A year that had an outsized influence on my popular music tastes and my life.
22 years ago today, President Bill Clinton was less than a month away from being re-elected. The UN was starting to parse back together countries in Eastern Europe. War was raging in Northern Ireland. Tupac had been murdered a month prior, and The Notorious BIG was still with us. That Thing You Do! was in movie theatres. Fox News had just become a network. Rent was in its first year on Broadway. Hey Arnold! had just premiered on Nickelodeon. The Atlanta Braves & New York Yankees would start their World Series in a week. The Chicago Bulls were the reigning NBA champions and Shaquille O’Neal had just been traded from the Orlando Magic to the Los Angeles Lakers.
International dance sensation the “Macarena” was headed toward its final weeks at the top of the Billboard Top 200 charts.
And I turned 14 years old.
Earlier this year (2018), there was a meme circulating social media stating that the number one song on your fourteenth birthday would define your life. That meme really messed me up. And with good reason, probably.
A true 90s adolescent, I share a birthday with Fox Mulder (and X Files creator Chris Carter). In keeping with the aforementioned meme, eighth grade me could dance the snot out of the Macarena. That usually happened at the local roller skating rink in my striped, ribbed shirt, my Squeeze overalls, or maybe a pair of periwinkle Bongo shorts. Heck, my friends and I danced the Macarena with balloons shoved up our shirts at my 14th birthday sleepover. That dance sensation indeed goes into the time capsule of the 90s, but 1996 meant so much more musically in so many ways.
I am no longer a practicing Catholic, but that was the year I received my confirmation. It was the year my family moved out of a rental and into our own house in my hometown, a place we would stay for the next five years. It was a year that my life started to feel like a continuous story, and not just a series of often difficult things that happened to me. Also of note, 1996 was the year I decided that I wanted to major in music in college, so suffice to say, it was a pretty influential one.
Surely everyone feels nostalgic for certain years in their lives (I'm having a hard time imagining what 2010 nostalgia is going to look like, but we're destined to get there eventually, right?), but personal events aside, 1996 really feels like a special one. Alternative rock and hip-hop outlets surely agreed. It was the year where thousands gathered, sans booze, and raised nearly a million dollars at the Tibetan Freedom Concert, organized by Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys. For better or for worse, socialization on the internet was mostly done through chat rooms, and not enough of it to fundamentally change the fabric of society. It was the last holdout year when 90s radio was still wild & weird, before Puff Daddy sampled everything he could throw a rock at, before the Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys took hold, and most significantly, before the Telecommunications Act of 1996 fully went into effect, allowing for larger mergers of media companies, effectively squeezing out the last snuffs of what was weird & wonderful & widely distributed about the decade. An extensive interview on that topic (and others) with legend & luminary Chuck D can be found here.
Maybe it was because mainstream radio music became more homogenized following 1996 (and maybe it’s not quite such a coincidence that the late 90s gave way to Britney and boy bands after all?) that I personally started to look elsewhere for music — the internet, my friends, local scenes, mixtapes, et al — and spent more than a decade finding refuge in the music that was not shoved at me by media outlets? Maybe it’s Christina Aguilera’s fault as well as the FCC’s that I love Neko Case so much?! Who knows.
1996 will live on in my memory long past the changes that will continue to affect the media landscape & popular culture. Here's 20 tracks, 20 reasons to support my feeling that 1996 was probably the most significant year in the development of my personal tastes, both in terms of monster hits and B-sides.
"No Diggity" - Blackstreet
This almost is not fair. My peers who are literally only a few weeks younger than me can claim this as the number one song on their 14th birthdays. And it's undeniably one of the best hip-hop tracks in all of history. Red hot guest rappers, inescapable hooks, immaculate production, one of the best shout sections in all of popular music...it's a textbook example of how to write a song, hip-hop or otherwise.
