Griffith has been a niche artist for most of her career, having recorded over twenty albums (releasing material for major labels from 1987 to 2001), winning a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album in 1994, but never reaching a mass audience. She had two minor Top 40 country singles during the late 1980s (“Lone Star State of Mind” and “I Knew Love”), but Kathy Mattea went Top Ten with her cover of Griffith’s “Love at the Five and Dime” and Suzy Bogguss repeated that feat with “Outbound Plane.” The lyrics were inspired by a romantic breakup that Griffith had in, of all places, Cleveland’s airport. Here, we see country music incorporating elements of classic rock. Thematically, this is Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” and musically it nicks the dramatic bass chords from The Who’s “Baba O’Riley.”
212. “Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?,” Moby. Songwriter: Moby; Did Not Chart; 1999. Jeff and Charles Banks were Pittsburgh ministers who performed gospel music as, fittingly, the Bank Brothers. Moby took a vocal line from their 1963 recording with The Greater Harvest Back Home Choir of “He’ll Roll Your Burdens Away” and made that the basis of his spiritual meets techno composition “Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?” Vocals by U.K. singer Diane Charlamagne gave the song both a traditional and a contemporary gospel sound, while Moby retained the feel of a modern dance record. Moby on his work technique, “With older recordings, most of which were simply recordings of live performances, you get the quality of the room it was recorded in, this ghostly kind of presence, which I like. Also, you can take a source vocal that’s very neutral and by changing the chord progression underneath it make it take on a whole other character. You know the song on ‘Play,’ ‘Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?’ The song I took the woman’s vocal from actually goes ‘glad,’ not ‘bad’ – it’s an upbeat, happy song. But me being me, I guess, I put these minor chords under it and manipulated the vocal, and it became something else.”
211. “I Want it That Way,” Backstreet Boys. Songwriters: Andreas Carlsson, Max Martin; #1 pop; 1999. Boy bands were a pop phenomenon during the 1990s with the most popular being New Kids on the Block, Boyz II Men, NSYNC (who included future solo superstar Justin Timberlake), and the Backstreet Boys, an Orlando based group formed by producer/criminal Lou Pearlman. “I Want it That Way” was a gushy ballad, built to make teenage girls swoon, but catchy enough for parents to sing on the sly while driving to the mall. The acoustic guitar intro was inspired by, of all things, Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters.” In 2015 Rolling Stone named “I Want it That Way” the #5 best Boy Band song of all time, behind “I’m a Believer” by the Monkees, “Saturday Night” by the Bay City Rollers, “I’ll Be There” by the Jackson 5, and “I Want You Back” by the Jackson 5.