I want to destroy a myth here. Not that Nirvana wasn’t going to change pop culture with Smells Like Teen Spirit. There’s no denying that happened. But did it happen in a vacuum? Not at all. A lot of times the shift in a culture is a lot of forces coming together and one person scores the breakout. The rock scene in 1991 was ridiculously good and when you look at it, it was primed to take over and break through.
And it’s a good thing I’m looking at the rock charts too because I was in awe of how horrible the year end pop list is. Todd in the Shadows covered this in a list and he rightly had to struggle to trim it. The amount of ghastly sappy crap is astonishing. In fact it’s so bad that it’s impossible to see a universe where the explosive alternative scene didn’t break through. We were ready for Eddie Vedder after Amy Grant was huge. So I’m looking at the year that was 1991.
I want to begin by looking at something baffling. Andrew “Dice” Clay is a phenomenal character actor who has proven in his later years to be a solid talent in films like Blue Jasmine and A Star is Born. But in 1990-1991, the culture decided he should be a star. He had an extremely raunchy, sexist act that spoke to people in this backlash to feminism era, though it’s very important to stress Clay openly played a part. He had no reason to be as big as he was in the way he was. He not only had two films, he had a sample in a song. A song so good it should tell you how great the alternative scene was.
10 EMF- Unbelievable. It’s kind of unbelievable this only cracks #10 on my list because damn does everything about this song hit. The hooks on this thing are wall to wall perfect. This thing is pure audio ecstasy, which given that the band explicitly was named after the drug. It’s got that great wailing guitar running through it. The synths are the 90s pop sound given a strong edge. Oh, and unlike so many songs in this age, the lyrics actually matter. It’s a cutting piece of satire about a bad relationship. It’s very funny and sarcastic. And the Clay sample is bizarrely perfect. It’s just the right punctuation. This song is the real deal and honestly it’s where I really feel excited about the 90s to come. The alternative sound that’ll fill the decade is here through this list and I can see this as lead-in to Oasis and Blur. Let’s go on.
I want to talk about the worst fallacy every generation falls into: The end of history fallacy. There’s the idea that each generation reaches an apex of culture and now a new golden age will start. All the problems will be cured because some landmark happened. You saw in with the baby boomers and Jim Crow. You saw it with my generation and the election of Obama. You especially saw it in the early 1990s with the end of the Cold War. And it’s always a lie. Human nature is unfortunately continuous. And that end of history fallacy didn’t last long here. But it lasted long enough for one great song.
9 Jesus Jones- Right Here, Right Now. As much cynicism as I have, I love that Right Here, Right Now exists because it’s sincere and comes from a genuine reaction to the world. The band played in Romania just after their dictator was overthrown and they were watching the fall of some pretty oppressive governments. Believing things would get better wasn’t an error. And this song is so blissful. It’s not sarcastic like Unbelievable but it’s another British alternative song with both great synth sounds and a screaming guitar. It feels like an anthem for the world waking up from history. 30 years later, still just as strong.
I’m going to spoil things for my 2008-2009 lists. The Black Eyed Peas are NOT on those lists. Also in 1997, don’t look for The Spice Girls. Say You’ll Be there is great but not that great. I am allergic to that kind of loud, blaring pop. It’s not going to be very frequent here. But hey, once more let’s look at people I like.
8 Roxette- Joyride. I can’t say enough how much I love this band. Dangerous and I Wish I Could Fly haven’t/won’t make my lists but they’re genius too. This song though? This is what all of the songs I hate want to be. A big fluffy anthem that’s basically a band theme song. It’s impossibly infectious stuff. It’s a bouncy jangly little song. And honestly it’s a mistake to say the decade lacked these songs. There was a lot of bubble gum even when people said there wasn’t. This is still as good as it got.
Let’s clear up another misconception. 1991 wasn’t all one hit wonders outside of rock. Boyz II Men got on the board. Mariah Carey too. Lenny Kravitz was here. Some names that mattered popped up here. Let’s get to a name we are going to return to a lot.
7 Seal- Crazy. Seal and Trevor Horn are one of a kind as teams go. Here’s proof. This is the start of their teaming and they’re on fire immediately with a song that’s a dark mirror of Right Here, Right Now looking at the violence and chaos of the moment. It even draws on the collapse of the Berlin Wall like that song. It’s fascinating how effective it is. The lyrics are cryptic but also clear giving it an ethereal and unsettling vibe. This is sonically very unique with how big it is yet also how wispy it feels. There’s a lot of contradictions. But at the core what elevates this song is Seal, who is a monster of a songwriter in addition to possessing that voice. He’s one of a kind. There’s a reason we won’t be done with him for a very long time.
One of the greatest tragedies of Hollywood past is the untimely death of Jayne Mansfield. She was the epitome of glamour and old school movie stardom. In 1967, at the age of 34, she died in a car accident on the outskirts of New Orleans. Three of her children, including her daughter Mariska Hargitay, were in the car. It was a horrible tragic death. A wild life. And it’s the subject of the next song.
6 Siouxsie and the Banshees- Kiss Them For Me. That’s just a perfect subject for a song this slinky and seductive. This is that classic glamour queen feel in the 90s light. This song is sonically one of a kind. You feel like you’re floating through a dream and that fits. That there’s an unsettling quality is perfect. This is building to that last verse and it’s so potent. This is one of a kind. It’s a song that benefits hard from looking up the lyrics too. This didn’t allude to Mansfield. It’s a source study in her life.
