The 500 Greatest Songs of the 1990s – 80 to 71
80. “Groove Is in the Heart,” Deee-Lite. Songwriters: Dmitry Brill, Chung Dong-Hwa, Kierin Kirby, Herbie Hancock, Jonathan Davis; #4 pop/#28 R&B; 1990. Deee-Lite was comprised of an independent fashion designer (Lady Miss Kier), along with two DJs, one born in the Ukraine of the other of Japanese ancestry. The astronomical “Groove Is in the Heart” was composed by sampling an organ/bass line from Herbie Hancock’s “Bring Down the Birds,” combined with a spacy synthesizer hook and drum break from the 1980 single “Get Up,” by R&B artist Venon Butch. Sprinkled within those elements were a rap by A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip and verbal interjections from P-Funk’s Bootsy Collins. The song was a dance party that could be had in a gay club or in your parent’s living room. NME, “Deee-Lite’s only real hit was a pretty faultless collage of G-Funk, Daisy Age hip-hop, salsa and dippy disco.” De-lovely and delicious.
79. “Oppenheimer,” Old 97’s. Songwriters: Rhett Miller, Ken Bethea, Murry Hammond, Philip Peeples; Did Not Chart. 1999. “Oppenheimer” is one of the most traditional pop songs from the Old 97’s – a love tale about a girl with stars in her hair where singer Rhett Miller finds awestruck wonder about working out their relationship beneath a quarter moon. Still, the title is enough to give one pause. Lynn Margolis of Lone Star Music, “’Oppenheimer,’ a song about falling in love on a street named after the father of the atomic bomb, is impossible to scrub from the brain’s running soundtrack once it lodges itself there.” Blogger Sean Carman, “The tar on the roof and the stars in her hair are the perfect mix of low and high, earthly and celestial, just like the moment they are describing, and ‘quarter moon’ sounds exactly the right amount like ‘paper moon.’ Is it just that time of night, or is the beauty in the singer’s life as plentiful as loose change? ‘Oppenheimer’ is a short story condensed down into a 4-4 rock song. Rhett Miller can write.”
78. “Mama Said Knock You Out,” LL Cool J. Songwriters: James Todd Smith, Marlon Williams, George Clinton, Gregory Jacobs, James Louis Mccants, Leroy Mccants, Sylvester Stewart, Walter Morrison, William Collins; #17 pop/#12 R&B; 1990. LL Cool J went from a teen oriented rapper to an artist with broad appeal with his 1990 double platinum album “Mama Said Knock You Out.” The opening phrase of the title cut – “Don’t call it a comeback/I’ve been here for years” – became one of the notable catch phrases of the era. Rolling Stone, “James Todd Smith returned to street-fighting hip-hop pledging to ‘bash this beat like a skull,’ and returning fire from a Kool Moe Dee diss record. The beat, one of Marley Marl’s best, rides a four-count chant from Sly and the Family Stone‘s ‘Trip to Your Heart,’ and the track peaks with J repeating, ‘Damage! Damage!’ like he’s done rhyming and is ready to break shit.” Producer Marley Marl, “He was rhyming over some hard tracks. His other tracks were hard, too, but this had a little street element to it this time. A little dirt. A little Queensbridge dirt was sprinkled on it, you know. It’s one of the albums that helped shape the direction of where rap and everything was going at that time.”
77. “Dublin Blues,” Guy Clark. Songwriter: Guy Clark; Did Not Chart; 1995. “Well, I wished I was in Austin/In the Chili Parlor bar/Drinkn’ Mad Dog margaritas/And not carin’ where you are.” Guy Clark knows that trying to move past a lost love would be futile on “Dublin Blues,” an instrumentally Celtic inspired song about an anguished expatriate. The melody was taken from the traditional Irish ballad “Handsome Molly.” Clark, “That melody has just always charmed the pants off of me. I guess I’m still going through that period of where I want to preserve those old songs that are so incredibly beautiful. I’ve been called on it several times, and my answer is, ‘You bet, I did steal it.’ I know what I’m doing.” Clark’s song of alcohol, sorrow, and regret has become something of a modern standard on the Texas music scene, having been covered by Joe Ely, Asleep at the Wheel, and Steve Earle.
76. “It’s a Wonderful Lie,” Paul Westerberg. Songwriter: Paul Westerberg; Did Not Chart; 1999. Paul Westerberg was in his early forties when he penned “It’s a Wonderful Lie,” and he needed deception more than ever: “How am I lookin’, I don’t want the truth/What am I doin’/I ain’t in my youth/I’m past my prime, or was that just a pose?/It’s a wonderful lie, I still get by on those.” Producer Don Was on the seemingly autobiographical nature of the 1999 “Suicaine Gratification” album, “A guy like Paul will purposely make that trail disappear. He reveals something deep inside and then turns his back.” And that’s the overall impact of “It’s a Wonderful Lie,” Westerberg is simultaneously pouring his heart out the listener with a reminder that he’ll always be a good arm’s length out of distance. Rock critic Jim Connelly, “It’s kind of a weird lost classic from the exact point where even his most ardent fans were peeling away.”
