Sunday, 23 August 2009

Top 100 favourite songs of all time [Part 5: The 90s]

I spent my teenage years in the 90s, and the mid-late 90s was the time when I really started getting into music in a big way. Understandably, there are a lot of musical memories from these years. So let's take a lot at my favourite songs from the decade.

Air - J'Ai Dormi Sous L'Eau
French duo Air are generally the kind of band I can take or leave. I have no doubt that they are very accomplished at what they do, but find it very difficult to see their work as anything more than excellent background music. This song (from their Premiers symptomes compilation) is a perfectly composed instrumental. What makes this song very special to me is the magical chord change at the 2:50 mark. Both the anticipation and execution of this moment is simply glorious.

Belle & Sebastian - Get Me Away From Here, I'm Dying
I talked about this song in a recent eye fillets post, so in the interests of not repeating myself (and laziness), please read about it there. One of the great songs from early, melancholic B&S, and the highlight of If you're feeling sinister, which is an album of highlights when all is said and done.

Ben Folds Five - Underground
I was never cool in school, so this song is like an anthem to me. This is a highly accomplished mid-90s alternative pop song with a great sense of humour. I don't think I'll ever grow tired of this song - it gets to the core of what makes music so great to me. None of their subsequent work (as a trio or Ben Folds solo) has topped this upbeat and catchy number from their debut album.

Blur - You're So Great
From their transitional eponymous album of 1997 (a great year in music) came this stunning, minimalistic Graham Coxon composition. Coxon also took lead vocals on this atypical Blur number, a gorgeous lo-fi love song which sounds like a lost White album outtake. Makes you long for the old scratchy days of vinyl.

Jeff Buckley - Last Goodbye
I only got into Jeff Buckley after he died (being the bandwagon jumper that I am). I first heard him via this song which was included on the Triple J Volume 3 double CD set. It pretty much blew me away on the first listen, and only a few days later I purchased Grace which is now one of my favourite albums of all time (and completely deserving of all the hype it has received). Many artists are put on a pedestal after they die, but Jeff Buckley is an artist who completely deserved it.

Nick Cave - (Are You) The One That I've Been Waiting For?
Not the typical Nick Cave song choice, this is a perfect composition which illustrates what happens when a song is stripped down to its basic elements. While I have never been into its critically-acclaimed parent album The boatman's call in a big way (I find it lacking a bit in diversity), this song is a wonderful centrepiece which sounds great in the context of the album or on its own. Many prefer the (also wonderful) song Into my arms from the same album, but this song has always been more special to me.

Crowded House - Distant Sun
I recently read an interview with a musician (I can't remember who) where they were asked for a list of their favourite songs, and this one was on their list. They mentioned how amazed they were that Neil Finn was able to write such an amazing vocal melody over what was essentially a very simple chord progression. I agree -- there's not a lot going on in the bare bones backing track. Many of Neil Finn's best songs demonstrate the art of taking the simple and turning it into the universal, and this perfect song is my favourite example of his craft.

The La's - There She Goes
A master-class in how to open a song -- that riff never fails to catch the listener's attention, and it is instantly recognisable. Despite its ubiquity (there have many cover versions over the years), the old adage that "the original is the best" most definitely applies here. This is a universal classic for the ages, and it doesn't even matter that it's apparently Lee Mavers' love song to heroin. The joy of music is in personal interpretation.

Manic Street Preachers - Yes
The dark opening track on their haunting masterpiece The holy bible, this is early (Richey era) Manics at its best. Like most songs on the album, the lyrics are incredibly disturbing. How many songs do you know where they drop the c-bomb in the first line? The amazing thing about this song is that the rest of the band were able to write such an incredibly hooky song around these lyrics. Not for the faint of heart, but there's a deep message about consumerism underneath the adults-only exterior.

Massive Attack - Unfinished Sympathy
One of those songs that constantly shows up on "best songs of all time" polls, and for good reason. This is a stunningly structured and layered song, with just the right amount of elements that sit exactly where they are supposed to in the mix. Everything from Shara Nelson's soulful vocals, the haunting piano interlude, the breathtaking backing track and the amazing sense of space adds up to form an absolutely essential piece of 20th century music.

My Bloody Valentine - Sometimes
The highlight of their highly acclaimed Loveless album, this song was exposed to a much bigger audience when it was included on the soundtrack to Lost in translation. Like much of Loveless, it is composed of a dense wall of sound where it is pretty difficult to decipher even a single lyric. As fans of the band are aware, that was the intention -- they treated vocals as "just another instrument" in the mix, giving it equal billing with the layers upon layers of guitars. The end result is a song of ethereal beauty, with an absolutely transcendent moment just past the 3:30 mark where a perfect chord change sends the song up into the heavens.

Oasis - Live Forever
I was almost going to put Slide away here, but I changed it in the last minute to choose another (more well-known) song from their classic debut album Definitely maybe. While Oasis have (almost) completely lost their songwriting ability over the course of the last decade, this song is a textbook example of why they were so deserving of the praise and hype in those early days. This is anthemic songwriting at its absolute best, and combined with the passionate performance from the Manchester lads, it is perfectly deserving of its place in the best songs of all time.

Pearl Jam - Black
Although I had heard Pearl Jam's debut album Ten when it first came out (through my brother who was a big fan), I only bought it myself this year. Talk about coming to the party late -- about 18 years too late in this case. This is the emotional highlight of an album full of highlights. The whole song is fantastic, but the magic moment for me is the ending where Eddie Vedder sings the "Why can't it be mine" part with such conviction that you can really feel his emotion.

