Compiling a list is very High Fidelity isn’t it? The music nerd in all of us is often mentally compiling one. But in reality ranking music can be more like trying to dance to architecture – more than a little clunky. This list is entirely subjective and in no way definitive. Some of these choices are based upon fond remembrance; others for their impact and influence; and some were even discovered after the whole decade bid us farewell. You will disagree so embrace it and tell me your favourite 90s songs!
I utilised the mediums of Spotify and Youtube to trawl for the artists and tracks that filled our TV screens on TFI, The Word and that indie bit of the chart show; tunes that blared out of the radio during shows like the Evening session, Mark and Lard, and of course John Peel throughout the 90s.
I made only one rule: one song per artist. It makes you focus on which song meant the most to you or reflects the artist and sound of the period.
1. Mcalmont & Butler – Yes
In 1994 guitarist Bernard Butler left Suede in acrimonious circumstances, finding creative solace in the bosom of David Mcalmont who had become similarly disenfranchised with the music business after numerous label wrangles. They formed a brief yet successful partnership and their finest moment came first and to glorious affect on their debut single ‘Yes’ that hit no 8 in the charts.
‘Yes’ is an affirmation writ large in a pop song, subverting the classic ‘I Will Survive’, its about dusting yourself down after a soon to be ex-lover has kicked you in the guts. Thus it took on a knowing double meaning for the down on their luck pair, as Mclamont’s sky scraping vocals radiated an effortless soul, towering toward great heights. While Butler’s arrangements give Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’ a lick of paint, grandly draping Mcalmont’s notes in shimmering production. ‘Yes’ is wonderful, and my single of the 90s, I dare you not to press repeat when the video has finished!
2. Pulp – Common People
‘Common People’ a somewhat exaggerated account of Jarvis’ time with a girl in St Martin’s college gave him a platform for a wry, withering attack on upper-middle class attempts to slum it with the proles: (‘you’ll never know what its like to live your life without meaning or control‘). It’s delivered over throbbing disco pop beats, rising to violin driven crescendos. It became an anthem, and as they performed it at Glastonbury 95 with all of Jarvis’ command of the Pyramid stage, their ascent was complete! Whilst the mainstream pandered to the stereotypical idea of Blur as a bunch of southern arty ponces and Oasis as working class northern heroes, Common People was perhaps the definitive and most eloquent comment on the British obsession with class in the 90s. Check out Jarvis’ moves in the video too – all together now ….
3. Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spirit
‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ was that breakthrough moment for Nirvana, but also a noose around Cobain’s neck. He struggled, unsuccessfully, to come to terms with success of their commercial pinnacle ‘Nevermind’, and a phenomenon Dave Grohl described thusly: ‘ the fact that now jocks were coming to our shows, and we were like what are you doing here you guys used to beat us up?”
Still it was a genuine watershed, an anthemic, crunching rock anthem powered by a simplistic bar chord riff, Grohl’s thunderous drums that dropped like bombs overhead, and Krist’s throbbing bass work. That left Cobain space dissect the nature of perverse anarchic teenage crowd in typically bitter fashion ‘we are stupid and contagious/ here we are now entertain us.’ It was a very 90s update on pun: knowing, tuneful and bloody brilliant – turn it up loud! It’s a shame that ‘In Utero’ was the last we would hear from Cobain one of the 90s most gifted songwriters. The revisionists’ consensus appears to be that his songs haven’t aged well, but I beg to differ.
This song bust open doors and changed the face of music for the ensuing decade.
4. Jeff Buckley – Last Goodbye
‘Last Goodbye’ is a parting of such sorrow, almost devotional grief, sung by a man with an angelic voice. Building from stroking bass lines to cracked rhythmic loops, Buckley’s voice is at once haunted at others scarred by loss. Infused with soul, passion and a rare ability to scale the musical register, ‘Last Goodbye’ is about losing the one you’ve loved and being left with their indelible image forever. It’s a shame that his influence has somewhat been watered down by those in the mainstream seeking chart success. As a voice Buckley’s stands out in the 90s canon.
5. The Prodigy – No Good
I can’t pretend I was much of a raver back in 1994.In fact I was probably more concerned with avoiding P.E. at school. My first exposure to the work of The Prodigy came with 91’s ‘Charly’ that sampled the meowing cat from the animated public service films. Along with ‘Out of Space’ , ‘No Good’ is a banger, with a knack for genre splicing the female vocal sample is memorable in particular. By the time they released ‘Fat of the land’ and the shock(ing) single ‘Firestarter’ in the mid 90s, The Prodigy were a household name. But for me this is the tune, and video that reflects the period when ravers took up disused spaces and fields and created their own parties.