I have a memory that haunts me. In the fall of 1992, my mom had to take her boyfriend to work. My brother, sister, and I were packed into the car. My mom’s boyfriend was really into hard rock so in the predawn hours, music was blasting me. I know I heard a lot of classics. Next week, y’all will see a lot of that. But one song haunted me. It was a creepy song with a call and answer formula in the chorus. 8 years later, I heard it again and knew at once what it was. And it’s actually not even remotely obscure.
5 Alice In Chains- Man in the Box. One of the foundational tracks of 90s alternative scores a place on the list and I make it clear much of my reaction to the golden age of alternative rock was as a traumatized child dealing with his parents’ divorce, bullying, and a move. But the music was still there and I think a lot of that late boyfriend in this light in a very warm way. This song…look it’s exactly what it needed to be to be a classic. It’s a cry of the beaten and it’s incredibly effective. That chorus is indeed the peak of the song. It’s so perfectly haunting.
Like I keep stressing, alternative rock wasn’t dead before Nirvana. Furthermore, the idea that it was all grimy and dark? Nope. Honestly alternative rock was pretty goofy throughout. Hell one band adapted More Than a Feeling into a rock song. :stares at camera: It wasn’t more fun in 1991 than this song.
4 School of Fish- 3 Strange Days. One of the greatest one hit wonders and one of the greatest enigmas in the 90s. We don’t know what the song is about and will never know as the writer and singer died in 2000 though it’s highly likely it’s about of all things the resurrection of Christ. There’s a lot of Christian imagery in the song, especially in the idea of three days. We can’t know for sure but what I do know is this song rules. This is a perfect anthem for anyone who’s been through a crisis. It’s all major energy and it sounds great. There isn’t one bad note. The guitar work here screams and we might yet hear from the guitarist on a later list. (1997) This is almost a lost song now, not as known. But it deserves better.
There’s no getting around the fact that my list is not indicative of the year. You’ve maybe heard of 25% of the songs and 35% of the artists on the year end hot 100. It’s all so much adult contemporary and that was a plague of a genre. There was so much saccharine garbage that you needed true artists to stand out and be good. And put the greatest producer of the decade with a great singer? That would do it.
3 Rod Stewart- Rhythm of My Heart. Welcome back, Trevor Horn. I’ll be dealing with you a lot this decade. This is basically the same as last year with Downtown Train. A cover from Stewart produced by Horn. It’s a formula that does not miss. This is just a shining example of it though. And I stress Horn because while Stewart is phenomenal, this is Horn’s work fully. His impossibly big yet deeply personal sound has never been better outside of his work with Seal than it is here. This thing is to the rafters yet feels genuinely felt. It’s a simple love song but it hits you like a brick and makes you excited. I can’t not love it.
I am not going to create any controversy by saying I hate U2 in sociopolitical mode. I find Bono’s charity bullshit cloying. He’s a rich guy and I know he gives but come on man. I don’t care about that when I’m trying to listen to music. I find Pride the kind of song I want to punch. But you know when I do like U2? When they’re a good old fashioned rock band.
2 U2- Mysterious Ways. I can’t stress this enough. U2 is so incredibly good at just being a kick ass rock band that I get annoyed they think they’re more. This is so unbelievably good. The lyrics are nonsense but they’re wonderful nonsense. Like they stick with you. You have The Edge experimenting to great effect. There’s so many great parts of it from the exotic beat to some genius synth work. It’s jut a perfect rock song. And yes, pedants, it charted highest in 1992. (As did the next song.) My response: 1991 stunk. These count.
So let me explain this next song. Is it my favorite song this year? No. Is it a song I play repeatedly? No. Then why is it here? It’s here because I cannot picture the next 30 years of pop culture without the effects of this song. Best means highest quality. And I can’t argue the quality of a song that gave the 90s its language.
1 Nirvana- Smells Like Teen Spirit. It had to be this. I actually contemplated lists without it or with it lower. But I couldn’t argue that anything was better. Because in one very silly song that uses an insult a friend threw at Kurt Cobain for the title and the riff from More Than a Feeling, you have the defining work of the entire decade of any medium. That’s something that’s impossible to appreciate just listening to the radio. But the whole thing is a tossed off mockery of the hollow art of the decade before. This was the first song to look at the MTV age and go at it viciously. I think a great error you saw a lot in the generation X age was the assumption they didn’t care. They did. Cobain saying “whatever, never mind” was an insult flung at the way the culture was actually acting. I noted how prevalent the adult contemporary genre was. That was the case across all media. Everyone was patting themselves on the back and saying everything was good. Here is a song using the trappings of a classic rock song to say how hollow all this was and to care! That people took the opposite reaction doesn’t offend me. I think the 90s apathy was a delicious middle finger to the boomers. Oh about the song? Um…look I can justify it at number one so easily on that front. It rocks so hard. Every element sings. Cobain is an actual rock god. It’s simple and catchy. It’s a perfect classic rock song. It just happened to change the world.
Next time: We pick up the pieces of what Nirvana wrought