nineties, 100–51

Lifter Puller →Tom Waits

Lifter Puller, “Let’s Get Incredible”
Threatening Letters, 1998

Craig Finn’s version of a track with nothing but shout-outs is a rumbling ceremonial. There’s the usual peerless rhyming, of course: a devastating taxonomy of last-call dirtbags from a dude who sounds simply insufferable.

Guided by Voices, “Learning to Hunt”
Matador, 1997

The best song about being a parent, or maybe Bob is tracking the infamous child within. He phases his near-whisper so it’s echoed in his acoustic guitar’s squeaks: his fretting, in other words.

Missy Elliott ft. Lil’ Kim and Mocha, “Hit ’Em Wit Da Hee [Remix]”
EastWest/The GoldMind, 1998
UK #25, GER #63

My favorite Kim verse (“rocks shine through my tank top”) sets the table for another Missy misandry anthem, with a Timbaland beat that taps its watch with true violence.

The Magnetic Fields, “Dancing in Your Eyes”
PoPuP, 1992

Crass’s “Our Wedding” projected through cut crystal in the parlor. Susan Amway slips into Stephin Merritt’s heavenly doll house, an obscured sparkling pin in his music box. It wants to be true so much, it hurts.

Karp, “D+D Fantasy”
K, 1997

Barked iambic trimeter, more precious harmonized screaming, and detectable levels of Robert Plant. Somehow this decade couldn’t build an arena for it. But this is pure pop: three lunatics bulldozing until they’ve built a monument.

Elliott Smith, “Coming Up Roses”
Kill Rock Stars, 1995
did not chart

Smith leans into the kit, making his way through alleys, and up and down hills. His ability to articulate pain at a literary remove — while still showing the affects — is at its terrifying height here.

Jay-Z ft. UGK, “Big Pimpin’”
Roc-A-Fella, 1999
US #18, UK #29

Vol. 3 came out on December 28, making this the chronological close. Even if you buy Jay’s stoneheart routine, UGK trounce him: the cadence, the versatility, the writing. Timbo got in trouble for the one sample, but the surf-guitar stings really put this to sea.

Fiona Apple, “Sleep to Dream”
Clean Slate/Epic/WORK, 1996
US Alternative #28, UK #84

The song’s video’s award gave us the immortal “bullshit” speech: the offered hand vs. the song’s smackdown. Matt Chamberlain’s dread backbeat tracks Apple’s vibrato-minimal BS-calling. It’s the sound of her walking away from a drowning dick.

Ghost Town DJ’s, “My Boo”
Columbia/So So Def, 1996
US #31, US #27

Currently enjoying a much-deserved second life, “My Boo” pairs military-band snare with a Virgo Williams’ moony, freestyle vocal approach. The sighs at the beginning are a keyboard’s negative image: a breathing exercise.

Natalie Merchant, “Kind & Generous”
Elektra, 1998
US #18, US Alternative #32

idc idc the snare raps like a smitten heart, Merchant’s tone suggests freely accepted grace, and the climax! the guitar tosses confetti and all that’s important is you know you’re loved.

The Magnetic Fields, “Yeah! Oh Yeah!”
Merge, 1999

Black-comedy Sonny and Cher, with a Gorey denouement. Still, the Comtoise clangor of the guitars is immensely centering for me. The cymbal raps are Spector-perfect and staged five theaters behind the main action.

Wyclef Jean, “Gone Till November”
Columbia/Ruffhouse, 1997
US #7, UK #3

His making-runs anthem is consciously cinematic, with an Ibero-American Golden Age orchestra bearing him toward the sunset. And that narration is choice: the thread linking the hip-hop and heroin hustlers.

Brother Beyond, “The Girl I Used to Know”
Parlophone, 1990
UK #48, US #27

Prime cutout bounce, a Smokey-esque lyrical doubleback keened flatly over a keyboard bounce that suggests a state-fair reggae act . Even with a name this great, this was their only Top 40 US hit, and one of their last singles.

Filter, “Take a Picture”
Reprise, 1999
US #12, GER #98

There was a minute where I thought the Dust Brothers “Hey Man Nice Shot” remix was everything, until I heard this “Solsbury Hill”-jacking rockstar babywail. More bridges screaming at Dad, please.

The Party, “Rodeo”
Hollywood, 1990

For this Mickey Mouse Club act’s debut, producer Julian Raymond loaned out a Bang Bang cut, to which Chase Hampton frontloaded a peak white-kid rippity rap. The horns rip in the chorus and melt in the bridge; Hampton sings like a Swedish cheer captain.

Mazzy Star, “Fade Into You”
Capitol, 1993
US #44, CAN #83

Comfort in the mystery… “strange you never knew” is, I think, the key here. Hope Sandoval wears disconnection like a jacket: it’s hers and it’s familiar and it always fits. Small wonder this is a staple: the band keeps dusk going for years.

Wu-Tang Clan, “The M.G.M.”
Loud/RCA, 1997

It turns out the Wu’s best crime story was impersonating folks who belong. Raekwon and Ghost case the hotel like pulp P.I.s: they miss no exquisite details, nudging each other into better and better remembrances. Compact, but it still boasts the group’s best opening and closing couplets.

