Fifty Years of Great Music: The Top 100 Songs of the 1990s


Oh, we’re getting close now. But before we can get to what we’ve all been waiting for with the best of the 2000s, let’s take some time to peruse the decade that influenced my passion for music. Because it was the era that I “came of age” with the form, this is also my favorite collection of all five groups (not best, mind, but favorite). Even slumming in mediocrity gives a minor thrill purely for the memory (hell, I own dozens of mediocre records from the era that, gosh darn it, I still kinda like). And since the majority of the first hundred or so CDs I bought came from the 90s, that means I’ve played and replayed the songs and albums from this span more than any other. And yet, as it is by necessity, there have been countless records during the decade that I only discovered after the new millennium began; I even deemed to include a handful I only finally got around to in the last few years. But with familiarity and previously close-minded preferences making their presence known, it was difficult to abandon so many “classic” songs I was weaned on. While I continue to stress eclecticism (no artist had more than three entries this time), it’s not difficult to discern where I came from based on the evidence below.

As for the 90s as a whole, it’s really just as ugly a wasteland as the 80s was when it came to the charts. Modern rock stations and alternative radio had quite a few winners, but the US Billboard Top 40 was cluttered with pop tripe, soulless R&B and one-hit wonders arguably even more ghastly than the ones from the last decade (ahem, "Macarena"). But while the evolution, advancements and progressions (and degressions) of hip-hop and electronic music were notable, really, this decade was all about the rise and fall of alternative rock and the massing of the indie aesthetic toward the future of (good) pop music. Following this trend on MTV (of all places) was one of the only suitable methods for suburbanites like myself before the Internet age was in full bloom—at least it came during a time when they actually played the occasional great music video (or played music videos at all).

Obviously, my selective love of 90s music has once again forced me to leave off plenty of deserving tunes. Not counting the massive number of tracks from artists already represented below, I had no room for (in alphabetical order): Afghan Whigs, Air, Tori Amos, the Apples in Stereo, Arab Strap, Belle & Sebastian, Belly, Black Star, Brad, Cake, “Christiansands,” “Coming Down Glass,” Company Flow, the Cranberries, “Criminal,” Bob Dylan, “Echo’s Answer,” Fugazi, “Green Machine,” Guided by Voices, Helmet, “Hypnotize,” “Lucky Denver Mint,” Mad Season, Aimee Mann, “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” Mercury Rev, “Metal Heart,” “Midnight in a Perfect World,” Modest Mouse, Morphine, “Music Sounds Better with You,” Nas, “New Noise,” “No More Tears,” “No Rain,” “Nub,” “Obvious,” Orbital, OutKast, Primus, “Pumping on Your Stereo,” Queens of the Stone Age, “Rebel Girl,” “Rebirth of Slick,” “Savory,” “Seether,” “Send Me on Your Way,” “Shook Ones Part II,” Silver Jews, “Slack Motherf-cker,” “Smack My Bitch Up,” Spiritualized, Suede, the Sundays, Super Furry Animals, “Swastika Eyes,” “Synapse,” Temple of the Dog, They Might Be Giants, “This Is How We Walk on the Moon,” Throwing Muses, “Tomorrow,” Uncle Tupelo, Tom Waits, “Witness,” “You Could Be Mine,” “You Oughta Know,” and dozens more.

And now, the Top 100 songs of the 1990s:

100stars100. Stars
by Hum
from You’d Prefer an Astronaut
1995 / Rock

The first time I heard Hum was on Beavis and Butthead, where the brain-dead duo watched the “Stars” video only to find the first power chord firing off and fading back to silence. They thought it had in ended after only about ten seconds. Butthead quipped, “Well, that was pretty cool. I mean, it sucked, but at least it was short. They should make ‘em all this short.” Then they changed the channel. Funny, but also sad that bad timing, missed opportunities and poor exposure forced the band to eventually call it quits after lousy sales. “Stars” might have been the closest that space rock came to touching the mainstream in the 90s, which basically meant that it was post-grunge with prettier distortion and bigger dynamic shifts, and that the lyrics were far too loopy and fractured to even be categorized as mopey angst—no one knew for sure what any of it meant. “Stars” was also catchier than most in the interstellar niche, a morose ballad broken up by big, beautiful guitar flares that demands the attention that Beavis and Butthead wouldn’t pay.

