The 40 Best Songs of the 90s: 10-1

The 40 Best Songs of the 90s: 10-1

Our final installment reveals our Top 10 Songs of the Nineties.

We had to consider that the nineties entered a new phase as it reached its close and that right around 1998 things got weird. Bill Clinton’s impeachment, Columbine, and the annexation of Hong Kong seemed to challenge the discourse and make people reconsider their politics. Most of all, the collective paranoia of a fatal computer bug at the dawn of the new millenia and a general mistrust in new tech seemed to influence all of pop culture. So, we didn’t rank anything after 1997 which will be saved for a separate list.

We will be releasing this in three parts: 40-21 on Monday, 20-11 on Wednesday, 10-1 on Thursday.

If you disagree with our choices, just pretend it’s the 90s and meet a friend at the coffee shop so you can discuss it…pretentiously.

the introduction

40-21: rel. February 21

20-11: rel. February 23

10. No Doubt: “Just a Girl”

[1995, Interscope]

No Doubt were an anomaly: a charismatic third-wave ska band who borrowed from new wave, DIY fashion, and a culture that was obsessed with things like dancehall reggae and Akira in a time when these fandoms could very much define you in a place like Anaheim. This was far from an overnight process.

Eric Stefani would leave the band in 1994 eight years after running it (to become an animator on The Simpsons if you can believe). As soon as his expressive 16-year-old sister Gwen was given more songwriting control, the group’s confidence shot up like a rocket. “Just A Girl” was not only the band’s breakthrough song, it was their mission statement. It’s bursting with colour. No Doubt’s rhythm section could play tight and in the pocket like all great ska bands, here subjected to a virtual obstacle course of fast groove changes that put the band and audience in sweats. Tom Dumont’s guitar solo stands as one of the most memorable sections in a song that’s all hook. No Doubt’s genius as a band however, despite the turmoil that would later put them on sabbatical, was their ability to provide the stomping ground for their star whose undeniable voice would burn through it. It would kick off the tradition of Gwen Stefani writing songs which were in every way as loud as everything else about her was.

Stefani seemed to embody the “not like other girls” identity that saw its birth in the eighties and continued to evolve well in the nineties into something that was becoming easier to market towards. But here on “Just a Girl” Stefani refuses to be put in a box and compares being marginalised and the paternalistic ways in which women are instructed to dress and act to being grounded by her parents. These things run adjacent to the institutions that threaten Stefani’s individuality: being told not to walk home too late, not to be ‘easy,’ to have a man to keep you safe. All which carry an implicit narrative that’s meant to instill fear in women about their sexuality and appearance with larger consequences in law and culture or in this case, the music industry.

It’s why the song works so well as a young woman’s theme song because of the all too common scenario of infantilization blocking people from opportunity. Stefani later reflected on the song “when you’re born, if you’re female, you just don’t think about it. You’re just a human. Through life you just start to think ‘someone just whistled? [...] You get this power through your sexuality but you’re also vulnerable at the same time.”

At the centre of so much of the public eye, Stefani’s fashion became a weapon in the arsenal of her autonomy, and yet a reflection of her reality. The “Just a Girl” music video is a snapshot of her fashion evolution, and its relationship to the themes of the song. Walking the line between masculine and feminine, Stefani famously adorns baggy, ill-fitting pants and combat boots, along with rhinestones. Truthfully, she was wearing all that was available to her since she couldn’t have a stylist at the time. How this goes on to influence how countless girls dressed in the nineties draws her allegiance to the thrift shop, more of a product of her sharp adaptability, but Stefani’s overall identity that she achieves through “Just a Girl” was an extension of her fearlessness. – TV


9. Pulp: “Common People”

[1995, Island]

