10 Best Hits of the 1990s

The 1990s are fondly remembered in hindsight, the decade of grunge, gangsta-rap, trip-hop, and Brit-pop. This list of the 10 best songs of the 1990s is more rock-oriented than I expected, given the diverse nature of the decade.

Apart from R.E.M. at #10, a lot of these acts feel like wasted potential. Most notably, the top two entries on the list both only released one studio album. Several others listed below only released another album or two after the hit on this list.

As with my other best hits lists, my criteria is a top 40 placement on a national chart. Several songs I wanted to include, Nas’ ‘The World Is Yours’ and Jeff Buckley‘s ‘Last Goodbye’, didn’t actually chart, even though they’re beloved in hindsight.

10 Best Songs of the 1990s

#10: What’s The Frequency, Kenneth? by R.E.M.

from Monster, 1994
The canonical choice is usually 1991’s ‘Losing My Religion’ – that’s a great choice too, but I’ve always liked this glammed-up stomper. 1994’s Monster was an effort by R.E.M. to record a rock album – after a couple of records of acoustic music, then wanted songs they could play live. Guitarist Peter Buck’s tremolo effect in the chorus is a great hook. The title’s taken from a catchphrase repeatedly uttered during a 1986 attack on journalist Dan Rather.


#9: Cannonball by The Breeders

from Last Splash, 1993
After the Pixies broke up, bassist Kim Deal reconnected with her sister Kelley in The Breeders. Their best-known song is ‘Cannonball’, built around a funky bass-line from Josephine Wiggs and a trippy sliding riff. The distorted vocals are created by Kim Deal singing into a harmonica mic. ‘Cannonball’ only just qualified as a hit, peaking at #40 on the UK charts.


#8: Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana

from Nevermind, 1991
Adding arena-rock punch to alternative angst, Nirvana broke through to the mainstream with this single from the 1991 album Nevermind. It took a few months to breakthrough, but it changed the mainstream of rock music, pushing the hair metal of the 1980s into the wilderness. The pressure of being a spokesman for Generation X proved too much for frontman Kurt Cobain, and Nirvana only made one more studio album, 1994’s In Utero. Drummer Dave Grohl has cemented his place as the most ubiquitous face in rock and roll with the Foo Fighters.


#7: November Rain by Guns ‘n’ Roses

from Use Your Illusion I, 1991
There were a lot of terrible power ballads in the 1980s and 1990s, but ‘November Rain’ is magnificent in its over-the-top theatrics. The star attraction isn’t Axl Rose’s piano balladeering, it’s Slash’s anguished guitar soloing – that closing motif he hits on is genius.


#6: Concrete Schoolyard by Jurassic 5

from Jurassic 5, 1998
Los Angeles hip hop crew Jurassic 5 featured DJ Cut Chemist and baritone MC Chali 2na. This breezy summertime jam recalls De La Soul’s records in the 1980s. It didn’t chart in the US but made it to #35 in the UK.


#5: Bitter Sweet Symphony by The Verve

from Urban Hymns, 1997
At the time of Britpop in the mid-1990s, music journalists pitted Blur against Oasis. One of the defining songs of the movement, however, came from the pen of Wigan’s Richard Ashcroft. ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ is built around a sample from an orchestral version of The Rolling Stones’ ‘The Last Time’. The music video, where an oblivious Ashcroft ploughs down the street, is a great visual accompaniment.


#4: Teardrop by Massive Attack

from Mezzanine, 1998
Bristol trip-hop collective Massive Attack formed in 1988. There’s at least one killer single on each of their studio albums in the 1990s – 1991’s Blue Lines had ‘Unfinished Sympathy’, there’s the title track from 1994’s Protection sung by Tracy Thorn, while ‘Teardrop’ is taken from 1998’s Mezzanine. Lead vocals are supplied by the Cocteau Twins’ Liz Fraser, and her ethereal voice is perfect for this track, wending her away around the delicate melody.


