Critic's Notebook: Why The Cranberries' "Dreams" Is One of the Greatest Songs of All Time

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Dolores O'Riordan

Though not as big a U.S. chart hit as its follow-up "Linger," the 1992 single has endured exceedingly well, and today stands as one of the group's best-remembered (and most frequently covered) hits.

The rock world suffered yet another tragic loss on Monday with the death of Cranberries frontwoman Dolores O'Riordan, one of the genre's truly inimitable — though thousands have undoubtedly tried, over countless ill-advised karaoke sessions — voices of the last 30 years. O'Riordan was capable of articulating seemingly inexpressible emotions, both through her towering cry and her intimate songwriting, resulting in some of the most indelible pop/rock hits of her generation.

The best example of O'Riordan's gift for blending stunning strength with exquisite fragility was likely "Dreams," a strikingly lush love song that served as the group's 1992 debut single. Though not as big a U.S. chart hit as its follow-up "Linger" — the song would only hit the Billboard Hot 100 upon its 1994 rerelease, peaking at No. 42, after the runaway top 10 success of "Linger" — "Dreams" has endured exceedingly well and is one of their best-remembered (and most frequently covered) hits.

Here are 10 reasons why "Dreams" stands as a classic, and will undoubtedly be one of the first songs fans are thinking of today.

1. The synths. Waves of arpeggios that crash resoundingly from the opening chord, a near-flood of instant feelings. Synths weren't exactly the quickest path to success in post-grunge, post-'80s alternative, making their usage on "Dreams" that much more jarring and overpowering a thing to hear on '90s rock radio.

2. The heartbeat percussion. If the synths are the blood rushing through the veins of "Dreams," then the drums and bass are doing the pumping. Slow and steady but insistent, they maintain the song's pulse throughout the verses, which — in the style of the times — see the song pull back from its explosive intro, tensing up for another later burst.

3. "Oh my life/ Is changing every day / In every possible way." Not as instantly epochal as "Load up on guns and bring your friends" or "Do you have the time to listen to me whine?" perhaps, but just as powerful an opening statement, and just as economically expressed. In the context of "Dreams," it's almost certainly about love's continually existence-altering effect, but it's relatable for anyone going through an all-consuming transitional period in his or her own life — likely why the song found its way to Angela Chase's bedroom in an episode of the iconic '90s teen-angst TV drama My So-Called Life.

4. The verse harmonies. The only thing more powerful in '90s alternative than one of O'Riordan's singular wails? How about two of 'em? The singer doubled up on her vocal on the verses to "Dreams" in absolutely gorgeous self-harmony, allowing her to play both falsetto'd fantasy and grounded reality at once — the deliberate phrasing of the lyrics making it sound like she's trying to reason with herself, and not entirely succeeding.

5. "I know I felt like this before/ But now I'm feeling it even more." Another absolutely perfect lyric, two seven-word lines that effortlessly encapsulate the rush of a newly experienced level of romance, with barely any specific description. The next line — "Because it came from you" — adds further clarification just in case, but it's totally unnecessary.

6. The vocal breaks. Most '90s bands would've left the hypnotic swirl of "Dreams" uninterrupted; others might've tried to saw it in half with a ripping guitar solo. But only the Cranberries would've cleared out for eight bars just let their singer go to town with octave-scaling, spine-tickling "la-aa-daayyyy-yaaaaa"s — they knew O'Riordan was their greatest weapon as a group, and they were determined not to waste any of its ammo.

7. "You're a dream to me." It doesn't show up until the very last line of the last verse, which seems like it's just a repeat of the song's opening verse, until O'Riordan unexpectedly swaps out her final "Never quite as it seems" for this closing sentiment. Like most of the best "Dreams" lyrics, it's almost simplistic in its austerity, but due to the unexpectedness of its arrival and the ecstasy of O'Riordan's breathy delivery, it's an absolute wallop.

8. No chorus. There are so many instantly unforgettable moments throughout the verses and breaks to "Dreams" that you might not even notice there's no real chorus to speak of — the double-tracked vocal sections feel like a prelude to a refrain that never shows up, and the only lyrics that repeat are the previously mentioned opening lines. It works to the song's benefit, though, making it sound less rote and more personal, and giving it an air of inscrutability matched by its vague title and enigmatic music video.

9. Soundtracks. Filmmakers just could not get enough of "Dreams" in the '90s, plopping it into Quentin Tarantino-approved Hong Kong dramas and Tom Cruise-starring action blockbusters alike, as well as numerous TV shows — all hoping to absorb its cinematic grandeur, with varying degrees of success. Hard to blame any of 'em for trying: The song's windswept majesty hits with such immediacy that its use in the background turns any onscreen moment into a pivotal one, the kind of emotional shortcut that musical supervisors are only gifted a handful of times in a decade.

10. The outro. "You're a dream to me" may be the last lyric in the song, but it's far from O'Riordan's final statement: As the band tees her up with the song's main groove, the lead Cranberry reaches back and unleashes another wordless, endlessly syllabic "laaa-daaaa" howl for the ages. This time, though, she's eventually paired with a voice that isn't her own, as then-boyfriend Mike Mahoney twists a yawp of his own around hers, the two winding up in perfect harmony. The rest of the band eventually stops playing and lets the duo have the floor to themselves, as if they're too enraptured with the vocal showcase to concentrate on anything else anyway.

It's a huge, jaw-dropping moment — one few bands match in a lifetime's worth of work, let alone on a debut single. But what makes it such a killer at the end of "Dreams" is the way the song earns it first, with a number of smaller, more lightly shaded moments that ensure the song has already connected with listeners on a personal, almost private level, before it sledgehammers them with such a visceral vocal onslaught. Without it, it's still one of the greatest songs of the Buzz Clip era. With it, it's basically '90s "Free Bird."

This story first appeared on Billboard.com.