20 Alternative Rock Hits Turning 20 in 2017

Quinton McMillan


In 1997, "Spicemania" took over the world, and swing music kicked off its unexpected revival, thanks to the emergence of Squirrel Nut Zippers, Cherry Poppin' Daddies and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. Mariah Carey reinvented her image and had (yet another) Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 hit with “Honey,” while AquaChumbawamba and Hanson had megahits whose success they would never repeat. A pair of tributes, Elton John's ode to the late Princess Diana “Candle in the Wind 1997" and Puff Daddy, Faith Evans and 112's Notorious B.I.G. homage "I'll Be Missing You," became two of the year's best-selling songs. Madonna won a Golden Globe Award for Evita and Titanic made Celine Dion's siren call unavoidable.

While 1996 saw major releases from female singer-songwriters like Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill, Jewel’s Pieces of You and Tori Amos’ Boys for Pele -- along with breakthrough albums from female-fronted bands Garbage, No Doubt, The Cranberries and The Cardigans -- there was undoubtedly a lot of testosterone on the 1997 alternative rock charts, from The Prodigy's howling electro-rock to Third Eye Blind's sneakily R-rated sing-along. Aiming to level the playing field, Sarah McLachlan co-founded the female billed Lilith Fair, the top-grossing music festival of the year. The tour wasn't meant to push men aside, rather "celebrate the fact that woman finally have a strong voice. We just want to make things a little more balanced." 

Let’s re-open this time capsule (and the nostalgic connection associated) with a look back at 20 alternative rock songs that debuted in 1997.

1. Foo Fighters, “Everlong" (No. 3, Alternative Songs; No. 42, Radio Songs)

Dave Grohl is aware that "Everlong" is the song most people identify with his second band, explaining in an episode of VH1 Storytellers: "It opened up so many doors for us. it gave us a reason to keep being a band." In an interview with NME he also shared of the song's chorus that "every time I sing 'if everything could ever feel this real forever' and everyone else is singing it at the same time, that's pretty powerful."

2. Sugar Ray, “Fly” (No. 1, Alternative Songs; No. 1, Radio Songs)

Considering Sugar Ray started out as a funk metal band, the upbeat summer-friendly jam "Fly" was quite a departure (and surprise) for Mark McGrath and Co. In an interview with Rock Cellar Magazine, McGrath said the smash hit came out of nowhere where for the group: "We were a band learning as we went along."

3. Blur, “Song 2" (No. 6, Alternative Songs; No. 55, Radio Songs)

"Woo-hoo!" The second song on Blur's self-titled album was meant to be a parody of U.S. grunge, and ironically became the song most associated with the band in America. Bassist Alex James told NME, "We didn’t think about it at all.” Regardless, fans certainly did: "Song 2" became the group's only top 10 hit on the Modern Rock chart while the single's memorably wind-swept visual was nominated for Best Alternative Video and Best Group Video at the MTV Video Music Awards.

4. Fiona Apple, “Criminal" (No. 4, Alternative Songs; No. 21, Hot 100)

In 1997, Fiona Apple had everyone talking about her "this world is bulls--t" acceptance speech at the MTV Video Music Awards, where she took home the Moonman for Best New Artist in a Video for "Sleep to Dream." But Apple was about to push the envelope even further, with the provocative and controversial video for "Criminal." The song earned Apple a Grammy Award for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance.

5. 311, “Beautiful Disaster" (No. 21, Alternative Songs)

311 broke out in the mid-'90s with a blend of funk, metal, rap, hip-hop, ska and reggae -- with hardcore fans annually celebrating March 11th as "311 Day." "Beautiful Disaster," from fourth LP Transistor, touches on "a pretty train crash," and frontman Nick Hexum explained about the song's subject, "I think people in general -- me, especially -- find ourselves attracted to people who are not good for us. We know it, but we can't resist."

