Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Billboard Top Ten Alternative Songs November 27, 1993

I enjoyed doing alternative rock songs for my last top ten, so here it goes again. In November of 1993 I was a senior in high school. After years of being a mocked dork I was starting to figure things out. I had some fake Doc Martens boots from Payless Shoes and lots of flannel. A girl I had a crush on always told me she loved the boots. Was I too chickenshit to respond to this now in hindsight obvious expression of interest? Yes, yes I was. Now on with the countdown!

10. Smashing Pumpkins, "Today"

This was by far the poppiest, catchiest tune that the Pumpkins had managed to craft up to this point. This vaguely proggy grunge band had finally come up with something made for the charts. When I first brought Siamese Dream home from the local Musicland it stuck out to me as far less ambitious musically that the other songs on the album. Billy Corgan's guitar playing was far more reminiscent of classic rock than Cobain's, but the feebleness of his voice helped mask the throwback nature of the music.

9. The Breeders, "Cannonball"

A cassette tape of Last Splash lived in my car in the winter of 1993-1994. It's such a great album, bridging the indie-mainstream divide with some catchy songs and far out sounds. "Cannonball" had a catchy bass riff but was still pretty damn weird. That the video got major MTV airplay was a minor miracle. Back in those days I thought a renaissance of rock music was upon the land, unaware of the Bush-Silverchair-Creed onslaught about to happen.

8. Belly, "Gepetto"

"Feed The Tree" was one of the truly great alternative rock songs of the era, and "Gepetto" was the follow up. (Ironically, Tanya Donnelly had once been in The Breeders.) This song is not as good (few songs are), but its sound is so perfectly, ineffably 1993. I hear the bouncy rhythm and folky guitar with the languid vocals over it and a little tear comes to my eye. Back in 1993 I thought things were changing for the better in the world. The Reagan-Bush years were over, much more interesting music was hitting the mainstream, and the winds of change seemed to be blowing. It's hard for me to say when that feeling of optimism ended for me, but the Republican sweep of the election the next year was probably it.

7. Gin Blossoms, "Found Out About You"

The Gin Blossoms were one of those weird first wave of alternative bands. They came out of a local scene, and were not derivative of alternarock trends like the coming Bushes and Creeds. They sound much more influenced by REM. Of their hits, this minor key song with ringing guitars (both catnip to my ears) is my favorite. The band's story also contains a tragedy worthy of a downbeat 90s alternative song. Original guitarist and songwriter Doug Hopkins penned this song, along with other Gin Blossoms hits. He was kicked out of the band before they hit it big, and signed over his royalties for a pittance. He killed himself about a month after this countdown. Life is cruel.

6. Cracker, "Low"

I loved Cracker's first album, which is a sassy combination of alternative rock and rootsy, country-inflected songs. Bandleader Dave Lowery had pioneered this sound with Camper Van Beethoven, but now in the 1990s it was a sound that could actually hit the airwaves. This song, from their second album, had those great Southwestern guitars, but with a heavy dose of the kind of doom we couldn't get enough of in '93. Cracker was also one of the first acts to have a radio song with a hidden CD trick (remember those?) with "Eurotrash Girl."

5. James, "Laid"

James first came on my radar a year before this, when I heard "Born of Frustration," which sounded pretty unique. This song is another unlikely hit, full of pretty unambiguous sexual references. The band also wore dresses in the video and on the album cover, the kind of cheeky gender-bending common in the alternative rock world before the testosteronal Fred Durst types came in and ruined it. For a teenage boy who was failed at the traditional markers of masculinity of the Nebraska town he lived in, it seemed pretty liberating.

4. The Cranberries, "Linger"

Oh boy. You might find this song cheesy, but it usually makes me cry. It's such a beautiful confection, and the dearly departed Dolores O'Riordan's voice never sounded better. The chorus and her background voices on it is one of the most truly sublime moments in pop music. It's not just the song, either. When I was a senior in high school I would either go to Wendy's for lunch (yeah, I know) or go home and eat. I'd have a lunch of leftovers while watching MTV, and that year I kept seeing the video for this song. At this point I could taste the freedom and possibility of college that lay ahead for me, and "Linger" seemed to hit all of my desperately yearning emotions. I hear it today and I am transformed into that emotional teenager, so full of longing and naivete. RIP Dolores

3. Nirvana, "Heart Shaped Box"

In Utero is my favorite Nirvana album, the band firing on all cylinders with a gritty and more suitable production behind them than on their breakthrough. "Heart Shaped Box" is great for all kinds of reasons, but perhaps most for being a knock against Boomers and their "priceless advice." It's a generational anthem in the form of a dirge.

2. Pearl Jam, "Daughter/Yellow Ledbetter"

I must admit, at this point I thought I was too cool for Pearl Jam. Like a lot of dumb teenagers into indie music, I sneered at anything I considered "corporate." I'd actually bought their first album before it went big, but turned my back once the cool kids who wrote for the music magazines told me I should. Today I can see that "Daughter" is, as the kids say these days, a banger. In one of those weird happenings back when singles were things pressed on wax and sent to radio stations, the live B-side of "Yellow Ledbetter" ended up getting played all over alternative radio. They totally lift the guitar sound from Hendrix's "Little Wing," but you should always steal from the best.

1. The Lemonheads, "Into Your Arms"

The Lemonheads don't have the recognition of the other bands on this chart, but this was their big shining moment. They were part of the indie scene playing punk way back in the 1980s, but in the 90s took on a folkier, more pleasant sound. It was tailor made for the alternative explosion of the early to mid 1990s. Like "Gepetto" the sound of this song is pure 1993, those guitars just jangling all over the place. The mark of Big Star is all over this, as it was of so much music circa 1993-1994. Nostalgia is a disease, and this kind of music gives me the sickness like nothing else.

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