March 6, 2011

The Top 200 Pop Songs of the ’90s: 200-181

In the summer of 1991, my parents took me and my cousin Tim to Chincoteague, Md., for a week’s vacation in a beach house. I remember particularly that there were red jellyfish, and that we discovered a bottle of gin hidden in a secret cabinet in the bedroom we were sleeping in, and that Tim, who was four years older and about ten years cooler than I was, had brought just one cassette to play as we cruised around the island in his busted-ass hatchback Honda Civic terrifyingly attempting to “pick up chicks”. And that it blew my fucking mind.

After a week nonstop of listening to Out of Time, I went home and bought the tape for myself, and then scrounged up the pocket money to buy everything R.E.M. had ever made, as well as an abysmally written book called Remarks: The Story of R.E.M., where I studied up daily on R.E.M. trivia in case I ever found myself sitting a surprise final exam on “all the most important pop music ever”. I would later learn that there were other bands.

Eight years and a couple of thousand trips to the record store later, the entire world would be destroyed by the Millenium Bug, but I managed to listen to some wonderful songs along the way. Here are some of the best of them, ranked, absurdly, from 200 to 1.

Harmacy200: Sebadoh, “On Fire”

I will never forgive Lou Barlow for sabotaging the end of Dinosaur Jr.’s magical cover of “Just Like Heaven”, or for the irredeemably shitty half of Bubble and Scrape, but when he behaves himself, he’s transcendent. By 1996, Sebadoh had quietened their distortion fixation and spruced themselves up for radio play, which, while it certainly upset the purists, yielded some truly magnificent songwriting. “On Fire” is an album opener to match the best of them.

Becoming X199: Sneaker Pimps, “6 Underground”

The very best song on the soundtrack for Val Kilmer’s 1997 remake of The Saint. Which, yes. But in many ways, “6 Underground” outshines the work of Sneaker Pimps’ vastly more critically acclaimed Trip-Hop contemporaries. What I am trying to say is that Sneaker Pimps would beat Morcheeba in a fight any day, for what that’s worth.

Blue Wonder Power Milk198: Hooverphonic, “Club Montepulciano”

Belgium’s finest export. Apart from Front 242. And Revolting Cocks. Let’s play a game where we name bands from Belgium.

I Am an Elastic Firecracker197: Tripping Daisy, “I Got A Girl”

Before Tim Delaughter founded his polarizing band-as-cult collective Polyphonic Spree, he was in a little band called Tripping Daisy, and they had a little song that turned a few arpeggios and a tremolo pedal into a joyful tribute to the epic frustrations of having an evil girlfriend. I always thought that if they only had a better name, they could have been somebody.

The Dandy Warhols Come Down196: The Dandy Warhols, “Not if You Were the Last Junkie on Earth”

Frankly, I could never really get behind the sentiment of this song, because – even in 1997 – heroin was still pretty fucking cool. We were only one year out from Trainspotting, for God’s sake. That caveat aside, the Dandys get full marks for writing a catchy, ironic, jangle-pop smash in a year when Limp Bizkit was gearing up to take over the world.

Herjazz195: Huggy Bear, “Her Jazz”

Moving slightly off the beaten track here, for the first time. There is a special place in heaven for the Riot Girl bands of the mid-’90s. And particularly Huggy Bear. And particularly this song.

Loved194: Cranes, “Beautiful Friend”

I discovered Cranes by accident in an endearingly awful used record store near my house in St. Andrews, Scotland, in 1998 or thereabouts. The shop was run by two aging goths, who always looked so, so sad (though I expect the eyeliner helped). They never really seemed to have much of anything at all in stock, but they were positively bursting with back-catalogue Cranes albums, which they were happy to exchange for a few quid and an old Live CD (Throwing Copper) that was de-cool-ifying my record collection.

It was a good trade. “Beautiful Friend” is a death march, but Alison Shaw’s helium voice is arresting enough to convince you that it’s really going somewhere.

Short Bus193: Filter, “Hey Man, Nice Shot”

At the time, it really seemed like this song was about Kurt Cobain.

Polythene192: Feeder, “High”

In honesty, I think I probably responded to this song because I happened to be really into getting high around the time it came out. In retrospect, there are worse reasons to respond to a song, even if it’s a Feeder song. This was certainly their finest effort.

