I’ve stumbled upon some free time recently, so I’m posting on my blog once again for a big feature. A couple years ago, I made a list of the 200 Best Albums of the 1990s (I’d certainly tweak it, but I think it still holds up pretty well), so now I’m following up with a ranked list of the best songs from the decade. The goal is to present the most comprehensive canon of ’90s music available without fear of dismissing some notable acts because, well, I just didn’t think they made great music during this time. That includes obnoxious acts like Red Hot Chili Peppers and The Prodigy and some Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees whose legacies haven’t properly been called into question. The flip side of pushing aside some legendary acts is making some space for underrated acts and songs who better represent the decade’s vibrancy. There always has to be a balance with giving proper respect to unquestionably great acts while presenting what you should also be listening to; I hope I struck that balance.
Like with a few lists last year, I have sought out contributors to provide some thoughts on the songs. This is only for the top 100, which starts at page 9.
Contributors: Cheyenne Bilderback, Sadie Burrows, Virginia Croft, Donovan Farley, Scott Hale, Heather Jensen, Lagnajita Mukhopadhyay, Chanell Noise, Drew Pearce, and Jibril Yassin
Graphic design by Sadie Burrows!
400. Sunny Day Real Estate – “Seven” (1994)
Midwest emo has been one of the biggest developments in American rock over the last thirty years, and Sunny Day Real Estate’s debut is often considered one of the first — and best — of the genre.
399. Adina Howard – “Freak Like Me” (1995)
Howard’s debut single is one the premier examples of G-funk’s influence on R&B with samples of Bootsy Collins’ Rubber Band and Sly & the Family Stone being the driving force.
398. The Clientele – “Reflections After Jane” (1999)
The late-’90s was a turbulent-but-successful period for the Clientele with a ton of singles released across different labels. The songs would later be bundled on the classic Suburban Light with “Reflections After Jane” being the most rewarding song off it.
397. GZA (ft. Ghostface Killah, Killah Priest, & RZA) – “4th Chamber” (1995)
GZA was the only Wu-Tang member with a full album out before 36 Chambers, and that album’s lack of success ended up saving his career by co-founding the greatest rap group of all time. Liquid Swords is treated as his true debut, and his dense wordplay and willingness to share the spotlight made it one of the greatest Wu-Tang affiliated albums.
396. Saint Etienne – “Avenue” (1992)
Saint Etienne are best known for the Neil Young cover “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” but their truly exciting work was on So Tough with this centerpiece working as a ’60s/psychedelia-indebted epic that samples Pink Floyd.
395. Red House Painters – “Katy Song” (1993)
“Katy Song” might be the greatest of Kozelek’s compositions, which is impressive to say over his vast catalog. Despite his knotty demeanor and music nowadays, Kozelek’s work here glides in its effortless slowcore style.
394. Elastica – “Stutter” (1993)
At the height of Britpop, Elastica arrived with a New Wave/Post-Punk hybrid that couldn’t get bogged down in details. It works best on lead single “Stutter” clocking in at under two-and-a-half minutes.
393. Boredoms – “Super Are” (1998)
Few bands pushed rock to new heights like Boredoms and with two albums at the end of the decade — Super æ and Vision Creation Newsun — they cemented themselves as legends. Track two off Super æ might be the best distillation of the psychedelic bedlam they strove for.
392. Natalie Imbruglia – “Torn” (1997)
This song both influenced singer/songwriter radio airplay for the next decade and set a high bar that none of its successors quite reached.
391. Too $hort – “The Ghetto” (1990)
Coasting on a Donny Hathaway interpolation, Too $hort refines his lyrics towards socially-conscious motivations while maintaining his unmatched flow from the ’80s.
390. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – “Learning to Fly” (1991)
Tom Petty’s longevity and ability to have 1-2 classic songs every album made him a legend, and “Learning to Fly” is one of his best and easy-going.
389. Everything but the Girl – “Wrong” (1996)
The English duo attained some mainstream recognition by the end of their 18-year career for this meeting place between Sade and Massive Attack.
388. Next – “Too Close” (1997)
My generation might instantly recognize this by being the inspiration for the “Why You Always Lyin’?” meme, but this huge 1997 single is also one of the last classic R&B male vocal group hits that hasn’t really existed in the 21st century.
387. Roy Davis Jr. (ft. Peven Everett) – “Gabriel” (1996)
There’s some confusion about who actually made this Chicago House classic (Peven Everett claims he did 100% of the song). Either way, the song made the rounds in UK club scenes and has been embraced as one of the best examples of UK Garage.
386. Galaxie 500 – “Fourth of July” (1990)
This Is Our Music is not as revered as Galaxie 500’s other albums, but this opener is arguably the most ambitious song they pulled off.
385. Teenage Fanclub – “The Concept” (1991)
The Scottish band’s best album Bandwagonesque has been called Big Star’s 4th album and is Ben Gibbard’s favorite album. The epic and melodic opener can tell you why.
384. Sebadoh – “The Freed Pig” (1991)
Sebadoh never reached the status of Lou Barlow’s other band Dinosaur Jr., but the best of their work rivaled it for lo-fi pop genius.
