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The 79 Best Alternative Rock Songs of 1997

20. The Prodigy – “Firestarter”

The months leading up to the release of Fat of the Land was a blunt telling of the shift of alternative music and embrace of electronica, even as the Prodigy resisted the idea that their growing popularity might indeed be tied to newly acceptable genre-cool. Ascending from the role of performative rave punks to that of performative Rock Stars implied success, after all—even if the group’s grab-bag sampling made them more “loud” than anything else. (Something the band realized as they toured small U.S. rock venues in lieu of clubs, only to discover that a soundystem rigged for grunge was not ideal for their speed-addled dance music.)

But cool thrived–Madonna, who spoke about hating techno, was rumored to have wooed the band to come over to Maverick after nearly two dozen labels bid over their 1997 release, and both Bono and Jerry Seinfeld attended their small, New York release show. The kool-aid was strong enough that “Breathe” and “Firestarter” landed on the alternative charts, while the third single–“Smack My Bitch Up”–benefitted and broke the Billboard Top 100.

“Firestarter” was the single that started the Prodigy, though, and was performed years before they officially released “Breathe” as Fat of the Land first single. While they were both dancers in underground clubs in the U.K., Liam Howlett told Keith Flint to drop vocals on top of the frenetic drum-n-bass track, acting as hype man for the record while dancers performed. “I’m the trouble starter, punkin’ instigator / I am the firestarter, twisted firestarter” landed, becoming the group’s climactic dance floor anthem, while developing an edgy storyline to the pair’s tattooed punkish veneer. Most of being a rock star is enigma, anyway. —PP

19. Ben Folds Five – “Brick”

The vocally challenged, piano-led Ben Folds Five–acidic chroniclers of their hip Chapel Hill scene–were an unlikely bet to land a pop hit, let alone one about abortion. Nevertheless, some combination of the narrative, Folds’ elegant, cyclical keyboard figure, and the falsetto-studded chorus (written by drummer Darren Jessee) struck a nerve, making this possibly the worst-sung Top 20 hit of all time. Sounding bone-tired throughout, Folds is empathetic and elliptical, rendering his partner’s turmoil without fully inhabiting it. –BS

18. Jamiroquai – “Virtual Insanity”

You know the moving floor. If nothing else is remembered about Jamiroquai, who were a force on British radio well before their one and only American hit, it’s that they did their best work on a moving floor. (Well, that and the big, fuzzy hat.) And with all respect to England, what was this? “Virtual Insanity” is radio mish mosh, a collection of disparate elements—punch-drunk piano riffs, stabbing strings, hip-hop percussion, a funky white boy vocal for the ages—congealing in orgastic pop pleasure. Jamiroquai were singing about the same technological alienation as Radiohead, and having a way better time; you didn’t really register a pointed finger about how people “always seem to be governed by this love we have / for useless, twisting, our new technology” when you were busy dancing. And just as easily as they’d slid onto the radio, the floor quickly moved them out of sight. Still, songs these irresistible deserve to be treated with respect. –JG

17. Tonic – “If You Could Only See”

It sounds like it’s describing a love triangle, but Tonic frontman Emerson Hart is singing to the parents who disowned him after he took up with an older woman. A propulsive barrage of guitars scream like cars flying past a phonebooth, as Hart pleads his case in vain. Typically for Tonic, the composition is airtight–bracketed by choruses, closing with a resolving sigh–which makes Hart’s anguished performance that much more impressive. As for the couple, they eventually broke up, but she called him after Tonic’s Grammy nomination. –BS

16. Everclear – “Everything to Everyone”

“Everything to Everyone,” an cautionary tale about a serial people-pleaser, did not end up being the most ubiquitous hit from Everclear’s sophomore breakthrough So Much for the Afterglow (that would probably be “Father of Mine, a snowballing radio hit in the following year). However, it was the one that cemented them as more than a one-hit wonder, signalling to those who hadn’t taken a chance on their new album yet that it was an even-more-immaculate collection of well-oiled power-pop anthems than the last one. The distortion on the walls of guitar was gentler; the hooks–and the narratives about sad, lowdown ne’er-do-wells in the outskirts of Hollywood–were carefully honed. In these songs, Alexakis became more impartial narrator than the guy in the thick of the action, as he was more often on 1995’s Sparkle and Fade. Based around a siren noise that lead singer/Everclear musical director Art Alexakis made with a distorted Wurlitzer, “Everything to Everyone” is one of Everclear’s greatest, sleazy breakbeat-driven pop anthems: the moment when the band proved that they could show the world dying from more than one compelling angle. –WCW