I witnessed a testament to the longevity of this song a few months ago when a friend took me out to Wynwood — the trendiest, most Instagrammable neighborhood in Miami. Instead of nouveau indie rock blaring through the speakers of Wynwood's clubs, all I heard that night was "No Diggity." Everywhere. The 90s have been back for a few years now, and Blackstreet has been at the forefront of this revival. Deservedly so.
"I Love You Always Forever" - Donna Lewis
It did top the pop charts, but I feel as though this song is by far one of the most underrated pop gems of the decade. With a pristine arrangement and flawless production, even Lewis's breathy, quiet voice works perfectly here. A shout section full of electronic claps works here, even such in a quiet song. The slow beginning is carried away by the gentle guitar riff and extremely subtle country folk drumbeat, much like young lovers carried away on a gentle but quick-moving tide.
At that point in my life I wouldn’t even date for another year, and would not have a serious long-term boyfriend until 2004, but I was consumed by the concept of romance as a teenager, mostly influenced by popular music. Crushes ruled my world in 1996, and that summer I began to experience what I only assumed was (deeply unrequited) love. In the end, it wasn't so much the object of the crushes that mattered but the understanding that the world was just opening up for me. That was what made being a teenager memorable.
"1979" - The Smashing Pumpkins
("1979" was released on the album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness in 1995, but ascended to the top of the modern rock charts — the only Pumpkins song to do so — in March of 1996.)
Acoustic and electronic (and not just concerning drumbeats), simple and complex, soaring and cynical, this song really encompassed many of those life-just-beginning feelings for me and many others. Billy Corgan said that in writing the album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, he put into those songs everything he felt about his childhood, tied it up in a bow, and then bid it farewell. "1979" encapsulates this spirit in totality, and even more so, a sense of both longing for the past and really living in the moment (especially the tiny bass riff at 2:38). I think could easily qualify as one of the best songs of the 90s. Even my mom still loves it.
"Hey Jupiter" - Tori Amos
Remember in the 90s, when the closest thing you had to Spotify was whatever CDs you ordered from Columbia House without your parents knowing? My biggest regret of that era was ordering Collective Soul or Our Lady Peace over Tori's masterpiece Boys for Pele. I wouldn't own that album until 2003. Maybe I wasn't quite ready for the non-remixed versions of "Professional Widow" at age 14, but as I grew older, I absolutely found my footing in Tori. A friend recently said that she listened to an old Tori Amos album, and it reminded her of who she was. I feel exactly the same, although I only barely caught a snippet or two of "Caught a Light Sneeze" on the radio the year the album was released. 1996 was just a gift that kept on giving.
"One Sweet Day" Mariah Carey & Boyz II Men
This single was released at the end of 1995, but we're going to let it slide in, seeing that in 1996, it achieved a still unbeaten feat: 16 weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Although bested by the "Macarena" as the top single of 1996, "One Sweet Day" is listed as the #1 single of the 1990s on the Billboard Chart. That's right, the top song of the decade. And of course it is. In the teen movie of 1996, this is the song that's played at prom during the slow dance. This is both Mariah and Boyz II Men, chart-topping, whisper register-reaching, harmonizing juggernauts in their own right, at the absolute height of their powers. I know I owned the CD single.
In more seriousness, this song was a tribute to loved ones, and was also inspired by the mourning of those who lost loved ones during the AIDS pandemic of the 1990s. It was also played at Princess Diana's funeral the very next year. A sweet farewell, a well-arranged tune, littered with melisma but still not overdone, it holds up all of these years later.
"The Train" - Quad City DJs
Preceeded by "Whomp! There It Is!" and a hundred other early Southern rap songs that instructed folks to dance, "The Train" is the apex of universally loved dance songs of the 1990s. For my money, it's the most enduring dance craze from 1996. Also, as most of my teenage partying that year occurred at local Orlando water parks with other teenagers, the 407 representation in the song was a very big deal.
