Upon learning of the tragic news that the Cranberries’ frontwoman Dolores O’Riordan died earlier today of not-yet-known causes at the age of 46 — “suddenly,” according to reports — let’s revisit her band’s immense capacity for beauty.
Songs like “Linger” and “Zombie” briefly swallowed the alt-rock world in the early ‘90s, with a sound entirely this band’s own. They shared elements of their fellow Irish icons Sinéad O’Connor and U2 in their gigantic sound and bell-clear voicings, which O’Riordan would often stack on top of each other to create a whole congregation of herself, and somehow they managed to grab substantial radio time away from Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots.
Before Alanis Morissette or the Lilith Fair boom, O’Riordan had one of the most recognizable female voices in alternative, and at her best, one of the most impressive. Here are the band’s ten finest moments, some exceedingly familiar, and a few you probably missed.
10. “Promises” (Bury the Hatchet, 1999)
The Cranberries didn’t have a comeback hit in 1999, after the moralistic tangle of 1995’s To the Faithful Departed failed to endear itself to critics or fans. But they deserved one; fourth album Bury the Hatchet was their sharpest yet, relying on more concrete sounds (hard guitar strums, horn blats, even funky rhythms on “Copycat”) that in turn jelled into concrete songs.
First single “Promises” rocked as hard as Departed’s breakneck hit “Salvation,” with a better sense of what it’s doing, and it actually operated like a hard-rock song, beginning with 30 seconds of O’Riordan choral harmonies to build disquiet before the riff hits you like bricks. The Cranberries had a few epic moments (see 1994’s artsy fan fave “Daffodil Lament”), but “Promises” was their definitive epic rocker.
9. “Ridiculous Thoughts” (No Need to Argue, 1994)
This minor single from the Cranberries’ biggest album was one of its secret weapons, pairing a tough, inspirational chant (“You’re gonna have to hold on / Or we’re gonna have to move on”) with a one of those prevalent ‘90s slo-mo alt-rock breakbeats (see also: Goo Goo Dolls’ “Naked” or the Offspring’s “Self-Esteem”) and a jangling chorus melody paired with tense orchestration like prime Go-Betweens. While “Ridiculous Thoughts” was intended as an anti-press diatribe, today it feels like a statement of empowerment to continue on through whatever obstacles manifest, no matter how ridiculous.
8. “Ode to My Family” (No Need to Argue, 1994)
Atop, amidst, and below the most gorgeous harmonies that Dolores O’Riordan ever put to tape, the singer repeatedly laments “Does anyone care?” which adds a dark color to the otherwise sweetly arranged, circular melody and wholesome title of this No Need to Argue hit. Her observations about her mother and father don’t scratch far past the surface, but the ominous sad undercurrent of her singing suggested all kinds of broken pieces lurking underneath that even a lovely song couldn’t patch together.
7. “Analyse” (Wake Up and Smell the Coffee, 2001)
Sometimes when artists rip themselves off, it’s a travesty, as many Metallica fans could tell you about “The Unforgiven II.” But sometimes a song is just so amazing, its auteurs have to return to it a second time. So 2001’s “Analyze” was a shameless return to the Cranberries’ classic first single: its comforting blanket of a chord progression, its cavernous, echoing tambourine, its chiming arpeggios. If that’s what it took to create the band’s last great contribution to the dream-pop canon, then so be it; better to have two “Dreams” than one.
6. “Schizophrenic Playboy” (Roses, 2012)
The Cranberries’ last proper studio album came well after their multi-Platinum heyday, but its excellently titled centerpiece found the band in assured, confident form two decades after they debuted. While earlier attempts at frenetic, minor-key rockers like “I Just Shot John Lennon” often compromised their intensity with head-scratching lyrics, “Schizophrenic Playboy” doesn’t let anything stand in the way of its undeniable “la-da-da-da” hook, its neo-psychedelic string breakdown, or its nicely turned slap at crazy-men-who-turn-women-crazy: “Schizophrenic playboys/ Cannot handle their toys.”
5. “Loud & Clear” (Bury the Hatchet, 1999)
“Loud & Clear” is the perfect title for this excellent Bury the Hatchet deep cut, which frequently punctuates its forthright melody and call-response hook with attention-grabbing horn blasts. The absurdist chorus (“People are stranger/ People deranged, are”) would be appreciated by Jim Morrison, but the boisterous middle eight and odd structure (bridge, then verse, then wordless chorus all the way to the finish?) make it one of the most memorably playful entries in the band’s entire catalog.
4. “Linger” (Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?, 1993)
One of the great second-side openers of the ‘90s, the Cranberries’ biggest Hot 100 hit gathers steam with nearly a minute of massive fanfare introducing itself. The arrangement and wide-open production create a huge canyon that the song never seems to totally fill, even with layer upon layer of Dolores O’Riordan’s lush, rippling voice as though it builds and builds and ascends and ascends all the way to the finish. Before “Zombie,” they may have come off as lightweights, if something that essentially boiled down to folk-rock wasn’t treated with Zeppelin-sized heft like this.
3. “Zombie” (No Need to Argue, 1994)
The band’s biggest and heaviest alternative hit showed clearly why these Irish folk-derived melodists could play ball with ‘90s radio; they could crush an entire room with the combined largesse of Riordan’s ocean-swallowing voice, those thudding drums, and that bruising wave of distortion roiling back up with every chorus. They weren’t folk-anything at this point, but they weren’t quite grunge either: They were a startling unit of humble originals crushing the pop landscape from out of nowhere.
2. “You & Me” (Bury the Hatchet, 1999)
Prettiness is everything with the Cranberries, so for all of the iconicity of our No. 3 song, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that this list is topped by two heartbreakingly beautiful compositions. The lesser-known one is “You & Me,” an afterthought of a single from 1999 that decorated the familiar swell of resonating arpeggios and brushed drums with some electronic textures and a tastefully monolithic brass section underscoring the gorgeous refrain. An uncomplicated yet huge and tender song, this contained everything great about the Cranberries. All it lacked was cultural clout.
1. “Dreams” (Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?, 1993)
That’s where “Dreams” comes in. What a beauty, the layers here. The tom rolls, the 32 flavors of guitars (ringing chords, jangling individual notes, vibrating feedback and oscillating tremolo), and petal upon petal of O’Riordan’s out-of-time yodel, delivered with the confidence of a veteran band when they were just a bunch of newbs. They sounded ready to conquer the world. For a couple years, they did.