Little Earthquakes191: Tori Amos, “Silent All These Years”

Tori has always received a lot of flack for being something of a terrible flake, but it’s honestly her quirkiness that keeps her well clear of the infinitely more polished but vastly less appealing Lilith Fairians like Jewel and Sarah McLachlan who began to dominate the scene towards the end of the ’90s. Little Earthquakes, her first and almost her finest effort, is a surprisingly bitter, angsty album (particularly appealing if you happened to have been 13 when it came out) and it has an edge and a vitality to it that the Jewels of this world could only dream of. This was one of its finest moments.

Dig Me Out190: Sleater Kinney, “Dig Me Out”

My God, what a warble.

Murder City Devils189: Murder City Devils, “Dance Hall Music”

I had the pleasure of seeing the Murder City Devils perform at the Black Cat in DC towards the end of their last-ever tour. Spencer Moody got so drunk that he cut himself open falling into the drumset and played the rest of the show with blood streaming down his face. It was fucking awesome.

Peloton188: Delgados, “Pull the Wires From the Wall”

All the best bands come from Scotland. A huge part of that, at least in the last decade or so, has been the Delgados’ Chemikal Underground record label, which, in addition to the Delgados themselves, launched heavy hitters (as far as Glasgow is concerned) Arab Strap, Mogwai, and Aereogramme. The Delgados’ first album gained popularity in Britain thanks to the efforts of John Peel, but it was their second album, Peloton, that would define their sound. The debut single from Peloton, “Pull the Wires From the Wall”, was a promise of great things to come for this band.

Superunknown187: Soundgarden, “Fell on Black Days”

For one infinitely long year, you couldn’t go anywhere without having “Black Hole Sun” blasted at you from every direction – or worse, being subjected to the video for the song, where everyone’s eyes get all big and stuff. By the time the fervor died down, we were left with “Fell on Black Days”, the fifth single from the same, absurdly popular album, and a much, much, much better song.

...And Out Come the Wolves186: Rancid, “Ruby Soho”

Beloved Op. Ivy alums making upbeat, hooky, enthusiastic punk rock music about 10 years too late. Good for them.

1977185: Ash, “Girl From Mars”

Tim Wheeler and co. can write a hook like you wouldn’t believe. I first heard this song, along with the equally infectious “Oh Yeah”, from the same album, on a long car trip to Wales in 1995, and it’s still a favorite. It reminds me of my cousin Kate, for some reason. Possibly because she was also far too cool for her own good when this song came out. It’s worth pointing out that Ash are still hard at work making fantastic, woefully underappreciated pop music more than 17 years later.

Pablo Honey184: Radiohead, “Vegetable”

People talk shit about Pablo Honey like it’s not canon now that Radiohead have transcended space and time to make future music that explodes our minds, but all I know is that when this album came out, it changed my motherfucking life. Admittedly, I was a hateful, grubby 14-year-old at the time, but I’m still secretly waiting for Thom Yorke to put out another record full of grungey pop hits.

Frame and Canvas183: Braid, “A Dozen Roses”

Almost 20 years later, it’s now totally OK to like Braid. Here’s why.

Sixteen Stone182: Bush, “Machinehead”

Bush seemed like a much more substantive band than they turned out to be when “Everything Zen” surfaced in MTV’s Buzz Bin about a year after Kurt Cobain’s death. That they were just post-Nirvana, and not post-post-post-Nirvana seems like a badge of honor in the age of Nickelback, and in retrospect a good chunk of Sixteen Stone is solid. “Machinehead” is a highlight.

I See a Darkness181: Bonnie Prince Billie, “I See a Darkness”

I came to Bonnie Prince Billie very late, otherwise this would probably be ranked higher. It is a song that reveals more layers with each listen, and at its core it is warm and invigorating, despite the veneer of gloom and sadness. I See a Darkness is a luminescent album, and its title track burns as brightly as anything Will Oldham has ever written.

Next: 180-161 >>

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Once the executive branch of a thriving government, I am now a lonely wanderer, floating rudderless on a sea of discontent. Or a swamp. A swamp of malaise. A slough of despair, bitches. Rudderless.