The 79 Best Alternative Rock Songs of 1997

At 1997, rock radio was as optimistic as the U.S. president, who’d just been inaugurated for his second term. From angsty grunge and trendy Brit Pop came songs that were sunny in sound if not in temperament, singer-songwriters digging deeply into their feelings, the nascent rise of electronica on the charts, and something called Chumbawamba. A cheeky, lyrical British band had their biggest hit with a song where the chorus simply went “woo hoo”; the former drummer of the generation’s most defining bands came into his own as a powerful rock frontman; Oasis released a disappointing double album but some guys named Radiohead predicted the terrifying, computer-dominated future, and made us feel a little less alienated from each other; Green Day dropped their least rocking hit yet, which would end up scoring a million graduation ceremonies; by the end of December, Fiona Apple’s searing gaze was etched into our brains. Some artists had their only, indelible hits; others alternative rock bands entered their prime, and set the tone for what would come.

It was a pretty good year, and we’ve written about our favorite songs from the 1997 alt-rock charts, in order to speak to what they meant then and how they sound to us now. (Note: Some of the songs were released in 1996, but made their biggest impact the next year on the radio and Billboard’s Alternative Charts.) Find them below.

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79. Matthew Sweet – “Where You Get Love”

“Where You Get Love” is the last single Matthew Sweet lodged on the Billboard charts–it went to 14 on Billboard’s Modern Rock Charts–and, from a certain angle, it’s possible to view the song as the afterburn of Girlfriend, the nervy 1991 album that’s the gold standard of power pop in the ’90s. If Girlfriend surprised—blame that on Robert Quine and Richard Lloyd, who treated simple pop tunes as a vehicle for exploration–“Where You Get Love” follows conventional contours, celebrating hooks and progressions but also benefitting from its constricted construction. Although the riff bubbles, there’s no suggestion that it will escape from its constraints, and that’s its excitement: like all great classicist pop songs, it follows a familiar structure but excites with its details.  –STEPHEN THOMAS ERLEWINE

78. Jars of Clay – “Crazy Times”

For the Christian recording industry, the generational dissociation that buzzy alt-rock represented was prime territory for infiltration. Jars of Clay’s first incursion was 1996’s fluke hit “Flood.” On their follow-up album Much Afraid, they went the full nine: debuting a crisp pop/rock sound, enlisting future Adele and OneRepublic producer Greg Wells as a utility player, and trying to land a track in a Jim Carrey movie. Lead single “Crazy Times” is a would-be anthem of spiritual despair, where even the solo is glum. It’s creepy and cold and more than a little neggy, and rock radio rebuffed it accordingly. –BRAD SHOUP

77. Live – “Lakini’s Juice”

This was a time of reluctant male sex symbols. And, also, Ed Kowalczyk, he of the rattail, ubiquitous bird chest, and a band that filled the void left by U2 and R.E.M. for the spell where they decided to be fun. Kowalczyk treated sex with the same absurd intensity and utter lack of self-awareness that informed everything else about Live–while he lamented of a love “like water/pinned down and abused for being strange” on a song called “All Over You” (shudder), we didn’t realize how good we had it until “Lakini’s Juice.” The video likened the human sexual drive to a deli counter (Kowalczyk truly understood the sensual qualities of salted, cured meats) and managed to make a song with the lyric “I rushed the lady’s room/took the water from the toilet” even ickier. Having learned nothing from this experience, the lead single from the next album was a sex song called “Dolphin’s Cry” where video extras run screaming from a badly veiled metaphor. Say what you will about Kowalczyk, but make sure you say this guy fucks. — IAN COHEN

76. Filter and Crystal Method – “Trip Like I Do”

“Another world, another time, in the age of wonder,” begins a chant at the beginning of Crystal Method’s original version of “Trip Like You Do.” Looking back, that seems like an apt-enough description of the late 90s, when movie studios dropped millions on star-packed soundtracks to promote their latest blockbusters. Perhaps the oddest example of this phenomenon was the soundtrack to the 1997 film adaptation of Todd McFarlane’s graphic novel Spawn, which paired well-known metal and hard rock acts with popular DJs and electronic groups. (Think Korn with the Dust Brothers or Metallica with DJ Spooky.) Filter and Crystal Method’s “(Can’t You) Trip Like I Do”—a remix of the Vegas electronic duo’s single from the same year—was by far the album’s biggest hit.

