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100 Best Songs of the ’90s (#10-1)

These are the best songs of the 1990s.

10. Pavement– Gold Soundz (1994)

More than 20 years on, Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain centerpiece seems steeped in nostalgia. With sepia toned guitars and Stephen Malkmus’ voice emerging out of some half-remembered summer, the song is hand-crafted for reminiscence even on first listen. Yet these aren’t happy memories on display; it may be the most quietly heartbreaking song in the group’s surprisingly wistful catalogue.

It’s essentially about two hipsters falling in love and being too cool to be kind to each other: “And you’re the kind of girl I like/ Because you’re empty and I’m empty.” This semi-sequel to Big Star’s beautifully tragic “13,” swamps childhood angst for 20-something ambivalence. Unlike Alex Chilton’s innocent crush, Malkmus stumbled into a short term fling that’s going to hurt for much, much longer than the time they spent together. Although besotted, “so drunk in the August sun,” he is well aware of this affair’s limits: “do you remember, in December/ That I won’t need you when I’m gone?

Mostly thanks to Malkmus and Scott Kannberg’s inter-twining, chiming guitars, this is the perfect sonic distillation of summer tumbling into fall. Its weaponized nostalgia backfires, memories hit like she broke your heart yesterday, and, “they’re coming to the chorus now…” becomes all that more depressing. Now you have music inevitably linked to a person, turning songs and albums into sounds of self-destruction. Why move on when you can wallow in this glorious noise?

Pavement’s 2010 greatest hits package took its title from “Gold Soundz”: “you can never quarantine the past.” It’s a frighteningly honest look at relationships after childhood puppy love and teenage drama. People break up and move on without healing. Careers come first, the spark fades and your first tastes of independence and sex have a shadow hanging over them. Nostalgia is the beautiful pain of remembering what you’ve lost, and perhaps no song captures that definition like this. – Nathan Stevens

9: Ice Cube– It Was a Good Day (1992)

Belonging to the pantheon of transcendent ‘90s rap that never feels out of place, this yeoman’s tale of a stress-free 24 hours in South Central is the kind of song you might hear at a bar, on the radio or in the supermarket. Wherever you hear it, it will instantly put you at ease.

Ice Cube has said that “It Was a Good Day” wasn’t about a specific date, but is the encapsulation of an ideal, idyllic slice of time. It’s a decidedly apolitical song from one of the most passionately anti-authoritarian rappers, from a viscerally angry album that was released
shortly after the Los Angeles riots that broke out in the wake of the Rodney King verdict.

Journeyman producer DJ Pooh crafted the soundscape, a lollygagging West Coast bounce that sampled the Isley Brothers’ “Footsteps in the Dark” in a way that felt more effortless than Dr. Dre’s precise G-Funk. The music is so laid back that it’s strange to hear its relative calm from the man behind “Fuck tha Police,” but Cube raps with a springy flow, a kind of atonal sing-song that allows him to glide with Pooh’s hydraulics. Occasionally he employs a more complex flow where the rhyming syllable falls on the downbeat, it’s mostly straightforward and confident, the sign of an artist at the peak of their skills.

While he’s always had a gift for expressing rage, “Good Day” is Cube at his most descriptive and literary, evoking vivid images from breakfast–“No barking from the dog, no smog/ And Momma cooked a breakfast with no hog”–to the end of the night: “Even saw the lights of the Goodyear Blimp/ And it read, ‘Ice Cube’s a pimp’.” When Cube finally recognizes the fleetingness of his day dream, the line hits hard because you’ve been sharing in his utopia: “Plus nobody I know got killed in South Central L.A. .” – Grant Rindner

8: The Verve– Bittersweet Symphony (1997)

Some bands are cursed. The Verve was at first known simply as Verve, the definite article added when the band faced a lawsuit from the American record label of the same name. Its stint on the Lollapalooza tour in 1994 was rife with drug fueled antics that resulted in a hospital stay for singer Richard Ashcroft and night in jail for drummer Peter Salisbury after he destroyed a Kansas hotel room. The recording of its second album A Northern Soul was fraught with tension and mayhem and ultimately led to the band’s demise. Finally, just before the release of its third and biggest UK single, “History,” Ashcroft quit the band. Within weeks, Ashcroft reconciled with Salisbury and bassist Simon Jones, pointedly leaving out guitarist Nick McCabe. The remnants of the band went into the studio with guitarist Simon Tong to record a bunch of Ashcroft-penned tunes but were not satisfied with the results. After not speaking to McCabe for almost a year, Ashcroft reached out to him to join them on the sessions. McCabe added guitar parts to the existing songs and then the band jammed out another six tracks.

