Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Graphic: Nicole Antonuccio

Aphex Twin, Curve, and Jawbreaker had the best-kept secret hits of 1992

Off The ChartsTo commemorate 60 years of the Billboard Hot 100, Off The Charts revisits each year since it was established to spotlight songs and artists that didn’t make the cut, yet still made a significant impact.

The year: 1992

Billboard Hot 100’s Top 20 Songs Of 1992

1. Boyz II Men, “End Of The Road”
2. Sir Mix-A-Lot, “Baby Got Back”
3. Kriss Kross, “Jump”
4. Vanessa Williams, “Save The Best For Last”
5. TLC, “Baby-Baby-Baby”
6. Eric Clapton, “Tears In Heaven”
7. En Vogue, “My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It)”
8. Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Under The Bridge”
9. Color Me Badd, “All 4 Love”
10. Jon Secada, “Just Another Day”
11. Shanice, “I Love Your Smile”
12. Mr. Big, “To Be With You”
13. Right Said Fred, “I’m Too Sexy”
14. Michael Jackson, “Black Or White”
15. Billy Ray Cyrus, “Achy Breaky Heart”
16. Mariah Carey, “I’ll Be There”
17. Guns N’ Roses, “November Rain”
18. Tom Cochrane, “Life Is A Highway”
19. Michael Jackson, “Remember The Time”
20. CeCe Peniston, “Finally”

Any retrospective written about the music of 1992 will inevitably begin with one thing: Nirvana’s Nevermind taking Billboard’s No. 1 spot that very first week of January, where it triumphed over ostensible lifers like U2 and Garth Brooks, and knocked Michael Jackson’s Dangerous all the way down to fifth place. You couldn’t ask for greater symbolism than the torchbearer of the grunge/alternative/whatever movement toppling the King Of Pop, one of those seismic events that, looking back, so clearly signifies the end of one era and the beginning of another. Nothing would ever be the same again, soothsaying critics and VH1 narrators confidently proclaimed.

The actual 1992 charts, on the other hand, tell a different story. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” may have been a culture-upheaving moment, but—while both it and Nevermind hung around the Hot 100 for many months to follow—in the end, it was still only the 32nd most-popular song of the year, finishing well behind the likes of Color Me Badd, Billy Ray Cyrus, and Right Said Fred. When it comes to best-selling albums, those burgeoning grunge and “alternative” explosions are a little more evident: Alice In Chains, Stone Temple Pilots, Mudhoney, Sonic Youth, Rage Against The Machine, Helmet, Faith No More, and Ministry all managed to chart in ’92, alongside slightly more pop-friendly plays on the genre by The Lemonheads, Gin Blossoms, and Soul Asylum. And look at that, even Red Hot Chili Peppers scored a Top 10 hit. But for the most part, the listeners of 1992 by and large still loved novelty hits, weepy soft-rock ballads, middle-school slow jams, and paeans to butts.

Those 20 singles also don’t reflect the surge of West Coast, G-funk hip-hop rattling the trunks of every L.A. lowrider and suburban Nissan Sentra that year and into the next—perhaps because Dr. Dre’s genre-defining The Chronic didn’t drop until December, even though both it and Ice Cube’s The Predator still managed to top the charts. Ditto the rise of the more conscious hip-hop seen as the rejoinder to gangsta rap’s aggression—although Arrested Development had two Hot 100 hits just outside this—or the genre-blurring landmark that was Beastie Boys’ Check Your Head. Sensual and straight-up sex-obsessed R&B absolutely ruled that year, with TLC, En Vogue, Bobby Brown, Boyz II Men, Vanessa Williams, CeCe Peniston, Mariah Carey, Jodeci, Sophie B. Hawkins, and Mary J. Blige all dominating with their odes to love and/or humpin’. But rap was still being repped by pop novelties like Sir Mix-A-Lot, Kriss Kross, and MC Hammer’s Addams Family songs.

