Top Ten Late 90s So-Cal One-Offs
y ’96, grunge had almost completely stagnated. Nirvana was long gone (and the Foo Fighters’ biggest hit was a jangly indie-pop tune), Pearl Jam were off becoming self-important, Alice in Chains had unplugged and Soundgarden were months away from breaking up. Even the second-stringers weren’t what they used to be-Scott Weiland cared far more about his next fix than his next album, bands like Sponge and Candlebox were good as blacklisted, and Bush were about to release one of the biggest sophomore slump albums in history. In the hopes of finding the next big thing in rock, all sorts of miscellaneous shit was thrown against the wall to see if it would stick. By the end of ’97, everything from big beat to ska to Spacehog and the Primitive Radio Gods was catapulted into the spotlight, all with admittedly little success. The next big thing was only a couple years away, but something was needed in the meantime. And what we ultimately got was late-90s So-Cal.
If that term doesn’t look as familiar to you as grunge or emo or even the New Rock Revolution, that makes sense, because it doesn’t really exist. In fact, to my knowledge, the movement was never named, nor was it even really recognized as a movement. But I don’t really see why that is-these bands all had a fairly common sound, albeit a relatively undefinable one. And it’s a sound that’s certainly worth remembering.
The roots of these bands are obviously from 1994, the year where the focus of the alternative rock scene shifted back from Seattle down to Southern California. Green Day, The Offspring and Rancid were making punk popular in the US for the first time, Weezer was sowing the seeds of what we now call emo, and Beck was throwing all sorts of ingredients into his sun-baked concoctions. But the sound of the bands in this article can be traced more directly to the success of three bands in 1996-311, No Doubt, and Sublime. These were bands that simply couldn’t be defined by only one qualifier-311 threw hip-hop in with their ska-influenced post-grunge, No Doubt were equal parts Madness, Go-Gos and Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Sublime soundtracked bong hits for reggae kids and punk kids alike.
These groups blew the door open for a sound that was a mix of almost everything going on in music at that point, equal parts pop, punk, hip-hop, electronic (too upbeat for trip-hop but too lazy for big-beat) and even a little ska. For the next three years, dozens of these bands piled onto the airwaves, providing no easy classification, but offering a glorious alternative to both the dourness of the post-grungers and the seriousness of the punk revivalists. However, the critical success of these bands was limited, as was their commercial longevity. Towards the end of ’99, the sound had been polarized into pop-punk and nu-metal by a bunch of naked guys and a dude in a backwards baseball cap, and, before long, alt-rockers started singing about their feelings instead of getting wasted. Super Cat never saw work in this country again, and by the start of the new millennium, all we had left to show for Late-90s So-Cal was the career of Incubus and a fluke #1 from a bunch of tattooed guys called Crazytown. The sunshine that brightened late-90s alternative had effectively been stolen.
So here are the ten best Late-90s So-Cal One-offs. You might not have heard of a couple, you probably have forgotten quite a few, and you are most likely under the impression that you never want to hear any of theses songs again-but trust me, there was more to the late 90s than Smash Mouth and “One Week”. So kick back, get a good mental picture of your favorite McG music video, and read on about the songs that alternative forgot.
10. Kottonmouth Kings - “Suburban Life”
OK, this is easily the worst song on the list, so don’t judge it too harshly for that. It’s still pretty fun-a bit too close to P.O.D. (and House of Pain, really) for my tastes, but you gotta love that metallic crunch on the chorus, and come on-“two turntables and a Heineken beer” is like the best mixtape title ever.
09. The Urge feat. Nick Hexum - “Jump Right In”
The Urge had been ska-ing for a decade before they finally hit the top ten with “Jump Right In.” Most likely this much-delayed success was due to the presence of 311’s Nick Hexum on the chorus, and admittedly it does give the song a huge boost, giving it a nice pop sensibility that the band didn’t approach in their earlier stuff. A kid I knew at school loved these guys a truly inexplicable amount-so Mike Nechemia, if you ever google your name and come up with this article, give me a ring.
08. Sprung Monkey - “Get ‘em Outta Here”
If it wasn’t for this article, it’s entirely likely that I would’ve gone to my deathbed without ever thinking of this song again, but once it got to the “trouble we could get into” refrain, I was singing along like Y100 hadn’t gone off the air. Definitely worth refreshing your memory about.
