In the late ’90s across America, garages were exploding with the sounds of four-piece alt-rock heroes striving for suburban stardom … well at least in my neighborhood. Halfway through the decade, the sounds of grunge-rock vitriol and teenage social angst were giving way to a new breed of rock ’n’ rollers. The fresh crop of bands were punk-inspired wise guys that abandoned the angry sounds of Seattle for a fun-loving, pop-friendly alternative.
Here is part one of a list comprised of 50 songs that once ruled the airwaves. Sure, these may not be the most important, or even the most memorable, but every song on the list embodies the excitement of that forgotten chapter in rock ’n’ roll.
While compiling the list, we followed three self-imposed rules: 1) Only one song from each band. 2) Embrace the one-hit-wonder. 3) No over-obvious answers (i.e. Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy,” Soundgargen’s “Black Hole Sun,” Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”—although for this one, the image is so iconic, we couldn’t resist to use it for the graphic).
We present to you, 25 reasons why ’90s rock still matters:
Hum – “Stars”
The intro you will never forget—the first line of the song is as intriguing 12 years later as it was the first time it was heard. Songs like this aren’t supposed to be played on the radio—over 5 minutes long with hardly a semblance of a catchy chorus and a 55-second instrumental bridge. To my junior-high ears that had been clouded by much simpler-minded grunge-pop of the time, it was salvation. Hum defined and mastered “Space Rock” with their two albums on RCA records, and “Stars” is the genre’s national anthem.
Eels – “Novocaine for the Soul"
Tongue-in-cheek depression never sounded so good. The lyrics read like a farcical suicide note that really shouldn’t be taken seriously. The held-back lounge feel of the music sells the greatness of the song. Smart, witty and much cooler than anything that’s been on the radio since.
Weezer – “My Name Is Jonas”
The opening track to Weezer’s Blue album not only introduced the world to Rivers and co., it gave the mainstream audience its first glimpse of a coming rise of heart-on-your-sleeve nerd rock. From its odd-timed acoustic intro to its walls of fuzz-guitar, the song gave a pop audience a peek at what had been brewing in American college-rock and never looked back.
Sponge – “Wax Ecstatic”
This is one of those, “oh yeah, I remember that song” tracks, that once you hear it again, makes you wonder why you ever forgot it in the first place. Though the band had two MTV-supported hits with its ‘94 debut (most notably “Molly (16 Candles)”), it wasn’t until this title track from their sophomore effort hit airwaves that the band garnered the critical praise that they’ll be remembered for. “Wax Ecstatic” proved that a group that had first been showcased for pop-savvy fun could write a truly intense, blisteringly important album.
Rentals – “Friends of P.”
Weezer on pixie stix. This song makes me wonder if the genius of the Blue album and Pinkerton had more to do with Matt Sharp than Rivers Cuomo would like you to know. Mr. Sharp left Weezer after Pinkerton, and to anyone who’s heard the band’s last three albums, that should be all the proof you need. That heavy moog you hear throughout “Friends of P.” went on to influence quite a few indie rockers over the next 10 years, and the hooks are simply way too good to forget.
Ben Folds Five – “The Battle of Who Could Care Less”
Ben Folds continues to make thought-provoking pop-rock that is still a mainstay on college station playlists, but “The Battle …” was Folds at his best. Not only was the jam a refreshing escape from guitar-saturated airwaves to piano-driven pop, it showed that geeks not only rocked, but they could do it with serious attitude.
Nada Surf – “Popular”
There will never be another song like “Popular.” It went No. 1 on MTV, and the band wasn’t even able to release another single. When has that happened since? The dissonant “Sweater Song”-esque intro riff draws you in, and you just can’t help but enjoy the crazy high school rant that ensues. In an MTV world where Daria and Beavis and Butthead ruled, being popular just plain sucked. In this world, a satirical song about the ridiculousness of being popular makes perfect sense.
Superdrag – “Sucked Out”
Superdrag remains one of the most underrated bands from the era, and their single “Sucked Out” embodied what made them great. The group captured the creative optimism that made alt-rock exciting, but in “Sucked Out,” lead singer John Davis hints at an underlying emptiness that ironically foreshadowed an end to good mainstream radio. This pop-gem had it all: a soulful chorus, sunny guitar and a killer hook.
The Dandy Warhols – “The Last Junkie on Earth”
The Dandy Warhols were supposed to be huge. Though they never quite lived up to the expectations of industry-insiders, “The Dandies” managed to leave their mark on the rock map. Though “Junkie” remains a memorable satirical jab at the high-fashion underground drug culture, their legacy may be more remembered for the documentary Dig!, which followed the band and their dysfunctional friends The Brian Jonestown Massacre on a wild rise and fall.
Radiohead – “High and Dry”
“Creep” was the grunge anthem that propelled them into the mainstream. “High and Dry” was the great acoustic pop song that began to show the world the depth and diversity that they would continue to expand on album after album.
Better Than Ezra – “Good”
This one had all the makings of a ’90s hit: overdriven guitars slamming through the ole G-C-D, stripped-down, bass-only verses and an unforgettable chorus. The song propelled the New Orleans garage band into the buzz clip-spotlight. Though the group went on to string together a series of radio singles, they never again were able to capture the pop-magic innocence that “Good” enveloped. Like many once-great bands, Better Than Ezra “progressed” from the four-chord anthem leaving behind the simplicity that we all fell in love with.
