Reflections on '90s Alternative as Oldies

Today the cafe is blasting the 90s alternative classics station - I suppose that listening to songs that you loved as a kid in an oldies context is sort of a rite of passage. Since I'm not working on anything in particular this morning, I'm taking the time simply to reflect a bit on the music that was so, so important to me when I was a teenager, now that I can sort out which songs from the era are going to be the "oldies" and which I'll never hear again. Just as with any other era, the songs that are hits when they come out and the songs that become "standards" may not be related to each other at all. I rarely hear a song on classic rock radio that I don't know, but if I look at a Top 10 list from any given week in 1968, there'll be maybe one or two songs that I recognize. Many of the standards were never big hits in their day. I'd say that it was all about the Test of Time, but there's probably more to it than that. And one day, I'll figure it out.

Anyway, today the radio is playing...

Alanis - "You Oughta Know"
There are some good lines here ('every time I scratch my nails down someone else's back I hope you feel it' - nice). This is also about the only song I know of that makes the F word sound like a really dirty word, not just filler. Some people say it for shock value (korn, I'm looking at you), some people say it for fun (Ben Folds has more fun with swearing than anyone), and some just say it because they need an extra syllable or two. The way she spits it out here actually sounds dirty. The hurt in this song alone made people complain that she was "too angry" to this day, even though I honestly can't think of another song by her that's particularly angry. (saw her live twice, once in an arena, once in the park).

Hole - songs from Live Through This
Courtney Love did some good work when she was taking credit for songs that Kurt Cobain or Billy Corgan wrote. She's right up there with Wagner in the ol' "you can't let your opinion of the artist influence your opinion of the art" stuff. (never saw them live)

Green Day - "Longview"
I don't think the "they aren't punk anymore' backlash that got so pervasive in the mid 90's was because they were signed to a big label; it was because they suddenly became every prep's favorite band (after Aerosmith). This record layed bare the dirty secret that puberty sucks for everyone - prep, geek, and punk alike. That's why the preps dug it, too. We shouldn't have blamed them. I wasn't surprised when they made a record as good as American Idiot 10 years later - I knew they had it in 'em. Since I wrote this, they've also played "Basket Case," which single-handedly deconstructs the entire adolescent mindset. I remember thinking that that song described my life perfectly in those days, and I think everyone else did, too. (saw them live once, in a lowdown club in '95 on the Insomniac tour. I guess it was technically a "theatre," but it was too crummy to be called anything but a club).

Cake - "I Will Survive"
Still amusing, but no more necessary now than it ever was (saw them at a fesitval once)

K's Choice - "Addict" (or whatever this song is called)
One of the better songs about the old "I can quit whenever I want" myth. I thought their song "I Smoke a Lot" was a more amusing look at addiction, though. (saw them once, opening for Alanis at the arena show). I remember seeing people on a bus singing along to this song.

Oasis - "Live Forever"
This is a fine song, even though they apparently couldn't be bothered to think up an extra verse, leaving them to just repeat one of them at the end. Given the aspirations that are a theme of the song, it was a perfect way for us to be introduced to a band so determined to take over the world (and who came as close as anyone did in those days). Of course, the "buzz bin" clip only showed two seconds of the song, and it was the falsetto line in the chorus, which made me think they were one of those really artsy alternative bands that are hard to listen to. I remember I fell in love with the song listening to it on headphones while waiting for my ride to come on a cold, snow night. (never saw them live).

Bush - "Glycerine."
I didn't like them much then. Still don't. That one record had hit single after hit single, but I haven't heard many of them in years. They haven't stood the test of time very well, I guess. This is probably the only song you're likely to hear on oldies radio. Maybe "Come Down." What else did they do again? I can't even remember. (never saw them live).

Nirvana - "Heart Shaped Box."
I wasn't a big fan of anything of theirs other than Unplugged, which I thought justified the hype all by itself, but listening to them now it seems perfectly clear that they were head and shoulders above most of their contemporaries. And, ten years later, they're still big with the kids - I see Nirvana shirts at just about every school I visit.  (never saw them).

Smashing Pumpkins - "Tonight, Tonight"
I think that even before Mellon Collie came out, there was a sense in the air that this would be the Last Great Alternative record. Funnily enough, they hadn't really played this one on the radio today when I started writing this entry; I just started typing this because wanted to write about it. But it just came on. Either my psychic powers are in full bloom or my brain has figured out the pattern of oldies radio the same way some people can figure out the pattern on Pac Man. I remember that the time I saw the Pumpkins live, Billy Corgan kept apologizing for how badly they were playing that night, but I didn't notice. I think the problem was that, with the video screens and stuff, they were acting like a glam metal band, which is really what they were, but that was not a hip thing to be in the mid 90s.

