By: Ashton May
It’s time again, for Mixtape Monday! If you really liked the “Spring Drive” mixtape from last week, here’s a direct link to that playlist here.
As we’re pleasantly (miserably) working through Mercury Retrograde at the moment, I thought it’d be apropos to dive into the depths of some comforting musical nostalgia–which for me, being born in 1989, is the unparalleled realm that was 90s Alternative Rock.
The late 80s saw some great musical artists–but also a lot of terrible ones. The musical landscape was definitely in need of a sea change. Enter the “alternative” scene: although I’ve never found a clear definition of what really makes a band or artist “alternative,” whatever it is, the ’90s is the decade that brought it to the mainstream. And thank the musical gods that it did!
*Side note, I do have a list of favorite songs of all time. Four songs on that list are present on this list. I am a true 90s kid, after all.
Mixtape Monday, 4/16, “Smells Like the 90s Vol. 1” (yes, there will eventually be a Vol. 2, 3, 4, etc. because there’s just too much fantastic 90s music to cover) Listen while you read HERE.
“Just a Girl” – No Doubt: Kicking off her 20+ year musical career as a pop/rock icon, ‘Just a Girl’ was No Doubt’s first single that truly garnered mainstream success. Previously known as a Ska band directed by Eric Stefani’s songwriting, once he left the band, Gwen and the guys were forced to recreate themselves. Spoiler alert: It turned out very well, because no one really likes Ska (sorry, Ska fans). Released in 1995, Tragic Kingdom was one of my very first CDs, and this particular song was my original introduction into the frustration of gender inequality. Also, this guitar riff is super fun. Appearing in quintessential 90s movies, Clueless and Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, this song is an absolute staple of 90s culture, and still translates.
“Hey Jealousy” – Gin Blossoms: In true musical fashion of the times, a song could be hopeless and depressing yet sound as upbeat and enjoyable as ever. ‘Hey Jealousy’ is one such sunny soundtrack to one’s depression. Stuffed with delightful hooks from start to finish, this song is one of the true gems of the early 90s.
“Lovefool” – The Cardigans: This is one song I distinctly remember dancing around my room and singing at the top of my lungs to when I was in 3rd grade. I LOVED this song with all of my 8-going-on-18 angsty heart. It’s also one of the earliest songs that I attribute to my love of the bass; seriously, the bassline in this song is killer. Tons of people over the last two decades have covered this song, because it’s f*cking great. Also adding to it’s 90s cred– it appeared in the killer Baz Luhrmann Romeo + Juliet film, as well as 1999’s Cruel Intentions–the seminal song of which is also included on this list…we’ll get there later.
“The Way” – Fastball: Another song I loved to blast my boombox to, I never quite understood what the hell was going on in this song until I became older and realized it was about an older couple saying “goodbye forever” to their boring, routine life and gaining back the freedom and excitement from their youth. That’s actually a romanticized version of the actual sad story that inspired the writing of song, which you can read about here. Regardless, I was a sucker for the fun western/ latin influenced riffs and rhythms, and the mystery of the story.
“Special”- Garbage: Much like Gwen Stefani, Shirley Manson was one of my female rock idols growing up–she, too, had a badass style, a rebellious attitude, and a unique voice. The second single off of Garbage’s critically acclaimed second album, ‘Special’ became the group’s most commercially successful single, and earned the band Grammy nominations in two categories. Manson has spoken about the idea behind the lyrics, that they concerned the end of a friendship after that person lets you down in a major way. She said, “Ultimately it’s about those feelings of betrayal you have for people when you set your sights too high and expect too much and how that can lead to disappointment in the end.”
“Say It Ain’t So” – Weezer: The last single off of their debut album, ‘Say It Ain’t So’ is one of their best, and one of their most emotional, commercially successful songs. The song perfectly translates the worry-filled mind of a teenager thinking about very adult matters he doesn’t quite understand– and it should, as it was written when Rivers Cuomo recalled an incident as a teen when he came home from school and saw a bottle of beer in the fridge. Always believing that his mother and father’s marriage ended due to his father’s alcoholism, seeing the beer made him fear that the marriage between his mother and stepfather would end similarly. I distinctly remember this music video from when I was younger; not because it was eventful in the slightest (it’s not), but because of Rivers’ sweet baby face (he seriously looks like he’s 14 in this music video, rather than 24).
“Save Tonight” – Eagle-Eye Cherry: Swedish rock musician Eagle-Eye Cherry is really the only one-hit wonder I’ve included on this list, but hey, the 90s was NOTORIOUS for one-hit wonders, so it’s inevitable that I include at least one. They played this song pretty constantly on Star 94, so naturally, I knew every single word.