15. Sister Hazel – “All For You”

For an eight-year-old kid just learning to love the stuff he heard on the radio while riding around in the car with mom and dad, “All for You” had everything: a melody so sticky you could conjure it in your head at a moment’s notice, an instrumental intro that gave you a chance to press record on your cassette deck before he started singing, lovey-dovey lyrics you could imagine using to serenade your first crush, twangy vocal harmonies that suggested a romantic world out there beyond the confines of your suburb. Sister Hazel released an acoustic version of “All for You” on their self-titled first album before striking gold with the full-band re-recording on …Somewhere More Familiar, and that’s one’s just fine, too, except that listening to it deprives you of hearing 1997’s most mildly rippin’ guitar solo. –AC

14. Matchbox 20 – “3 AM”

3AM” was a song that Rob Thomas wrote about his mother suffering from cancer, and when viewed through that lens it is a nerve-wracking song about nothing less than confronting death. Of course, for most people the song hits as a fidgety rant about needing a partner, an uncomfortable gap that Thomas nonetheless acknowledges. Either way, it highlights his songwriting, with verses and instrumental refrains that are as catchy as its chorus. Like the best pop, “3AM” is melodic enough to sell itself as whatever you want it to be. –JS

13. Sugar Ray – “Fly”

One of the keys to Sugar Ray’s “Fly” is how the end of its guitar riff seems to hang in suspended animation–it could resolve, it could dissolve, but the answer isn’t certain. It’s the riskiest move in a song determined to celebrate good times even in the wake of bad, a sentiment underscored by how Sugar Ray keeps returning to their interpolation of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s mawkish “Alone Again (Naturally),” accelerating the mother’s death by forty years. But sadness doesn’t touch the heart of “Fly.” It’s a song of transcendence, an anthem for the beach, the summer, or at least a moment where troubles wash away and you’re left with the possibility of a sunny afternoon. Sure, it’s corny but that’s the point: good times require the suspension of sadness, and Sugar Ray’s determination to keep things light–even when there’s death and tedium in their sight–keeps their breakthrough single buoyant. –STE

12. Mighty Mighty Bosstones – “The Impression That I Get”

A decade and a half before the phrase “check your privilege” entered mainstream cultural discourse, Mighty Mighty Bosstones spent an entire song doing just that. “Have you ever felt a pain so powerful, so heavy you collapse?” asks frontman Dicky Barrett. No? Because neither has he. You’ve never “had the odds stacked up so high you need a strength most don’t possess?” The Bosstones haven’t either.

“The Impression That I Get” is so frank about its author’s relative ease in life that it becomes almost zenlike. And the band delivers its message with such charm that when Barrett gets to its crucial third verse– “I’m not a coward I just haven’t been tested / I’d like to think that if I was I would pass” –you’re pretty sure he’d pass too. The song is possibly the most concise articulation humanity has ever produced of this very particular feeling: knowing that you’re too green to fully appreciate the gravity of a particular situation, but hoping that you’d do OK if it were ever placed in front of you. And that unforgettable horn riff and lovably beery chorus make it the best artifact of the weird moment that was the ‘90s ska revival, too. –AC

11. Meredith Brooks – “Bitch”

This song was too sunny for it to be totally believable—we were coming off the riot grrrl high, with feminism in music becoming more diluted as it trickled up; Brooks was, of sorts, radio rock for people who believed the Spice Girls would usher in the revolution. And yet, “Bitch” was immediately anthemic, if a little embarrassing, Brooks declaring her right to contain multitudes … to a man, symbolic of the great softening in woman-power rock music. Its title was occasionally censored (“Nothing In Between”) because we were apparently a politer society back then, which imbued it with a renegade cool that seems quaint in retrospect. Listening to it now is objectively unpleasant, and yet it’s so imbued into the cultural fabric it’s difficult not to appreciate. “I’m a sinner, I’m a saint… I do not feel ashamed!” Preach, Brooks. –JES

