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Best 90s Songs: 20 Era-Defining Tracks From An Undefinable Decade
List & Guides

Best 90s Songs: 20 Era-Defining Tracks From An Undefinable Decade

From bold Britpop anthems to incendiary blasts of gangsta rap, the best 90 songs shine with old-school swagger and head-spinning diversity.

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From the moment the Berlin Wall fell, it was clear the 90s would be a decade like no other. From the introduction of home computers to the advent of the internet, the world was changing rapidly, and – as even the most cursory glance at the best 90s songs shows – our musical appetites were more diverse than ever.

For Gen Xers who needed a soundtrack to their pre-millennial angst, the alt-rock boom, ignited by groups such as Nirvana, R.E.M. and Red Hot Chili Peppers, gave rock’n’roll the blood transfusion it needed. In response, a mildly patriotic fervour stirred in the UK, and the Britpop movement was spawned, spearheaded by the likes of Oasis and Blur.

At the same time, hip-hop was exploding worldwide, which led to a new “Golden Age”, ruled by gangsta rappers such as The Notorious B.I.G. Meanwhile, the proliferation of dance music in nightclubs inspired innovations in production that widened the scope of electronica and its many emergent subgenres.

As our list of the best 90s songs shows, the decade was a joyously fertile period full of new musical heroes to champion…

Listen to our 90s playlist here and check out our best 90s songs, below.

20: Alanis Morissette: Ironic (from ‘Jagged Little Pill’, 1996)

Canadian rock goddess Alanis Morissette scored a US Top 5 hit in 1996 with Ironic, the third single to be released from her Grammy-winning album, Jagged Little Pill. Emerging from the post-grunge afterglow, Ironic is a streamlined, pop-infused blast of alt-rock produced by Michael Jackson songwriter Glen Ballard, with Morissette singing her lyrics with a sarcastic roll of the eyes. “We were just trying to make each other laugh,” Morissette told Q magazine in 1991 of writing the song. “We weren’t even thinking about ironies at all, which is probably the most ironic thing about the song.” Even though killjoys point out the lyrics missed the meaning of “irony”, you don’t need a degree in English literature to enjoy it. Just lay back, pick the black fly out of your Chardonnay, and enjoy one of the best Alanis Morissette songs for the 90s anthem it is.

19: Fugees: Ready Or Not (from ‘The Score’, 1996)

New Jersey trio Wyclef Jean, Lauryn Hill and Pras (aka Fugees) were the darlings of the hip-hop underground until their debut album, The Score, catapulted them into the big leagues. Though their version of Killing Me Softly – previously a hit for Roberta Flack – was arguably the group’s commercial breakthrough, its follow-up single, Ready Or Not, was an atmospheric and ethereal thrum of greatness that peaked at No.1 in the UK, en route to becoming one of the best 90s songs. Sampling a deep cut by Irish songwriter Enya (Boadicea), Ready Or Not mixes minimalist snare hits with Lauryn Hill’s soulful voice, ensuring that Fugees emerged as a refreshing force on the alternative-rap scene. Still hugely influential today, the iconic Enya sample has crept its way into countless hip-hop songs over the years, lending the original an atmospheric allure that remains timeless and awe-inspiring.

18: Tori Amos: Cornflake Girl (from ‘Under The Pink’, 1994)

The 90s was a great decade for female musicians, particularly those who held fast to their own beguiling vision. The 1994 single Cornflake Girl, by US songwriter Tori Amos, is the perfect example – a waltzy piano rocker from her Under The Pink album, it peaked at No.4 in the UK, becoming one of the best Tori Amos songs in the process. Perhaps surprisingly, Amos found her face adorning boxes of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes to help promote the song. However, with lyrics inspired by a book about female genital mutilation, Amos gave Cornflake Girl a feminist message that quickly found its home among the best 90s songs.