99naturalone99. Natural One
by Folk Implosion
from the Kids soundtrack
1995 / Alternative

Folk Implosion’s ode to promiscuity and hedonism was a natural fit for Larry Clark’s Kids, which offered a jaded, uncompromising but not entirely inaccurate look at troubled youths (it was also unfocused and ultimately unsatisfying, but that’s for another debate). A side project for Lou Barlow, you can’t hear any Dinosaur Jr. or Sebadoh in “Natural One” (besides muffled vocals), but then again, you can’t hear a lot of latter-era Folk Implosion here either—it’s more mellow dance funk than their timid lo-fi allowed (though there are a couple of exceptions). Against trend, the studio technique increased its success on both a critical and commercial basis. The jaded members of Gen X certainly lapped it up—“I can love how I like if I want it/Whatever keeps me high…The world is falling down and it may as well crash with me.” Slack and cotton-mouthed assured its alt-rock cred, but hook after hook made it the unexpected hit it became; as a product of its time, maybe you forgot about it, but pressing play ensures an instant nostalgia trip.

98nuthinbutagthang98. Nuthin’ But a “G” Thang
by Dr. Dre feat. Snoop Dogg
from The Chronic
1992 / Hip Hop

You don’t need the music video. The first time you heard “Nuthin But a ‘G’ Thang,” you were immediately transported to a backseat, cruising Compton with the top down, a curl of smoke lifting from the blunt in your paw. No lyrical/vocal reference necessary; just the sound puts you there, sampling the funky bassline of a Leon Haywood hit and laying out breathy sigh samples and a stinging synth hook on top. It’s not every day I can support a song that makes so many casual references to gang violence, drug use and misogyny, but Dre and Snoop are both at the top of their game with the flow (“two loc’ed out G’s” that are “craaaaazy”), as they both merge and counter each other’s alternate styles, coming up with rhymes so laidback they barely clear the haze of reefer smoke but still bring hard-edged threat with every other syllable. I debated with myself if this one truly belongs among the genre’s absolute elite of this decade, but either way, it needed to be on this list.

97morehumanthanhuman97. More Human Than Human
by White Zombie
from Astro-Creep: 2000
1995 / Metal

With a very specific and creative aesthetic—dense, charging and exhilarating heavy metal as suggested by a love of horror, sci-fi and comic books, embellished by industrial grind, gonzo flourishes, cinematic samples and electronic fills (not to mention colorful and vibrant cover art)—White Zombie carved out quite the little niche for themselves during the mid-90s. The band’s knack for supersize riffs, supple rhythms and playfully obtuse eccentricity culminated with “More Human Than Human,” the kind of ultra-cool, kick ass tune that’ll floor you every time. It was loud, catchy, packed full of Blade Runner references and featured bassist Sean Yseult moaning in faux orgasm during the intro—what else do teenage boys need? Hell, anyone with a pulse can get down to this one; who doesn’t love bold, blazing walls of guitars riding a neo-psychedelic groove?

96bullsonparade96. Bulls on Parade
by Rage Against the Machine
from Evil Empire
1996 / Metal

Entirely unsubtle but intelligently incisive, Rage Against the Machine had one of the most appropriate band names of the decade, fusing the social aggression of punk, the jerking rhythms of hard funk, the volume and force of metal and the thick, rapidfire rhymes of a rapping frontman. With their explosive “Bulls on Parade,” they pointed a finger (and flipped a different finger) at the military-industrial complex—“Weapons, not food, not homes, not shoes, not need, just feed the war cannibal animal.” With those towering riffs and thunderous rhythms, they grab the attention of even the most disaffected and disinterested, invite them in for a blistering good time, and then teach ‘em a thing or two. Even more impressive than the combustible energy is the breakdown where Tom Morello makes vinyl-scratching sounds using his guitar (I was stunned to learn no turntables were used on this track). They weren’t bullshitting identity, either—when they were the musical guests for SNL, they were kicked out of the building before their second performance for hanging inverted American flags over the amps in protest of Republican host Steve Forbes.

95firemaplesong95. Fire Maple Song
by Everclear
from World of Noise
1993 / Rock

Compared to Everclear’s later work, “Fire Maple Song” is a breath of fresh air—raw, noisy, full of life, fuller of hurt. It also sums up two of their future middle-road hits (the lonely anger of “Father of Mine” and the smile-less depression of “Wonderful”) in ways that weren’t patently obvious or clichéd. A bucolic guitar line invites both forlorn nostalgia and wistful simplicity and the unfussy lyric, “Turn away from the pain you don’t want,” strikes the right note. Later, when the chords are overrun by distortion and Art Alexakis is left howling, “I can’t smile,” you can’t help but be swept up by the emotional torrent. Efforts have been made on Alexikas’ part repeatedly to clean up, polish and remaster the World of Noise recordings yet again; should it ever happen, I implore you: find an old copy and cherish the unvarnished potency of this tragically overlooked gem.

