The 96 Best Alternative Rock Songs of 1996

The 96 Best Alternative Rock Songs of 1996

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Undoubtedly, 1996 was the year of Weird Alternative. Representing the final period before underground rock’s post-grunge bubble totally burst, the hits of 1996 shook out like loose change. Veteran oddballs like Luscious Jackson and Butthole Surfers scored unlikely crossovers, while future cult favorites like Eels and Nada Surf enjoyed their sole brushes with the mainstream. The success of No Doubt, 311, and Sublime presaged ska’s stupefying breakout the following year, while the Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers primed big beat as the sound of the future (for about 18 months). Weezer, Stone Temple Pilots, and Pearl Jam all flopped gloriously trying to follow up ’94 blockbusters, while Oasis and Smashing Pumpkins threatened to expand their ’95 success into total world domination. It was utter chaos, and it was hilariously beautiful.

Like the similarly freewheeling MTV sequel channel that launched in ’96, alt-rock was destined to crash. Tellingly, the Alternative Nation music-video program was canceled in ’97, the same year that Puff Daddy and Will Smith brought hip-hop to unprecedented commercial heights, and Hanson, the Spice Girls, and Backstreet Boys kicked off the teen-pop explosion that would carry the music industry’s boom years into the 21st century. But if there were relatively few survivors from ’96 alt-rock, that just makes the year all the more special in retrospect, as the only time in history when even Primitive Radio Gods were allowed to become contemporary radio gods. Come get all mixed up with us one more time.

96. “Weird Al” Yankovic, “Alternative Polka”

Let the record show that ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic’s obligatory State-of-Pop polka medley off of 1996’s Bad Hair Day declined to cover anything but contemporaneous alt-rock — a fair indicator of the place the genre had in the culture at the time, and would never have again. Kicking off with Beck’s “Loser” was a clever move: Both men were renowned for smashing up pop culture and assembling mirrorballs from the fragments. (Hair goosed TLC, TMBG, and… Hilly Michaels?) With typical flair, Yankovic takes his 2/4 two-by-four to a host of alt luminaries, adding cute details like the rodentine gnawing during “Bullet With Butterfly Wings,” the yodel in “You Oughta Know,” and the Warner Bros.-style censoring of “Closer.” At the last minute, Weezer pulled permission for “Buddy Holly,” but he got ‘em ten years later. — BRAD SHOUP

95. Cake, “The Distance”

Respect Cake: It’s not every decade that a bunch of dry humorists who sound like no one else before or after manage one hit, much less several and a decade-past-due No. 1 album. How the internal logic of their bro-y backing vocals (“All alone!”), mariachi-trained trumpet, and Dr. Dre-trained synth squeal came together is less important than the fact that it did, and the world noticing is just icing on the… well, you know. — DAN WEISS

94. Sleeper, “Nice Guy Eddie”

Forgotten by (American) history, Camden hit factory Sleeper were something like the Blondie of the Britpop era, peaking with this swinging single about how frontwoman Louise Wener once had a love and it was a gas, but soon turned out the guy choked on a martini olive. And sure, let’s name it after a Reservoir Dogs character: Song’s a lot cooler than friggin’ “Scooby Snacks,” that’s for sure. — ANDREW UNTERBERGER

93. Tool, “Stinkfist”

Leading off what’s unquestionably the most scatological album to ever hit (what else?) No. 2 on the Billboard 200 Albums chart, this tabla-enhanced rager forced even Matt Pinfield to refer to it simply by waving his fist in front of his face on MTV. But the original follow-the-chemtrails grunge-prog purveyors pulled their heads out of their asses for “Stinkfist,” which made its riffy point in a lean-for-Tool five minutes. Why’d they have to go and make things so disgustipated? — D.W.

92. Sloan, “The Good in Everyone”

Even as alt-rock scaled the Hot 100, power-pop acts couldn’t find a foothold — not even a band with four top-notch songwriters, well on their way to icon status in their native Canada. After two Geffen efforts that failed to land, Sloan gathered their breath and dropped One Chord to Another on their own Murderecords label. “The Good in Everyone” is the first blast: a dense defensive pose studded with handclaps and a strangled solo. On the verses, Andrew Scott provides massive cymbal sustain; Patrick Pentland sings the title like he’s got his hands over his ears. — B.S.

91. Geggy Tah, “Whoever You Are”

Released on David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label, and you can trace the imprint of the old master on the soul-guitar turnarounds, the loopy drivetime melody, and especially the genially banal text — not since “Autobahn” had the charts seen such a placid ode to driving. A daydreaming drone cruises the highway for hours, waving at courteous motorists, listening to his band on the radio. This is alt-rock at its lowest stakes: suburban and self-involved and seemingly built for the ad placement. Two decades later, the keyboardist was writing for Adele. — B.S.

