When her deal with MCA came to an end, Alanis Morissette was left without a label. After graduating high school, the singer moved to Toronto where she worked with various songwriters. It was during this time that she learned to play guitar and eventually met producer Glen Ballard, with whom she wrote and recorded the seminal album Jagged Little Pill.
Signing to Maverick Records, Jagged Little Pill was a turning point for Morissette’s career, with the album’s lead single You Oughta Know being placed on heavy radio rotation. The album spawned many hit singles, leading to Alanis winning four awards at the 1996 Grammy’s.
Following an 18-month world tour, Alanis took just a few weeks off before starting work on her next album Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie. Fans were less impressed with this record than the previous one and failed to connect with its overly verbose lyrics. Still, the album received good reviews and set the record for the highest first-week sales by a female artist.
Alanis Morissette’s next few albums, Under Rug Swept (2002), So-Called Chaos (2004), Flavors of Entanglement (2008) and Havoc and Bright Lights (2012) sold decently enough (especially in her native Canada) but failed to reach the zeitgeist heights of Jagged Little Pill. Of course, by this point in her career, the singer has built an enormous fan base, and the general public are always willing to get behind various anniversary reissues of Jagged Little Pill.
While she’s never managed to reach the heady heights of her peak, Alanis Morissette can rest easy knowing that she is responsible for one of the 90’s most iconic and celebrated albums, and has more than earned her place in the rock pantheon.
# 10 – 21 Things I Want in a Lover
A Brazil-exclusive single from Morissette’s 2002 album Under Rug Swept, “21 Things I Want in a Lover,” is often described as the record’s stand out song. The track begins with a distorted and crunchy guitar riff that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Rage Against the Machine album, though it soon takes second place in the mix to Alanis’ distinctive vocal stylings.
As the title suggests, the track sees the singer list the qualities she looks for in her prospective lovers. These range from practical and reasonable to comically obscure, cementing the track as an enjoyable romp with lyrics that are either relatable or so bizarrely specific that they’re bound to bring a smile to your face.
As well as the gritty central riff – which perfectly matches the head-nodding rhythm of the vocals – the instrumental features a light and breezy drumbeat, as well as some exquisitely pitched slower chords during the song’s chorus. Compared to the brash and bold verses, the instrumental of the chorus (and bridge) is somewhat more reserved and thoughtful. This cleverly echoes the song’s lyrics, where the verses are comprised of the artist’s audacious needs while the chorus sees her take the time to explain her thought process.
As with much of Alanis Morissette’s work, “21 Things I Want in a Lover,” is the perfect mix of alternative-rock infused pop and deeply personal, wry lyrics with just the right amount of tongue in cheek. Casual fans may be unfamiliar with this track, but it comes highly recommended.
# 9 – Crazy
This cover of Seal’s 1990 US breakthrough hit is, appropriately, one of Alanis’ more unusual tracks. Originally recorded for a GAP commercial, the James Michael mix of Crazy was released as the lead single from Morissette’s 2005 greatest hits album The Collection.
Perhaps as a nod to the original’s dance/electronic sound, this is one of few Morissette songs to feature electronic elements, which occur as pulsing synth pads throughout the song and echoed vocal elements during the second verse. Although these are a long way from the raw, guitar-driven sound she usually delivers, there’s something refreshing about Alanis tackling a slightly different genre for a change.
Alanis Morissette has stated that she chose to cover this song to poke fun at the way she was perceived. With a keen interest in yoga and spirituality, the media portrayed the singer as some kind of new age guru, which, coupled with her outspoken personality, allowed them to frame her as a left-field, wild card kind of character. Crazy allowed the singer to celebrate her unusualness, reframing it as a necessary coping mechanism and something to be encouraged.
This euphoric and joyous cover version showed a different side to Alanis Morissette, allowing her to intelligently use her media-imposed image to her advantage and deliver an excellent and thought-provoking oddity of a track.
# 8 – You Learn
You Learn was the fourth single to be released from the effortlessly flawless Jagged Little and the track even contains a title-drop during its first pre-chorus. This track sees Morissette reflect on how every experience in life – both positive and negative – is a learning experience, helping you to become a more rounded human being. During the album’s development, Alanis was robbed at gun point in Los Angeles. This resulted in her suffering from panic attacks and ended in hospitalization, but eventually, the artist learned to channel her emotions and distress into her music. There can be little doubt that this experience had a profound influence on the lyrics of You Learn, which give Morissette a cathartic opportunity to rid herself of the stress of her attack and try to get something positive from it.
The song begins with some sunny pop-rock chords, which permeate the majority of the song. This atmosphere is completely contrasted by the frantic and shrieked bridge, which, accompanied with a funky and edgy guitar solo, brilliantly represents the kind of negative experiences (such as the mugging) which give us an opportunity to grow.
