1. They Might Be Giants, “Fingertips”
According to its liner notes, the sequencing of They Might Be Giants’ 1992 release Apollo 18 is “designed to complement the Shuffle Mode of modern CD players.” How so? Thanks to 21 tracks—ranging in length from four seconds to just over a minute long—placed at the end of the album, each shuffled spin of Apollo 18 would be different from the last. Regardless of whether listeners follow the duo’s instructions, “Fingertips”’ half-formed melodies, non sequiturs, philosophical pondering (“Who’s that standing out my window?” “Who’s knockin’ on the wall?” What’s the thing that made the sound that caused one section’s narrator to “turn around to find the thing that made the sound?”), and litany of musical styles nonetheless coalesce to create They Might Be Giants’ answer to the second side of Abbey Road or the Beastie Boys’ “B-Boy Bouillabaisse.” Rendered as a single four-minute, 33-second track on the 2002 anthology Dial-A-Song (and, reportedly, on incorrectly mastered foreign issues of Apollo 18), “Fingertips” stands not only as a lasting testament to the Johns’ [Linnell and Flansburgh] boundless creativity, but also as a broadcast from an act in transition. By the time it hit the road with a full band to support Apollo 18, They Might Be Giants was no longer just two smart-asses from Brooklyn committing every last musical idea—no matter how silly or tossed-off—to tape.
2. Sir Mix-A-Lot, “One Time’s Got No Case”
1992 was a big year for Seattle’s mackadocious independent pioneer Sir Mix-A-Lot thanks to the massive success of “Baby Got Back,” his timeless ode to the ineffable charm of an outsized female posterior, but his breakout hit pales in comparison to the song that should have launched Sir Mix-A-Lot's career: “One Time’s Got No Case.” The album’s first single offers a slyly subversive take on the anti-cop rhetoric that swept hip-hop around the time of the Rodney King riots by wryly chronicling how Sir Mix-A-Lot triumphs over racist cops intent on racially profiling him for being black, rich, and flashy by knowing his rights, making sure he has the right permit for the gun he keeps in his car, investing in a radar gun, and ultimately by having really good attorneys to represent him in court. As Mix-A-Lot boasts in the song, he fights with the mind rather than the gat, and that alone is enough to make “One Time’s Got No Case” unique in the overflowing annals of hip-hop songs about the wickedness of law enforcement.
3. Basehead, “Not Over You”
History has not been kind to Basehead. Hell, when it comes to Basehead, history has developed amnesia, but in 1992 Basehead’s mumbly, pot-and-patchouli-scented folk-rap made the group a critical darling and a cult hero. “Not Over You” should have made the group a hitmaker as well, but the song proved a hard sell even in a curious year where Arrested Development went quadruple platinum and scored a hit song about the homeless. On “Not Over You” Basehead frontman Michael Ivey claims not to be depressed about a recent breakup over moody acoustic guitar and subtle scratching but the funereal tone of his impeccably slurred lyrics betray profound romantic despair. Darkly funny and strangely moving, “Not Over You” unforgettably captures the foggy haze of boozy depression on a lyrical and sonic level.
4. Buffalo Tom, “Velvet Roof”
“Taillights Fade” was pushed as the potential hit from Buffalo Tom’s Let Me Come Over, but it was “Velvet Roof” that should’ve connected the Boston band with the world at large. It wasn’t to be, but the song brings together the best bits of ’90s alt-rock, for better or worse (mostly better).
5. Luna, “Slide”
Dean Wareham was still very much “Dean from Galaxie 500” when his next band, Luna, debuted. But Luna, which took his old band’s dreamy simplicity and added pop chops, eclipsed Galaxie 500 commercially (though never critically). Lunapark is full of fantastic, mellow moments, none more pleasant than “Slide.”
6. Sugar, “If I Can’t Change Your Mind”
Sugar’s debut album, Copper Blue, must’ve seemed like a brilliant move to Bob Mould, who formed the band after the dissolution of the critically adored Hüsker Dü. Without another chief songwriter to contend with, Mould was free to write bright and shiny (yet still biting) pop songs like “If I Can’t Change Your Mind.”
7. Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, “Intact”
Grunge didn’t just kill hair metal; it probably killed radio-friendly Brit bands like Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, who suddenly seemed a bit lightweight. It’s a shame, because the band’s not-too-popular second record, Are You Normal?, was smarter and deeper than its predecessor, 1991’s God Fodder. Normal’s closer, “Intact,” is no “Grey Cell Green,” but it’s got staying power.
8. Suede, “My Insatiable One”
Britain’s New Musical Express infamously declared Suede—or The London Suede, if you’re in America—the saviors of all music in 1992, before the band had even released a single, never mind an album. While that single, “The Drowners,” was an unstoppable glam-rock force that blew the band up, however briefly, it was actually the B-side, “My Insatiable One,” that stands the test of time, particularly the stripped-down piano version on the deluxe reissue of 1993’s Suede.
9. Jawbreaker, “Chesterfield King”
When “Chesterfield King” appeared on Jawbreaker’s EP of the same name in 1992, the band had yet to become legendary. But it was well on its way—and “Chesterfield King” had a lot to do with that. Owning the unexplored zone between post-hardcore and pop-punk (which the ’80s term “emo” was being revived to describe), the song is a literate, hook-filled, heart-heavy testament to unrequited love in which raspy leader Blake Schwarzenbach makes images of cigarettes, autumn, and clinging parkas far sexier than they’d ever been before.
10. NOFX, “Please Play This Song On The Radio”
In 1992, major labels were just starting to sniff around underground punk bands. Two years before punk’s big mainstream breakthrough, Green Day’s Dookie, the scene’s jesters-in-chief, NOFX, presciently poked fun at selling out with “Please Pay This Song On The Radio.” They did so by deftly, sneeringly parodying everything that makes a pop-punk song radio-friendly—that is, until they start dropping the FCC-baiting swear words.
11. Ride, “Twisterella”
Ride’s second album, Going Blank Again, is stocked with formidably epic shoegaze workouts. And then there’s “Twisterella.” The disc’s odd song out, it’s a short, bittersweet, jangly pop tune that recalls everything from The Smiths to Ride’s contemporary The Stone Roses. As anomalies go, it could have been annoying; instead, it gave breathing room to Ride’s more oppressively psychedelic vibe, while pointing toward the more classic, conventional songwriting the band was about to delve into.
12. Beat Happening, “Tiger Trap”
Although it helped inspire countless alternative bands of the ’90s—most famously Nirvana—Beat Happening found itself a bit out of step by the time 1992 rolled around. The band’s lo-fi, minimal, childlike darkness was both too simple and too subtle to break into the mainstream. Not that Beat Happening cared. The trio slipped quietly away with its ’92 swansong, You Turn Me On, an album that contained the surprisingly lush and haunting “Tiger Trap,” which resembles a sketch of Sonic Youth drawn in crayon.
13. Nation Of Ulysses, “N-Sub Ulysses”
One of the most vital and influential bands of the ’90s, Fugazi, didn’t release an album in 1992. But one of its understudies did. Nation Of Ulysses (which featured drummer James Canty, little brother of Fugazi’s Brendan Canty) unleashed Plays Pretty For Baby that year, and it took the angular D.C. post-hardcore of the time into new dimensions. “N-Sub Ulysses” is its lead track, and its anthem. After a clip of wild frontman Ian Svenonius delivering his beat-style poetry to an apparently confounded crowd, the song itself kicks in: three minutes of stinging dissonance, hormonal screams, and youth-culture revolution. Oh, and trumpets.
14. Jawbox, “Static”
Slightly older and definitely more controlled than Nation Of Ulysses, Jawbox was another heavy-hitter of the D.C. scene in 1992. Before being the first of its Dischord Records labelmates to jump to a major label, the group delivered a stunning sophomore album, Novelty, and a crushing track, “Static.” Atmospheric and abrasive at the same time, the song features singer-guitarist J. Robbins’ knack for bleak songcraft—and marks the last time the ambitious band would ever write anything so straightforward.