383. Helium – “Pat’s Trick” (1995)
Until Ex Hex’s album last year, Helium stood as the only Mary Timony band to have multiple albums. “Pat’s Trick” brought a sludge rock approach to the Riot Grrl sound.
382. Craig Mack (ft. The Notorious B.I.G., LL Cool J, Busta Rhymes & Rampage) – “Flava in Ya Ear (Remix)” (1994)
The original was already Mack’s breakthrough and eventually earned him a Grammy nomination, but then the posse cut remix with Biggie & Busta Rhymes at his peak took it to the next level.
381. Rage Against the Machine – “Bulls on Parade” (1996)
The attitude of RATM is arguably more influential than their sound, but “Bulls on Parade” is just a constant barrage of hardcore melodies.
380. The Afghan Whigs – “Gentlemen” (1993)
A little too cool to be called Grunge, The Afghan Whigs were the best thing to come out of Cincinnati since The Isley Brothers and The Beast.
379. Alanis Morissette – “Hand in My Pocket” (1995)
Due to this song, I find myself saying “I’m ____, but I’m ____” in Morissette’s voice all the time: “I’m rice, but I’m pudding” (do it, it’s fun). In other words, everything’s that obnoxious and affable about her is in perfect balance here.
378. Arab Strap – “The First Big Weekend” (1996)
Sue Tompkins of Life Without Buildings has to LOVE this song. The speak-sing vocals over the elegant muted guitars creates an ambient bliss you easily lose yourself in.
377. KRS-One – “Sound of da Police” (1993)
WOOP! WOOP! That’s the sound of one of the best songs on police brutality to come out of the Bronx. WOOP! WOOP!
376. Drexciya – “Andreaen Sand Dunes” (1999)
It’s hard to know how much classic music we lost out on with James Stinson’s death in 2002, but his work with Gerald Donald in Drexciya peaked with this minimalist Detroit classic.
375. Scarface – “I Seen a Man Die” (1994)
Scarface’s classic album The Diary brought an instrumental cohesion to his ruminating, mellow lyricism he carried over from Geto Boys, and this lead single perfectly exemplifies its spirit.
374. Antony and the Johnsons – “Cripple and the Starfish” (1998)
Anohni’s debut single — and only official release of the ’90s — is a majestic classic that reset the parameters of baroque pop for the upcoming century.
373. Janet Jackson – “That’s the Way Love Goes” (1993)
Jackson was as much a dance choreography icon as a widely-revered musician for her Rhythm Nation work, and the lead single for Janet saw her dip into more sensual, ballad-like territory.
372. L7 – “Pretend We’re Dead” (1992)
This Grunge staple has become a soundtrack timestamp of early-’90s feminine apathy and deservedly so.
371. Ride – “Vapour Trail” (1990)
Alongside Slowdive, Ride best represents the London Shoegaze scene of the early-’90s with their tranquil-yet-dynamic guitar/drum interplay.
370. Mobb Deep – “Hell on Earth (Front Lines)” (1996)
Mobb Deep bridged the gap in NYC rap. They carried both the dark, rugged energy of Wu-Tang Clan and the crime-laden verbiage of Nas to heights that still feels underpraised. This was the biggest song off their second classic album in as many years.
369. Suede – “We Are the Pigs” (1994)
As Pulp are getting more due recognition, Suede have taken the mantle of the artsy black sheep of the Britpop scene. “We Are the Pigs” was not only their rallying cry but one for the common man.
368. Apollo Two (LTJ Bukem) – “Atlantis (I Need You)” (1993)
Bukem oversaw House music’s shift into Breakbeat with a deft ear for atmosphere through his label Good Looking and classic singles like this.
367. Mark Morrison – “Return of the Mack” (1996)
In the UK, Morrison had five top-10 singles off his debut album with “Return of the Mack” being his only global hit. Within a couple years, he was incarcerated for paying someone to appear in court as him. He could never get a label to release a follow-up and had to self-release from then on out.
366. R.E.M. – “Drive” (1992)
There’s a wide range of opinions on R.E.M.’s quality of music after 1984’s Reckoning, but to this critic, “Drive” is the only time they truly forged new ground beyond their first two classic albums. “Losing My Religion” is…just fine.
365. The Cardigans – “Carnival” (1995)
They’re not a one-hit wonder, and “Carnival” actually came first with all the classic pop elements that would later bring them international acclaim.
364. Super Furry Animals – “Ice Hockey Hair” (1998)
This band released a lot of good music in a six-year span (1996-2001), and none of it matches quite up to this psychedelic rock epic.
363. MF DOOM (ft. Pebbles the Invisible Girl) – “Doomsday” (1999)
No rapper has quite the perfect cult status of DOOM from the mask to the insane lyricism, and this semi-title track might be his best standalone track.
362. Mary J. Blige – “My Life” (1994)
As what’s essentially an updated cover of the underrated Roy Ayers classic from the premier R&B star of the time, “My Life” could be nothing but a classic.
361. Fugazi – “Smallpox Champion” (1993)
Guy Picciotto has a golden voice, which is an interesting “natural gift” to consider in the context of being a rugged DIY leader. It is certainly a separating factor and a reliable strength in every Fugazi album with songs like “Smallpox Champion” sung by Picciotto.