Although Pulp’s preceding album His n Hers provided the band with their long-awaited breakthrough (they formed in 1978 but wouldn’t find success for almost fifteen years), propelled by the terrific singles “Babies” and “Do You Remember the First Time?,” it would be the follow-up album Different Class and its lead single that would become Pulp’s calling card. Presented as part narrative and part scathing social critique, “Common People” percolates in its early verses along a simple keyboard loop before building to release with its instructional chorus that defines for the song’s upper-class social voyeur how the other half live. Rumoured to be based on an actual interaction between lead singer-songwriter Jarvis Cocker and a Greek international student he met in a bar, Cocker’s narrator comes off as both amused by her desire to slum and happy to exploit it. Released at the height of Britpop mania in the UK, the song reflects a then-social trend in which working class life was being examined and commercialised in popular culture (films like Trainspotting and later Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, advertising, bands who sang in exaggerated Cockney accents). For the fans, many of whom were part of this working class, the song was as much a kind of redemption as it was a celebration of struggle (exemplified in the “lost verse” cut from the single but retained for the album).* Performed live during their headlining spot at Glastonbury the year it was released, the song would be remembered as the highlight of the set with the entire audience singing along. Pulp had made it, and in true Pulp fashion created an anthem that was witty, socially relevant, and a solid banger. -JF


*“Like a dog lying in the corner/ They will bite you and never warn you look out… Cause everybody hates a tourist/ Especially one who thinks it’s all such a laugh.”

8. Elliot Smith: “Angeles”

[1997, Kill Rock Stars]

There comes a point in many fledgling artists’ careers when they weigh the potential of signing with a larger label against the freedom of remaining independent. It’s easy to imagine someone like Elliott Smith committing to the DIY approach in the internet age, but the early nineties yielded far fewer opportunities for alternative artists to succeed entirely on their own terms. Either/Or was the last album he completed in Portland for his original label Kill Rock Stars, and “Angeles” focuses on his anxiety and indecision about moving to a bigger city to pursue much bigger goals.

Los Angeles is a city where dreams die a lot faster than they manifest, and Elliott was keenly aware of the role luck would play in his fate: “picking up the ticket shows there’s money to be made / go on, lose the gamble that’s the history of the trade.” He isn’t just talking about the gamble of pursuing music in the first place, but the gamble of compromising aspects of yourself in the pursuit of material success. This duality is underscored by the title of the album, which was inspired by Kierkegaard’s philosophical doctrine on the two different approaches to life. The existential depth of the song resonated deeply with Gus Van Sant, who was navigating his own transition from the indie world to the mainstream. The song (as well as “Between the Bars,” “Say Yes,” and “Miss Misery”) was included in Good Will Hunting, which briefly launched Smith into the international spotlight and precipitated his impending major-label successes.

“Angeles” obviously represents the key turning point in Smith’s career, but it also foreshadowed the tumultuous personal life that would evolve alongside his music. It’s hard not to compare his enigmatic, melancholic tunes with the mysterious tragedy that ended his life, especially given his clearly documented struggles with mental health. Personal demons thrive in the city of angels, and we’ll likely never know how or why he died so young; all we can do is appreciate the many works of art he left behind, and “Angeles” is one of the rawest examples of his singular craft. - VUJ


7. Green Day: “Basket Case”

[1994, Reprise]

Nested inside Green Day’s third album, Dookie, “Basket Case” emerged as an alternative rock anthem that propelled the band to true heights they haven’t left since. Written on a healthy dose of speed, Billie Joe Armstrong’s lyrics detail self-doubt steeped in self-loathing, creating a vivid portrayal of the anxious mind’s insurmountable inner-monologue into insanity. But trust me, “Basket Case” is fun enough to provide an escape for all outcasts.

Green Day, as terrific a three piece as they were, mirrored this theme in their arrangement, launching straight into the song with no instrumental intro. It was tight, unpretentious, snarling, and above all incredibly catchy which was essential. Billie Joe delivers relentless downstrokes off his palm-muted guitar making the most out of his 100-watt Plexi Super Lead head oftentimes played so loud it would blow mid-concert. Armstrong represented a new kind of guitar anti-hero, one who covered his instrument in stickers, sharpie, tape, and paint and whose solos consisted of nothing but power chords. Perhaps most impressively, Tré Cool’s lightning speed drum fills make the song, giving listeners an instant shot of adrenaline in the direction away from sanity.

