The 96 Best Alternative Rock Songs of 1996
We say remember that
80. Fluffy, “I Wanna Be Your Lush”
Unjustly forgotten at the bottom of a ’96 rockpile they transcended in quality more than aesthetic, Fluffy resembled the Sex Pistols: They only made one record (Black Eye, worth the penny-plus-shipping), Amanda Rootes sneered like Johnny Rotten, and their songs were all sour candy. So suck on this lust anthem: “I wanna be your strawberry / Devour my flesh” is sincere, “For you I will be pure” is sarcastic, and like Rotten, Rootes’ next stop was (fittingly) proto-reality TV. — D.W.
79. Suede, “Trash”
After attempting a fashionably early exit from the Britpop forefront with 1994’s alientaing art-rock masterwork Dog Man Star, Suede came a-knocking again when the party was still going two years later. Coming Up lacked the innovation and excitement of the band’s best years, but the hooks and harmonies remained undeniable, and you couldn’t blame singer Brett Anderson for wanting back in with the headlining riff raff when he was the one who made such garbage glamorous in the first place. — A.U.
78. Porno for Pyros, “Tahitian Moon”
Perry Farrell’s long-overdue follow-up to Jane’s Addiction’s “Stop!,” another barnstorming intro riff in unnecessary search of a song to follow. Like Bodhi going out for that last wave, the song never really makes it back to shore, but ’90s alt-rock was all about embracing the drowning anyway. — A.U.
77. Guided By Voices, “Drag Days”
Alien Lanes was where Robert Pollard perfected his brand of ajar songplay, knocking off another tunelet before the one you’re humming is finished. So why not go legit? Under the Bushes, Under the Stars made strides toward the normal — though naturally, Pollard’s Britpop-cum-arena idea of normal often sounded like R.E.M. giving Murmur a shiny lo-fi overhaul, while aboveground, the Gin Blossoms mined the Scott Litt era. You could even call this epic three-minute anthem earnest; talk about the passion. — D.W.
76. Gravity Kills, “Guilty”
Gravity Kills were the stuff that post-Downward Spiral industrial dreams were made of: Hailing from the middle of nowhere (fine, St. Louis), streamlined with ’90s-futuristic production that made every single delectable and indistinguishable, and present on the track list to 60 percent of Sam Goody’s soundtrack sales rack. Of the debut album’s singles, “Guilty” gets the edge here over “Blame” because it was in Se7en and not Escape From L.A., and because “Be careful who you kill tonight” is so R.L. Stine at his most Young Adult. — A.U.
75. The Wrens, “Rest Your Head”
One of 20 sweet and stinging transmissions from the hornets’ nest that was sophomore Wrens album Secaucus, a scorching line-drive about powerlessness and aimlessness that wisely cedes control to the guitars at the end. Heartbreaking even before you consider how prophetic “It’s not supposed to turn out right” would be for the band’s career. — A.U.
74. Sebadoh, “Too Pure”
Of all the stoned layabouts to commandeer a four-track in the ‘90s, Lou Barlow always sounded the most serious, and on Harmacy’s gorgeous, Sunny Day Real Estate-worthy opus, he appears to examine why: “Is something missing in my touch? / A tension tugging at my smile?” Of course Barlow smiles less than Aubrey Plaza and Mr. T combined, and lines like “Nervous bug in my system keeps me edgy and ashamed” could be about addiction as hinted, or they could be the anti-“Cherub Rock,” an indie-rock hero struggling to come to terms with a string-section budget. — D.W.
73. Alice in Chains, “Over Now” (Unplugged)
A couple of decades removed from Alice in Chains’ MTV Unplugged performance, it’s hard not to read “Over Now” as a valediction. It’s the last song on the classic lineup’s self-titled finale, and it’s sung almost entirely by guitarist Jerry Cantrell, a fact that feels especially portentous in the wake of nominal frontman Layne Staley’s death. In the song’s Unplugged video, Staley mostly sits in quiet contemplation, hanging his head, closing his eyes, joining in only for the chorus. The climactic line is harmonized, dead-eyed, and depressed in the way that Cantrell and Staley perfected in their short time together: “We pay our debts sometimes.” — C.J.
72. Jars of Clay, “Flood”
The queen Amy Grant paved the way for CCM’s ‘90s crossover: This was a decade in which dc Talk, Kirk Franklin, Michael W. Smith, and Sixpence None the Richer all dented the pop charts. But Jars — a pack of Toad the Wet Sprocket fans from a Methodist college in Illinois — also nabbed some measure of MTV cred. The out-of-focus, rain-soaked video paired well with the group’s muddy acoustic rock, produced by King Crimson’s Adrian Belew. Their keening Noahic plaint made careful study of the current loud-quiet-loud dynamic: Call it “Smells Like Holy Spirit.” — B.S.