#3: Killing in the Name by Rage Against the Machine

from Rage Against the Machine, 1992
Los Angeles rap-metal act Rage Against the Machine are a massive burst of adrenaline. I find it difficult to listen to them in full albums due to Zach de la Rocha’s limited vocal styles, but they’re great a song at a time with Tom Morello’s inventive guitar. ‘Killing in the Name’ was Rage Against the Machine’s debut single, hitting hard with a funky beat and menacing riff. ‘Killing in the Name’ wasn’t a hit initially, but it belatedly topped the UK chart in 2009 after DJ Jon Morter campaigned for it to take the coveted #1 position on the Christmas chart.


#2: Doo Wop (That Thing) by Lauryn Hill

from The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, 1998
Lauryn Hill was still a teenager when The Fugees released their debut album in 1994. After The Fugees second album, The Score, hit #1 in 1996, Hill and the other members went solo. Hill’s only studio album to date, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill showcases Hill’s abilities as a singer and a rapper. It topped the charts and took the Grammy for album of the year, spearheaded by lead single ‘Doo Wop (That Thing)’.


#1: There She Goes by The La’s

from The Las, 1990
‘There She Goes’ was written by La’s frontman Lee Mavers – its chiming guitars helped set the stage for Brit-pop in the 1990s. Mavers has never released another song since the 1990 album The La’s, and only made a handful of live appearances. ‘There She Goes’ is ambiguous – it could be about love or heroin – but it’s perfect in its elegant simplicity. There’s no verse, just a series of choruses and a bridge.

Did I miss your favourite 1990s hit?

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Aphoristical
Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande.
Articles: 695

94 Comments

  1. Pretty decent list. I think two or three of them are even in my top 10. I’m surprised to see What’s the Frequency. I think it’s the best REM song but it seems like their fans don’t like it much. I know they don’t like the album, but it’s my favorite.

    • Find the River is my favourite REM song – it was a single (number 6 from Automatic) but not a hit. Monster is far from my favourite REM album though.

  2. As previously, I am posting this without looking at yours or anybody else’s first. I didn’t rank them but here they are. They all appear to have been in a Top 40 somewhere.

    Smells Like Team Spirit – Nirvana
    Losing My Religion- R.E.M.
    You Oughta Know – Alanis Morrisette
    Smooth – Santana
    Champagne Supernova – Oasis
    Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong – Spin Doctors
    Linger – Cranberries
    Closer – Nine Inch Nails
    Basket Case – Green Day
    Run-Around –  Blues Traveller

  3. And now going back and looking at your list, “Killing in the Name,” and “Bittersweet Symphony” were strong candidates. “Symphony” now has Jagger/Richards as songwriters. And I do like “Kenneth.” The band somehow convinced Rather to come down and so a version of the song with them. Fortunately, he chose to stick with his day job because he had zero sense of rhythm. Funny though.

    • I thought you would have included the Rage track actually.

      Kenneth is the second song I know of about the incident – Game Theory have a song from 1987 titled ‘Kenneth – What’s The Frequency?’

      • I actually wasn’t at all a Rage fan at the time. Caught up later. Rather now spends his time interviewing celebrities, including a fair number of rockers.

  4. The line between “best” and “quintessential” is blurred, as some iconic ’90s songs weren’t actually that good but it’s hard to tell anymore, right? My personal list would probably have “No Rain”, “1979”, “Loser”, even maybe “Tubthumping”! Nah, just kidding.

    • When it’s a one person list, favourite is really a better title. I thought about Loser when I was making the list, but didn’t really consider Where It’s At, which probably could have snuck in there somewhere. I spent my entire teenage years in the 1990s but at the same time I was spending a lot of my listening in the 1960s and 1970s.

  5. I like that list. Some really great songs. I don’t think I could disagree with any of them. 90’s is not my favorite decade but I’ll admit there were some great songs.