As always, you have to look beyond the charts to see what was really happening in 1992—to the storm of shoegaze groups dominating the U.K.; to the pop-punk bands like Green Day, Rancid, The Offspring, and No Doubt all releasing albums on the precipice of breaking out; to the bubbling underground hip-hop scenes of New York, Houston, and Atlanta; to the “alt-country” songwriters making their own incursions against the George Strait-Garth Brooks hegemony; to the debut of Pavement and all the other indie-rock weirdos who didn’t fit into the Seattle box. It’s not as neat and tidy a narrative as “The Year Grunge (Or Whatever) Broke,” but it’s a much more interesting story. Here are some of the highlights.

Aphex Twin, “Green Calx” (February 1992)

The centerpiece of Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works 85-92, “Green Calx” may not impress anyone who’s grown up with ready access to Ableton plugins. But the song—like the rest of Richard D. James’ watershed collection of acid-corroded, digital instrumentals—remains a defining moment in the evolutions of ambient, techno, and what would soon come to be called IDM. Across six minutes of synth squelches, frizzy beats, and RoboCop samples, James crafts a form of electronic music so completely forward-looking as to bifurcate the genre into “before” and “after”—and he did it all on old-fashioned analog equipment, pieced together from his own homegrown wizardry. It’s heady yet playful, alien yet alluring, and a song that set a bar everyone’s still trying to clear, even with far more sophisticated tech at their disposal. [Sean O’Neal]

PJ Harvey, “Sheela-Na-Gig” (February 1992)

When PJ Harvey debuted in 1992 with the ferocious Dry, she stood out as a provocative voice separate from any established rock scene, including the kindred riot grrrl movement. And together with ’93’s Rid Of Me, the album earned her major critical success, launching her long career. From start to finish, Dry makes a mockery of the gendered conventions women face, in the case of “Sheela-Na-Gig” by Harvey likening herself to the yonic Celtic figures of old—the female body becomes a dare that makes a coward of the man who spurns it. Sonically, the song exemplifies Harvey’s early barebones aesthetic, and her skill in writing irresistibly raw, impassioned hooks and scorched, bluesy riffs. [Kelsey J. Waite]

The Jesus And Mary Chain, “Reverence” (February 1992)

It seems silly now that a lyric like, “I want to die just like Jesus Christ”—to say nothing of “I want to die just like JFK”—could stir enough controversy to get The Jesus And Mary Chain banned from Top Of The Pops, but such was the minor scandal that greeted this lead single from the noise-poppers’ 1992 album Honey’s Dead. Even without those evangelist/Jackie Onassis-offending sentiments, “Reverence” is plenty, deliciously nasty, with Jim Reid seething laconically over a swarming hive of feedbacking guitars and some baggy dance beats. The song instantly propelled the somewhat-stagnant JAMC headlong into the 1990s, replacing the blissfully stoned smears of its earlier albums with something far spikier and downright nihilistic. “Reverence” managed to become a Top 10 single in the U.K. despite (or because) of its notoriety, but the U.S. didn’t bite; now that we’ve had some proper distance from the deaths of both JFK and Jesus, maybe we finally can. [Sean O’Neal]

Curve, “Doppelgänger” (March 1992)

Curve’s 1992 debut, Doppelgänger, is essential listening for devotees of the shoegaze movement that was exploding out of the band’s native England at the time. Propelled by swirling, My Bloody Valentine-esque guitars, mechanical percussion, and Toni Halliday’s breathy vocals, the title track nicely captures Curve’s dense majesty—impressively layered, highly melodic, and a little inscrutable. Curve received a fair amount of airplay on MTV’s 120 Minutes thanks to Doppelgänger, yet the band never quite broke through in the U.S. the way some of its contemporaries did. Twenty-five years later, that still feels like a missed opportunity. [Kyle Ryan]

The Breeders, “Safari” (April 1992)

The four-song Safari EP catches The Breeders in transition, between their acclaimed (but non-charting) 1990 debut, Pod, and what would become their most commercially successful album, 1993’s Last Splash. It’s the only recording to feature incoming guitarist Kelley Deal as well as outgoing guitarist Tanya Donnelly, the Throwing Muses singer who founded The Breeders with Pixies bassist Kim Deal in ’89. But while it also features an early version of Last Splash stunner “Do You Love Me Now,” it’s the EP’s title track that goes down as one of the group’s best—a Pixies-ish, loud-quiet rocker that moves masterfully from charging heavy-metal riff to dance-rock rhythm, and features stellar vocals from Kim Deal. [Kelsey J. Waite]

Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, “Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry” (April 1992)

Kicking off their stellar 1992 album Henry’s Dream with a jolt of pitch-black energy, “Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry” ranks among Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds’ most viscerally evocative tales—which is really saying something. Cave paints a picture of a father separated from his son while traveling through the floods, brothels, and utter pandemonium of a riotous, nigh-apocalyptic world. It’s dark, wordy, and full of strange, bloody imagery, and Cave doesn’t so much sing as sneer through gritted teeth, his pace quickening into a feverish rant as the scene he’s setting devolves into violent anarchy, The Seeds singing along like drunken barflies in a turn-of-the-century pub. All the while, the song’s titular refrain—the mantra keeping this father going “on down the road”—provides the tender heart underneath all the gore and terror. [Matt Gerardi]

Pavement, “Here” (April 1992)

The Pavement discography is filled with great opening lines. Take the winking Vanilla Ice allusion that kicks off “Summer Babe,” the 1991 single that later became the opening track of Slanted And Enchanted. The kickoff to “Here captures the band’s marriage of slack posturing and artistic ambitions”—“I was dressed for success / But success, it never comes”—its sincerity and measured expectations marking a break from the rest of the album’s guitar squalls, antic drum fills, and jokey Fall-isms. Crank up the overdrive or emphasize the “suck” in “success” and the song gains a little muscle, but there’s just no masking the tenderness of the lyric sheet. By the time “everything’s ending here” was marking the occasion of the band’s breakup, it had rediscovered the power of its quiet side. [Erik Adams]

Basehead, “2000 BC” (June 1992)

Today, the notion of a bedroom hip-hop head rifling through old samples and releasing a bleary, dreamy treatise on drugs and the artistic impulse sounds like the type of thing we’d give a B+ to every other week. But in 1992, it was a deeply quiet revolution, beloved by critics for fusing the underground sensibilities of the Native Tongues with a casual attitude toward singing, rapping, play-acting, and mumbling. Opening track “2000 BC” is about as lively as things get, with singer and mastermind Michael Ivey etching an easy melody over turntable scratches and a loping live-jazz groove, losing himself in the echoes. [Clayton Purdom]

Manic Street Preachers, “Motorcycle Emptiness” (June 1992)

“Culture sucks down words.” Marrying James Dean Bradfield’s ferocious guitar and impassioned vocals to ambitious anti-lyrics by band members Richey Edwards and Nicky Wire, Manic Street Preachers’ anthem of late-capitalist existential despair is one of the great overlooked rock singles of its time—and a terrific example of the Welsh band’s bleak, politicized take on glam-influenced Britpop. It isn’t just that Edwards and Wire’s decadent words don’t rhyme; written out, they don’t look like they can even be sung (“Life lies a slow suicide / Orthodox dreams and symbolic myths”). But this true group effort twists its idiosyncratic references—over a riff that was apparently inspired by ABBA’s “Dancing Queen”—into an unlikely melody that still sounds sweeping, audacious, and unstoppable. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

Unrest, “Isabel” (July 1992)

Unrest was a sort of anarchic project for the first few years of its existence, but it hit an incredible (and brief) peak in the early 1990s, the zenith of which is 1992’s Imperial f.f.r.r. Spoken of in hushed tones by record nerds, Unrest was the brainchild of another record nerd: Singer-guitarist Mark Robinson worshipped Factory Records as well as his regional neighbors at Dischord Records, the former for its sound and the latter for its DIY ethics. His band’s sound hewed more toward Factory’s Manchester gloom, but there’s still something distinctly American about the melancholy, distant sound of “Isabel,” a gorgeously sincere tribute to the painter Isabel Bishop. [Josh Modell]

The Flaming Lips, “Halloween On The Barbary Coast” (August 1992)

