Nirvana – “Smells Like Teen Spirit”

Is there another song from the ‘90s as seismically important as “Smells Like Teen Spirit”? There are songs as good; “Gold Soundz,” “Straight Outta Compton” and “Karma Police” are remarkable. But the Nirvana masterpiece feels like a sonic dividing line in time, a song whose very existence—as well as its video and the album it was featured on—changed the course of popular rock music forever. This isn’t hyperbole, it’s just the truth, and it’s one of the very few songs you can say that about, to the point where only the tryhardest of the tryhards tries to argue otherwise.

The last few times I heard the song, though, I realized something: I don’t really need to hear it again. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is as much a part of the fabric of music as “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” almost as though many of us born after it was released came into the world with the song preloaded into the heads. It represents a certain kind of song: the kind we can’t mine any longer. Virtually every rock critic to date has, at some point, shared their opinion on ir, leaving nearly no fresh takes to be had.
None of us needs to spend a single second longer listening to “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Nearly 30 years on, it’s the newest in a short lineage of songs that we’ve entirely mapped. Maybe it’s time we let that one rest. Loads of other songs are worth the kind of hero worship that we’ve afforded to this unstoppable slab of game-changing alt-rock, songs we can’t play in our heads, perfectly from start to finish, at a moment’s notice. – Holly Hazelwood

Oasis – “Wonderwall”

Oasis never languished in the relative obscurity that their fellow Britpop stars did in America, and they have “Wonderwall” to thank for that. A far cry from the loud, bombastic rock that defined Oasis on the other side of the pond, “Wonderwall” is sweet and delicate. Sure, Liam Gallagher’s voice doesn’t necessarily scream “sincerity” and Noel Gallagher’s lyrics don’t particularly mean much. But “Wonderwall”’s charms aren’t in its words so much as they are in its arrangements and performance. Liam tempers his inherent Mancunian snottiness as much as he can, and he weirdly complements those eternal acoustic chords. The drums and strings are used tastefully, working to accentuate the song rather than overwhelm it. It’s a great melody and a great song from a great album, so it’s easy to see why it became as big as it did.
However, that massive success is kind of “Wonderwall”’s undoing. I can still occasionally stomach hearing the original song when revisiting (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, but years of awful renditions have meant that “Wonderwall” makes me cringe in a way it never used to. Between established artists having a go at the song (most infamously Ryan Adams’ dreadful attempt from his vastly overrated Love Is Hell EPs) to the countless sad-sacks at coffee shop open mics giving it a go, “Wonderwall” has become less of a song and more of a meme, a shorthand reference to the kind of dude (and it’s usually a dude) who mistakes sensitivity for depth. Creating something grand out of relatively shallow material was perhaps Oasis’ greatest strength as a band; sadly, “Wonderwall” convinced generations of clueless hacks that they could do it, too. – Kevin Korber

Journey – “Don’t Stop Believin’”

“Don’t Stop Believin’” is a good song—I think. At this point, it’s like looking in the mirror and trying to figure out whether or not you’re attractive. I remember liking it once upon a time. It has a graceful build. The title isn’t the chorus but the coda, so when it finally comes in there’s a sense of the other shoe dropping. But when I hear it, I don’t get the same sense of satisfaction as when any other great pop song comes together like that. Mostly, I get the uncomfortable feeling of listening to “Don’t Stop Believin’.”
Though Toto’s “Africa” has superseded it in recent years, “Don’t Stop Believin’” spent most of last decade as a microcosm of the ‘80s per the jokey way the American mainstream tends to look at it. It’s interesting that that should be the decade we see as ridiculous and embarrassing; the gonorrheaic excess of ‘70s rock, which we worship is no less unintentionally comical. The ‘80s fetish reeks of machismo, both in the way we can drink in the decade’s dated badassery and idolize lumps of muscle like Hulk Hogan and Chuck Norris behind a thin veil of irony, and in the way we can feel superior to those poofy-haired stars strutting around with their spandex and earrings in the kind of unapologetic show of artifice that rock has mostly distrusted for the last 30 years. Few people between the ages of 18 and 40 listen to “Don’t Stop Believin’” because they like the music and words. It’s become a fact, representing a million things other than itself, and maybe the reason I don’t ever need to hear it again isn’t because I’m sick of it but because I feel kinda bad for it. – Daniel Bromfield

TLC – “No Scrubs”

Scrubs continue to be a real problem, people. You know the kind of dummies I’m talking about: “A scrub is a guy that thinks he’s fly/ He’s also known as a busta.” Feel free to make a list, a top 10 of broke-ass, invasive dudes from your past or present. It won’t take long, but I’ll wait. Now, put on “No Scrubs” and scratch their names out to its beat. There—definitive proof of the fact that, no, we don’t want no scrubs!

