5: Sinéad O’Connor− Nothing Compares 2 U (1990)
This has got to be one of the three or four best vocal takes in pop. Not anyone can fuck with Prince, let alone like this. A nondescript ballad written for the Family, one of the dozens of funk bands in Prince’s orbit, it took a young Irish woman with a radiant voice and a fiery conviction to spin it into one of the most heartrending pop songs of all time. At first, Sinéad O’Connor sings “Nothing Compares 2 U” deliberately, defiantly even. She only seems to flare up when provoked. When she sings the second syllable of “nothing” in falsetto, she seems to be expelling a bad memory from her body, as if it’s an instinctive tic to protect against an intrusive thought. And if she seems to choke up and retreat into her own voice during that devastating line about flowers, that’s real—you can see her tears in the video.
This is a soul performance down to the blue notes, which might sound sultry if they didn’t express such urgent sadness. But she never affects blackface, never tries to sound grittier than she really does, never veers into ballpark melisma. She’s never content to check off the boxes of “soul.” The feeling carries the song; she radiates it.
Sinéad doesn’t sing “Nothing Compares 2 U” anymore. Per the bel canto style of singing in which she’s trained, she can’t sing anything with which she carries no emotional attachment—and this is her biggest hit, so no wonder she’s worn it out. When she announced on Facebook she’d be pulling it from her setlists, fans reacted with a predictable mix of support and disappointment. “All singers are actors,” said one. O’Connor, never shy about saying what’s on her mind, responded rapidly and curtly. “No. Not all singers are actors.” She’s not kidding. Her career is proof of that—never more so than here, on the greatest of all Prince covers and one of the single most powerful pop performances ever committed to tape. – Daniel Bromfield
4: Nirvana– Smells Like Teen Spirit (1991)
Kurt Cobain did everything possible to minimize the originality of Nirvana’s best-known song. He pointed out the resemblance of the famous opening chords to the opening of Boston’s “More Than a Feeling.” He said it was an attempt to rip off the loud-quiet-loud sound originated by the Pixies. He also made no secret of his appreciation for Cheap Trick. But it is now clear, over 25 years later, that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” bears all the hallmarks of Cobain’s originality as a songwriter. Despite his musical roots in punk, Cobain had an almost preternatural ability to tap into a long tradition of pop songwriting going all the way back to the Beatles, if not further.
The song kicks off with those iconic, choppy chords and Dave Grohl’s thundering drums, versions of which have been heard in garages and bedrooms worldwide since the song first hit the airwaves. In the verse, the dynamics turn on a dime to the “straight” groove of Krist Novoselic’s eighth-note bassline and the chiming, two-note figure that recurs throughout the song, before roaring back into the chorus, taking off with Cobain’s classic and underrated guitar solo and ending on the repeated “a denial” climax.
Despite his talent for screaming his guts out, Cobain was gifted with great vocal command and a seemingly natural velvety tone. His singing here, as it is on so many Nirvana songs, has a strangely ominous melodic quality, not to mention its inventiveness, teasing out lines that would be hard to predict from the chords alone. Jon Brion once memorably likened Cobain’s sense of melody to Gershwin’s. Though some may object to the comparison, there is something undeniably “classic” about it, and not just in a rock sense. It’s a song whose melody you can whistle, sing or play in any style, all without sacrificing what makes the song so beguiling.
“Our little group has always been/ And always will until the end.” If you strip back their meteoric rise and Cobain’s sad demise, that’s what you’re left with—a little group, a big sound and some of the best tunes you’ll hear. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” sits comfortably in the Great American Songbook of rock. Gershwin would be proud. – Dylan Montanari
3: Pulp– Common People (1995)
Pulp is still regarded as one of the flag-bearers of the Britpop era, alongside other crisp-tongued groups like Oasis and the Verve. Britpop is seen by many as a direct result of the popularity of grunge and alternative rock in the late ‘80s early ‘90s, which is funny when you consider that the lyrics of Pulp’s biggest hit, “Common People,” feel as if they belong on an indie record. However, the song is a bit more meta than that. “Common People” addresses the audacity of the rich lusting after the perceived benefits of poverty, and in this sense it serves as direct commentary on musicians who proudly embraced the label of “starving artist” while signing million dollar record deals.
If singer/co-writer Jarvis Cocker is to be believed, “Common People” is the result of a real conversation that he had with a Greek heiress who happened to be a fellow student at London’s Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. The British press, being the British press, has devoted plenty of time to uncovering the identity of the heiress as well as commenting on the ethics of a songwriter turning a drunken conversation into societal commentary. Real or not, however, the lyrics of “Common People” ring true to this day. What’s so enticing about the song is that it’s both an infectious pop song and a razor-sharp piece of cultural commentary.
