20. Yo La Tengo, “Tom Courtenay”
The sepia-toned “Tom Courtenay” uses ‘60s British acting royalty for the backdrop of a song about the deceptive glamour of fame (and the irresistible draw of stars’ private follies). Vocalist Ira Kaplan serves as a sympathetic narrator, as trembling, distortion-spackled guitars bend and hum underneath him while the “ba-ba-ba” counterpoint adds levity. —A.Z.
19. Everclear, “Santa Monica”
A pretty good rock band’s one true moment of transcendence, a three-minute-long emotional crescendo of loneliness and anxiety that doesn’t let the little moments — frontman Art Alexakis’ delicious pause in the “I am still living with your…ghost” opener, the perfectly defeated harmonies on the verse-closing “I just wanna find some place to be alone” — get lost in the rising action. Everclear spent way too much of their ensuing career trying to replace the formula of “Santa Monica,” but you probably would too. —A.U.
18. Blur, “The Universal”
When Blur aims for loveliness, they have rarely failed, or even flailed: A nervy bunch of nervous guys, they still sound most at home when they’ve got a sweeping, lovely, orchestra-ready tune to unveil. So don’t let the mock-Clockwork Orange video fool you; Damon Albarn spends “The Universal” crooning his ass off. This fitful band, who’ve always been happy with the money but fidget with their place in the cosmos, actually making something so universal? It really, really, really could happen. —D.W.
17. The Folk Implosion, “Natural One”
Lou Barlow probably never should have had a hit, but thank Larry Clark and Harmony Korine for turning his otherwise minor project Folk Implosion into a momentary household name. “Natural One” was, undoubtedly one of the grimmer and grimier songs he ever wrote, sticky both with infectious melody and the sort of unidentified fluid you might find on a dingy bar’s bathroom doorknob, an appropriately skeevy feeling given the content of the film it famously soundtracked. —C.J.
16. Better Than Ezra, “Good”
Not the biggest alt-rock hit of ’95, but likely the one you’d point to first to sum up what the year sounded like, with a glossy post-grunge guitar sheen, a loping Kim Deal-esque bass line, and lyrics of indeterminate anguish and nostalgic longing (“Well maybe I’ll call or write you a letter / Well maybe we’ll see on the Fourth of July”) split up by a simple chorus full of catchy non-verbal utterances. To those born after 1990 it might understandably mean bupkis; the rest of us may never know how good we truly had it. —A.U.
15. PJ Harvey, “Down by the Water”
PJ Harvey’s modern rock hit “Down by the Water” may have sounded slinky and seductive — credit for that goes to the pizzicato string-plucking and buzzing synth foundation, as well as Harvey’s mournful vocals — but its motivations were anything but romantic: it’s the harrowing story of a mother drowning her own daughter. —A.Z.
14. Rancid, “Ruby Soho”
There are some tender-sounding verses sung-spoke in Tim Armstrong’s street-wearied grumble. But what’s to remember when you’ve got that massively cyclical “Destination unknown” hook to take up vacancy in your ear canal for the rest of your life? 20 years on, we still don’t know where ’til these mohawks get there. But what a ride. —D.W.
13. Guided By Voices, “Game of Pricks”
Robert Pollard has released more great half-songs than most aspiring songwriters have probably even written, but the 90 seconds of “Game of Pricks” may be the best he ever laid down on a rickety tape machine. Pollard’s a lost soul shooting up pure rock and roll and scrawling out scattered riffs and abstract junk poetry in life’s margins. Few can do more with less. —C.J.
12. Matthew Sweet, “Sick of Myself”
Matthew Sweet’s mid-decade guise was that of loose-riffed ‘70s rocker. This era was highlighted by the brilliant “Sick of Myself,” an exuberant, pop-centered shuffle stacked with easygoing electric guitars, mild (but cheerful) self-hatred and a couple of well-earned false endings which exacerbated its playful core. —A.Z.
11. Goo Goo Dolls, “Name”
Apparently about MTV VJ Kennedy — is nothing sacred? — this walking-pace jangler played Look Ma, No Mandolins with “The Battle of Evermore,” bombed the place with double-time drums on the hook, and made a non-Sonic Youth case for alternate tunings that border on random. Like their godhead Paul Westerberg but far more shamefully, they “grew up way too fast” but this delicate piece of rickety alt gold will never sound tired, even on a tired radio. —D.W.