The song exemplifies the best of the Bay Area punk that was developing at the time with groups like Rancid, NOFX, and the rest of the gang at 924 Gilman Street. Green Day may just have been the smartest hit writers in a room of smart hit writers. They didn’t just create the blueprint for pop punk, they carried it into its heyday, in the same way Husker Dü served as the blueprint for “Basket Case” itself. Billie Joe Armstrong’s incredible ear for melody was only second to his total understanding of his generation, one who felt like they were being gaslit over being mad with apparently no good reason. And while today that formula is tried and tired, it’s easy to hear the raw pop audacity of “Basket Case” today and think that back then it was anything but fresh, lively, exciting, and vital. - NCII


6. TLC: “Waterfalls”

[1995, La Face]

What matters most about “Waterfalls” is not its message or the fact that it even has one. It’s that first and foremost it works purely as a pop song on the highest level and delivers. Make no mistake, this is not the interstellar jazz hip hop music that would come to define the struggle exactly two decades after, nor was it the radical button-pushing political hip hop that still felt fresh at the time of its release; “Waterfalls” accomplishes the same ground by being a massive song with a million-dollar video. Yet on the signature song from the defining girl group of the decade, TLC’s hyper awareness of their community, drawing to both AIDS and crack epidemics, differentiated it from anything else that dominated the charts or zeitgeist.

There should be no surprise why a song like this could take over any time period.

Even Left Eye, who throughout her career would complain that the group dynamic made artistic expression near impossible, called it her favourite song she’s written. It’s a sonic masterpiece properly representing the startling rate in which urban music was evolving. Atlanta staples Organized Noize produced it and were a fixture at La Face record, home to Outkast and Goodie Mobb, which ensured organic instrumentation through top talent session players. Everyone arrives in top form. LaMarquis "ReMarqable" Jefferson’s fluid bassline unforgettably colours the track; Left Eye provides the best verse of her life. “Waterfalls” would resemble something of their Atlanta magnum opus, giving all parties the ability to put their name on something poignant and modern while still holding allegiance to the retroback soul playbook: flugel horns, vocal androgyny, but now the traditional expressions of “Listen to me” and “Y’all don’t hear me” that precede each verse respond with frustration to a more contemporary gospel.

The song’s omniscient narrator examines the AIDS epidemic for the song’s second verse (a decision that at the time was compelling for radio play) drawing to a young man who watches his body degenerate after engaging in unprotected sex. By 1995, the year in which “Waterfalls” began conquering the radio and MTV, the disease was still very much a stigma and had become the leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 25 and 44, a figure that would not decrease until two years later. As TLC themselves matured, so did their music which was realised with more wisdom. Gone were the condom eye patches in promotion of safe sex, TLC were now pushing an overarching discussion on the consequences of fast living. Contextualised by stories of internal strife, label politics, and Left Eye’s mental illness, TLC redefined themselves by showing accountability and forgiveness, pragmatism and faith, and in turn made it cool to question what was happening in the world. - AC


5. Bjork: “Hyperballad”

[1996, One Little Indian]

The nineties were the decade when the true definition of ‘indie’ was solidified, and few artists exemplify this ethos as much as Björk. While the indie umbrella traditionally hovered squarely over the alternative rock genre, its influence spread quickly as traditional genre barriers began to collapse in on themselves. Björk ascended from these ashes with a distinct new edge and a preternaturally cohesive sophomore album. There are a handful of singles that demonstrate just how many contemporary styles she could successfully wrangle and repurpose, but none of them convey the singular appeal of her art as intimately as “Hyperballad.”

