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The 96 Best Alternative Rock Songs of 1996

We say remember that

40. Gin Blossoms, “Follow You Down”

The gentlest peddlers of ‘90s pop-rock, Gin Blossoms no doubt soundtracked a lot of stolen glances with this harmonica-propelled jam. There’s no resisting “Follow You Down,” with its easy melody and singer Jesse Valenzuela’s amorous promises, but lest you write them off as total pushovers, the Blossoms show some thorn with a gnarling bridge solo and a chorus hedge: “I’ll follow you down — but not that far.” — R.B.

39. Tracy Bonham, “Mother Mother”

It’s every parent’s worst nightmare: the beloved daughter checking in from afar, asking perfunctory questions (“How’s the weather? How’s my father?”) to distract from the turmoil they (correctly) imagine is transpiring on the other end (“I’m hungry / I’m dirty / I’m losing my mind / EVERYTHING’S FINE!!”). Powerlessness is inherent in every facet of the song’s construction — its barely-there chord progression teetering on the edge of insanity, as well as Bonham’s throat-shredding “reassurances” — and yet, in owning up to her own failures, Bonham manages to attain control, however fleetingly. Not that it’ll help her parents sleep at night. — Z.C.

38. Tortoise, “Djed”

Despite helping midwife “post-rock” into existence, Tortoise weren’t a particularly interesting band. Ideas boiled under their surface, but that surface was always fogged up; few compositions sounded like a final edit. So the 20-minute yowza “Djed” feels like a send-up of that very notion: a suite of intros and codas, dubby grooves and Krautrock photo negatives, with plenty of fleeting thoughts that could’ve been expanded into something far less absorbing. “You think what we do is a sketchbook?” Tortoise tease on the Millions Now Living Will Never Die opener. “Well, here it is, page by page.” — D.W.

37. Cibo Matto, “Sugar Water”

The enigmatic highlight of debut album Viva! La Woman, Cibo Matto’s hypnotic “Sugar Water” was versatile enough to be used both as MTV bumper music and the live accompaniment to the all-time sexiest Buffy scene — not to mention the soundtrack to its own splitscreen mindf**k of a music video. This camel-paced creeper allowed you to dictate your own level of immersion: You could fully transport to the duo’s dimension of buildings changing into coconut trees, or you could just clap along to the year’s catchiest “La, la, la” chorus. — A.U.

36. Bush, “Swallowed”

Bush hired Steve Albini for the cred, Albini did it for the check, or at least to prove just how principled he is about Electric Audio being equal opportunity. Either way, everything about “Swallowed” — its title, its “warm sun, feed me up” opening lyrics, its fashionably trashy video treatment — rubbed your nose in the foul odor of unwholesome quid pro quo, fitting for alt-rock’s most shamelessly slutty band. — I.C.

35. The Wonders, “That Thing You Do”

The GOAT of fictional songs, the Beatles-mining “That Thing You Do” found audiences well beyond its titular film, which shouldn’t be much of a surprise — it was authored by Fountains of Wayne pop savant Adam Schlesinger. Though it never reached the level of ubiquity its movie portrayed, “That Thing You Do” would go on to peak at No. 41 on the Hot 100 and inspire covers from actual boy band ‘NSYNC and pop-punk foremen New Found Glory, allowing the Wonders a legacy most IRL ’96 rock bands would break the fourth wall for. — R.B.

34. Lush, “Ladykillers”

Once awash in a sea of Cocteau reverb and falsetto, Lush had stripped to near-Elastican efficiency by 1996’s Lovelife, proving the costume change a wise one with the blistering bird-flip “Ladykillers.” Inspired by some combination of Liam Gallagher, Anthony Kiedis, and Weezer bassist Matt Sharp — hey, at least they eluded Ed Roland’s clutches — “Ladykillers” excoriates the unchecked narcissism of rock-band dudes while exposing their predatoriness (“I’m weak and he was so persistent / He only had to have me ’cause I put up a fight”). But once bitten, twice shy: “Hey girls, he’s such a ladykiller / But we know where he’s coming from, and we know the score.” — A.U.

33. Modest Mouse, “Dramamine”

Two decades ago, a local Washington state band with a penchant for cryptic lyrics and woozy melodies released their first record. Its opening track took chances with the audience’s attention, clocking in at almost six minutes and spending more time developing a gorgeously anxious guitar line and impatient-sounding percussion than its verses, which singer Isaac Brock spat out in queasy chunks. For a track named for a motion-sickness pill, it certainly didn’t sound like the drugs were doing their job. — R.B.

32. Pulp, “Something Changed”

The fifth A-side pulled from Different Class, “Something Changed” might’ve been Jarvis Cocker’s all-time finest lyric, a sliding-doors ballad in which its protagonist is momentarily stricken with paranoia over how close he came to having never met the love of his life. What would be a smotheringly schmaltzy lyrical conceit in anyone else’s hands is delivered by Cocker with the true anxiety of anyone that’s ever found real happiness in another person, and spent the rest of their life waiting for the curtain to be lifted on all of it. “Where would I be now if we’d never met? / Would I be singing this song to someone else instead?” None of us know, and all we can do is hope we never have to. — A.U.

31. Manic Street Preachers, “A Design for Life”

The Manic Street Preachers were undoubtedly told that this was the end after the tragic disappearance of lyricist and spokesperson Richey James Edwards in 1995. But the remaining trio regrouped around solidarity and strings with 1996’s triumphant Everything Must Go and its signature torch song, “A Design For Life,” the most anthemic song ever to begin with the word “libraries.” The cinematic waltz was worlds removed from the U.K. Guns N’ Roses aspirations of the group’s 4 REAL days, but “Design” achieved a stature and power beyond what even Edwards could’ve imagined, by staring down legitimate oblivion and finding the strength to keep preaching. — A.U.

