As Charli XCX and Troye Sivan scale the charts with a song that sings the praises of 1999, it looks as though '90s nostalgia is here to stay. But while you probably don't want to revisit dial-up internet or MiniDisc players anytime soon, the music from the era remain energising and exciting. Our highlights selection includes everything from house to hip-hop, and Britpop to R&B, but sadly doesn't have space for 'Cotton Eye Joe'. Apols. Once you've treated your ears to an hour or two of retro-pop perfection, why not get even more nostalgic by checking out our favourite teen movies?
The 50 best ’90s songs
It’s easy to poke fun at this dumbed-down dubby dance-pop number, its near nonsensical lyrics about… something (broodiness? Fox hunting?) and the comical synth saxophone that sounds like something from the ‘Ferris Bueller’ soundtrack. But prod too hard and you risk the wrath of several generations of people who’ve heard it more times than they can remember and guiltily loved it on every single occasion. Tristan Parker
One of MC's sweetest pop confections, 'Fantasy' takes the musical skeleton from Tom Tom Club's cult 80s hit 'Genius of Love' and beefs it up into a slick 90s summer jam. Early in her career, Carey was known for her grandstanding diva vocals, but 'Fantasy' proves she can be just as compelling when she plays it a little more restrained. Whack on 'Fantasy' next time your bus is stuck in a traffic jam and for a second, you might just think you're cruising down a California highway with the top down. Nick Levine
The first time I heard this song was when I stole my sister’s ‘Rave Hits’ tape, back in late 1991. I was expecting a torrent of terrifying electro, but then this came out of the speakers and entranced me. If this was raving, then I wanted more. The legendary opening sample – taken from 1966 flick, 'The Wild Angels' – kickstarted countless nights out and spoke for an entire generation. I mean, who doesn’t wanna be free to do what we wanna do. And who doesn’t wanna get loaded and have a good time? I didn’t ever give that tape back to my sister. Josh Jones
Britney's debut single was a game-changer when it came out 20 years ago, helping to usher in a new generation of brilliantly bombastic teen-pop, often crafted by Swedish songwriting genius Max Martin. The video featuring La Spears in school uniform is iconic, obviously, but let's not overlook the fact that the song itself remains pure pop perfection. Even if its key lyric, 'hit me baby one more time', doesn't completely make sense. Nick Levine
Last year, significant chunks of the internet had a freakout when they discovered that Imbruglia's signature hit is - gasp! - a cover. It was actually recorded by several artists including alt-rock band Ednaswap before the 'Neighbours' alum turned it into a global smash in 1998. No matter, though, because Imbruglia's version remains strangely ingratiating 20 years later: the melodramatic lyrics are karaoke gold, and its cheesy slide guitar solo still hits the spot. Nick Levine
The 50 best ’90s songs
SL2 was founded by DJs Slipmatt and Lime – hence the 'SL' and there were two of them. Their absolute belter of a rave anthem showed us that you don’t reaaaaaally need lyrics to write a sing-a-long smash hit (amusingly, lyrics sites have transcribed the song, which reads like the confession of a tongueless murderer. Released on XL Recordings, its creation was heavily influenced by Slipmatt listening to David Rodigan’s Capital Radio show in the '80s, and was originally going to be a B-side until they (thankfully) decided to take a chance on it. Josh Jones
The Spice Girls must have watched Taylor Swift’s video for 'Bad Blood' and been like, 'Babe, we did that thing where we all dress up as futuristic assassins and give each other laboured nicknames waaay back in 1996...' 'Say You'll Be There' found the band in their pomp – the lyrics, video, haircuts, names; nothing made any sense but nothing really needed to. It was catchy, we all wanted to be one of them and we all learnt that catsuits should only be worn by Victoria Beckham. Josh Jones