In sharp contrast to the bombastic opening of “Army of Me,” Hyperballad starts with a quiet synth that trades industrial angst for contemplative meditation. The lyrics read like a diary entry, and the sound and style predate the same reflective introspection that would later pervade the entirety of her most retrospectively-acclaimed album, Vespertine. While her creative partnership with Nellee Hooper is largely responsible for Debut’s success, the enduring appeal of Post falls more directly in Björk’s hands. “Hyperballad” was one of the first songs she co-produced with Hooper, and you can detect her more understated curatorial lead in this track. It’s not sonically complex, but its main appeal lies in the deftly nuanced coalescence of Björk’s songwriting and sonic vision.

“Hyperballad” portrays an idyllic morning routine with a childlike sense of optimism. However, it isn’t long before “beautiful views” become projections of her own dead body “slamming against those rocks.” She continues to juggle violent imagery with bucolic observations, but as the song becomes more introspective, you realise there is a different narrative underlying the routine. She is describing the importance of self-preservation in the face of consummate love, and how to retain a sense of individuality while merging your life with someone else’s. The repeated imagery of death and decay symbolises her own anxieties about creative death, yet the overarching tone is calm and hopeful. It’s a raw and honest exposition of Björk’s most characteristic talents, and it foreshadowed the illustrious career that would evolve under her creative direction. – VUJ


4. Wu-Tang Clan: “C.R.E.A.M.”

[1993, Loud]

If you were one of the few people in 1993 who read The Source or stayed up late to watch video rotation on MTV, you probably felt one of two ways about the premier rap group of the era: These were nine guys that you either really wanted to hang out with or that you really didn’t want to owe money to. True fans believed both.

Wu-Tang’s passion for the niche and their raw intellect cemented their legend from the moment people came into contact with their identities. Wu-Tang’s videos and branding, their music and style, their large numbers promised delivery of their very own culture. They did everything in their power to make it clear that listeners were going to get another dose of reality from a very different, very dangerous, very strange part of Black American culture.

If Chuck D coined hip hop as the Black CNN, then Wu-Tang’s New York Times Side would thus provide something more lo-fi and less approachable and provide a less corporatized voice. It was both a party and an autobiography. Upon first glance, you may think the power of Wu-Tang came from sheer size, hear three songs and you might comment on the incredible range of talent. But it was RZA’s masterful delegation to realise and control these two things by hand picking the right guys for the right jobs that allowed for the greatest permutations possible.

“C.R.E.A.M.” is just three voices and two verses allegedly cut down from four (miniscule by Wu-Tang standards); but like any great collective, quality comes from synergy, not the sum of all parts. What could have very easily been a mess, instead offers the group’s most everlasting statement: a street tragedy written for the American dollar through the eyes of those who have to reach the hardest to touch it.

Two narratives are presented on both sides of the scale and play off each other with proverbial wisdom in their success and failure. While Raekwon moves kilos of product and Deck struggles to survive, the Prince and the Pauper share the same hopelessness and both pray for an escape from the same institutionalism. Both ruminate on the damage they are doing to their communities with only so many outcomes for themselves. Both are a slave to the same capitalist system and whether at the threshold or the front lines, both are playing a poverty game.

Raekwon’s philosophy presents a world in which even when you win you lose. The number of  status symbols you acquire plateaus and stagnation becomes the trap. There is no fire escape getaway. Deck presents his own story of a convicted offender who can no longer get by and must get over so instead decides to mentor delinquents. It’s about as visceral as it gets: Second-hand clothing, bad fathers, a Mazda MPV in place of a Beamer. While most producers were obsessed with boom bap and raising the roof, RZA seemed to be more focused on things like memory and hypnosis, using his samples to constitute the idea of reflection.

The song existed unfinished for years, only to be realised when Method Man (nicknamed by his comrades as Captain Hook for this very ability) added the song’s final and most famous element. The chorus, one of the finest ever assembled in the history of rap music, is more a narrative reprise instead of a classic call and response like the rise and shine for every stick up kid and bag man. But if at first glance the callout of “C.R.E.A.M.” as an all-powerful ruling entity seems like the glorification we are now all but used to, “C.R.E.A.M.” exists to show us the lives of those affected by the absence of money and its horrors. - AC


3. Nine Inch Nails: “Closer”

[1994, Nothing]

In a pop landscape built around sex positivity, it can be easy to forget how much of a bombshell "Closer" really was. Trent Reznor had shaken up the industry with Nine Inch Nails' trailblazing debut, Pretty Hate Machine and Broken (EP) in the five years before, but "Closer" was a whole new level of subversion.

