Last summer, we counted down the 100 best alternative rock songs of 1994, calling it “alternative’s biggest year.” Undoubtedly it was; you can’t argue with the number of iconic albums and era-defining hits ’94 puts up on the board. But while ’94 is easily the more classic year, ’95 is arguably the more fun one: The year where, with its status as the dominant side of rock music unquestioned, things really started to get loose.
This was when Britpop truly crashed onto U.S. shores, with the biggest-ever Stateside hits from Oasis, Pulp, and Elastica. The growing success of the H.O.R.D.E. Festival helped make for unlikely radio smashes from the jammier likes of Blues Traveler, Dave Matthews Band, and Rusted Root. Nirvana’s power chords begat Foo Fighters; Weezer made room for the Rentals. Smashing Pumpkins and Guided by Voices both released 28-track albums, with wildly different (but equally unforgettable) results. Alanis happened. Even Lou Barlow had a Top 40 hit.
To commemorate this most explosive year in alt-rock history, we’ve counted down the songs most worth remembering from this time 20 years — 95 this time, because, y’know. (Again, only one per artist, and songs were deemed eligible by peaking in relevance in ’95, meaning some songs technically released in ’94 are included, while some technically released in ’95 are purposefully not.) Come watch the world die with us one more time.
95. The Ramones, “I Don’t Want to Grow Up”
That the bruddas signaled their farewell with a Tom Waits cover is evidence of some kind of maturity. That it became a minor chart hit is just kind of funny. Tom’s original is a lurching shitfit; the Ramones soup it up and drive it through some walls. The distance between what the Ramones wanted to do (have hits) and what they settled for (midwifing a mid-sized city’s worth of punk-rock weirdos) is a pain only they felt, and the disillusion Joey brings to the text is as touching as the song is defiant. —BRAD SHOUP
94. Son Volt, “Drown”
Fresh off Uncle Tupelo, Jay Farrar carries on his former band’s laid-back alt-country grooves and classic rock-tinged boogie on this debut single. However, the song’s economical, precise lyrics — which lament the dissolution of something priceless, while bucking up and moving on anyway — set the tone for Son Volt’s entire oeuvre to come. —ANNIE ZALESKI
93. Joan Osborne, “One of Us””
Every so often, the charts have to admit an overtly spiritual expression; in ’95, the task fell to Kentuckian vocalist Joan Osborne. Written by Eric Bazilian of the Hooters, “One of Us” beggared belief with Osborne’s cannily slack performance and Bazilian’s regal guitar line. Released in March, the combo of poignance and point-hammering sent the song cascading across radio formats until it hit #4 on the Hot 100 in February 1996, and while Osborne fell back into blues and soul – her original passions – evangelical youth pastors dined out on this song’s questions for years. —B.S.
92. Red House Painters, “Summer Dress”
Present-day Mark Kozelek catches flak for his behavior toward women, but in 1995, the lead Red House Painter addressed them with peak sensitivity. Against spare acoustic chords, Kozelek observed a “lovely” but perennially — and later, terminally — sad character (“Easiest days of her life have been spent / Wonders if she is loved, if she is missed”), who wanders into the sea, presumably to end her life (“Says a prayer as she’s kissed by ocean mist”). It’s a classic visual paradox: flawless beauty that brings the viewer rapture — and the joylessness within. —R.B.
91. Unwound, “Demolished”
The gloomy Pacific Northwesterners in Unwound had one of their earliest flashes of the tangled brilliance they’d come to typify with The Future of What’s most gnarled number, “Demolished.” Stringy riffs cobweb and coalesce as vocalist Justin Trosper sings dead-eyed vagaries about “something haunted,” “something missing.” To answer the LP title’s implied question, this was the future of downer rock to come. —C.J.
90. Rusted Root, “Send Me on My Way”
A still-unavoidable, feel-good hippie-rock jam about embarking on new adventures and journeys, hand-in-hand with a kindred soul. Accordingly, the Pittsburgh collective’s song contains melting-pot instrumentation and flourishes: a lilting penny whistle, African-inspired rhythms, cascading harmonies, and utterly gibberish lyrics. —A.Z.
