There are many building blocks of the internet, but the cornerstones are think pieces, offhand lists, and other hollow provocations meant to stir arguments and, therefore, briefly redirect web traffic. Engaging such material is utterly pointless. Then again, it’s not like I have anything better to do.
I didn’t want to do this. I really didn’t. And yet there the list was, swirling back into my consciousness and tugging at me. As they are wont to do, the music scribes over at Pitchfork cobbled together one of their retrospective lists seeking to establish or maybe reconfigure the rock and pop canon from a definable stretch of years gone by. That the span in question — the nineteen-nineties — happened to be one in which I was deeply immersed in and highly opinionated about the latest convergence of rhythm and melody only made it more difficult to resist piping up. As a capper, one of the very first instances of me deploying a pile-up of sentences under the Bait Taken banner involved a similar Pitchfork tally. So yes, let’s weigh in on the web publication’s “The 250 Best Songs of the 1990s.”
As I did last time, I’m not taking issue with any particular selection or ranking of Pitchfork brain trust, again echoing my pal Crescent’s credo that states, “Tearing down is a snooze.” Instead, I humbly offer an addendum, just a few more cuts that I believe are worthy of inclusion on the list. As before, I reserve my selections to bands and performers who are not represented elsewhere on the Pitchfork list, with one kinda-sorta exception to that rule. In alphabetical order by artist, I present these twenty-one songs for your consideration:
Tori Amos, “God” (1994). Grunge and hip hop and boy bands and Disney stars grads who upended pop: sure, that’s the story of the nineteen-nineties. But Tori Amos absolutely owned the era, too. Each of her four proper studio albums released during the nineties is fantastic. Consider the provocative “God,” a single from sophomore outing Under the Pink, a first among a lot of Amos tracks that are more or less equals.
Neneh Cherry, “Buddy X” (1992). Critics knocked each other for the privilege of being the person who offered the most effusive praise for the supposed innovations to be found on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, but I don’t hear much on it that Neneh Cherry didn’t do bolder and better five years earlier on the standout album Homebrew. “Buddy X,” aimed a philandering cad, spits fire.
Fatboy Slim, “The Rockafeller Skank” (1998). I mean, come on. Isn’t this the precise sound of a certain, pretty vital slice of nineteen-nineties electro-pop?
Fishbone, “Sunless Saturday” (1991). The fevered, intricate acoustic guitar riff gives way to explosive hard rock, and Fishbone is off and running. This standout from The Reality of My Surroundings, arguably the band’s magnum opus, hasn’t lost an an iota of power in the thirty years since its release.
James, “Laid” (1993). Tim Booth deserves an acting award for his lead vocals on the song. Make his delivery of “Line my eyes and call me pretty” the Oscar clip. I still can’t quite believe a song with the prominent lyric “She only comes when she’s on top” was a radio hit without a wisp of prudish protest.
Juliana Hatfield, “Universal Heart-Beat” (1995). “A heart that hurts/ Is a heart that works.” Juliana Hatfield deserves a far more exalted position in the pantheon of indie rock icons than she’s gotten.
LL Cool J, “Mama Said Knock You Out” (1990). LL Cool J is a featured artist on a Pitchfork-lauded song, but the Kennedy Center honoree is otherwise absent despite helping to kick of the nineties with a track that is genuinely iconic. Whatever you do, don’t apply the term “comeback” to it.
Material Issue, “Valerie Loves Me” (1991). An absolutely masterful guitar pop song. Jim Ellison was an amazing songwriter.
Neutral Milk Hotel, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” (1998). There are an awful lot of words strewn about in an attempt to encapsulate all the dynamics of nineties music without anyone applying the necessary keyboard taps to make the term Elephant 6 appear. The title track to Neutral Milk Hotel’s 1998 album is elegant and transporting. It’s also fine accompaniment if you want to smush your boo.
New Order, “Regret” (1993). This might belong on the list for the chiming, dramatic opening riff alone. It definitely belong on the list for all the rest of it. The longing for emotional recovery built into the steel-hook chorus is painfully exquisite: “I would like a place I could call my own/ Have a conversation on the telephone/ Wake up every day that would be a start/ I would not complain of my wounded heart.”
Beth Orton, “Stolen Car” (1999). Perfect. Simply perfect.
Rancid, “Ruby Soho” (1995). It feels like the last firework launch for a certain brand of punk music that was blazing, fun, catchy, are jubilantly free all at once.
Sugar, “If I Can’t Change Your Mind” (1992). It seems like Pitchfork has completely grown bored of Bob Mould. They didn’t even bother to review his most recent album, which was very good. I’m not bored with him, and I’m prepared, on occasion, to argue that this is the best song he ever wrote. So here it is.
Matthew Sweet, “Girlfriend” (1991). Power pop at its most powerful and poppy. Matthew Sweet kept trying to recapture the glory of this track and never quite did. That’s less a failure than a testament to the exemplary execution of this track.
U2, “One” (1991). I guess U2 have been officially relegated to Squaresville. Otherwise, how is it that Achtung Baby, maybe the band’s best album (yeah yeah, I typed it, and I know what I typed) is unrepresented in the songs list? (To be fair, it shows up on the inevitable follow-up list of albums.) I’ll admit there are other tracks I personally prefer, but the ballad “One” is the song that hit hardest at the time, understandably so.
Urban Dance Squad, “Deeper Shade of Soul” (1990). I’m not sure it’s accurate to say this is what parties sounded like in the nineteen-nineties, but it’s damn well what they should have sounded like.
Urge Overkill, “Sister Havana” (1993). Electric guitars so powerful that, for a few minutes anyway, it sounds like they can take over the whole dang world.
Tom Waits, “Hold On” (1999). It’s a beautifully battered paperback novel transmogrified into a single song. Every lyric dazzles: “Well, God bless your crooked little heart/ St. Louis got the best of me/ I miss your broken china voice/ How I wish you were still here with me.” If pressed, I’ll say this is my favorite Waits song.
Paul Westerberg, “Dyslexic Heart” (1992). For a split second, it seemed like it really might happen, that there could be a mass embrace of this cynical, beleaguered troubadour from the frigid terrain of Minnesota, where it was so cool that a major city felt obligated to build skyways to protect the citizenry from the snap in the air. For the legions of flannel-draped boys who found almost liturgical truths in the rattletrap poetry of his lyrics and became convinced that his melodies were somehow shaped like their brainwaves, who had grown up beside him, just as reluctantly, progressing from id-brewed howls of dissatisfaction to melancholy romanticism, his first solo single, all bounding energy and shifty-eyed wordplay, was a moment of hope. Alas, winds turned against the good ship Westerberg, as they always did. It was fun while it lasted, when our hearts could have used some glasses.
Lucinda Williams, “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” (1998). A song so evocative that it set the standard for all songs that followed when applying that particular descriptor.
The Wonders, “That Thing You Do” (1996). It’s the niftiest pop song trick of the nineteen-nineties: Deliver a song based on no prompts beyond and title and an era, make it catchy enough to be believable as a chart-storming sensation and retro but still with enough modernity that it doesn’t sound like a plain pastiche. Oh, and it’s got to be not only tolerable but still enjoyable after being playing over and over and over again in a major motion picture. Adam Schlesinger was a songwriting wizard.