Even if you can’t stand house music – or dance music in general – you’d need a bitterly cynical soul and legs of stone to resist tapping your feet all the way through this uplifting number from US DJ and producer AVH. It might have more samples than an Avon rep (the drums from Jaydee’s banger ‘Plastic Dreams’, strings from Carrie Lucas’s disco-tastic 1979 gem ‘Dance With You’ and – in the full, uncut version – dialogue from ‘Dexter’s Laboratory’), but rather than sounding like a mish-mash, ‘U Don’t Know Me’ is entirely its own track: soulful, rooted in timeless US house but thoroughly contemporary and ultimately danceable. Tristan Parker
Madonna teamed up with Shoreditch-born electro producer William Orbit for her 1998 album 'Ray of Light', and the results were forward-thinking pop perfection. The title track remains one of very best dance songs and also shows off the expanded vocal range she'd honed while working on movie-musical 'Evita' a couple of years early. Just FYI, though: she's singing 'And I feeeel!' on the hook, not 'Anna Friel!'. Sadly. Nick Levine
Okay, so they’re a bit cack these days – and slaphead dictator-in-chief Billy Corgan’s mewling vibrato has always been an acquired taste – but for a time there in the mid-’90s the Pumpkins could do no wrong. One of several chart-bothering singles from their epic double album ‘Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness’, ‘1979’ is a beautiful, bittersweet slice of teenage Americana (all sweet rides, 7/11s and gentle ennui), perfectly matched in mood and tone by its cracking video. Michael Curle
Amyl nitrite – or ‘poppers’ to the layman – wasn’t actually the drug of choice for Brett Anderson’s glammed-up Britpop troupe. As they’ve publicly admitted, it was actually cocaine that fuelled the ‘Animal Nitrate’ video shoot on the Lisson Green Estate near Regent’s Park. The band paid a tenner to turn an ordinary council flat into a David Lynch-style strobe-lit fantasy chamber – the perfect visual metaphor for Anderson’s seductive, salacious injection of forbidden sexuality into mundane British life. Add Bernard Butler’s scorching guitar work to the equation, and you’ve got yourself an abiding classic that goes to places Oasis never even dreamed. James Manning
The 50 best ’90s songs
Ever licked a window? Richard D James (aka mind-fucking electronica genius Aphex Twin) clearly has, as this demonically twisted slo-mo banger demonstrated. It’s full of all his usual genre-mashing brilliance – techno, acid house, breakbeats, IDM – but fuelled by an immense groove, which is probably just James showing that he can make Top 20-bothering hits whenever he bloody well feels like it. Cunning bastard. Tristan Parker
A US chart-topper in 1998, Hill's seamless fusion of classic doo-wop and modern hip-hop still sounds fresh today. It's a dazzling testament to everything the former Fugee can do: she sings, she raps, she packs in hook after hook, and she shows her empathy by urging both men and women not to let themselves be exploited for sex. And when she rhymes 'hair weaves like Europeans' with 'fake nails done by Koreans', it's actual genius. Nick Levine
The crossover song that gave the titans the keys to the stadium. It’s accessible enough to attract the masses but it also rocks hard enough to please the head-banging hordes; at any ’Tallica show, you’ll see even hardened fans (who live and die by the band’s early thrash metal numbers) raise their fists and sing along with a shit-eating grin: ‘Eeee-xit LIGHT! Eeee-nter NIIIIGHT!’ Tristan Parker
Elastica's eponymous debut album became a chart-topping phenomenon in 1995, and 'Connection' is the jewel in its crown. Songwriting frontwoman Justine Frischmann may have pinched the opening riff from Wire's 'Three Girl Rhumba' (which later got the punk band a songwriting credit), but there's no quibbling with the way she reworks it into a sexy and kinetic Britpop gem. Oh, and let's not forget 'Connection' always sounded great soundtracking Dom Joly's turn-of-the-millennium comedy show 'Trigger Happy TV'. Nick Levine
This jaunty slice of indie pop hides an X-rated secret. The strap in question is a contraption deployed by impotent men to maintain an erection – kind of ironic when you consider how successfully B&S purged their music of rock’s traditional priapic thrust. Bandleader Stuart Murdoch protests his innocence, claiming the song was just a shout-out to fellow indie Scots and Belle tourmates Arab Strap. We’re not sure we believe him, but we do know that it’s among the finest moments of the ’90s British indie scene. Michael Curle
The 50 best ’90s songs
