100 Best Songs of the ’90s (#40-31)

These are the best songs of the 1990s.

35: Neutral Milk Hotel- Holland, 1945 (1998)

The keystone of one of the ‘90s most essential oddball records, Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Holland, 1945” is simply lo-fi perfection. The track feels like its percussion, guitars, strings and horns were all run through one of those junkyard car crushers so that it’s all one frenetic, mangled creation. While hardly a traditionally gifted vocalist, Jeff Magnum never sounds better than he does here, belting with more confidence than he does anywhere else on the band’s all-too-brief discography.

“Holland, 1945” is ostensibly an ode to Anne Frank, but its cryptic, melancholic historical perspective remains largely open to interpretation, like much of the seminal In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. The 1998 record has endured and remained an essential part of the indie rock curriculum, because of its naked emotion and low-budget orchestral expanse. A lush version of Aeroplane might be a smoother listening experience, but the bumps in the EQ and occasional bursts of fanciful atonality from Magnum are what make the record feel so personal to generations of listeners. NMH has been silent since their 2013 reunion, but even though it seems all but certain that they will never put out new music, their legacy is cemented with gateway indie bands like Pavement and the Flaming Lips.

Many of the album’s other enduring tracks are somber, acoustic guitar-heavy numbers, and the sheer verve of “Holland” allows it to dominate center stage (it’s well sequenced as the project’s middle track). It’s mournful in some ways, but its sweeping, out of body perspective (“And here is the room where your brothers were born/ Indentions in the sheets/ Where their bodies once moved but don’t move anymore”) is a reminder to keep trudging ahead with the love that you can carry.

While you can spend hours trying to parse obtuse lyrics like “Now she’s a little boy in Spain/ Playing pianos filled with flames,” “Holland, 1945” is a track that perhaps works best when you simply let the emotion engulf you and bury you alive. – Grant Rindner

34: Guided by Voices — Game of Pricks (1995)

Of the thousands of songs Robert Pollard has written, “Game of Pricks” might well be his epitaph long after the schoolteacher-turned-silver-haired-Bard of Dayton has gone.

Unlike several other GBV songs, there are no characters here—no Robot Boy, no Cut-Out Witch, no Weed King. “Game of Pricks” is a classic I-versus-you song from the start: “I’ve waited too long to have you hide in the back of me/ I’ve cheated so long I wonder how you keep track of me.” It is most likely about a romantic relationship, but, as with much of GBV’s material, it possesses a childlike, universal quality that makes it applicable to any kind of dynamic.

I entered the game of pricks with knives in the back of me.” This line has always stuck with me. I lost before I’d even begun, the lyric seems to say. As far as loser’s laments go, it is a confident one, wasting no time to introduce itself and charging through its 93 seconds without wasting a breath. It is at once concise and grandiose, a mini-opera worthy of Townshend. Behind Pollard, GBV’s most beloved lineup of Tobin Sprout, Greg Demos, Mitch Mitchell and Kevin Fennell power ahead like a battery-operated toy, straining against the contrasts of their own recording techniques.

When I think of Guided by Voices, I think of lyrics from Wilco’s “The Late Greats”: “The best song will never get sung.” “Game of Pricks” could have been one of those great unheard songs, yet it became one of the band’s most enduring hit (I’d be surprised if there had ever been a GBV concert, since its release, that did not feature it).

With a huge following garnered largely through ceaseless recording and marathon concerts fueled largely by cheap beer, GBV (whose only constant, through the years, is Pollard himself) has always been the little engine that could. When Pollard sings, “You could never be strong/ You can only be free,” he is singing as much to himself as to anyone else. – Dylan Montanari

33: Nirvana- All Apologies (1993)

Nirvana always had an inner duality as a band. They wanted that indie/punk cred, but they also wanted to be heard. Simply compare Butch Vig’s radio-friendly, spit-shine polish on Nevermind to Steve Albini’s speaker-shredding sandpaper production on In Utero.

That same duality was inside of Kurt Cobain and his songwriting. As abrasive as some of his songs were, there was always a pop star hidden beneath the screams and power chords, and never was this more true than on “All Apologies”. When In Utero was released in September 1993, “All Apologies” was simply the album’s final song on Nirvana’s latest release. Six months later, it became a (literal) swan song for Kurt Cobain.

Maybe that’s for the best, considering it’s one of the few times Cobain’s ever sounded happy or content. Sure, there’s a comfort-in-sadness feel to his lyrics (“What else should I be?/ All apologies,” “I’ll take all the blame/ Aqua seafoam shame”), but there’s a soothing nature to his words and to that sublime melody acting as a balm for any negativity. Not even Albini’s original mix – later rejected by the band and replaced with Scott Litt’s remix – could hide such a warm security blanket.