Much like very idea of big budget soundtracks, the song is a relic from the 1990s: You had Crystal Method riding the wave of the very brief mainstream interest in electronica and Filter making the most of the lingering buzz from their first—and at that time, only—hit single, 1995’s “Hey Man, Nice Shot.” Alas, the song has not held up very well over the years: Filter’s decision to transform the track’s bizarre, nonsensical “lyrics” into something boastful and faux-angry, complete with generic hard rock riffs and out-of-place screaming, ruins the bombastic, aspirationally druggy charm the original held for those of us too young to have known better. With the benefit of hindsight (being 32 instead of 12) it now sounds exactly like what it likely always was: The shitty end result of cash grab collaboration between the poor man’s Chemical Brothers and the poor man’s Nine Inch Nails for an ill-fated comic book movie. –TAYLOR BERMAN

75. Silverchair – “Abuse Me”

Silverchair entered the global grunge scene with a serious credibility problem, as three Aussie teenagers who’d won a radio station’s demo contest and released their debut album—titled, terribly, Frogstomp—nearly a year after Kurt Cobain’s death. Maybe that’s why Daniel Johns and his schoolmates felt compelled to plumb the darkest depths of their young psyches on their second full-length, Freak Show, a record as obsessed with degradation and outsider identity as its name implies.

Although the harder track “Freak” became the Australian lead single, American fans heard “Abuse Me” first, and you can imagine why. The song is a perfectly executed Nirvana ripoff, from the ripply opening riff to the whispery verses and amped-up bridge to lyrics vague enough to be interpreted as masochistic. If it didn’t exactly prove that Silverchair transcended the sum of their influences, at least it confirmed that Johns was one of the world’s most competent Cobain stand-ins.  — JUDY BERMAN

74. Days Of The New – “Touch, Peel And Stand”

Nirvana was the most legendary Seattle band, Pearl Jam was the most popular, Mudhoney had the most cred and Soundgarden were the most ambitious. But by the end of the decade, Alice In Chains became the most influential and no band owed them more debts than Days of the New–no mean feat, considering a band tellingly named after a Dirt deep cut sold 20 million albums, whereas DOTN mastermind Travis Meeks felt his project should’ve toured with Dave Matthews Band rather than Jerry Cantrell. But to literally everyone else, Days of the New drew from one single source of inspiration–Alice In Chains’ acoustic EP Sap–and ran with it. The album’s single “Touch, Peel and Stand” served as common ground for the ostensibly millions of people who didn’t want to have to choose between Jerry Cantrell and Dave Matthews Band. –IC

73. 311 – “Beautiful Disaster”

311’s breakout self-titled album had two huge hits: one of them a dopey nu-metal guitar chunkfest, the other a dancehall-flavored tune with a bassline cribbed halfway from the Stalag riddim. “Beautiful Disaster,” from the follow-up Transistor, is sort of like what might happen if you mashed them both together–huge riffs and reggae upstrokes–then pulled out all the goofy toasting and rapping. With lyrics that nod vaguely at drug addiction, “Beautiful Disaster” presents a more mature side of 311, and if lyrics like “some people really suck” don’t register as Seriously Heavy Shit the way they were intended–hey, at least those guitar harmonies still sound totally sick.  –ANDY CUSH

72. Our Lady Peace – “Clumsy”

If you told Raine Maida you were drowning, well … he would not lend a hand. But he wouldn’t have known any better. “Clumsy” is a song of sneaky emotional intelligence, of recognizing how people can create mayhem without intent, and how the difference between heroism and harm can be a matter of awareness. That hasn’t been Maida’s strong suit, as he’s felt like a “One Man Army” while also rejecting superhuman capacity on “Superman’s Dead,” vying to be the Canadian Radiohead on Spiritual Machines, while Gravity was something closer to Canadian Staind. Which makes “Clumsy” a definitive song for Our Lady Peace, a Clark Kent that occasionally dreamed of being Superman but never could get out of the phone booth without a face plant.–IC

