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The 96 Best Alternative Rock Songs of 1996

We say remember that

60. Tori Amos, “Caught a Light Sneeze”

So many boys, so little immunity! Amos finds reverie in sickness on this, the first single from her first self-produced album, Boys for Pele. (It’s also, reputedly, the first single released as a download.) The rumor mill cranked up for the Pretty Hate Machine reference: In an interview with SPIN, Trent Reznor acknowledged a rift — precipitated, he claimed, by Courtney Love. But there’s very little reproach here: Amos’ probing harpsichord leads her to lovers and authority figures, while the au courant drum loop drags its foot. The real salvo was “Professional Widow,” whose “starf**ker” reference caught a certain industrial auteur’s ear. — B.S.

59. Bikini Kill, “Capri Pants”

Forget for a moment that they were rhetorical legends, as their least-revolutionary album, Reject All American, implores you. Then note how their attempts at power-pop and glam and songwriting — there’s almost a middle eight here — still roar out of the gate. This nugget’s riff is stickier than early fans could believe, the drumming tighter, and there’s no way around calling “Cause I like you / But baby it’s all wrong” a hook. — D.W.

58. Nerf Herder, “Van Halen”

Steadfastly holding it down for nerd rock over two decades of Weezer flirting with mainstream acceptance and/or outright psychosis, “Van Halen” remains Nerf Herder’s most gratifying fanboy indulgence. The fawning over the titular band’s Roth-era winning streak is comprehensive and exhilarating, and the betrayal at the Sammy Hagar switchover is heartbreaking and too-relatable. It’s been 30 years since 5150 though, guys, maybe it’s time to give “Why Can’t This Be Love” another chance. — A.U.

57. Archers of Loaf, “Chumming the Ocean”

Regardless of All the Nations Airports single “Scenic Pastures” and its hilarious similarity to “Gold Soundz,” stop comparing them to Pavement. Then skip a few tracks down to this wondrously rendered (and croaked) Waits-ian ballad about a diver in a cage who gets devoured by sharks. Over empty-saloon piano, lines like “The deep is in riot, the coastline is quiet” sum up the fear of an unheard S.O.S. on a far smaller budget than Open Water. — D.W.

56. Republica, “Ready to Go”

The Alternative Nation’s greatest foray into 2 Unlimited territory, Republica frontwoman Saffron scaling to the tops of the highest buildings to broadcast her preparedness over zooming guitars that tripled down on the song’s thesis. The WNBA’s inaugural season couldn’t have asked for a better tip-off anthem. — A.U.

55. The Wallflowers, “6th Avenue Heartache”

Prior to being blinded by the Wallflowers’ massive ’97 radio hit “One Headlight,” you might’ve lifted a lighter to Bringing Down the Horse’s first single, the sighing “6th Avenue Heartache.” Jakob Dylan wrote the ballad when he was just 18 and living in New York, observing a homeless man who sat outside his window playing the same songs every day — until he disappeared. Further bolstering its decade-specific cred was Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz harmonizing in the background, a nice trump card for your next round of ‘90s music trivia. — R.B.

54. Local H, “Bound for the Floor”

More commonly known as “the ‘copacetic’ song,” “Bound For the Floor” is basically The Simpsons“Are you being sarcastic, dude?” exchange in musical form. It got Local H unfairly dismissed as a cynical Nirvana ripoff — “unfairly” because those who immediately rushed As Good As Dead to a used CD store missed out on “High Fivin’ MF” and “Eddie Vedder,” proving that Local H were cynical about everything. — I.C.

53. Soundgarden, “Burden in My Hand”

Most of Soundgarden’s best songs reside in a sonic space mired in darkness, but not “Burden In My Hand” — this raucous murder ballad is firmly set in the blazing sun, more Spaghetti Western than Seattle grunge. And if a high-noon showdown MC’ed by Chris Cornell doesn’t sound epic to you, I can’t imagine what would. — Z.C.

52. Stabbing Westward, “What Do I Have to Do?”

Trent Reznor would rather die than give you control and wanted to f**k you like an animal. Stabbing Westward was begging (in low-register croon, no less) to know what they had to do to make you want them. So with all due respect — and respect is due — to God Lives Underwater, Gravity Kills, and Machines of Loving Grace, this spot is reserved for the thirstiest of the alt-industrial bandwagon hoppers. — I.C.

51. Fiona Apple, “Shadowboxer”

Few could articulate the emotional Russian Roulette of staying pals with an ex as well as the perennially brooding  Fiona Apple. “Once my lover, now my friend,” she growls over thundering piano on her debut single, before astutely pointing out what few have the courage to acknowledge in this scenario: “What a cunning way to condescend.” The unpredictability of this “relationship” has rightly rendered her tense and furious, but Apple’s not going down without a fight. — R.B.

