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by Seth Colter Walls

March 12, 2013

The 50 Best Songs of 1996

by Seth Colter Walls  |  March 12, 2013

Welcome to The 50, a Rhapsody scheme in which we attempt to compile the biggest, best, most historically remarkable songs of every year. Our list of 50 tracks -- presented here in no particular order, ideally flowing like a time-traveling DJ set -- has been argued over and (grudgingly) agreed upon by our full editorial staff. Please enjoy.

The Internet's current "Remember the '90s" fever is unlikely to reach its hottest temperature when lingering over the year 1996. In that still-fragile, post-Kurt Cobain year, Radiohead were taking a break in between their massively important, decade-defining albums (The Bends and OK Computer). The Flaming Lips had yet to embrace the full spectrum of weird (on Zaireeka). The first wave of Riot Grrrl was over (Sleater-Kinney kicked off the second wave with Call the Doctor). And Sonic Youth were on a brief holiday from the studio, too -- the better to allow for headlining the summer Lollapalooza tour.

All in all, it proved a transitional year for the form of indie rock we tend to associate with the 1990s. But that doesn't mean there weren't great rock songs -- and great songs, period -- to choose from. In fact, 1996 is something of an undercover excellent year.

There was a trove of diverse offerings from hip-hop, for instance. Dr. Dre and 2Pac joined forces for the immortal "California Love" (Dre also appeared on Blackstreet's "No Diggity"). DJ Shadow represented the ascendant turntablism movement with his undeniable long-player Endtroducing… Meantime, the Wu-Tang Clan's most consistent solo artist, Ghostface Killah, started his run of great albums with Ironman. Coolio notched his pop-culture moment with "Gangsta's Paradise," and Beck actually seemed to get a little more serious about his rap appropriation (on the legitimately dope "Where It's At"). Busta Rhymes blew up as a solo artist with "Woo-Hah!! Got You All in Check." And any year that boasted charting singles from Outkast and Nas (and a debuting Jay-Z) can't be too shabby, either. Add the definitive statement from the trip-hop movement – Tricky's "Christiansands" -- and you've got a grip of great songs in your hand.

While aesthetically motley in character, the lands of rockers and singer-songwriters offered an equal number of memorable singles. Probably the one with the greatest pop-cultural impact was "Ironic," by Alanis Morissette, which helped redefine the titular adjective as just "unfortunate happenstance" -- much to the irritation of high school English instructors (though to the obvious delight of the record-buying public). Sure, the song was first released on 1995's Jagged Little Pill, but the single didn't become inescapable until the following year -- as also happened with Smashing Pumpkins' "1979."

Meanwhile, Weezer got thrashed by the commentariat for Pinkerton, though in hindsight, everyone loves it -- including "El Scorcho." Wilco brought the rock straightforwardly for the last time on Being There. Rage Against the Machine had their best-ever single with "Bulls on Parade." Modest Mouse began their push to redefine the alt rock world with "Dramamine." And Elliott Smith said goodbye to his first, occasionally hard-rocking Portland band, Heatmiser, with the gorgeous "See You Later" (which looks ahead to his career as a sadsack troubadour nonpareil).

These tracks suggest that rock was confidently finding ways to move on after a multiyear engagement/obsession with the Seattle scene. (By this time, Melvins and Tad had both been dropped from their major-label deals.) Stone Temple Pilots steered themselves away from rote grunge imitation with the great "Big Bang Baby." Everclear had their highest-profile moment with "Santa Monica." And though Marilyn Manson's carefully crafted shtick scored dozens upon dozens of chin-stroking pieces by the concern-troll scolds of the journalism world, his single "The Beautiful People" was hardly the most extreme piece of metal-influenced music to come out in 1996. That honor was shared by the influential metal group Eyehategod and Japanese noise god Merzbow, for "Dixie Whiskey" and "Woodpecker No. 2," respectively. (Both of those songs make Manson's single sound like the piece of easily digestible pop that it actually was.)

The on-purpose beautiful stuff was beautiful, too. The trinity of Toni Braxton, Mary J. Blige and Whitney Houston carried R&B in 1996 with "Un-Break My Heart," "Not Gon' Cry" and "Exhale (Shoop, Shoop)." No Doubt put the hypertrophied, hyperactive ballad "Don't Speak" into the stratosphere, while Oasis went for ruefulness with "Wonderwall" (and found a useful counterpoise to their usual loudmouth Brit-braggart pose). Over in the heartland, Deana Carter and Jo Dee Messina cut classic tracks that can easily disprove the thesis that mid-'90s mainstream country was disposable.

Though it was an unusual time for the jazz and classical recording worlds -- several major labels were beginning to question their long-term commitment to the genres -- there were ambitious projects of note issued from those areas during 1996, as well. Henry Threadgill's final album for Columbia, Where's Your Cup?, opens with the 10-minute, suite-like "100 Year Old Game": Stick with it, and you'll hear a gorgeous prelude for accordion, some world-beat rhythms, and the composer's bluesy, tough saxophone flights. Meantime, for the Deutsche Grammophon label, the Berlin Philharmonic decided to cut a new version of Karlheinz Stockhausen's renowned piece for three orchestras, "Gruppen." (By this time, Stockhausen had started his own label from his home in Germany -- one that remains super-expensive and badly distributed. This 1996 recording of "Gruppen" is thus the only one that most classical heads have ever had a chance to hear.)

Still, idiosyncratic excellence to one side, we cannot leave off considering 1996 without noting that it was the year America allowed itself to fall in love with "Macarena." Truly a cultural fascination that anticipated the way that Americans pursue our YouTube-enabled "memes" of today, the song/dance event of 1996 was hard to escape. If you were sentient during the year, you'll know it. In the time after Nirvana and before the clear macro-cultural dominance of any other artist, it was as though each of us was just trying to follow our own personal understanding of bliss. Or, as Sheryl Crow put it, "If It Makes You Happy," it can't be that bad.

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