  6. Good list as always, but you left off some huge 90s bands. Find the river was a single but not a hit? I find this a bit confusing so I’ll just throw out my ten favs:

    Radiohead “Let Down”
    U2 – “One”
    REM – “Find the River”
    The Tragically Hip – “Bobcageon””
    Pearl jam – “…Crazy Mary” feat Natalie Merchant
    chili Peppers – “Under The Bridge”
    Semi sonic – “Closing Time”
    New Radicals – “You get what you Give”
    Oasis – “Wonderwall”
    The Smashing Pumpkins – “1979”

    • I wasn’t really trying to hit all the big rock bands, just ten songs that have stood up for me. I like most of those songs, although lots wouldn’t be my favourite for the artist – I’d take Mysterious Ways for U2 for example.

      • “Mysterious ways “ is great and. so is “The Fly”.. I don’t mean to say all the big bands need to be represented necessarily, but the seminal albums of the 90s should be on a list somewhere. (Maybe a top 90s albums list!)

        Here I include the Brian Eno/Daniel Lanois collaboration “Achtung Baby” as well as “What’s the Story Morning Glory” , “The Bends”, “Ok Computer”, “Ten”, “Nevermind” “Siamese Dream”,and “Automatic For the People”. To that list I would add less well known albums like “Fully Completely” and the first Counting Crows album.

        • My ten favourite albums would be all pretty obscure I think – a lot of the big 1990s bands don’t really do it for me. The good thing about doing a hits list is that it limits my inner music snob.

  7. Of course, many of these bands like REM and U2 and Radiohead etc are multi decade mainstays.. if you want bands that are vintage 1990s ( and pretty much only 90s):

    Collective Soul – “Shine”
    Third Eye Blind – “Jumper”
    The Goo Goo Dolls – “Iris”
    Concrete Blond – “Joey”
    Live – “Lightening Crashes”
    Matchbox 20 – “ 3AM”
    Blink 182 – “Adams Song” (although Travis Barker is everywhere these days collaborating and playing with everyone )
    The Offspring- “Self Esteem”
    Stone Temple Pilots – pick one
    Temple of the Dog – “Hunger Strike”

  8. It’s remarkable how much less familiar I am with ‘90s music compared to the ‘80s (and ‘70s and ‘60s). I simply no longer listened as much to contemporary music in the ‘90s than in the ‘80s.

    From your list, I like R.E.M., Nirvana and Guns N’ Roses best. That La’s tune isn’t bad either.

    • I think with each decade the music scene gets more splintered too – lots of people agree that The Beatles, The Velvet Underground, and Aretha Franklin were great in the 1960s, but in the 1990s you could be listening to one genre like trip-hop, electronica, gangster rap. etc and missing everything else.

      • I guess that’s a good point. In the meantime, I went through the exercise myself, based on Wikipedia and your criteria.

        It turned out I did know a good amount of songs and came up with an initial list of 20 I still like. I narrowed it down to the following 10 (ordered chronologically):
        • Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spirit (Sep 1991)
        • R.E.M. – Man on the Moon (Nov 1992)
        • 4 Non Blondes – What’s Up (Jun 1993)
        • Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – Mary Jane’s Last Dance (Nov 1993)
        • Counting Crows – Mr. Jones (Dec 1993)
        • The Cranberries – Zombie (Sep 1994)
        • Lenny Kravitz – Rock and Roll is Dead (July 1995)
        • Oasis – Wonderwall (Oct 1995)
        • Sheryl Crow – If It Makes You Happy (Aug 1996)
        • Tal Bachman – She’s So High (Feb 1999)

        • Great list and good to remember Kravitz and the Cranberries and of course Tom Petty. Traci Chapman was important too, back in the day. I think “Mr Jones” is fantastic and vintage 1990s. Listen to “Sullivan Street” – my favorite Counting Crows song.

          I can do without Bachman and Cheryl Crow but that’s just me.

        • What’s Up is a great record that for some reason a lot of people hate. I always hear people use it as an example of the worst 90s alternative type music. That’s crazy because it’s great.