"Ironic" - Alanis Morissette
While her lead single, 1995's "You Oughta Know" left a scorched earth trail, this early 1996 single got just about every single person on the planet singing along with Alanis. It immediately preceded her surprising Grammy win for Album of the Year, spawned an iconic video, and even was used to represent the year 1996 in Black Mirror's "San Junipero."
"Soft Serve" - Soul Coughing
Probably one of my top 20 favorite songs of all time, this track was not released as a single, but the stations played it anyway. Can you imagine that happening nowadays!? This was the media landscape of 1996. Sure, it was still controlled by media barons who got away with rampant abuse, sexism, racism, homophobia, and other awful transgressions, and those years were not nearly as freewheeling & artistically progressive as we'd like to imagine, but a band could still get a song on the radio just because someone really liked it. All 90s delusions aside, this is my song of the summer every single summer.
“Spiderwebs” - No Doubt
I’m not the person best qualified to write the pop cultural historical thinkpiece that considers what Gwen Stefani meant to 90s adolescent girls, how her level of cultural appropriation was “bananas”, even in the 90s, or that much of her early acclaim was a result of airing dirty relationship laundry decades before Taylor Swift or Adele were accused of the same. I’m just here to tell you the facts. As I’ve already mentioned 33 times here, I was a teenage girl in 1996 and largely a product of my time. I owned the Tragic Kingdom album, spent hours dancing around my room to it, I still have a lingering teenage crush on Tony Kanal, and I think this was the best song on No Doubt’s breakthrough album. Also I’m really glad that Tony has had success, got married and had a family, and seems to have recovered from levels of inter-band relationship gossip rock unseen since Fleetwood Mac.
"Novocaine for the Soul" - Eels
This was the number one alternative song on my 14th birthday. I liked it, sure, but listening to it now feels awfully self-serving. For as awakened as Gen X thought itself in the 90s, most 90s artists looked at through today’s lens seem largely concerned with their own suffering. There were good reasons that the term "woke" would not come into the common lexicon for another nearly 20 years.
And wow these are terrible lyrics. Wow.
"People of the Sun" - Rage Against the Machine
Wait. Scratch what I just said. There were plenty of artists who were aware of what was going on. Most fans just didn't seem to care. Nothing indicates that more than Speaker of the House Paul Ryan's affection for taking health care away from poor people matched with his reported fondness for Rage Against the Machine. The Rage crew were talking about Zapatistas and other oppressed indigenous people and commutation of prison sentences at least 20 years before the remainder of popular culture caught on.
"If I Ruled the World" - Nas feat. Lauryn Hill
In eighth grade, identity was everything. Kids who had been friends when they were younger started to drift away from the friends they grew up with and more toward others who identified similarly, in whatever way. Social groups started to become more clearly delineated by eighth grade, and as per my observation, in my middle school years, taste in music defined some social groups. At least, it did for me. A band geek through and through (and for the next 22+ years), I also gravitated toward my friends who also liked alternative rock the same way I did. Most of what I remember from my social studies class that year involved talking to my friends Jackie & Eric about Smashing Pumpkins albums. My biggest occupation in science class was writing names of bands I thought were cool on my class folder.
But I would be lying through my teeth if I did not admit to the influence that rap and R&B of that year had on me. I didn’t own any of Nas’s albums (the Parental Advisory label definitely scared my mom off), but over two decades later, I can still recite every word to this song. It reminds me of watching MTV before my bus picked me up.
"Radiation Vibe" - Fountains of Wayne
Adam Schlesinger may have been the unsung hero of 1996. Okay, so maybe he was sung about, but not nearly as much as he should have been. Not only was he the brains behind this classic Fountains of Wayne hit (and a great album), but he wrote all of the good songs from That Thing You Do!, a nostalgia piece from 1996 about a bygone era (are we sensing a pattern here?), which is still a favorite film of mine. "Radiation Vibe" is full of just as much sunshine pop goodness as anything from That Thing You Do!, and it still seems a small miracle that it got as much radio and MTV airplay as it did.