71. Smashing Pumpkins – “The Beginning is the End is the Beginning”

Whenever the Smashing Pumpkins contribute to a major motion picture, it creates a fascinating alternate history for the band. “Drown” was a glimpse of what might’ve occurred had Billy Corgan went into Siamese Dream as the same paisley-eyed flower-child of Gish; when “Doomsday Clock” seamlessly fit into Transformers fight scenes, it raised the possibility of Smashing Pumpkins regaining their alt-rock radio dominance as a crass commercial behemoth. And then there’s “The End is the Beginning is the End” from Batman & Robin, which signaled that electro-rock was going to be the future of Smashing Pumpkins, but in this case, it was adding block rockin’ beats to prescient, drop-C nu-metal riffage rather than the chiaroscuro Adore. Look, “The End” is awesome and Batman & Robin is not, but the latter turned out to be a blessing in disguise; by the time Smashing Pumpkins desperately needed a reboot, they couldn’t get a new director. –IC

70. Supergrass – “Cheapskate”

Supergrass are a British establishment that never crossed over to America, with the exception of “Cheapskate,” which landed them the only Billboard hit of their career in the summer of 97. Off their sophomore album In It for the Money, “Cheapskate” gets in and out in under three minutes, pairing Gaz Coombes’ uniquely English sneer to a blues-y organ riff. But it’s the chorus, which rips the song open with a searing riff, that undoubtedly opened it up to American ears. –JORDAN SARGENT

69. The Sundays – “Summertime”

The Sundays are best known for their janglepop, preternaturally dreamy in a way no one’s quite imitated, but their understated songwriting is just as noteworthy. The subject of “Summertime” isn’t such a new concept–the idea of summer doesn’t live up to the steaming-concrete reality, imagine!–but the execution is perfect: someone drawn to the idea of idyllic summer love, but cerebral enough to prod at the idea the whole time, and to know that the prodding’s ruining it. It’s good prodding, too. Wheeler’s fantasias are set right alongside chirpy personal-ad slogans, alienating and dehumanizing in a now-all-too-familiar way, and “angry young men with immaculate hair” is the best ’90s burn that came from inside the decade. But there’s no irony to the execution: Harriet Wheeler’s voice is summertime–buoyant, breeze-like, the perfect translation of the pastoral lovescapes she sings about. And unlike those, it’s real. –KATHERINE ST. ASAPH

68. Soundgarden – “Blow Up the Outside World”

Employing late-Beatles melodics in the service of nihilism like no contemporary save Elliott Smith, “Blow Up the Outside World” was the bleakest blast on Down on the Upside. (And that’s saying something for an album whose lead single was “Pretty Noose”.) “Nothing/seems to kill me,” drones Chris Cornell, “No matter how hard I try.” Even at his lowest, he shreds his lungs turning the title into a mission statement. In the liner notes for 1997’s posthumous A-Sides collection, Sub Pop co-founder Jonathan Poneman said this “should be declared the new national anthem”. Jesus Christ, he’s right. –BS

67. U2 – “Staring At The Sun”

Pop was–by U2 standards, at least–a failure commercially and critically, but today, it lives on as an infamous document of the lengths to which the band was willing to go to make music they believed to be timely, paradigm-shifting, and unabashedly huge in scope. “Staring at the Sun,” the record’s best charting single, was not as brazen a departure from form as the future-shock techno of the record’s first single “Discothèque,” and much of the more overtly electronics-heavy music featured on the album. Ultimately, this makes it more listenable than much of the rest of the album today: a languid, meandering, psych-pop dalliance, but with shuddering breakbeat to date it perfectly to its year. A much better song called “Staring at the Sun” would be written by TV on the Radio years later; depending on your mood, even The Offspring’s song of the same name may even stand the test of time better. But U2’s version stands as evidence that the band, however pompous they might risk being at every turn, never stopped pushing to redefine themselves in the 1990s, even at their most forgotten moments. –WINSTON COOK-WILSON

