10 Great Songs From The 1990s (Part One)

After college graduation in the spring of 1996, my life didn’t quite take off like I had hoped.  There was no job waiting for me.  No women to date.  I still lived at home.  And I felt completely burned out after 16 straight years of working my way through the public and private education systems. 

Furthermore, my perfectionism, which had served me well all these years, was now turning against me.  For instance, it started to become quite difficult to enjoy (and properly critique) movies and music like I had so easily and effortlessly earlier in the decade.  And, for the most part, I was becoming more withdrawn from the world at large.  (I rarely socialized.)  Sadly, the second half of the decade was much less fun and productive than the first.  I regret that so much.

When 2000 arrived, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  But thankfully, despite some setbacks and disappointments, it was the beginning of a much better period, one of many in the last 11 years.  My ongoing love affair with entertainment was reignited and I was soon making up for so much lost time.

Near the end of the summer, with my confidence gradually returning, I decided to try to become a freelance writer.  Looking back, I was woefully unprepared for even thinking about the idea, let alone making it happen. 

Exactly one article was pitched to several magazines through the mail.  There were no takers.  Thank goodness I was able to get a full-time job the following month (which I quit 6 months later) or I’d have zero earning opportunities.  I give up way too easily, I know.  (By 2001, however, I would try again and have a bit more luck.)

Anyway, all of this is a way of introducing this previously unseen piece, the aforementioned freelance article.  It was originally entitled “The Top 10 Songs Of The 1990s” but I’ve dropped the title because I don’t believe these were the best of the best anymore.  If I were to compile the list again, there would likely be some changes.  As a result, it’s now called “10 Great Songs From The 1990s”. 

However, the order of the songs (from tenth best to the best of the decade minus the numbers) remain the same so you’ll still get to check out the original list.  (Because of length concerns, the piece has been split into two equal parts.  Songs 10 through 6 in Part One, 5 through 1 in Part Two.)

Naturally, because of the reworked concept there are numerous revisions but thankfully, the essence of the original work remains intact.  The intro is exactly the same but now includes a new paragraph at the end that you could say is a sneaky swerve on my part. 

There are some dropped lines that were either out-of-date, iffy or didn’t reflect my current feelings, others that have been slightly tinkered with for grammatical purposes and there’s some added material in certain sections to either beef up thin areas or, in the case of the U2 section in Part Two, to offer a replacement opinion. 

(Everything remains the same in The Fly section except for the interpretation of the lyrics.  Originally, I thought Bono was referencing The Edge’s marital troubles, particularly with the line “You know I don’t see you when she walks in the room.”.  But after reading U2 By U2 and writing about this song in my series on the greatest U2 singles in 2007, a more accurate assessment now replaces this erroneous one.)



While everyone was busy being distracted by the faux millennium advertising blitz of 1999, something important was ignored:  the 1990s.  With the exception of Billboard and Rolling Stone, there weren’t many in-depth music retrospectives of the last 10 years.  In fact, more attention was focused on the past 999 years.  That left little room for thorough analysis of the decade that gave us SoundScan, the commercial breakthrough of underground rock and all of the sub-genres of rap.

Compiling a Top 10 list of your favourite songs of any given decade is a pain in the ass.  Shortlisting individual standouts from the 1990s, however, was even more difficult.  Here’s why.  At the end of 1991, roughly 7000 new albums were issued.  By the time 1999 wrapped up there were 10 times as many new releases.  No one person could ever hear every single song available for purchase.  (Who would try?)  And therefore, any list you make is left wide open for complaints about inexcusable omissions and questionable selections.

A list like this has to be great.  Only the most memorable, the most exciting, the most surprising, and the most enduring songs should make the cut.  They can be singles, album cuts, B-sides, mystery tracks, even new, original music from a film or TV program, whether it’s pop or classical.  And they have to have been released between January 1, 1990 and December 31, 1999.  (Lust For Life, Da Da Da and other oldie cult hits that enjoyed new life in the 1990s are unfortunately disqualified.)

Which is why I’ve decided not to put together a Top 10 list of my own.  (I couldn’t possibly settle on two handfuls of choices.)  Instead, I’ve selected 10 of my personal favourites from the past 10 years.  Some are no-brainers, some are a bit obscure and some are likely to cause vehement disagreements.  I don’t care.