It takes an awful lot to beat Prince at his own game, but Sinéad O’Connor managed it in January 1990 with little more than a perfect vocal, an ocean of emotion and a black rollneck jumper. Boosted by its iconic, tear-streaked video, O’Connor’s version of the song totally obliterated the sappy original from 1985 (which Prince wrote for his pet band The Family). When O’Connor and the Purple One finally met, they ended up having a fist fight. Nothing compares to who now? James Manning
Yeah, ‘Organ Donor’ is great and everything, but this supremely mellow number has stood the test of time – 19 years! – far better. It also encapsulated breakbeat junkie DJ Shadow’s uncanny ability to construct new worlds by unearthing carefully chosen samples – in this case the piano line from jazz composer David Axelrod’s ‘The Human Abstract’ – and layering simple but hypnotic beats and melodies over the top. The result in this case is a lazy, hazy, luscious slice of ambient hip hop – a stoner’s sonic paradise, if you will – that you could happily leave on repeat without getting bored. Which, for ambient hip hop, is really saying something. Tristan Parker
Back in 1993, when Kanye West was just a geeky 15-year-old messing about with his first sampler in suburban Chicago, Beck Hansen had already had a failed folk career and retreated to LA to live in a shed full of rats. He’d recorded ‘Loser’ with rap producer Carl Stephenson the previous year as a one-off experiment, and when an indie label suggested releasing it as a single he agreed only reluctantly. Then the song became a huge sleeper hit and an anthem for the slacker generation, and Beck moved out of the shed and established himself as one of the most innovative musicians of his generation – which sounds like a win to us. James Manning
The 50 best ’90s songs
Yeah, we said ‘Beetlebum’. If you’re after a campfire singalong it’s ‘Tender’ every time; if you just want to smash shit up then stick on ‘Song 2’; if you like your Britpop beery then there’s always ‘Parklife’; but if you want Blur doing what Blur did best – welding classic British songwriting to weirdo alt rock – then ‘Beetlebum’ is the one. What with Damon’s heroin-chic drawling and Graham’s slumping riff and killer solo, this is Britpop’s best band at their worldbeating peak. Sorry, Phil Daniels. James Manning
Inspired by a crop of bands who allegedly preferred staring at their guitar effects pedals to interacting with the audience, ‘shoegaze’ was never a great term for the hazy, noisy, deafeningly loud sound pegged out in the late ’80s by My Bloody Valentine. Other bands tagged as such – Ride, Slowdive, Lush, Chapterhouse, The Telescopes – all did some wonderful things with noise and melody. But ‘Soon’ (the climax of MBV’s one-of-a-kind album ‘Loveless’) was the glorious apex of the movement’s ‘sonic cathedral’: a seven-minute confection of breakbeats, blushing and blooming guitar tones and vocal coos sweet enough to hurt. Whatever you want to call it, it still sounds impossibly wonderful. James Manning
Does it devalue this scathing Britpop anthem that its subject – the girl from Greece with a thirst for knowledge – allegedly went on to marry Marxist economist and maverick finance minister Yanis Varoufakis? Not in the slightest. ‘Common People’ will always be more universal than that, with its sly social message delivered to a stonking disco beat and an immortal riff. It’s quite possibly the greatest sociopolitical floor-filler of all time. And wouldn’t it be brilliant if – in some small, tangential way – the economic fate of the Eurozone had been influenced two decades later by some lanky singer from Yorkshire? James Manning
Read our Jarvis Cocker interview
Some of Take That's OG '90s hits haven't aged as well as Gary Barlow, but 'Never Forget' – their penultimate single before splitting in 1997 – still sounds tremendous. Co-produced by Meat Loaf collaborator Jim Steinman, and featuring a relatively rare lead vocal from Howard Donald, it's a bombastic yet poignant pop anthem featuring uncommonly self-aware lyrics. 'Someday soon this will all be someone else's dream,' Donald sings on the chrous, perhaps sensing that Westlife were waiting in the wings... Nick Levine