10. Alanis Morissette, “You Oughta Know”
Shade-fueled opener “I wish nothing but the best for you both” should’ve been Dave Coulier’s first clue that, in Full House speak, “You’re in big trouble, Mister.” Laying the foundation for a post-Carly Simon swell of you-know-who-you-are pop breakup anthems, this Jagged Little Pill standout was, at its core, a graphic and deeply unapologetic laundry list of broken promises Uncle Joey made to his then-girlfriend, whom he began dating in 1992 and then apparently “replaced” by someone more “eloquent” than she. In its frustration and need to understand, “You Oughta Know” didn’t skimp on the dirty details (movie-theater fellatio!), and, with Flea and Dave Navarro of the Red Hot Chili Peppers on bass and guitar giving the song its sinister instrumental edge, it bit down even harder. Between her caustic yelp and alliance with two members of then alt-royalty, Morissette built a convincing case for being Over It, but her words betrayed her: Beneath the indignation lay an extraordinarily human wound,—R.B.
9. Pavement, “Grounded”
Wowee Zowee was Pavement’s weed record, full of surreal fragments and anxious freakouts, and while “Grounded” is both of those things, it’s also their most emotive pop moment, maybe ever. There’s that opening guitar riff that flaps in the wind like a white flag waving over Malkmus’ resigned appraisal of the perils of luxury when there are “boys dying on these streets.” It’s hard to think about Malkmus as a paragon of political activism, especially when his message was so often garbled in intentional abstraction, but this one manages to convey the crushing emotional experience of observing inequality, even from a notoriously stoned and distant perspective. —C.J.
8. Gin Blossoms, “Til I Hear It From You”
A song written exclusively for romance-in-the-record store cult hit Empire Records, the sweetly harmonizing, gently rocking “Til I Hear it From You” is an adoring — yet never maudlin — cut of pop pleasure that listeners will likely always associate with telling someone you love them at 1:37 exactly, Joe. That it gave Gin Blossoms their biggest chart hit while never appearing on any of their studio albums was too appropriate for one of the most star-crossed bands of the ’90s. — R.B.
7. Hole, “Violet”
There are vanishingly few parallels to Courtney Love, a tornadic pop-culture presence who cataloged and performed violence in equal measure. Her band’s debut Pretty on the Inside — produced by Kim Gordon — played like a AmRep release, yet it made SPIN’s year-end Top 20. “Violet,” first track and third single off follow-up Live Through This, kicked off one hell of an encore. A frenzied punk-rock evisceration of rape culture, it goes loud-louder-loud: Eric Erlandson’s guitars detonate for the chorus, while Love leaves shredded cords all over the studio. Released seven days after the suicide of her husband Kurt Cobain and boasting expanded dynamics and a marked pop sensibility, Live was beset by sexist whispers that Kurt had written the bulk of the album. They were wrong; for better or worse, Kurt and Courtney were just simpatico. And only she could manage the sustained bile that “Violet” required. —B.S.
6. Radiohead, “Fake Plastic Trees”
It took a lot of tries for Thom Yorke to finish “Fake Plastic Trees” to his satisfaction — in fact, the band memorably took a break from recording to catch a Jeff Buckley show. The “Hallelujah” singer must’ve had a startling effect on the Radiohead leader, because his next try at laying down the slow-churning Bends single resulted in his scaling new vocal heights — and bursting into tears upon completion. Yorke sings of women who augment their bodies (“she looks like the real thing / she tastes like the real thing”) and the men who help alter their appearances (“He used to do surgery / For girls in the ‘80s”), fully aware of the futility of it all (“Gravity always wins”). But the not-yet-robotic Yorke still can’t resist wondering — in heart-shreddingly broken falsetto — if his natural self could ever be enough. It’s enough to wear anyone out. —R.B.
5. Smashing Pumpkins, “Bullet With Butterfly Wings”
The five-word intro that was to the mid-’90s what “Load up on guns and bring your friends” was to the early decade — though really, Billy Corgan’s mewling delivery is so singular and tailored to its time that he probably could’ve whined “My breath smells like Cheetos” with the same intonation and made it equally iconic. That the song manages to only gain momentum from there remains among their most impressive accomplishments, a rumbling verse crashing into a thunderclap chorus that manages to be just as epochally preposterous as the song’s lede (“Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage”). To say “Bullet” hasn’t aged would be to do it a disservice — the song is forever stuck in a sea of turn-of-the-century memories, of Zero t-shirts, of mislabeled MP3s, of not wanting to be saved and being happy to put fist to air to declare as much. And it shall not be moved. — A.U.