From this within band strife emerged Urban Hymns, which became the band’s biggest album thanks to its gorgeous opening track, “Bittersweet Symphony.” The sweeping, string-drenched epic finally achieved the grandiosity and universality that the band had always strived for. Ashcroft sings words that we’ve all said to ourselves in the mirror: “No change I can change I can change/ But I’m here in my mold.” The song’s massive success was buoyed by a video that features Ashcroft walking down a London street with zero regard for other people.

The Verve’s success did not come without pitfalls. The song was based around a sample of an orchestral version of The Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time,” and lawyer Alan Klein alleged that use of a longer sample than was agreed to and sued the band. The Verve’s manager Jazz Summers cheekily called the settlement, “A 50-50 deal: 50 percent Keith Richards and 50 percent Mick Jagger.” And naturally, tensions within the band resurfaced during a subsequent tour, which culminated with McCabe again leaving before it was finished. Dissolving from the pressure of success, the band broke up one last time after finally conquering the world. It was a fitting end to a band whose brief span had been so bittersweet. — Eric Mellor

7: Beck- Loser (1994)

I’m a driver, I’m a winner/ Things are gonna change, I can feel it.

This sample break was both the anti-message and legacy of Beck’s 1994 hit “Loser,” a single that accidentally described the wit and ennui of then-young adult Gen Xers. The song was a culmination of Beck’s experiences as a fixture on the low-level L.A. scene, where he’d sometimes just make up shit in the middle of a set to gauge the audience’s attention. At some point, the right people – producers Tom Rothrock and Karl Stephenson – looked up from their beers and approached Beck about committing “Loser” to tape. “The raps and vocals are all first takes,” Beck remembered. “If I’d known the impact it was going to make, I would have put something a little more substantial in it.” But the song’s resonance had everything to do with its energetic purposelessness; the abandonment of a point became a sentiment youth culture embraced.

It’s jarring to think of Beck as a hip-hop artist (especially in retrospect), but the intention was to de-familiarize his folk sound by cross-checking it with rap. The lyrics are a street philosopher’s word salad; he’s like a mutant West coast Beastie Boy. Stephenson’s instincts led him to hybridize the song even further, adding drum tracks, guitar parts and samples. The repeating guitar slide underlined the postmodern quandary of getting up only to fall down again, while the wash of a sitar leant the song a haze of ramshackle psychedelia. “Kill the headlights/ And put it in neutral” he delivered with a bit of schizo emphasis. Beck is said to have modeled his approach after Public Enemy’s Chuck D, but the results were far more loopy-sounding than they were aggressive. Believing his own rapping to be terrible, Beck penned that immortal, self-effacing chorus: “Soy un perdedor/ I’m a loser, baby/ So why don’t you kill me?

“Loser” is a living memorial to the slacker lifestyle. A throwaway song that he wished he’d tried harder on, Beck nevertheless stumbled his way into alt-rock superstardom. By obliterating the gestalt and looking only at the junky, disparate pieces, “Loser” made meaning out of nonsense, even if we didn’t particularly care to find it. – Stacey Pavlick

6: Depeche Mode- Enjoy the Silence (1990)

What good is a relationship if its partners don’t speak? In this definitive synth-pop sneer, Martin Gore suggests that the failure to communicate may in fact be the best way to communicate. Gore’s lyrics for what may be Depeche Mode’s finest hour depict a difficult relationship in the most brutal terms: “like violence,” “trivial,” “meaningless,” “forgettable,” “very unnecessary” and that which “can only do harm.” Worse, it declares that this tragic impasse is in the very nature of commitment: “Vows are spoken/ To be broken.”One of the great bad relationship songs of the decade, “Enjoy the Silence” is malevolent from its title, asserting that between intimates, words are best left unspoken.

Despite its lyrical bitterness, Depeche Mode, whose early career was defined by the bouncing, optimistic love song “Just Can’t Get Enough,” fuels this sinister descent with irresistible hooks, its arena-ready synths as clear and dark as black porcelain, the song rendered in grayscale with dour guitar and David Gahan’s goth plainspeak delivery. And thanks to the rave-lite beat, ear candy melody and that infinitely catchy chorus, “Enjoy” became Depeche Mode’s biggest hit.

The runaway success of Violator made Depeche Mode international superstars, and in the ensuing decades its style has become the signature indicator of goth. Many groups since have tried to make electronic music more inviting, from such obvious candidates as Massive Attack and NIN to less likely acts AFI/Blaqk Audio and Linkin Park. Yet none have succeeded quite like the Essex band. While electronic music once seemed helplessly robotic, the instrumentation commonly expressing a dehumanized species, Depeche Mode gave such music feelings. Sadly, and memorably, in this case its intense human emotion charts a cold peck on the cheek and a parting of ways between humans and their feelings. — Steve Lampiris

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