07. OPM - “Heaven is a Halfpipe”
OK, cheated a bit with this one-it’s technically from ’00, but it’s far too perfect for this list to be excluded on a mere technicality. From the loop of halfpipe-skating sounds that kick it off, to the ridiculously sunny piano chords to the huge, “Joy to the World” chorus-if this song doesn’t put a huge grin on your face, I don’t think I want to know you. And the lyrics-my god, those lyrics. “Now heaven would be a DJ / spinning dub all night long / and heaven would be just kickin’ back / with Jesus packin’ my bong / And if you don’t believe in Jesus / then Muhammad and Buddha too / and while the world is warring / we’d just sit back and laugh at you.” If Big Bird was a stoner, he’d write songs like this.
06. Forest for the Trees - “Dream”
Possibly the only song ever to both receive Buzz Clip status on MTV and have bagpipes provide the hook on the chorus. Apparently this was the brainchild of the dude who co-wrote and produced Beck’s “Loser,” and that seems logical enough-it’s got the same sort of kaleidescopic swirl to it, and it's completely addictive. Plus, has eastern mysticism ever come up with anything as mind-blowing as “I’m the first person / You’re the second person / Earlier today I was in the third person”? I seriously doubt it.
05. Citizen King - “Better Days (And the Bottom Drops Out)”
One of the largest crossover successes of Late-90s So-Cal, and deservedly so. “One foot in the hole / One foot getting deeper / Crank it to eleven / Blow it out the speaker.” Fuck yeah. Gotta love the bizarre samples on this one too, most hip-hop isn’t even close to this dense.
04. Space Monkeys - “Sugar Cane”
Perhaps not the best 90s alternative-rock song with that title, but certainly the second best. The song kicks in within about two seconds of its beginning, and it doesn’t let up for a second before the evil-sounding cackle that ends it. It’s equal parts “Semi-Charmed Life” and Screamadelica, hitting with the hookiness and non-stop rush of the former and packing the sampladelic bliss of the latter. The first time I heard this song, I predicted that it was going to be as big as “Fly.” Oh well.
03. Len - “Steal My Sunshine”
Talk about an inspired sample choice. Taken from perhaps the only song whose lighter-than-air bounce is more intoxicating than this one’s, Andrea True Connection’s “More, More, More,” Len’s “Steal My Sunshine” crossed over to almost every poplar radio market, and deservedly so-it had enough attitude for modern rock, but it’s still a pop song through and through, easily one of the most heavenly singles of the decade. And the video-is that what living in California is like all the time? Of course, these guys were actually Canadian, but from their awesome debut album, You Can’t Stop the Bum Rush (unfortunately the only album they ever cut), you’d never know it. Bonus points for being included in Go, arguably the definitive late-90s so-cal flick.
02. Sugar Ray - “Fly”
Sugar Ray always made for a fascinating case. They had all the makings of one-hit-wonderdom-mediocre alt-metal band goes pop for one song, comes up with a fluke crossover hit, rest of the album totally flops. But as his slaughtered opponents on Rock and Roll Jeopardy can attest to (come on, someone must have seen that episode besides me), you should never underestimate the genius of Mark McGrath. Not only was this song the breeziest, catchiest, most all-around wonderful rock/pop single of the year, but he did it twice more, in two different years, with “Every Morning” in ’99 and “When It’s Over” in ’01. He might not have known much else (well, with the exception of pretty much everything there is to know about the 80s), but the guy knew how to craft his lead singles.
01. Bran Van 3000 - “Drinking in LA”
And yet, the rest of this list feels small in insignificant in comparison to this song. Usually, my testimonials about “Drinking in LA” are met with comments like “oh yeah, I sort of liked that song when I was 15,” and I guess I can’t really blame them-most adult bands don’t put in references to Black Sheep and stage fake radio contests about band members’ favorite cheeses in their definitive single. But still, no song in history has been able to capture a certain feeling as well as this one-the feeling of utter despair at not having an aim in the world, missing something so unbelievably crucial but not being able to define what it is. And as such, this song fucking destroys me-a mere utterance of the words “Hi! My name is Stereo Mike” is enough to make me well up. 1,000,000x better a closing time song than “Closing Time,” one of the best singles of the decade, and proof beyond all doubt that nobody did So-Cal better than the Canadians.