Coming off my recent viewing of the stupendously awesome new Broadway show Jagged Little Pill, inspired by the Alanis Morissette album of the same name, I thought I'd make a list of my favorite Alanis songs. Why not indeed?
I first became aware of Alanis while working at Strawberries record store in the summer of 1995. One of the promotional tapes we were required to play on a loop all day long included two of her hits, "All I Really Want" and "Hand in My Pocket." Being a fairly narrow-minded teenage metalhead at the time, my first response to these tunes was "What's with all the goddamn caterwauling??" As with so many artists and bands I eventually came to love, I couldn't stand these songs initially. My brain simply wasn't ready to accept this unconventional alt-rock approach to popular radio music. But then I had to hear them once every hour, and of course they grew on me like a fungus. Soon after that, my sister told me about another song called "You Oughta Know," and I was surprised it wasn't on the Strawberries tape (for what later became obvious reasons). When I finally did get to hear it, via MTV, it broke my mind-hole and I immediately exercised my Strawberries employee discount to buy the Jagged Little Pill cassette. On first listen I fell in love with both the album and Alanis herself (she was a MAJOR celebrity crush of mine for a few years). I'd never heard pop music with such raw, emotive honesty; I felt like the album reframed my entire worldview, the way you come out of a productive therapy session with a new lease on life. It was poignant, hopeful, sad, derisive, healing, and on top of that irresistibly hooky. I was a superfan.
I got to see Alanis in concert a year later, and her visceral stage presence and vocal power absolutely blew me away; I actually liked some of her live versions better than the recordings. Twenty-plus years later I still consider that one of the best live shows I've ever seen.
Morissette's other albums haven't had the significance for me that JLP did (I imagine that's probably true for many), but seeing the new Broadway show gave me new layers of appreciation and love for the seminal record.
But enough about me, let's talk about songs for a minute. Here are my ten favorite Alanis Morissette songs (plus four Honorable Mentions)....
For a full review of the Jagged Little Pill Broadway show, click HERE.
HM: All I Really Want
My gateway Alanis song was this JLP opener, a contemplative tune about what she wants out of a relationship and life in general. It right away spotlighted her offbeat delivery and lyrical playfulness, and while it's not a tippy-top favorite for me, "All I Really Want" nonetheless holds a special place as the song that converted me into a fan.
HM: Head Over Feet
This sweet, tender love song was among the first collaborations between Alanis and her longtime producer/co-writer Glen Ballard. Its simple chord progression and gentle lyrics about falling in love with your best friend made it a natural radio single, and it immediately became one of her most popular songs.
HM: Joining You
Boasting a Sting-like chorus hook, "Joining You" is about Alanis reaching out to a troubled friend going through a deep depression, saying "I've been where you are, and if I thought we as human beings were reduced to our worst and simplest qualities I'd still be there with you."
HM: Hands Clean
The first single off Under Rug Swept, "Hands Clean" is almost a sequel to "Right Through You," about a music business mentor that took advantage of Alanis when she was young and swore her to secrecy. While "Right Through You" was rife with resentment and anger over the situation, "Hands Clean" is her way of moving past the episode and forgiving herself for keeping quiet about it.
One of two songs written during a 1997 trip to India (the other being "Thank U"), "Baba" directs Alanis's attention to a spiritual leader, expressing skepticism and impatience at the teachings being presented. It comes across as a questioning piece in the vein of The Beatles' "Sexy Sadie," which metaphorically discussed the band's disillusionment with the Maharishi following their own India trip. The metal-esque guitar riffs caught my ear immediately, making this an early standout from Alanis's second US album Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie.
9. Not the Doctor
This brutally frank song about a one-sided relationship kicks off with a bouncy acoustic guitar and lyrics warning that the speaker doesn't want to be the subject of co-dependency or be tasked with fixing the other person. Lyrically it serves as the first of a two-part piece about this idea, the second being "Wake Up," where Alanis expresses no patience for a partner who lacks strength of character. As a college student I found this pair of songs kind of intimidating; I never wanted to be "that guy."
