Elliott Smith was still several years out from performing “Miss Misery” for an Oscars audience of millions, but 1995 was still big for him. That was when the darling of the Pacific Northwest indie scene put Heatmiser behind him and really came into his own as a solo artist, making the leap to Kill Rock Stars for his self-titled second album. That record cemented Smith’s aura of drug-addled depression, a beautifully somber tone set by opener “Needle In The Hay.” With nothing but a bare-bones acoustic strum for accompaniment, Smith observes an unhappy couple on their way to score before transmuting the tale into the first person, stripping the rock ’n’ roll swagger from drug anthems like the Velvets’ “I’m Waiting For My Man” to reveal the vulnerability and constant need that define an addict’s daily routine. [Katie Rife]

Team Dresch, “Fagetarian And Dyke” (January 1995)

While riot grrrl was already dismantling and reshaping itself by 1995, one of the queer-core acts most indelibly associated with that movement, Team Dresch, was just coming into its own. The group’s debut, Personal Best was a lo-fi punk manifesto that fused the personal and political in a heady stew of emotional agitprop, one that stands alongside the best of its contemporaries. Even in an era of rapidly evolving musical styles, Team Dresch stood out for having some of the more ambitious songwriting of the Pacific Northwest scene, and “Fagetarian & Dyke” is one of the better exemplars. With Melissa York’s drumming volleying from four-on-the-floor stomps into half-time, almost jazzy breakdowns under screamed refrains and wailing riffs, all the noise is balanced by singer Kaia Wilson’s artful melodicism, not to mention some damn good lyrics (“I spent the last 10 days of my life ripping off The Smiths,” indeed). There was additional magic to come on the following year’s more consistent Captain, My Captain, but the group’s passion and fury never burned as white-hot as this. [Alex McLevy]

Massive Attack, “Radiation Ruling The Nation” (February 1995)

Rob Gordon, John Cusack’s record store snob in High Fidelity, names this song as one of his all-time “top five side-ones, track-ones,” earning the mockery of Jack Black’s character for attempting to confer “new classic status” on his token new, left-field nominee. But fuck that, because Rob’s right. The opening of No Protection—a transformative remix of Massive Attack’s 1994 album Protection undertaken by dub producer Mad Professor—instantly changes a room, its liquid echoes of warm keyboard tones, stuttered snare hits, and near-subliminal bass throbs flowing dreamily into the atmosphere while Everything But The Girl singer Tracey Thorn’s chopped and reverberated voice peeks in and out of the haze. While the whole album is a fascinating experiment in reinvention, one that briefly made the “dub remix” seem more vital than it actually ended up, “Radiation Ruling The Nation” by itself is an absolute essential, more than worthy of its place on fictional characters’ best-of lists, as well as your own. [Sean O’Neal]

You can listen to The A.V. Club’s selections for 1995’s Off The Charts, and lots more, on our Spotify playlist.

Wax, “California” (February 1995)

One of those common instances where a music video overshadowed its song, “California” caused a stir in 1995 after its Spike Jonze-directed video—one of several he shot for L.A. pop-punk band Wax—debuted on, then was banned by, MTV. Still dealing with the Beavis And Butt-head “fire!” controversy, the network eventually pulled Jonze’s slow-motion video of a man engulfed in flames from its daytime rotation. (It all finally came full circle when “California” was watched by Beavis And Butt-head themselves.) The clip and the attention it garnered gave Jonze’s career a boost, but it did little for Wax: “California” made a minor dent on the modern rock charts, but the band broke up that same year. That’s a shame, because Wax’s two albums boast catchy pop punk that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but also wasn’t as trite or meat-headed as many of its So Cal peers. “California” should’ve been the beginning for Wax, not the end. [Kyle Ryan]

Archers Of Loaf, “Harnessed In Slums” (March 1995)