The Flaming Lips cranked out albums at an ambitious clip throughout the ’90s, producing songs based in solid pop laced with heady doses of psychedelic weirdness that would reach its most commercial refinement on the trippy, gorgeous The Soft Bulletin. “Halloween On The Barbary Coast,” from The Lips’ major-label debut, Hit To Death In The Future Head, neatly straddled the divide between the band’s noisier leanings and where it was going. It’s a near-six-minute epic that turns its humble origins—as leader Wayne Coyne explained, its title was from an insult lobbed at the grimy, black-clad band members at Vegas casino Barbary Coast—into a surreal, cacophonous symphony, building to the kind of epic chorus that would become The Lips’ stock-in-trade. The phrase “shit for brains” has never sounded lovelier. [Gwen Ihnat]

Uncle Tupelo, “Criminals” (August 1992)

Uncle Tupelo singer-guitarist Jay Farrar has such a folky, unassuming voice that it’s easy to miss the bile in his words. On the band’s stripped-down, acoustic third album, March 16-20, 1992, his intent was harder to overlook. “Criminals” turns then-president George H.W. Bush’s much-mocked promise of a “kinder, gentler nation” into a bitter indictment of a system that not only fails its citizens, but also presumes the worst about them: “We’re all criminals waiting to be called,” Farrar sings. Peter Buck’s production doesn’t adorn Farrar or his 12-string guitar with any sheen—it’s just the singer, his voice, and his guitar. Uncle Tupelo had a predilection for folk protest songs of yore, but “Criminals” made them sound current. All that was missing was a “This Machine Kills Fascists” sticker. [Kyle Ryan]

Lucinda Williams, “Sweet Old World” (August 1992)

By the early ’90s, Lucinda Williams had established a following, but she was still more of critical darling than a commercial success, a songwriter’s songwriter quietly crafting some of modern folk and alt-country’s most audacious, emotionally direct tunes. “Sweet Old World,” from the 1992 album of the same name, is one of her most enduring songs, a tender elegy listing the many small but invaluable pleasures—“the sound of a midnight train, wearing someone’s ring”—left behind after someone takes their own life. In ’93, Mary Chapin-Carpenter would take Williams’ 1988 song “Passionate Kisses” to the Hot 100 (and earn a Grammy for Best Country Song), but it’d still be another five long years until Williams hit the charts herself. [Kelsey J. Waite]

Diamond D, “Best Kept Secret” (September 1992)

Certain people on The A.V. Club staff solemnly believe half this list could’ve been given over to the ungodly surplus of great rap music that erupted from New York City in 1992. There were no less than three great albums we could’ve included from Diamond D’s D.I.T.C. crew alone, with Showbiz & A.G.’s unimpeachable Runaway Slave and Lord Finesse’s Return Of The Funky Technician both marking front-to-back successes from the crew. But Diamond D’s Stunts, Blunts And Hip Hop is one of the most impressive stretches of production and emceeing in the era—all handled by the Bronx native—and “Best Kept Secret” is his mission statement, a claim that he could do it all without breaking a sweat. The album’s since found a home in underground hip-hop history, but it still flies under the radar—a secret too good to share. [Clayton Purdom]

Suede, “Metal Mickey” (September 1992)

Melody Maker dubbed Suede “The Best New Band In Britain” before it had released its first single, a preview of the outrageous puffery—and inevitable deflation—that would define the Britpop movement it helped to kickstart. But by the time the breakthrough “Metal Mickey” rolled out from Suede’s self-titled album, it was easy to believe the hype. The song is a sleazy, glam-rock stormer, with Brett Anderson’s knife-edge keen cutting through some perfectly lovely, Marc Bolan-esque nonsense about a girl who “sells heart / She sells meat” while the people in the city “shake their money in time,” all as guitarist Bernard Butler tries to top his bandmate/rival with endlessly escalating swirls of distortion. Suede arguably has better songs (“Animal Nitrate,” “The Drowners,” and “So Young” all rate highly), but “Metal Mickey” marked the first, swaggering volley of a new British Invasion. [Sean O’Neal]

Sugar, “If I Can’t Change Your Mind” (September 1992)

