The 40 Best Songs of the 90s: 20-11

The 40 Best Songs of the 90s: 20-11

Get Crazy with the Cheese Whiz cause you know we bout to rip shit up.

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

10-1: rel. February 24

20. Nas: “N.Y. State of Mind”

[1992, Columbia]

If I was held at gunpoint by a Smith and Wesson and demanded to pick a track that sums up Nas' artistic complexity, "N.Y State of Mind" would be the only choice. It is bravado informed by trauma; gritty realism depicted through elegant poetry. On an album of 10 flawless tracks, "N.Y State of Mind" sits a cut above the rest.

The title's double meaning, referring to New York as a state and the state of mind required for New York’s most impoverished to survive, tells the listener everything you need to know about the track before pressing play. For one, you have to keep up. "N.Y State of Mind" is a track filled to the brim with multisyllabic rhyme structures, double and triple entendres, and enough obscure pop culture references to frighten a James Joyce scholar into submission. Nas isn't going to hold your hand. He's not going to tell you what he means by "the Island" or explain the multiple meanings of sleep being the cousin of death. You either know or you need a lyric sheet, but get the hell out of the way so the Smooth Criminal on beat breaks can work his magic. The title also displays the track's duality. Caught between a dream and a reality, "N.Y State of Mind" often finds a 19-year-old Nas musing on a prosperous future. Using his uncanny wordplay as a springboard, he dreams of capitalizing on his rap career to grab his piece of a booming Clinton-era stock market and sip expensive liquor. Despite his confidence, circumstance quickly drags him back to reality where he is forced to live a life of violence and sell drugs for survival.

A track laden with paranoia, "N.Y State of Mind" may be the most frightening song of the nineties. Nas articulates the horrors of his experiences in the Queensbridge Houses with the same poetic delineation as Dante Alighieri describing his Inferno. Combined with DJ Premier's haunting piano sample that sets the track into motion, "N.Y State of Mind" is a result of nightmarish creativity. Through his anxiety and his survival instinct forcing him to keep tabs on his surroundings at all times, Nas depicts a community suffering and surviving just like him. Gamblers, users, and rival dealers are all with him at the bottom trying to avoid jailtime or murder. 

The song's most harrowing sequence finds Nas escaping a gunfight in an apartment lobby full of children and realizing that his would-be assassins, the ones that have been trying to murder him throughout the song, were no older than the little ones that now surround him in the lobby. In "N.Y State of Mind," the pen is just as oriented on its world as the protagonist who has to survive in it. Nas may be frustrated with his own circumstance, but he is just as concerned for his fellow "black rats trapped" who have to share it.

Systematic poverty forces him to scam and work others and avoid being worked himself, but it's the empathy that breathes soul into Nas' tapestry of startling, neo-realistic imagery. Rap had been used as a medium to document the lives of America's most oppressed since the genre's inception; Nas' eloquence on "N.Y State of Mind" stayed true to this tradition while breaking new ground in its poetic flourish. - JM


19. Soundgarden: “Fell On Black Days” 

[1994, A&M]

Soundgarden seemed to attest to the idea that alternative rock had to be simple.

To them, Grunge was just a buzzword, a lazy marketing term applied to bands with a wide range of styles and ethos who were grouped just because they dressed like they lived in the Pacific Northwest. If grunge’s de facto principles were to play melodic, yet loose and consider emotional release over technical ability, Soundgarden existed as the ultimate exception.

They were hardly a new band by 1994, having already headlined Lolla and even having the rare cred advantage of having their symbolic “Jesus Christ Pose” banned from MTV. But Soundgarden existed before the nineties, coming of age as a band concurrently with heavy metal. Despite how easy it was (and how lucky they were) for record companies to group Soundgarden with grunge (lyrics about substance abuse, provocative titles, Seattle) Soundgarden has as much in common with the bands of the eighties as their counterparts of the nineties.

“Fell on Black Days,” the fifth single from blockbuster Superunknown, represented a middle point between two genres. It’s written in an unorthodox time signature. Chris Cornell’s lyrics consider fear and mental illness which is nothing new, but the extension of his vocal range puts him ahead of any singer of his era. While the prototypical axe man was playing middle finger solos that simply imitated choruses, Kim Thayil used a wah wah pedal and played like he was having acid flashbacks with Ravi Shankar. While most bands who had stayed closer to college radio than heavy metal were trying to create chemistry out of cheap demos, Soundgarden followed in the footsteps of the bands they looked up to: Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Metallica; they were the sum of their parts.

