The 500 Greatest Songs of the 1990s – 500 to 491
I have no grand thesis about the music of the 1990s. For the sake of dramatization, I would argue that the rock ‘n’ roll era began when Elvis walked into Sun Studio and ended when Kurt Cobain blew his brains out, but that’s too weighty an issue to address in a few paragraphs.
On a personal level, I paid much less attention to the music of the 1990s than I did the 1980s and 1970s. Life was busy – I made four major geographic moves, got married, had two kids. The toddlers weren’t interested in the latest Christgau Consumer Guide recommendation. Also, CDs, for those of us can remember, were expensive. Streaming didn’t exist and plopping down $15 for a batch of unheard songs could lead to a painful disappointment. I spent much of the decade replacing my favorite vinyl albums with CDs, taking a low risk if not sonically wise approach to my collection.
Many of the major critical faves of the era, such as PJ Harvey, the Notorious B.I.G., Liz Phair, rarely moved me. Neither did grunge rock or gangsta rap, in general. Later in the decade, I got heavily into the Bottle Rockets (who would have thought a band could successfully combine the influences of John Anderson and Neil Young with John Prine), as well as singer/songwriter Freedy Johnston. Those obsessions, as well as a later interest in the Old 97’s, will show up frequently in this list. Commercial country music had many elements that we would now label as Americana and the early 1990s were filled with goodies by Alan Jackson, Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakam, and the resurgent John Anderson. In fact, via the Uncle Tupelo/Wilco/Son Volt chain, the establishment of Americana as a sound, if not yet a viable marketing niche, may have been the longest lasting/most significant impact of 1990s music.
On a side note, the pop charts were a mess during the decade. Record labels often refused to release singles on radio hits, hoping the public would swallow the full CD price instead. Until late in the decade, Billboard wouldn’t list a song in their Top 100 that wasn’t a physical single. Therefore, chart peaks became essentially meaningless.
As always, the personal payoff in these projects is discovering new music and getting reacquainted with old musical friends. There were decisions to be made during the 1990s – should one abet Curt Kobain in eating cancer, should the listener really lick Polly Jean Harvey’s injuries, was it an insult or a compliment to steal sunshine from Len, and I’m still not sure whether Pavement thinks I need a haircut.
Without further ado…
500. “Missing (Todd Terry Club Mix),” Everything but the Girl. Songwriters: Tracey Thorn, Ben Watt; #2 pop; 1995. The electronic pop duo Everything but the Girl was comprised of Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt who met as University students in Hull, England in 1982. They had their first major U.K. hit in 1989 with their cover of “I Don’t Walk to Talk About It,” a song penned by Danny Whitten of Crazy Horse and popularized in the U.S. by Rod Stewart. Like Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner,” the original release of “Missing” in 1994 gained almost no commercial traction, but a remix directed at the dancefloor became a major hit, peaking in the Top 5 in the U.S., the U.K., and throughout Europe. For radio listeners, Tracey Thorn’s forlorn vocals provided an interesting contrast to the disco beat. Songwriter Ben Watt, “Todd’s mix was a serendipitous moment. When he delivered the mix, no-one thought, wow, a hit record. It was seen as a useful club mix. The people decided it should be a hit.”
499. “Monsters and Angels,” Voice of the Beehive. Songwriters: Tracey Bryn, Hugh Jones; #74 pop; 1991. The English pop/alternative act Voice of the Beehive included California sisters Tracey Bryn and Melissa Brooke Belland and several U.K. musicians, most notable former Madness drummer David Woodgate. During their ten year run, they released two Top Twenty U.K. singles – 1988’s “Don’t Call Me Baby” and “Monsters and Angels” in 1991. Karen Schoemer of the New York Times, “Bigger, grander and more baroque than the debut, the ‘Honey Lingers’ album layers echoing guitars, keyboards and a colossal backbeat into a heaven-cleaving wall of sound that Phil Spector would approve of. Ms. Bryn, the primary lyricist, is one of the few young women in pop who consistently put across a strong and singular point of view. When writing about love and relationships, she bows neither to convention nor to easy sentiments. ‘I’m nobody’s wife and I’m nobody’s baby,’ she announces in the song ‘Monsters and Angels,’ and continues: ‘I like it that way/Well, then again, maybe…”. “Monsters and Angels was the biggest U.S. hit for Voice of the Beehive, going Top Ten on the Billboard Modern Rock chart.
