Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s is back for 30 more episodes to try to answer those questions. Join Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla as he treks through the soundtrack of his youth, one song (and embarrassing anecdote) at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. In Episode 75 of 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s—yep, you read that right—we’re exploring “Zombie” by the Cranberries.
The Cranberries formed in Limerick, Ireland, in 1989. It started out with Noel, Mike, Fergal, and a guy named Niall singing, and the band was initially called the Cranberry Saw Us. If you write anything of any length for any publication about this band, you are apparently legally obligated to point out that that band name is dumb. Niall bails. Niall does, however, recommend a replacement: a friend of his girlfriend’s older sister. Dolores O’Riordan is the youngest of seven kids, all boys, all brothers, except for one older sister. As Dolores will later tell Rolling Stone, “My mom always had a softer spot for boys, as a lot of Irish women do. If you were a girl, you’d have to sing or wear a pretty dress. But boys could just sit there and be brilliant for sitting there and being boys. It makes you that little bit more forward. Pushy. I was singing, always.”
In fact, when Dolores is 5 years old she’s already singing so well and so powerfully that her school principal makes her stand on a desk and sing for all the 12-year-olds; when Dolores is 7 years old, her older sister accidentally burns the family house down. That’s what you get for making me wear a dress. When Dolores is 18 years old she auditions as the new lead singer for a band that will soon mercifully be renamed the Cranberries. She gets the gig. Noel gives her a cassette tape with some instrumental tracks. Dolores takes the tape home and takes a shot at whipping up some lyrics and melodies. Here’s what she comes up with.
She writes fucking “Linger.” Good lord. It’s not exactly a deep cut, but this still might actually be my favorite Harmonizing Doloreses moment, the angelic soprano trill while the other two Doloreses enter the phrase “You know I’m such a fool for you” into the permanent record. The steeliness of Sinéad O’Connor and the ethereal grace of Enya, if we wanna get all Irish about it.
The staccato melodic tap dance of “You got me wrapped around your finger” is quite memorable as well.
I have a weirdly vivid and specific memory of hearing “Linger” on the radio for the first time that’s so random and mundane I don’t know if it’s of any use to you at all, and this is me saying that in the 75th episode of this show. I was on the JV basketball team in high school despite sucking at basketball. I was the tallest kid on the team but I had no skills, no hustle, no anima. I was an oaf, right? You can picture this quite clearly even if you have no idea what I look like. I was like the ur-oaf. I shoulda just quit but I didn’t want to quit because I was tall and this is what tall people do, right? How could I betray my nature? I’m not outlandishly, alert-the-media tall or anything, but I’m tall enough that dudes who really like sports get mad at me when they find out I’m not especially athletic. I’ve had dudes tell me everything they would’ve accomplished, in sports and in life in general, if they were as tall as me. Stop talking to me. How about you keep me out of it? So I come home from basketball practice, I sucked again, I’m sulking in my bedroom, I’m depressed, whatever, and I got my combo radio/tape deck/CD player blasting of course, and “Linger” is on the radio, and I’m like entranced, as 15-year-old oafs are generally not entranced. The song starts slow and mellow and sorta fades in: Do not underestimate how breathtaking a moment this can be if you’re not prepared for it.
And from that moment forward I just sit down on my bed and shut my yap and listen. “Linger” did not compel me to quit the team or stay on the team and hustle more. In fact I stayed on the team and just kept sucking. “Linger” didn’t inspire me to do anything in any concrete sense. It just made me feel better. Like much better. For no tangible or logical reason. I am eternally grateful to this song for that moment. I don’t know if any song I’ve ever heard on the radio in any other situation has ever changed my mood—and de facto improved my mood—as instantly and radically as “Linger” did. That’s the memory. I made 10 out of 11 free throws in what turned out to be my last year on the basketball team. That’s a real stat. That’s a 91 percent free throw percentage, if you round up.
