44: Oasis – Live Forever (1994)
In the ‘90s, the rock star was redefined. The tortured genius of Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder made stardom into a curse to be endured. Fame was sand in the Vaseline of art, and Oasis was having none of it. Its debut album Definitely Maybe kicks off with a song called “Rock ’N’ Roll Star,” a statement of purpose as subtle as a cricket bat to the head. For the working class blokes of Oasis, the promise of rock ’n’ roll was one of escape, an untethering of the soul from the bollocks of everyday life. “Live Forever,” the third single from the album, crystallized this idea in sonic form, its shimmering guitars floating across a heavy drumbeat while Liam Gallagher sings about wanting to fly. It functions as both an elegy to dead rock stars and a testament to the power of music to lift the listener up and make them feel immortal.
One of the bands defining songs, it represented everything the band stood for. Contrariness? Guitarist and songwriter Noel Gallagher claims he wrote it in response to Nirvana’s B-side “I Hate Myself and Want to Die.” An homage to its ancestors? The melody was appropriated from The Rolling Stones’ “Shine a Light.” Slightly inane lyrics that somehow still resonate? Gallagher rhymes “rain” with “pain,” and before you can roll your eyes, it switches elegantly to an E-minor chord and you’re suddenly overcome with emotion.
“Live Forever” became Oasis’ first top ten hit in the UK and made the Billboard Modern Rock charts, becoming the first of the Britpop bands to gain some traction in the U.S. After years of the heavy, dour pall of grunge, music fans were ready to re-embrace rock ’n’ roll as a source of joy and uplift. This opened the curtain just enough to let the light in. – Eric Mellor
43. Radiohead – Karma Police (1997)
OK Computer was one of the groundbreaking albums of the ‘90s, but its most revolutionary aspect was subtle. Aside from the mixing of rock and electronica, this was where Radiohead shifted its perspective outward. If the ‘90s was a decade of alt-rock navel gazing, Thom Yorke and his mates were among the first to turn their gaze slightly outward. Inner anguish and personal demons were replaced with anxiety and paranoia over a rapidly-changing world, something most pointedly expressed on “Karma Police.” This was the band at its most human on an album that tried to be anything but, its image of humanity that of someone slowly going mad while trying to understand a world moving too fast to comprehend.
Arguably the most conventional song on the album, “Karma Police” succeeds thanks to execution more than innovation. Yorke demonstrates his absurdly vast vocal range, switching from fearful to menacing at the drop of a hat and pulling each look off convincingly. He starts off terrified of a man who speaks in mathematical terms and a woman with Adolf Hitler’s haircut, only to go sinister on the chorus (“This is what you’ll get/ This is what you’ll get/ This is what you’ll get when you mess with us”). Amid this paranoia, there’s little comfort to be gained from Yorke’s assertions of sanity (“For a minute there/ I lost myself”). Instead, the band abandons its tight arrangement by end of the song, creating a crescendo of electronic noise that mirrors the narrator’s apparent psychotic break. The lyrics are anything but grounded, and the music eventually follows suit. Even when writing a fairly conventional rock song, Radiohead couldn’t help but turn those conventions inside out. — Kevin Korber