Prefab Sprout, “Looking for Atlantis”
CBS/Kitchenware, 1990
UK #51

Breezily cocky in the topline, with a bassline (and bass vocals) that hint at doo-wop. But Neil Conti’s paddling backbeat — matched on guitar — gives the jittery game away.

Emperor, “The Loss & Curse of Reverence”
Century Black, 1997
did not chart

It was great on the EP, and it’s better here: the guitars scream like wandstrikes, and the synth sheets are now an encroaching blizzard. And the baroque waltz halfway through is lacerating. A party record for sure!

Nirvana, “On a Plain”
DGC, 1991
did not chart

The descending chords are hysterically funny, like Sideshow Bob with the rakes. This is Kurt Cobain’s power-pop masterpiece, an amok lawnmower spraying bile and self-hate and gorgeous backing sighs all over the sidewalk.

Souls of Mischief, “93 ’til Infinity”
US #72, US Rap #11

The contrast between the frantic good times and the existential bassroll is really something: A-Plus keeps the bass high and the voices small, like all four Souls are rapping against car windows, speeding in the middle of the night to the next adventure.

Doc Corbin Dart, “The Cathedral”
Alternative Tentacles, 1990

Here’s a secret: punk’s most obnoxious vocalist was maybe its best songwriter. The bridge features twin guitars scaling in parallel; Dart borrows a Tunnel of Love synth for his biggest squall. Like all he did, it craves and repels connection at once.

Third Eye Blind, “Semi-Charmed Life”
Elektra, 1997
US #4, UK #33

Infernally crispy. This was the alt-rock apotheosis: sonic and physical pleasure for their own sakes, clean of community. This was huge then, but this white-kid hedonism was 10 years ahead — and 20 behind — its time.

DJ Uncle Al, “Foot Stories”
On Top, 1998

A bunch of pipsqueaks hand the mic off like a relay. They’re more kinetic than the track — which, like the other Uncle Al cut on this list — is less concerned with the boom than the smack. The low end is squelch: ceaseless buckets that keep missing the gleeful fire on display.

Backstreet Boys, “Larger Than Life”
Jive, 1999
US #25, NOR #5

The Boys take a victory lap. It’s the canniest idol song: starting by showing its ass, then composing itself and sticking to the programming. The self-conscious gestures nods to an audience more clever than most realized.

Air Miami, “Dolphin Expressway”
4AD/Teen Beat, 1995

Hazy self-absorption, a love song left in the Florida room to sweat until insanity. Bridget Cross girds the verses and purrs an insistent alarm. But there’s no waking this crew from the pull of road hypnosis.

Palace Music, “New Partner”
Drag City/Palace, 1995

The whole band gets sloshed for a sleazy waltz; when he’s not dispensing gnomic come-ons, Oldham trills a Willie Nelson song to death for his amusement. Still, when they get to “oh/oh/I’ve got a new partner riding with me,” it feels like a gentle win: exquisitely grand.

Master P ft. Fiend, Mia X, Mystikal and Silkk the Shocker, “Make ‘Em Say Uhh!”
No Limit/Priority, 1997
US #16, US Rap #6

A hook they couldn’t care less about became so major; Mystikal throws 100-mph fastballs and hits a 5-run grand slam. A frantic, ragged triumph: New Orleans rap with both eyes on America.

Tara Kemp, “Piece of My Heart”
Giant/Turnstyle, 1991
US #7, US R&B #47

Her first two singles went Top Ten. This was the banger: a new-jack spine with playful synth figures and Kemp’s devastation on the chorus. The second-level vocals run the gamut: gospel support, startling heys, an ambiguous you ready?

Usher, “You Make Me Wanna…”
LaFace, 1997
US #2, US R&B #1

His inability to convince paid off on Confessions, but also here: the courtly guitar supports Usher while he tries to play both sides of the triangle. He’s crafty and he’s got craft, caring more for the cadence than the letting go.

Future Sound of London, “Glass”
Virgin, 1996

Like the album suggests, “Glass” puts you in a cleared-out capitalist tomb and lets you configure the scrap metal how you will. It’s an unspooled acid track: you see how the old order was but you’re still free to chase butterflies.

Jellyfish, “The Ghost at #1”
Charisma, 1993
did not chart

Now free of Jason Falkner (covered earlier), Sturmer and Manning could get real poncy. I hear Brian but also Boettcher: harpsichords mince and the kick pounds. Crabby about failure, hopped up on craft. Even off the charts, it makes its furious case.

Public Enemy, “911 Is a Joke”
Def Jam, 1990
US #101, US Rap #1

Flav’s bitterest joke: a morbidly funny roast of government infrastructure advancing racist ends. “Oww,” goes the sardonic call and response, while the Thriller cackles about how it matters whether you’re black or white.

