The Best Songs of 1996

1996 is both exactly what I remembered it being and nothing like it being. It’s exactly what I remember in that it’s awful musically and nothing like I remember in that it’s a weird bad. Like I thought all the grunge gods were done in 1996. Nope, they had hits though nothing I’m high on. I thought pop and rock were a lot stronger but there’s a haze over them. Great year for rap until the end. What was big is just bad. The Macarena was the biggest song of the year. I want to stress we went from the utter poetry of Gangsta’s Paradise as the biggest song of the year to a sexist dance song. Boo.

I want to point out this was the list where basically every relisten knocked a song off. There were so many songs I adored that I put on for a relisten and rejected hard. Nostalgia is nice but if I can’t tell you a song is actually better than something I hated earlier, I’ve gotta be honest. I think we’ll see that a lot from here on out. I’m putting my nostalgia to the test. If songs make it here, they survived it.

On a personal level, the spring of 1996 kicked off about a three year long depression episode that really didn’t fade until summer 1999. I was 12 when it started. I hope that sounds as staggeringly bleak as it was to live through. Thankfully there’s this.

Honorable Mentions:
Oasis- Champagne Supernova. I’m really sorry Oasis will only ever dwell here. They made great stuff. But they’re runners up.
Journey- When You Love A Woman. I really wish I could justify this on the list. The lyrics are dreck. But it still sounds so soaring.
Green Day- Brain Stew. Green Day will keep being a thing on this project until it ends. I’m telling you now. This is impossibly tight.
Van Halen- Humans Being. The last great Van Halen song. A sad epitaph to a band on its way to burning out but this still showed they had it.
The Cardigans-Lovefool. So that nobody asks where it is. I like the song a lot. I prefer My Favorite Game btw. This feels of a trilogy with I Love You Always Forever and Mouth. Bouncy foreign but English speaking blonde pop hits in the fall of 1996. This is the really good one of those.

Context is needed for this one. I had Pam Tillis’ album All of This Love. I was, I stress, a weird kid. And I really loved it. There were some crummy novelty songs that were of the type that always infects country but much of the album had a poetry to it I loved. Would I listen to it now? Probably not. I’ve played a few songs on it as an adult and mostly ok is how I’d call them. But this one holds up. For pretty sad reasons.

10 Pam Tillis- It’s Lonely Out There. Kicking off a list that kicks off a three year depression period with a song about breaking up written by two writers who were actually ending their marriage is probably the darkest thing I can possibly do. But I’ll stress there’s a lot of very happy music coming. It ain’t this. This feels real and it has to with the context. This is Tillis and cowriter Bob DiPero accepting that they’re taking a huge risk walking away from everything. And then they did because that’s reality. A heartbreaking song.

I didn’t plan it this way. I do my rankings then I do my research. And yeah this next song is basically a twin to that one. A country breakup song cowritten by a great vocalist who only appears once on my project about a marriage falling apart while their marriage falls apart with the exact same cowriter. 1996 was weird.

9 Vince Gill- Worlds Apart. Vince Gill has one of the cleanest country voices ever. He has a great catalog but he’s getting representation here for a song that captures again the reality of a breakup. This isn’t about a marriage at the exact end but it’s very close. And it’s hell on earth honestly. The song is pure restraint. Gill can go over the top. He holds back. This song resembles a choked cry more than anything else. It’s very muted and raw. And I’m shocked it’s not better remembered.

I think every list needs an example of the most song of that year. Not the best. But the most. Something you hear and immediately know the year. 1996’s sound is so easy to me. The Gin Blossoms lite. You had a lot of radio hits this year from bands that would get one shot and that was it. Dishwalla was this year with Counting Blue Cars. That’s close but they actually did a bit more so no. Primitive Radio Gods had Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth and it’s ok but not ironic enough. I need the real deal.

8 Dog’s Eye View- Everything Falls Apart. I’m not going to mock this song any more because I actually think it’s exactly what the slacker crowd needed. A song that makes them look pathetic and ridiculous. The song is a joke. It’s a good joke. And it rests on one of those perfect earworms of a hook this year was filled with. It jerks you around like a carnival ride. And yeah everything about it is 1996. Casual references to meeting God. A kinda pathetic lead singer. The idea that these people will never have actual problems. This is 1996 in sound.

I will submit my placement of this song is really lower than it should be because I don’t think of it as a 1996 song. It absolutely was. It got a release here. It’s on a 1996 album. I’ve cut songs for not fitting association before. But this is also a historical work. If a song was released in a year, it counts, even if I associate it later. And dammit I just want to hype a very good band.

7 Tonic- Open Up Your Eyes. We underrate Tonic but their first two albums are so good. This is maybe my favorite of their singles which is weird because it’s really hollow. I can’t begin to tell you what it means. I tried to find answers. Most people say addiction. Sure. I don’t think it matters. Tonic would actually get very direct in later songs including their biggest hit. Here? It’s about the sound. This thing sounds so big and epic. The lyrics are a nice afterthought. This is rock in a way I miss. Grandiose and loud.