"Trippin' on a Hole in a Paper Heart" - Stone Temple Pilots
I’ll always associate this song with the summer of 1996 and a teenage friend of mine who was shot & killed the very next year. While running around theme parks in the rain, he would stick his tongue out and sing his own through-composed final lyric to the song: “And drink some lemonade!” Another girl in my middle school who knew him said that he had a photo of me and my friends that we’d given him on his wall before he died.
"Ready or Not" - The Fugees
Another song that I surprise myself with knowing every word. And again, another song that I associate with singing with other teenage friends in an Orlando wave pool. The underlying vocal ostinato will always remind me of rainy, all consumingly humid summer afternoons. Some things will just never unseat themselves from your memory.
"Tha Crossroads" - Bone Thugs 'n' Harmony
The mid-90s saw a sort of mini-Renaissance of hip-hop, especially in terms of getting emotional. For better or for worse, many groups touched on more universal themes than their gangsta rap compatriots from just a few years before. "Tha Crossroads" was written largely in tribute to Bone Thugs ‘n’ Harmony’s late mentor, gangsta icon Eazy-E, but its appeal & meaning was not lost on a wider audience.
"Lovefool" - The Cardigans
The 1990s were the decade of the soundtrack album, and one of the best came out in 1996: that of Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet. I wore my CD copy of it out, while staring at my poster of young Leonardo DiCaprio behind a fishtank. The Cardigans made many deeply respectable contributions to Swedish pop music, but “Lovefool” was also an extremely worthy hit single.
"El Scorcho" - Weezer
A problematic fave from my teenage years, it actually took me a full 10 years to realize that the album Pinkerton (Weezer's last fully good one — don't @ me) was essentially based on the opera Madame Butterfly, complete with Asian fetishism. This was the song I spent my entire first semester of eighth grade walking around singing.
“Hell” - Squirrel Nut Zippers
I have a very good long term memory, but for whatever reason, this song is filed away in my brain under 1997. Don’t ask me why. The swing revival of the late 90s (the movie Swingers came out in late October, 1996) had much more of an effect on me in high school than it did in middle school, but Squirrel Nut Zippers were bar none the best of the 90s swing revival bands. As I started to listen to more old, authentic jazz, I noticed that the Zippers also included extended intros to their songs, unlike a cash-chasing band like the extremely unfortunately named Cherry Poppin’ Daddies that emerged a few years later. In subsequent years, this song would become my husband’s karaoke go-to, and the band’s albums are still worth a spin any day of the week.
"In the Meantime" - Spacehog
I have a very strong memory of a female MTV veejay previewing this song by saying that she knew it was a hit because she heard it every time she went into a clothing store. Going to the mall was still an important social experience at that age (even when I could buy absolutely nothing), and while I don’t recall hearing this song at the Pants USA or RAVE store in the then-new Sanford Mall, I absolutely took this woman at her word. And I still really love this song.
"Set the Ray to Jerry" - The Smashing Pumpkins
Because, as mentioned, lack of access to the music you most wanted to hear in 1996 was a thing, I didn’t so much as hear this song until two years later (when I taped it off of a radio broadcast and subsequently wore out the tape). Nonetheless, it remains a strong contender for my favorite song of all time, and it was released on The Smashing Pumpkins box single set The Aeroplane Flies High in, you guessed it, 1996. TAFH includes some of the band’s strongest and weirdest material, including some of my favorite James Iha songs, and I highly recommend it.
"Mint Car" - The Cure
"Stupid Girl" - Garbage
"Whoo-haa! I Got You All in Check!" - Busta Rhymes
"Standing in a Broken Phone Booth with Money in My Pocket" - Primitive Radio Gods
“Desperately Wanting” Better than Ezra
“Where It’s At” Beck
“Walls” Tom Petty
Obviously, this is by no means a comprehensive list of music that moved society in 1996, and there was a lot released that year that I would not come to appreciate for many years onward — it was just what the year sounded like to me. Enjoy.