The song’s startling imagery and explicitness may not raise any eyebrows with songs like "WAP" and "Need to Know" dominating the airwaves, but back in 1994, Reznor was exposing the listener to some freaky shit. There's a candour to "Closer" that wasn't present in popular music before its inception and hasn't been seen since. More anguish than pleasure in Trent Reznor's psychosexual exploration of the soul. More concern with using sex as a tool to explore the human condition than the act itself.

Reznor and Mark Romanek's now-iconic music video which helped spread the song like wildfire through heavy rotation albeit heavy MTV censorship combined influences of German Expressionism and Exploitation Cinema and through Its imaginative and macabre imagery drew parallels between the Satanic Panic and the demonization the human body in America.

And because of these two cultural pillars it creates, "Closer" is often overlooked for its songwriting. Set aside the taboo lyrical content and "Closer" still refuses to play by the rules. It's the quintessential industrial single, a snapshot of a brief moment where the underground genre was at the forefront of the American musical dialogue. But relegating the song to one label disrespects its subversiveness. The rubbery bass feels like it's been transplanted from a funk cut, add that to a drumbeat sampled from Iggy Pop's art rock classic "Night Clubbing" and you're left with a song that clashes with so many styles it defies classification. "Closer" doesn't want to be understood. All it wants is to seethe.

The sonic structure encases a song that is as disinterested in sex as it is in being labelled and the only arousing thing about "Closer" is its confidence; everything else is rather grotesque. Reznor's narrator is using sex to fill an existential void and as a vessel to convey themes of loneliness and futility. A godless world has left him feeling empty and he searches for temporary relief. It borders on self-medication.

This is what "Closer" contributes to the modern landscape. The suffering is more important than the remedy. Like the Roman Poet Ovid, Reznor uses sex to reflect on humanity. He just happens to do it in a medium that had been notoriously prudish towards the birds and the bees. "Closer" let us stop pretending we were all so pure. - JM


2. Radiohead: “Paranoid Android”

[1997, EMI]

When Nigel Godrich managed to put together the pieces of “Paranoid Android” on a 24-track recording, he didn’t even know how to explain to the band how he did it. “Paranoid Android” is a six-and-a-half-minute operatic plunge into the depths of capitalistic madness; a work of musical theatre through the lens of cyberpunk, designed for Gen Xers who had long since abandoned the wishful optimism of Britpop and matured to darker outlooks.

Written in the vein of through-composed masterworks such as The Beatles’ “Happiness is a Warm Gun” and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Radiohead crafted the composition in movements practically taking three different songs and melding them together to produce “Paranoid Android” (or at least what would become “Paranoid Android,” the original recording ran over 12 minutes long).

The progression is as seamless as it is relentless, working in four parts—the acoustic intro underscored by robotic background vocals; the ⅞ section featuring Colin Greenwood’s greatest work on the bass guitar, the eerie choral climax, and the final guitar solo to bring it all home. The listener is barely given a moment to breathe. Even the resolution which should be a moment of reprieve fills the listener with existential dread before whipping the song back into oblivion before it exits the stratosphere. Something this sonically ambitious doesn’t always strike a chord with the general public, but “Paranoid Android” reached the number three spot on the UK Charts. At one point it was played on Radio 1 twelve times per day.

What cements “Paranoid Android” as one of the greatest songs of its era is not for what it stands for, but for what it spites. Is “Paranoid Android” the greatest rock song of the nineties? No. “Paranoid Android” is a rejection of the lie the nineties was trying to propagate. The Berlin Wall fell and Clinton played his saxophone. The good guys won and capitalism prevailed. Thom Yorke’s lyrics paint a picture of a strange world where advertising overlords and fake democracies rule the roost. The noise of it all is just too much to take. Listen close enough and you might realise that Yorke isn’t singing about some strange sci-fi world, he’s musing on a reality you or I had no control of. Communism is not the dystopia we should have been so concerned about… what we should have been scared of is what happens when the banks and corporations get to run amok unchecked.

