100 Best Songs of the ’90s (#80-71)

These are the best songs of the 1990s.

76: Nirvana – Drain You (1991)

“I love the lyrics, and I never get tired of playing it. Maybe if it was as big as ‘Teen Spirit,’ I wouldn’t like it as much.”

This is Kurt Cobain in a 1994 interview with Rolling Stone about “Drain You” – a backhanded compliment to both songs, which is perhaps as good as it ever got when it came to Cobain speaking about his own success. To hear he was fond of the song makes intuitive sense. Though it was a setlist staple, it wasn’t an MTV hit of the magnitude of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or “Come as You Are.” Just out of range of the spotlight’s glare, “Drain You” was nevertheless prototypical Nirvana. “One baby to another says, ‘I’m lucky to have met you’/ I don’t care what you think unless it is about me/ It is now my duty to completely drain you…” The lyrics of “Drain You” touch on motifs Cobain often conjured up in his compositions: fetuses, body horror, medical jargon, emotional vampirism and…love.

For all of the chaos of overdubbed guitars and distorted sound effects (a rubber duck, the spray of an aerosol can) that litter the twitchy instrumental mid-section, the message of “Drain You” comes back to one simple sentiment as the chorus dies out: “I like you.” The delivery is dingy and stretched, a vulnerability that’s been dragged out of an imperfect heart. Sweet, though. Kurt wrote the song – as well as some others from Nevermind – amid the aftershocks of a break-up with Bikini Kill drummer Tobi Vail. Rumor has it that the “drain you” comment is something Vail literally said to Cobain as it all fell apart, but that seems just too poetic to be true.

Only Nirvana could pull off a punk-pop song that is as much a treatise on vanishing twin syndrome as it is a dystopian love note. Whimsically gross, it stands up as one of the best tracks of Nirvana’s truncated catalog. – Stacey Pavlick

75: The Orb – Little Fluffy Clouds (1990)

The Orb’s music must be understood in the context of the rave scene from whence it came, the drugs that fueled it and the comedowns that would conclude the night. Even if their music sounds dated—which it often does—it’s worth remembering that the idea of club music you could really sink into was pretty new in those days. This music must have sounded as amniotic in 1990 as the music of Gas or Voices from the Lake does now, and for those overwhelmed by the hot and humid environs of the rave, the Orb opened up a space to just sit down and grind your teeth for a while.

Imagine the grins that must have spread across the faces of so many exhausted clubgoers when the DJ dropped “Little Fluffy Clouds.” The sampled interview from Rickie Lee Jones is almost ASMR-like in the way she speaks in a quiet, almost sensual rapture. Meanwhile, the noodling synths—minor-key, but in a way that evokes awe rather than dread—seem to gaze up to heaven. It’s music that evokes brightly-lit, open, cool spaces: the complete opposite of the environment in which most of the Orb’s original fans must have heard it. It’s the next best thing to stepping outside.

Coming from this context, it’s easy to understand why the KLF—whose Jimmy Cauty was a founding member of the Orb—structured their early ambient-house concept album Chill Out around a road trip on the wide-open highways of the American South. This music is meant to cure claustrophobia, the techno equivalent of thinking of a “happy place.” Ambient techno, like all genres that stick around long enough, has gone through the transition from a functional art form to one that can be taken seriously. “Little Fluffy Clouds” might seem quaint today, but it’s still easy to understand why it remains arguably the most beloved gem of the ambient techno genre. It still has the power to make you smile. – Daniel Bromfield

Leave a Comment