“Web In Front” from 1993’s Icky Mettle may have been the first blast from one of the more influential indie bands of the ’90s, but “Harnessed In Slums” was the moment Archers Of Loaf proved its stellar debut was no fluke. The jangly, minor-key guitar riff; the growling, raspy vocals of Eric Bachmann; the frantic and bouncy bass—all the hallmarks of an Archers anthem are here, pressed into service of one of the catchiest songs the group ever concocted. The album Vee Vee as a whole was already starting to move toward the kind of quieter, more experimental sounds the band increasingly embraced, but “Harnessed” is a full-throated rock assault of guitars, wit, and passion. [Alex McLevy]

Guided By Voices, “Game Of Pricks” (April 1995)

Guided By Voices broke through nationally with Bee Thousand in 1994, prompting Matador Records to give the Dayton, Ohio group an advance of nearly $100,000 to record its next album. The band turned around and spent that on beer, which was used to fuel the recording of another dusty collection of lo-fi nuggets called Alien Lanes. As always, the imperfection is part of the charm, with bandleader Robert Pollard tweaking his pure pop earworms just a hair sideways—like a house built at an angle, where the cabinet doors won’t close all the way. “Game Of Pricks” is just one of several short, punchy classics on Alien Lanes, as blunt in its raucous hookiness as it is cryptic in its lyrics. As Pollard describes it, the “Game” is those little deflating pricks of distrust you feel when you think someone you love is betraying you, until the almost zenlike realization “You could never be strong / You can only be free.” So fuck it, let’s party. [Katie Rife]

Pulp, “Common People” (May 1995)

Pulp’s 1995 album, Different Class, was its fifth studio album and its biggest commercial success, with single “Common People” rocketing to No. 2 in the U.K. It never climbed U.S. charts, perhaps because a mid-’90s anthem for the lower classes didn’t fit neatly within the American dream, which is founded on the belief that with enough hard work, wealth and capital are achievable ideals. Or maybe it’s just because the U.S. wasn’t ready for the self-appointed sex-god swagger of Jarvis Cocker sniffing and growling about ordinary people. “Common People”’s galvanizing melody belies deep cynicism and ragged distrust of the wealthy middle class, with a jeering chorus that issues a challenge to the upper crust: “You’ll never fail like common people / You’ll never watch your life slide out of view / And dance and drink and screw / Because there’s nothing else to do.” It took all of the theatricality, social concern, and sex of Pulp’s synth hooks and Cocker’s low purr, and created a song for the ages. [Laura M. Browning]

Steel Pole Bath Tub, “Friday” (May 1995)

Big Black may have been the group that launched a thousand industrial noise acts, but Steel Pole Bath Tub took that sound, evolved it, and ended up with one of the best rock songs of the ’90s. “Friday” is a fascinating creation, one that sounds remarkably unlike most of the band’s prior sample-heavy output, or even the rest of the album on which it appears, Scars From Falling Down. Epitomizing a West Coast noise-rock sound that incorporates elements of psychedelia, sludge, and more, the group followed the path of many indie acts of the decade who signed to a major, only to immediately clash with its corporate handlers and be let go after one record. But it’s one hell of a swan song. “Friday” is a regal epic, funereal but punctuated by cathartic blasts of sound, a stirring combination of arty, outsider style with incredibly catchy melodies. [Alex McLevy]

Yo La Tengo, “Blue Line Swinger” (May 1995)

Seven albums into their still-going-strong run, Yo La Tengo began a new, more freewheeling creative streak with 1995’s Electr-O-Pura, which took the droning textures and finely honed guitar freakouts of 1993’s Painful and gave them even more room to run around, while also bringing in some of its poppiest melodies to date. You can hear that beautifully controlled chaos in microcosm on nine-minute closing track “Blue Line Swinger.” Starting off with some gentle organ buzzes, staggered drum hits, and an almost-hesitant guitar riff, it all begins to fall into place around minute two, building into a My Bloody Valentine-worthy shoegaze swirl, topped by Georgia Hubley’s gentle breeze of a voice, that crashes around for several minutes more beneath Ira Kaplan’s wild squalls of feedback, before finally locking in on some lovely “ba-ba-ba” harmonies while the whole thing smashes to an end. It’s a lush and lovely noise, one stirred up by a group of musicians finally giving themselves over to pure, instinctual emotion. “Blue Line Swinger” has remained part of Yo La Tengo’s set for decades, where it typically closes the show—as perfect a summary statement as it has in its arsenal. [Sean O’Neal]

