The 500 Greatest Songs of the 1990s – 350 to 341
350. “James K. Polk,” They Might Be Giants. Songwriters: John Flansburgh; Matthew Hill; John Linnell; Did Not Chart; 1996. Consider “James K. Polk” a song from the Schoolhouse Rock aisle of popular music. The inspiration for James K. Polk, an ode to the 11th U.S. President, came from wanting to write a fact based song, in the style of Jimmy Driftwood’s “The Battle of New Orleans.” John Linnell on the austere/severe/held-few-people-dear inspiration, “We were sitting around talking about obscure Presidents in history, and whether they were actually as unimportant during their own time. And the name James K. Polk came up, and we looked him up and found that he was actually a pretty important guy. He started a trumped-up war with Mexico. He supported Manifest Destiny. Basically, he was a real bastard.”
349. “Champagne Supernova,” Oasis. Songwriters: Noel Gallagher; Did Not Chart; 1996. While Oasis gets frequently and correctly compared to the Beatles, their production values could be compared to the critically detested AOR group Boston. Both bands sounded louder and clearer than anything else on radio during their respective eras, making them impossible to ignore. “Champagne Supernova” was a major radio hit from the album “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, that has sold over 22 million copies worldwide. (It didn’t hit the Billboard Top 100 chart because a physical version of a single wasn’t released). Journalist Alexis Petridis, “Tt’s the sound of Noel, at the peak of Oasis’s success, apparently realizing it is a passing moment, offering the perfect epitaph for swaggering mid-90s hedonism (‘Where were you while we were / Getting high?’) and delivering an oft-mocked line (‘Slowly walking down the hall / Faster than a cannonball’) that’s actually a pretty good description of someone treading gingerly to avoid attracting attention to their head-spinning state of chemical refreshment.” In the getting-hipper-by-association dept., Paul Weller contributed guitar work and vocals this tune that Noel describes as “a bit of an epic.”
348. “Bittersweet Symphony,” The Verve. Songwriter: Richard Ashcroft; #12 pop; 1997. “Bittersweet Symphony” was an epic international hit, one of the iconic singles of the 1990s. Lyrically, the song was about the complicated relationship between wealth and happiness, but the words were secondary to the dramatic symphonic hook. Pitchfork, “It’s an anthem among anthems, a screed aimed at steamrolling all other songs not bold enough to share its tyrannical worldview.” “Bittersweet” couldn’t have been more appropriately titled in terms of its complicated history. The song sampled “The Last Time” as performed by The Andrew Oldham Orchestra. Oldham was managing the Rolling Stones at the time and was milking their catalogue with instrumental versions of their songs recorded by studio musicians. Due to the different labels, publishers, and songwriters involved, it took over two decades for the legal issues to be resolved. Richard Ashcroft of The Verve in 2019, “As of last month, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards signed over all their publishing for Bittersweet Symphony, which was a truly kind and magnanimous thing for them to do. I never had a personal beef with the Stones. They’ve always been the greatest rock and roll band in the world. It’s been a fantastic development. It’s life-affirming in a way.”
347. “Big Sky Country,” Chris Whitley. Songwriter: Chris Whitley; Did Not Chart; 1991. Blues rock guitarist Chris Whitley was raised in an artistic family and spent most of the 1980s performing with bands in Europe. Producer Daniel Lanois assisted Whitley in getting a U.S. record contract and he released the album “Living with the Law” in 1991. He had a minor Modern Rock hit with “Big Sky Country,” a romantic blues/pop number with spiritual undertones that compares his love to a scene of natural beauty. Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune, “Living With the Law” announces the arrival of a new songwriter/guitarist who plays and sings the white-boy blues with more conviction and authority than anyone since the debuts of Ry Cooder and Lowell George.” Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers of NPR, “Chris Whitley rebelled against flashy blues guitar by developing a style based on hypnotic drones and unconventional tuning. And he rebelled against the idea that blues, jazz, rock, soul and electronica belong in different bins in the record store. Among Whitley’s inspirations were Miles Davis, Muddy Waters, Nat King Cole and Kraftwerk. In Whitley’s music, all these spirits merged in unpredictable and often spectacular ways.”
346. “Pumping on Your Stereo,” Supergrass. Songwriters: Supergrass, Rod Coombes; Did Not Chart; 1999. The British rock band Supergrass formed in Oxford, England in 1993 and had immediate success with their 1995 debut album, titled “I Should Coco,” which went platinum in the U.K. Their 1999 single “Pumping on Your Stereo” is fun, big dumb rock in the vein of Slade, although the band compare their handclaps over the snare to glam era Bowie. Proving there remains a teenage boy in all men, the band actually sings “Humping on Your Stereo,” instead of “Pumping.” Drummer Danny Goffey said that the band wrote the song in the studio in ten minutes, which is easy to believe and in 2011 the “New Musical Express” included “Pumping” in their list of the best 150 songs of the past 15 years.