There’s a reason that nearly all of FM radio rock in the 2000s sounds like this song, the clean mixing, the balance of reverb on the drums, the expressive singing…but where bands like Nirvana and Pixies’ authenticity and immaturity were near inimitable to those who existed outside of indie years later, Soundgarden were a testament that pure bands who survived movements do so by being purely great bands and not necessarily by being about grandiose ideas. - AC


18. The Notorious B.I.G.: “Gimme the Loot” 

[1994, Bad Boy]

The Notorious B.I.G. was the unlikeliest of superstars. A Brooklynite who dropped out of high school and moved units upon units of crack and got caught in North Carolina at the age of 17. He was four hundred pounds, one of his eyes was off centre, and he had a lisp. Biggie’s success considered his ginormous talent, but it was also benefited by the strategy of the Bad Boy hit making machine who used his oddities to their advantage. His romantic come on songs were shameless, body positive even that an overweight man could convince women to leave their more attractive husbands. “Juicy” is ultimately a powerful song about opportunity because of what Wallace had to survive. For my money’s worth however, “Gimme the Loot,” a four and a half minute album cut in which Biggie in dual roles talks fondly of robbing scared white train passengers, is the best song he ever wrote.

If you ever actually looked at Biggie or listened to what he was saying in interviews, he was deeply concerned with being hard and giving you a slice of the streets, creating a hit was just a way out. In the Giuliani-era, he was arrested on weapons charges in Brooklyn, then violated probation. He battled hard, which meant that he needed to have sharp punchlines and a certain level of aggression. Prior to a time when socially conscious rap was being praised for responding to the perils of the community with nonviolence and education, Wallace was more interested in telling it how he thought it really was.

“Gimme the Loot” starts establishing rep right away, opening with frank autobiography: “My man Inf left a TEC and a nine at my crib,” things do not calm down from there. Biggie plays both himself and the aforementioned Inf who might be the least suitable person for parole ever depicted on a song. Unlike many of the people they touch during their robberies, these guys do not discriminate: man or woman, old or pregnant, Rolex or swatch. They rob while they eat, they rob even when their feet are tired. At one point Biggie appears to be robbing even while rapping this very song, rhyming out demands for his hostages. It is impulsivity without fear of consequence.

If not for two of his most valued skills, the power of his voice and the sharpness of his wit, it’s a pretty disgusting display, but over a beat so lively and subject matter so outrageously illicit it almost begs to be recited, “Gimme the Loot” is a barrel of sinister fun. B.I.G.’s characters break each other’s balls, they back up each other’s rep. They talk about the feeling of holding something stolen and make jokes about the police. His love of telling stories was not only an easy way to formulate an idea for a song, this was something he was actually very good at. Not to mention, this was the game objective for how rap was being made in New York; whatever you did, there needed to be a hard element of realness. “Gimme the Loot” is the best indication of what Biggie, an incredibly imaginative MC could do when allowed to run free on his own terms. Honestly just stand still. - AC


17. Red Hot Chili Peppers “Under the Bridge”

[1992, Warner Bros.]

It's strange to think of a time when Red Hot Chili Peppers were little more than juvenile funk rockers whose biggest hit was a Stevie Wonder cover. Hell, the jury is still out on whether or not they’ve grown up now. But in 1991, something changed. The Chili Peppers went from being a couple of L.A funk punks to a cultural phenomenon; a collection of generation-defining singles were just down the pipe. They had, for the most part, sobered up to create their penetrating introduction into the new decade. Rick Rubin, fairly fresh off of running Def Jam, was hungry to find a new act to define his talent for assembly and curation outside of the NY rap scene.

“Under the Bridge'' is a story that’s been cemented in both of their histories. Rubin discovered an unused poem while skimming through songwriter Anthony Kiedis' notebooks for new material. Kiedis was reluctant as he felt it didn't fit the Chili Peppers' style and, in his defence, he was right. "Under the Bridge," for my money, is the first time the Chili Peppers created something tender and had something to say. Kiedis shakes off the sex-crazed façade and reveals the soul of a genuine poet; providing one of the most un-romantic depictions of Los Angeles since Robert Towne penned Chinatown, that compromises no love for his home. His lyrics about wasting away under an ambiguous L.A bridge in the throes of depression and drug addiction go great lengths to dispelling idealised perceptions of Tinseltown (the cat being let fully out of the bag just a year later when the world was forced to see how much L.A was struggling on national TV). But in the end, the city and its sunset and its voodoo is the one thing that its residents can trust even in the seediest of underbellies.

