5 4 Non Blondes — “What’s Up?” 1993
Yet another weird entry on our list (considering this is alternative territory in the first place), 4 Non Blondes struck a little before women became the hugest voice in alternative music. Post-Alanis, female angst and aggression were the word of the day. So, this may be the most up-lifting feminist anthem of the 90s. Well, this or “I Touch Myself.” All kidding aside, the singer projects her large-as-a-mountain vocals through the speakers, yodeling to our lovelorn hearts. It doesn’t hurt that the song features one of the best melodies of the decade, alternative or otherwise. Sadly, like their big hit, 4 Non Blondes didn’t make it out of the 90s. But give this pseudo-show tune another listen. It will melt your cheesy, cheesy soul.
4 Nada Surf — “Popular” 1996
One of the many Pavement rip-offs that came out of the woodworks in and around 1995 (re: Cake, Weezer, Railroad Jerks), Nada Surf scored big with their simple distillation of awkward angst. And it’s obvious why it worked so well — we all want to be the quarter back, ahead of our class, and so on. Unfortunately, it worked too well, and Nada Surf never really dug out of king-sized success their first single threw them into. Which is honestly a shame, because (once they dropped the Malkmus schtick) they released some more sincere, pure guitar pop records. But this song made them angsty party stars.
3 Toadies — “Possum Kingdom,” 1994
“Do you wanna diiiiiieeee?” Uh, we’d rather just rock out, if that’s OK with you? This immortal murder-suicide throwdown scores big points on the weird scale, but might be a little more metal than alt. Listen to the bass-rumbling sustain on those guitars and tell me it isn’t closer to Black Sabbath than the Velvet Underground. The feedback solo does save it from being mistaken for mainstream, though. Toadies also make it on here for their stunning musicianship — check out how naturally the verses switch between seven and eight timing. Alas, like every other great track here, this was the only time that Toadies managed to put it together quite as well as this.
2 Spacehog — “In the Meantime,” 1996
Part of the Brit Rock phase that briefly dominated 90s alternative (a sweat spot for artists like Oasis and Blur), Space Hog managed to eek out enough room for the classic “In the Meantime.” Now, while certain of their contemporaries were taking on reputations of the biggest English acts ever (The Beatles, the Kinks, et al.) Space Hog was more obsessed with 70s prog and glam. And this track shows a very obvious affinity for David Bowie. And that’s awesome! The jagged riff and maniacally crooned vocals would have done the Thin White Duke proud. As you guessed, this group didn’t have the staying power of Bowie. Well, not in the U.S. at least.
1 Breeders — “Cannonball,” 1993
One of the grooviest and weirdest one-hitters ever, the Breeders unforgettable “Cannonball” tops our list. With its undulating guitars, distortion-bristled vocals and cuckoo lyrics, the song moves with a menacing slacker-sheen that seems to encapsulate an entire decade’s worth of trends. No surprise — the two songwriters in the group were already mainstays with Pixies and Throwing Muses—two of the biggest underground bands of the late 80s. On their one big hit, Kim Deal of Pixies fame swaps her bass for a guitar and Johnny Ramones the hell out of this track. Truth be told, the Breeders released some top-notch albums in their time; they just never managed to reignite their love affair with the spotlight.
What a decade for off-the-beaten path success. In fact, tried and true methods of song writing seem to ensure you wouldn’t have a hit in the 90s. Being children of the 90s ourselves, we take great pride in our encyclopedic knowledge of all things that took place during the decade. (Still wearing my Blossom snap-braclet… psyche!) But, hey, if you think you know alternative better than we do, maybe you should put your AOL Start-up Disks where your mouth is. Put your personal favorite below; if you’re lucky, it might just make it on to this list. But, because we can’t get enough of that 90s stuff, here are a few honorable mentions to tide you over while you search YouTube for “Run Away Train.”
Crash Test Dummies — “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm”—Best band name ever. Weirdest hit ever.
New Radicals — “You Get What You Give”—If you can get past the fact that he sounds a lot like Bono, you might get lost in Gregg Alexander’s voice.
King Missile — “Detachable Penis”—It’s a song as old as time: Man has penis; Man loses penis; Man buys penis back at flea market.