30. Pearl Jam, “Off He Goes”

No Code was no more experimental than Tiny Music… From the Vatican Gift Shop. Which is to say, post-Cobain alt-rock was trying to figure out what it was supposed to be all-around: Imitators became the real deal, and the real deal was imitating Neil Young. This may have been a bad thing in the eyes of Ticketmaster, but for the 1990s’ greatest balladeers, it was another leaf to turn over. Centerpiece “Off He Goes,” which radio respectfully passed on, is Pearl Jam’s “New Slang.” It’s the beauty and grace of stillness, and a couple of chords deployed for the bare minimum of drift. It’s a model of restraint from an era when anything went. Today, it doesn’t sound like it’s from any era at all. — D.W.

29. Luscious Jackson, “Naked Eye”

An unlikely — well, in most years — Top 40 hit from these Beastie-approved genre stir-fryers, this circuital jam of overlapping hooks and disappearing grooves somehow ended up passing for mid-’90s mall music. The song was nonsensical but irresistible, the absurd tension of its half-rapped verses soothingly eased with a cooed “And it feeeeels allriiiiight…” and a drum fill taking off into its soaring chorus. The airport-set video, which starts off like a noir heist but ends like Almost Famous with an identity crisis, seems as good a metaphor for the alt-rock ’90s as any. — A.U.

28. R.E.M., “How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us”

With Automatic for the People, R.E.M. achieved a grandeur that seemed unthinkable as recently as “Stand,” and they followed it up with the glam-trash tsunami Monster just in case we got the wrong idea. But on New Adventures in Hi-Fi, their last great album, they harnessed both impulses in one place, with the stately “How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us” ushering in “The Wake-Up Bomb” without breaking a sweat. “West” was more than that, though: possibly their greatest opening track, and definitely their most elegant, a beast of depression with Stipe’s deadened delivery offering grayscale poetry like “the canary got trapped in the uranium mine.” The comforting piano riff and unsettling, hearing-test sax-synths give it a light touch — like a distant thunderstorm before the drummer quits and the economy collapses. — D.W.

27. Björk, “Possibly Maybe”

Part of Björk’s brilliance as a songwriter over the years is the readiness with which she’s delved into confused feelings and muddled headspaces. Sonically, “Possibly Maybe” may be one of Post’s more straightforward songs, but its emotional scope is ambitious, compressing the brain-scrambling feelings experienced over the whole course of a relationship into a tidy five minutes. To borrow one of her own metaphors, she’s always been singularly adept at mapping the topography of complex emotional landscapes, and here she obliquely admits it; when she sings  “uncertainty excites me,” she’s talking about the feelings of boundless possibility in a new relationship, but it’s also shorthand for everything she’s embraced throughout her catalog, the constant newness and reinvention. — C.J.

26. Alanis Morissette, “Head Over Feet”

Living in 2016 as denizens of the Tinder Age, it’s easy to forget that romance isn’t completely dead — just go back 20 years, to Alanis Morissette’s tear-jerking “Head Over Feet.” It’s the story of a downtrodden, jaded woman who slowly learns to let down her guard and surrender her heart — but importantly, not her autonomy — to genuine, good love. If only more of us had her luck, or her harmonica skills. — Z.C.

25. Wilco, “Misunderstood”

Being There’s leadoff cut begins as a sympathetic portrait of a never-was who stomps back home with his songs. Jay Bennett’s organ cuts the small-town night; Jeff Tweedy pops up in the reflection of a compact disc and invites the guy to a house party. By the end, though, he’s hollering insults over a lurching full-band attack. What was tender is now tenderizing: “I’d like to thank you all for nothing at all,” Tweedy shouts, while the guitars flatten everything in sight. The shambolic bile later spread in “Via Chicago” and “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” begins here. — B.S.

24. Stone Temple Pilots, “Big Bang Baby”

Especially after the tragedy of Scott Weiland’s death, it’s easy to look back at Stone Temple Pilots and only see their darker moments. But the drug ballads are far outweighed in their catalog by moments like “Big Bang Baby” — which turns a potentially heavy meditation on the perils of having the world’s eyes trained upon you into a sort of cheap-seats-scorching glam-rock strut and a video that casts them as low-budget TigerBeat heartthrobs. They never were and they know it; just four dudes from San Diego who somehow got famous as f**k and feel a little weird about it. That can be a dark thing, but “Big Bang Baby” finds them treating it like the joy that it can be — or, to quote Weiland riffing on Mick Jagger, as “a laugh, laugh, laugh.” — C.J.

23. Afghan Whigs, “Faded”

The greatest slide-guitar power ballad this side of “Layla,” wherein alt-rock’s Soul Brother Number One climbs Honky’s Ladder to heaven and bids the angry dog-collared boys of grunge au revoir. — I.C.

22. Sleater-Kinney, “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone”

Sleater-Kinney snarled at success just as they prepared to indulge in it. “Pictures of me on your bedroom wall” feels like a quaint bar for success now, but it was honest hero worship — then “Invite you back after the show / I’m the queen of rock’n’roll” mocked that reverence. Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker battled for onomatopoeic supremacy in the chorus. And that last line, “It’s fine ‘cause it’s all mine,” shot Courtney Love a look. Semi-fame, here they came. — D.W.

21. 311, “All Mixed Up”

On the spectrum of white dudes appropriating Jamaican textures, Fugazi claims one pole. The other belongs to Fugazi’s onetime opening act: 311, the pride of Omaha. Thin reggae strokes alternate with headcold riffage; the dog’s breakfast of rap/ragga vocals culminates in very burnt toasting. So of course it’s a jam: an airless, posi pop-rock planet — produced by Ron Saint Germain, of I Against I fame — around which 311 lofted many moons. — B.S.