75. “Ladykillers,” Lush. Songwriter: Miki Berenyi; Did Not Chart; 1996. Lush was a London band fronted by two female musicians/songwriters, whose music started as shoegaze and later harkened back to the late 1970’s new wave era. Their girl group meets alternative rock sound resulted in four U.K. Top 40 singles and intermittent Modern Rock airplay in the U.S. “Ladykillers” is a whipsmart look a sexual politics and men who only use women to elevate their own egos. Annie Zaleski of A.V. Club, “Ladykillers’ (is) a punky shot of Blondie-esque new wave that was a welcome antidote to Britpop’s masculine point of view. The song is one big eyeroll toward lame men: overly vain guys who try to lure women with condescending flattery; those who think that acting like a blowhard will get them laid; and dudes who think pitting women against each other or pursuing those who play hard to get is a good strategy. ‘Ladykillers’ is a righteous feminist statement in which Lush reminds those with a Y chromosome that respecting women and treating them like smart, competent human beings is perhaps the best first step.” It’s also a wonderfully arranged rock ‘n’ roll song.
74. “Blue Sky Mine,” Midnight Oil. Songwriters: Rob Hirst, Jim Moginie, Peter Garrett, Martin Rotsey, Bones Hillman; #47 pop; 1990. “Blue Sky Mine” is about a moral conundrum. With limited options, should a person take a job that has a negative impact on the environment and the employee’s health? As the lyrics note, “If I work all day at the blue sky mine/There’ll be food on the table tonight.” The song was inspired by the town of Wittenoom in Western Australia which had a thriving economy in the late 1950s/early 1960s, based upon mining asbestos. At its peak, it is estimated that 20,000 people lived in the community. Estimates range that one to three thousand people died of asbestos related diseases. The mine closed in 1966 and the government took steps to close the community due to long term damage to the environment. Today, one person lives in the town and it has been removed from Australia’s official maps. Midnight Oil frontman Peter Garrett in 1990, “We can’t treat the world like a garbage dump, and there’s more to life than profit and loss.” David Frick of Rolling Stone on the musical side of the equation, “A slice of vintage Oils ruckus ‘n’ roll stripped to muscular garage-rock essentials, with the metallic squeal of a Yardbirds-style harp thrown in for good measure.”
73. “The Mountain,” Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band. Songwriter: Steve Earle; Did Not Chart; 19998. Steve Earle on career planning, Nashville style, ““I was sitting in with Del McCoury at the Station Inn in Nashville one night, and I just asked him, straight out: ‘If I wrote a record of bluegrass songs, would you guys accompany me?’ And he said, ‘Yeah.’ Eleven months later, I had the songs ready.” That album was titled “The Mountain” and the title track is about a coal miner who is comforted by his mountain home. However, he’s haunted by both his occupation and the narrow scope of his life (“There’s a chill in the air only miners can feel/There’re ghosts in the tunnels that the company sealed”). Earle, “’The Mountain’ is one of the best songs I’ve ever written.” Levon Helm included a reverent cover on his 2007 “Dirt Farmer” album.
72. “California Stars,” Wilco/Billy Bragg. Songwriters: Woody Guthrie, Jay Bennett, Jeff Tweedy; Did Not Chart; 1998. Billy Bragg came from England’s punk rock scene in the 1970s, eventually settling in as a leftist, politically outspoken singer/songwriter in the Woody Guthrie tradition. Jeff Tweedy formed Wilco after the disintegration of Uncle Tupelo in 1994. The two acts worked together on the 1998 “Mermaid Avenue” album, a collection of songs written using lyrics from Woody Guthrie that had never been set to music. Wilco’s standout track from the collection is the plaintive “California Stars,” where Woody uncharacteristically pined for romantic escapism. Blogger Don Lucas, “’California Stars’ oozes the warmth of a Sonoma pinot noir imbibed under starry west coast skies.” Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter, describing the song’s origin, “He hadn’t been to California in ten years at least. He probably already knew he had Huntington’s, and he wished he could go back in time — stop the progress of an illness.” Tweedy, on receiving the lyrics, “I remember it feeling like I was getting to hold the Declaration of Independence.”
71. “Slack Motherfucker,” Superchunk. Songwriters: Mac McCaughan, Laura Balance, Chuck Garrison, Jack McCook; Did Not Chart; 1990. The North Carolina indie rock act Superchunk wrote the most energetic and best song ever about a lazy work boss/colleague with “Slack Motherfucker.” David Sackllah of Consequence of Sound, “Rarely does any band deliver the anthem of a generation on their debut single, let alone a noisy power-pop group from Chapel Hill, but that’s exactly what Superchunk with “Slack Motherfucker.” A cathartic kiss-off to shitty bosses everywhere, the song bursts at the seams with unhinged squalor as Mac McCaughan shouts the now legendary proclamation: ‘I’m working, but I’m not working for you.’ The song’s wry energy was antithetical to the ‘slacker’ generation that reigned in the ‘90s, even if they shared a title in common. This was a brilliant punch of furious determination that has never lost relevance in the years since.” McCaughan in 2013, “I think it so long ago transcended whatever it was about and it’s more like a fun song to play and sing along to. People just enjoy swearing out loud—that’s one thing. (Laughs.) ‘Motherfucker’ is a very satisfying word to say.”