Peanut Butter Wolf, “The Chronicles (I Will Always Love H.E.R.)” (July 1995)

One unfortunate side effect of the ’90s explosion of hip-hop was that everyone quickly ran out of samples, an eventuality that led to the rise of in-studio instrumentation and the gradual decline of turntablism. The Return Of The DJ compilation was a corrective to this trend, the first-ever all-scratching record, with a roster of names that’d echo throughout traditionalist and underground hip-hop for years: Cut Chemist, Q-Bert, Rob Swift, Mix Master Mike, Babu, and so on. Peanut Butter Wolf’s centerpiece “The Chronicles (I Will Always Love H.E.R.)” is as dense and reverent as its title suggests, cutting together Tribe, Nas, Rakim, Onyx, Kurtis Blow, Roxanne Shante, Jeru The Damaja, and—fuck—three dozen others? Well, that’s the point. The track shows the good taste and deep crates that PB Wolf would bring to Stones Throw Records, the underground stalwart label he’d found the very next year. [Clayton Purdom]

Supergrass, “Alright” (July 1995)

The fact that Supergrass’ buoyant, nitrous-oxide anthem became a No. 2 hit in the U.K. (then hung around for years thereafter) yet couldn’t squeak its way onto the Billboard chart says everything about America’s comparatively cool reception to non-Oasis Brit pop, even at the genre’s pinnacle. It’s even more baffling given that “Alright” speaks a transatlantic language of teen pep (see: its inclusion on the Clueless soundtrack), with then-19-year-old Gaz Coombes singing over an indefatigably bouncing piano riff about the joys of being young and invincible, running around with your friends every single night while casting a suspicious eye at the rest of the world (“Are we like you? / I can’t be sure”). “Alright” wasn’t really like anything else on Supergrass’ restlessly diverse debut, I Should Coco, which ranged from the scuzzy Buzzcocks rock of “Caught By The Fuzz” to the punked-up Madness of “Mansize Rooster,” and its popularity became something of an albatross for the band as it continued to remain eclectic and evolve, eventually striking “Alright” from its live sets. But long after Supergrass moved on, “Alright” remains a quintessential expression of those-damn-kids swagger—in Britain and beyond. [Sean O’Neal]

That Dog, “Ms. Wrong” (July 1995)

The mostly female quartet of That Dog only ever released about two hours of music over three albums, with Totally Crushed Out! sandwiched in the middle. The title and its album art recall the pink-saturated hand-illustrated covers of the Sweet Valley High books, and the songs are punk-inflected pop confection, with close harmonies, hooky guitars, and dissonant strings. “Ms. Wrong” inverts the cliché of a boy’s unrequited love; instead of writing an aching love song, That Dog’s female narrator wonders how to tell a boy she doesn’t like him. Simple lyrics describe the more complicated problem: “So he said, ‘I think you’re pretty,’ / So she thinks, ‘I wish I liked you.’” That Dog released one album two years later; the group never saw widespread commercial success despite touring with the likes of The Wallflowers, Beck, and Weezer. [Laura M. Browning]

The Chemical Brothers, “Leave Home” (August 1995)

