The 500 Greatest Songs of the 1990s – 360 to 351
360. “Sending Me Angels,” Delbert McClinton. Songwriters: Frankie Miller, Jerry Lynn Williams; #65 country; 1997. Delbert McClinton started his career in Fort Worth in the 1950s as a member of The Straitjackets, a local bar band who often supported national touring blues artists such as Howlin’ Wolf and Jimmy Reed. He had his first pop success in 1962, performing harmonica on Bruce Channel’s #1 single “Hey! Baby!,” but didn’t return to the charts in a significant way until 1978, penning the #1 Emmylou Harris hit “Two More Bottles of Wine.” McClinton hit to #8 on the pop charts in 1980 with “Giving It Up for Your Love” and, after getting stuck in a Texas sized rut, relocated to Nashville by the end of that decade. The McClinton/Tanya Tucker duet “Tell Me About It” went to #4 in 1993, but McClinton never established himself as a commercially successful country artist, perhaps having a vocal style too based in the roadhouse blues for Music City. McClinton is fending off the devil on the 1997 single “Sending Me Angels,” a gospel influenced tune written that was first recorded by Bonnie Tyler in 1992 and has been covered by Kathy Mattea, Peter Frampton, and John Oates, among others. Peaking at #65, this was McClinton’s biggest solo country hit, but he can still shine his four Grammy Awards when he needs an ego boost.
359. “Award Tour,” A Tribe Called Quest. Songwriters: Kamaal Ibn John Fareed, Weldon Irvine, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Malik Izaak Taylor; #47 pop/#27 R&B/#7 Rap; 1993. “Award Tour” was the highest charting single for the critically acclaimed rap group A Tribe Called Quest. Trugoy of De La Soul was featured on the chorus and both of those groups, as well as The Jungle Brothers, were part of a movement called the Native Tongues. Their aim was to positivity, Afrocentric lyrics, eclectic sampling, and elements of jazz into hip hop. Producer Q-Tip on this single, “I love the drums on ‘Award Tour.’ And then there’s the sample I used from Jade’s ‘Don’t Walk Away.’ It’s all about that bassline. I just wanted to flip it, so I went through some more records and I got that Rhodes (piano) to counter the melody in the bassline. I wanted some drums that would smack that shit out the park.” Author Ryan Bray, “’Award Tour’ embodies everything that works about the Tribe formula. It’s got the beatnik jazz roots courtesy of some subtle electric piano, a solid sense of rhythm, clever if not leisurely interplay on the mic between Q-Tip and Phife, and an omnipresent sense of laid-back cool.”
358. “Big Brown Eyes,” Old 97’s. Songwriters: Rhett Miller, Ken Bethea, Murry Hammond, Philip Peeples; Did Not Chart; 1997. “Big Brown Eyes” is an excellent representation of the Old 97’s formula – an alt-country twang sound overlaid with big pop hooks and Rhett Miller’s smart observations (“You made a big impression for a girl of your size”). Brad Lacour of the Dallas Observer, “’Big Brown Eyes” wears its sadness on its sleeve, a love letter written with the combination of self-pity and hurt honesty that love in your 20s delivers whether you want it or not.” It’s been said that Rhett Miller penned this song in Dallas on a night that was equal parts heartbreak and alcohol.
357. “Better Class of Losers,” Randy Travis. Songwriters: Randy Travis, Alan Jackson; #2 country; 1998. While touring together in 1990, Randy Travis and Alan Jackson formed a short lived, but quite successful songwriting partnership. Travis had a #1 single in 1991 with Jackson/Travis collaboration “Forever Together” and Jackson landed a #1 hit with “She’s Got the Rhythm (And I’ve Got the Blues).” “Better Class of Losers,” the third major hit written by the pair, is a “Friends in Low Places” themed number, where Travis prefers his “three dollar wine” drinking friends to his significant other’s caviar and penthouse apartment lifestyle. Alan Jackson’s thoughts on touring with Randy Travis, “If y’all weren’t around then, he was like Elvis! He’d sold, like, 12 million records in four years or something. When he sang, the women were screaming and fainting. It was crazy! Somebody singing real country music and selling all those records, it just made me so happy. I was so proud to be on that tour.”
356. “Heads Carolina, Tails California,” Jo Dee Messina. Songwriters: Tim Nichols, Mark D. Sanders; #2 country; 1996. Massachusetts girl Jo Dee Messina moved to Nashville in the late 1980s and a professional relationship with Tim McGraw, who co-produced her 1996 debut album, helped her land a deal with Curb Records. She had her breakthrough hit “Heads Carolina, Tails California,” a song about the promise of coastal living happiness, that highlighted her booming, husky vocals. Messina, “Tim (Nichols) called and said ‘I’ve written this song, it’s perfect for you.’ Believe it or not he dropped it off in my mail box and said ‘see if you like it.’ I was out of town. We recorded if after we finished the album. I had to bump a song off to fit it on. It ended up being the first single and a big hit.” Messina had twelve Top Ten singles over a ten year period, with her last major hit being the 2005 #1 single “My Give a Damn’s Been Busted,” a tune co-written and originally recorded by Joe Diffie, whose label decided that the song had no potential to be a hit.