Clearly, it’s a great song. First off, it provides a taste of that era-defining pop/R&B sound popularized by Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins and by Kevin “She’kspere” Briggs, the producer of “No Scrubs.” You can get it from that opening riff of synthesized harpsichord, followed by those pleasantly fun-sized bubbles of percussion. Second, the image of Kandi Burruss gleefully writing this whole joint while some scrub hollered at her from the passenger side of his best friend’s ride is just too perfect. And, finally, both TLC and the song’s Hype Williams-directed music video are Space Age-level legendary.

The problem is that I heard this song just one too many times on Kiss 95.1 during the long, Carolina summer of 1999. My family had recently moved to a neighborhood with a community pool, a bad place to its core: swarms of screaming children everywhere, a snack stand I couldn’t afford and the smell of overripe sunscreen, gone rancid in the deep humidity. I was 12, not quite old enough to escape. Waves of chlorine haze and long-forgotten particles of Koosh balls would make my belly ache with claustrophobia. “No Scrubs,” unfortunately, brings me right back to that pool. I’d be okay never hearing it again. – Jeff Heinzl

The Postal Service – “Such Great Heights”

The Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights” is clever, well-crafted and definitely successful, having been featured in major television advertising campaigns and both film and TV soundtracks. So why is it so difficult to listen to now? Upon its release in 2003, it was briefly inescapable, but a great deal of the song’s slide from centrality has to do with its overall tone, which can best be described as a kind of smug arrogance masquerading as fey authority, confirmed with the knowledge that songwriter Ben Gibbard sincerely believes that “it did feel that there was some sort of spiritual transcendence happening and the song being beamed down to me.”

While the junior-high theme of the song (things seem better from a distance) is almost forgivable, phrases such as “that, frankly, will not fly” and the glib assertion that “… God Himself did make/ Us into corresponding shapes/ Like puzzle pieces from the clay,” clang against the ear as cod-literary aspirations. Most of all, it’s the song’s musical elements that have failed to survive. The jittery panning-frenzy of the song’s opening motif is, after repeated listens, annoying and distracting. The indietronic drums, instead of suggesting a kind of non-threatening intimacy, race around as they softly squelch, pattering without asserting themselves too much. Each instrument, including the lead guitar, has a safe, rounded feel. Thus, a work of art with nothing at stake quickly becomes visible as a collection of tropes, an exercise in style, too smooth to catch and hold attention, all glittering surface regardless of the skill being evidenced. There’s a designed inoffensiveness which was charming and effective and now seems tired and a bit too obvious. – Scott Wilson

Hozier – “Take Me to Church”

Modern guitar music wouldn’t exist without jazz, blues or rock ‘n’ roll. Irishman Andrew John Hozier-Byrne, knows this all too well and has paid more than homage ever since 2013, when “Take Me to Church” saw him skyrocket into the public eye seemingly overnight. The song is a passionate yet solemn vow of loyalty to love, gasping under the weight of its influences. Full of religious imagery (“I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies/ I’ll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife”) and underpinned by crushing piano chords, rough guitars and vigorous piano, it suggests the influence of the Southern Gothic sound. Lyrically, it rages at the hypocrisy and overzealousness of religious institutions on sexuality with true deftness. Rhythmically, it’s a beast of its own, too; lumbering for four bars and then trotting for two. It was different to anything else heard on the radio stations that championed it at the time.

To credit the song’s mainstream success to its viral music video—a portrayal of Russia’s tyrannical approach to LGBT+ rights—would be shortsighted. Rather, it contributed to its oversaturation in the public sphere. The song was everywhere. TV shows, advertisements, radio and countless cover versions by his contemporaries—it was inescapable upon release and would continue to crop up time and time again for three or four years, completely normalizing anything that made the song standout in the first place. It became a part of the background noise. Muzak.

There’s also the problem that many aren’t willing to admit: that voice. That tortured, straining style that can be traced back to the diet-folk boom in the mid-2000s to the rag ‘n’ bone men and revivalists that followed. The acrobatic vocal that has become his calling card is off-putting to some and soulful to others. Impressive though it may be, it borders on obtrusive on “Take Me to Church”. – Danny Kilmartin

Taylor Swift – “Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince”

After flirting with full-on femme fataledom on Reputation, Lover saw Taylor Swift return to thesunnier disposition and pastel-inflected pop that, quite frankly, better suits her brand. With strong production and the tight songwriting she’s consistently delivered her entire career, the entire affair feels like a return to form for someone who hadn’t strayed that far from what works in the first place. But album cut “Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince,” in many ways the platonic ideal of a Taylor Swift song, boils the formula down to such a potent degree it often feels like being beaten with a spiked bat and stopping to marvel at how ornately each bloodynail has been hammered into the splintered wood.