15. Rocket From The Crypt, “Sturdy Wrist”
Nation Of Ulysses wasn’t the only band using fake-out song intros—or horns—in 1992. Rocket From The Crypt had yet to become superheroes of the underground, but the group was doing a test run with “Sturdy Wrist,” a standout track from the album Circa: Now! Wielding the dumbest, punchiest, most infectious riff devised by man, “Sturdy Wrist” is a bloody-knuckled wallop of punky, party-ready fun—in an age when angst was the norm.
16. The Jesus Lizard, “Puss”
Later released as a split single with Nirvana, “Puss” by The Jesus Lizard first graced the group’s 1992 album Liar. (“Grace” being used extremely loosely.) Like a blues-rock band being fed through a meat grinder, “Puss” splatters shards of rhythm and gory bits of riffs all over the place. And glass-gargling mouthpiece David Yow doesn’t exactly help with the cleanup effort.
17. Neurosis, “Souls At Zero”
The American metal scene was not at a high point in 1992: Hair metal had been effectively flattened by grunge. Thrash had lost traction. Death metal was thriving, but still insular and completely underground. Along came Neurosis. Formerly a modest hardcore outfit from Oakland, the group reinvented itself with 1992’s epochal Souls At Zero, an album whose nine-minute title track alchemizes prog, crust, and metal in a way that countless bands would soon follow. And still do. Metal would never be the same.
18. The Wedding Present, “California”
In 1992, The Wedding Present released a single a month in the UK, later collected as the album Hit Parade, and while the quality of the songs dimmed a bit down the stretch, the first six singles were all stellar, and in particular June’s “California,” a bouncy, rattling piece of guitar-pop that imagines how much happier the singer and his anxious lover might be if they were to pick up and fly west. Tuneful, tender, and more than a little uncertain, “California” is one of the sweetest songs in the whole Wedding Present discography.
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19. Material Issue, “What Girls Want”
Power-pop bands have been a tough sell in the U.S., so it shouldn’t be that big of a surprise that Material Issue couldn’t draw flies in its too-brief existence, in spite of recording some of the catchiest songs of its era. One of the band’s biggest semi-hits was “What Girls Want,” a brash anthem in which frontman Jim Ellison relates a conversation with a young lady who insists that she wants “a man with lips just like Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart’s hair, and Keith Richards’ stagger.” True story or not, the song speaks to the sex- and glam-appeal of the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle, and does so via music with its own strong rock-appeal.
20. Five-Eight, “The Ape”
Athens, Georgia power-trio Five-Eight were misfits from the start, playing loud and fast like a punk band, but with musical influences more in line with meat-and-potatoes rock; and with lyrics that invited listeners into frontman Mike Mantione’s unsettled mind. “The Ape,” from Five-Eight’s debut I Learned Shut Up, is one of the band’s signature songs: a jittery, frenzied rocker about the animalistic traits that lurk just below the surface of man, when he’s at a shopping mall, or at work, or has his arms around his best gal.
21. The Jody Grind, “Rickie”
Just before The Jody Grind’s second album Lefty’s Deceiver came out, half of the band was killed in a traffic accident, and so a group that by all rights should’ve become alt-rock superstars—fusing jazz, country, and retro-pop—faded into obscurity, with only frontwoman Kelly Hogan having much long-term success. For an example of what made The Jody Grind special, listen to “Rickie,” a snappy-but-desperate lovelorn plea, energized by the tight rhythmic interplay, Bill Taft’s string-bending guitar runs, and Hogan’s brassy, expressive voice.
22. Red House Painters, “Medicine Bottle”
Mark Kozelek launched Red House Painters with a bold statement: the 40-minute, six-song EP Down Colorful Hill, a sprawling, moody record full of spellbinders like “Medicine Bottle,” which tells a winding story of intense loneliness, over a relatively swift martial beat and electric guitars that spring and scrape. Later RHP albums (and other Kozelek projects, like Sun Kil Moon) followed this model, though Kozelek’s voice deepened as his pace slackened. Here he sounds so young, and a little breathless as he cycles through the memories that connect him to the person he’s missing.