355. “A Rose Is Still a Rose,” Aretha Franklin. Songwriters: Lauryn Hill, Edie Brickell, Brad Houser, Brandon Aly, John W. Bush, Kenny Withrow; #26 pop/#5 R&B; 1998. The Queen of Soul only graced the Top 40 twice during the 1990s, first in 1994 with the Babyface/Daryl Simmons written and (over)produced ballad “Willing to Forgive.” She had her final Top 40 hit, and last R&B Top Ten single, with 1998’s “A Rose Is Still A Rose,” with Lauryn using the MOR hip hop production values that brought commercial success to the Fugees. Author Soraya Nadia McDonald, “A Rose is Still A Rose’ was more than just lyrical balm for a woman who realizes she’s been used and discarded. It’s a rejection of slut-shaming, of the idea that a woman’s worth depreciates with every instance she dares uncross her legs. But as a song that speaks to black women specifically, it expands into an affirmation of self-love, one that refutes the racialized pejoratives of ‘welfare queen’ or ‘fast,’ which condemned black women as overly fertile and hypersexualized.” Also, Aretha takes us back to the church, as only she could, in the bridge.
354. “If I Fall You’re Going Down with Me,” Dixie Chicks. Songwriters: Matraca Berg, Annie Roboff; #38 pop/#3 country; 1999. Elvis Costello gave the following warning on his 1978 album track “Hand in Hand”: “Don’t ask me to apologize/I won’t ask you to forgive me/If I’m going down/You’re gonna come with me.” Songwriters Matraca Berg and Annie Roboff took a different spin on that theme with lyrics about being on the verge of plunging into love on this Earth moving, tree shaking infatuation number. Berg, “We just wanted to write a really fun song. I wasn’t in that Dixie Chicks’ camp of writers, so I was very surprised and very appreciative. I couldn’t believe the sales. I’ve never been on a record that big.” Annie Roboff, “They just know how to take a song and make it their own, and they did a really good job on this song. If you listen to a Dixie Chicks song, Natalie’s voice with Emily and Martie were great together. As a whole, they’re stronger than their parts. They’re an exceptional band.”
353. “Picture Show,” John Prine (featuring Tom Petty). Songwriter: John Prine; Did Not Chart; 1991. With production by Howie Epstein of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers and being backed by most of that band and other studio pros, John Prine’s 1991 album “The Missing Years” has the most commercial sounding production values of his career. The song might be about the pleasures and/or dangers of escapism via Hollywood, but the most striking thing about “Picture Show” is how much it sounds like a traditional pop hit. “The Missing Years” sold over 250,000 units in its first year of release, a huge number for an independent album with no significant radio airplay, and won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album.
352. “Gone Country,” Alan Jackson. Songwriter Bob McDill; #1 country; 1994. “Nothing can better bring together a black man and a white, a young man and an old, a country man and a city man, than a dollar placed between them,” Nick Tosches. As country music sales skyrocketed during the early 1990s, musicians (see entry #4 above) and songwriters from other fields of music suddenly felt a need to relocate to Tennessee. Songwriter Bob McDill, “The people in that song were real people who said the kind of things that are in the song – all these weak, thinly veiled excuses for moving to Nashville.” “Gone Country” is a pretty withering commentary about people who have suddenly discovered that commerce is more important than their art. Alan Jackson put a more positive spin on it, “I think it’s just a fun song actually, celebrating how country music has become more widespread and accepted by all types of people all over the country.”
351. “I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar,” Jonathan Richman. Songwriter: Jonathan Richman; Did Not Chart; 1992. Jonathan Richman went from an uptight bar scene to carefree lesbian hangout on this 1992 album cut. Or, in Richman’s words, “Well the first bar things were stop and stare/But in this bar things were laissez faire!” Michael Hann of The Guardian, “As unilkely an expression of solidarity with lesbians as you would ever find from a middle-aged man whose work, when it addressed relationships, had been solidly heterosexual.” Rob Harvilla on Richaman’s stage moves, “Watching him dance is indescribably life-affirming: He either waves his guitar around or sets it down entirely before commencing with a gawky, guileless onslaught of light kicks, knee-slides, head-bobs, tight spins, and arm-flailing flourishes, his face fixed in an expression of rapturous nonchalance, a rubber-pelvis’d amalgamation of Elvis Presley, Pee-Wee Herman, and Napoleon Dynamite. Laughter, applause, boundless joy.”