It’s no exaggeration to say that in the ’90s, Bristol was among the most musically important cities on the planet. At the heart of it all were Portishead, whose gloomy, brooding and often oppressive sound was a conspiracy of contradictions that defined ‘trip hop’. Combining heavy hip hop beats and throbbing basslines with jazz and soul samples, the music was good, but the vocals of tortured songstress Beth Gibbons were outstanding. ‘Glory Box’ is the shining example: a soul-searching love song delivered over a smoky backing track of jazz drums, tinkling pianos and wistful strings, that veers from delicate downtempo moments to ear-shredding guitar crescendos with breathtaking ease. Jonathan Cook
It’s almost hard to believe, but years before DP started jamming with Pharrell and soundtracking catwalk shows they produced a whole album of blissful, banging house in ‘Homework’, the jewel in the crown of which was ‘Da Funk’. It referenced generations of dance music that created it (the winding, acid synths, the stomping drums punchy enough to floor Godzilla), but also had something fresh and incredible coursing through it – it had da funk. Tristan Parker
For better or worse Massive Attack will forever be known as trip hop pioneers, but by far their most important contribution didn’t really fall into that category. A melancholy but grooving ballad scattered with samples, ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ was heralded as a stunning song on release and still holds its own today. Every element is flawlessly placed, from soaring strings to Shara Nelson’s effortlessly powerful vocals to the wistful percussive bells that introduce the track – still capable of sending shivers down a few spines. Tristan Parker
Nirvana weren’t the only ’90s act to thumb their noses at the mainstream after releasing a breakthrough album. Like the Seattle superstars on ‘In Utero’, Dorset’s very own Polly Jean Harvey turned to punk rock recording engineer Steve Albini (known for his raw, unvarnished sound) for her second album ‘Rid of Me’. It’s all there in the title track, a primal howl of electrified blues-rock that’s equal parts lovesick wail and feminist stomp. Turns out MC Hammer was wrong: actually, you can’t touch this. Michael Curle
Twenty years before Kanye West cottoned on to the abiding genius of Paul McCartney, badass R&B crew TLC were all over it. They took a Macca ballad from 1980 about the dangerous sport of waterfall-jumping and totally transformed it into a heartrending urban drama with a killer chorus. Drugs, murder, HIV: Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopez’s verses treat life’s tragedies with wisdom, patience and soul, before her rap preaches the power of hope and self-belief. And God, obvs. James Manning
All the cool kids will tell you that they were into Nirvana back in ’89 when they released ‘Bleach’ on Sub Pop. All the cool kids are lying. Like everyone else, they got into Nirvana the moment they heard the first ten seconds of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ on the radio: Kurt Cobain’s dirty guitar riff exploding as Dave Grohl’s kit and Krist Novoselic’s bass smashed their way into the song and our collective consciousness.
Many words have been written about ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, and we’re about to add a few more, but it’s almost impossible to overstate the sonic earthquake that this song caused around the world in 1991. This was like nothing we’d ever heard before: the sound of Seattle’s grunge scene coming out of the garage like a ravenous monster. A generation of disaffected youth had found an anthem like no other. Anger, despondency, pain and chaos ripped through a million bedrooms as we listened to Cobain wail, scream and howl lyrics that were as confusing as they were powerful: ‘A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido… hey.’ What the fuck?
There’s one more thing that makes ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ the song of the decade, and that’s Samuel Bayer’s now iconic video. His lo-fi, sepia-saturated take on a school concert that descends into madness – complete with slo-mo cheerleaders, smashed up guitars and smoke and fire in a sports hall full of sweaty headbanging teens – was as disturbing and anarchic as the song itself. Everyone watched it. Everyone knew they would never forget it. Tim Arthur
What’s your favourite Nirvana song?
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