Skip to content

The 79 Best Alternative Rock Songs of 1997

40. Veruca Salt – “Volcano Girls”

Teaming with Bob Rock, the producer behind Motley Crue’s Dr Feelgood and Metallica’s Black Album, Veruca Salt wound up with a sound so heavy it obliterated any idea the quartet were mere mimics of the Breeders. “Volcano Girls” is a big-footed romp, a song that proudly recycles ’70s arena rock riffs then marries this muscle to power pop melodies. Veruca Salt doesn’t disavow their indie past–indeed, a full verse nods at their 1994 hit “Seether,” styled as a deliberate allusion to the Beatles’ “Glass Onion”–but the key to the single is how the hooks barrell through any self-awareness; what matters is the riff, not the wink. Veruca Salt was determined that “Volcano Girls” played to the base instincts–probably with the hope it’d bring in a listener or thousand–and that’s why it’s thrilling: it’s capricious rock & roll, in love with its own sound and style.  –STE

39. Oasis – “D’You Know What I Mean”

The moment the Gallaghers stepped out of that helicopter was the moment the Britpop bubble had burst. Oasis, one of the movement’s pillars, was powered by blue collar goodwill before drowning in their hubris on “D’You Know What I Mean?”—there’s no defense for stacking that many guitar tracks, feedback, and backmasked beside slalom levels of cocaine. And so, you get the indulgence and lack of self-awareness that’s inextricable from Oasis’ legacy. Look at the visual non-sequitur of Liam Gallagher attempting to lip-sync backmasked vocals at the video’s end—”D’You Know What I Mean” was about impulse, not better senses. Radiohead’s OK Computer, released two months prior, would presciently underscore the societal paranoia that’s still salient today. But in 1997, “D’You Want I Mean”—all seven minutes of it—sounded prettier and topped the UK Singles Chart. Twenty years out and more sober, the single works as an empty-calorie detour, a less problematic can of Pepsi. –BRIAN JOSEPHS

38. Beck – “Jack-Ass”

The plinking guitar that runs through the first half of “Jack-Ass” is a sample from “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” but not Bob Dylan’s original—it’s a cover by the band Them. Beck, of course, began as an outsider folk artist, and on “Jack-Ass,” he nods to one of the greats as he shapes his own fried-out, hip-hop-inspired style. When the sample drops out “Jack-Ass” briefly goes singer-songwriter, but then it detours again, back to where it all began: Beck on guitar and harmonica at once, over a barnyard menagerie of snorts and growls. “I remember the way that you smiled / When the gravity shackles were wild” might be as poetic and enigmatic as a Dylan line, but mostly, it’s just very Beck. –AG

37. The Chemical Brothers – “Block Rockin’ Beats”

A mission statement for British big beat, the breakbeat-intensive electronic music finally upending the guitar domination of the American alt-charts, “Block Rockin’ Beats” was a gift-wrapped example of creative and nostalgic pastiche in the sampling era. The bass funk that drove it was sampled from The Crusaders; the vocal sample, “back with another one of those block rockin’ beats,” came from Schoolly D; for the chorus, the Manchester duo added high-charged, synth pitch-shifting that, in retrospect, sounds like goofing off, and yet became an iconic palette across the world. American corporate “EDM” would not exist without it. –JES

36. That Dog – “Never Say Never”

“Never Say Never” wasn’t on Totally Crushed Out, that dog’s Sweet Valley High-invoking breakout album, but it might as well have been: “I’m crushed dead, just horribly frustrated–no, furious at you for being so great, but I never took it out on you. Shouldn’t that count?” A coat of production gloss by Brad Wood, best known for producing Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville through whitechocolatespaceegg, brings out the compactness in Anna Waronker’s deceptively sketchlike songwriting: everything here is a hook. And brightened by Rachel and Petra Haden’s Greek-chorus backing vocals and the latter’s buoyant violin solo, and assisted by keyboards by Go-Gos guitarist (and Waronker’s sister-in-law) Charlotte Caffey, everything here is irresistible. –KS