OK if Dog’s Eye View had their finger on the pulse directly then let me take this moment for further analysis because the next song makes the point even better. Reality Bites and Clerks were the apex of the douchebag who does nothing era that includes works like Slacker, Rent, and Singles. By 1996, we were screaming get a job. Indeed the creators of all but Rent had moved on and Jonathan Larson didn’t get the chance. We were ready to call this out. And this is what we wanted to hear.

6 Social Distortion- I Was Wrong. I cannot love a song this direct more. There’s no lyrical analysis to be had. Every line is a declaration by lead singer/writer Mike Ness of his errors. It’s a brick to the head. But it feels revelatory in an age of bad apologies. The song clearly lays out what should be said and isn’t because we value ego over contrition. And it shreds while doing so. This is prime 90s rock.

Top 5. And I need to clear the air about that depression here. In 1996, I broke. I’d been through a move. I’d been bullied my whole life. Parents separated. And in the spring of 1996 I finally had stability. I had a life I liked. Then I went back to Houston for a trip. It shocked me to learn I couldn’t go back. After that I would lose the school routine I finally liked. The bullying began again. I even lost access to Little Rock where I escaped to (and am typing this from today). I lost everything that was keeping me sane. So it makes sense to have this on my list.

5 Mavericks-Missing You. I’m so glad I get back to these guys. There were no small amount of sad country songs this year. Blue was in 1996 and keep that on the list of songs that just missed the cut. But nothing hits as perfect as this song. This is the ultimate version of this song. It’s so sad and sober and beautiful. Raul Malo once again uses one of the greatest voices in popular music to punch you in the soul. And I don’t mention my depression with this song by accident. This got me through. It’s cathartic. A great band and a great song.

One last country song. And this is almost a protest vote. In 1996, country was getting much prettier and duller. There wasn’t room for a lot of the greats. It will flicker on my list next year but that’s it. Still if we’re going out, we’re going out good.

4 George Strait- Blue Clear Sky. Bob DiPero notches a third slot on my list with this great, classic style song. George Strait is one of the best interpreters in country. He sells earnest so well. And this song is just such a funny, bright burst of life. It’s about how people rebound from relationships into new ones. It’s basically a country version of Brand New Day by Sting. Which is great because I love that song. This belongs to the George Jones style of country.

Ahhh hope. There’s not much of you in rock. Or on this list. I needed help in 1996. I have it now btw. Let’s fix that with arguably the most hopeful rock song the 90s gave us. No irony. Just a blissful happy wail of a song.

3 Spacehog- In The Meantime. God I love everything about this song. This is as direct as a bullet. It’s a call to wait and be patient because life will be fine. And given the moment it was in that’s kind of a shocking message. We were in an irony soaked, bitter, ugly, nihilistic moment in rock. Nothing meant anything. I think this stands out as a breath of fresh air. It’s a guy pausing and accepting that things will be fine. The bridge where he pauses to refute this is art btw because it then makes the point that much stronger. I heard people telling me through my car accident things would be fine. I didn’t agree. But they were. Healthy skepticism is real is my point. I’ve been only slightly looking at the British rock of the 90s but that’s going to heat up a bit for the rest of the list. And this is gold.

Hot take: I despise You Oughtta Know. It’s an ugly shrill whiny song that’s impossible for me to like. And I hate Ironic even more. It’s a bad joke song. It’s so utterly mopey and annoying. I can’t believe either was a hit. I especially can’t believe they were bigger than my next pick.

2 Alanis Morissette- All I Really Want. To be clear, that vent about those two songs is the last bashing I’ll do of Alanis Morissette. I am a huge fan and I’ll be getting back to why in the future but for now let me cheer on this utterly fantastic song. This is one of the funniest, sharpest songs of the decade. It’s every note in the book. It’s clever. It’s very clearly personal. It’s dry. It’s not without its playfully sexy side. And Morissette just murders on it. She’s so completely on her a game here down to harmonica work that honestly rivals John Popper’s to how effective it is. Glen Ballard’s work as co-writer, guitar player, and producer is killer too. This was the first song on the album and honestly it’s the perfect introduction to her career. I look forward to getting back to her a lot more.

The greatest loss the arts have suffered during the pandemic is the death of Adam Schlesinger. He died at 52 from COVID-19 in 2020. He was one of a kind. With work ranging from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and the so underrated it kind of enrages me Music and Lyrics to Fountains of Wayne where he wrote the group’s biggest hit, Adam Schlesinger was an utter musical genius. And in 1996, he wrote his best song.

1 The Wonders- That Thing You Do. When I looked at 1996, this was only ever going to be number one. It’s from a film I adore and it’s the reason the film works so well. The film relies upon us believing this would be a hit in the 60s and as someone who loves that music, this would have been a classic then. This is a pitch perfect pastiche. It sounds exactly like what the real deal was. And how different is it? It’s a group of talented studio musicians working from a truly great songwriter for a work for another medium. This is a modern Monkees. If you want proof how well it adapts, seek the Billie Joe Armstrong cover that’s an obvious homage to Schlesinger. But the original? This thing is pure joy. And seriously how great is the movie it comes from? Saw it theatrically and fell in love. Never felt I was wrong.

Going into the dark next week in 1997.

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