23. K.D. Lang, “Miss Chatelaine”
With 1992’s Ingénue, k.d. lang found mainstream success by turning away from her previously country-heavy sensibilities. Though the whole record was a play on gender norms and lang’s own butch appearance, “Miss Chatelaine” took the concept to the next level, with romantic salsa beats and an accompanying Lawrence Welk-style video showing the singer sporting a full bouffant and acres of chiffon. Though it wasn’t the record’s biggest hit—that nod goes to “Constant Craving”—it’s a swinger all the same.
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24. XTC, “The Ballad Of Peter Pumpkinhead”
Though XTC may have ruled college radio, it never really ruled the mainstream airwaves. Its 1992 record, Nonsuch, barely eked into the top 100 on the Billboard charts and produced three singles, only one of which—“The Ballad Of Peter Pumpkinhead”—did much of anything. That song—about a man who, after “spreading wisdom and cash around” finds himself crucified by government figures—went to No. 1 on the Modern Rock charts and yielded a video that did relatively okay on MTV. Twenty years later, though, neither XTC nor “The Ballad Of Peter Pumpkinhead” have managed to reap the acclaim they deserve, and the single remains woefully absent from flashback playlists at even the most progressive alt-rock stations.
25. The Vaselines, “Son Of A Gun”
Originally released as part of a 1987 EP that few people (other than Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain) discovered, The Vaseline’s “Son Of A Gun” was reissued in 1992 by Sub Pop as part of a compilation, The Way Of The Vaselines: A Complete History. Unfortunately, the band had broken up by then, so any kind of promotion was fleeting at best, and the record slipped into the hearts and shelves of only the most hardcore record nerds until the late ’00s, when the band re-formed and released a remarkably solid new record, Enter The Vaselines. Still, nothing’s as good as the band’s old material, and “Son Of A Gun” shines brightly, with Frances McKee’s angelic vocals standing their own in direct opposition to Eugene Kelly’s baritone and Charlie Kelly’s drumming.
26. Los Lobos, “Kiko And The Lavender Moon”
Though it made its mark in mainstream consciousness with a throwaway 1987 cover of “La Bamba” for the film of the same name, Los Lobos has had a long-standing history of making excellent records, the best of which is arguably 1992’s Kiko. Simultaneously eerie and upbeat, the record is an experimental and creative blend of Chicano music, roots rock, and psychedelic sounds. “Kiko And The Lavender Moon” sums up the whole record in one slow, deliberate earworm of a song.
27. The Magnetic Fields, “Lovers From The Moon”
The Wayward Bus was just the second record from The Magnetic Fields, but it was the last to feature vocalist Susan Anway. That’s a shame, considering it’s her ethereal pipes that make tracks like “Lovers From The Moon” so damn heartbreaking.
28. The Afghan Whigs, “Conjure Me”
Afghan Whigs frontman Greg Dulli doesn’t hesitate to admit that at least one of the reasons the band was signed by Elektra in 1993 was because its road to success had already been partially paved by Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but more than a little bit of credit should go to “Conjure Me,” the centerpiece of the Whigs’ 1992 album, Congregation. Between the whirlwind of wah-wah in the verses of the song, Dulli howling his way through the choruses, and the unexpected appearance of a piano for the finale, “Conjure Me” remains the defining moment of the band’s early career, heralding its readiness to take its music to the next level.
29. Mary Chapin Carpenter, “The Hard Way”
Fans of Lucinda Williams were more than a little grouchy when major-label country queen Mary Chapin Carpenter took the indie-folk singer’s instant classic, “Passionate Kisses,” and turned it into the hit single Williams herself couldn’t manage, but there was far more in Carpenter’s bag of tricks than the ability to cover other people’s material. “The Hard Way,” written by Carpenter, is a sparkly, jangly number detailing how the best things in life don’t always come easy. Although the song never cracked the top 10 of the Billboard Country Singles chart, it nonetheless became an instant anthem for female country singers.