17: Daft Punk: Around The World (from ‘Homework’, 1997)

Futuristic helmet-wearers Daft Punk completely revolutionised dance music in the 90s. Emerging from the Parisian club scene, the French DJs adopted robot-like personas and cherry-picked disco curios and funk rarities to transmogrify house music into a world-conquering prospect. As one of the best 90s songs, their seminal hit Around The World was released in April 1997 and reached No.5 in the UK, thanks in part to its repetitive vocoder hook and an iconic music video directed by Michel Gondry. Ahead of their time in so many ways, Daft Punk had paved a new road; Around The World’s parent album, Homework, ensured dance music would never be the same again.

16: Madonna: Frozen (from ‘Ray Of Light’, 1998)

With dance music soundtracking many a night out in the 90s, English producer William Orbit sought to fuse the spiritually uplifting heft of electronica with the immediacy of pop music. He found a keen collaborator in the “Queen Of Pop”, Madonna, who was keen to try out new sounds that would extend her reign as music’s most colourful and glamorous pop provocateur. “I was interested in fusing a kind of futuristic sound,” the singer said of her 1998 single Frozen. The game-changing lead release from Ray Of Light – itself one of the best 90s albums – Frozen unfurls to the melancholy of Madonna’s soothing vocals before clattering to life with tribal-influenced beats and a transcendent chorus that ranks up there with the best Madonna songs. Arguably the most cinematic and sonically innovative foray into club-influenced pop since Donna Summer’s I Feel Love, Frozen peaked at No.1 in the UK and No.2 in the US, elevating Madonna to “Goddess Of Electronica” status in the process.

15: Oasis: Live Forever (from ‘Definitely Maybe’, 1994)

Incensed after discovering that Kurt Cobain had written a Nirvana song called I Hate Myself And I Want To Die, Oasis songwriter Noel Gallagher decided to write its polar opposite and, in so doing, created an immortal Britpop classic. Owing to Liam Gallagher’s star-making turn on vocals, Live Forever charted at No.10 in the UK and cemented Oasis’ standing as hopeful and confident working-class rockers dreaming of better tomorrows. A highlight on their debut album, Definitely Maybe, the song cast a mighty shadow over many of its Britpop-era challengers, and yearly Best Of British polls by Radio X proves it remains one of the greatest songs ever recorded.

14: Mark Morrison: Return Of The Mack (from ‘Return Of The Mack’, 1996)

One of the greatest British R&B songs ever made, Mark Morrison’s Return Of The Mack took a Kool & The Gang sample and gave it a gangsta-flavoured polish, resulting in a song that owed as much to the G-funk swagger of Dr Dre productions as it did to the delirious danceability of new jack swing. “When I wrote that song, it was all about my moving from the negative to the positive,” Morrison said. “And that’s how it turned out.” A No.1 sensation in the UK and a Top 5 hit in the US, Return Of The Mack succeeded in reinvigorating soul music for US audiences, as well as gifting us one of the best 90s songs to come out of Britain.

13: New Radicals: You Get What You Give (from ‘Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too’, 1998)

You might be mistaken for thinking 90s rock was full or grunge-abetted woe or nu metal-inspired angst, but New Radicals’ UK No.5 hit, You Get What You Give, was a refreshingly optimistic pop-rock gem. Lyrically, however, songwriter Gregg Alexander smuggles a vicious social critique into the song’s infectious melody, railing against fickle celebrity distractions and powerful institutions that ride roughshod over the everyman. Ultimately, however, it’s an ode to keeping faith in better things to come (“This world is gonna pull through/Don’t give up/You’ve got a reason to live”). Even Joni Mitchell picked You Get What You Deserve as one of the best 90s songs, telling Rolling Stone, “That’s the first song since I was a teenager that I rushed to the radio to turn up. I like the harmony, I like the passion in his voice.”

12: Weezer: Buddy Holly (from ‘Weezer’ (aka “The Blue Album”), 1994)

Thanks to the inventive Happy Days tribute of its Spike Jonze-directed music video, Weezer’s 1994 single Buddy Holly brought a sense of fun back to alternative rock after Kurt Cobain’s demise seemed to signify its death knell. Produced by Ric Ocasek – the main songwriter in new wave band The Cars – Buddy Holly was a punky blast of sun-kissed optimism that saw Weezer harness everything from late-70s/early-80s power-pop to 60s-inspired harmonies in order to give contemporary rock a bubblegum-pop makeover. Peaking at No.12 in the UK, it remains Weezer’s signature anthem and brought joy to the grunge scene’s mourning party.