But "Under the Bridge" didn't just show the Chili Peppers' perspective on life and the city that they would ultimately become so associated with, it also altered their sound. John Frusciante opens with perhaps his most sentimental work, a Floydian prog-rock arpeggio that enchants the listener, lulling us in as Kiedis' groovy cadence leads us through his city bar by bar. In a move of restraint, surprising coming from a rhythm section that cut its teeth in excess, Flea doesn't even hit the bass until the first chorus a minute and thirty seconds in. He doesn’t so much as help guide Frusciante's guitar work as he dances around it.

The Chili Peppers would go on to sculpt their music around fluidity instead of just energy. Not just in rhythm but within movements and genre. "Under The Bridge" plays in sandboxes of prog, soul, blues, and hip-hop before building to an orchestral finish and represents the Chili’s transition from adolescent dilettantes to multi-generational icons. The band’s performances had evolved from loose to tight, their attitude from hyperactive to hyper focused and applied both of these transformations to their songwriting. "Under the Bridge" helped define their catalogue moving forward, breaking their music out of a box that they would never return to. - JM


16. Beck: “Loser”

[1992, Bong Load Custom]

Generation X had a reputation for being lazy. Their parents, “The Silent Generation” who married young and made money in the eighties, were vocal about their difference in values. People noted that Gen X appeared to disrespect their parent’s generation, but respect meant you probably had to care. At the sacrifice of this principle, sometimes they allowed themselves to be ignorant and were even narcissistic about this. They were the guinea pig for mass marketing, cable television, and plastic surgery.

If “Loser” exists as their anthem, then by this very definition it does not want to live up to your expectations.

Beck promised he would have created something more substantial had he known it would have been such a hit and would deny the validity of its meaning, a definitive portrayal of a very visibly fatigued new generation. While “Yo Soy un Perdedor” directly translated to “I’m a loser” in Spanish, Beck’s giveaway of its origins actually being “Slide Open the Door” may have been cynical, but proved he was never willing to give a straight answer; that was the point and everyone seemed to get this. He was drawing together a stream of consciousness that tried to capture the moment, but in no way tried to lead it. But while “Loser” found its notoriety in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s suicide, a move that was seemingly initiated by his own rejection of becoming the voice of his generation, Beck just seemed to chuckle in amusement of the response or the fact that he made folk music during a time without mass social change.

He, like many people in the nineties were obsessed with the seventies and it’s the one thing “Loser” pledges allegiance to: Super 8 film, storm trooper masks for no reason, freak folk, educational movies. But this was not an honouring of the same American ideals or values that the people of the eighties memorialised about the fifties. If anything, the seventies seemed to distrust institutions so much they lacked values in general. The nineties seemed to yearn for the 70s as a time where you could live off a small business without stress or even shoes or socks. Before the War on Drugs and when rent was so cheap it was a nonissue, since you could very well live off a friend’s couch. A time when a 20-something White kid based out of L.A. could very well pull from the delta blues to make folk music and not be lambasted for cultural appropriation. – AC


15. Daft Punk: “Da Funk”

[1995, Virgin]

Originally released as a 2000 copy single two years before their debut, “Da Funk” was the mission statement of Daft Punk and an important touchstone for the resurgence of house music in the nineties. Built around a heavy hitting 909 beat, the group utilised scorching acid synths and funk samples for their first proper single, all over top of a quarter note bass synth that bounces the track along, beat by beat.

Through and through, the track is a heavy dance floor spectacle, built on rawness and grit despite its large hooks. It’s entirely emblematic of what Daft Punk was seeking to do with their debut: take house music out of the studio and build it out at home. By the nineties, synthesizers and drum machines, whilst still expensive, were being marketed toward the hobbyist musician, not just the studio pro. For example, the only acid low end synth that mattered (that sweet Roland 303) was originally just a bassline-playing machine to accompany the practice sessions of serious musicians. It was already established that musicians didn’t need $20,000 modular synthesizers, but could instead coax crazy sounds out of tiny boxes (like the 303). Daft Punk took this democratisation of electronic music and ran with it. For Homework, they brought their new music boxes home, and hunkered down to make the killer tracks that would revitalise house music in the nineties out of the club and back into the house.

The track pushes the 303 into distorted acid squelches, its breakdown reminiscent of Electro giants like Drexcia. Once the original riff gets back into the mix confidently weaponizing its hook, it’s hard not to bop along. Daft Punk promised bold eclecticism almost seemingly for the motive of their own enjoyment. “Da Funk’s” video, a short film directed by Spike Jonze about a dog named Charles in an existential crisis, gave a story that posed more questions than it did answers. Further, “Da Funk” verges on hip hop just as much as it does house. Bangalter later mentioned that the duo was inspired by American G funk like Warren G’s “Regulate,” which they had been listening to in the weeks prior to writing.

