nineties, 250–201

Alanis Morissette → Saint Etienne

The playlist to date is here.

Alanis Morissette, “Thank U”
Maverick/Reprise, 1998
CAN #1, US #17

Save a fantastic soundtrack cut, this is Alanis post-Pill: after the emesis, you start to improve. The formula is inverted: the guitar is supplemental, the drumloop huge; she gives the only acceptance speech that matters.

Garth Brooks, “Friends in Low Places”
Capitol Nashville, 1990
US Country #1

A contender for the best karaoke track of all time: Garth’s po-faced comic timing is hard to duplicate, but the singalong forgives all faults. His dips into the lower register are utterly charming for the effort.

Mobb Deep, “Drop a Gem on ‘Em”
Loud, 1996
did not chart

An infernally grouchy and stark boom-bap response to the only rap song Bill Simmons knows, it opts to fight charisma with technique. But unlike Eminem vs. Drake, technique succeeds.

Prince, “Pussy Control”
NPG/Warner Bros., 1995
did not chart

The story’s a goof, but a loving goof. A union of Funks both P and G, with sinus-clearing synths and a bass lick like a 5-pound skipping stone. Oh, and the most showstopping falsetto of his career.

Dillinger Four, “Honey, I Shit the Hot Tub”
Hopeless, 1998

They throw a small parade to commemorate getting blotto again. Why on earth did they backmask the final beat?

Kym Sims, “Too Blind to See It”
US #38, UK #5

“Honey, let me tell you something… no man in the world.” Sims takes huge chomps out of the text, rendering regret at the upper bound of her register. A nimble house-pop winner from Silk.

Oasis, “Fade Away”
Creation, 1994

Trebly holy racket, a rocker as lyrically resigned as the cover art is insouciant. Probably the closest they got to power pop; it’s basically a mid-’60s Who song.

Slick Rick ft. Doug E. Fresh, “Sittin’ in My Car”
Def Jam, 1994
US Rap #11

Rick takes a ravishing Billy Stewart ballad for all manner of perverse gripes. Juggling girlfriends, nurturing grievances: in its own cautionary way, as major a story as “Children’s”.

Dave Matthews Band, “Crash Into Me”
RCA, 1996
US #19

Speaking of perversity, here’s a peep song. Written about his wife but still. Same mix of grandiosity and impotence as “Cyprus Avenue”; the best talking’s done by the band. Here’s Iggy sampling it.

Brandy, “I Wanna Be Down”
Atlantic, 1994
US #6, US R&B #1

Small-club R&B… Brandy creeps up on her target delicately, gingerly. She wants to be down but not desperate, so she chips from all angles.

Pet Shop Boys, “Se a vida é”
Parlophone, 1996
UK #8, FIN #3

They’ve got Brazilian co-writers but not a literal translation. No matter: this booming, brass-baked number draws you into a larger world. It’s so kind — not oppressively cheery or condescending. It’s just warm.

Space Needle, “Sun Doesn’t Love Me”
Zero Hour, 1995
did not chart

Blown-fi mopiness — the kick drum is stuffed in a coffee can, the vocal counterpoint is off-key and out of the room — that gives the title clearance to sulk. It is, I think, a great Sebadoh song.

Cypress Hill, “Psycobetabuckdown”
Columbia/Ruffhouse, 1991

You know George Clinton performed at the Gathering of the Juggalos, right? A squelchy, mincing weirdo jam, certainly not as influential as their later hits but a fun thread to follow.

Sinéad O’Connor, “Thank You For Hearing Me”
Ensign, 1994
UK #13

She was torn apart for many things, but mostly for being right. She gains strength as the downtempo track patters on, meeting the tempo crosswise as she accrues strength. An absolute gift.

Odd Squad, “Jazz Rendition”
Rap-A-Lot, 1994

Frantic East Coast rap (with a DITC shout-out) from a Third Coast crew. Crazy funky, killer bass/drums setup, and a take-no-prisoners delivery from Rob Quest, aka Blind Rob. Devin was in the group but this is a solo showcase, LotNS-style blurts notwithstanding.

Blaque, “Bring It All to Me”
Columbia/Track Masters, 1997
US #4, US R&B #15

Love that oozy synth, like a Troutman brother finally imprisoned in the machine. The track steps carefully, and Blaque match the pace. The best money-ain’t-a-thing track until JoJo’s “Baby It’s You”.

Robyn, “Do You Know [What It Takes]”
Ariola/BMG Sweden/Ricochet, 1995
SWE #10, US #7

It all coalesces in the chorus: crotchet keyboard, from-the-heels declarations, laconic bass. The bridge takes it to the cliff.