It’s a fun song, to be sure, but it encapsulates the romcom myth-making that makes so many Swift tracks sound like AV Club recaps of “Riverdale” episodes. It’s the syrupy way all the teen soap opera ephemera our popular culture is forever addicted to gets distilled into its purest form, like an espresso shot that tastes like John Hughes’ sweat. It starts off fun to sing along to in the shower, a breeze to hum on the bus, but in the chorus, hiding out and waiting to haunt your verybeing, is that call and response shout of “OK!”

Every time the track plays, the expertly produced echo already telegraphs the summer festival crowd shouting their supporting role at Taylor’s extended microphone, eager and duty bound to fill the space within the towering hook, imbuing the line between the lines with all the fervent, hormonal energy of Timothee Chalamat in a Teen Vogue profile.

Quite frankly that’s all well and good until you’re a 33-year-old man in line at the bank unintentionally shouting it out while wearing headphones. Now they’re escorting you out of the establishment. Thanks a lot, Taylor.– Dominic Griffin

Beyoncé (featuring Jay-Z) – “Crazy in Love”

2003’s “Crazy in Love” is certainly a great song. So great, in fact, that it may even be perfect. Too perfect. Now, every time I hear “Crazy in Love,” I’m instantly transported back to the summer of 2003. “Crazy in Love” always tops those lists of “best summer songs of all time” and it’s not hard to imagine why. In addition to its domination of the charts, spending eight weeks on top of the Billboard Hot 100 from July 2003 on, “Crazy in Love” just sounds like summer. Beyoncé’s smooth vocals, at the point polished to pop perfection after years of girl-group training, are like a hot summer night. The roaring trumpets are a raucous Fourth of July parade. Jay-Z’s rap is rain on hot August asphalt.

The trouble is that I don’t want to go back to summer of 2003. My boyfriend sucked, George W. Bush was president and Beyoncé was pop ingenue Beyoncé, not the trailblazing superstar we have today. “Crazy in Love” is the song that proved that Beyoncé could have a successful solo career away from Destiny’s Child. Can you believe that was ever something to worry about? Beyoncé’s voice is harsher and fuller today, as is her swagger. She’s come into herself as a person, and we have with her. Though “Crazy in Love” is a perfect time capsule for 2003, Queen Bey’s current music is what I want now. – Mike McClelland

Spice Girls – “Wannabe”

Growing up, I invested most of my free time playing video games and watching Godzilla films, leaving little or no time to music that wasn’t classic rock (from my dad) or early ’00s MTV (from my friends’ house, we did not have cable). Because of this, the Spice Girls, Backstreet Boys, and most other musical stars not named Britney Spears went right over my head. Even still, the song “Wannabe” feels ingrained into pop culture so strongly it’s as if it always was.

For all the ire my interest in hyperkinetic music like K-Pop and Inna has attracted over the years, I cannot understand what about “Wannabe” is all that different, or for that matter, less annoying. Vocally, the Spice Girls are at best competent, and lyrically . . . well, I don’t know or care about the meaning behind “Zing-a-zing, AH!” But be it at a club, a pep rally, barreling down the freeway – no matter where this song comes on, it is be-lov-ed by all within proximity.

Admittedly, “Wannabe” certainly set off the group-pop trend of the ‘90s, which fed hugely into the Korean idol model and sound I wholeheartedly enjoy. However, just because something is “groundbreaking” doesn’t mean it’s the pinnacle of what it could be. The Motorola DynaTAC 8000x certainly laid groundwork for the cellular phone, but it’s also a brick, and such things are best left in their foundations rather than your everyday life. – Mick Jacobs

Bon Jovi – “Livin’ on a Prayer”

Forgive me for this, because Jon Bon Jovi is probably the most decent human being who also happens to be a rock star. His JBJ Soul Foundation has developed initiatives targeting hunger and homelessness since 2006; a blue-collar band implementing black-tie solutions to champion causes of the working poor. I say this without cynicism. We like to think we’d give it all back if we hit it big, but Jon Bon Jovi has actually signed those checks.

Tommy and Gina could’ve benefited from affordable housing. They probably skipped a meal or two when paychecks were thin. As Chuck Klosterman writes in But What If We’re Wrong?, “The 1980s felt prosperous even if you were poor” (emphasis his), which is why “Livin’ on a Prayer” is a feel-good singalong. It rightly belongs on every classic ‘80s compendium, both as commercial hit and low-key protest song: the uplift of that key change is an underdog’s response to Reaganomics.