8. Thank U
Conceived while she was in the shower, the first single from SFIJ was an awakening and acceptance of sorts for Alanis, as she expressed gratitude for every hardship and curve ball thrown in her way. After all, it's our experiences and decisions, good and bad, that make us who we are, and this song expresses that sentiment beautifully. The video depicts Alanis, nude, walking around the streets of LA, a metaphor for being totally unguarded and vulnerable, ready for whatever life has in store.
7. You Learn
Written as catharsis after a mugging incident left Alanis suffering daily panic attacks, "You Learn" is a straightforward pop song about using every negative life experience as an opportunity for growth. Life is a series of mistakes and failures; the key is to learn and grow from them. "You Learn" is pop music-as-therapy (and thus a perfect closer for the Broadway show).
Alanis's first single after her Jagged Little Pill success was this simple, atmospheric dirge used for the City of Angels soundtrack. Driven by piano and strings, the song starts out sparse and gentle but gradually builds to a powerful climax, bringing to mind the Sgt. Pepper-era orchestration of The Beatles. At first glance the lyrics seem to involve her uncertainty in starting a new romantic attachment, but in interviews Alanis has revealed that it's probably more about her adjusting to worldwide fame and the constant invasion of privacy that comes along with it. Regardless of its meaning, "Uninvited" is still one of her most haunting compositions.
5. Wake Up
The aforementioned companion piece to "Not the Doctor" seems to be about similar subject matter - Alanis issuing a final warning to an inattentive and ineffectual lover to get his shit together or get out. But it can also be read as a piece about gender inequality, and with that subtext feels incredibly relevant 25 years later. The line in particular that stands out is "There's an apprehensive, naked, little trembling boy with his head in his hands/And there's an underestimated and impatient little girl raising her hand." Maybe it's finally time for this worldwide patriarchy built on male fragility/insecurity to come to an end, hmm? Just a thought. This is one of Alanis's most lyrically powerful songs.
Sung from the point of view of God talking to his imperfect, violent, petty creation called humanity, this tune written for the film Dogma (in which Alanis fittingly plays the role of God) literally makes me want to weep openly whenever I hear it. I'm not a spiritual person by any means, but for some reason the idea of a deity scolding her interchangeably best and worst creation but still professing love for them is absolutely overwhelming. Humanity is capable of great and horrifying things, but even when we seem to have lost our way, hope survives. Lyrically this might be Alanis's most beautiful song.
3. Right Through You
Alanis has two songs that choke me up by way of their sheer righteous fury. One of them is "Right Through You," a scathing rebuke of certain predatory music industry scumbags with whom she had run-ins early in her career, and who used their positions of power to leverage sexual favors out of young, aspiring artists. Set to an upbeat grungy backdrop, Alanis smokes these record label fatcats with lines like "You took me out to wine, dine, sixty-nine me, but didn't hear a damn word I said," and "Now that I'm Miss Thing/Now that I'm a zillionaire/You scan the credits for your name and wonder why it's not there." Justified anger in music gets me every time, and this song is a scorchingly potent example.
Maybe Alanis's most purely powerful song is this guitar-heavy, double-edged contemplation of her strict Catholic upbringing, wherein she expresses both resentment toward the sexual repression she was taught, and hope that if she rekindles her faith she'll be accepted in spite of her independent lifestyle. "Forgiven" features one of her most soaring vocal hooks and probably the heaviest rock instrumentation in any of her songs, thus it was an immediate favorite of mine when I bought the album. Further, its tonal dichotomy of defiance and supplication has always been fascinating.
1. You Oughta Know
Alanis's greatest, most iconic song, the one that put her on the international map, is this scornful, aggressive breakup track released as Jagged Little Pill's first single. Featuring a brilliant pair of instrumental assists from Flea and Dave Navarro, "You Oughta Know" became a post-grunge milestone and proved one of the most ferociously honest separation songs of all time. It was the tune that launched her to superstardom and provided an anthem for jilted lovers of both genders, and it's forever the song with which Alanis Morissette will be most closely identified. This song is an all-time great.
And with that, our Alanis countdown comes to an end. Comment below with your top ten lists!
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