The Cranberries were one of the alt-rock era’s biggest successes. That’s true in numerical terms: The Irish band’s first two albums, 1993’s Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We? and 1994’s No Need To Argue, went platinum five and seven times over, respectively, yielding enough hit singles to keep the Cranberries all over alternative radio and MTV through the mid-’90s. It’s true in other ways, too, though — ways that are harder to measure, but more important in the long run.
When I heard yesterday that singer Dolores O’Riordan had died at age 46, I thought immediately of the Cranberries scenes in Clueless, that iconic text of teen life in the late 20th century, and Elif Batuman’s 2017 novel The Idiot. Others flashed to My So-Called Life or You’ve Got Mail or their own prom night. Some of these scenes use the Cranberries’ music to evoke a dreamy, romantic mood, others use it as the punchline to a sly joke. The reference works both ways because the songs are part of a shared cultural backdrop, both then and now. Just like with any great pop act, we heard the Cranberries so often that they became a mirror in which we can see any number of reflections winking back at us.
And the Cranberries are a great pop act, even if they’re not always credited that way. Early on, American journalists mostly compared them to U2 and Sinead O’Connor, neither of which is an especially illuminating connection (aside from the degree to which U2 influenced nearly all rock bands in the British Isles post-1980). More imaginative listeners drew a line back to the Smiths, whose engineer/producer Stephen Street took on the Cranberries as a client in the early ’90s, giving their first two albums a distinctive sighing sweetness. The other band Street was producing at the time was Blur, making the sleepy psychedelia of “Blue Jeans” and “Badhead” an interesting point of comparison for the Cranberries’ early smashes. Personally, I’ve often been struck by the shared aesthetic goals of the Cranberries and Radiohead circa Pablo Honey, with both bands generating sparks by rubbing grungy guitars up against subtle, sensitive voices.
Radiohead, Blur, and the Smiths are among the most revered artists of the past 35 years, but critics generally haven’t canonized the Cranberries at anywhere near the same level. It feels almost provocative to put all four names in the same sentence. Why? Partly because the Cranberries didn’t evolve enough over the long haul, and partly because they were better at singles than albums, both of which play into expectations about who does and doesn’t count as a genius. Fair enough, I guess. But there’s another dynamic at work.
NPR’s Ann Powers put it well yesterday after the sad news about O’Riordan: “As often happens to women in pop who start young and are perceived as girlish, she never got the respect she deserved.” Look back at the profiles and reviews published in the ’90s, and you’ll find writers observing how “petite” O’Riordan was, or comparing her looks to Audrey Hepburn’s, or musing on where she fit into the so-called “ethereal girl” genre. (And these were the writers who liked the Cranberries!)
O’Riordan and her voice were what made those songs into hits, but in our endlessly self-loathing society, they were also liabilities. The Cranberries made soft, vulnerable music — music that coded as feminine — and had a large fanbase of young women. For a long time, that meant that their work wasn’t taken as seriously as some of their peers’. Maybe you already love the songs on this list. If not, here’s where to start.
10. “Free To Decide” (from To The Faithful Departed, 1996)
The Cranberries’ third album had the bad luck to come after the first two Cranberries albums, whose astonishing success made a “junior slump” narrative more or less inevitable for the follow-up. It didn’t help that the lead single was “Salvation,” a preachy anti-drug song with an unfortunate ska breakdown and a creepy video. Look, the mid-’90s were a strange time. Where were we? Ah, right. The third Cranberries album. If you choose to take a hardline stance that only the first two LPs are worth revisiting, that’s perfectly defensible. But you’ll be missing out on some excellent songs, like this pissed-off gem, released as the second single from To The Faithful Departed. “Free To Decide” triangulates the jangle of “Dreams” with the frustration of “Zombie,” ending up sounding something like a Gen-X Gene Clark. O’Riordan said she wrote the song after a round of invasive tabloid coverage, and you can hear how much it got under her skin. “You must have nothing more with your time to do,” she sneers in the song’s best line. “There’s a war in Russia and Sarajevo, too.”