By the time “Da Funk” was released sometime after they recorded it in 1995, a bidding war to sign Daft Punk broke out, and a debut album was inevitable. But what no one saw coming was how much Daft Punk’s music would impact the positive reception towards electronic music as popular music. - NCII


14. Nirvana: “Lithium”

[1991, DGC]

Yeah-ha-eh-eh-yeah…30 years of Nevermind has proven limitations of things left to say about Nirvana, Nevermind, Seattle, and grunge music as a whole. Still, even after hearing these songs to the point of nauseum, they are undeniably some of the finest ever put to tape. So here’s a few stray thoughts on Nirvana, “Lithium,” and pop music:

  • If Nirvana and the grunge scene as a whole, existed in complete contrast to the trashy eighties rock and the baby on the cover chasing the unattainable dollar bill drew the ulterior direction that music would take on at the dawn of the decade as less poppy, then “Come As You Are,” “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and most of all “Lithium” contradictingly demonstrated a full understanding of traditional pop mechanics.
  • Kurt Cobain didn’t just write songs that were for and emblematic of the prototypical disenfranchised outcast kid searching for belonging… he saw himself as this kid. This gave himself an authenticity to become the voice of several generations who throughout time felt more comfortable with talking about being alienated.
  • The song represents the major turning point for the band more than any other breaking into the fame that would be the cause of their dissolving. After having gone through four drummers, Kurt Cobain and Dave Grohl struggled with the loud/quiet dynamic that colours “Lithium,” but ultimately mastered it.
  • Whether looked at as a chastise of religion or the unravelling of a man in the fallout of his girlfriend’s death or even in the literal sense about the psychiatric use of lithium in treating bipolar disorder and depression, “Lithium’s” dark subject matter is rife with Cobain’s sense of humour, halfway between sarcastic and brain dead.
  •  Nirvana not only wrote songs that were meant to be loud (which was miraculously executed by just three people) they were also catchy. Trust me, these songs will be stuck in your head until you no longer have one.”Lithium” in particular showed a new level of attention Cobain was applying to his work, which up until that point had been a post-hoc curation of scribbles laced throughout his journals. “Lithium” on the other hand took more intention and iterations to work.
  • Cobain picked chords like he was spinning a wheel, and almost never played a minor. I really don’t know how this worked but it did.
  • The chorus has been called hypnotic in its repetition and melodic variance, yet “yeah” which Cobain sings thirteen times per cycle, is approachable enough to imply a kind of acceptance and even celebration of the subject’s current state. A prayer in itself for the disenfranchised.
  • Dave Grohl’s liberal fills and his gift for volume in tandem with Krist Novoselic’s rubber band bass lines represented the most unique rhythm section of their time.
  •  “Lithium”’s ability to merge clear grunge instrumentation with the big choral release of pop music brought a new high to the angst and misunderstood feeling at the heart of the nineties alternative movement.

 - TV


13. Smashing Pumpkins: “Disarm”

[1994, Virgin]

Positioned almost dead centre in the middle of Siamese Dream, “Disarm” is one of the most stirring and provocative of all the songs in singer-songwriter Billy Corgan’s entire Smashing Pumpkins catalogue. Its tempo is not far off from the preceding songs on the album, but the abrupt shift from multi-layered guitars to a string arrangement is jarring enough to draw attention, although not nearly as much as its lyrics.

Songs about the challenges of adolescence and family dysfunction are not exactly rare, and the grunge movement that helped launch the Pumpkins is pocked with lyrical navel-gazing. But “Disarm” is something altogether different, its black and white video only hinting at the gothic violence of Corgan’s personal reflections of childhood horror. With implications of both cyclical domestic abuse (“the killer in me is the killer in you”) and a childhood lost and abandoned (“I used to be a little boy / So old in my shoes”), the song is a poignant exploration of survival, with Corgan’s vocals strained to match the emotional momentum of the strings. Graphic visuals in the song got it banned from airplay in the UK, with Corgan unwilling to change the lyrics to suit the BBC’s standards, but those lyrics reinforce the opening lines that establish the theme of surviving childhood trauma (“Disarm you with a smile / And cut you like you want me to”) and the long-term behavioural damage that cycle of violence produces (“I send this smile over to you”). Where first album Gish may have had some Grunge leanings, Siamese Dream and its centrepiece “Disarm” made it clear that Corgan had more grandiose visions than his peers (see follow-up album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness) and more psychological depths left to explore. - JF


12. Pearl Jam “Jeremy”

[1992, Epic]

“Jeremy” isn’t the first popular song to talk about violence.