Sugar’s classic 1992 debut, Copper Blue, found leader Bob Mould continuing to build on the guitar-rock sound he pioneered in Hüsker Dü. Typically that found him mixing big, loud guitars with highly melodic hooks, yet “If I Can’t Change Your Mind” is just a straight-up pop song. How poppy? Train (badly) covered it. With its sweet, but not saccharine, entreaties over jangly guitar chords, it surely appeared on countless mixtapes in the ’90s. And although the front-to-back great Copper Blue has many more rocking songs (check out “Helpless,” “The Act We Act,” “Changes”), “If I Can’t Change Your Mind” remains its biggest crowd-pleaser. [Kyle Ryan]

Jawbreaker, “Chesterfield King” (October 1992)

A fan-favorite song on a non-fan-favorite album, “Chesterfield King” stuck out on 1992’s brooding, abrasive (and fantastic) Bivouac with its poppy love story: Two people share a tentative attraction, but neither makes a move. It ends with awkwardness and frustration, until the hooky chorus kicks in: “I took my car and drove it down / The hill by your house / I drove so fast / The wind, it couldn’t cool me down / So I turned it around and came back up / You were waiting on your step / Steam showing off your breath / And water in your eyes / We pulled each other into one / Parkas clinging on the lawn / And kissed right there.” Tuneful and sweet, “Chesterfield King” isn’t terribly representative of Bivouac, but it remains one of Jawbreaker’s most beloved songs. [Kyle Ryan]

Leonard Cohen, “Anthem” (November 1992)

Leonard Cohen wrote a number of poignant lines in his time, but few have reverberated—or become such a perennially reassuring aphorism—like these from 1992’s “Anthem”: “Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack, a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.” The song, a standout from Cohen’s wryly apocalyptic The Future, has offered hope to the hopeless ever since it debuted, a reminder that life and all the flimsy constructions that appear to bind it are illusory and inherently flawed, but also that confronting their brokenness is the first step toward allowing some light into the darkness. Delivered in Cohen’s bruised burr over a gospel choir, “Anthem” has the ring of godly wisdom. [Sean O’Neal]

Ween, “Push Th’ Little Daisies” (November 1992)

Who would have guessed that the goofy duo behind this ’shroom-inspired novelty song would become—after lots of time and tribulation—a festival headliner with a rabid, Dead-like fanbase? (Certainly not Butt-Head, who flatly stated, “These guys got no future.”) But there’s something undeniable about the madness of “Push Th’ Little Daisies,” with its roots in alternative-nation open-mindedness, pop subversion, and lots of drugs. It’s crazy catchy, too, even as it’s deliberately annoying. It would be Ween’s first (and really only) “hit,” relatively speaking, but it would launch a lasting career, without which the world would be a much more boring place. [Josh Modell]

UGK, “Pocket Full Of Stones” (November 1992)

UGK’s debut LP Too Hard To Swallow is a stone-cold Southern hip-hop classic, an album that, despite sounding almost minimalistic and terse compared to the duo’s later albums, laid the trunk-rattling baseline that Houston rap would later follow. “Pocket Full Of Stones” perfectly splits the duo’s extremely 1992 New York influences—all Primo horn blasts and scratches—with Houston’s uniquely automotive audio needs. It’s ride-around music crystallized, in other words, with Pimp C and Bun B slinging drug-dealing stories with an easy charisma that’d come to define the UGK appeal on their later (and much better-selling) efforts. They were only teenagers when they recorded “Pocket Full Of Stones,” yet fully formed as emcees, with Bun B booming cleanly over the low-riding beat and Pimp C cutting a burly path through it. If it sounds like the beginning of a movement, that’s because it was. [Clayton Purdom]

Check out the full playlist on The A.V. Club’s new Spotify account:


Babes In Toyland, “Bruise Violet
Gallon Drunk, “Some Fool’s Mess
The Jesus Lizard, “Puss
King Missile, “Martin Scorsese
Kyuss, “Freedom Run
The Mummies, “The Ballad Of Iron Eyes Cody
The Orb, “Blue Room
Ride, “Leave Them All Behind
Showbiz & A.G., “Represent
Superchunk, “On The Mouth

Share This Story

Get our newsletter