4. Weezer, “Say It Ain’t So”
After the baggy break-up squall of “Undone” and the fraught power-pop of “Buddy Holly,” Weezer was ready to get real weird. “Say it ain’t so” was, famously, a child’s apocryphal plea to Shoeless Joe Jackson, and here Rivers Cuomo levels the phrase at his own hero. With impressive concision, the song depicts a young Rivers at home: he sees a beer in the fridge, worries that his stepfather shares his father’s addiction, then tries to pretend everything’s fine. The guitars chip away at his fears from all angles. There’s the sullen, quasi-ska barre chords under the verse, the sour crunch of the chorus, and a howling hair-metal solo after the anguished bridge. At the time, critics focused on the comparative sunniness and geeky references found elsewhere on the Blue Album. It turns out “Say It Ain’t So” was a preview of Weezer’s next move: the shambolic, squicked-out soul-baring.of Pinkerton. But for shoutalongs to adolescent dread, they never outdid this. —B.S.
3. Pulp, “Common People”
Pulp’s “Common People” works on several levels. On the surface, it’s a purely ecstatic dancefloor anthem about staving off boredom, thanks to pulsating ‘80s synths, debauchery-referencing lyrics and expert pacing: The song gradually speeds up as it progresses, until it crests with rhythmic stabs and Jarvis Cocker’s desperate-sounding shouts. Of course, “Common People” is also a sly indictment of social class — the rich protagonist is not-so-subtly slumming and quite unapologetic about it — enhanced by Cocker’s droll delivery and expressive emoting. In other words, although embraced as a flagship Britpop song, “Common People” is also an indictment of the whole movement — an act of subversion from the inside orchestrated by what were, up until almost that exact moment, a band of perennial outsiders. —A.Z.
2. Green Day, “When I Come Around”
“When I Come Around” was for punk what L.L. Cool J’s “I Need Love” was to rap: the ballad as legitimizer for a genre threatening to spread its wings in all sorts of proto-configurations before its most commercially viable pharaohs chiseled it into stone once and for all. Here was Punk™, freshly patented, gone legit, no more month-to-month lease, with maturity to match. “You can’t go forcing something if it’s just not right,” sang Billie Joe Armstrong, parting the seas of apathy on the otherwise sugarhigh Dookie for a moment to reflect on why he and his girlfriend didn’t work out. But if you suspected “When I Come Around” sounded too hopeful (and catchy) to be a bummer, you were right: they’re married now. —D.W.
1. Oasis, “Wonderwall”
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when, why, or how “Wonderwall” became the enduring campfire singalong of the ’90s, the kind of song that teenagers in 2015 who wouldn’t know Michael Stipe’s shiny bald cranium from Eddie Vedder’s gorgeously flowing locks can probably still sing along to from the first “Toooo-day, is gonna be the day…” It probably has something to do with the Gallaghers’ ability to hit specific emotional chords in the vaguest way possible, a method of attack that would, for better or worse, end up inspiring an entire generation of British rock mid-tempoists at the turn of the millennium. “Wonderwall” is a love song that never actually talks about romance, in a way that leaves it applicable to a lover, a friend, or — naturally — a sibling, unifying all of us under four capo’d acoustic chords, expertly deployed strings, and the most distinctive Mancunian accent in rock history.
But really, the lesson of the eternal flame of “Wonderwall” — why it’s still closing Olympic ceremonies, why Ryan Adams still gives Jenny Lewis nervous breakdowns by challenging her to match it, why it remains Hannah Horvath’s go-to bathtub jam — might be that in popular music, blind optimism will generally outlive accepted cynicism. “Maybe you’re gonna be the one that saves me” certainly doesn’t sound like one of the more rebellious statements issued in ’95 alternative, but in era where American rock was dominated by self-doubt and dread, its message of assurance — even a hesitant one, from far away — was bold enough to survive in the public consciousness long enough to see a time in which resigned angst was no longer the dominant mode of cultural expression. The world is a vampire, “Wonderwall” conceded, but put your arm around me and sing along, and we just might make it to the dawn together anyway. —A.U.