The 96 Best Alternative Rock Songs of 1996
We say remember that
20. Foo Fighters, “Big Me”
This brief highlight from Foo Fighters’ debut, which successfully jumpstarted Dave Grohl’s post-Nirvana career, fell on the softer side of the band’s trademark quiet-loud repertoire. But that didn’t stop midtempo charmer “Big Me” from ringing out: With the viral success of its happy-go-lucky Mentos-parodying music video, Nirvana’s cuddlier cousins were forced to stop playing “Big Me” live because audience members would literally pelt them with the mint candy. Disappointed fans hoping to hear the song could just go home and turn on MTV for 15 minutes. — R.B.
19. Nada Surf, “Popular”
Three important rules for Buzz Bin success: Make sure you start with a discordant guitar riff. It should be piercing, intriguing, jarring, but not alienating. Build on it with verses that imply social commentary and feel like a reference to something from pop-culture history without being totally clear as to what with either. You don’t need to let people know exactly what you’re doing, just make clear that you’re doing it. Then cap it with a chorus that feels cathartic, yet soothing, loud, but hollow. And if you want to pair it with an over-dramatic high-school video with a lot of making out and possible homoerotic undertones, YOU CAN DO THAT TOO! EVERYONE WILL LIKE IT!! IF YOU JUST LISTEN TO MY PLAN: THE MID-’90S GUIDE TO ALT-ROCK POPULARITY!!!! —A.U.
18. Underworld, “Born Slippy .NUXX”
The original Born Slippy was a greyhound whose race paid off. The original “Born Slippy” was a propulsive, baroque techno single. This “Born Slippy” bears no relation: It’s a pep talk paired with a panic attack, a one-man recap of a night spent sinking too many pints and missing too many chances. Beatific echoing synths yield to relentless, hollow thud: the club as haunt. Karl Hyde oozes quick-cut imagery; every time he spits “boy” it lacerates a little more. Danny Boyle sowed its salt into Trainspotting’s final scene, which gave the one-time B-side its sweaty afterlife. — B.S.
17. Sublime, “What I Got”
Sublime had already spent years as ska-punk-funk misfits by the time they released their 1996 album Sublime, but in less than three minutes they’d cement their place as all-is-full-of-love vibe vendors for generations of stoned teens to come. “What I Got” is he most winning variation of the sort of good feelings the band pushed throughout their career — made tragically poignant by the sudden loss of frontman Bradley Nowell to a heroin overdose in the months leading up to its release as a single. Looking back, it feels like a song about blindly pressing forward and failing, while managing to sound like the way Venice Beach smells in the summertime (like the Ocean, bodybuilder sweat, and California’s finest medical-grade stuff). Spin it again, it’s okay if you get a few tears in your bongwater. — C.J.
16. Green Day, “Brain Stew”/”Jaded”
What does insomnia-fueled insanity sound like? Is it a tortured scream? The roar of static? A fevered drum beat? For Green Day, the madness is actually pretty mundane — a slow, mechanical guitar riff gradually lurching into the void in an unyielding arc, before Billie Joe is woken up by a 90-second panic attack. — Z.C.
15. Primitive Radio Gods, “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand”
Riding high on an air-traffic controller’s salary, Chris O’Connor made a record. He credited it to a fake act; it went nowhere, but he mailed a spare copy to the Cure’s label, which flipped. This flukiest of alt-rock hits is a downcast take on Lou Reed’s similarly fluky “Walk on the Wild Side,” with a clanging hip-hop drum track, a bedroom piano solo, and a nervy B.B. King vocal sample, all slightly inhabited by O’Connor’s 3:00 a.m. philosophizing. It’s still a high point for American trip-hop, and a glowing precursor to Moby’s downtempo breakthrough. — B.S.
14. Radiohead, “Just”
The seventh track on Radiohead’s sophomore album is a hallmark for anyone who favors the U.K. titans’ six-string beginnings. It was guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s time to shine — his searing arrangements nearly drown out Thom Yorke’s trembling vocals entirely. And that doesn’t even include the stuff near the end: The last thirty seconds of “Just” are all Greenwood’s, as he wraps with a twitching, glass-shattering solo loud enough to rival Doc Brown’s super-amp. — R.B.