10. Chumbawamba – “Tubthumping”

For many bands, the notion of being a one hit wonder carries a negative connotation. But others, like the British rockers Chumbawumba, can wear the phrase like a championship belt. There’s no shame in writing “Tubthumping,” a single so good that it was bound to completely overshadow everything that came before and after it (at least in America, anyway). It is one of the great drinking songs of the ‘90s, celebrating the emboldenment you feel while getting hammered but also affixing drunkeness with a melancholic glow, the shout along chorus getting cut through by a whimpering trumpet solo. The band also gives the song a second context, naming it after a colloquial word for progressive political fighting, allowing its chorus to be read as a chant of encouragement. It’s mostly a big, dumb, fun song, but if you like mild subversion, “Tubthumping” may be the one hit wonder for you. –JS

9. blink-182 – “Dammit”

Has a pop-punk song ever opened more reasonably? “It’s alright to tell me what you think about me,” Mark Hoppus sings on “Dammit,” the finest of blink-182’s pre-Barker songs. “I won’t try to argue or hold it against you.” But before long, the singer has fallen back to his old, depressive thought traps. He thinks about his ex in bed with another guy, and fantasizes about running into them while trying to maintain the mask of someone who doesn’t care that much, though he obviously does. Over a woozy, circular riff practiced by thousands of aspiring teen guitarists, he ping-pongs between wistful remembrances and spiteful kiss-offs, before settling on a more bittersweet emotion: “Well, I guess this is growing up.”

For a bunch of bratty court jesters who loved to show off their dicks, blink-182 were always best when indulging their serious side. “Dammit” captures the messiness of emotional maturity, when you can sense some far-off adult resolution through a cloud of resentment. (It’s also just a lot of fun, infused with energy meant for moshing with a tear rolling down your eye.) You can hear Hoppus trying to convince himself everything’s fine, though the note in his voice says it isn’t. How he’s really feeling is right there in the one-word title, which is never actually uttered in the song—a perfectly unrefined expression of angst as only pop-punk’s finest idiot poets might land on. –JG

8. The Verve – “Bitter Sweet Symphony”

The guitar squeals evoke a baby’s first breath, the six-note orchestral riff is a falling teardrop anthromorphosized, and the triumphant harmonies are Sisyphus finally getting that boulder to the top. The Verve reached past Britpop’s commercial structure to sample a rework of a Rolling Stones deep cut. As a result, the ephemeral became ethereal and the quintet became the first men to solve existentialism. But even a summary of the entirety of the human experience is owned by bitter Brits in suits. The Stones’ former manager Allen Klein reneged on an agreement and demanded 100 percent of the song’s royalties, legally stripping the Verve of their achievement. –BJ

7. Natalie Imbruglia – “Torn”

Once more for the “Torn” fans who don’t already know: Natalie Imbruglia’s version is a cover. The original “Torn” is by a band called Ednaswap, and if you, an alien descending to Earth, were going to guess which version would someday appear on an alt-rock songs list, it wouldn’t be Imbruglia’s. Ednaswap’s song is all distorted guitar and raw-edged vocals. Imbruglia’s is a melodic soft-rock smash that isn’t going to retire from Lite FM rotation until the day FM radio gives out. Find someone who thinks they don’t know it, and tell them, “I’m all out of faith / This how I feeeel.”

If you cover “Torn” now, like One Direction did, you cover Imbruglia’s song, with the poppy acoustic guitar riff and the passionate bridge breakdown (a section that didn’t appear in the original). It’s so perky that, instrumentally, it barely registers as sad. Its staying power is in Imbruglia’s delivery, the pretend nonchalance of her sweatshirt in the music video, the earnest way she breaks the fourth wall to let you know: Nothing’s fine, I’m torn. It’s cheesy. It’s perfect. –AG

6. Blur – “Song 2”

“Song 2” is a perfect two-minute song. A conclusive rationale for this fact has never been ascertained. Is it an intentionally dolty parody of grunge’s more mindless impulses? Or is it a stroke of creative genius? Whatever, man. Woo hoo! –AG

