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100 Best Songs of the ’90s (#70-61)

These are the best songs of the 1990s.

64: Bikini Kill- Rebel Girl (1993)

Bikini Kill’s output is something like an anti-diary. Write down your most secret thoughts and transgressive wishes, but instead of locking it all away after you put the cap on your special pen, make it your business to shout it to everyone you know. Write it on your body, Xerox it and plaster the hallways. Truth or dare, but both. “Rebel Girl” is a perfect distillation of riot grrrls’ revolutionary ethics. Joan Jett produced and performed backing vocals and guitar on the iteration of the single that appeared on The Singles compilation which, apart from lending some cosmically correct oldhead cred, embodied the spirit of sisterhood and radical mentorship advocated for in the song’s lyrics.

“Rebel Girl” is a DIY punk tribute to the girl that’s cooler than you, the one that’s “queen of the neighborhood.” Kathleen Hanna sets this up as a playground confrontation (“She’s got the hottest trike in town”), using a sing-song inflection that destabilizes – is this praise or insult? “That girl, she holds her head up so high…” – hey, who does she think she is? – “I think I wanna be her best friend, yeah!” In a verse, the queen’s gone from the object of envy to the source of admiration, Hanna’s child-like delivery gaining assurance as Kathi Wilcox’s bass chugs alongside her. Jealousy is counter-productive; alliance is power.

But the personal is political, right? This isn’t just about schoolyard idol worship, it matures into a third-wave feminist anthem that envisions the next phase of revolution. The second verse summons a body politic, revolution discovered in stages, from traditional protest (when she talks, when she walks) to queer-positive sexual liberation (in her hips, in her kiss). When Hanna sings, “That girl thinks she’s the queen of the neighborhood/ I got news for you, SHE IS!” it’s more than just the spillage of a girl crush, it’s an enthusiastic expression of defiance and grand-scale solidarity. “Rebel Girl” casts friendship (and more) as a weaponized force as part of her “girls in front” philosophy. Forever a riot grrrl, all hail Queen Kathleen. – Stacey Pavlick

63. My Bloody Valentine – Only Shallow (1991)

For most music fans, the first experience with My Bloody Valentine started with this four-beat drum machine count-off, followed by a glorious din that could not be easily described. “Only Shallow” is performed on guitars that sound nothing like what we had come to expect from the instrument. This begins as an overdriven, cacophonous eruption of noise that grabs your attention immediately only to break down into something just as otherworldly. Once the noise settles, Bilinda Butchers coos something indecipherable yet soothing, even as the bending guitar notes create a sense of unease. And then the noise returns with just as much power and gusto as before. The song consists of these two parts dueling back and forth for almost five minutes before burning itself out into a haze of feedback that redefined guitars and defined a genre

Shoegaze can be a hard sell because it relies almost exclusively on sound to evoke feeling. The lyrics of “Only Shallow” mean so little that Butcher and Kevin Shields do their best to obscure them and make them inscrutable. Yet that sweeping, romantic feeling associated with the band’s output is still very much there, expressed by the layers upon layers of guitars on the track. Throughout Loveless, Shields invents a new way to play the guitar, and this definitive track demonstrates exactly what he could accomplish with his new vision. It’s a wonder that this once slight, jangly pop band developed into such innovators. Simultaneously aggressive and serene, this is a far cry from what any other shoegaze band could have ever hoped to have achieved at the time. Even today, almost nothing else sounds like it. – Kevin Korber

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