If I did this correctly, you shouldn’t recognize most of these songs. You’ll notice there is pointedly no hip-hop or R&B in this collection, and that’s not to say there weren’t some amazing singles in that sphere in the 90s – to the contrary, the scene blew up. Despite having moderately enjoyed most of the 90s rap classics, their (numerous) hits were pretty much the only tracks that impressed me or stick in my memory, in fact. The thing is, I think those are all pretty well known and many of you probably have more nostalgia for them than I do, so I’ll hold off on writing about them for now, imbalanced as it makes this list. I can always return to it with a curated list of dozens of tracks when I have more time to write.
For the time being, when possible, I avoided megahits by major bands that you have already heard, especially if I have an obscure personal favorite. But in some cases, I’m helpless to deny the power of a pop steamroller or a corny one-hit wonder. Even older acts had some good contributions to the decade! With one exception, I allowed one song per artist. I definitely love a lot of these bands and am surely missing tons of good stuff, so this is not meant to be definitive. It’s just an examination of tropes and trends in 90s rock, told through some tracks that will hopefully be new favorites for you. (Sidenote: I’m hyperlinking as many of these as I can in the titles, and it has to be noted that the 1990s were the golden age for music videos, so make sure to pay attention to the visuals too. Although some of them are hilariously lame, for sure.)
In no particular order, here goes:
Paranoid Android – Radiohead
The best possible thematic encapsulation of the decade, in rock terms at least. Aping the layouts of “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” and “Bohemian Rhapsody”, but with enough creativity, breadth and talent to equal them. A tense moody part, an outrageous noisy part, some weird electronic interstitials and the great slow ballad comedown, stretched to epic length.
The Universal – Blur
An underrated band that, like Radiohead, broke free of the Britpop label through sheer artistic daring. This self-conscious anthem of comfort and disaffection in the modern era walks a similarly ambiguous line between sincerity and irony. But anyway, it’s just super great.
Lazy Line Painter Jane – Belle and Sebastian
The decade’s best expression of pop rock as music for the heart (not the mind or body). A lively, melodic bluesy romp with perhaps my favorite female vocal performance ever, which detours into a stunning larger-than-life feel-good vamp at the end.
Metal Mickey – Suede
Another British pop rock band, this marvelous glam song sticks out to me for being convincingly retro in sound and attitude, rather than just following old patterns. That skill was deceptively difficult for many idol-worshipping 90s musicians to pull off.
Waitin’ For A Superman – the Flaming Lips
This standout track is from a quirky, happy-go-lucky opus that represented the peak of the 90s’ obsession with revitalizing 60s traditions (in this case, baroque pop).
This Is Hardcore – Pulp
Another terrific example of how the 90s took old musical rules and pulled at them like a loose thread. This is essentially more Britpop, which was invented in the 60s despite its renaissance 30 years later. And yet no classic Britpop would be structured, produced or arranged in such a despairing, expansive, modernistic way as “This Is Hardcore”. But that makes all the difference.
Don’t Look Back In Anger – Oasis
One of the decade’s biggest blockbusters, and as usual with those, they’re pretty dumb and derivative. But there’s something undeniable about the songs off their best record, especially this peerless barroom singalong with pathos off the charts, despite throwaway lyrics.
Narcolepsy – Ben Folds Five
The greatest modern synthesis of classical/baroque motifs with postmodern angst and abstraction, complete with incredible dynamics, a unique heartbroken metaphor, and a barbershop quartet bridge.
My Name Is Jonas – Weezer
There were isolated songs in the 90s that conveyed total optimism and enthusiasm, but few had such a vintage, “instant classic” feel as those on the Blue Album. This is one of the highlights you’re less likely to hear these days.
Isobel – Bjork
A wonderful remedy for the notion that some artists are to be held at a distance and vaguely respected without any knowledge of their music, or even just the assumption that it’s all weird anyway. This is simply a fun, engaging song.
Sweetness Follows – R.E.M.
Unlike many artsy acts that unexpectedly broke through to mass appreciation, R.E.M.’s pop triumphs are pretty well known and appreciated. That leaves me the option of picking a minor yet gorgeous album track, when such unassuming mood sketches were a strong suit of theirs anyway.
Metronomic Underground – Stereolab
The embodiment of the 90s’ fondness for 60s exotica, kitsch, trippiness and inclusivity, this extra-long slow-building electronic art rock jam is outstanding.
The Day I Tried To Live – Soundgarden
The closest that the jaded and sarcastic new guard of rockers came to approaching classic rock levels of purity and chops, this band hitched a modern aesthetic to the lovingly traditional methods of flashy arena rock headbangers.
Bed For the Scraping – Fugazi
To contrast once again, this uncompromising post-hardcore guitar band reveled in the unpredictability that rock music once boasted and had lost by the late 80s. Their tracks could be meticulous grooves, patient mood-setters, unorthodox noise, repetitive refrains, or frequently all four at once. And above all, they were intense. Hopefully this, their most traditional and catchy song, will make a few more fans.