11: Blur: The Universal (from ‘The Great Escape’, 1995)

From its playful homage to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, in a music video directed by Jonathan Glazer, Blur’s 1995 single The Universal could not have been more different from the gleeful gumption of their early hits. A baroque pop ballad with orchestral flourishes of cello and violin, not to mention Salvation Army-style trumpets, the single reached No.5 in the UK. From its winsome build through to its life-affirming chorus, The Universal perfected Damon Albarn’s more classicist songwriting leanings, gifting us not only one of the best Blur songs, but one of the best 90s songs, too.

10: Coolio: Gangsta’s Paradise (featuring L.V.) (from ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’, 1995)

Taking a sample of Stevie Wonder’s Pastime Paradise to empyrean heights, US rapper Coolio’s 1995 single Gangsta’s Paradise invokes biblical storytelling (“When I walk through the valley of the shadow of death”) and a longing for spiritual transformation through its masterful use of gospel choirs, resulting in one of the most enduring hip-hop tracks of the decade. A No.1 hit around the world, Gangsta’s Paradise’s lyrical honesty and street-smart moralising stood out in a sea of nihilistic gangsta rap, earning itself a spot on the soundtrack to the Michelle Pfeiffer drama Dangerous Minds.

9: Radiohead: Creep (from ‘Pablo Honey’, 1992)

Though Radiohead may not like to admit it, their 1992 sleeper hit Creep, from their debut album, Pablo Honey, remains one of the band’s most era-defining songs. Surfacing amid the grunge era, in September 1992, its gnarly wall of noise from guitarist Jonny Greenwood expresses the aimlessness of the outsider (“I’m a weirdo/What the hell am I doing here?”), and the song became a definitive 90s “slacker anthem”, peaking at No.34 in the US and No.7 in the UK. By showcasing Thom Yorke’s majestic falsetto and Radiohead’s skilful chord progression, Creep steals its way into the best 90s songs – it is, indeed, “so fuckin’ special”.

8: Green Day: Basket Case (from ‘Dookie’, 1994)

Leading players among the wave of pop-punk bands that sprung up in the 90s, Green Day announced their arrival courtesy of Basket Case, a freewheeling rocker about anxiety and paranoia that became an MTV hit thanks to a memorable music video that featured the band in a psychiatric hospital. “It’s an anthem for weirdos,” frontman Billie Joe Armstrong told Rolling Stone in 2017. “It’s about losing your mind. Most people have had that experience.” Weaving its way into the UK Top 10 in 1994, Basket Case further raised the profile of Green Day’s career-making album, Dookie, and it still stands as one of the best Green Day songs of all time.

7: Rage Against The Machine: Killing In The Name (from ‘Rage Against The Machine’, 1991)

Ahead of its time in so many ways, Rage Against The Machine’s 1992 single Killing In The Name threw Tom Morello’s Led Zeppelin-esque riffs into a blender with frontman Zack De La Rocha’s rap-inspired yelling to pioneer a rap-metal sound that would become a mainstay for much of the 90s. Though the song only peaked at No.25 in the UK at the time, it saw a resurgence after reaching the Christmas No.1 spot in 2009, following a social-media campaign to challenge The X Factor’s hold on the festive charts. One of the best protest songs of the era, Killing In The Name’s legacy could be clearly felt in the subsequent rise of nu metal, ensuring that its place among the best 90s songs is beyond question.

6: The Smashing Pumpkins: 1979 (from ‘Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness’, 1996)

It’s hard to distil The Smashing Pumpkins’ catalogue to just one pick for our best 90s songs list, but their highest-charting single, 1979, is well worth spotlighting. Released in January 1996, its dreamy whirl of indie dissonance is the perfect vehicle for songwriter Billy Corgan’s coming-of-age lyrics that spoke to a whole generation of post-grunge music fans. Rising to No.12 on the US Hot 100, there’s arguably no better evidence of how The Smashing Pumpkins could lay claim to inheriting Nirvana’s crown among the best 90s musicians.