90. Failure, “Stuck on You”

Too stylish to be grunge, not histrionic enough to be emo, not doomy enough to be metal, too slick to be shoegaze. Failure were destined to be wards of the major-label state until “Stuck on You” became the alt-rock “There She Goes” — a shimmering ode to heroin mistakenly plopped on hundreds of blushing mixtapes. — IAN COHEN

89. Unwound, “Corpse Pose”

Unwound frontman Justin Trosper has said that the title of his post-hardcore crew’s 1996 effort Repetition is partly a cheeky nod to how hard it’d be for them to not tread on some of the same cimmerian soil they explored before. But single “Corpse Pose” proves that repetition need not be Sisyphean; its title not a reference to death or defeat, but to a yoga stance that’s more about restoration. Despite the band’s trademark asynchronous riffing and anxious chanting here, “Corpse Pose” sorta has the the same function: a moment of respite amid the strife and strain. — COLIN JOYCE

88. Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Love Rollercoaster”

Forget the murder-y urban myths surrounding the Ohio Players original — Red Hot Chili Peppers certainly have, too busy pumping the surreal ’70s party staple with crackling distortion and way-too-excited “AWWW S**T!!” hypespeak to worry about anything but the most naked interpretations. Featuring Beavis & Butt-Head on guest kazoo! — A.U.

87. Soul Coughing, “The Idiot Kings”

The highlight of 1996’s Irresistible Bliss is sexy without irony: Sebastian Steinberg’s walking upright bass fake-out intro, Yuval Gabay’s loop-like mastery of his kit, the uncharacteristically harmonized float of a guitar-or-keyboard over it all. Even the frontman’s own hmm-hmms give lines about his “reptile-lidded eyes” a mysterious bedroom currency. Still manages to crack a joke, though: “I could be condemned to hell for every sin but littering.” — D.W

86. Ani DiFranco, “Joyful Girl”

Narrowing a wordy, prolific icon to a couple of threadbare strums and a desolate tune that sounds anything but cheery, “Joyful Girl” nonetheless furthered the original DIY queen’s convincing ethos that “the world owes me nothing / And we owe each other the world.” And if you can’t relate to “I wonder if everything I do / I do instead of something I want to do more,” you might want to check your pulse. — D.W.

85. Henry’s Dress, “Target Practice”

Like Black Tambourine before them, this West Coast contingent of C86 disciples decided that indie pop might sound a little better run through a distortion pedal with a little lighter fluid tossed on top. “Target Practice”— from sole full-length Bust ‘Em Green — is one of Henry’s Dress’ most gloriously trashed tracks, burning through a whole host of searing riffs and singer Amy Linton’s fiery kiss-offs (“How I’d love to see you in springtime / And I’d kick you in the fall”) in just over 100 seconds before cutting to black. Unsurprisingly for such blazing stars, they’d break up just months after the album’s release. — C.J.

84. Seven Mary Three, “Cumbersome”

That riff is cumbersome, the original version of this song was a cumbersome six minutes long, the word cumbersome itself is cumbersome. And while “She calls me Goliath and I wear a David mask” is one of the most cumbersome opening lyrics to any song that managed heavy rotation, it nonetheless summarized an aesthetic of gruff, austere, and utterly sexless masculinity that would define the future of post-grunge: 3 Doors Down claimed they started out as a Seven Mary Three cover band. — I.C.

83. Jimmy Eat World, “Claire”

“The Middle” was Jimmy Eat World mouthpiece Jim Adkins’ pep talk to himself after an ill-fated first go-round as a major-label band. In 1996, Alternative Nation was more accepting of ska and Dishwalla than the anguished, heart-clutching sound of emo defined by “Claire” — a fan favorite which quietly established the missing link between Sunny Day Real Estate and KROQ a year before “Everlong” did. — I.C.

82. Lilys, “A Nanny in Manhattan”

Kurt Heasley’s Lilys project has always been a glorious exercise in swift shapeshifting, switching palates entirely from dream-pop swirl to British-Invasion bluster while most singer/songwriters would still be fretting about a sophomore slump. Better Can’t Make Your Life Better, and “A Nanny in Manhattan” in particular, marked his most winning reinvention yet, rearranging the divebombing guitar histrionics of his lovelorn shoegaze work into two minutes of spry ’60s guitar riffs, sunny sundae smiles, and sparked fires on the Village Green. — C.J.

81. Jewel, “Who Will Save Your Soul?”

When faced with tumultuous circumstances, people’s first response can be to seek comfort in security blankets like religion, sex, drugs, and other “cheap thrills,” as Jewel bemoans in the crisp, finger-picked opener to her debut record. In observing the hoi polloi — which the (former) folk-pop singer did while hitchhiking around Mexico at 16 — Jewel throatily offers a simple, if toilsome, solution to personal strife: finding redemption in yourself. — RACHEL BRODSKY

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