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The 79 Best Alternative Rock Songs of 1997

25. Beck – “New Pollution”

Cross-genre diffusion is a commonality in the Internet age, yet—even 20 years later—Beck’s opus Odelay still sounds deserving of every positive adjective that begins with a z. “The New Pollution,” which sounds as if David Byrne told George Michael to lighten up before “Careless Whisper,” stands as the exemplar for the album’s irreplicable peculiarity. The slide guitar, joyously off-beat drum pattern, and that resonant sax weave into this harmony in which you hardly notice the Frankenstein seams. Beck’s lyrics are admittedly nonsense, but they deadpan onward naturalistically. For a nation that’s spent its existence going out of its way not to make sense, it’s a metaphor. –BJ

24. Smash Mouth – “Walkin’ on the Sun”

Take it from me: “Walkin’ on the Sun,” a sneeringly half-rapped song by a spiky-haired, 30-year-old dude in oversized board shorts about (among other things) the death of the hippie dream and the crack epidemic, could really send a thrill through a middle-school gymnasium. The musical detailing in Smash Mouth’s first hit–a wonderfully unlikely #1 on the alternative charts–suits its decades-spanning subject matter: It’s a steaming casserole of early-’60s/late-’90s musical styles presaging later curiosities like JXL’s remix of Elvis’ “Little Less Conversation.” The sound of the band evokes a raucous night at some truck stop bar, which ends with some drunk firing up the shitty, blown-out organ on the corner of the stage. “Walkin’ on the Sun” is about the apocalypse, but more so nothing at all. It’s a wonderland of post-Odelay word salad that would make even the Cake guy blush, and every gesture in it is unforgettable. –WCW

23. Sarah McLachlan – “Building a Mystery”

Every generation gets the douchebag archetype they deserve, and who better to represent the brooding late ’90s than this Angel-looking, cross-bearing, church-squatting, winter-sandals-wearing, Rastafarian dilettante, beautiful fucked-up scrub? 1997 was a more earnest time, and how far removed from it you are likely determines how much you think McLachlan is mocking the dude or admiring him from an unasked-for distance. But the hook to “Free Fallin’” is still pretty good when reclothed in gossamer; the lyric is measured and empathetic where sassy or glib would have been easy; and today’s moody, hazy slowcore owes a largely unacknowledged debt to Surfacing and Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. –KS

22. Nine Inch Nails – “The Perfect Drug”

Trent Reznor doesn’t like “The Perfect Drug. He claims to have knocked the abidingly weird song out in a week or so, on deadline for the soundtrack for David Lynch’s even-stranger film Lost Highway. Perhaps that’s why the hook is so simple and immediate: At that time Reznor was hard rock’s most notorious perfectionist, but he didn’t have time to doubt his instincts here. The song still sounds like he could have spent several years tweaking its particulars, however. From its opening moments, it’s deranged and overstuffed even by NIN standards. The droning vamp and verse emulate the low string on Satan’s Stratocaster slowly being slowly bent up, before the song explodes into peak, batshit Reznor maximalism. The song has a handful of constantly complicating grooves that fall in and out–most iconically, the dizzying, hyperactive drum’n’bass breakdown that’s doesn’t sound like it could possibly be the work of either a simple human or a simple machine. In other words, it’s a NIN production par excellence: deafening, damaged but fussy, comically melodramatic, unable to commit to any one idea for very long, catchy despite its best efforts, and definitely visionary. –WCW

21. Oasis – “Don’t Go Away”

In 1997, the 70-minute-plus Be Here Now found Oasis at the peak of cocaine-addled rock star excess. They recorded the demo for “Don’t Go Away,” a song about pining for lasting love from a jet plane, during a stay on a private Caribbean island. The finished product is as maximalist as the album is—padded out with strings and finished with an acoustic outro that lasts a whole minute. It’s certainly capable of outstaying its welcome, but it was also an alternative hit on the American charts for a band who notoriously under-performed in the States. –AG