6. Radiohead, “Karma Police" (No. 14, Alternative Songs; No. 69, Radio Songs)

Thom Yorke revealed that the satirical "Karma Police" was inspired by his dislike of being sneered at: "It's for someone who has to work for a large company. This is a song against bosses. F--k the middle management!" Sadly, director Jonathan Glazer saw the automotive paranoia of the song's visual as a complete failure, telling IndieWire, "I decided to do a very minimalist, subjective use of camera and tried to do something hypnotic and dramatic from one perspective, and I feel that I didn’t achieve it."

7. Third Eye Blind, "Semi-Charmed Life" (No. 1, Alternative Songs; No. 4, Hot 100)

In April, 1997, frontman Stephan Jenkins told Billboard, "'Semi-Charmed Life' is a dirty, filthy song about snorting speed and getting blow jobs. It really is funny that people play it on the radio. And the title refers to a life that's all propped up. You know, the beautiful people who lead bright and shiny lives that on the inside are all f--ked up." But on the flip side, he said, "I think people hear "Semi-Charmed Life" as a happy summertime jam, and that's fine with me."

8. The Verve, “Bittersweet Symphony” (No. 4, Alternative Songs, No. 12, Hot 100)

In 1997, Verve frontman Richard Ashcroft wasn't concerned with being polite, as he was seen in the song's Massive Attack-inspired video walking down a street in London, bumping into everyone who crosses his path. He was likely more concerned with was complaints over his song's sampling of a symphonic version of the Rolling Stones' "The Last Time" by the Andrew Oldham Orchestra. A bittersweet lawsuit ensued.

The song was nominated for Grammy Awards for Best Rock Song and Best Rock Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group and the video was nominated for Video of the Year, Best Alternative Video and Best Group Video at the '98 MTV Video Music Awards.

9. Everclear, “Everything To Everyone” (No. 1, Alternative Songs; No. 43, Radio Songs)

Frontman Art Alexakis divulged about the lead single from Everclear's So Much for the Afterglow, "It's kind of an angry song. That person is within everybody, I think everybody has this ability to try and be everything to everyone, to try to please. I think there are two aspects of it - there's the pleaser, who doesn't always show his true self, always plays nice and as time goes on shows more and more of himself, but there's also the people who are everything to everyone who are manipulators and users."

10. Depeche Mode, “It's No Good" (No. 37, Hot 100; No. 4, Alternative Songs)

By the time they hit the Top 40 of the Hot 100 for the sixth (and to date, final) time with the moody synth-pop jam “It's No Good," Depeche Mode was already on their ninth studio album, 1997's Ultra. Though the song was a top 5 hit on rock radio, "It's No Good" enjoyed even greater crossover success on the Dance Club Songs chart, where this single, among many others, hit No. 1.

11. The Prodigy, “Smack My Bitch Up” (No. 89, Hot 100)

In 1997, The Prodigy were perched at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart with The Fat Of The Land, and there's no arguing why their NSFW visual for “Smack My Bitch Up” made MTV's all-time "Most Controversial Videos" list in 2002. With a twist ending equivalent to a much rowdier The Sixth Sense, the Jonas Åkerlund-directed video won Moonmen for Best Dance Video and Breakthrough Video at the MTV Video Music Awards.

12. Beck, “The New Pollution" (No. 9, Alterantive Songs; No. 78, Hot 100)

Beck's lyrics are known to keep everyone guessing. In an interview with Rolling Stone he shared of his hit Odelay single, "Most of the vocals on the record were scratch vocals. We just grew attached to them." At the 1997 Video Music Awards, Beck himself won Best Direction, an honor shared by only three other artists to date. The visual was also nominated for Video of the Year and Best Alternative Video.

13. Bjork, “Bachelorette"

Bjork refers to her "emotionally charged and theatrical" song and video as "an exploration of self-reference." In this heartbreaking tale, a “bachelorette" finds a big book in the forest containing blank pages. As the song swells, the magical book begins to write itself -- soon scoring her a publishing deal, a relationship with the publisher, a musical, and fame. When the author (Bjork) and publisher call it quits, the books begin to erase and become one again with the forest. The video picked up a Moonman for Best Art Direction in a Video at the MTV Video Music Awards.