https://youtube.com/watch?v=2U3rY3fZ5vU

66. Better Than Ezra – “Desperately Wanting”

The mid-90s created a brimming subgenre of superficially milquetoast alt-rock songs that were way darker than anyone gave them credit for–Goo Goo Dolls’ “Slide,” “The Freshmen,” “Hey Jealousy,” the Nixons’ “Sister,” Ben Folds Five’s “Brick,” the unconfirmed possibility that Collective Soul’s “December” was about oral sex. Add “Desperately Wanting” to that list: rumor had it that it was inspired by Hell Week at the Kappa Sigma house at LSU where Better than Ezra formed. But those lyrics about getting your stomach pumped and lashing out at authority, well, that was actually Kevin Griffin recalling a childhood friend he lost to mental illness. One could argue which interpretation was darker, but either way, it cemented Better Than Ezra’s reputation as the band of frat boys who seemed a little more pensive at the keg. –IC

65. Counting Crows – “Long December”

Do you remember that Courtney Cox once dated Adam Duritz? Or that she’s in the “Long December” music video? Good, glad we got that out of the way.

The single– released in December 1996 as the second from Counting Crows’ Recovering the Satellites–was about a friend of Duritz’s who was in the car accident and was put-up in the hospital for a long while. A sweet meandering on the slow passing of time, the aspect that has maintained after all these years is that the worst month of the year does always always feels like an eternity. While the dulcet nasal melancholy of Duritz, it’s the glimmer of hope that suggests that “we all have reason to believe / that this year will be better than the last” that endures. An “Auld Lang Syne” of sorts for the hippie alt-rock set. —PUJA PATEL

64.  The Prodigy – “Breathe”

British “electronica” had broken through to the U.S. mainstream by 1997, but never so ferociously as with The Prodigy, whose fealty to their head-banging breakbeats and freaky music videos (thanks in part to singer Liam Howlett’s crazed screw-face and reverse-clown mohawk) resonated in a country ready to go hard. “Breathe” wasn’t quite as big as their first single “Firestarter,” but the song’s opening synths found steady footing between acid house and metal and got lyrically weird for the outcasts of the outcasts: “Psychosomatic, addict, insane!” It made very little sense, but connected to the moment on a visceral level; listening to it 20 years later, I still wanna kick shit. –JULIANNE ESCOBEDO SHEPHERD

63. Ben Folds Five – “Battle of Who Could Care Less”

Scott Stapp never got the memo, but grunge was well and truly dead by 1997. Ben Folds Five threw it a funeral on their breakthrough single “Battle of Who Could Care Less,” a humble pianoman’s takedown of affectless slackers. Like The Modern Lovers’ “I’m Straight” and Weezer’s “Buddy Holly,” the song is so geeky, it’s transgressive. Scattered amid enough retro vocal harmonies and impassioned ivory-pounding to confirm the band’s nerd cred are some sick burns; “See, I’ve got your old ID / And you’re all dressed up like The Cure” is a genuine laugh line. But the hint of grudging infatuation that underlies their bitter mockery of a then-ubiquitous archetype complicates the sendup a bit. He may see right through it, but–just like us–Ben Folds has fallen for General Apathy and Major Boredom’s schtick anyway.  –JB

62. The Offspring – “All I Want” 

The Offspring were only a few years from going TRL when they released “All I Want” at the tail end of 1996, and it acts as one retroactive reminder that lead singer Dexter Holland could write a nice little pop-punk song. A song about rebelling against society, it worked best on the classic late-90s video game Crazy Taxi, in which users control a cabbie who criss-crosses a simulacrum of southern California with reckless abandon in order to get his or her customers to their destinations. Your character is working maniacally, but by its own rules. –JS

61. Cherry Poppin’ Daddies – “Zoot Suit Riot”

We were only a year away from the Gap mainstreaming the swing revival as an actual thing, not just the hobby of college kids who hadn’t yet graduated to steampunk, and the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies’ unlikely hit reaffirmed the beautiful possibilities of radio to occasionally boost songs no A&R would touch with a ten-foot upright bass. “It’s not our mission to be a swing band,” frontman Steve Perry (not from Journey) told SPIN, but a song like “Zoot Suit Riot” couldn’t help but stand for a whole movement. The Gap’s stock would peak shortly thereafter. –JEREMY GORDON

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