30. Ramones, “Poison Heart”
Although the Ramones were one of the defining artists of the New York punk scene of the ’70s, the band quickly—and not entirely inaccurately—developed a reputation for releasing new albums that often sounded almost exactly like every other album that had preceded them. Fortunately, however, each of these albums inevitably offered at least one radio single worthy of repeat spins. Although Dee Dee Ramone had left the lineup by the time 1992’s Mondo Bizarro was being recorded, he nonetheless contributed a few songs to the effort, and while “Poison Heart” may be little more than a rewrite of 1989’’s “Pet Sematary,” it’s still got a hook that sticks.
31. Catherine Wheel, “I Want To Touch You”
While often lumped into the UK’s shoegaze scene thanks to its debut single, “Black Metallic,” Catherine Wheel ultimately offered a far more potent sound than bands like Slowdive and Chapterhouse, managing to produce hypnotic songs without sacrificing glossy production. Bringing in noted Talk Talk producer Tim Friese-Greene to twiddle the knobs on its debut album, Ferment, Catherine Wheel made the biggest impact with “I Want to Touch You,” which takes frontman Rob Dickinson’s vocals and melds them with the music in such a fashion that it’s less a love song than a lust song.
32. The Cure, “Doing The Unstuck”
There’s something a little unlikely about Robert Smith’s unabashed giddiness on Wish’s biggest hit single, “Friday I’m In Love,” but given his long history of doom and gloom, it’s even more inconceivable that he should be caught singing the line, “Let’s get happy,” on another track, let alone adding “it’s a perfect day… to burst, grin, giggle, bliss, skip, jump, and sing and shout.” In spite of these lyrics, however, the downbeat chords of “Doing The Unstuck” result in a song that sounds just as melancholy as the best Cure tracks, making it the perfect anthem for the goth who’s actually in a good mood, but doesn’t want to admit it.
33. The Flaming Lips, “Halloween On The Barbary Coast”
With Hit To Death In The Future Head, The Flaming Lips made its major-label debut, hitting the halfway point between the acid-rock freakouts of the band’s early years and the more radio-friendly acid-rock freakouts to come. That amalgamation of avant-garde and accessible was never more perfectly balanced than on this, its final album with Mercury Rev leader Jonathan Donahue, and the last before “She Don’t Use Jelly” pushed the band fully into candy-colored college rock. Midpoint track “Halloween On The Barbary Coast” similarly straddles the best of both of those worlds, conjuring trippy images of “clowns” and “retards” over a propulsive, rolling drumbeat that explodes into the sort of epic choruses that became the Lips’ forte.
34. The Jesus And Mary Chain, “Reverence”
One of the darkest, grimiest tracks in The Jesus And Mary Chain’s arsenal, “Reverence” got itself banned from Top Of The Pops and BBC Radio for its infamous “I wanna die just like Jesus Christ / I wanna die just like JFK” lyrics. That notoriety no doubt helped launch the lead track from 1992’s Honey’s Dead to near the top of the UK charts—to say nothing of endearing it to an entirely new generation of goth kids. Its supposed offensiveness seems tame now—it’s safe to say the country has finally healed from the pain of the Kennedy assassination—but the song’s hissing, churning vitriol remains blackly potent.
35. Sonic Youth, “100%”
That a song built on piles of staticky feedback and laden with obscure lyrical reference to a murdered punk-rock roadie could ever be considered a “single” only reveals what a difficult time DGC Records must have had selling Sonic Youth, a cool-conferring, cred-building acquisition that frustratingly insisted on sounding exactly like Sonic Youth. Still, on the band’s own terms, Dirty’s “100%” was practically “My Sharona”: It’s one of the group’s most instantly arresting songs, with huge, ominous fuzz-bass chords swimming underneath Thurston Moore’s sinister yowl like a noise-rock version of John Williams’ Jaws theme before finally breaking the surface on a fists-up stop-start chorus. The video came stuffed full of ’90s “alternative” imagery (Skateboards! Flannels! Jason Lee!), but “100%” was still a far cry from the yarl-ing rock cuts it shared MTV space with, making it a truly alternative gem in an era where that term was so constantly abused.