13. Belle and Sebastian, “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying”
Twee titans Belle and Sebastian had an enviable ’96, releasing both their debut Tigermilk and its classic follow-up, If You’re Feeling Sinister. “Expectations” and “The State I Am In” are darling, but if you’re going to pick just one for the books, it has to be from Sinister. “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying” is the sound of a heart bleeding onto the page, and its literary motif is a clever way into the cherished indie-pop desire to escape someplace soft and secret, if only in one’s imagination. It all wells up with Stuart Murdoch’s heart-wrenching chestnut about pens and swords: “I could kill you, sure / But I could only make you cry with these words.” Tell us about it. — ANNA GACA
12. Spacehog, “In the Meantime”
Spacehog may not have achieved massive success following their 1995 debut, Resident Alien, but they did proffer up ’96’s glammiest moment — and what a triumphant victory cry it is. Between the soaring falsetto hook, the limber soft-funk verses, and the leaden crunch of the guitars throughout, the Britpop-bypassing U.K. quartet managed to balance Queen’s bombast with Radiohead’s taut alternative rock, bridging British rock’s past and present, achieving all-too-temporal international success in the process. — Z.C.
11. The Chemical Brothers, “Setting Sun”
A time-jump of a big-beat single, neurons firing between Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons until the thing collapses from epileptic shock halfway through. Noel Gallagher shows up to add an air of epoch-making, but he doesn’t anchor the thing as much as provide an unreliable narrator for the hallucinogenic voyage. Siren flares stream across the sky, drums speak in tongues, and tomorrow still ain’t got a f**king clue. — A.U.
10. Butthole Surfers, “Pepper”
Even as Butthole Surfers moved over the years toward the pop limelight — or at least as much as a psychedelics-obsessed wrecking crew of Texas weirdos can — they kept the terrifying strangeness inherent in their long history of body-horror noise rock. Case in point: the cover of their 1996 album Electriclarryland, which features a No. 2 pencil buried to the hilt in some poor sap’s eardrum. That album also included their unlikely crossover moment, “Pepper,” which paired another of frontman Gibby Haynes’ deranged rants about death with a dust-coated slide-guitar croak and post-“Loser” drum shuffle. The track plays out like a sort of Final Destination story for Texas kids, as the song’s cast of characters are plucked off one by one by the perils of youth. This being a Butthole Surfers song, there’s little reason or redemption, just a fury of guitar grime and gritted teeth. — C.J.
9. The Cardigans, “Lovefool”
A band out of time was a band right on time in 1996, the perfect year for a bunch of blonde Swedes who put the ABBA in Sabbath to score a hit big and beautiful enough to make Beyoncé swoon. “Lovefool,” a disco song with zero flaws disguised as alt-rock novelty, didn’t spark a mirrorball resurgence, even as it loomed over so many revivals with much less to show for them (neo-lounge!). But it justifiably conquered radio, thanks to an un-programmed funk that mostly went away again until Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.” The song’s title neatly, literally sums up its sweet ‘n’ sour hook. It’s a good thing that Nina Persson’s timbre is best likened to a nice, post-coital sigh; “Pretend that you love me” might crush us all to death if not. — D.W.
8. The Prodigy, “Firestarter”
“Incendiary” was one of the last words you’d use to describe the majority of alt-rock in ’96, the golden age for rock stars who looked and sounded about as ambitious and impassioned as the Guy on the Couch. But then the Prodigy and their demon-haired face-of-the-franchise jumped the Atlantic, and suddenly aggro had a future in rock again. “Firestarter” did as promised, striking a match underneath American rock radio with its filleted Breeders sample, borrowed Art of Noise shrieking, and shrapnel-shooting breakbeat, forming the mold followed by action-movie trailers and X Games soundtracks for the rest of the decade. It could’ve made the Prodigy the Sex Pistols of the ’90s, but Keith Flint wasn’t really the Antichrist or even an anarchist, just a smartly dressed puppet filling a deep void of punking instigation. — A.U.