498. “Check the Rhime,” A Tribe Called Quest. Songwriters: Roger Ball, Malcolm Duncan, Kamaal Fareed, Steve Ferrone, Alan Gorrie, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Onnie McIntyre, Minnie Riperton, Richard Rudolph, Hamish Stuart, Malik Taylor, Leon Ware; Did Not Chart; 1991. Rolling Stone magazine, “On the first single from A Tribe Called Quest’s seminal album ‘The Low End Theory,’ Q-Tip and Phife Dawg reminisce about their pre-fame days as teenagers spitting in ciphers on Linden Boulevard in the Jamaica neighborhood of Queens. A slightly accelerated looped rhythm from Minnie Riperton’s ‘Baby, This Love I Have’ sets a casual, laid-back mood, with Phife spitting verses as if he were lounging in the afternoon sun, swatting away rivals like flies. ‘The Low End Theory’ is the quintessential moment where hip-hop let its jazz muse fly. Others – most notably Gang Starr – had explored fusions between jazz and hip-hop, but Q-Tip, Phife Dawg and Ali Shaheed Muhammad evoked a cool bebop ethos that none had achieved before.”
497. “Stop!,” Jane’s Addition. Songwriters: Janes Addiction; Did Not Chart; 1990. Jane’s Addiction had a broad range of influences and they mixed neo-psychedelia with hard rock to score, of all things, a dance hit with their 1990 environmental warning song “Stop!” D.X. Ferris from the Ultimate Classic Rock website, “‘Stop’ moves at the speed of punk, and its crushing, metallic guitar-bass attack suddenly give way to a psychedelic wash that would make the most dedicated Deadhead stop, do a double-take, then give in to the groove.” In 2015, Guitar World recognized Dave Navarro by including “Stop!” in the “Top 25 Wah Solos of All Time.” Navarro, “One of my favorite moments in the track is the half-time breakdown. Most of our songs shifted gears quite often, and that one really just kind of downshifts in a very physical way, almost like dropping your car into second gear — you can really feel it slow down, but you still hear the revving of the engine.”
496. “Feel Alright,” Steve Earle. Songwriter: Steve Earle; Did Not Chart; 1996. While Johnny Cash may have been the iconic representation of the country outlaw persona during the 1950s and 1960s, Steve Earle took that mantle during the 1980s and 1990s, with legitimate jail time for bonus points. After a five year absence, Earle returned to the marketplace with the well-received 1995 album “Train a Comin’,” but truly got his groove back on “Feel Alright,” the lead track to the 1996 “I Feel Alright” release. Earle angrily referenced his legal troubles, noting “Some of you would live through me/Then lock me up and throw away the key.” After his bouts with drug addiction, just feeling “alright” was enough to be a triumph. Author Nathan Kanuch, “The title track is a defiant statement of Earle’s return to music. He’s been down to the bottom, he’s back. And you better not get in his way.”
495. “Dr. Bombay,” Del the Funky Homosapien. Songwriters: Jimmy Ali, George Clinton, Ice Cube, Robert Johnson; Did Not Chart; 1991. Del the Funky Homosapien (nee Teren Jones) and Ice Cube are cousins, but Del didn’t go the gangsta rap route. Rock critic Fred Thomas on Del’s 1991 album “I Wish My Brother George Was Here,” “A benchmark debut doused with humor, good-natured wit, and more P-Funk samples than possibly any record before it, ‘Brother George’ brewed up an unprecedented mixture of irreverent fun and funky production values which would make the album a blueprint for underground hip-hop to come. Despite Ice Cube’s involvement, Del went off script of the harsh West Coast take on inner city life, opting instead for a more mellow view. Breezy rhymes about deadbeat friends crashing on his couch or the occasional line about shopping at the Gap are supported by liquid basslines and cartoonish impersonations of nasal characters from Parliament songs.” “Dr. Bombay” is a pure P-Funk party rap, reminiscent of the playful edge of the Digital Underground, with lines like “And girl if you ain’t got a germ/I won’t hesitate to pull out my Funky Worm.”