6. Radiohead – Paranoid Android
I remember it clearly, Radiohead were back, they were live on …Later and as smug Jools waved to Thom (in futuristic glasses) Mr Yorke looked intense. Something was different. ‘Paranoid Android’ was a new jaw-dropping song, a prog-rock suite, an pic in three movements, a pre millennial teaser for ‘OK Computer’ that referenced everything from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to bitter barbs on consumerism.
“Kicking and squealing gucci little piggy” spat Thom above tearing guitars and a thudding bassline driving the point home. Before collapsing into a heap with it’s ighing, strummed outro ‘Rain down on me’ that brought to mind nuclear fallout or acid rain falling from the sky? It’s not that bad Thom! Honest.
Given the context of the 90s till then, jaunty songs and wry social commentary this was the shocking sound of three or four songs being railed together, disturbed, schizophrenic, abstract and utterly compelling. This was a taste of future Radiohead experiments to come, where they laid their guitars down completely.
7. Suede – The Wild Ones
The second single from the dramatic creative high point ‘Dog Man Star,’ the ‘Wild Ones’ may have stalled at no 19 in the charts. But it’s still my favourite Suede song, (and there are some contenders ‘The Drowners’, ‘The Asphalt World’ and ‘Trash’ just to name a few). Based upon a flamenco style chord figure, Anderson’s operatic vocals boom out with loss, shifting from haunted to utterly compelling.
‘The Wild Ones’ became an anthem for Suede, summing up their sombre mood as Bernard Butler departed the band in 1994, its spiralling chorus line ‘oh if you stay/we’ll fly through the skies/ suburban greys’ was draped in a granduer of longing and loss, and is utterly spellbinding, it’s melody that’s both reflective and imperious shoots across the sky.
The video added to the filmed in Dartmoor moors, Brett Anderson wraps up against the cold, symptomatic of being damaged by the harshness of fate and still surviving….
8. Flaming Lips – Race for the Prize
It’s hard to believe now but The Flaming Lips were great under achievers up until 1999’s ‘The Soft Bulletin.’ The playful multi instrumental psych-group had recorded several albums and EPs on an indie label, Restless, in the 1980s and early 1990s. Only scoring a hit after signing to Warner Brothers, in 1993 with “She Don’t Use Jelly”.
The departure of key members Jonathan Donahue who left the band to concentrate on Mercury Rev and later on Ronald Jones due to mental problems may have lead to Wayne Coyne’s more dominant role on the ‘Sot Bulletin’ a collection of their most accessible, direct melodies to date. This, coupled with wall of sound string arrangements and multiple harmony tracks that brought to mind the work of The Beach Boys made ‘The Soft Bulletin’ an album of the year in ‘99.
The finest cut along with haunting closer ‘Waitin’ for a Superman’ is ‘Race For the Prize’ a rambunctious single whose grand strings and rushing instrumentals are graced by Coyne’s bold, brave, life affirming vocal. It was perhaps the moment The Flaming Lips shifted up into forefront of many people’s imaginations, a place they would occupy fully with their follow up ‘Yoshomi…’
9. Mazzy Star – Fade Into You
Perhaps a wildcard selection for my top ten, but Santa Monica duo Mazzy Star produced some of the most spellbinding and underappreciated work of any band in the 90s. From 1990’s She Hangs Brightly to their finest 1993’s So Tonight That I ight See. Mazzy Star’s delicate soundscapes are awash with emotion and vocal poignancy of Hope andoval. ‘Fade Into You’ was that album’s opening track and their biggest hit, possessing a melody that wraps itself around your heart and won’t let you out of its grip. It’s country tinged strum grows and grows on repeated plays. It’s an emotionally wracked song – the sound of someone being devoured by unrequited love(Fade into you/I think it’s strange you never knew) and coming up for air. ‘Fade Into You’ is a magical song, that I’ve discovered only in the last ten years.
10. Manic Street Preachers – A Design for Life
It could have been the incendiary ‘Motown Junk’; it could have been my personal favourite, the melancholia of ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’; it could have been the nihilistic intellectual fury of ‘Faster’ but A Design for Life is the Manic Street Preacher’s definitive 90s statement. Tackling the theme of working class identity bassist(and chief dress wearer) Nicky Wire delivers a defence of working class identity and belief in the importance of slf-improvement – ‘libraries gave us power’ indeed. This was set against a backdrop of the decimation of their hometown Blackwood, as Thatcher destroyed its mining industry in the 80s and economic decline of the early 90s. The bizarre sight of friends arm in arm singing along to its key line ‘We don’t talk about love / We only wanna get drunk’ is an ironic one – are the Manics highlighting the hypocrisy of a working class that only wants to drink and fight, or are they defending it’s right to do so? I’ll leave that up to you. It’s a powerful statement and a epic song that broke the three Welsh fellas’ new album (Everything Must Go) into the mainstream at their time of heaviest loss(Lyrcist and childhood friend Richard James Edwards who went missing in 1994 and remains unfound).