The song ends on an extended vocal run, gradually increasing in pitch. Morissette manages to imbue these notes with a kind of transcendental magic, her rising voice somehow capturing the very essence of the song’s message. As she reaches the track’s final, uplifting note, the listener is left in no doubt that she has finally managed to overcome her difficulties and is finally at peace.
You Learn is a gorgeous – somehow cleansing – track, which accurately displays the genuine healing qualities that music can have.
# 7 – Guardian
The lead single from Alanis Morissette’s most recent album Havoc and Bright Lights (2012), Guardian is a straight up alternative rock song. The track features a blend of chunky, broad riffs as well as some mellow, melodic and thoughtful chords, even incorporating glittering chimes at one point.
As the relatively peaceful instrumental suggests, this is not the cynical and in-your-face Morissette from the 90’s. In fact, Havoc and Bright Lights was written just after the singer had given birth to her first child, and represents a previously unseen soft and maternal side to Alanis. As such, it is not surprising that the song’s lyrics are warm and tender, telling how Morissette intends to be the Guardian to whoever she’s singing to. In fact, she has stated that while the song could be referring to parent/child set up, it can equally be applied to romantic relationships, friendships and might even be about looking out for oneself. This open-ended narrative ensures that the song’s poignant lyrics can be understood by people from all walks of life.
It is not surprising that motherhood might tame the Jagged Little lioness since it is undoubtedly a fundamentally life changing event. Thankfully, becoming a parent has done nothing to change Morissette’s enviable talent for forging toe-tapping rock hooks and thoughtful lyrics. Guardian represents a more grown up but equally brilliant side to the singer, and must not be ignored.
# 6 – Precious Illusions
Precious Illusions was the second single from Under Rug Swept, and it is a sweet and bright pop-rock track. As with much of Alanis Morissette’s work, the song starts slowly, with some gentle strumming and raw vocals, but it’s not long until the drum beat creeps in, along with the song’s crisp and catchy chorus, giving the tempo just the boost it needed. The track’s core concept is that the idea of fairytale romance is simply a “precious illusion” – that waiting for someone to come and sweep you off your feet and live happily ever after is not a practical way to find happiness. The song makes it clear that, although it will be hard, parting with these fantasies is necessary to grow as a person, and that finding true happiness in life is entirely down to you and no one else.
The song’s music video reflects the track’s concept, using a split-screen to simultaneously show a fairytale love story and a more down to earth, realistic narrative. While some artists might make heavy handed attempts to incorporate this duality into the instrumental, Morissette keeps her music appropriately sweet and uncomplicated, using understated simplicity to excellent effect.
The words “bittersweet” and “life affirming” can be used to describe much of Alanis Morissette’s discography, but nowhere are they more relevant than on this underrated single.
# 5 – Hand’s Clean
Another track from Under Rug Swept, Hand’s Clean is a deeply personal song – even by Alanis Morissette standards – discussing a past relationship. What sets this apart from other songs about this topic is the shocking specifics discussed in the track – it is about a young, presumably underage, Alanis being in a relationship with an older man who works in the music industry.
The artist cleverly uses different points of view throughout the song, with the verses being comprised of statements made by the older man and the rest of the song being Morissette’s reflection on the affair – how she has kept quiet and brushed it under the rug (hence the album title). This genius narrative technique allows listeners to really get inside the head of the song’s characters, bringing them uncomfortably close to the seediness of the man’s lechery and manipulation.
Alanis Morissette manages to inject the instrumental with just a hint of the of the situation’s griminess, which somehow manages to drip from the jangly chords and distorted runs. Despite the song’s difficult, no doubt painful, subject matter, Alanis’ vocals sound pretty much the same as always, full of passion and honesty, and are surprisingly lacking the malice one might expect. This, along with the lyrics, seems to suggest that the song is not about revenge but is simply an opportunity for Alanis Morissette to be true to herself and stop self-censoring.
Hand’s Clean is a genuinely powerful song, seeing a woman who has been taken advantage of in the past finally move on and free herself of the burden of secrecy. A moving and truly essential listen.
# 4 – Thank U
Following the immense success of Jagged Little Pill, the world waited with baited breath to find out what Morissette would come up with next. Thankfully, she didn’t disappoint, releasing Thank U, a subtle, experimental number, as the lead single for her next album Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie.
Having finished a mammoth world tour, Alanis retreated to India for a few weeks of rest. This peaceful time seems to have been the main inspiration for the chorus’ lyrics, which, along with the country she visited, see her thanking a number of abstract things which have taken her to where she is today. Thanking “silence” is a particularly interesting thing for a musician to do, as their very livelihood depends on noise. The peace and quiet of stepping away from her crazy schedule clearly had a profound effect on the artist, and this is echoed by the song’s instrumental, which is comparatively subdued.