        • You can use it on your own site. I did have Sheryl Crow’s My Favourite Mistake on the shortlist for a while, and Tom Petty did better in the 1990s than almost any other 1970s veteran.

      • 100 percent what I have been saying about the 1990’s. It’s the decade when compartmentalization or as you call it “splintering” began in earnest. As you pointed out to me before, this can’t be due to iTunes or MP3s or even Sirius/ satellite radio which only really began taking off after Y2K (though these technological developments would give this trend steroids in the coming decades)

        Before, you couldn’t escape the Bee Gees or Abba or Fleetwood Mac – like them or not. Now it’s easy to stay in your preferred music neighborhoods and be oblivious to even the biggest stars.

        • I think one factor is maybe that the mainstream youth music got more extreme – if you think about rock and roll is a vehicle for rebellion, it was pretty tame lyrically in the 1950s but still shocked parents by being a new musical form. If you grew up in the 1990s your parents were probably into rock music (except mine), so you needed to find more extreme stuff to rebel with. Stuff like Nirvana and RHCP is too dark or provocative for the supermarket soundtrack, even though they sold tons of records.

  9. Great list Graham… good variety.
    We agree totally on the number 1 song

    My top 10 off the top of my head…6-10 are more just favorites
    1: There She Goes
    2: One by U2
    3: Bitter Sweet Symphony
    4: She’s The One by World Party
    5: Thunderstruck by AC DC
    6: Wonderwall by Oasis
    7: The Way by Fastball
    8: Sex and Candy
    9: Weezer – Buddy Holly
    10: Wallflowers – One Headlight

    • Cool! I thought you’d enjoy the number one – it’s such a straightforward song that it’s weird it wasn’t written years earlier.

      I like World Party a lot, although that song is kind of an outlier for them – like trying to write a hit. Wonderwall has held up pretty well.

      • Oh yea…There She Goes could have been written at any time.
        I think One could legitimately be in a top 10.

        Also…I think my love of Marcy Playground puts me in the minority to say the least… I loved the way the band sounded with this song and Sherry Frasier.

  10. Although a lot of mua passed me by in the 90s, I remember most of these. I love Slash’s guitar solo on “November Rain” and his one on “Knockin on Heaven’s Door.” My personal favourite song from the 1990s happens to be “The Water’s Edge” by 7Mary3.

  11. Everyone has great contributions in their posts and bringing back fond memories IMO. The 90s was my favourite decade. (I’m sure that’s a minority opinion!)

    What’s interesting is how many major 90s bands get no mentions above at all . But It is what it is!

    The Smashing Pumpkins
    Stone Temple Pilots
    Sound garden.
    The Red Hot Chili Peppers (but munch of their success came after)
    Green Day (Ditto)

    But most interestingly two of the very biggest 90s bands get zero mentions:

    Pearl Jam
    Radiohead.

    • I have lots and lots of all those bands in my list, but I’m the one who had that really long list of about 300. Probably when you’re narrowing it down to 10 you’re likely not to include even the biggest bands because you might want to put your personal favorites instead. Maybe that’s why.

    • Pearl Jam’s biggest hit single was a weird anomaly (their cover of Last Kiss). Radiohead are more of an albums band – ‘Karma Police’ was all over the radio but doesn’t really feel like a hit.

      • Well you are both likely right about why those bands aren’t there: It’s a “best top 40” list Instead of a “best albums “ or “most influential band” list.

        I don’t even look at billboard now – top 40 is kind of a thing of the past – American Bandstand and Casy Chasm etc. It’s hard enough to make sure your songs are from the proper decade!

        But I get that you need to crate a universe to draw from.

        “Last Kiss” was meant to be a fun 50s throwback. I bet even they were surprised that it outsold “Jeremy “ and “Black” “Evenflow” “wish list “ “Daughter”.

        I had “wild eyed crazy Mary” which is amazing. It wouldn’t have occurred in a million years to me to put “last kiss” on. Not that it’s isn’t a fun version.

