Treble’s Top 100 Singles of the ’90s

Treble staff
Our awesome '90s mixtape

Stereolab – “Cybele’s Reverie” (Duophonic UHF, 1996)

I never want to know what the words mean in “Cybele’s Reverie,” a standout from Stereolab’s Emperor Tomato Ketchup. To me, they speak of the sort of world that we can aspire to but never reach, save for a few brief, ecstatic moments. The impression is one facilitated by the music, a summer-kissed gauze of rapturous harmony vocals, strings and understated rhythm. It is, as it always was, music to dream away long sunny days, barefoot in the grass, casually dismissive of tomorrows. – Tyler Parks
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The Pixies – “Velouria” (4AD, 1990)

Few may recall seeing the video for “Velouria” upon its initial release at the dawn of the decade, but it’s about as minimal as a promotional rock `n’ roll visual can be. Depicting the band running over rocks in slow motion, it wasn’t exactly the most exciting film to be paired with song, and yet it doesn’t have to be, as the song is so exciting on its own. The opening chords are crunchy, yet melodic and alluring, soon exploding into the familiar Pixies sound of their prior three albums, only made more radio friendly and sparkly. The lyrical origins are a bit bizarre though, for while some would argue the song is a simple love song, or a song about drugs, Black Francis once cryptically explained its origins by telling of the lost continent of Lemuria, which sank into the Pacific and the remnants of its society were left in Northern California, and that “Velouria” rhymes with “Lemuria.” If that doesn’t sink in at first, listen to that cry of “oh Shasta sheen” and see if there isn’t some kind of connection. – Jeff Terich
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Morrissey – “The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get” (Parlophone, 1994)

To some, Morrissey was the singer of the Smiths. To others, he had a pretty decent first few solo albums and a couple of recent `comeback albums.’ But to the true Morrissey fans, there are no `hiccups’ in this singer’s career. Case in point, “The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get,” a stellar pop track from one of the Mozzer’s `middle’ albums, Vauxhall & I. The line between a lovestruck wooer not giving up and stalking is quite thin and Morrissey treads that line dangerously. He drowns his sorrows, laments his situation, but still refuses to give up on the object of his affection, wearing down his target like a deprogrammer with a former cultist. The song is truly one of Morrissey’s best pop tracks, yet is frighteningly dark. (What else is new? You may be asking.) Morrissey tells his prey, “I’ve made up your mind.” It reminds me of romantic comedies. Somehow, stalker mentality becomes `romantic’ when it’s done with two photogenic movie stars, but outside of that context, it’s just scary. Morrissey captures that paradox nicely with this peppy track, underplaying the terror ever so carefully. – Terrance Terich
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Smashing Pumpkins – “Tonight, Tonight” (Virgin, 1995)

Some artists look forward for inspiration in music videos, but Smashing Pumpkins looked far, far backward, To the year 1902 that is. The Pumpkins, or rather directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, based the video for “Tonight, Tonight” on Georges Meliés’ “Le Voyage Dans Le Lune” (A Trip to the Moon), evoking a by-gone era of adventure and wonder. It is ethereal even, with the band appearing in flickering phantasmal forms. But really, the video serves to celebrate the song. And at a time when music was shuddering out of grunge and into excess bubble gum pop, the Smashing Pumpkins delivered something honest and heartfelt. Skirting existentialism, the lyrics contain a truly optimistic outlook on everything imploring, no pleading, that “right now is the moment to do it.” When coupled with the strong drum and violin sections, “Tonight, Tonight” becomes much more than a sappy rock song, but something else entirely. This song was a backlash to an era that hadn’t yet arrived, but one that everyone saw coming. Billy Corgan saw that era and had this to say, “We’ll crucify the insincere tonight.” – Dean Steckel
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Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – “Red Right Hand” (Mute, 1994)

One of my San Antonio girlfriends used to have this annoying roommate. Whenever she and I wanted to have privacy, instead of putting a sock, tie or bra on the door we would crank up my Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds CD, which would be the signal to her that we were naked and in lusting motions. It worked every time; her roommate would get the hint and not bother us while Nick Cave was playing. Even though we played him a lot, she didn’t really understand why I loved his music so much. Cave is literary, smart, brave… and hey we used to have sex to his music so hell yeah, he rocked. But this one, which we first heard on an episode of The X-Files, was my then girlfriend’s favorite and the only Nick Cave that she ever liked. I always hoped to run into Nick Cave in New Orleans and thank him for providing us a soundtrack to our sensual encounters. He probably would have smiled, said, “You’re welcome” and told me to sod off in his own Nick Cave way. – Adrian Cepeda
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Nirvana – “Lithium” (Geffen, 1992)