Pulp’s intelligence isn’t only apparent in the lyrics of “Common People” but also in the structure of the song itself. The chorus adjusts as the song progresses, starting as conversation and then moving to question, prediction and finally recommendation: “You’ll never live like common people/ You’ll never do what common people do/ You’ll never fail like common people/ You’ll never watch your life slide out of view/ And we dance, and drink, and screw/ Because there’s nothing else to do.” As we witness the rich and powerful exert their will over the masses with increasing force in our society, Pulp’s “Common People” is perhaps even more relevant now than it was upon its release. – Mike McClelland
2: Radiohead– Paranoid Android (1997)
If “Paranoid Android” feels like an obvious choice for the top of this list, that’s only due to hindsight. Its odd time signatures and curious arrangement are not the signs of a usual pop hit. Much has been made about OK Computer’s disparate and decidedly un-rock influences (Miles Davis and DJ Shadow loom large), but prog rock also factors in heavily. Guitarist Jonny Greenwood has admitted that “Paranoid Android”’s Mellotron was inspired by Genesis’s Tony Banks and his miraculously aerial playing, and the song’s shifting arrangement places it one step away from being full-on prog. Guitarist Ed O’Brien may disagree (he lamented that “People thought it was prog, but prog always took itself so seriously”), but that genre has always had a mischievous side.
“Paranoid Android”’s three-part suite dips into dynamo guitar playing and Mellotron flourishes with a cinematic pacing and arrangement that ties it all together. It all feels like it shouldn’t work, like it should collapse upon itself. “Rain down, rain down/ Come on rain down on me/…The panic, the vomit,” Thom Yorke rasps and groans, and suddenly an entire field in Glastonbury is chanting back in response. Cheerful lyrics they are not, but the giddy rush from subdued sorrow to riotous action in the form of Greenwood’s sledgehammer guitar and drummer Phil Selway’s dynamic but always powerful groove is enough to bring anyone to their knees. While the stereotype of Radiohead is that of subdued moaning, “Paranoid Android” is ferocious and untamed.
OK Computer turned the idea of what a rock band could be in the ‘90s on its head, and “Paranoid Android” was its battering ram into the charts. Peaking at a surprising number three in the U.K. (their highest charting single after “Creep”), it’s probably one of the most unlikely Top Fives in British chart history. Along with the poppier and more traditional (relatively speaking, of course) “No Surprises” and “Karma Police,” “Paranoid Android” ensured that Radiohead were not only one of the most forward thinking bands around, but also one of the most successful bands from England. – Edward Dunbar
1: Smashing Pumpkins– 1979 (1996)
The Smashing Pumpkins may not have been as trailblazing as Nirvana, Radiohead or My Bloody Valentine, but their work casts an expansive shadow over the 1990s. They were the quintessential “alternative” band, fearlessly experimental to the point that they often reached beyond their capabilities. Never was that more true than on Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, which showed songwriter Billy Corgan’s gifts at their most sublime (“Thirty-Three,” “Tonight, Tonight”) and at their most embarrassing (“Fuck You (An Ode to No One),” “Bullet with Butterfly Wings”). But Corgan’s true masterstroke came in the form of an unassuming song tucked away in the middle of the second disc on this behemoth of an album. “1979” was initially such an afterthought that Flood, the producer for Mellon Collie, was ready to cut it from the album entirely. Fortunately, the idea of leaving a song on the cutting room floor sent Corgan, who was by then a maniacal workaholic, into overdrive; within four hours, he completed what would end up being his greatest accomplishment.
The Smashing Pumpkins rose to popularity through a mix of grunge and shoegaze textures, but Corgan was already growing weary of that formula and had begun trying out new approaches. Still, “1979” doesn’t really sound like anything that could be classified easily. Is it electronica? Is it power-pop? Is it shoegaze-lite? It’s all of those things and absolutely none of them. In that sense, it perfectly taps into its decade of origin, a time in which the conflicts and ideals that had defined a generation seemed to fade into nothingness.
This is only emphasized by the nostalgic bent of Corgan’s lyrics, which look back wistfully on a misspent youth. There’s no clear story or narrative; Corgan instead evokes feelings with placed images of late-night joyrides and youthful indiscretions. He’s longing for a time that was at once simpler and more complicated, a time when you knew your identity if nothing else. That feeling still resonates, even as Corgan has spent the past few years trying his best to tarnish his own legacy with one baffling decision after another. That desire to return to a misspent youth is a notion that transcends generations, and it’s a big part of why “1979” will continue to be a crucial rock staple for decades to come. – Kevin Korber