345. “If I Didn’t Have You,” Randy Travis. Songwriters: Skip Ewing, Max D. Barnes; #1 country; 1992. California native Donald “Skip” Ewing scored five Top Ten hits in the late 1980s, the biggest being 1989’s pop country number “Burnin’ a Hole in My Heart.” His primary success during the 1990s was as a songwriter, with credits on #1 singles by Collin Raye, Bryan White, Mark Wills, Kenny Chesney, and this Randy Travis chart topper, co-written with Max Barnes. Travis released two individual “Greatest Hits” CDs in September of 1992 (conveniently titled “Volume 1” and “Volume 2”) that included five previously unreleased songs. “If I Didn’t Have You,” which gave Travis a chance to emulate the phrasing of George Jones, and “Look Heart, No Hands” were two of those previously unreleased songs and they were both became #1 singles. Although not by design, the two greatest hits CDs marked the end of Travis’s time as one of the hottest stars in county music.
344. “That ‘70s Song,” Cheap Trick. Songwriters: Chris Bell, Alex Chilton; Did Not Chart; 1999. “In the Street” is a song about teenage boredom, where the only hope for happiness is finding a joint, from Big Star’s 1972 debut album “#1 Record.” “In the Street” stayed in pop culture limbo until 1998 when a version by Todd Griffin became the theme for “That ‘70s Show.” The following year a newly recorded cover by Cheap Trick became the theme, incorporating a reference to “Surrender.” Rick Nielsen, “Originally, the song they wanted to use was ‘Surrender,’ or ‘In the Street,’ and they just decided to use ‘In the Street.’ They said, ‘Well, we still wish we would have had ‘Surrender,’ but since everybody knows the theme song now, the coolest thing would be to have Cheap Trick do it. We had to use their tempo, but we added ‘We’re all alright!’ and ‘Alright, Wisconsin!,’ kinda like ‘Alright, Tokyo!’.” In a case of almost statistically impossible numerical irony, Alex Chilton once said that he received $70 in royalty payments every time the show was broadcast.
343. “Protect Ya Neck,” Wu-Tang Clan. Songwriters: Wu-Tang Clan; Did Not Chart; 1993. The Wu-Tang Clan hit the rap scene in a hurry, forming in 1992 in Staten Island and going multi-platinum with their 1993 album “Enter the Wu-Tang Clan (36 Chambers).” The group’s mission statement was to blend “Eastern philosophy picked up from kung fu movies, Five Percent Nation teachings (an Islam sect) picked up on the New York streets, and comic books.” I think we can assume that psychedelic drugs were no longer the solely ingested by white hippies .Richard Watson of The Guardian on the sage advice that is “Protect Ya Neck,” “With eight distinctive voices ravaging a track powered by that trusty trumpet glissando from the JB’s ‘The Grunt,’ quotable lines abound, from Method Man’s playful Irene Cara impression to GZA’s bitter takedown of his unappreciative former label Cold Chillin’ and the wider music industry; henceforth ‘a mountain climber who plays an electric guitar’ was the de facto stereotype of the clueless A&R. The Wu’s opening salvo was the perfect east coast antidote to Dre and Snoop’s crisp G-funk or, as GZA would put it, ‘the dirtiest thing in sight.’”
342. “Here in the Real World,” Alan Jackson. Songwriters: Mark Irwin, Alan Jackson; #3 country; 1990. Mark Irwin was working as a bartender at Nashville’s famous Bluebird Café when he met Alan Jackson, who was then working as a staff songwriter. The two men got together to compare the fantasy world of the movies to the reality of unrequited heartbreak on “Here in the Real World.” The lead single and title track to Jackson’s double platinum major label debut release, this is where Jackson started his magnificent neo-traditional run during the 1990s. Others may have peaked higher, but Jackson was the most consistent major country voice during the decade. How is this for validation – during the 1990s “Here in the Real World” was covered by Glen Campbell, George Jones, and Charley Pride.
341. “Start Choppin’,” Dinosaur Jr. Songwriter: J Mascis; Did Not Chart; 1993. “Start Choppin’” is one of the highlights of J Mascis’ brand of Neil Young inspired stoner rock, especially when you get past the singing to the guitar slingin’. Rock critic Jason Crock, “Though he often tempered his fleet-fingered solos with piercing feedback and punk-inspired fervor, J Mascis had all the makings of a guitar god. It’s on ‘Start Choppin’’ that he finally, comfortably takes on the mantle: the song is saturated in nearly every available moment with guitar leads, yet it never feels weighed down by any of it. Their big slacker anthem came earlier (‘Freak Scene’), and the Buzz Bin tried to make ‘Feel the Pain’ the band’s big hit later. But nothing came out quite as assured, as direct, as breezy and effortless as this did– a perfect balance of the scene the band had come from and who they really were.”