7. No Doubt, “Just a Girl”
So singular and goofy is the whiz-bang new-wave riff from No Doubt’s first big single that I still remember my first time hearing it. I was 13, I’d just gotten my first period, and I’d never been more uncomfortable or terrified in my life. There was no one I could talk to; fortunately, Gwen Stefani was speaking to me. Don’t you think I know exactly where I stand? Her words plugged pride into frustration, and the result was enough irresistible jump-around power to fuel dozens of bedroom dance parties. “Just a Girl” spoke to the suburban teen girl as well as anything ever has — it’s in the opening scene of Clueless, for God’s sake. Twenty years on, Stefani has never needed any other introduction. — A.G.
6. Weezer, “El Scorcho”
“El Scorcho” is the song that Harvard built. When you’re a grizzled geek with several years on the other freshmen — hobbling around the Yard with a steel brace on your leg, natch — confidence doesn’t come easily; hence, the song’s central unwieldy, wandering guitar riff, as endearingly awkward as a former goody-goody double-fisting 40’s at their first college party. To Cuomo, love is pain — so when he does manage to muster up the courage to ask the cello-playing object of his affections to a Green Day concert, only to be shot down with a quipped “never heard of them,” he slips further into the existential void with relish. Listening to Cuomo spill his guts certainly qualifies as schadenfreude (or at the very least, secondhand embarrassment), but then again, who hasn’t been the victim of doomed schoolyard infatuation? Ultimately, the universal wincing/weeping of “El Scorcho” is what keeps it current: Braces come off, students graduate, but young love’s wounds remain. At least they inspire great songs. — Z.C.
5. Garbage, “Stupid Girl”
Don’t let its name or chiding chorus fool you — “Stupid Girl” is one of the strongest, most pervasive anthems of empowerment of the 20th century. Musically, Garbage’s Top 40 entrée obscured their eventual reputation as a studio entity rooted in productional heft; its martial arrangement comprises little more than a chiming guitar riff, limber bass line, and of course, that instantly recognizable, snare-heavy drum beat, plucked from the Clash’s “Train in Vain.” But lyrically, “Stupid Girl” represents the alpha and omega of Garbage’s thematic mission: an extended, unflinching confrontation with sadness, superficiality, and the patriarchal status quo, equally damaging to both men and women. Consider Manson’s sighs on the choruses (“All you had you wasted,” “Can’t believe you fake it”), laments aimed at society at large. “We could have called it ‘Stupid Guy,’” Manson later told People. “But we thought another song about a strident female dissing a guy would be tedious.” — Z.C.
4. Rage Against the Machine, “Bulls on Parade”
“Bulls on Parade” did not deescelate the arms race; in fact, it gave Paul Ryan bigger guns. Rage Against the Machine did not inspire immigration reform. They gave us alt-rock’s “Immigrant Song.” You gotta ask: Were Rage Against the Machine a failure? The fact is, 2016 does not need Rage, let alone the off-brand cover version of itself: Everyone is very aware of prisons-for-profit, crumbling urban infrastructures, endless warmongering. But think of 1996, a time of relative peace, prosperity, rock bands going platinum for no reason, and social media essentially consisting of AOL chatrooms. Yeah, if you really break it down, half of this song is a battle rap and half is whammy-pedal guitar soloing, but to get any kind of political message on the airwaves, it needed to hit with the subtlety of a five-sided fistagon to the forehead. Rage Against the Machine were woke, just too early for their own good. — I.C.
3. Oasis, “Champagne Supernova”
A Britpop opus like Oasis’ (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? needs a colossal ending, and the brothers Gallagher found one in this caterwauling seven-minute epic. It needn’t matter what “Champagne Supernova” was about — even lead architect Noel Gallagher doesn’t appear to know — but the words are just plain fun to say, the vocal melody soars like a vanishing balloon, and the dueling guitars tend to fill in the rest. Oasis’ gift for tear-inducing group singalongs remains unparalleled, and there was no place more exciting in ’96 then wherever the Gallaghers were getting high. — R.B.
