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?