I don’t want to go overboard in framing the Cranberries as dude-bro counterprogramming right here in 1993 and ’94. It’s true that we’re in the Golden Age of grunge or alt-rock or whatever: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Soundgarden, Weezer, Stone Temple Pilots, Green Day, et cetera are all at or near their commercial if not spiritual peaks, in this moment. U2 are also still in God Mode at this point. They’re Irish as well. But I’m looking at Billboard’s year-end Hot 100 for 1994 and “Linger” is at no. 49, right above Beck’s “Loser.” But this year-end list, we got Sheryl Crow, we got 10,000 Maniacs, we got Melissa Etheridge a couple of times, we got Lisa Loeb: “Stay (I Missed You)” was the sixth-biggest song of 1994. We also, by the way, have none of the dudely rock bands I just mentioned, in the year-end 1994 Hot 100. No Green Day, no Nirvana. If anything, the dude-bros are the counterprogramming. But nobody is jangling more immaculately, or with more mood-improving muscle behind it, than the Cranberries.
This song is called “Sunday.” If you personally have never gone through a Smiths phase, this song will instantly trigger your Smiths phase and it’s not even by the Smiths of course. Look out for the Harmonizing Doloreses on the second mystify here.
Arrrrgh. All right. I was oddly saddened recently when I read that Dolores O’Riordan, of the Cranberries, and Shirley Manson, of the excellent rock band Garbage, never met, according to Shirley. Never met in real life. Another thing I am guessing you already know about Dolores O’Riordan is that she died in 2018, in a bathtub in a London hotel room, after what was officially ruled an accidental drowning after heavy drinking. She was 46. Generally on this show I don’t like waiting around to address a shocking tragic death like this; generally on this show, when I remember to, I describe everything and everyone in the present tense, even when I’m talking about stuff that’s happening in like, 1993. These two impulses of mine are related, I think.
But so The Huffington Post is interviewing Shirley Manson about a month after Dolores dies, and Shirley says, “I didn’t know her, and I never had the pleasure of meeting her, but we were always like ships passing in the night: We were often on the same bills or at the same festival but on different nights. I know we shared a lot of our fans who loved both bands. When ‘Linger’ was at the height of its popularity, we were making our first record, so I have very strong memories of her, and I loved her voice. I think what hit me the most when I heard the news about her passing was that it really shook me because I thought, ‘Oh, they’re coming for my generation now. This is it.’ When Bowie died, I was really shaken by that too, because he was the first male rock star that I fell in love with or that I was ever really obsessed with and who had a big influence on my music and my style. So it was a big loss for me when he left, and I remember when he died I thought, ‘Our generation is next.’ But when Dolores died, I thought, ‘I was right. Here we go.’ It’s frightening, you know?”
‘Our generation is next’ is pretty objectively the most upsetting part of what Shirley says there, but I had a brief but quite a heavy feeling of loss, reading that she’d never met Dolores, I guess because I just assumed they were best friends. There’s a geographical silliness to my assumption there: Shirley is Scottish, Dolores is Irish, don’t all Scottish people know all Irish people and vice versa? But for whatever reason it really bummed me out that they never met, that they never commiserated, that they never laughed together at all the doofuses calling them badasses, that they never did a duet or a karaoke night or a Boygenius-esque side project. I did enjoy the thought of Garbage, in the studio, making that rad first self-titled Garbage record that came out in ’95, and Shirley’s hearing Dolores singing “Linger” on the radio all the time, and deriving some amount of subconscious strength from it. Another thing that made me feel better for no good reason was just imagining Dolores singing Garbage songs. Dolores O’Riordan singing “Only Happy When It Rains.”
Just the two of them on some towering festival stage together, and Dolores is doing the backing vocals there, “Pour your misery down.” Part of why it’s so easy, and so tempting to imagine Dolores O’Riordan singing Garbage songs is that even on this first Cranberries record, even with very much a pristine and autumnal Smiths-ian core, you can imagine her singing anything, and taking this band anywhere, and growing in power as her voice grows in ferocity. This song is called “Not Sorry” and you oughta be relieved that it’s almost definitely not about you.
To hear the full episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.