Linear, “T.L.C.”
Atlantic, 1992
US #30, NZ #43

Sunstruck seafoam from the Miami area. If this is your jam — and why would it be — there’s behind-the-scenes footage available. It jiggles weightlessly and hangs some sax out to dry.

Death, “Lack of Comprehension”
Relativity, 1991
did not chart

Chuck’s full compositional gifts on display: that fusion intro, the stop-start riffage, the lunging passages, the majestic breakdowns. They made a video for this; somehow that didn’t do the trick.

Elastica, “Blue”
Deceptive, 1995

Probably a cop-out to say it’s about drugs. (But is it about drugs?) Once they’re off the blocks, it’s a rapid punk-rock descent regardless. Ends up a little like the Adverts’ more swooping numbers.

Stone Temple Pilots, “Plush”
Atlantic, 1992
US Mainstream Rock #1, NLD #15

Their glammy stuff got reappraised, but this and “Sour Girl” really do it for me: grim and crenulated, like doom metal filtered through a service industry bar.

Palace, “West Palm Beach”
Drag City, 1994
did not chart

As usual, Will Oldham says just enough to frighten. He kicks around the beach near Grandma’s place, stares at the waves and gets consumed, his only companions a two-piece drum kit and aching held chords.

Mariah Carey, “All I Want For Christmas Is You”
Columbia, 1994
US #11, AUS #2

You can count the number of truly gleeful Christmas songs on one hand. This is the best: a caffeinated, fidgety beast that weds Carey’s emotional and technical prowess to an arrangement that re-gifts Spector.

Nas ft. Lauryn Hill, “If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)”
Columbia, 1996
US #53, US Rap #15

Nasir cruises the racist city in the dead of night, tending to his dreams. Ms. Hill flips Kurtis Blow into hope for justice, while Nas leaves himself room to chuckle. A supremely indignant what the fuck breaks the meditation.

Wildchild, “Renegade Master ’98 [Fatboy Slim’s Old Skool Mix]”
Hi Life, 1998
UK #3

Pure phonemic power. The height of Norman Cook’s audacity, hurling every big beat bioreactor and b-boy stance he can think of onto the dancefloor.

Three 6 Mafia, “Tear Da Club Up 97'”
Relativity, 1997
did not chart

OK, rap is CNN. But this is one of those talking-head roundtables where the day’s entrails are parsed for the most ominous meaning, right down to the wake-up brass and agitated piano circles.

Me & My, “Every Single Day”
Medley, 1999
did not chart

Cutfather & Joe nicked some key Martinesque elements — the synth hits, the hooky/doomy bass — but Me & My’s countermelody skips this down the road. Chest-clutching lust has its place, but this is the pure migraine of losing and wanting all at once.

Frisco Kid, “Little & Cute”
Mad House, 1996

AKA the song that plays when Marcia enters the club in Dancehall Queen. Of course I can’t say this is the best use of the Medicine riddim — who has the time — but his close harmonies wind all the way around that gulping bassline.

Shania Twain, “Any Man of Mine”
Mercury Nashville, 1995
CAN Country #1, US #31

Envy the people who got to Def Leppard after Twain. She and Mutt deployed different-gender backing vocals like no one since Motown: buttressing, commenting, teasing. And my goodness, that breakdown.

Bathory, “Baptised in Fire and Ice”
Noise, 1990

Hard to rag on Quorthon’s vocals when 1) he brings the hardcore realness and 2) he’s got those sweet druidic chants going. A midspeed churner that nestles snugly in Viking myth.

69 Boyz, “Da Set”
Downlow/Rip-It, 1994

That stereo-demo hum is like therapy for me. The Boyz stroll down the avenue: grabbing street eats, ignoring important pages, leaving good tips. It’s the album cover come to life.

The Choir, “Sled Dog”
Tattoo, 1996
did not chart

Christian alt-rock’s still small heroes dial up the self-abnegation and the fuzzwaves. They sound like Bo Diddley trudging home in a snowstorm. “You don’t have to whip my hide/I’d love to take you for a ride”: my goodness.

Son of Bazerk, “What Could Be Better Bitch”
MCA/SOUL, 1991
did not chart

The Bomb Squad makes James the whole show; the large Son drops every non sequitur he can think of, rhyming be fucked. They call it the new swing, but only Big Mello picked up this approach for more than a minute.