Need further proof? Check out the aching demo recording from the With the Lights Out box set or the utterly haunting rendition from MTV Unplugged in New York. Not only do these versions improve upon the studio original (which is no easy feat), they confirm that if folk Nirvana had been a real thing it would’ve equaled anything they’d done before.

Given that “You Know You’re Right” was the final song recorded by Nirvana, there’s an argument that it, not “All Apologies,” is the last official statement from Cobain. Viewed that way, Cobain’s final words are bitterly sarcastic. No, he should be remembered for closing with the Buddhist-esque “All in all is all we are.” It’s better to end on a pleasant note, anyway. – Steve Lampiris

32: Weezer- Say It Ain’t So (1994)

Looking back, it’s hard to see where Weezer fit in to the great tapestry of ‘90s alt-rock. They were too light to be metal, too sweet and melodic to be grunge and too harsh to be pop. They’re a success story that could have only happened in 1994, and even then, it seemed kind of weird, especially because the Weezer that exists on The Blue Album is effectively two different bands. They could be cute with abstract earworms like “Buddy Holly,” but they could also come at you with a song like “Say It Ain’t So,” which reads as deeper and far more personal than anything else on the album. The song is pure catharsis, taking the story of Rivers Cuomo’s alcoholic stepfather and turning it into a masterclass in expressing and releasing trauma in music.

The dynamics of “Say It Ain’t So” are very much of its time; this is the song people most often point to when drawing comparisons between Weezer and the Pixies. However, unlike the manic ramblings of Black Francis, Weezer build slowly to the cathartic moment. Cuomo’s anguish isn’t obvious at first; he teases it out before making his point abundantly clear in the bridge of the song. Cuomo’s childhood anxieties are woven into every aspect of the song; even the metal-lite guitar solos–a cheese ball move in the hand of any other songwriter–work brilliantly as a callback to the hair metal Cuomo used as an escape as a kid. It’s well-constructed (the impact of the guitar distortion on the chorus never fails to send chills down the spine), and it cuts deep without getting into the deeply uncomfortable territory Cuomo would explore on Pinkerton. “Say It Ain’t So” has, above all, an honesty that transcends genre boundaries while demonstrating just how good of a songwriter Cuomo could be. – Kevin Korber

31: Mobb Deep- Shook Ones Pt. 2 (1995)

In the wake of Prodigy’s death, Mobb Deep’s music didn’t so much as take on a new light as it simply solidified its own darkness. In the conversation about Mobb Deep’s pitch-black nihilism, not enough focus is put on Prodigy’s life long battle with Sickle Cell Anemia. It wasn’t just growing up in the underbelly of New York, Albert Johnson suffered from one of the most painful diseases known to man. Johnson was already under no illusion that he would outlive any of his peers gangbanging in the early ‘90s, and he knew that even if he did make it out, he wouldn’t live a normal life. That pain, that torture, that idea of surviving never came out as brilliantly and harrowing as it did on “Shook Ones Pt. 2.”

And somehow Johnson found a partner in crime who could craft steely sounds that matched his bleak outlook. Havoc’s production on “Shook Ones Pt. 2” still stands as a masterclass in mood setting and sampling. Listening to the original piano sample from Herbie Hancock’s “Jessica” and watching it get mutilated from a soulful line into something mournful and terrifying is an aural shock. And then there’s the opening buzzsaw cry that should have retroactively replaced the original lightsaber sound.

And the duo aptly took all that rage to the abyss and delivered the darkest rap performance of the whole decade. Prodigy promised to “rock you in your face, stab your brain with your nose bone” and beautifully threatened, “Your crew is featherweight, my gunshots’ll make you levitate.” And Havoc lived in the same stark reality: “For every rhyme I write it’s 25 to life.” When Havoc later asks, “Sometimes I wonder, do I deserve to live?/ Or am I gonna burn in Hell for all the things I did?” it serves as a contrast to Prodigy, a prisoner in a body actively rebelling against him. He later described it as “permanent physical suffering.” His now-iconic line, “I’m only 19, but my mind is older,” illustrated that every piece of his soul, body and brain had already aged far beyond what any teenager should have to deal with. His words are illuminating, but it only serves to prove just how absolute the darkness was. Even decades later, with Earl Sweatshirt, Death Grips and EL-P diving into rap’s heart of darkness, Mobb Deep had already perfected abyssal hip-hop and were never matched. – Nathan Stevens

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