The Chemical Brothers’ Exit Planet Dust was believed to be the electronica record with big enough beats and rockin’-enough samples to finally make the genre take off in America. Yet despite being a massive hit across the pond, the record received a muted reception in the U.S. alt-rock landscape, even with the best efforts of lead-off single “Leave Home,” which served as something of an introduction to the Chemical Brothers’ style: bombed-out riffs, immaculate boom-bap drums, and just enough sci-fi wizardry to sound like the approaching millennium. The track’s got more in common with the contemporary sampledelica of albums like Odelay and Hello Nasty than it does other dance music from the era, but it wasn’t until 1997 that The Chemical Brothers would finally ratchet their beats up to truly block-rockin’ intensity, landing belated Stateside success in the process. [Clayton Purdom]

Mercury Rev, “Racing The Tide” (September 1995)

While its cohorts The Flaming Lips rode a similarly star-smacked, psychedelic sound to festival mainstay status and Miley Cyrus duets, Mercury Rev remains just cult favorites in America—even after 1998’s Deserter’s Songs made them critical darlings and genuine pop stars in the U.K. The fact that Deserter’s Songs was born from the New York band’s existential despair over the poor reception to 1995’s See You On The Other Side is obviously a happy outcome, but honestly, it never should have happened. See You On The Other Side is an unfairly forgotten lysergic masterpiece, a Technicolor head-trip that straddles the band’s earlier freak-noise and the sentimental orchestrations of its later work, one-upping the Lips’ The Soft Bulletin several years in advance. The surging, yearning “Racing The Tide” is an album highlight, building on its simple guitar jangle and slowly melting keyboard melody into endlessly skyrocketing explosions of brass. Ultimately it’s probably for the best the album didn’t become a hit—but that doesn’t make it right. [Sean O’Neal]

Pizzicato Five, “Contact” (September 1995)

The opposite of cred-obsessed American alt-rock, both geographically and philosophically, the Shibuya-kei scene that birthed Tokyo pop group Pizzicato Five reveled in artifice, freely borrowing from whatever aesthetic influences made them feel the kickiest, regardless of decade, continent, or genre. For its 1995 album Romantique 96, P5 concentrated specifically on its obsession with French yé-ye music of the 1960s; the group’s cover of Brigitte Bardot and Serge Gainsbourg’s 1968 psych-pop oddity “Contact” heretically—and successfully—incorporates a sample from Kraftwerk’s “Pocket Calculator,” a futuristic, international pastiche of cold electronica and kitschy exotica that’s faithful to nothing but the groove. Unfortunately, although the album was a success in Japan, Romantique 96 came out just one month before the Matador compilation The Sound Of Music By Pizzicato Five and thus was never officially released Stateside. [Katie Rife]

Superchunk, “Detroit Has A Skyline” (September 1995)

Superchunk’s ’90s hot streak peaked with Here’s Where The Strings Come In, the band’s fourth album and fullest embodiment of its hyper-melodic, punk-derived indie rock. Perfectly sequenced in the middle of the album, “Detroit Has A Skyline” is a classic Superchunk rager, with Jon Wurster smashing his drums and locking in with bassist Laura Ballance, while Mac McCaughan and Jim Wilbur’s soaring guitars fill out the sound. McCaughan’s lyrics tend to be inscrutable, and the references to architecture and an unrequited crush in “Detroit” are typically elusive, but surprisingly triumphant: “I had a crush / Nothing works out / Well I had faith / Could not have known, don’t even say it” sounds cathartic regardless of context. [Kyle Ryan]

Old 97’s, “Doreen” (October 1995)