        • Exactly. It’s really hard to restrict a list of singles to only top 40. Top 40 is not like it used to be in.the past. It used to include everything but now everything is so specialized that there’s no general consensus of what a hit even is. When I make a list the basic qualification is that it had to be SOME KIND of hit. Not just any old single that didn’t go anywhere. It has to be maybe a Modern Rock radio hit or college radio hit or even club hit or dance hit, but not necessarily Top 40. Cuz who even knows what that means anymore. Streaming has replaced radio and record stores really don’t exist anymore either. So it’s really hard to measure how popular a record is nowadays.

  12. Amazing nobody mentioned “Runaway Train” by Soul Asylum.
    I also like “Are you gonna go my way” by Lenny Kravitz, “A Letter to Elise” by The Cure and “Creep” by Radiohead.

    It is not a surprise that many have chosen Nirvana, U2, REM, Oasis, etc.

      • You’d love Collected, their hits set. Yeah, the albums can be a slog, but when that happens they still make great background music. The itch gets scratched and your attention can be divided. But when you want them, the full meal is always there!

  13. Crikey – this one is slap bang in the middle of my wheelhouse. I’m gonna have to give this one some thought, great list too by the way

  14. I still maintain that women artists/ vocalists were less visible in the 1990s than they were before or since ( to no fault of their own, obviously).
    In any case, here are my 10 favourite female vocalist moments from the 1990s. Likely everyone has their own list.

    1. Sienad O’Connor- the emperor’s new clothes
    2. Tracy Chapman – Why?
    3. Liz Phair – Never Said
    4. 10,000 maniacs – Because the night (Springsteen cover)
    5. Bjork – Possibly Maybe
    6. Sade – No ordinary love
    7. Edith Brickell – What I Am
    8. Cowboy Junkies (Margot Timmins)- Powderfinger (Crazy Horse cover)
    9. L avventura (Britta Phillips) – Night Nurse
    10. Concrete Blonde – Joey

    Ok , two are from 1988. Try to figure it out without googling it!

      • Edie and Tracy Chapman. Good guessing!

        Sade’s more famous album “Diamond life” was in fact late 80s.

        As well, the more famous cowboy junkies cover of Lou reed was also from the late 80s. I had to go deep in the vault to find the neil Young cover in order to make it 1990s!

        I missed the cranberries in my best 90s females list. They should be there for sure.

        • Oh. I didn’t know any of the songs you listed by those three. I just took a guess that maybe they were on the same albums as Sweet Jane and Smooth Operator. Because I knew those were definitely from the ’80s. Cranberries actually made my list somewhere in the top 50 or something. Zombie. which is the only thing by them I really like. As far as I can remember.

        • My top 90s female vocals would go like this.

          Breeders… Cannonball
          Mazzy Star…Fade Into You
          Sneaker Pimps… 6 Underground
          Hole…Miss World
          Garbage…Only Happy When It Rains
          PJ Harvey..A Perfect Day Elise
          Belly…Now They’ll Sleep
          Cranberries….Zombie
          Siouxsie and the Banshees…Kiss Them for Me
          Kate Bush…Eat the Music

          Runners-up
          Liz Phair …Whip Smart
          Cocteau Twins… Heaven or Las Vegas
          Dee-Lite… Groove is in the Heart
          Missy Elliott….The Rain
          Bjork…Army of Me

    • I know that the Tracy Chapman is from the 1980s, because it’s from her first album. I would have guessed Sade, Edie Brickell, or Cowboy Junkies for the other one.

    • Top 10 Female Vocalists who emerged in the 1990s
      Bjork (I know she and Amos both made records with bands in the 1980s, but first solo albums in the 1990s).
      PJ Harvey
      Ringo Sheena
      Erykah Badu
      Fiona Apple
      Lauryn Hill
      Beth Gibbons (Portishead)
      Tori Amos
      Missy Elliott
      Alanis Morisette (not a huge fan but couldn’t think of a tenth)

  15. Somehow this didn’t appear on my feed. But this post is a pleasant surprise, as I loved so much of the music from that decade. Great to see What’s the Frequency, Kenneth? as the R.E.M. choice, but I’d likely have it higher up on my own list. Absolutely tremendous song.