2. Beck, “Where It’s At”
“I got two turntables and a microphone” was a lyric that even your dad knew in 1996, but what did it mean, really? Beck Hansen was less an ambassador — for hip-hop or otherwise — than an Olympic-level proponent of the view that cultural appropriation equaled appreciation. Maybe those who dubbed him a slacker didn’t think he cared about his sources — was that snippet about AC/DCs intended to be as mocking as the repurposed “Sex for Teens (Where It’s At)” instructional record the song gets its title from? But Beck brought ‘90s alternative into its second phase, ironic or not: everything but the sampled and looped kitchen sink.
By 1996, randomness over beats was de rigueur, with disciples like Cake, eels, and Soul Coughing fluking onto Modern Rock stations. Family Guy-esque cutaways for out-of-nowhere dialogue would enter charting hits like “Tubthumping” the next year. And the overall zeitgeist in the air found relatively normal bands like Harvey Danger and Eve 6 making hay of culture-jamming and wordplay, respectively, through the rest of the decade. Who’s to thank? Maybe the “loser” who parlayed his gimmicks into patchworks as vivid as DJ Shadow’s and catchy enough for Grammys. Maybe the guy who figured out rap could just be cool-sounding nonsense like “jamboree handouts” and “elevator bones.” Or that alternative rock could be. Turns out jigsaw jazz is a thing. Oh, you didn’t know? Stop being such a slacker. — D.W.
1. Smashing Pumpkins, “1979”
The best song from any genre in 1996 too often tends to get mistaken for retro-fitted nostalgia. It’s understandable: The lyrics are past-tensed and hazy with the fog of overly fond remembrance. The music video feels like the Bicentennial throwback Dazed and Confused as imagined by the cast of Empire Records. The song has never been written about without New Order being mentioned at least once. The title is literally from a generation earlier. Just about everything about it suggests a period piece; when in fact, “1979” was contemporary to the point of ultimately being timeless. Buried on the second disc and released as the second single off of the Smashing Pumpkins’ exploded-brain opus Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, Billy Corgan’s masterpiece unfurls like no alt-rock song before it, matching a Feelies-taut riff with Robert Smith’s sigh-pop melodic sensibilities and spidery lyrics, tied together with “Mutt” Lange levels of stereo precision.
Even with those ’80s rock signifiers — which no one but Corgan had ever pined for simultaneously — it could only have properly impacted in 1996, after Trent Reznor had raised the bar for sonic depth on alt-rock radio, after Noel Gallagher had made it okay to feel excited about being young again, and after Kurt Cobain’s departure left everyone unsure of what the future held. The time it’s really nostalgic for is right now, because it’s imbued with the sense that the best years of your life don’t have many calendar pages left to turn. “Faster than we thought we’d go,” the Great Pumpkin rhapsodizes on the song’s racing-pulse bridge, and he may as well be talking about ’90s rock itself: By 1996, the Alternative Nation had totally splintered, and as early as ’97, even “post-grunge” felt antiquated as a term — the aimless commercialism of Matchbox 20 and the McG rock of Sugar Ray and Smash Mouth felt closer in lineage to Rick Springfield and the Go-Go’s than they did to Nirvana and Pearl Jam.
The dream may have been over, but if “1979” was its apex, dayenu — the song built on the possibilities originally promised by Seattle’s early-’90s breakthrough, but warp-sped past them into one of the most spellbindingly structured, deeply felt, and magically realized songs of the decade. People don’t compare it to New Order because it sounds like New Order or even because it feels like New Order, but because it’s as good as New Order; it’s the first ’90s alt-rock song that trounced pop at its own game. Those of us who grew up with the song and its video as the platonic ideal of the ’90s teen experience are impossibly lucky to have it to look back fondly on 20 years later. — A.U.