11. Massive Attack – Unfinished Sympathy
The wondrous ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ is a hymn to heartbreak featuring the soul tones of Horace Andy as well as Shara Nelson. It’s all filtered through the trip hop prism of trippy beats and unobtrusive string arrangements – this was a watershed moment for both. The walking through the back streets of London scene in the video was both namechecked and paid homage to in the Verve’s biggest single ‘Bittersweet
Synphony.’ It just edged out Liz Fraser of the Cocteau Twins’ achingly gorgeous contribution to the imperious ‘Teardrop.’
12. Primal Scream – Loaded
‘Just what is it that you want to do? We wanna be free We wanna be free to do hat we wanna do/ And we wanna get loaded.’ This sample, ushered the joyous beats nd dashes of soul that characterise ‘Loaded’ a floor filling arms in the air anthem that united crowds of ravers. Crystallising Primal Scream’s ability to mix dance and sych- guitar music successfully for the rave generation of ecstasy and all nighters, on their seminal album ‘Screamadelica.’ That longplayer included a handful of stunning songs born out of their collaboration with DJ Andrew Wetherall and it was this fusing of rock and dance music that continues to fill dancefloors to this day. See ‘Loaded’ , ‘Moving on Up’ and the swooning vocals and trippy beats of early single ‘Higher than the Sun’ for further evidence.
13. The Longpigs – She Said
Sheffield outfit The Longpigs(who included Richard Hawley on guitar) are much underrated in the rush towards 90s revisionism.
‘She Said’ is an completely addictive female character study wracked with self doubt. Its delightful wonky-tuned, slide rule guitars, tumbling drum parts combined with Crispin’s see -saw vocals that jag from high to low, is both twitching insecure and head rushing. It’s taken from”The un is Often Out” a fine album of heart tugging anthems.
14. My Bloody Valentine – Sometimes
‘The Velvet Underground inspired thousands of people to start bands’ Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth once said in a documentary on Loud Reed. Well Creation’s My Bloody Valentine inspired hundreds of thousands to buy a fuzz pedal. Their seminal album ‘Loveless’ is a work so beautiful that’s its sculpted walls of distortion are imbued with an almost evangelical devotion. ‘Sometimes’ along with cuts like ‘Soon’ and ‘To Here Knows When’ are the heart stopping centre pieces of that album. ‘Sometime’s edges out the others through sheer hypnotizing beauty of its circular chord sequences and sighing vocals that could pierce even the coldest hearts. That Kevin Shields and co are now held up as such inspirations to current bands is testimony to the sheer timeless quality of their sound.
15. Cornershop – Brimful of Asha
Cornershop’s Brimful of Asha was already a wonderful song, its memorable chord progression and playful vocals that romantically document a nostalgia for Bollywood films, music icons and love of dusty records(“45s”).’Asha…’ was injected with fresh life by Fatboy Slim’s big beat remix, that brought a slice of culture clash to the top of the charts in 1997. That fearsomely addictive refrain “everybody needs a bosom for a pillow’ chimed into its wonderfully joyous riot of handclaps and excitable rhythms, ‘Brimful of Asha’ the remix, is that most rare thing – a Number one that you can still love!
16. Belle and Sebastian – The Boy With the Arab Strap
Tigermilk’s ‘The State I Am In’ and ‘Lazy Line Painter Jane‘ both came close to getting the nod for my Belle and Sebastian pick. But‘The Boy With The Arab Strap’ has such a special place in my heart; the soundtrack to walks home from Twisted By Design nightclub.
It’s joyously self-reflective narrative and jaunty orchestration houses its vaguely sinister undertones, plus it’s got the best clarinet solo I think I’ve ever heard! Wonderful…
17. Mint Royale feat Lauren Laverne – Don’t Falter
Now more likely to be seen fronting sodden Glastonbury coverage former Kenicki Lauren Laverne featured on Mint Royale’s rather lovely bouncy summer pop number “Don’t Falter’ lifted from their 98 album ‘On The Ropes.’ Go on, serenade us Lauren!
18. Pixies – Where is my Mind?
The Pixies are arguably more recognisable as a 1980s band, but their influence is clear, from Nirvana to Yuck, the Francis Black sheer force of personality coupled with their impressive penchant for crafting dynamic rock songs that burst with passion, means they are touchstones of the period. Some people tried to cram The Pixies into a convenient pigeonhole ‘Oh yeah they’re the alt rockers with the quiet then LOUD songs that inspired Nirvana?’ well yes and no. They may have defined the alternative rock sound with their powerful anthems but their ability to surprise should not be understated – think ‘Debaser’ , ‘Wave of mutilation’ and ‘Boxcar’ for a triptych of strangeness..