14.  Nine Inch Nails, “The Perfect Drug” (No. 11, Alternative Songs; No. 63, Radio Songs)

Trent Reznor considers his contribution to the Lost Highway soundtrack to be the piece of work he's least satisfied with. "I think what came out of it, married with a bloated over-budget video... just feels like the last thing that I would play to somebody if they said 'Play me, y'know, the top 100 songs you've written.' That probably wouldn't be in the top 100." That's unfortunate, considering his collab with Mark Romanek was popular enough to be nominated for Video of the Year and Best Alternative Video at the MTV Video Music Awards.

15. Marcy Playground, "Sex and Candy" (No. 1, Alternative Songs; No. 8, Hot 100)

The song that was inspired by a dorm room smell (and written in an hour) became a smash hit for Marcy Playground, spending 15 weeks at No. 1 on the Alternative Songs chart. But frontman John Wozniak doesn't understand the fuss, telling Songfacts, "I'm just gonna be straight up honest. I don't know. I'm telling you, when I was writing these songs, I wasn't high. But it sounds like I was high."?

16. Green Day, “Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)" (No. 2, Alternative Songs; No. 11, Radio Songs)

Though it became a feel-good graduation song, “Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)” was actually inspired by frontman Billie Joe Armstrong's bitter feelings towards an ex-girlfriend. For those only familiar with the radio version, Armstrong is heard messing up the opening chord (twice), before stating "f--k" and then playing the radio-friendly take.? The punk rock trio's first attempt at a ballad and its accompanying slo-mo video took home the award for Best Alternative Video at the MTV Video Music Awards.

17. Sarah McLachlan, “Building a Mystery" (No. 3, Alternative Songs; No. 13, Hot 100)

The summer of '97 gave us of Sarah McLachlan's fourth album, Surfacing, and the first-ever Lilith Fair tour, which McLachlan co-founded and headlined. The singer-songwriter has detailed that the song is about the fact that we all wear masks at some point in our lives, and how we all have insecurities that we want to hide -- a sentiment powerful and relatable enough that the song earned a Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.

18. The Verve Pipe, “The Freshmen" (No. 1, Alternative Songs; No. 5, Hot 100)

In 1997 (and only in 1997), The Verve Pipe and The Verve actually appeared together on the Billboard Hot 100 Airplay chart (now the Radio Songs chart). Frontman Brian Vander Ark said that his melodramatic power ballad “The Freshmen” was inspired by an ex-girlfriend getting an abortion, but the part of it that alludes to suicide was fabricated.

19. Tonic, “If You Could Only See” (No. 3, Alternative Songs; No. 11, Radio Songs)

When Tonic leader Emerson Hart was in his early twenties, he was in love with someone his mom did not approve of. In an interview with about "If You Could Only See," he unveiled the story behind the bands' biggest hit: "My family disowned me for about three years and the last conversation I had with my mother was, 'If you could only see the way she loves me, maybe you would understand.' I wrote that song, after that phone call, literally in a matter of minutes."

20. Smash Mouth, “Walkin' On The Sun” (No. 1, Alternative Songs; No. 2, Radio Songs)

Smash Mouth's debut single was all over radio in the summer of 1997, and No. 1 on the Alternative Songs chart for five weeks. Also impressive: the number of soundtrack credits the band has racked up over the years, from Can't Hardly Wait to Shrek -- Billboard even lists “All Star” as one of "The 22 Most Overplayed Songs in Movies." Speaking on the band's popularity, frontman Steve Harwell said, "I think our sound was very unique for the time. People would say 'I’ve never heard anything like this before.' The songs were very hooky. You have no choice but to keep singing them in your head all day long."