    I’ve done a wee bit of checking online to make sure these qualify as hits. I think they do. I had a bunch of these as either cassingles or CD singles and they shaped my listening…

    Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spirit
    Screaming Trees – Nearly Lost You
    The Flaming Lips – Race for the Prize
    Supergrass- Richard III
    R.E.M. – What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?
    Beck – Devil’s Haircut
    Rage Against the Machine – Bulls on Parade
    Radiohead – Paranoid Android
    Weezer – Buddy Holly
    Reef – Come Back Brighter

    Hard for me to ignore Weezer’s Buddy Holly or Beck’s Devil’s Haircut, cause they were hugely impressionable even if people think they’re a bit obvious. I know I’ve missed a load off.

  16. What’s the frequency is a good song and references a real life incident involving a stranger accosting Dan Rather. (You likely know that). But for REM fans the promise was in the “Life’s Rich Pageant” college radio days. Then they successfully leapt into the mainstream with “Out of Time” and then “Green” and “Automatic” – their greatest achievement. “Monster” and later “Accelerator” were part of the inevitable down- slope.

    • There’s a much more obscure song from the 1980s referencing the Dan Rather incident – Game Theory’s ‘Kenneth, What’s the Frequency’. I don’t think the big decline happened until after Up – that one just needs a bit of a trim. I think their first four albums is their most consistent era, though.

  17. Fair. I like a couple of songs on both “Monster” and “Accelerator” (I do not know “UP”), but you could see the writing on the wall by then (with 20/20 hindsight, obviously!).

    • The consensus worst album pick for R.E.M. is generally Around the Sun – that and Reveal are the weakest IMO. They came back a bit with Accelerate and Collapse Into Now, but still missed Berry.

  18. Ok this is technically last night and referencing a 2002 song, so not quite 1990s.

    https://youtu.be/wXPTu_IggXU

    Hopefully that works.

    Anyhow if it doesn’t, YouTube Gordon Lightfoot introducing TTH playing with Leslie Feist at Massey Hall on last nights Juno Awards.

    • I got a video unavailable error. I like Feist, although I’ve never cared much for Broken Social Scene for some reason.

  19. I’m speechless. Great list! There She Goes has such a singalong chorus. It’s a cool indie anthem. By the way I’m still tinkering away with my 70s list. Almost done. 90s somewhere down the line.

  20. It’s a bit complicated to analyze/rate broken social scene – I agree 100 percent!

    Their only real hit was a cover (Dave Matthews band or something like that)

    It’s not actually a band in the traditional sense, but a revolving-door, music incubator.

    But out of BSS came (more or less):

    Feist
    Stars
    Metric
    The Arcade Fire

    So not too shabby.

    Anyway, I messed up the Junos Tragically Hip/Feist “It’s a Good Life if you don’t Weaken” link but it’s great.

    you can google or YouTube it if you like

  21. Is it soft plagiarism or paying tribute?

    Forget the 1975/Belinda C and the Strokes/ modern English ( which are obvious rip offs). Try these back to back:

    The new Lorde song and G Michael’s”Faith”

    Tame Impalas “it might be time” vs any supertramp song.

    It’s a fun hobby!

  22. The top new rock songs of the year so far ( according to me only):

    5. “Bed Head” – Manchester Orchestra (USA- GA,CO)

    4. “Last Day on Earth” – Beabadobee (Philippines, OZ, Uk)

    3. “Stop making this hurt” – Bleachers (USA – NJ)

    2, “The Walls are way too thin” – Holly Humberstone (UK)

    1. “ Sticky” – The Maine (USA – AZ)

    I might be wrong always!

    • I like the Manchester Orchestra record a lot, not familiar with the others – I know Antonoff as a producer (obviously) but I haven’t really listened to his own stuff.

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