9. “Animal Instinct” (from Bury The Hatchet, 1999)
The Cranberries took some time off after To The Faithful Departed, returning three years later with their fourth album. The alt-rock revolution was over by then: The big chart hits with guitars in 1999 were songs like “Smooth” and Pearl Jam’s cover of the early-’60s ballad “Last Kiss.” The Cranberries, to their credit, came back with a single that suited the times in its unabashedly catchy melody and its bright, poppy production. The lyrics, meanwhile, are quite dark. O’Riordan rhymes “depressed” with “utterly and totally stressed,” later adding, “The thing that freaks me out/ Is I’ll always be in doubt.” The contrast draws you in, and “Animal Instinct” stands as the last great Cranberries single.
8. “Away” (“Zombie” B-Side, 1994)
The fact that this song was originally released as a Europe-only B-side speaks to the very high level that the Cranberries were operating on in ’94. “Away” has one of O’Riordan’s gentlest lead vocals, an aching melody, and a hymn-like lyric that could be about world peace or a loved one’s illness. Other bands would have given it a video and a radio budget; a few years later, Sixpence None The Richer would somehow contrive a whole career based on this song’s vibe. But the Cranberries barely bothered putting it out at all. Then, a year later, Clueless happened. “Away” is the song that the gross, boorish Elton sings at Cher Horowitz when they’re in his car. His rendition is awful, obviously, but the tune’s inclusion in the film, alongside “Rollin’ With The Homies,” “Alright,” “Fake Plastic Trees,” and that one Mighty Mighty Bosstones song, certified it as a sleeper classic.
7. “Yeats’ Grave” (from No Need To Argue, 1994)
There’s something so charming and unlikely about this album track from the Cranberries’ hugely popular sophomore effort. As the title implies, it’s a tribute to the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats, complete with references to his fraught relationship with the radical Maud Gonne and a dramatic mid-song reading of Yeats’ poem “No Second Troy.” That’s such a specific, nerdy thing to make a rock song about! I love it. O’Riordan’s lyrics have none of the late poet’s somber symbolism, because that’s not her style, but it still feels like a fitting dedication. The song’s simmering tension — like she just read a book of poetry and it set her on fire — is very Yeats. There’s a lot of drama in this 2:59 tune. More bands should make songs about poets and their thwarted affairs.
6. “Liar” (from Empire Records: The Soundtrack, 1995)
Another outtake from the Cranberries’ peak years that would have been A-side material for anyone else. Emerging from the sessions for the band’s debut LP, “Liar” has a golden-hour glow that’s unlike much else in their catalog, with the guitars and O’Riordan’s voice intertwining so sweetly that you could almost miss that it’s a song about someone she wants to beat up. “I will run, I will fight, I will take you through the night,” she sings with an air of cool menace. Lead guitarist Noel Hogan, who co-wrote most of the Cranberries’ hits, shines here with a riff that suggests Peter Buck in a relaxed zone. It’s one of O’Riordan’s most compelling vocal performances, too. Two years after its recording, “Liar” wound up in the teen movie Empire Records, and it’s had a devoted following among fans ever since.
5. “When You’re Gone” (from To The Faithful Departed, 1996)
This is one of the Cranberries’ simplest, prettiest songs — just a soft-spoken ballad about missing someone a lot, or loving them so much right now that you can’t help thinking about how much you’re going to miss them later on. “I feel like I’m sinking, sinking without you/ And to my mind, everything’s stinking, stinking without you,” O’Riordan sings over the understated doo-wop arrangement. The wording isn’t clever, but neither is a broken heart, you know? She sings about those helpless, lonely nights like someone who really knows how they feel. “When You’re Gone” has a timeless quality; it could have been a hit in 1956, 1966, 1976, or 1986, and in fact it was a medium-sized hit in ’96. Maybe it will reappear on the charts this week, if enough fans stream it. The version on Something Else, the acoustic greatest-hits album the Cranberries made in 2017, is a tearjerker.