“You Get What You Give” by NEW RADICALS (1998)

Musical nomad Gregg Alexander went the David Coverdale route when he founded the New Radicals, a group made up of hired session players, in the middle of the decade. 

Born and raised in Detroit by a plumber, a Jehovah’s Witness, The MC5, R&B and the original British Invasion, Alexander (really Gregg Aiuto), the only permanent Radical, was responsible for one of the most uplifting singles of the ’90s:  a song about hope, disloyalty, vanity, greed, insincerity, charity, teenage vandalism and Judgment Day.  Even Kurt Cobain didn’t cram his songs with so many ideas. 

With an irresistible arrangement that grows on you more and more after repeated listenings, you can’t help but be swept up in its optimism and gospel-like euphoria.  I’m not the first person to compare them to Karl Wallinger’s World Party.  And I won’t be the last. 

However, this remarkable debut single was the Radicals’ peak.  Someday We’ll Know, the second release from their only album, Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed, Too, despite some airplay, failed to make the same impression.  The band soon folded in 1999.  It’s too bad.  You Get What You Give was much admired by many including Joni Mitchell and Brian Wilson.  Easily, one of the best one-hit wonders of the decade.

“Perforation Problems” by IGGY POP (1993)

In the last decade “The Godfather Of Punk” continued to pummel us with his blunt tales of unrequited love, requited lust, political corruption and the idiots who run the music biz.  Brought back to life by Trainspotting, back catalogue sales, a surprise Top 40 hit (1990’s Candy) and all those TV ads that used Real Wild Child, Search & Destroy, Lust For Life and The Passenger, the former Jim Osterberg still produced some fresh, new albums. 

Perforation Problems is a largely underappreciated album cut from his 1993 release, American Caesar, which is best known for the great single, Wild America.  With its invigorating ascendant melody and honest lyrical tone Iggy delivers the goods with this smart rant against heroin addiction and how it can’t fill the holes of one’s soul.  

No doubt personal experience with the drug during his crazier, younger days paved the way for this insightful song.  Here’s hoping more people will “know the right way out”, stop “hangin’ on a needle” and acting like a “dirty slave” until it’s too late.

“Pay No Mind (Snoozer)” by BECK (1994) 

The second single from Mellow Gold, this follow-up to the ubiquitious Loser sounds like something a goofy stoner would sing around the campfire at summer camp.  If Weird Al decided to write something for Johnny Cash, this might be the result. 

With wonderfully surreal lines (“Give the finger to the rock and roll singer/As he’s dancing upon your paycheck”), Pay No Mind underscores Beck’s most consistent strength:  vivid lyrics.  And any song that has “a giant dildo crushing the sun” deserves special recognition.

“Ich Bin Ein Auslander” by POP WILL EAT ITSELF (1994)

The title comes directly from a famous speech made by President John F. Kennedy when he visited Germany in 1961.  It means “I am a stranger” and it’s the perfect title for this chilling yet hooky alt-rock smash.  Spawned from the Dos Dedos Mis Amigos album, it manages to combine two remarkably compatible elements – social commentary and industrial dance music – into a single track. 

Rightfully criticizing the Bosnian War, the song asks two uncomfortable questions:  “…when they come to ethnically cleanse me/Will you speak out?/Will you defend me?”.  In theory, a reasonable person would say yes.  As history has proven over and over again, however, reality’s a different story altogether.

“Firestarter” by PRODIGY (1996)

Released a year before landing on The Fat Of The Land CD, this song, thankfully, became a global blockbuster.  You may think it’s about pyromania, but then again, you might think George W. has brains.  It’s hard to write a great song, let alone one that perfectly describes the fire in the belly one feels inspired to write about.  Prodigy accomplished this goal quite nicely. 

“I’m the one invented twisted animator,” rap-sings the charismatic, spiky-haired Keith Flint at one point.  He has a lot of great lines and they suit the alternately frenetic and calming arrangement.  As a result, Firestarter thoroughly exhausts you.  You’re left with a dry throat and a deep sense of relief.  Listen for the little girl samples.  (“Hey!  Hey!  Hey!”)  They’re taken from an Art Of Noise single called Close To The Edit.  (The Breeders’ S.O.S. was also sampled.)  A song that sounds much better now than it did in 1996.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Thursday, June 30, 2011
10:27 p.m.

Published in: on June 30, 2011 at 10:28 pm  Leave a Comment  

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