I like telling people that the first compact disc I ever bought was Nirvana’s Nevermind. This is completely untrue; the first compact disc I ever bought was a soundtrack for The Baby-Sitters Club. In any case, telling people that the first CD I ever bought was Nevermind gives me a certain amount of street cred, especially considering the fact that I was about nine-years-old at the time. In retrospect I don’t think I even realized how good that album was at the time. I was nine, what did I know about Kurt Cobain’s angst and wry humor? I couldn’t even comprehend what made “Lithium” so good. It wasn’t until years later that I found out that Lithium is a drug prescribed to people with chemical imbalances and that “Lithium” is a sardonic take on a self-medicating society. (Interesting, since taking heroin is another, albeit more destructive, form of self-medication.) Kurt Cobain maintained that he pretty much ripped off the Pixies’ use of quiet-loud in their songs. “Lithium” is probably the best example of this. The verses of “I’m so happy, “etc. are subdued with some of the best bass lines supplied by Krist Novoselic but then all hell breaks loose and Dave Grohl pounds those drums like a deranged caveman (or at least like Animal). In fact, I prefer this song’s use of quiet-loud over those by the Pixies. Cobain’s screams of “I love you, I’m not gonna crack” are raw and the dichotomy is more pronounced. Think of it as the musical equivalent of bipolar disorder, or course, medicated by lithium. – Jackie Im
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Oasis – “Live Forever” (Creation, 1994)

America was introduced to the Gallagher brothers through “Live Forever,” the brash ballad that was actually their third UK single. It’s no surprise that they picked “Live Forever” as the US debut, foregoing the very British tracks “Shakermaker” and “Supersonic.” There’s something about “Live Forever” that makes it the type of English song that Americans love. The opening drumbeat is heavy; the guitars scream solos as well as Keith Richards. But the true star is Liam Gallagher’s gravelly voice. Liam growls lyrics about sharing a dream, the dream of being immortal. And unlike most of the time, when Liam is all about Liam, he lets the rest of us in, using the word `we’ repeatedly and acknowledging, “Maybe you’re the same as me.” Noel sings the falsetto chorus sweetly while Liam simply yells out the title repeatedly at the end of the song, making for a great energetic anthem for the post-grunge era. It’s fair to say that this track launched a new British Invasion. Appropriately enough, the song’s message of `living forever’ was a direct result of Noel’s feelings toward grunge, and in particular Kurt Cobain’s rejection of stardom, including song titles such as “I Hate Myself and I Want to Die.” Well, for a band that was so into the Beatles’ songs of love, those two sure did fight a lot. – Terrance Terich
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A Tribe Called Quest – “Bonita Applebaum” (Jive, 1990)

I always had it in my head that this was one of the tribe’s best, and I’m unsurprised that the feeling is so universal. Explaining why is a less easily defined process. There’s no killer chorus. Structural analysis is superfluous. “Bonita” isn’t infectious in a conventional fashion. Even with no obvious hook, a narcoleptic chorus, and laid back lyrical adolescence, it’s still perfect radio fodder. Processed sitar, trademark punchy beats and lounge piano succeed because Q-Tip sounds so cool with his infatuation. So many singles concentrate on emotion at its most amplified. “Bonita” sees things for what they probably are. Stereo on — beer open — realize. – Thomas Lee
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Tricky – “Christiansands” (4th & Broadway, 1996)

Bristol’s trip-hop scene of the ’90s produced several unique and innovative artists, Tricky being one of the most unusual. Early singles like “Aftermath” and “Overcome” had a dark and ambient allure about them, yet in the coming years his work would soon become grittier and really, really bizarre. He still had time for a straight-up trip-hop jam, though, and his smoky, laid back 1996 single “Christiansands,” in context, sounded very little like much of the noisy clatter on Pre-Millennium Tension. The song is actually closer to hip-hop than any of his peers would ever be, Adrian Thawes’ raspy growl sounding like an underwater cyborg spitting stoned nursery rhyme lyrics. His protégé, Martina Topley-Bird, provides the perfect foil to his reptilian verse, gently cooing the brilliant play on words, “I met a Christian in Christiansands/ and a devil in Helsinki.” Yet it’s Tricky’s own rhetorical refrain that’s the clincher: “Always…what does that mean?” – Jeff Terich
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Jawbox – “Savory” (Atlantic, 1994)

Jawbox is the only band I know whose songwriting became more accessible as it became more challenging. Case in point: “Savory,” a single off of third album For Your Special Sweetheart, is one of the least straightforward tracks, opting for a slowly plodding progression, dizzying jangle twirling around a solidly chugging series of power chords. J. Robbins sings in abstracts, alluding to media objectification of women: “hey angel/ whatever position/ we consider fit/ to put you in/ you’ll protest your complicity.” And in a surreal sort of climax, cynicism mates with dreaminess, as a swirling, playful guitar riff lays a sublime bed for Robbins’ refrain of “one hand will wash the other.” It’s a wonder this ever ended up on MTV. Few bands this challenging are played on radio now for that matter, yet for a brief, shining moment, this foursome gleamed, dressed to the nines on Alternative Nation, awkwardly dropped in the middle of a pastel birthday party. Not bad for a little punk band from D.C. – Jeff Terich
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