“She Talks To Angels” – The Black Crowes: This song has always resonated with me in a variety of ways. Firstly, I was enamored with the music video. Secondly, my dad has always liked playing this song, so I have many fond memories of him sitting with his acoustic guitar and singing the song with perfection.Thirdly, as is true for another song on this list that we’ll get to in a minute, I just absolutely love the way Chris Robinson conveys the persona of song’s subject. He sings about the woman (very loosely based off of a girl he used to know in their 80s Atlanta club days who unfortunately had a heroin problem) with reverence, sincerity, admiration, and sadness. It’s just an incredibly raw and beautiful song that will never get old or lose relevance.
“Slide” – The Goo Goo Dolls: Do you think the Goo Goo Dolls are a little cheesy? Oh, yeah? Cool, well you obviously know nothing, Jon Snow, so just go. GET OUT OF HERE, HATER. For the rest of you good people, ‘Slide’ is one of my top favorite songs of all time. I don’t know what it is– the heavy orchestration, Johnny Rzeznik’s emotive voice, the lyrics, or the cadence of the melodies, but almost every single Goo Goo Dolls song makes me teary. Don’t even try to play ‘Iris’ around me if you aren’t prepared for my sobs. ‘Slide’ is a truly beautiful song that always affected me strongly. It is one of the most misinterpreted songs of the 90s. Again, based on the melody and instrumentation, most people perceive this as a happy love song, but according to Rzeznik, it’s about a young couple finding out they’re pregnant and questioning whether they should get an abortion, get married, or end things.
“Meet Virginia” – Train: Here’s the other song that so wonderfully depicts the object of the singer’s affection. I would absolutely love to meet Virginia. She seems a little crazy, but in a fun way. Except that she also seems pretty sad, or like she really doesn’t know what she wants in life, as she often screams, “I don’t really wanna live this life.” We’ve all known some wonderful people who are like this, and yes, we love them anyway. I’ve been pretty “meh” about Train since the mid-2000s, but I really liked their first album, and loved this song– it is a good one for loud car-singing, which is one of my favorite things.
“Interstate Love Song” – Stone Temple Pilots: (RIP Scott Weiland) STP have always been my personal favorite of the BIG THREE (which is what I like to call the grouping of Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and STP). Their melodies and lyrics have always gelled with me more. And again we have another example of a fairly happy sounding song that contains lyrics that are definitely not-happy. According to Weiland in his autobiography, the song dealt primarily with his lack of honesty with his girlfriend and his “new relationship with heroin.” So…that’s a bit depressing, but what great melody, eh???
“One Headlight” – The Wallflowers: We really liked The Wallflowers in my household for a little while. My dad bought this CD, and I would go steal it and listen to it in my room often. I really loved this song, but, being 7-8, I didn’t really get the lyrics, of course, until I was older (like I really thought it was about Cinderella, so, there’s that). Although vague, the lyrics are very poignant (and not about the Disney Princess, apparently). Although it seems the singer refers to the death of a friend, Jakob Dylan has spoken that the song is mainly about the “death of ideas” and remaining persistent in the face of adversity. This song won the group a few Grammy’s and became their biggest commercial success.
“No Rain” – Blind Melon: Ok, if you haven’t seen this music video before, do yourself a favor and watch it now. It is one of the defining images of the 90s. Also, shockingly (not), probably the most extreme example of a super cheery, bouncy, sunny song that is not at all positive, and in fact, describes the pathos of depression that would eventually lead Shannon Hoon to his overdose/ suicide in 1995. Despite that uplifting fact, this song has always been one of my favorites.
“3AM” – Matchbox Twenty: Ohh, Matchbox Twenty. Rob Thomas sounds like Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam and Stephen Jenkins of Third Eye Blind had baby. One of the singles off of their debut album, ‘3AM’ was definitely one of my favorite songs when I was a kid (another Star 94 staple). Surprisingly, although the song sounds pretty happy, guess what? It’s not, really. Rob Thomas said the lyrics were inspired by the time in his life as an adolescent when his mother was struggling to survive cancer. It’s not all bad though, for once– his mother eventually made a full recovery, which lyrically lets the song focus on the struggle of the situation, rather than the potential tragedy.
“Inside Out” – Eve 6: “I wanna put my tender heart in a blender, watch it spin around into a beautiful oblivion…” I’m sorry, but those are some fantastic lyrics– quite the image, and super relatable. I have absolutely felt like that…probably 87% of my entire life to be honest. I digress. This song was Eve 6’s first single off of their debut album, and it was a BIG hit. There’s something so fantastically pure about this song. Max Collins wrote the song when he was just 17 years old– fresh off of his first heartbreak, falling deeply into the angst most of us knew at 17. He just happened to eventually make a ton of money off of his.