Portishead - Roads
Possibly one of the most haunting songs ever released, this is the highlight of their debut album Dummy, which was one of the pioneering albums of the trip-hop genre. I have always considered Beth Gibbons' vocals on the album to take one of two personas -- the bluesy temptress (Strangers), and the more pure angelic vocals (It's a fire). This song definitely falls into the latter camp. This song is an exercise in purity and minimalism.

Pulp - Common People
Another song I discovered via the Triple J Volume 3 double CD set, this is both a classic slice of Britpop and a 90s anthem which has managed to outlive that scene. Its parent album Different class is also one of my favourite albums of all time. This is an epic, intelligent song and the perfect showcase for Jarvis Cocker's witty lyrics. That they were able to turn it into a song you want to dance to is the icing on the cake.

Radiohead - Paranoid Android
It's become a bit of a cliche to call this song the Bohemian rhapsody of the 90s, but it's true. An epic 3-part beast of a track, this song (and the album OK computer) helped elevate Radiohead to become one of the most talented and innovative bands of the decade. It starts out disjointed and cryptic ("Unborn chicken voices"), becomes funky and cryptic in its mid-section ("Gucci little piggy"), and ends on an emotionally cryptic note ("Rain down"). Did I mention the video clip? Yep, that's pretty cryptic too.

Elliott Smith - Waltz #2 (XO)
Elliott Smith was never known to write many happy songs during his too-short life, but musically he did start a subtle move from folk to pop on his post Either/or albums. This is probably the best melody he ever wrote, but as usual there are dark undercurrents to his lyrics. For a man who was such an amazing songwriter and performer, picking a favourite was difficult. I have always had a personal connection to this song, which justs rises it to the top.

Suede - The Asphalt World
I have always thought that if I was going to write or direct a movie, I would love this song to be on the soundtrack. The emotional climax of the challenging Dog man star album, this is the payoff from all the ambition that was demonstrated on the rest of the album. An epic song that doesn't outstay its almost 10 minute running time, this was a great farewell from guitarist Bernard Butler before he left the band due to creative differences between him and frontman Brett Anderson.

Super Furry Animals - Hermann Loves Pauline
Similar to the Belle & Sebastian track earlier, I talked about this song in a recent eye fillets post. You can read about it there, but in a few words -- this is genius psychedelic Welsh indie pop, and the highlight of their almost-perfect Radiator album.

Teenage Fanclub - Sparky's Dream
The melody of this song is so familiar and catchy that you wonder how it wasn't written before 1995, when Teenage Fanclub released it on their fantastic Grand prix album. This is another track that I would give the coveted title of perfect pop song. I'm not exaggerating here -- from that opening guitar riff, to Gerald Love's classic lead vocal, to those gorgeous harmonies, to that stupendous chorus ("Need a crystal ball to see her in the morning") -- music doesn't get a lot better than this.

U2 - One
U2 have copped a lot of flack over the last decade, quite understandably at times. First there's Bono, who's horse is so high from sitting up on it all the time. And with the exception of the underrated All that you can't leave behind (2000), they haven't released anything particularly notable this decade. You can't help but think that they are a band who probably should have thrown in the towel a long time ago. There are lots of songs by U2 that have been killed by overplay, that I'd be quite happy to never hear again (With or without you, I still haven't found what I'm looking for, Pride). But One is a song I will never tire of -- it's just a great composition with a universal message, and the highlight of Achtung baby which was the best album of their 30 year career.

The Verve - On Your Own
A beautiful ballad from their 1995 album A northern soul, this is a great showcase for Richard Ashcroft's vocals. Many fans would point to the epic string-drenched History as the highlight of the album, but this song has always done it for me a lot more. Not as well known as the singles from Urban hymns, this is an incredibly underrated number which deserves a lot more recognition.

Weezer - Across The Sea
Weezer's masterpiece Pinkerton was an incredibly cathartic album for frontman Rivers Cuomo. Each song reads lyrically like a diary entry from his disturbing life, while the often upbeat music provides an ironic counterpoint to the dark content. It took me a while for the lyrics of this song to hit me, but it's written as a response song to fan letter received from an 18 year old Japanese girl to Rivers. In the song, Rivers pours his heart out as he reveals that he is lusting after this girl but there's nothing he can do about it because he feels it would be wrong, and she lives in Japan (across the sea). An incredible piece of emotionally honest songwriting from a man who was clearly troubled at the time.

The Whitlams - Following My Own Tracks
I've said it before on this blog, but I'll say it again -- early Whitlams were brilliant. This is a classic song performed with emotion and honesty by the late Stevie Plunder. Musically, the song is quite joyful and bouncy like a lot of early Whitlams songs, but there is a darkness to the lyrics sung by a man who clearly had his fair share of problems. Some of the lyrics ("Well self-destruction's kinda dumb") became sadly prophetic when Stevie died less than 2 years after the album's release from an apparent suicide.

You Am I - Hourly, Daily
Remember when You Am I were this good? It seems like an eternity now. This is the opening title track from their superb 1996 concept album about suburban Australian life. It's a lovely string-drenched ballad which sets the scene of the album perfectly, despite the fact that most of the album is a lot more upbeat and rocky in sound. Tim Rogers' vocals are in fine form throughout. A beautifully understated song.

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