DJ Paul Elstak ft. MC Irvin and Shaydie, “Rainbow in the Sky [K&A’s Radio Blast]”
Rotterdam, 1995
NDL #3

Nearly my happy hardcore high point, but I guess there are like a billion songs I’ve yet to audition. This one’s heroic: Shaydie calls the clouds down over tiny aluminum piano and urgent synth ostinato.

The The, “Dogs of Lust”
Epic, 1992
UK #25, US Modern Rock #2

On this, the big single from his existenital concept-LP Dusk, the lava sucks Matt Johnson down to the lewd honks of blues harp. Johnny Marr digs major chunks, Johnson pants theatrically: it’s all very sexy, and also quite vexing.

2Pac ft. Dr. Dre and Roger Troutman, “California Love”
Death Row/Interscope, 1995
US #1, NZ #1

Roger Troutman was a genius, but it took another genius to keep him from becoming Ronald Isley’s second act. It’s half done before 2Pac bursts into his homecoming, throwing sweat beads at everyone. This exists out of time.

Disco Inferno, “It’s a Kid’s World”
Rough Trade, 1994

D.I. buckle in the “Lust For Life” drums for a joyless ride. And yet, for all the gloom in display, I can’t hear the zigging guitar and cartoony flute stings and tuba poofs as anything but joy: something carefully assembled to stave off the shit.

Ben Folds Five, “Army”
550 Music, 1999
AUS #65, SCO #25

The fulcrum of their asshole’s opus, “Army” has peppy, bruise-poking horns and a heap of self-scorn. Folds sprints away from voices he’s heard and never will hear; Robert Sledge’s high-toned bass cranes for some kind of triumph.

OutKast ft. Sleepy Brown, “SpottieOttieDopaliscious”
LaFace, 1998

OutKast write and ride their very own ATL riddim. There’s little echo, everything’s super present: the perfect lazing locus for their Academy-worthy scene setting. Andre sees a fight, Antwan lives one. And the horns — the decade’s best hook — press on.

Whale, “Hobo Humpin Slobo Babe”
EastWest, 1994
SWE #30, US Alternative #24

An A+ video and song to boot: reckless cymbal splash, guitar klaxon, and a funky lil’ bassline. The band’s entertainment background served it well: Cia Berg chirps you to the cliff; the male Whales shout you in.

Chuckii Booker, “With All My Heart”
Atlantic, 1992
did not chart

Smoothed-out new jack, with that too-rare R&B trick of a bridge backed by discordant piano scramble. (I’ve heard it at least one other place.) He does his best to scuff things up, but the bass speaks pure peace.

Fat Pat, “Tops Drop”
Wreckshop, 1997
US Rap #5

Junior year, this might’ve been one of three songs that existed. J Slash turns down the synth and the shuffle… instead, the bass shrugs regally, while Pat rides the beat like he had it custom-fitted. Andy’s right: it oughta be the national anthem.

Lifter Puller, “Mission Viejo”
Runt, 1996

John Darnielle’s consideration remains tops. It is what he says: a sweaty scrape to the bottom with a guy who probably hasn’t bottomed out, with guitar refractions that cradle both his self-pity and promises. We all fuck up; we all drift; we’ve all got until September sixth.

Third Eye Blind, “Losing a Whole Year”
Elektra, 1997
US Mainstream Rock #36

God, just fucking look at them. Stephan Jenkins howls — the whys are wrenching — at his tipped-over king: he wants his opponent to be small enough to leer at. Great start-stop work, and a spiderweb of a wah‘d-out solo.

The Flaming Lips, “Lightning Strikes the Postman”
Warner Bros., 1995

A three-minute cosmic joke from their best and sturdiest record: a slow electric march down Main Street, with a keyboard figure that looks to the sky and lets out a strangled laugh.

Hole, “Awful”
Geffen, 1998
UK #39, AUS #44

Over in-the-pocket power pop, Love calls bullshit on the industry — OK— but also the scene she jumped from. But punk didn’t quite die: she channels the bouncy churn from irony to hope, betting on one good song and a club full of women.

Tanya Donelly, “Bum”
Reprise, 1997

A life-seeking missile: Donelly gives her bum a head start before loosing the guitars and shooting a dozen taunts into his path. Her harmonies are a psychedelic comedown, but there’s no regret, only revenge.

Brutal Juice, “Whorehouse of Screams”
Interscope, 1995

I’m still calling this the Ninties’ “Marquee Moon”: extended grand sterility punctured by mystic visions. It’s got that itchy-hand jangle and a confabulation of ghosts.

Destiny’s Child, “Say My Name”
Columbia, 1999
US #1, AUS #1

Where Timbaland would see the herky arrangement as a dance, Rodney Jerkins saw it as compulsive pacing. DC stresses in double-time, then leans into that heartbroken chorus. Michelle was in the video, but not on the record. Game on from here.

Tom Waits, “Picture in a Frame”
Anti-, 1999
did not chart

The work is as delicate as the small, loving task he did so many years ago. Mule Variations did a great many things — much of those well — and this dusty Toussainted piano ballad was the greatest. We made it the first-dance song at our wedding.

The playlist so far is here.

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