94summersmash94. Summer Smash
by Denim
from Denim Take Over (unreleased)
1997 / Pop

There’s an above average chance you’ve never even heard of this one. That’s because this single was set for release on the day after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales; since the song contained several uses of the word “smash,” it was shelved indefinitely (jeez, and I thought it was ludicrous when they renamed Bush’s “Speed Kills” after 9/11…at least it was released!). Nowhere near the elegant jangle of Denim frontman Lawrence Hayward’s previous band Felt, “Summer Smash” is fizzy, giddy, ebullient; a sunburst joy all around. In other words, it does right what a hundred other carefree party pop songs of the decade did wrong—instead of trying too hard to be “cool” about how great of a time they’re having, Denim simply lets the effervescent charm pour from the speakers with seemingly accidental ease. Guaranteed to get even the hardest-hearted kids out there to bounce.

93bulletproofcupid93. Bullet Proof Cupid
by Girls Against Boys
from Venus Luxure No. 1 Baby
1993 / Punk

Another Girls Against Boys great tells you to “kill the drummer, kill the bass player, kill both bass players.” On “Bullet Proof Cupid,” Scott McCloud growls about how, “It’s gonna paralyze you/By the shine of your head…Paralyze you/‘Til I’m f-cking dead.” But despite Fugazi’s best efforts, the D.C. hardcore scene was defined by the temper of the words, not the message underneath, and “x-x-x-x-express it now!” makes for a memorable shout-along hook. The groove they ride during the fractured verses steadily pounds your nerves; when the guitar grinds into overdrive for the dense refrain pattern, you’re trapped in a shrinking cage, forcing you to rupture free. The dynamism may be more methodical and paint-by-numbers pitted against the scene’s other dominating heroes, but the nuance is there, and GAB is as muscular as anyone else. No song of theirs made you want to surrender faster than “Bullet Proof Cupid.”

92everydayholiday92. Every Day Should Be a Holiday
by the Dandy Warhols
from …The Dandy Warhols Come Down
1997 / Alternative

The Dandy Warhols repeat the title of their debut LP in the second verse of “Every Day Should Be a Holiday”: “The Dandys rule, okay?” Courtney Taylor-Taylor even mumbles about having the dough, having the raves, getting drunk, getting paid, getting laid. Clearly, this is not thinking man’s music; the fact that the boneheaded lyrics don’t get in the way of your good time, though, proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the busy, whirling melody is fabulous. You can’t blame rock stars for their egos (or their aspirations, which for the Dandys, was solely for the partying), and it’s tough to resist the inflating sentiment when the song itself makes you feel bigger, too. One of those “new” classic summer songs (sort of an update/parody of early Beach Boys singles) where all you need is the groove and the cheer.

91metronomearthritis91. Metronome Arthritis
by At the Drive-In
from Vaya
1999 / Alternative

Like most ATDI songs, you can really only get a general impression of “Metronome Arthritis”’s substance. The arsonist slant is easy—“Strike this match and let loose the oven’s breath”—but what’s an “ink cartridge funeral” and what are these pharmaceuticals that Cedric Bixler is going on about? But whether the titular metronome is stricken off balance by the act of destruction or the aftermath is just as tough to nail down. You certainly hear the paranoid frenzy in Bixler’s voice during that savage, hook-filled climax: “What if forensics finds the answers? What if they stole my fingerprints? Where did I leave my book of matches? We’ll find you!” Balanced between the airy angles of their earlier studio performances and the heart-racing, warp drive mountain thrills of their next LP, “Metronome Arthritis” is loud and frenzied, but also arty and dynamic. In the post-hardcore pantheon, no one touches this group. No, not even Fugazi.

90backwater90. Backwater
by Meat Puppets
from Too High to Die
1994 / Alternative

We already heard the Meat Puppets fashioning a proto-Phish sound several years back on their last great album, Up on the Sun, and that style reached its apotheosis on 1994’s Too High to Die. But, being 1994, they also felt inclined to tip a cap to the still thriving (and selling) grunge sound. In between the split personality of mopey guitar pedal songs and yawning jam-lite compositions, though, the band managed their only true radio-ready pop song, a clutch of those grungy chords amidst a dapper melody that could have been smiley-sung over by clean-cut Brits thirty years prior. The words are typically vague and tormented (“There’s a blood that’s flowing through the feeling/With a knife to open up the sky’s veins”), the vocals insouciant, and the distortion is smeared and vibrant, but at its heart, a simply lovely tune compelled by an earnestly rolling rhythm. An oft-unsung 90s rock radio classic.