This is why it’s hard to listen to now: “Whoa, we’re halfway there” implies progress. “Halfway” is aspirational. It means it’s isn’t as shitty as it was, and is still on the way to being better. But I can’t help but feel like these days Tommy and Gina would be frequenting JBJ’s Soul Kitchen not out of volunteerism, but by necessity, nourished by a benefactor’s largesse instead of through assured systemic (and compassionate) support. Meanwhile, I’m buying plastic crap from China that Tommy’s unloading at the dock; I’m the cheeseburger clientele Gina depends on for tips; I’m that drunk asshole singing this chorus at the top of my lungs at every Philly-area wedding. Thirty-odd years later, Tommy and Gina are still hovering at halfway, and it’s not good-timey nostalgia, it’s a consequence of greedy design. – Stacey Pavlick

Anita Baker – “Caught Up in the Rapture”

The success of her first album on the R&B charts notwithstanding, Anita Baker first launched herself into true stardom in 1986 with the platinum Rapture. Her rich, elastic contralto wowed audiences with singles like the Grammy award-winning “Sweet Love” and the hook-y “Caught Up in the Rapture.” Airplay was constant, and the eventual four album singles have remained in hot rotation on adult contemporary stations for the 30+ years since.

Baker’s heartfelt, liquid-gold voice still sounds exceptional all these years later. But “Caught Up in the Rapture” – so addictive and listenable at the time – doesn’t hold up for me. Missing the startling range and vocal slides that made “Sweet Love” so attention-grabbing, and dampened by a singsong soft-scat intro, an overdose of “Rapture” pushes one’s focus towards the humdrum lyrics and repetitive up-down-up-down melodic shape.

This shouldn’t deter potential listeners from the album – there’s a lot to love here. “No One in the World” has all the catchiness of “Rapture” without dragging, the fun of “Same Ole Love” is infectious (you’ll want to hear her enunciate “365 days of the year” many more times), and for sheer loveliness, it’s hard to beat “You Bring Me Joy.” With Rapture, Baker wrote the book on
seductive and smooth – and if you skip over track three, no one will be the wiser. – Valerie E. Polichar

Metallica – “Enter Sandman”

“Enter Sandman” is a distillation of everything that made Metallica great. It’s an unstoppable force of nature by a band near the peak of their powers. There are few better intros in music. Audiences around the world have shouted along wordlessly to that opening, winding riff, followed by Lars Ulrich’s Godzilla-sized drums. The song holds a special place for me as a Yankees fan as well, where that start is associated with Mariano Rivera, the best closer in baseball history. The power of that opening is only matched by the chorus, one of the best Metallica has ever written. James Hetfield snarls “Take my hand/ We’re off to Never Never Land”, promising a journey into nightmares but one where you have the power. Kirk Hammett punctuates that line with a blistering solo that launched a thousand guitarists. These moments are some of the reasons why “Enter Sandman” sent Metallica into the stratosphere.

And that’s part of the problem. In the intervening years, “Enter Sandman” has become the shorthand song for the entirety of metal and Metallica’s career. This process has simplified a diverse and thrilling genre into one catchy tune played ad nauseam until the end of time. And the track’s success led Metallica down a mainstream rock road that gave us the terrible Load and Reload. When a tune causes a band to go chasing hits, it can go from a plus to a minus really fast. For me personally, the appeal of “Enter Sandman” ended when Rivera retired from baseball, locking in my memories with the Yankee legend. If I see Metallica live, I’ll sing along when they play their biggest hit. But I’ll be much more excited to hear “Master of Puppets,” “Ride the Lightning” and most of their other pre-1996 songs instead. – Joe Marvilli

Leonard Cohen- “Hallelujah”

Before preparing this appeal, I never knew other scolds preceded me in calling for a moratorium on Leonard Cohen’s song. Never a fan of the Canadian bard’s voice, I heard it first on a live set from a vocalist often only a bit easier on my ears, John Cale. He kept the tune dignified, and his stiff Welsh inflections and stentorian articulation ensured that his rendering would fit into his own art-rock-experimental discography. Then, I shelved the song in my memory’s jukebox.

I never saw Shrek. But that oddly incorporated it, so I found out in passing back in 2001. Strange, I thought. Not knowing this was an early warning sign of the many soundtracks to which the moment for tears and/or triumph gains its bathetic earworm of this hymn. Looking up the date for the Cale recording Fragments of a Rainy Season, I see his website hawks its limited edition re-release, with a splash-page inviting me to “Watch Hallelujah.” Cale’s work increased the song’s popularity in general in 1992, in turn generating a higher profile by Jeff Buckley two years later. Brief enough a span in our relentlessly commodified culture to still be remembered by the makers of Shrek. That version, by Rufus Wainwright, and Buckley’s cover account for its subsequent ubiquity, as you can discover in this Newsweek list of 60 takes.

As for Cohen’s original version? Tucked away on side two of his 1984 LP Various Positions, it did not generate much of an initial buzz, I reckon because he backs up his already glum trademark intonation of admittedly wonder-filled lyrics, about David, of Goliath fame and Bathsheba shame, with a cheap-sounding, mid-’80s bass synth. All the same, Newsweek ranks it at #9. Imagine the 51 versions below. – John L. Murphy

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