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The 50 best ’90s songs

Dust off that Discman: from Britpop to hip hop and R&B to riot grrrl, we’ve picked the 50 best songs of the 1990s

50 best ’90s songs

The 50 best songs of the ’90s are here. But before we begin, let’s reminisce about a few things the 1990s gave us. Tamagotchis, snap bracelets, Pokémon, Power Rangers, mood rings, New Labour, dial-up internet, ‘Dexter’s Lab’, scrunchies, Bill Clinton jokes, all the best teen movies, every single good episode of ‘The Simpsons’… and then there’s the music. Welcome to our round-up of the very best ’90s songs.

RECOMMENDED: Relaxing music: the ultimate relaxation playlist 

Fifteen years have passed since the decade ended: more than enough time to filter out all the stuff that was actually a bit crap all along (hey, ‘Macarena’!) and appreciate all the great and diverse stuff that the ’90s produced. We’ve followed our list of the 50 best ’80s songs and the 100 best party songs with a comprehensive, nostalgic and objectively brilliant playlist of the 50 best songs of the ’90s. Synchronise G-Shocks… let’s go.

The 50 best ’90s songs

50
‘…Baby One More Time’ – Britney Spears

‘…Baby One More Time’ – Britney Spears

Let’s start with a slow-building banger. In 1998, TLC turned down the latest song from Swedish pop machine Max Martin and it was picked up by an ambitious teenage star-in-waiting called Britney Jean Spears. With its un-PC title trimmed, ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’ went to Number One in 19 countries, kickstarting a major pop career – and all that followed. We’re not exactly suggesting that the harrowing line ‘my loneliness is killing me’ foreshadowed Britney’s epic 2007 meltdown, but a song this dark and dramatic was bound to unleash something powerful. James Manning

49
‘Undone – The Sweater Song’ – Weezer

‘Undone – The Sweater Song’ – Weezer

US geek rock champions Weezer may have hit the limelight with the jaunty ‘Buddy Holly’, but the real star of their self-titled 1994 debut album was this melancholy stoner rock gem. Its chugging, fuzzy riffs set against eternally upbeat harmonies and college rock musings about surfing, music and parties summed up the band’s approach: Nirvana meets the Beach Boys, with everyone in oversized sweaters. Tristan Parker

48
‘All That She Wants’ – Ace of Bass

‘All That She Wants’ – Ace of Bass

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

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47
‘Your Woman’ – White Town

‘Your Woman’ – White Town

A trip hop tune that your Nan can whistle. This one-hit wonder from one-man-band White Town (aka Jyoti Mishra) topped the UK charts in 1997, bewitching listeners with little more than some squelching pop beats and a dusty old trumpet sample from a 1930s Al Bowlly song. (Who’s Al Bowlly? Only the first ever pop star!) In fact the sample is the song: a classic pop hook that pinballs round your head for days like a chipper version of the Imperial March from ‘The Empire Strikes Back’. It’s a shame ‘Your Woman’ never had its own blockbuster sequel – unless you count Hot Chip’s nerdy-voiced electro pop a full decade later. Michael Curle

46
‘Novocaine for the Soul’ – Eels

‘Novocaine for the Soul’ – Eels

Riding a dusty sample of an old Fats Domino record and a wave of sophisticated angst, Mark Everett’s alt rock crew burst into the mainstream with their debut single. But no sooner had ‘Novocaine for the Soul’ charted on both sides of the Atlantic than Eels beat a retreat back into cult status, following the desperately sad ‘Electro-Shock Blues’ album with a long, idiosyncratic career entirely devoid of hits: not so much a sputter out as a gentle fade away. James Manning

45
‘Cannonball’ – The Breeders

‘Cannonball’ – The Breeders

‘Awoooo-a! Awoooo-a!’ Twenty years on, the peculiar distorted chant that opens this infectious slice of bubblegum rock is still a prime invitation for indie kids everywhere to hotfoot it to the nearest dancefloor and jump up and down arhythmically. The biggest single from Kim Deal’s post-Pixies rockers, ‘Cannonball’ is a bona fide indie anthem complete with seesaw verses, etch-a-sketch guitars and headbanging chorus. Take that, Frank Black! Michael Curle

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44
‘Loaded’ – Primal Scream

‘Loaded’ – Primal Scream

Primal Scream were pegged as hedonistic indie posers until they asked an inexperienced DJ and fanzine writer called Andrew Weatherall to tackle their Stonesy song ‘I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have’. After a couple of light-touch remixes, Weatherall was told by the band to ‘just fucking destroy it’ – so he ripped out the vocals and piled the track with soul samples, drum loops and dialogue from the classic biker flick ‘The Wild Angels’. The result defined the indie dance scene, laid the groundwork for the era-defining ‘Screamadelica’ album, and inspired thousands of wallflowers to get… well, loaded. James Manning