50. Marilyn Manson, “The Beautiful People”

In retrospect, perhaps Manson’s most transgressive act was nicking Gary Glitter’s rhythm. Co-producer Trent Reznor helps keep things crispy: Twiggy Ramirez’s sneering-rhino riffing, Ginger Fish’s bone-spider stickwork, and Mr. Manson’s curdled croak. His morbid ohhaaahhhhs are the glammy scaffolding on a towering pop-metal edifice, one that drew enough supplicants to be a minor denomination unto itself. If his nihilism was a little on the nose, well, so is a sucker punch. — B.S.

49. Imperial Teen, “You’re One”

“You kiss me like a man, boy / You take it like a man, boy,” was released to radio in May 1996. Korn hedged on “All day I dream about sex” until March 1997. But why did they even bother? A cheery quartet of pop-circuitous women and gay men were making alt-rock quietly bolder than anyone in extremis could comprehend. — D.W.

48. The Promise Ring, “A Picture Postcard”

Nothing Feels Good is literally the book on emo. “A Picture Postbook” is simply archetypal emo in 1996, refusing to abide by cadence, key, and production values lest it rob “Don’t forget to kiss me if you’re really going to leave / Couldn’t you take the second bus home?” of the nervy, overwhelming urgency it deserves. “I’ve never wrote in perfect lines?” Like hell you haven’t, Davey. — I.C.

47. The Refreshments, “Banditos”

“I got the pistols, so I’ll keep the pesos / Yeah, that seems fair,” was just one more fantasy of f**king the world over in the ‘90s. Why? Because it’s full of stupid people, of course. The Refreshments’ one perfect moment of post-“Interstate Love Song” power-pop resulted in a classic that some people definitely still think was by the Replacements. They sugar-tanked the sheriff, and they did in fact tire-slash the deputy. — D.W.

46. Goldfinger, “Here in Your Bedroom”

Goldfinger’s debut single was also their most successful song, inspired by lead singer John Feldmann’s romantic entanglement with a department store clerk — more specifically, those glorious, innocent days before the first hookup, and the inevitable downfall after. The track cloaks love’s uncertainty (“Will you still feel the same?”) in upbeat poptimism, imbuing love’s guess-work with some much-needed glee. — Z.C.

45. Stereolab, “Tomorrow Is Already Here”

Stereolab had already titled a song “John Cage Bubblegum” and already wrote their destiny: to be the poppiest experimental band of all time. Whether by inspirational budget or band peaking naturally, capitalist label Elektra and their Marxist signees achieved a mutual dream — one in which rickety beauty wound up like a Jack-in-the-box juxtaposed with the guileless repetition foisted on us by both Neu! and the Spice Girls. Follow the bouncing ball: “Originally this setup was to serve society / Now the roles have been reversed / That want society to serve the institutions.” — D.W.

44. Foundations of Wayne, “Radiation Vibe”

Seven years before their Rachel Hunter and Ridgemont High fantasies brought them to the Top 40, “Radiation Vibe” established Fountains of Wayne as modern rock’s most skilled purveyors of obtuse-angled power-pop. The group would dive into Kinksy third-person class commentary soon enough, but in the perennially warm-weather mid-’90s, the major-chord wavelength they were grooving on was still too sun-soaked for such grey-skied concerns. — A.U.

43. Neutral Milk Hotel, “Song Against Sex”

Before Jeff Mangum took to writing surrealist historical fiction, he was a twentysomething singer-songwriter writing about sex and suicide. Despite the puritanical suggestions in the title of Neutral Milk Hotel’s first LP’s opener, what made Mangum’s work special from the start was the way his art loudly echoed the cacophony of youth: In under four minutes, “Song Against Sex” has oblique references to Biblical miracles, queer desire, escapist drug use, and the teenage assumption that any action you take can bring the world around you crumbling down. There’s no chorus, because a refrain like that would help you make sense of the whole messy enterprise. The whole point of “Song Against Sex” is that the world’s not that easy.— C.J.

42. Ash, “Goldfinger”

Ash were the pop-punk band with the Midas touch in the mid-’90s, proving with “Goldfinger” that they could take a song about listening to the rain while waiting for your girlfriend to sneak over and make it sound downright generational. Still teenagers when recording debut LP 1977, the Irish trio took a characteristically impatient approach to the quiet-loud dynamic that ruled the day, not even waiting until the second line of “Goldfinger” to interject with their full-band wallop, leaving the song sounding as restless and over-stimulated as being 17 actually feels. — A.U.

41. Orbital, “The Box”

U.K. concept-house duo Orbital’s most Amp-ready moment, a radioactive music box of a single that married the queasiness of jungle to the violence of big beat and the fragility of trip-hop. The stop-motion video was the missing ingredient, a time-lapsed nightmare that brilliantly illustrated pre-millennial paranoia, even before the clip’s chilling climactic pronouncement: MONSTERS EXIST. Just imagine how scary the entire package would be in 2016. — A.U.