“Celebrity Skin” – Hole: ‘Celebrity Skin’ is my favorite Hole song, for sure, although the album it comes from of the same title is full of great songs, half of them– including this one– co-written by Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins. We all know Courtney Love is a little wild/ crazy, and she’s not exactly the best singer, but when she puts out good stuff, it’s great. The lyrics to this song are really cool– fragmented and pulled from a lot of literary influences. The vocal and instrumental melodies are fun and catchy; it’s a lot like Love herself– quick, dirty, loud, fun, a whirlwind.
“Heart-Shaped Box” – Nirvana: Is it fitting or rude to put Kurt and Courtney next to each other? I’m going to go with fitting, as ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ was supposedly pretty directly about Courtney– and there was an actual heart-shaped box, given to him by Love. Certain lines such as “Forever in debt to your priceless advice” is allegedly referring to the typical subjects of their frequent arguments. Can we also take a minute to appreciate what a twisted and roundabout way to say “I love you” the line “I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black” is? Genius. Not sure why I picked this specific Nirvana song for this list– I guess due to the connection with Love, but those that know me know that I’m a huge Nirvana fan, and have been enamored with the saddo, Kurt Cobain, since I was a very young child. I mean, we have the same birthday so we’re basically the same person (not really, duh, but he was just as into astrology as I am ((as you can gather from the first line of this song)), so he would probably think it was cool and totes meaningful that we are birthday twins). One of my earliest memories is watching MTV News the day he died and being confused and devastated. I’ve always felt a strong connection to him and the band in general, and I grew up with that connection to their music. Obviously it contributed a great deal to my sunny outlook!
“Semi-Charmed Life” – Third Eye Blind: I would say this obsession is healthier than a Kurt Cobain obsession, but this song is about doing heavy drugs, so…REGARDLESS, again, anyone who knows me knows that I LOVE THIRD EYE BLIND. No joke, this overtly painfully nostalgic song of the 90s is my actual favorite song of all time. It just is. Has been since 1997, and still is 20 YEARS LATER. Moreover, this entire album is absolutely incredible. 3EB is going on a 20 year anniversary tour in which they will be playing the entirety of this album, start to finish. Am I going, you ask? OF COURSE. Anyway, this is one of the top songs of the 90s, for sure, with it’s fun, poppy melody and “doo doo doos.” Stephen Jenkins, however, said it’s a filthy song about a time when all of his friends (and himself) seemed to be “tapped out on speed.” The song is “bright and shiny on the surface, and then it just pulls you down in this lockjawed mess … The music that I wrote for it is not intended to be bright and shiny for bright and shiny’s sake. It’s intended to be what the seductiveness of speed is like, represented in music.” I’ll tell you that I indeed knew every single word to this song at the tender age of eight. Luckily, my sweet naivety keep me unaware of what all of those words actually meant for another eight years or so.
“Don’t Look Back In Anger” – Oasis: ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ is one of the signature songs off of Oasis’ monstrously successful album (What’s The Story) Morning Glory?, and the first single to be sung by Noel Gallagher rather than the main vocalist, Liam Gallagher. Oasis was never as wildly popular in the U.S. as they were in the U.K., and most Americans at the time were only really aware of ‘Wonderwall,’ but this song has always been might favorite of theirs (followed closely by ‘Champagne Supernova’). Although Noel was heavily under the influence of god knows what at the time of the song’s conception and said there’s not really a specific meaning at all, I find the lyrics to be strangely positive in a “go with the flow” / “leave the past behind” kind of way. If you don’t know this song, you should learn it– singing the big, open chorus at the top of your lungs is liberating.
“Bitter Sweet Symphony” – The Verve: One of the greatest songs of the 90s and the entire Britpop genre is this beautiful and controversial song from The Verve. I won’t get into the whole thing here, but basically they lost all of their rights and royalties to this song due to a sampling licence gone awry. Regardless, lyrics describe the ennui of everyday life in a fittingly hazy and obscure way, while the pretty, dreamy orchestration surrounds your ears like a big comforting blanket. This song was a mega hit in the late 90s, particularly after appearing as the closing song to Cruel Intentions and being the seminal song on the soundtrack, so every single teenager in America and the U.K. knew the song. As it closed out the super weird/ messed up story of Cruel Intentions, it’s also appropriate the ending track on this week’s mixtape.