Beck - "Loser"
I don't remember if we realized how funny this song was when it came out - the pervasiveness of whiny songs made it too easy to mix this in with the rest without realizing that it was satire. Looking back, it's hard to imagine I thought a song that opened with "in the time of chimpanzees, I was a monkey" was supposed to be taken seriously. (never saw him live)

Jewel - You Were Meant For Me -
My image of Jewel is kind of tarnished by the fact that after she became a hit, she wouldn't shut up about how she lived in her van for a while, and apparently started thinking she was an angel sent to remove pain from the world through poetry. And the opening lines of this song ("got maple syrup, everything but you") sounds kind of corny, but the rest of the song really makes that first line work. It's actually a damned good song. Not by any strech the sappy love song people think is - it's a post-breakup song by a girl who sounds like she's about to embark upon a rewarding career as a stalker. It's the little details; making a line about leaving wet towels on the floor sound devasting is tough to do, but she pulls it off here. Outside of the corny intro that turns a lot of people off, there's really just one bad line: "consoled a cup of coffee, but it didn't wanna talk" - what did she expect? Maybe the coffee was busy talking to Neil Diamond's equally unrepsonsive chair from "I Am I Said." This one is sung with the same vulnerability that allowed Jewel to do the only version of Ian and Sylvia's "Someday Soon" I've ever heard that actually captures the foolishness of a teenage narrator.      I'm still not entirely sure whether we were supposed to take that dance album she did seriously. It's one of those albums that I think is probably pretty great as long as you can see the humor behind it (like "Thick as a Brick," "Bat Out of Hell," and "Welcome to the Black Parade.")

Alice in Chains - "Man in the Box"
This is one of those songs that got into my head so thoroughly that hearing it now makes me feel exactly like it's winter 93/94 again. Moreso than others. I don't think it's nearly as wickedly cool now as I did then, but i can see what the appeal was. (never saw them; they didn't play live too much)

Gin Blossoms - "Hey Jealousy"
 I swear to God, the first time I heard this on the radio, I thought it was John Stamos singing. Between the voice and the fact that it sounds, musically and thematically, much more like a classic rock song than anything else that was on the radio at the time, I spent about a week wondering if this was a Jesse and the Rippers song. In more recent years I've gotten WAY more into this song and their other hit, "Found Out About You." Doug Hopkins, the songwriter they fired before recording the album because he was in no shape to be in a touring band, may have been a genius.

Nine Inch Nails - "Last"
I honestly think this may be the first time I've EVER heard this song on the radio - they sure didn't play it on KGGO ten years ago. The only time I ever heard it anywhere other then my own headphones was at a Nine Inch Nails / Ministry laser show at the science center (and I'm not 100% sure they played it there). I remember thinking that the line "this isn't meant to last" sounded like he was saying "this is your mental ass," which might, in fact, be WAY better. It's interesting how some songs that weren't really hits in their day still become standards - "Break On Through" by the Doors was a total flop in 1967, for instance. And "Heaven Beside You" by Alice in Chains seems a lot more popular now than it did back then. (saw NIN live on the tour with David Bowie in 95, same week as I saw my first Dylan concert)

Jars of Clay - "Flood"
One of the bigger "christian rock" crossover hits. I remember hearing a lot of religious kids at school slag these guys off for being "too secular." I keep wanting to say "if you can't swim after forty days, then you've probably been dead for about 39 of them."

Live - "Lightning Crashes"
I feel as though I've softened a bit on my position on "Lightning Crashes" - when it came out, it sounded to me like a blatant, clumsy attempt to say something profound about birth, death, and eyeballs. I still think it would work better as the last two minutes of an ER episode than it does as a song, but now I'm just impressed that they got they managed to work the word "placenta" into a song. That's tough to pull off. It's still not my favorite of their songs, though. I prefer "Selling the Drama," which I first heard on the radio on the way home from a Metallica / Danzig / Suicidal Tendencies concert in 1994 (which was, up to that point, probably the highlight of my life).  I saw them live for the first time in 2000, when they were on tour with Counting Crows (who tend to get lumped in with Dave Matthews as a prep rock band, but were, in my opinion, about the most under-rated band on the planet). Saw them again on tour with Counting Crows in 2007.

Collective Soul - "The World I Know."
Like Live, these guys would have been a terrific rock band if they didn't have to be an alternative band.
See, here's the thing about Collective Soul: what they really are, when you get down to it, is a sing-a-along arena rock band. They just had to sort HIDE that side of themselves, because it really wasn't cool to be one of those in 1995, when music was supposed to be harder to listen to. Fist-pumping, sing-a-longs, guitar solos, etc, were considered lame tropes of "mainstream" songs (as opposed to "alternative" songs, which, of course, was the mainstream at the time). At the time, it was really, really uncool to like Springsteen. Sometimes I wonder what we were thinking in the 90s.

Pearl Jam - "Dissident"
This was probably my favorite of their songs; it sounded great blasting in a video arcade (specifically Laser X, the awesome laser tag place at my mall that occupied the space formerly occupied by Aladdin's Castle). "Daughter" will always give me a warm feeling as it reminds me of being in a van full of people singing along to every word. Most of their songs made very little linear sense, but they managed to convey emotions pretty well - "Yellow Ledbetter" manages to convey sheer ragged glory and full-on emotion with barely an intelligible word in the lyrics, and "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town" is a devastating character sketch. I think that grunge might have fared better if they'd called it "impressionist rock," a lable which probably applies better to Pearl Jam than any other. (never saw them live, they had that thing with ticketmaster that kept them from touring much back then)

Stone Temple Pilots - "Interstate Love Song"
Time has not smiled on STP. In those days, we thought they were a shameless Pearl Jam rip-off - we didn't MIND, but we knew, deep down, that they were hardly innovators. The difference is that now I can listen to Pearl Jam and think "hey, that really was a good song." I don't get that same feeling with STP. Maybe a twinge of nostalgia and an appreciation for a really good riff here and there, but that's about it.

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Adam's New Book: Sept 2013