494. “’74-’75,” The Connells. Songwriter Mike Connell; Did Not Chart; 1993. The Connells are a North Carolina band that released several modern rock hits during the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, but struck major European gold with “’74-’74,” a look at high school regrets (“I was your sorry ever after”). Blogger Tom King, “There is a smoothness to the writing and a total lack of showmanship in the instrumentation that means it can just pass you by, but when you really listen, it comes alive. It embodies that feeling of a road left untravelled that every single one of us has. The lyrics are vague enough to allow everyone to identify with them, but the specific reference to a particular year in the chorus adds a personal edge. The music is also delicately judged. The acoustic guitars are so crisp, and the bass is so solid. And the lift into the chorus is just glorious: those foreboding low backing vocals and the thin, distant high harmony behind the main singer tip it from being passably affecting to deeply emotional.”
493. “Devils Haircut,” Beck. Songwriters: Beck Hansen, John King, Michael Simpson, James Brown, Phil Coulter, Bernard Purdie, Thomas Scott #94 pop; 1996. It’s possible that They Might Be Giants don’t get enough credit for making the world safe for Beck in the lyrical absurdism department (random couplet – “Love machines on the sympathy crutches/Discount orgies on the dropout buses “). Beck, “I thought ‘Devils Haircut’ was a really bad lyric. If I can’t finish a song, I’ll just put in something temporary. That’s what ‘Loser’ was. Then the temporary one always becomes the best one, because it wasn’t all thought out.” Jeff Beck plays the main guitar riff, taken from Them’s “I Can Only Give You Anything” on “Devils Haircut.” Booming drumbeats are sampled from Pretty Purdie’s “Soul Drum” and Them’s cover of James Brown’s “Out of Sight” to turn Satan’s barbershop into a dance party. Beck wasn’t making your dad’s Pink Floyd concept album stoner rock.
492. “Ego Trippin’ (Part II),” De La Soul. Songwriters: Kelvin Mercer, David Jolicouer, Vincent Mason, Paul Huston; #74 R&B; 1994. Using a slinky jazz sample from trumpeter Al Hirt, De La Soul lampoons the shallowness of mid-1990s mainstream rap, starting with over-the-top screams and dropping exclamations like “I’m the greatest MC in the world,” “I’m something like a phenomenon” and the false bravado of “I don’t sassafrass, I put the foot up their ass.” Author Jesse Ducker, “The song partially draws from De La’s reverence for the Ultramagnetic MCs (who released the ahead of its time ‘Ego Trippin’ back in 1986), but mostly lampoons overly braggadocious hip-hop. Pos and Dove string together a prolonged stream of non-sequiturs, often lifting lines from other rappers’ songs, to establish their own prowess.” The video, which featured a materialistic, bald rapper surrounded by scantily clad women, was not a favorite of Tupac Shakur.
491. “I Love You,” Spacemen 3. Songwriter: Peter Kember; Did Not Chart; 1991. The band Spacemen 3 formed in a great U.K. tradition – the budding musicians met at an art college. Their music has had many labels to include “garage rock,” “neo-psychedelia,” and “space rock.” All of those categories apply to the 1991 album track “I Love You,” a trippy, droning rocker that sounds like the singer just discovered LSD. Spacemen 3 biographer Eric Church, “’I Love You’ was a bass-heavy, hook-laden love-letter grooving and pumping with a reggae-inspired riff from Bob Marley’s ‘Mr. Brown.’” During the guitar breaks, you kind of expect the band to transition into “Wild Thing.”