In 1993, one year before the dissolution of Uncle Tupelo and the birth of Son Volt and Wilco, a band in Dallas started playing local bars. They hoped to channel a little bit Johnny Cash and a little bit the Clash, and named their band after a song popularized by the former. Mainstream country music in the mid-’90s had no patience (or radio play) for this punk-rooted sound, no matter how much slide guitar was involved. In fact, country had been moving in a poppier direction that decade, embracing acts like Shania Twain, who took cowboy boots and whiskey and smoothed them into slick, accessible pop. The Old 97's original “Doreen,” released prior to the 1995 version on Wreck Your Life, goes hard in the country direction, with bluegrass banjo and high-lonesome harmonies. Wreck Your Life was recorded in Chicago and released on Bloodshot Records, and its “Doreen” is a rollicking song at odds with the tear-in-my-beer lyrics of old-school country and western music, a perfect distillation of everything that alt-country could be. Unlike other pioneers of No Depression-style alt-country, the Old 97's original lineup of Rhett Miller, Murry Hammond, Ken Bethea, and Philip Peeples hasn’t changed since they first came together. [Laura M. Browning]

Rocket From The Crypt, “Born In ’69” (October 1995)

Major labels brought their checkbooks to the punk and indie underground in the early ’90s, signing a slew of bands with otherwise limited mainstream appeal. Few succeeded or produced something great, but among them, Rocket From The Crypt’s Scream, Dracula, Scream! remains one of the best albums of the decade. During those heady days, it seemed like the raucous San Diego band might actually break through; it landed three videos on MTV, while “On A Rope” and “Born In ’69” received decent airplay. (The former even became a hit in Europe.) Either serves as a fine representative of Scream, Dracula, Scream!, though “Born In ’69” captures the band at its most exuberant, melodic, and cheeky: “Your inspiration is a memory / That you know you never had / Your desperation lies before me / And you only kick half an ass.” Big words, sure, but RFTC was (and is) an authority on ass kicking. [Kyle Ryan]

At The Gates, “Slaughter Of The Soul” (November 1995)

The title track on Slaughter Of The Soul—the fourth, best, and, for a time, final album by At The Gates—encapsulates the melodic death metal sound these venomous Swedes would help popularize. It’s fast and catchy, heavy but hummable, riding a clean and memorable guitar line before building to a showboating solo and a fist-pumping chorus. While corpse-painted contemporaries across Europe were foregrounding the harshest elements of heavy metal, At The Gates went another way, pioneering a style—further explored by fellow Gothenburg acts like In Flames and Dark Tranquility—that privileged hooks as much as sheer brutality. (It helped, too, that you could actually make out—and hence sing along to—the lyrics, which came delivered by frontman Tomas Lindberg in a comprehensible howl rather than the more traditional death-metal gurgle.) “Infectious” and “extreme” didn’t have to be mutually exclusive, melodic death metal bands argued. “Slaughter Of The Soul” is their strongest case for that philosophy, transforming blasphemy to gospel over three feverish, anthemic minutes. [A.A. Dowd]

Autechre, “Clipper” (November 1995)

It’s been more than 20 years since Autechre released Tri Repetae, and while its brutally beautiful collision of noise and melody inspired entire generations of electronic and experimental artists, the British duo’s third album still sounds distantly futuristic and fascinatingly alien. Rob Brown and Sean Booth stripped away much of the straightforward techno pulse and ambient drift that had made them part of the Warp Records’ pioneering roster of “home listening” electronic artists, and Tri Repetae found them drilling down to the hard, metallic backbone of what would become the complex machinery of their later work. But as forbidding as some of those heavily processed abstractions can be, Tri Repetae finds a happy medium in songs like “Clipper,” where static-burst beats and somber synth swells are rolled under a cavernous, yawing bass tone and sparkling arpeggiation. It’s robotic yet romantic, coldly industrial but still warmly inviting, a balance that few struck with such incredible precision, before or since. [Sean O’Neal]


Aceyalone, “Mic Check
Aphex Twin, “Acrid Avid Jam Shred
Count Bass D, “Sandwiches
Leftfield, “Open Up
Meshuggah, “Future Breed Machine
Palace Music, “New Partner
Railroad Jerk, “Rollerkoaster
Slowdive, “Blue Skied An’ Clear
Texas Is The Reason, “If It’s Here When We Get Back, It’s Ours
Tricky, “Black Steel