The track begins with a twinkly keyboard intro, a central hook which recurs throughout the song. Although it reaches some euphoric highs, especially during the chorus, as a whole, the song is rather mellow, which perfectly suits the self-help advice dished out during the verses.
Thank U’s music video gained notoriety for featuring Morissette singing while stood naked in various public places. A lesser song might have been overshadowed by this, but luckily Thank U, in all it’s dreamy, tranquil glory, was far too accomplished to let this happen.
# 3 – Ironic
There’s an old joke which goes something like “None of the things she lists in that song are ironic. American’s just don’t understand irony.” “No, the only thing ironic here is that Alanis Morissette is Canadian.” While it might be true that much of the lyrics are more unlucky than they are ironic, this minor semantic quibble does nothing to lessen the magnetic brilliance of this song
As well as being, arguably, one of the most recognizable songs from the 90’s, this track is deceptively catchy, building from a low-tempo acoustic strum to a boisterous singalong chorus. Morissette’s multi-track vocals during the song’s hook are almost impossible to resist, practically begging listeners to add their own raucous voices to proceedings.
While perhaps not being ironic, there can be no doubt that the innumerable coincidences the singer lists during the song aren’t truly hilarious. Alanis’ rich and varied tones only add to the song’s atmosphere, and they’re so lively and full of character that it’s almost like catching up with the humorously disaster-filled life of an old friend.
It may take a few spins to fully appreciate the song’s lyrics but multiple listens will also enhance your experience of the track’s instrumental. The bass line of this song is often overlooked, but if you pay close attention, you’ll be treated to some fuzzy and funky riffs which the song would suffer without.
This is one of Morissette’s best-known tracks but is has earned this status for a reason. Some people might not be able to look beyond the song’s divisive lyrics, but they will be missing out on a riotous pop-rock classic.
# 2 – You Oughta Know
Yet another masterpiece from Jagged Little Pill, this double-Grammy winning lead single is one of Alanis Morissette’s most candid and impassioned songs, in which she feverishly shouts and snarls over an alternative rock instrumental. This bitter break up track starts slowly – almost as if the artist is attempting to be polite and is holding in her true feelings – but soon drops all pretense of peace and turns into a tirade of smirked, angry comments about her ex-boyfriend’s current relationship.
The song’s chorus is one of Alanis’ absolute best – endlessly catchy, infinitely relatable and full of genuine, infectious fire. The song’s instrumental is the perfect partner to this passion – full of melodious, sometimes-crunchy guitar and some wonderfully squelchy bass, courtesy of Dave Navarro and the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Flea, respectively.
Despite the song’s continued popularity, it was only a minor hit upon release, perhaps because it marked a huge departure from the singer’s previous family-friendly teen pop star image. Indeed, the track was at the forefront of a 90’s movement of female musicians introducing frank and sexually explicit lyrics into their songs, cementing Morissette as somewhat of a feminist icon.
Alanis Morissette has been rather coy about the identity of the unfortunate man who wronged her so badly, but somewhere out there is a guy who knows exactly what he did, and that millions of people around the world have rocked out to the furious and fevered results of his actions. We should probably thank him.
# 1 – Hand In My Pocket
The second single from Jagged Little Pill couldn’t be more different from its predecessor. While You Oughta Know is intense, angry and caustic, Hand In My Pocket is lush, laid back and rather lovely. Oughta Know is a sour breakup song while Pocket is a chilled out proclamation that everything will ultimately turn out ok – and who doesn’t need a reminder of that every now and again?
The verses’ various paradoxical statements which put “bad” things into perspective serve as necessary reminders about what is really important in life. It’s lyrics like this which are surely responsible for the positive feelings most people have towards Alanis, after all, have you ever met anyone who actively disliked her? It’s hard to have ill feelings towards someone who seems so warm, down to earth and genuine.
The track features a pleasant instrumental, with broad guitars and some robust bass, but there can be no doubt that the song’s biggest attraction is its lyrics, with the chorus’ ever changing last line being an absolute masterstroke of songwriting. That’s not to say the instrumental isn’t exceptional, though. It’s suitably downplayed and delightfully airy, with the bridge’s harmonica (a criminally underused instrument) being the cherry on the top of an exquisite alternative rock cake.
Hand In My Pocket might not be the singer’s most outrageous track, but sometimes all you need from rock music is a reminder that things are never as bad as they seem. This superlative track provides just the necessary breath of fresh air to remind us that everything’s going to be fine.
Over her 26-year career, Alanis Morissette has taken on a number of roles – teen pop idol, vengeful ex-lover, feminist, self-help guru and mother, to name but a few. But whatever aspect of her character she’s channeled, the artist has consistently created memorable and important songs which have soundtracked a generation. While Jagged Little Pill remains her magnum opus, as this list has shown, her discography is infinitely impressive, and she has rightfully earned her status as a rock goddess.
Updated November 9, 2020