89likeamotorway89. Like a Motorway
by Saint Etienne
from Tiger Bay
1994 / Electronic

“She wears sad jeans/Torn at the waistband/Her pretty face/Is stained with tears…He said her skin/Smelled just like petals/Said stupid things/He knew she’d like.” Sarah Cracknell’s voice is like a delicate sigh, and when she mourns that, “He’s gone…,” you assume it’s just another woeful tale of heartbreak from lovers going their separate ways; when you discover her tourist fling is in fact dead, you’re left slightly jarred. Which, of course, works in opposite fashion as the steady, ultra-catchy melody, which invests in Giorgio Moroder tricks by using a Kraftwerk-styled beat for the foundation and then piling on the sublime synth arpeggio hooks. The melody is actually based on a 19th century folk song called “Silver Dagger” (reworked in the 20th by artists like the Byrds and Joan Baez), but the sound is completely modern; a Saint Etienne specialty, especially on the Tiger Bay album.

88ithinkimparanoid88. I Think I’m Paranoid
by Garbage
from Version 2.0
1998 / Alternative

Marrying the icy electro pulse of house DJs (verse) and the gnarled instruments of post-grunge hard rockers (chorus), “I Think I’m Paranoid” is both one of the most dance pop-friendly tunes in Garbage’s canon and one of the tunes most overrun with aggressive riffs and stadium-sized beats. Despite Butch Vig’s insistence that the song is about the music business, “Paranoid” speaks mostly for the hot-and-cold flash of flirtatious romance, where Shirley Manson plays hard-to-get and eventually ends up writhing for satisfaction (along with that excitable skirt she’s sporting in the music video, Manson sold it very well). A bouncy pop confection at heart, the ultra-dense production (more than a hundred audio tracks layered on this one) and dynamic chord changes give it an electric charge. Manson grunting and begging at the end for you to, “please me, tease me, go ahead and leave me, bend me, break me, anyway you need me,” just takes it to a whole different level regardless of your gender or sexual preference.

87macaque87. Macaque
by Failure
from Comfort
1992 / Rock

I love the oblique and cryptic phrases that Ken Andrews comes up with, though I cannot describe why they fascinate. The subject of “Macaque” is easy to grasp, but the meaning is hazy. Described as a “philosopher” with a face that displayed “its knowledge of things,” he sits in a zoo all alone, “no other in his habitat.” What the macaque is sharing with his unusual face and unfortunate position can be no better identified (or proven) beyond that. That mystery is a key element to this song’s allure. An even better element is the performance and production. The bass and drums are both cavernous as they ring out of the speakers, but the pounding guitar riff can level mountains, especially during the mammoth climactic coda that leaves you devastated. Andrews didn’t feel like Comfort was representative of the band’s sound, but for all of the whisper-to-roar bends that engineer Steve Albini brought to the recording, this track finds the sullen, dirge-like elements clashing beautifully with over-sized rhythm and melodic distortion.

86imafraidofamericans86. I’m Afraid of Americans (V1 Mix)
by David Bowie
from the I’m Afraid of Americans single
1997 / Electronic

After first appearing in rough form on the soundtrack to Showgirls and then showing up in its regular mix on Earthling, “I’m Afraid of Americans” didn’t seem poised to become one of Bowie’s best latter-era tracks (despite a music assist from Brian Eno). But when Trent Reznor (under the Nine Inch Nails moniker) got a hold of it right after that and gave it a vengeful remix, they wound up with a frantic, hard-hitting winner. Of course, expecting anything less from a collaboration featuring those three artists would have been even more insane than the look Reznor brooded Bowie’s way during the music video. Despite the gun imagery of that video, though, Bowie states that the inspiration for the song came from American cultural homogenization across the planet (“I’m afraid of Americans/I’m afraid of the world”). It’s hard to argue with the stereotype of American Johnny wanting “p-ssy,” “cars” and to “suck on a Coke”; it’s even harder to argue with the xenophobic vibe felt throughout the country over the view that “God is an American.” Or is that just W?