Bush – “Glycerine”
You don’t have to be a guitar aficionado to strum four muted power chords from here to eternity. That’s one reason why every 15-year-old with a six string was playing right along with pretty boy Gavin Rossdale on this modern rock ballad. Fuzz guitar and violins make all the right moves here. It’s a classic all the girls love and the jocks aren’t afraid to rock to.
Matthew Sweet – “Girlfriend”
Not since ’70s era psychedelia has such fat-toned guitar-pop worked so well. Everything else is secondary on Sweet’s breakout track that, if nothing else, showcases one of the most impressive guitar players this side of Nashville.
Tripping Daisy – "I Got a Girl”
They don’t get any points for profundity, but rock radio rarely does. It’s simply a song about how lead singer Tim Delaughter got himself a girl. I mean, the guy went on to start the Polyphonic Spree, that’s gotta count for something. Somewhere between Fountains of Wayne and the Flaming Lips, “I Got a Girl” is great bubblegum pop for those who don’t necessarily like bubblegum pop.
The Presidents of the U.S.A – “Peaches”
Ninjas, Peaches, Guitar: enough said.
Everclear – “Santa Monica”
Everclear knew the value of three chords. The crux of this afternoon-radio staple was one of the most memorable riffs of the decade, and anyone who ever touched a six string could play it. The beauty of this hit was that when it came time for the chorus, the song didn’t change the progression; it just turned up the volume. “Santa Monica” was so good at the less-is-more anthem that it helps us to forget the top-40 crap Everclear has churned out ever since.
The Toadies – “Possum Kingdom”
This song’s lyrics are dirty, but in 1994 filth could be forgiven when surrounded by grunge magic. The Toadies were Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots minus the ridiculous pretentiousness. The Toadies use the grunge philosophy Quite-Loud-Quiet-Loud to it’s full extent on “Possum Kingdom.” Muted chunks and tasty little riffs give in to open power chords and crash cymbals in a way that will always be commended no matter the decade.
Soul Coughing – “Super Bon Bon”
These guys are well versed in more genres than the musical chameleon that is Elvis Costello. “Super Bon Bon” is a weird amalgamation that combines them all. Yes, Mike Doughty most certainly is rapping nonsense over those funktastic beats, and it works. Take note Mr. Reznor.
Primitive Radio Gods – “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in My Hand”
The Primitive Radio Gods are a sad story of how a record label can start and ruin a career with the greatest of ease. Struggling musician Chris O’Connor gets pulled from obscurity, signs with Columbia and releases a record that immediately goes gold. He and the band can smell an extensive career ahead and are then dropped from the label before their second album released and are left to fade into near oblivion. They were barely able to release two more albums over the next seven years with fairly obscure indie labels and multiple lineup changes. “Broken Phone Booth,” the debut album’s hit single, is such a unique song that it will surely keep the band from becoming completely forgotten. O’Connor’s voice barely gets above a whisper as a roaming piano and rainy day beat move about with help from a great dissected B.B. King sample.
Foo Fighters – “I’ll Stick Around”
Being a member of the defining band of a generation, Dave Grohl had to know that publicity and fame would certainly follow anything he released the rest of his career. The fact that he chose not to attempt to carry the Nirvana mantle on his debut release was a very smart decision. “I’ll Stick Around” is somewhat of a declaration that, yes, Dave Grohl will be around for a while and, no, he doesn’t owe grunge fans anything. You see, Dave Grohl doesn’t hate himself, his life, anybody or anything. Dave simply likes to rock, and he’s figured out a formula for doing so: steal some musicians from bands you know are good and make it happen. “I’ll Stick Around” is simply great, turn it up to 11, smash the axe on stage rock ’n’ roll.
The Verve Pipe – “The Freshman”
Even though the song, with its four different versions, was overplayed on every rock and top-40 station in 1996, it’s still one of those guilty pleasures you can’t help but sing along to. It’s one of those extreme one-hit-wonders where the band simply will never be forgotten because everybody who listened to radio that year knows the entire song word-for-word. I guess everyone can relate to a little heartache now and then.
Fuel – “Shimmer”
Sure, Fuel went on to become a pretty lame, pre-Nickelback radio act, but the band’s first single at least gave us hope. Maybe it was the catchy opening line (“She calls me from the cold …”), maybe it was refreshing song structure (a pre-Dashboard, quick-strumming ballad) or maybe it was the haunting violin whining in the background, but “Shimmer” remains a guilty pleasure alt-classic.
Cake – “The Distance”
Cake has always been a breath of fresh air on the radio waves. “The Distance” began their run of mid ’90s singles that stood far outside the alternative rock box. The guitar line grooves like the heart of the ’70s, and those horns never lie. Throw in quite a bit of sexual innuendo to boot and you have yourself an instant classic.
Stroke 9 – “Little Black Backpack”
Stroke 9 started as a college-class project, but when the San Francisco-based band caught the ears of big city record execs, they knew they had hit-makers on their hands. But after the super-cool single “Little Black Backpack” made its initial splash, Stroke 9 went the way of Superdrag, slipping into obscurity.
Orbit – “Medicine”
This bare-bones single is an obscure pick, but it’s a great, pre-Bush, grungy tune. This is one that if you still can’t hear in your head, go over to iTunes, and refresh your memory; ahhh to be young again.
Coming soon will be the final 25 picks in our list of 50 reasons why ’90s rock still matters.