But “Paranoid Android” is no revolution song. Yorke isn’t trying to mobilise the masses. He’s just having a laugh. He’s taking a big, open-eyed look at reality and saying “hey, isn’t this all kind of funny?” And it is. It’s fucking hilarious. - JM


1. Nirvana: “Heart Shaped Box”

[1993, DGC]

In opposition to what Courtney Love has tweeted (and removed), it is doubtful that “Heart Shaped Box” was written about her vagina.

In fact, to say any of Cobain’s songs were written about any one specific object or event would seem to run contrary to how Cobain approached his music. It’s not to say “Heart Shaped Box” isn’t affected by Courtney Love or the vagina in general or even the idea of birth, all of which the song is obsessed with in its symbolism. However, by believing that this was the dominant theme of Nirvana’s last masterpiece, one reductively ignores how “Heart Shaped Box” shows Cobain subliminally responding to how he and his band were being perceived. Like the people around them, the people that worshipped them, and the people that the media stated they represented, the song is both fascinated by transformation and disgusted by hypocrisy.

It was indeed a turning point.

Kurt Cobain seemed to have a preconceived notion that aside from rare exceptions, a band could only become so wide reaching without having to compromise their credibility, something he apparently lost sight of when Nirvana’s exposure shot up like a rocket. Cobain shared a notion with his generation that success normally came with the assumption that it was intentional. Achievement meant you had to work for it and that you likely had to “sell your soul” to a status quo in order to not only become wealthy, but something that was perhaps worse, popular. The success of Nevermind and Nirvana, a band that seemed to have everything, had shocked Cobain into believing he had somehow joined this club. Kurt Cobain was so uncomfortable with being followed by his generation that this became the reason for his own martyrdom. How ridiculous this may read by pure definition does not change how essential this has remained to the band’s mythology since it connected to a predominant ideology at the time, which was to retaliate against selling out.

If “Smells Like Teen Spirit” stood for a generation by accident, then “Heart Shaped Box” was going to do something very purposeful. It was going to reset the tone and remind everyone that any connection with the commercial interests of the record industry that Nirvana had shown with Nevermind was unintentional.

“Heart Shaped Box” seemed to signal that they were entering more difficult territory. They brought on hardcore legend Steve Albini as a producer which signaled little to no interest in radio play, A&Rs were shut out of recording, and the band seemed to be pounding their instruments in determination of distancing themselves from anything that could be viewed as inviting. The song was more conscious of sex, though unmarketably in that it was unabashedly deprived. References to broken hymens and umbilical nooses signaled the idea of irreparable damage more than anything close to a come-on. “Eating someone’s cancer” has been called a convoluted declaration of love, but it’s likely more an act of sacrifice, the kind undertaken by someone who wants to be here a lot less than you do. Advice, whether it be “priceless” or even wrong, was to be rebuked as a byproduct of conformity, which was the antithesis of individuality. 

Understandably, DGC had no idea how to promote this and halted plans for a physical single thinking it would potentially deter buyers of the album. Nirvana likely didn’t give a shit. “Heart Shaped Box”’s timelessness should not only be considered by how it caught a breaking moment of the most important band of the era, it’s also a product of their awareness. Cobain’s allusions to puberty, crucifixion, cancer, astrology, fetuses, the menstrual cycle, and mutated orchards act as morbid devices to connect to the evolution he was unwantedly undergoing as the spokesman of his generation. What does the teen angst idol become once he has moved into adulthood if none of this was planned? “Heart Shaped Box” would again achieve something that Cobain had not intended to; he had yet again defined his generation by answering to what was on their minds: that inevitably things will change even if against our will. - AC





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