71. Blur, “Stereotypes”
When did this band become Gang of Four? That’s one abrasive, funky riff clashing with those faux-haunted-house organs. Also, Damon Albarn’s almost certainly using the term “stereotype” wrong — was it really an institutionalized assumption in mid-‘90s Britain that conservative suburbanites don’t have sex lives? No matter, he got wife-swapping and sex tapes on the radio: the latter two years before Pam and Tommy even hit the web. — D.W.
70. Lemonheads, “If I Could Talk I’d Tell You”
The Lemonheads built a career from an off-kilter marriage between sweet, innocent melodies and dark, depressing lyrics(often inspired by frontman Evan Dando’s struggles with drug addiction). “If I Could Talk I’d Tell You” represents the platonic ideal of this arrangement: a jovial, jangly singalong detailing love at its most passionate (and abusive) by way of references to Zoloft, the Khmer Rouge, and Mein Kampf, among other uplifting topics. — ZOE CAMP
69. Girls Against Boys, “Click Click”
Not post-rock, but post- rock — post-punk, post-hardcore, post-grunge, post-alt. Over the most incendiary guitar-harmonic grind since Big Black’s “Kerosene,” Scott McCloud is too subsumed in JAMC-borrowed narcissism to articulate more than is absolutely necessary: “Kiss cool / Cool kiss / I love it when they turn the bliss on.” — A.U.
68. Eels, “Novocaine for the Soul”
All you really need to know about ’96 alternative was that Eels had a No. 1 hit – one that began with the lyrics “Life is hard / And so am I,” no less. “Novocaine for the Soul” was about as inessential as rock gets, but it was perfectly representative of the kind of charming left-field cameo you found with stupefying regularity on mid-’90s rock radio, and it was a lot of fun for exactly two months before it sputtered out. — A.U.
67. Counting Crows, “A Long December”
Even more unlikely than Adam Duritz’s emergence as a sex symbol was what Recovering the Satellites half-power ballad “A Long December” managed to accomplish: a video starring one of the two female Friends leads linked to Duritz, which still managed to be stirring and melancholic enough to actually make you feel bad for him. — I.C.
66. Brainiac, “Nothing Ever Changes”
Maybe the least combustible of the frenetic scorchers found on Brainiac’s Hissing Sprigs in Static Couture, which isn’t saying much. The cracked machines of Dayton math rock still sound like a time-bomb on “Nothing Ever Changes,” just one in which the countdown clock is actually showing: “Scream if you wanna scream,” they warn in octave-separated harmony, but their guitars are already screeching enough for everyone. — A.U.
65. Pavement, “Give It a Day”
In the years surrounding Pavement’s 1995 stoner epic Wowee Zowee, Stephen Malkmus really cemented his gift for the gab. “Give It a Day,” from the criminally underheard Pacific Trim EP, is one of his knottiest tongue twisters. But this one’s more than just artful sibilance, using an abstract account of the Salem witch trials as an object lesson of societal tendencies toward xenophobia and slut-shaming. The tripped-out time-hopping feels like a heavy-lidded conversation with a history major pal in some dank dorm room — a reminder that Pavement were never really the “frat-boy types” that early press declared them to be. Don’t be deceived, they care a lot.— C.J.
64. Superdrag, “Sucked Out”
A raging case of Britpop envy from Knoxville, Tennessee’s (!!) finest Buzz Bin crashers, this fuzzed-up Pachelbel’s Canon was quick, exciting, and explosive enough to earn frontman John Davis his cash-lit cigarette at the end of the video. Would it bring somebody down if Superdrag never made a sound after “Sucked Out”? Maybe not, but don’t forget that “Destination Ursa Major” was pretty dope too. — A.U.
63. Sheryl Crow, “If It Makes You Happy”
Following the success of 1993’s collectively written debut Tuesday Night Music Club and its cheery hit “All I Wanna Do,” Sheryl Crow took a grungy turn, shaping ’96’s dark, eponymous sophomore LP almost entirely on her own. Appropriately, obsidian crown jewel “If It Makes You Happy” sees the singer at her most vulnerable, as well as her most confident: a brittle kiss-off which, however bitter, ultimately scans as a steadfast take-it-or-leave-it. — Z.C.
62. Goo Goo Dolls, “Naked”
The last moment when Johnny Rzeznik and Paul Westerberg could plausibly be mentioned in the same sentence, and as much a template for James Alex’s musical destiny as anything off of Pleased to Meet Me. — A.U.
61. Presidents of the United States of America, “Peaches”
Love makes you do silly things — like singing about your favorite fruit with the snarling conviction of 120 Minutes-era Eddie Vedder or Chris Cornell. Yes, really: Lead Presidents singer Chris Ballew wrote “Peaches” because a girl he had a crush on had a peach tree in her yard. It’s not particularly deep (unlike that hole Ballew pokes “for ants to hide”), but “Mov-in’ to the count-treeee, gonna eat a lot of peach-es” sure makes for a satisfying, Beavis and Butt-Head-baiting chorus. — R.B.