Ali Hassan Kuban, “Habibi”
Piranha, 1991

Furiously clattering funk from Egypt: mixed to perfection, stuffed with hooks. Hold on — I’m getting reports this was on the soundtrack to The Dictator; I’m sorry.

Seal, “Don’t Cry”
Warner Bros./ZTT, 1994
UK #51, US #33

Sophisticated futility, gliding across an unlit dancefloor. The “don’t be so hard on yourself” part puts an especially huge crack in my heart.

Death, “Voice of the Soul”
Nuclear Blast, 1998

Palpable acoustic slide serves as spine for the twin-guitar elegy: they split and recombine during a strummed (!) passage. Rare is the non-brutal metal track that moves me; on this, Schuldiner’s last record, he rips out my living guts.

Vic Chesnutt, “Maiden”
Capricorn/Velocette, 1998

Enlisting fellow travelers Lambchop, Chesnutt delivers an all-time cheating song. He slips on self-pity like a cheap Halloween mask; his sad need goes straight for the appendix. It’s not too late for Bob Dylan to cover this.

Pegboy, “Wages of Sin”
Quarterstick, 1994

Doomy, almost-not pop-punk — the coda gets there — with a killer sense of dynamics and way more wah than medically necessary.

The Tamperer ft. Maya, “If You Buy This Record (Your Life Will Be Better)”
TIME, 1998
ITA #10, UK #3

Maya makes the title a sucker’s bet, and the Italian job done on “Material Girl” almost makes the getaway. But the final minute saws on, leaving you, the collector, to contemplate your purchase.

Pavement, “Rattled By the Rush”
Matador, 1995
UK #91

Everybody wants to talk about “Dancing Days,” but how about that 13th Floor Elevators hooting? SM’s delivery is halting and wounding; the guitar ruts enough to make the railyard harmonica sound sincere.

The La’s, “Feelin’”
Go! Discs, 1990
UK #43

A post-OD case of the happy sweats, a rollicking Merseyside chimer. The shortest track on the record, but I could listen to Lee Mavers enunciate feeeelin’ for years and never hear “There She Goes” again.

The Magnetic Fields, “Epitaph For My Heart”
Merge, 1999

More to come from them, but this is Stephin Merritt’s lyrical heat check: repurposing a warning label, linking three consecutive ings, namechecking the Brill crew. And still it chimes like a 1/64th-scale church bell.

Method Man, “All I Need”
Def Jam, 1994

I’m exchanging the genius Biggie sample for the growls RZA deploys indiscriminately. This is an even grimmer valentine than the remix, but they stay away from vintage Wu grime, opting for a meditative, almost plaintive mash note from the trenches.

Siouxsie & the Banshees, “Kiss Them For Me”
Polydor/Wonderland, 1991
UK #32, US #23

The final video aired on 120 Minutes. What a way to go: Siouxsie takes the ancien régime for a walk, laying the A&R heads on the guillotine over George Martin strings and machine-gun drums.

Helen Love, “Girl About Town”
Damaged Goods, 1996

From the hopeful angle, it’s an ear-to-ear grin at someone who’s done it all and won’t forget any of it. But Love sees the darkness: the plasticpunk pace, complete with fanfare, is so brisk it’s easy to miss that evil boyfriend.

Pebbles, “Giving You the Benefit”
MCA, 1990
US #4, US R&B #1

Another Reid/Babyface smash, with Pebbles’ funky syncopation on the chorus and perfectly dramatic Fairlight hits. The drums light the dude up like a speedbag.

David Bowie, “Jump They Say”
Arista/Savage, 1993
UK #9, US Dance #6

For the full story, as usual, turn to Chris O’Leary. A brutalist dance-pop memorial, constructed by three titans: David, Nile Rodgers, and Lester Bowie, who throttles his trumpet into sudden silence.

Portrait, “Honey Dip”
Capitol, 1992
US R&B #18

Smoothed-out new jack, on an endless hazy quest. It’s got hooks, but the vocal counterpoints are the real treasure: stepping lightly all over the scale.

Cows, “One O’Clock High”
Amphetamine Reptile, 1990

It’s a gear-grinding short story for the ages. The narrator’s gotta give his partner a ride after work: she strips, she’s incredible at it, and he wants to die. The drummer slams a speed-addled oompah, the singer finishes his lines at the toilet bowl.

Saint Etienne, “Nothing Can Stop Us”
Heavenly, 1991
UK #53

The gleeful thieves of Saint Etienne grab a Dusty Springfield bassline (which itself repurposes a line from Los Bravos… I think) and get high off the escape.

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