35. Bloodhound Gang – “Fire Water Burn”

I don’t know if I’m speaking for every suburban middle school kid in Philly in 1994, but King of Prussia was known for two things back then: a fairly nondescript mall and a band named Bloodhound Gang who frequently showed up on the marquee at Brownie’s on Ridge Pike. But then, the KOP Mall blew the fuck up and so did Bloodhound Gang; nature abhors a vacuum, whether it’s for Wilson’s leather jackets or the connective tissue between Licensed to Ill and Three Dollar Bill Y’all. I gotta admit, “I’m not black like Barry White/I am white like Frank Black is” is pretty damn clever, especially as it leads into a “Monkey’s Gone To Heaven” quote. It should’ve been a sign that we were wrong to underestimate Bloodhound Gang after the followup single “I Wish I Was Queer So I Could Get Chicks” failed to infiltrate KROQ’s playlist. Two years later, “The Bad Touch” resulted in Hooray For Boobies selling about five million copies, about the same number as the Beyonce album with “Crazy in Love” on it. –IC

34. Third Eye Blind – “How’s It Going to Be”

Third Eye Blind were almost universally derided by any music nerd with self-respect in 1997, blamed for creating the lowest common denominator for rock radio while touring with—lol—Smash Mouth, of all bands. But the teens who loved them wouldn’t develop a strong sense of self-respect ’til close to a decade later. For some kids, like the private school drama queens who lived near me, Stephen Jenkins became the leader of a band for the post-grunge kids who loved “Everlong” but didn’t really get Dave Grohl without Kurt Cobain otherwise; a band for an audience that was desperately waiting for Jimmy Eat World to arrive.

As for “How’s It Going to Be,” it was the anthem about heartbreak on an album that seemed full of them, with the benefit of having a hook that winked at the future of emo. That’s to its credit—the song hinges on the inevitability of doom and the vapid catharsis that will pull you through it. It’s perfectly crafted for those willing a deeply-mired emotional (or existential) crisis, but who have about as much weight on their shoulders as a stone-washed denim jacket from the Gap. A true masterpiece for the suburban set—one that only Gotye’s “Somebody I Used to Know” has touched in terms of subject matter and pop visibility. If only the Chainsmokers had such skill. –PP

33. Matchbox 20 – “Push”

Some songs, even from what might seem like the relatively recent past, could simply not happen–or, at least, be distributed as a major pop single–today. An anthemic song in which a macho lead singer yodels “I want to push you a-round” with impunity and then doesn’t wait for permission to do so would fit into this category. (Though Rob Thomas insisted that he was singing from the perspective of a woman doing the pushing-down-and-around.) For me, “Push,” despite other possible nominees, is the Matchbox 20 song. It’s also one of the most far-flung and most ubiquitous examples of the stew of grunge-derived musical tendencies, Top-40-ready common sense, and nebulously edgy lyrical material that characterized rock at this time. Run it all the way down from Third Eye Blind to Everclear to even the then-lecherous and antagonistic Smash Mouth and Sugar Ray. But no one took it higher on the charts in a more unlikely fashion than Rob Thomas on this song. –WCW

32. The Verve Pipe – “The Freshmen”

Though not originally a 1997 track–the single is a re-recording of a 1992 track that showed signs of becoming an inchoate breakout hit–“The Freshmen” lodged itself firmly into the year’s alt-rock canon, albeit largely via “wait, THAT’S what it’s about?” shock and listicles. (The band, prone to telling cagey backstories to the press, didn’t really discourage those.) The track is a guy’s futile, increasingly bitter flight from his potential role in his ex-girlfriend’s abortion and suicide–I can’t be held responsible, she was touching her face,” though it supposedly came of a misheard Divinyls lyric, is uncannily spot-on in how it echoes real-life redirection of blame, usually onto girls. Angst fights rationalization and wins, the melody turns from alma mater stateliness into a roar, and millions of listeners’ nostalgia is primed to get weird. –KS

31. Fiona Apple – “Sleep to Dream”

Fiona Apple’s debut album Tidal boasts one of the strongest runs of singles of any late-’90s alternative album. If “Criminal” is the more iconic artifact 20 years later–banned music video and all–”Sleep to Dream,” Tidal’s third single, was the perfect introduction to Apple’s peerless musical sensibility. One of the greatest kiss-off anthems in a discography that is full of them, “Sleep to Dream” exemplified the seething jazz-tronic production sense that makes Tidal singular in Apple’s discography and today, an endlessly listenable classic that sounds both distinctly of its time (only the finest breakbeats for Fiona) and way ahead of it (a point of inspiration for endless singer-songwriters who came after her). It also distilled the unapologetic attitude that, that same year, would help make Fiona Apple an undeniable star. –WCW