85dress85. Dress
by PJ Harvey
from Dry
1992 / Rock

A tough, steady drum beat, scratchy guitar clicks, and sawdust string scrapes announce “Dress,” which initially seems form-fitted to the rest of the frayed and vindictive tone of her stunning debut LP. But amidst the tightly wound arrangement that threatens to derail with each squealing purse of the cello is a driving, brawny rhythm and an indelibly catchy chorus that has Harvey scorning, “If you put it on,” repeatedly. The dress she puts on is uncomfortable (“It’s hard to walk and the dress is not easy/I’m swinging over like a heavy loaded fruit tree”) but she does it to please her man. But so overwhelmed by the discomfort, she’s unable to care about his insistence that he bought her a beautiful dress—her disgust becomes apparent late in the song: “Filthy type, your dress is filthy/I’m falling flat and my arms are empty/Get away, better get it out of this room/A fallen woman in a dancing costume.” Rough, impassioned and unnerved, it served as a perfect introduction to Polly Jean’s uncompromising world.

84reflectinggod84. The Reflecting God
by Marilyn Manson
from Antichrist Superstar
1996 / Metal

Satanists, rejoice—you have your anthem. The idea of a “reflecting god” is, of course, the most potent line in Manson’s (typical) sea of ugly but didactic atrocities—“I went to God just to see/And I was looking at me”—and man’s supposed invention of a personified higher power twists upon human nature in Manson’s (typical) violent and callous fashion. Despite shock rocker touches coaxing out the hard-fought “creature bile” vocals and the anti-Christian nature of the lyrics, the track is primarily intense by gruesomely appealing formula: a diabolical fusion of roiling industrial rock riffs, puncturing beats and an apocalyptic tower of salvation fire during the screeching chorus. Of course, the artist and song will repel or magnetize each individual listener, but I believe that everyone needs a little insightful evil in their lives from time to time. Music, not message, is the catalyst for me with this band—my second favorite song on Antichrist Superstar is “1996,” where Manson sarcastically claims to be “the faggot anti-pope.” Lovely.

83drytherain83. Dry the Rain
by the Beta Band
from Champion Versions
1997 / Alternative

“Dry the Rain” was the Beta Band’s brief moment in the limelight, an opportunity of accessibility that found them losing none of their acid-washed genre mash-up habits but delivering a tune that everyone could make their own. With Steve Mason’s slightly-more-pristine Beck-ish vocal style and the rusty twang and creaky desert acoustica blues of the melody, Mellow Gold enthusiasts felt an instant connection; everyone else needed only to wait until the momentum eclipsed the early laidback segment for a final run that borders on anthemic (in a sun-dappled, semi-deranged sort of way). But no matter the preference of the listener, the repeating sentiment of, “If there’s something inside that you want to say/Say it out loud, it’ll be okay/I will be your light,” strikes of refreshing optimism against the grim sincerity of its era.

82ofor182. 0for1
by Poster Children
from RTFM
1997 / Rock

“0for1”’s lyrics might be awkwardly straight-faced if they didn’t so charmingly capture a domineering frustration of the sub-alpha male. As the poor narrative loser trips over his own tongue again and again with the ladies (“When I strike, I strike out/When I swing, I walk/Drop a hint, drop a line/What’s your number, what’s your sign?/No matter how hard I try/I don’t get a bite”), he comes across as endearing rather than pathetic—yes, even when he smarmily mutters that, “You are my type if you are alive.” The jovial, jangling riff is just one of many PC guitar line winners, the compact bass is lively, and the overdrive refrain is relieve-the-tension anthemic. It also wriggles down deep and makes you smile every time it comes on—a quaintly disarming gem that months and years later becomes a cherished favorite. The nostalgia of discovery plays a part for me, too—it was the very first Poster Children song I ever heard, and inspired me to buy up virtually their entire back catalogue (which, during the relative infancy of the internet, required quite the effort on my part for this sadly little-known indie band).

81longview81. Longview
by Green Day
from Dookie
1994 / Punk

Bored and stoned out of their skulls, Green Day’s inspiration for this accidental masterstroke didn’t transition through practice into some sort of dawning epiphany for the MTV junkies that gobbled up its adolescent frustration. The stuff they’re describing is no breaking news, and the way it was presented had been handled with a defter touch by a hundred other shambolic post-punk alt/indie bands in the last decade. But none of them had the shambling strut of Mike Dirnt’s bassline, Tre Cool’s lithe, almost jungle drumbeat, and Billie Joe Armstrong’s storming guitar riff that was just clean enough for mass consumption and just ornery enough to appease non-uptight punk fans. Yeah, yeah, there will always be people out there who blame this for the infection of barrel-bottom pop punk bands in the next few years, and even those who insist this is punk the same way that Sunny D is a fruit drink, but what does groundwork and authenticity have to do with this argument? Either you openly loved “Longview” when it first came out (and probably still do) or you sullenly pretended you didn’t; no middle ground.

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Matt Medlock


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