5. Radiohead – Karma Police

Sometimes Radiohead’s signature malaise is just as palpable when you zero in on the band’s parts, as is the case with “Karma Police” Over a chord progression that would go on to be a benchmark for intermediate guitar learners in the years to come, Thom Yorke’s fragility is supplanted for a more acrid, despondent presence. What results is a severe portrait of _OK Computer_‘s isolationism, where the mundane are terrors. “For a minute there, I lost my self,” Thom says as he disappears into the noise that threatens to supplant us all. –BJ

4. Marcy Playground – “Sex and Candy”

The joke, of course, is that the title’s “Sex and Candy” and the lyric drops all manner of glam-rock references–cherry pie, suede platforms, anachronistic perfume trends, whatever the hell “disco lemonade” is–but the track sounds more like Starlite Mints and barely cuddling, possibly in a dorm room. The sex is there, kinda, but the drug of choice is caffeine and the rock n’ roll is in Sugar Ray (or later, Maroon 5) form. We point this out as a bullet dodged: how easy a choice, and how terrible a thing, would a full glam version be coming from these guys? Low-key is far more their speed, and the charts agree. –KS

3. Third Eye Blind – “Semi-Charmed Life”

It’s hard to imagine a better opening to a career than “Semi-Charmed Life,” the debut single from the Bay Area’s Third Eye Blind. Contained within are all the possibilities of late-90’s alt-rock: a clean, chunky riff; overgrown verbosity; flirtations with rapping; and, most importantly, a devotion to melody. “Semi-Charmed Life” is a song about meth, but it connected to the masses so completely because it embodies the release of angst and the slide into euphoria. Frontman Stephan Jenkins said once in an interview that it was his version of Lou Reed’s strung out “Walk on the Wild Side,” a beautifully galling comparison that nonetheless perfectly frames “Semi-Charmed Life” within the context of Clinton-era optimism, a drug addict and his girlfriend do-do-do-do-ing their way towards the sunlight. –JS

2. Foo Fighters – “Everlong”

Dave Letterman is old enough to be Dave Grohl’s dad, but “Everlong” is his favorite song. Foo Fighters were there for his first show back since having heart surgery, and for his final broadcast, closing out Letterman’s long run by playing over a montage of his greatest hits. There’s a neat parallelism in the two Daves, both of them occasionally bearded mensches whose humor guarded against what could’ve been a crippling cynicism in a less talented man. Letterman was a bitter perfectionist who still managed to be open enough to succeed on late night television, the most exposed of entertainments, for decades; Grohl started out as a drummer behind the most tortured man in rock history, and still came out of it goofy enough to wear comically oversized hands in the video for what was supposed to be his serious song. It figures.

Grohl never tried to be clever about his allegiance to rock’s greatest and most obvious bands—while Kurt Cobain was coy in claiming Meet the Beatles as his favorite record by the Fab Four, Grohl went ahead and named The White Album. “Everlong,” the best song he ever wrote, was ready to be penciled into classic rock radio playlists around the world on the first day of its release. It sounds like a jet fighter moving at full speed, the sound and fury masking the most heartfelt of sentiments, the essential questions of rock n’ roll crystallized in a few, perfect fragments: “And I wonder / When I sing along with you / If everything could ever feel this real forever.” Grohl, one of the funniest men in rock n’ roll, bends his knee to pay fealty to the mysteriousness of real love, and all its powers to bind you to other people. He’s scared by how fast he’s going, but he doesn’t want to stop, even when he thinks he does. Some bands spend their entire careers trying to land a moment this pure. — JG

1. Fiona Apple – “Criminal”

Passion-haunted, steamy and perfectly situated within the blues bugbear of the devil’s temptation, “Criminal” scuttled to the alt charts the same year as way too many bands doing bad white-dude reggae. Its presence, then, was at least a little redemptive—trained in jazz and blues, she didn’t denigrate the genres she was mining, for one, and the force of her throaty songwriting was astonishing, and signaled a turn from the sludgy masculinism that scourged the airwaves. “Criminal” was also a scandal, if you can believe it, the year before the country discovered Monica Lewinsky: a jaded, emaciated 19-year-old interrogating the way she could use the male gaze to her own ends, and a voyeuristic video that clocked her every move in various states of undress. Now, we just call that Instagram.  — JES