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100 Best Songs of the ’90s (#100-91)

These are the best songs of the 1990s.

94: Bonnie “Prince” Billy – I See a Darkness (1999)

Will Oldham, aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy, has quietly put a widespread stamp on modern indie. Artists as diverse as Angel Olsen and Tortoise have connections to the bearded troubadour, and his long list of covers has encompassed the likes of R. Kelly and Merle Haggard. The end of the ‘90s was a curious mix of aggro-rock and bubblegum pop, so the unique folk gloom of his 1999 debut under his new moniker, I See a Darkness, was widely received by the quickly-growing DIY and underground scene. The album’s title track stands as one of his best-known songs.

“I See a Darkness” is, curiously, divided into two very different official versions: the original with its stately beauty, its piercing sorrow that fills every breath with dread, and an astonishingly upbeat remake released over a decade after the fact. The latter features the aforementioned Olsen on harmonies and, while trailing behind the original’s harrowing visage, it shows how versatile Oldham’s songwriting can be. With that quality in mind, there is one other significant version worth mentioning.

Released only a year after the original, Johnny Cash’s take is wistfully nostalgic, less of an elegy and more of a firm pat on the back, as his interpretation doesn’t quite hit the same level of utter bleakness that Oldham’s obtains. However, as always, Cash’s delivery is with such utter conviction that you can’t help but think he dragged it kicking and screaming out of his own darkened soul. When Oldham joins in on harmonies, you can almost hear how in awe he is of the whole ordeal.

What separates Oldham’s original from the rest is how hopelessly adrift he is amidst a sea of melancholy. His quickly wilting voice weeps and drowns in sorrow, a desperate plea for help that, at its core, feels honest and sincere. When Oldham whimpers, “Well, I hope that someday, buddy/ We have peace in our lives/ Together or apart/ Alone or with our wives,” you can feel his heart tearing at the seams. It is simply overwhelming and quickly burrows deep inside the crevices of the soul. Very few songs have the same chilling effect. – Edward Dunbar

93: Smashing Pumpkins – Mayonaise (1993)

That the Pumpkins struggled under the pressure to follow up Gish—addiction, a breakup, writer’s block, suicidal thoughts—is well-documented. That Billy Corgan and company rose to the challenge(s) with Siamese Dream is unquestioned. That Dream contains some of the band’s finest performances and some of Corgan’s best songwriting is canon.

And, of course, this includes “Mayonaise,” of which Rolling Stone declared, “In some ways, it’s the ultimate Smashing Pumpkins song.” Readers agreed by naming it the band’s greatest song in a 2012 poll, beating out “1979,” “Cherub Rock” and “Soma.”

The question, then, regarding its greatness isn’t what or where but why: Why is it so revered by fans and critics alike? Beyond the obvious answer of being a near-perfect composition, it’s rather simple: “Mayonaise” is vague. Its discussion of struggling to understand one’s own identity is clear enough, but exactly why the struggle is happening—that’s the song’s key. In that unexplained space, the listener is free to insert whatever troubles s/he is going through, making Corgan’s lyrics that much more accessible. In other words, less is more. To wit, this is expressed in four words: “Words defy the plans.” As standalone lyrics, “Mayonaise” is brilliant because it’s both precisely opaque and opaquely precise.

Having beautiful music as accompaniment always helps, though. The soothing guitar melody bookending the song and the warm blanket of multi-tracked riffing throughout is premier comfort food. Even the moody, insecure solo—perhaps representing the song’s (and band’s) inner turmoil—is quickly silenced by gentle acoustic strumming as if to say, “It’s gonna be OK,” with a friendly pat on the shoulder.

Besides being the album’s crown jewel, “Mayonaise” is Siamese Dream’s purest distillation: six minutes of naval-gazing with tangents through self-doubt, anxiety and hard-earned confidence. Corgan wrote abstractly about inner conflict, but it’s clear he was talking to himself as much as anyone else. “And I fail/ But when I can, I will,” he assures himself (and us). “Try to understand/ That when I can, I will”. The Smashing Pumpkins may have written better songs, but they never wrote a more relatable one. – Steve Lampiris

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