30. David Bowie – “I’m Afraid of Americans”

The years between his lackluster Let’s Dance follow-up, 1984’s Tonight, and the demise of Tin Machine in the early ‘90s were the least inspired of David Bowie’s career. It took a reunion with his Berlin Trilogy collaborator Brian Eno, for the refreshingly bizarre concept album Outside, to put him back in touch with the zeitgeist. Recorded during those sessions, “I’m Afraid of Americans” debuted on the Showgirls soundtrack before landing on Bowie’s next release, 1997’s Earthling. But the original version sounds downright anemic compared to the Nine Inch Nails remix, which appropriates the glitchy industrial-pop flourishes of The Downward Spiral to render the ballad of dead-eyed Jonny and his endless appetite for Coke, pussy and cars all the more chilling. Bowie claimed, at the time, that the track was “merely sardonic” in its depiction of his adopted home. Like so many of his songs, though, this bleak portrait of American masculinity proved all too prescient. — JB

29. White Town – “Your Woman”

The late 90s is where “world music” (ahem, Indian and Middle Eastern music) found its way onto alternative radio. Talvin Singh was introducing tabla to drum-n-bass after working with Bjork; Prodigy lost their damn mind on the speed before mellowing out over Shahin Badar’s wafting ghazal interlude in “Smack My Bitch Up”; Cornershop, a band whose name was a wink to stereotype, had a frontman with Punjabi heritage and a hit (“Brimful of Asha”) devoted to Asha Bhosle and the hidden playback singers in Bollywood. And then there was White Town’s “Your Woman.”

White Town is an Indian man named Jyoti Prakash Mishra. “Your Woman” is a trippy mind-meld of gender-fluidity that at any given point could take place from the perspective of a gay woman, a straight man, a gay man, or the woman that Mishra really futzed things up with. The 1930s trumpet sample, taken from melancholic jazz performer Al Bowlly (it appears on Bowlly and Lew Stone’s “My Woman”) only bolsters the mindfuckery–a hypnotic, lilting earworm that stuck with you for days.  –PP

28. Radiohead – “Let Down”

OK Computer is famously an album about technological alienation, recorded long before biological attachment to our many screens became a facet of modern culture, but “Let Down” is dismayed with regular humanity. Over a diamond web of arpeggiated guitars, Thom Yorke collects the emptiest of feelings as he imagines all the people in their planes, trains, and automobiles, disconnected from each other. He warns against sentiment supposedly keeping us together, and sings of a Kafkaesque metamorphosis enabling him to fly away, before admitting he’d just end up smushed on the floor. It is fantastically moody, waves of angst rippling outward from Yorke’s alien voice, the strangeness of which headed off charges he was just being kind of emo. But music this gorgeous can’t help but counter whatever depressed thing is contained in the lyrics, and the trembling wonder of the melody breaks through Yorke’s mindful reservations about the human condition. You might be let down by other people, but as Radiohead sing about the feeling, it seems like a starting point to something better, not an ending.  — JG

27. Paula Cole – “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone”

This Fire’s closing track “I Don’t Want to Wait” has had the longer pop-culture afterlife, but “Cowboys” was the bigger hit, as well as a Grammy nominee for Song of the Year. Cole’s question is answered in the verses, as her burly farmer slowly drifts from her prairie-porch visions. The snare lopes and her doot-doo-doots gallop, but the most memorable bit may be the acidic way she says “you go have a beer” on the final pre-chorus. –BS

26. Green Day – “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)”

A song in which Billie Joe Armstrong trades in his power-chord angst for contemplative strings and an acoustic. A leftover from their star-making 1994 effort Dookie, “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” lacked just enough serrated distinction to become a ubiquitous suburban high-school graduation hymnal. The anthem—which is more than a bitter send-off than a loving farewell—aged as well as the Vitamin C hit, but the bite would return to Green Day’s most inescapable hits by the time American Idiot shifted the zeitgeist. Still, once you get past the nostalgic phlegm, you’re still left with one of the cleanest examples of good songwriting: a universal sentiment expressed with palpable simplicity. –BJ