Where Did You Sleep Last Night – Nirvana
The conflicted grunge saviors create a definitive and self-evident argument in favor of shouting and pain in music, for the 90s at least.
This Is A Call – Foo Fighters
I am too attached to FF and a few other groups here to be entirely fair and critical, but this is just a fantastic rock song from when I was younger. Check it out.
Drag Days – Guided By Voices
The best proof that indie does not always equal too rough to listen to. This is a song so hooky, sparkling and comfortable it could have been used as the theme song to an NBC sitcom.
Grave Architecture – Pavement
In contrast, a great example of what boundless, apathetic, esoteric indie rock can musically accomplish within one song, and the idiosyncratic appeal that created its fanbase.
Nicotine & Gravy – Beck
The last word on irony, sprawl and cognitive dissonance in 90s alt-rock. Beck converts a tapestry of surrealism into a funky fresh, freaky smart, snarky sample-y classic.
You Were Right – Built To Spill
Taking the history of rock seriously and reverently for once, Built To Spill swipes the most memorable credos of years past to create a righteous message of hopelessness.
Velouria – Pixies
The champions of bridging high and low art, the esoteric and populist, the complex and simple, catharsis and subversion. The Pixies should be everyone’s gateway into “weird” non-mainstream music.
What You Wish For – Guster
Bubblegum pop still existed in the 90s, somewhere between manufactured boy bands and overbearing grunge dudes. Guster got lost in the shuffle, but this song is irrepressibly melodic, although a tad angry for their usually joyous mood.
Denise – Fountains Of Wayne
A flawless diamond of a pop composition that seems so easy, and yet there are so few of them these days. Chris Collingsworth has done his musical homework, and importantly, learned to apply it to things he cares about. Probably the catchiest song here, along with Guster.
Outtasite (Outta Mind) – Wilco
Country and roots rock were very subdued in their evolution with the rise of synthesized music on one hand, and gritty grunge on the other. But they weren’t down and out, as Wilco’s massive success has proven. Before they started deconstructing the genre that was their meat and potatoes, they proved they could play it straight and still kick ass.
Timber – Neko Case
Did I already call something my favorite female vocal performance? Well, I guess that makes Neko my favorite vocalist of any gender identity. Case in point: the things she does to vowels in this searing, giddy alt-country song are the stuff of legend.
One More Hour – Sleater-Kinney
90s rock amped up the noise and dissonance to shake off the slick 80s hair metal cobwebs, but for my money, there’s no guitar chug or screech more stunning than the interplay between Carrie’s searing last power chord and Corin’s final vibrato-heavy shout. (The rest of the song is also tremendous.)
Mysterons – Portishead
Kept the cool factor of their new toys, without being swallowed up by the self-indulgent factor, and the relatively straightforward songwriting helped tether it to reality as well. It’s still a trip, like a half-remembered echo of old jazz and soul standards mutated into dance music.
Only Shallow – My Bloody Valentine
Overdubs overdubs overdubs. That was the one trick they beat into the ground on their era-defining shoegaze album, but here the wall of shredded sound really does sound magical and infinite. Plus beautiful vocals, always good.
Pulling Teeth – Green Day
The last meaningful gasp of punk rock, this band’s debut made it friendly, slick and lazy, which was cool at the time but the final step in its life cycle.
Going Away To College – Blink-182
The first meaningless gasp of punk rock. But even these hacks’ sterilized sound, numbing lack of talent and problematic attitude could produce a strikingly sensitive and tuneful album cut by accident.
Cold Blows the Wind – Ween
Okay, so here’s my spiel on Ween. They were gleeful and sometimes crude deconstructionists of modern music, who exaggerated the tropes of numerous genres and artists to the point of surrealism. Yet their spirit and nuance was so palpable, these superficially silly tracks still have a lot of craft, charm and staying power. So, for a band who trafficked in the decade’s major dichotomy of irony vs. sincerity, I present this beautiful and devastating Chinese folk ballad cover played completely straight. Subverting subversion is a total Ween move.
Polka Your Eyes Out – Weird Al Yankovic
A more straightforwardly humorous presence in music, and one of its most deservedly iconic. I actually prefer these inspired postmodern polka cover medleys to his pop hit piss-takes.
Call And Answer – Barenaked Ladies
Plenty of self-proclaimed nerds and weirdos dominated 90s rock, but none were as lyrically clever, genial and sneakily emotional as these guys. Say what you will about their kitsch factor and flash-in-the-pan reputation or goofy hit songs (which I happen to love more often than not), they could sometimes knock out a tune with real pathos in it.
Lovefool – the Cardigans
The best 90s one-hit wonder. Sorry, that’s just how it is. Not dated, not shoddy, not by an unremarkable artist, it surpasses all limitations of one-hit wonders while still being irresistible and bubbly. It also perfects the weird time-portal audio effect of mashing up 60s/70s ideas with 90s attitude and technology.
Closer – Nine Inch Nails
NIN is ripe for mockery and overrating, being another big-name pioneer of faceless electronic/dance music as well as a poster boy for angsty alt-rock. But I give Trent Reznor more credit than a lot of singles-focused hype bands of the era, as he truly did pick his aesthetic and image apart for some sonic exploration. Also, it would be criminal to not give props to “Hurt”, which, yes, the Johnny Cash cover is better, but it’s one of the best songs ever so that’s not an insult. This big archetypal hit was still the most impressive he ever got.