Take a song like “I Don’t Like Mondays” by The Boomtown Rats for example, also dealing with teenage violence, but The Boomtown Rats are doing everything in their power to separate us from the case of Brenda Ann Spencer. Everything is meant to make Spencer, a 16-year old who murdered two children and injured nine on a playground in 1979, feel like some kind of an alien. As horrific as it is, the song establishes the incident as an absurd anomaly.

What gives Pearl Jam’s finest moment its impact is how close the violence hits to home. “Jeremy” is a composite of two incidents: the suicide of 15-year old Jeremy Wade Delle who shot himself in front of his classmates in 1991 and a school shooting committed by a boy named Brian, a classmate of Eddie Vedder. But “Jeremy” doesn’t view its protagonist as some anomalous case; Eddie Vedder posits that violence, both emotional and physical, and embeds it in the suburbs where many privileged Americans feel the safest.

Everything we hear about this fictitious version of Jeremy is meant to endear from his desire for love to his attempts to defend himself (especially if we know how the song concludes). The dirty grunge bassline drags us right in the mud with “the boy.” Whether he kills his classmates or himself, both the phenomenal video and song itself leave this ambiguous, it is impossible to avoid that not only is Jeremy a person just like us, but also a victim of the same culture that turns us against each other.

“Jeremy” spawned a national dialogue that is just as pertinent now as it was in 1991. Discussions of gun control, violence, mental health, and stigma permeate the lyrics as much as they permeate the socio-political discourse. It’s what makes “Jeremy” such a benchmark song in its attitude towards uncomfortable subject matter that would be considered touchy today. Like many of their grunge contemporaries, Pearl Jam wasn’t just changing the sound of popular music; they were changing what musicians were allowed to talk about. “Jeremy” proves that not only is it necessary for popular music to provoke challenging ideas, but that sometimes it’s what the listener wants. - JM


11. Dr. Dre featuring Snoop Doggy Dogg: “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang”

[1992, Death Row]

In 1992, Dr. Dre was not going to allow anything to stand in his way from finally creating his first proper hit.

The Rodney King riots which went on for six days in May were the epicentre of media attention and set his Compton neighbourhood ablaze. Crack cocaine was everywhere as were its foot soldiers. The Compton murder rate had peaked with 91 homicides and Chief Daryl Gates had finally stepped down. The Chronic was birthed within a complicated setting. If you were Black and caught with weed, you represented a disproportionate number of arrests. “The Bionic” along with guns, malt liquor, copious amounts of sex and everything else Dre and his new posse were advocating as a solution to life’s problems was seen as a dose of reality by very few, laughable to many, and a crime by the FCC.

His controversial new contract with Death Row replaced a limiting one with Ruthless Records, many believe through force. He no longer had four partners with different visions for his creative direction, he now had just one. Snoop Doggy Dogg, who managed to be intimidating despite rarely raising his voice and who was as cocky as he was sharp, would represent the direction Dre was trying to reroute.

But what most made “Nuthin’ But a G Thang” so integral to how hip hop would evolve throughout the nineties was how much Dre and Snoop can achieve by not directly embellishing the idea that danger followed them wherever they went. As the country became more obsessed with the news and culture that depicted South Central, Dre and Snoop were largely becoming the poster boys for an area that was seen as the media lens for the War on Drugs. They didn’t respond to the violence in their community, they claimed to be the inciters of that violence. “G Thang” signifies the otherwise constant threat of its presence through its absence; violence is put to rest for one moment of relaxation.

On surface level “G Thang” appears to be deceptively simple, but its attitudes were so authentic, it presented hip hop as less of a tool for rebellion, and more a look inside a community. It cut a slice of life so vivid that it made listening feel illicit which accounted for all of its fun: Summer heat, blunt rolling, fridges full of Old English, Crip cookouts. Where N.W.A. presented a format that militaristic in its division of talent, Dre’s dynamic with Snoop allowed for more interaction, more indicative of street-level banter at a gathering.

While pioneering rap producers aimed to smash down industry walls with collages of breaks, samples, and scratches, Dre aimed to appease this very industry, stripping back raw aggression for clean mixes, introducing melodies as the focal point, and hiring top tier musicians to actualize his vision. “G Thang” was leaner than anything presented to radio at that point. Much of hip hop had been about noise, Dre wanted to have conversations about sound. Nearly all commercial hip hop sounds cleaner after this. Style would come to be valued over substance. It was a principle that would allow for reinvention more times throughout his career, but “Nuthin’ but a G Thang” would represent the best example of how Dre’s understanding of his locale created his most consequential work. - AC





More Stories

More Stories