89. Beastie Boys, “Root Down”
Typically pop-diverse Beastie shoutouts to Dick Hyman, The Meters, and the title-inspiring Jimmy Smith are upstaged on this thickest of the band’s ’70s grooves by MCA’s surprisingly touching big-up to his “dad and mom, for bringing me into this world, and so on.” —ANDREW UNTERBERGER
88. The Cranberries, “Ode to My Family”
The Cocteaus made dream-pop cool, but “Ode to My Family” is a reminder that the Cranberries made it huge. It’s a comparatively staid number by their cloud-grazing standards, but vocalist Dolores O’Riordan’s heady vocals still manage to send the track’s otherwise gentle lilt skyward — another opiated ballad, this time for the masses. —C.J.
87. Smoking Popes, “Need You Around”
The least famous band on the Clueless soundtrack had one of its best songs, with this relentlessly chugging riffer that was just as compellingly sweet-not-saccharine — if, perhaps, not quite as timeless — as its accompanying flick. —A.U.
86. Belly, “The Bees”
After 1993’s gold-selling, Grammy-nominated Star, the industry had high expectations for Belly’s follow-up — Tanya Donnelly and company landed a 4800-word Rolling Stone cover story; they placed songs on the soundtracks for Twister and Tank Girl. Unfortunately, King’s impact tracked with the latter’s. Still, it’s a great record, full of alt-rock dreaminess, for which the keening, paddling “The Bees” serves as an excellent midpoint. —B.S.
85. Deftones, “7 Words”
No band in the most dynamic-shift-obsessed decade — not Korn, not Slint — used the soft/loud dichotomy to such sizzling-fuse-on-a-stick-of-nitroglycerin effect as nü-metal’s airiest band did on their first-ever single. And just one year later, they up the ante of Pavement’s instantly classic “career”/”Korea” debate with an unintelligible “suck”/”f—k” filthy riddle of a chorus. —DAN WEISS
84. 311, “Don’t Stay Home”
The late-’90s spawned a curious crop of bands (usually hippie-minded, even if they were rap-rock) who could generate a cool riff or bass fill but somehow Frankensteined a godawful song onto the rest of it in most cases. 311 aren’t so bad when you take a razorblade and splice off a lot of the wack rhyming and awkward transitions, as the jaunty, melodic (read: rap-free) first single from their breakthrough album was a rare feat that the ultimate proto-bros completed in one piece. —D.W.
83. The Flaming Lips, “Bad Days”
“Bad Days” drops the curtain on 1995’s fuzz-pop masterpiece Clouds Taste Metallic: Wayne Coyne chirps two quick verses about wish-fulfillment, then holds an extended parade for the chorus (“And all your bad days will end/You have to sleep late when you can”), the low-end of which nicks a melody from Little Peggy March’s “I Will Follow Him.” Guitarchitect Ronald Jones called it a (hopefully good) day after this record, leaving Coyne free to reach for the planets. —B.S.
82. Red Hot Chili Peppers, “My Friends”
The only track off RHCP’s maligned One Hot Minute album to make it to the band’s greatest hits, “My Friends” isn’t anthemic enough to be a real successor to “Under the Bridge” or even “Soul to Squeeze,” but the endearing dippy sentiments (“I love all of you / Hurt by the cold”) made it iconic enough for ’95 to be included on ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic’s era-canonizing “Alternative Polka” a year later. —A.U.
81. Adam Ant, “Wonderful”
Adam Ant’s final U.S. hit was virtually unrecognizable as being from the same new wave rapscallion behind “Goody Two Shoes” and “Prince Charming,” but it was a tender ballad with one of the year’s most striking guitar licks and some of the most simply affecting lyrics (“Did I tell you I was OK? / Well no way”). Just as well — all Ant Boys have to become Ant Men at some point. —A.U.