This list was the most difficult for me to make. This time out, I was both alive for the whole decade AND a consumer of music. In fact, I took music pretty seriously for the whole decade. The problem is that the music I took seriously (and bought in massive amounts) isn’t the music I take seriously today.
Throughout the 90s, I exclusively listened to hip-hop and R&B music. East Coast, West Coast, Underground, Gangsta, all of it. But, as time passed, I got a little older and the music of my youth didn’t speak to me as it once did. It also wasn’t as good as it used to be, as hip-hop became more mainstream and more predictable.
So I turned to rock, and eventually indie rock. The result is the songs I now like from 90s are quite different than the songs I liked in the 90s. But, it’s not like I listened to crap back then, so part of me want to represent that part of me in this list. But it’s hard to compare songs I listen to frequently with songs I mostly just listen to for nostalgic purposes. And thus, this list was hard.
5. “Tonight, Tonight” by Smashing Pumpkins from Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1996)
Unlike most songs on this list, I actually listened to this one when it came out. I imagine I noticed it due to all the attention paid to its landmark video, and even the hip-hop loving, rock-denying me couldn’t resist the majesty of the Pumpkins’ triumph. I still wouldn’t consider myself a Smashing Pumpkins fan (after downloading Mellon Collie for the purpose of this list, I ended up deleting most of it after a listen), but am still blown away by the 30-piece Chicago Symphony Orchestra meshing with Billy Corgan’s sweeping vocals.
Sample lyric: “We’ll crucify the insincere tonight/
We’ll make things right, we’ll feel it all tonight/
We’ll find a way to offer up the night tonight”
4. “Welcome to the Terrordome” by Public Enemy from Fear of a Black Planet (1990)
This is my nod to my 90s self, choosing one hip-hop song for the five. When I came up with that solution, it was obvious to me that I had to choose a song off this album, one of the most influential albums in my life. A few tracks contended off the album, but I went with “Welcome to the Terrordome” because it represents everything that was great about Public Enemy at the time: Chuck D’s rapid-fire delivery and blistering lyrics assaulting the listener over The Bomb Squad’s persistent beats (featuring 9 samples, including three James Brown samples), accompanied by Terminator X’s scratches and Flavor Flav’s interjections. Chuck kicks off the track telling us he’s “got so much trouble on my mind”, then proceeds to fill us in on those troubles over the next 5 minutes and 25 seconds, and was never more incendiary than he is here.
Sample lyric: “Every brother ain’t a brother/
Cause a black hand squeezed on Malcom X the man/
The shootin of Huey Newton/
From a hand of a nigger who pulled the trigger”
3. “Deathly” by Aimee Mann from Magnolia Soundtrack (1999)
My favourite song by one of my favourite singers, “Deathly” is a perfect example of the melancholic beauty of Aimee Mann’s catalogue, starting with the opening lyric (which opens the song, before any instrumentation kicks in), “Now that I’ve met you, would you object to… never seeing each other again”. It’s a perfectly droll line that illustrates Mann’s clever lyrical style, made better when followed by the next line “Cause I cant afford to, climb aboard you, no one’s got that much ego to spend”, revealing that beneath her ironic exterior lies a vulnerable individual afraid to give herself to someone she’s sure will hurt her. The quiet song builds in intensity as it moves along, climaxing with a guitar solo that leads into Mann’s proclaiming surrender to her lover, begging to be released from the torment of the lover’s affections. It’s a deceptively powerful song, providing a fresh perspective on the world of heartbreak.
Sample lyric: “So dont work your stuff/
Because Ive got troubles enough/
No, dont pick on me/
When one act of kindness could be/
2. “Karma Police” by Radiohead from OK Computer (1997)
Tough call deciding which Radiohead tack to include here, I went back and forth between this and “Paranoid Android”, but ultimately, this one speaks to me more. Thom Yorke once said of the song, “It’s for someone who has to work for a large company. This is a song against bosses. Fuck the middle management!” Which I suppose could explain my affection for it, but honestly, I don’t make that connection when I hear it anyway. For me, it’s more about general contempt for the mindless automatons one encounters day-to-day and the struggle of not becoming one yourself.
Sample lyric: “Karma police, I’ve given all I can, it’s not enough/
I’ve given all I can, but we’re still on the payroll”
1. “Hallelujah” by Jeff Buckley from Grace (1994)
It’s possible that this song has become overexposed as many TV shows and movies have chosen to play it whenever they need a quick fix of sadness and significance, but I don’t care. They choose it because it’s a hauntingly beautiful song that pretty much gives me chills everytime I listen to it. I prefer it to Leonard Cohen’s original version, and all the other covers to follow. I’m Catholic, so the real answer to the standard “what song do you want played at your funeral” is “none. They don’t play rock songs in church. I’m sure there’ll be some hymns and a piano”. But in a hypothetical funeral where my grieving loved ones are actually taking the time to play a CD (or mp3 or whatever, hey, it’s possible CD players won’t exist by the time I die), this would be my choice.
Sample lyric: “Well I’ve heard there was a secret chord/
That David played, and he pleased the Lord/
But you don’t really care for music, do you?”
Honourable Mentions: “Miss Misery” by Elliott Smith, “Passing Me By” by The Pharcyde, “Lithium” by Nirvana, “No Rain” by Blind Melon, “Fuck and Run” by Liz Phair