5: The Verve: Bitter Sweet Symphony (from ‘Urban Hymns’, 1997)

More so than any other Britpop release, The Verve’s 1997 single Bitter Sweet Symphony made significant inroads into the US market, peaking at No.12 on the Hot 100 and later being featured in the 1999 teen movie Cruel Intentions. Largely based around a classical music hook from Andrew Oldham Orchestra’s arrangement of The Rolling Stones’ 1965 single The Last Time, the song’s swaggering groove is the perfectly seductive foil to Richard Ashcroft’s lyrics about the perils of late capitalism (“Trying to make ends meet, you’re a slave to money, then you die”). As one of the best 90s songs, Bitter Sweet Symphony was universally adored and saw The Verve ascend to take Oasis’ place as one of the most successful Britpop bands of the era.

4: Red Hot Chili Peppers: Under The Bridge (from ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’, 1991)

Thanks to guitarist John Frusciante’s bewitching guitar riff, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ 1991 ballad Under The Bridge instantly became an alt-rock classic among the best 90s songs. Frontman Anthony Kiedis’ impassioned vocal reflects on heroin addiction as the song encompasses the band’s fondness for funk-rock, building to a euphoric gospel-inspired conclusion. Reaching No.2 in the US, it propelled Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik into the public consciousness, proving that Nirvana were far from the only band capable of reigniting enthusiasm for rock’n’roll.

3: The Notorious B.I.G.: Juicy (from ‘Ready To Die’, 1994)

Hip-hop legend The Notorious B.I.G. scored his first hit with Juicy, a rags-to-riches showcase of the New York City titan’s booming voice and daunting skill on the mic. Co-produced by Sean “Puff Daddy” Coombs, the song was a standout on Biggie’s debut album, Ready To Die, mirroring Biggie’s own ascendancy to rap icon status with the story of hip-hop’s rise to prominence as a genre. Perfectly covering all the key touchstones of gangsta rap – from hustling on the streets to getting rich – Juicy was a seminal classic that still stands tall among the best Notorious B.I.G. songs.

2: Nirvana: Smells Like Teen Spirit (From ‘Nevermind’, 1991)

It’s ironic that Smells Like Teen Spirit – a song originally inspired by Kurt Cobain’s disgust with the apathy of his generation – became such a cultural phenomenon. By opening the floodgates to the alt-rock era, the 1991 single not only hit No.6 in the US but it also helped grunge take over the mainstream charts, transforming Nirvana from underground misfits into bona fide celebrities. “Kurt really despised the mainstream,” Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic said, mindful of how the band’s popularity clashed with their punk ethos. “That’s what Smells Like Teen Spirit was all about: the mass mentality of conformity.” Nevertheless, as one of the best 90s songs, Smells Like Teen Spirit remains an apathy-shaking anthem, awaking a nation of teenagers from their slumber with a reminder of the life-changing power of rock’n’roll.

1: R.E.M.: Losing My Religion (from ‘Out Of Time’, 1991)

No band better represents the journey from 80s college-rock cultdom to 90s alt-rock glory than R.E.M. Perhaps more so than Nirvana, the songwriting clout of Michael Stipe and the jangly guitar magic of Peter Buck had a cultural incisiveness that defined their generation, as best heard on R.E.M.’s 1991 single Losing My Religion. Described by Stipe as “a song about unrequited love”, the song’s masterful use of mandolin brings a melancholic beauty to Stipe’s agnostic lyrical musings, in which he equates personal distance with a loss of faith. Reaching No.4 on the US Hot 100 – and topping our list of the best 90s songs of all time – Losing My Religion helped R.E.M. realise a cathedral-sized ambition that saw them straddle the line between the indie ethos of their early years with their newfound role as mainstream icons. To this day, Losing My Religion remains an enduring testament to R.E.M.’s ability to define their generational moment.

You’ve heard the best 90s songs, now check out our list of the best 90s albums.

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