4. “Ode To My Family” (from No Need To Argue, 1994)
“Does anyone care?” There’s something haunting about the way O’Riordan sings that line — first tentatively, at the end of each chorus, then repeating it again and again in the song’s final minute. On the surface, this is a song about warm memories of simpler times. O’Riordan said at the time that it was about “suddenly becoming successful and looking back home and wondering where my childhood went.” But that line is phrased as an open-ended question, like Bob Dylan asking “How does it feel?,” and she lets it stretch out into infinity as the chords chime on. Does anyone care? Listen to “Ode To My Family” long enough and you start to wonder.
3. “Dreams” (from Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?, 1993)
The first song the Cranberries released as a single is likely still their best-known — the one that, in theory, has been synced into enough movies, trailers, and sitcoms to sap it of all meaning. And yet! Press play on “Dreams.” Go ahead. See? The guitars ring out like the Platonic ideal of guitars in a pop song. O’Riordan’s voice trembles just a little as she sings, “Oh, my life/ Is changing every day/ In every possible way.” It’s the sound of falling in love. “Dreams” is such a hopelessly sunny song that it’s hard to believe it was released within a year of Nevermind. Teenage angst sells, but so does uncut bliss. “I want more, impossible to ignore,” she sang. The world agreed.
2. “Zombie” (from No Need To Argue, 1994)
“Zombie” might be the most divisive song in the Cranberries catalog. There are people who find its politics simplistic, or its chorus grating. Those people are so, so wrong. “Zombie” is the Cranberries’ biggest chart hit for a reason. It’s one of the ultimate artistic achievements of the grunge years, and one of the most indelible protest songs this side of “Ohio.” O’Riordan wrote it about an IRA bombing that killed two English kids in 1993, but her anger seems like it’s aimed less at the terrorists themselves than the regular people who were somehow OK with those tactics. “But you see, it’s not me, it’s not my family” — that’s the shruggy excuse that many implicitly offer when state or quasi-state violence is committed in their name, and O’Riordan’s rejection of this way of thinking is as relevant in America today as it was in Ireland during the Troubles. The righteous subject matter gives her and the band license to unleash the fury that’s just below the surface on many other Cranberries songs, with O’Riordan howling holy hell over a wall of distortion. The combination of her keening melody with the band’s untamed roar is why this song is so enduring, even if you glaze over the lyrics (as many who heard this on the radio in the ’90s likely did). It’s why Eminem sampled “Zombie” just a month ago, too. Decades later, artists are still trying to get a piece of this song’s energy.
1. “Linger” (from Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?, 1993)
Dolores O’Riordan wasn’t the original singer for the Cranberries. Back in Limerick circa 1989, when they were still called the Cranberry Saw Us, some other guy was their frontman; when he left, he recommended O’Riordan through a friend of a friend. She was 19. As soon as she joined the band, they achieved greatness, instantly, like alchemy. In the Cranberries’ 1995 Rolling Stone cover story, she remembered a cassette that guitarist Noel Hogan gave her after their first meeting. “They were just chord sequences that kept repeating, and then there might be a change for two chords,” she said. “But I liked the way there was loads of freedom.” That was enough for her to write the words and melody to “Linger,” which is not just the definitive Cranberries song but one of the best pop songs of all time.
“Linger” is about having a crush that you wish you could forget about. The chorus is a complaint: “You’ve got me wrapped around your finger/ Do you have to let it linger?” Someone has let her down, and she’s annoyed with herself for still caring. Those are the words. But everything else in the song — O’Riordan’s impossibly tender vocals, the orchestral swoon, the just-this-side-of-shoegaze guitars — says otherwise. “Linger” is really about luxuriating in that let-down feeling, letting it swirl around you like special romantic stardust, hoping it lasts forever. Everyone who’s been 19 has felt this way at some point, like your unrequited love is simultaneously the most painful thing in the history of the world and the most beautifully meaningful. It’s one of the ultimate “hey, I made you a mixtape” songs, and it still sounds perfect in the streaming age. Even punks love this song, because “Linger” goes beyond genre, beyond time and space. If I were making a new version of the Voyager Golden Record, I’d totally put this on there. “Linger” is eternal.