Where is my mind? in particular contains some bizarrely abstract lyrics over a tumbling drum beat screeching backing vox and swampy rivers of distorted guitar licks. That it soundtracked one of the 90s most important cult films the darkly comic ‘Fight Club’ is testimony to the ‘it’s the end of the world and we’re starring off the fucking precipice’ feeling it induces in every listener. A Classic.
19. Oasis – Live Forever
‘Live Forever’ was Oasis’ full throated anthemic response to the nihilism of Grunge, an anthem plonked in the middle of their debut long player ‘Definitely Maybe’ a swaggering record that powered from speakers like a shuddering wall of sound. It’s melodic sensibility may have harked back to the 60s but this was the sound of a band desperately wanting to escape life on the dole in the early 90s.
Filtered through with Noel’s magpie like sensibility to craft a song that was familiar yet catchy and fresh… It’s a shame the follow ups didn’t retain the fire in the belly. But who is that they’re burying in the video – their former drummer? Or grunge itself?
20. Daft Punk – Around the World
French duo Daft Punk ‘Around the World’ was a thumping electro – house anthem with a groundbreaking body popping video of formation dancing.
The squelchy synths augmented by a thumping beat that slides effortlessly, its insidious computerised, vocoder of the refrain buries itself in your head, harking back to the work of Kraftwerk.I dare you not to move your body to this!
21. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Ship Song
22. Arab Strap – First Big Weekend
23. Blur – For Tomorrow
24. P J Harvey – Rid of Me
25. R.E.M – Losing My Religion
26. Eliot Smith – Waltz #2 XO
27. De La Soul – The Magic Number
28. Mercury Rev – Opus 40
29. The Orb – Little Fluffy Clouds
30. Echo and the Bunnymen – Nothing Lasts Forever
31. Clinic – The Second Line
32. Underworld – Born Slippy
33. Depeche Mode – Enjoy the Silence
34. James – Laid
35. Galaxy 500 – Fourth of July
36. New Order – Regret
37.DJ Shadow – Midnight in a Perfect World
38.The Cure – Pictures Of You
39.Bjork – Human Behaviour
40. The La’s – There She Goes
41. Elastica – Waking up
42. Mogwai – Mogwai Fear Satan
43. Beck – Loser
44. Breeders – Cannonball
45. They Might be Giants-Birdhouse In Your Soul
46. Billy Bragg – Sexuality
47. Spiritualized-Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space
48. Luke Haines – Unsolved Child Murder
49. Super Furry Animals -Hermann Loves Pauline
50. Sigur Ros – Svefn-g-englar
51. Sonic Youth- Kool Thing
52. Air – Sexy Boy
53. Geneva – Tranquilliser
54. White Town – Your Woman
55. Dinosaur Jr – The Wagon
56. Marion – Sleep
57. Throwing Muses – Green
58. Tindersticks – Can We Start Again?
59. We Tang Clan – Protect Ya Kneck
60. Morrissey – The More You Ignore Me The Closer I Get
61. Pavement – Cut Your Hair
62. Jesus and Mary Chain – Cracking up
63. Strangelove – Time for the rest of your life
64. Verve – Gravity Grave
65. NIN – Hurt
66. The Smashing Pumpkins – Today
67. Eminem – My Name Is
68. Grandaddy – A.M 180
69. Lush – Heavenly Nobodies
70. Mansun – Six
71. Teenage Fanclub – The Concept
72. Gorkys Zygotic Mynci – Patio Song
73. Happy Mondays – Kinky Afro
74. Ash – Angel Interceptor
75. Kristin Hersh feat Michael Stipe – Your Ghost
76. Aphex Twin – Windowlicker
77. The Magnetic Fields – The Book of Love
78. Idlewild – When I Argue I see Shapes
79. Rage Against the Machine – Killing in the Name of…
80. The Charlatans – One to Another
81. Placebo – Nancy Boy
82. Orbital – Belfast
83. Supergrass – Richard IIIrd
84. Slint – Good Morning Captain
85. Warren G feat Nate Dog – Regulate
86. The Chemical Brothers – Hey boy Hey Girl
87. Neutral Milk Hotel – Holland 1945
88. Bikini Kill – Rebel Girl
89. Ride – Vapour Trail
90. Sebadoh – Soul And Fire
91. Hole – Violet
92. Hefner – The Hymn For The Cigarettes
93. The Boo Radleys – C’Mon Kids
94. Goldie – Timeless
95. Stereolab – French Disko
96. Eels – Susan’s House
97. Tricky – Black Steel
98. The Lemonheads – It’s a Shame About Ray
99. Cypres Hill – How I Could Just Kill A Man
100. Pearl Jam – Jeremy
FULL PLAYLIST ON SPOTIFY: 100 SONGS OF THE 1990S!
Where do you disagree? What are your favourite songs of the period?