The Private Psychedelic Reel – the Chemical Brothers
If minor revolutions in electronica bubbled beneath the surface of 90s club and pop culture, this duo represented their blockbuster breakthrough. Despite common accusations of the genre’s emotionless, reductive and repetitive nature, this song is great.
Don’t Speak – No Doubt
This is, oddly enough for a ska band, a really moody and charming song. Despite a handful of other great singles, “Don’t Speak” is still their calling card in my book.
I Saw the Sign – Ace of Base
This fully embodies the sort of dorky throwaway hit that everyone should have forgotten. Except it’s super fun, so nevermind.
Torn – Natalie Imbruglia
They don’t make ‘em like this anymore: trendy but folksy singer-songwriter crossover hits. This one is super sensitive and really good.
Steal My Sunshine – Len
This song leans heavily on a couple of gimmicks, you could argue, but they’re some of the greatest gimmicks of their time. It’s amazing how the musical backing never gets tiring, and the tune’s optimism is infectious.
Cannonball – the Breeders
For me, Kim Deal’s Pixies spinoff never rose beyond its most famous single. But it’s an amazing alternative tune.
Supernova – Liz Phair
Liz Phair was a thing that happened in the 90s. Semi-successfully straddling the burgeoning intersectionality of defiant women in pop music and the boys’ club of classic rock, this is still my favorite of her songs. Liz (and many 90s’ artists) knew that no matter how retro or tacky, a lame-on-paper three-note riff could become unforgettable with some attitude and wah-wah.
Jumper – Third Eye Blind
This band deserves more credit. I feel like they’ve become a punchline for tacky disposability, but all they added to the 90s landscape were a handful of sterling power pop songs with a whiff of indie spirit, and what’s wrong with that? So I’ll go with one of those hits. Unironically good, no condescending.
You Oughta Know – Alanis Morrisette
I prefer “Head Over Heels” because it’s actually pretty genuine, but what would Alanis be without her focus group-manufactured alt-songstress mask? I can’t deny the Big Hit.
Dreams – Cranberries
A rare feat for the 90s: despite having obvious forebears in the Cocteau Twins, this folk pop song sounds genuinely new, fresh and magical! And it was popular! If only their albums at large had lived up to this.
…Baby One More Time – Britney Spears
The banger that launched a thousand divas, many of them equally talented, successful and image-savvy. Try not to cringe at its gender politics or implications… we were all so innocent then.
Flagpole Sitta – Harvey Danger
The most bro-tastic, white dude-attitudey song that I will accept as listenable.
Bittersweet Symphony – The Verve Pipe
There were plenty of ways to distort and create using old samples and influences in the 90s, and then there were the shameless thieves pilfering wholesale to make money. But occasionally even those cheap tricks were… ugh… pretty great, like this. I can scarcely even tell that music comes from the Rolling Stones’ “Out Of Time”.
You Get What You Give – the New Radicals
Yeah, this was a one hit wonder. Yeah, it was good. What else is there to say here?
Closing Time – Semisonic
Again, no real comment on this one hit wonder either other than it’s better than the previous. Years of treating it as a weepy mantra have undermined its modest pathos.
Breaking the Girl – Red Hot Chili Peppers
Something we have to admit: white funk/rap/ska/metal existed, and it was terrible. But some of it was alright, I guess, and it caught on so here we are talking about it. This is one of the least obnoxious or dated, and most melodic songs RHCP made in the 90s that wasn’t an enormous hit, so it’s my pick.
I Don’t Wanna Grow Up – Tom Waits
This track is insanely normal and sweet for the maestro of rickety anachronistic shamanism to have written. It sounds like the dang Ramones!
Stay (Faraway, So Close!) – U2
I’m not as sold on U2’s career-reboot music as I am on its aesthetic and external qualities, but they could certainly still write a simple fist-pumping song. This is one of those.
Thru And Thru – the Rolling Stones
The greatest rock band in the world was certainly past their peak, and even their silver age, by the mid-80s, but they steeled themselves for a new era in the 90s and came away with a mix of admirable experiments and adequate old-school rabble rousing. This unexpected late-career highlight, written and sung by Keith Richards, is most famous for scoring a climactic Sopranos episode, but it’s marvelously regretful and brooding all on its own.
Real Love – the Beatles
It’s a lost Beatles (okay, technically John Lennon) demo. Of course it rules.
Two of the first hit songs I liked independent of their albums, success or artists’ reputation – that’s what I call standout singles. My list of such songs is now thousands of tracks long. Despite having many favored groups from the decade, these jam band outcasts are the only entry where I couldn’t pick just one song. “Corduroy” is a masterful and definitive ‘three different tunes patched together’ composition. “Betterman” is a soulful and note-perfect retro singalong. What better way to close out a playlist-ready gathering of great tunes than the two songs that started it all for me? Listen to both.