1993 was a pretty good year for alternative rock. I know, because I watched the whole thing on MTV in my basement, with a remote poised to hit record when a promising video came along that I could document for posterity on my “Great Music” video tape. The tape came in particularly handy as a supplement whenever MTV saw fit to punish one with, say, Bill Bellamy’s MTV Jamz or those awful people in that awful beach house or, God forbid, the dreaded Grind.
Among a number of other hot jams, 1993 yielded “Two Princes”, “Hey Jealousy”, and “Creep”, which were the first three cassette singles I ever bought. Along with those indelible classics, “Great Music” had songs by Soul Asylum, Guns & Roses, Pearl Jam, Snow (“Informer”), Primus, Blind Melon, Arrested Development, Megadeth (“Sweating Bullets”), Genesis, Candlebox, and Faith No More. It was last called into service two years later when R.E.M. surprised everyone by playing an unreleased new song (“Wake Up Bomb”) live at the 1995 MTV Video Music Awards, which, at the time, was the best song I had ever heard.
“Great Music” might well still exist somewhere in my parents’ basement. It’s probably worth millions by now. Here are 20 more songs:
120: Lisa Loeb, “Stay (I Missed You)”
So much going on here – those cat glasses she wears in the video, the video itself (an odd little story about wide-angle shots and quirky long pans in an empty apartment), and then the fact that this song is inextricably linked to Reality Bites, and Winona Ryder, Queen of the ’90s. What’s not to love about Lisa Loeb? She talks so all the time.
119: Guided by Voices, “I Am a Scientist”
Lo-Fi, Lo-Fi, Lo-Fi, Lo-Fi, Lo-Fi. Also, so many other things about GBV, who quietly towered over everything during the ’90s. But definitely Lo-Fi.
118: Arab Strap, “Packs of Three”
Arab Strap I discovered in my Sophomore year of college, via their second album, Philophobia. At the time I didn’t realize you were allowed to talk over a song instead of singing if you weren’t Mark E. Smith, so this band was a bit of a novelty at first, and then they were a lasting, varied, and rich pleasure. “Packs of Three” has probably the most memorable opening line of a song that I’ve ever heard.
117: Bran Van 3000, “Drinking in LA”
I fought tooth and nail to get my hands on our promo copy of Bran Van’s debut (Glee) at the record store where I worked in 1998. It very nearly went to Doug, who had an insufferable habit of coming in early and grabbing all the good CDs off the promo rack. Doug also claimed to be pretty good friends with Thom Yorke, which, I dunno, two strikes; but he was an otherwise decent fellow.
Anyway, I owe my abiding affection for the Bran Van 3000 partially to the fact that I had to fight for this album and partially to the impromptu karaoke sessions I held in my room throughout college, where “Drinking in LA” was a staple. If you’ve had the misfortune to turn older than 26, listen to this one at your peril: it’s a bittersweet pleasure.
116: Jawbox, “Savory”
Man, DC had the coolest fucking bands for a while. So, hometown favorite here, but I’m also a sucker for acts that can do shouty and angular with the right amount of zeal. “Savory” is a rager.
115: Pavement, “Shady Lane”
I spent a summer in Berkeley studying Ancient Greek after my Junior year in college, and apart from occasional sanity trips to Berkeley’s amazing record stores (Rasputin Records and Amoeba) to pick up fuel for my mammoth 16-hour study sessions, I spent the whole time locked up in my room with Hansen and Quinn’s (hateful but wonderful but hateful) Greek: An Intensive Course. I listened to a whole fuckload of Pavement that summer. “Shady Lane”, absurdly, makes me think of Berkeley, California, and Aorist Subjunctive Actives.
114: Soul Asylum, “Runaway Train”
Grave Dancers Union was the first cassette tape I played so much that I wore it out. “Somebody to Shove”, “Black Gold”, and then “Runaway Train” is a pretty compelling way to start an album.
113: Sonic Youth, “Drunken Butterfly”
By the time I was ready for Sonic Youth, they’d already built up a fairly intimidating discography, so I got to know them through their back catalogue, one record at a time and each one a revelation. This sexy, sexy song is off Dirty.
112: Rage Against the Machine, “Killing in the Name”
Holy fuck this song made me feel cool and rebellious. It was a less ironic time.
111: Rainer Maria, “Atlantic”
Rainer Maria songs always feel like they might fall apart at any moment. “Atlantic” (off their overlooked 1999 EP of the same name) is no exception, but it has more ambition and scope than most of their earlier work. Also, it is fucking beautiful.
110: Placebo, “Pure Morning”
The world was briefly in love with Placebo when this song came out in 1998. In an unpopular move, I kept on loving them for years afterwards, but that’s another story.
109: Morrissey, “The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get”
Morrissey at his histrionic best. Remember this video? It’s the one with all the swinging lamps.
108: Ladytron, “Playgirl”
Off the 1999 EP, Miss Black and Her Friends, “Playgirl” will light up a mix tape if called upon to do so. I think that’s how I first heard it. Ladytron were incredibly early on that whole New Wave revival that took us through half of the next decade.
107: Helmet, “In the Meantime”
Man, Helmet were fucking tough. If there was more metal like this I would probably listen to a lot more metal.
106: Beck, “Nobody’s Fault but My Own”
Mutations is the secret best Beck album, but keep that on the downlow (no point hurting Odelay‘s feelings at this stage). It came out during my second year of college and it’s a great album to chain smoke to, which is what I was mostly into at the time.
105: Ben Folds Five, “Brick”
I was introduced to Ben Folds Five’s fantastic “Whatever and Ever Amen” by my high school history teacher, of all people. There’s an overwhelming sense of exuberance and joy pervading the album that doesn’t jive at all with how I felt during my senior year in high school, which is when this came out (I was a mopey fucking teenager). Anyway, this was my favorite track at the time, presumably because it’s the only sad one.
104: Blur, “Coffee and TV”
Weirdly, my copy of 13 is a bootleg that I bought for 100 Rubles at the shadiest record store of all time in St. Petersburg, Russia. I had decided I wasn’t going to pay full price for the album back home because, like, how many Blur albums does a man really need? But I’m glad I stuck with them – “Coffee and TV” is Blur at their Blurriest. They never really lost it.
103: Smog, “I Was a Stranger”
I never really knew a whole lot about Bill Callahan and Smog except that he did this song and that it’s awesome.
102: Sponge, “Molly”
There are secretly a few Sponge songs that are really good songs. “Plowed” and “Wax Ecstatic” come to mind. But “Molly” is the classic. Don’t ask why.
101: Gin Blossoms, “Hey Jealousy”
Why would the best song of all time be only the 101st best song of the ’90s? The world is a confusing and hurtful place. But it is a vastly better place because it has Hey Jealousy in it.