43
‘It’s a Shame (My Sister) (Extended Mix)’ – Monie Love featuring True Image

‘It’s a Shame (My Sister) (Extended Mix)’ – Monie Love featuring True Image

A straight-up ’90s house party anthem, this singalong track brought international success to south London singer Monie Love. Taken from her debut album ‘Down To Earth’, the banging extended mix of ‘It’s a Shame’ pairs a melody from ’70s soul outfit The (Detroit) Spinners with the guitar riff from Sister Sledge’s ‘He’s the Greatest Dancer’. Equipped with extra feelgood sax, this empowered tune briefly gave Monie a lead role in the conscious pro-women hip hop movement alongside Queen Latifah. Hayley Joyes

42
‘Killing Me Softly’ – The Fugees

‘Killing Me Softly’ – The Fugees

This was the song that set The Fugees on their path to world domination: a hip hop hit built for chart supremacy. Like Roberta Flack’s heartbreaking original in the ’70s, ‘Killing Me Softly’ sat at Number One in the UK charts for five weeks. But Lauryn Hill’s rework of the vocals – plus twanging sitar samples cut from A Tribe Called Quest’s hit ‘Bonita Applebum’ – gave the track an ear-catching contemporary edge. By the time it had finished its chart run, Wyclef, Lauryn and Pras were part of the furniture. Hayley Joyes

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41
‘Flat Beat’ – Mr Oizo

‘Flat Beat’ – Mr Oizo

Sometimes all you need to make a track that sticks with people years after its release is a seriously banging bassline, a punchy 2-step/disco hybrid beat and… a yellow puppet. Little-known French electro-house producer Mr Oizo found himself with an international hit when Levi’s used ‘Flat Beat’ (and Flat Eric, the puppet in the music video) to peddle their denim. While that may seem gimmicky, any hint of novelty melts away as soon as that deliciously dirty bass begins purring through your ears. It’s been ripped off a thousand times, but never bettered: surely the sign of a great track. Tristan Parker

The 50 best ’90s songs

40
‘On a Ragga Tip’ – SL2

‘On a Ragga Tip’ – SL2

This rather banging hit isn’t ‘pure’ jungle – it’s an out-and-out party belter. But it works because the duo who produced it, Slipmatt and Lime, were proper, rave-addled DJs with big smiles plastered across their mugs, who intimately knew the genres they were tipping their Reebok baseball caps to: jungle, ragga and hardcore. From the joyfully jumbled intro keys to the wait for the jittery beat to drop (all thanks to some creative sampling of Jay Screechy’s upbeat reggae track ‘Walk and Skank’ from 1984), the whole thing is a blissful invitation to dance. If you’ve never lost your shit to this – even just for a few seconds – at a house party, ’90s club night or even a rave out in the middle of god-knows-where… well, then you need to take a long, hard look at your life. Tristan Parker

39
‘Say You’ll Be There’ – Spice Girls

‘Say You’ll Be There’ – Spice Girls

If you were to condense the ’90s into one pop song, it would probably sound a lot like the Spice Girls’ second single ‘Say You’ll Be There’. The lyrics are nonsense, their voices aren’t up to much and there’s a harmonica breakdown in the middle (really) – and yet it’s pure genius, a shining example of perfectly formed Spice-pop with a twist of R&B. The video has them clad in leather in the desert heat, and yet they were the ones in the driving seat, slinging shuriken and pointing guns (and pouts – we’re looking at you, Posh). Along with ‘Wannabe’ – which hasn’t aged as well – this instant airwave anthem signalled the birth of Girl Power and the death of basic fashion rules. And what could be more ’90s than that? Laura Richards

38
‘You Don’t Know Me’ – Armand Van Helden

‘You Don’t Know Me’ – Armand Van Helden

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

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37
‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ – Saint Etienne

‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ – Saint Etienne

Saint Etienne’s debut single is a perfect bit of postmodern lo-fi pop, and one of the more unlikely Neil Young covers ever made. Recorded in two hours in a bedroom studio in south London, it’s an audacious and melancholy mixture of classy pop, dub, house and hip hop – and one of two big tracks from 1990 (the other being Beats International’s ‘Dub Be Good to Me’) to have become suburban hotbox essentials. James Manning

36
‘Pony’ – Ginuwine

‘Pony’ – Ginuwine

How long can you talk about sex without mentioning anything explicitly filthy? If you’re Ginuwine, a hefty five-and-a-half minutes. ‘Pony’ is a lesson in the art of the euphemism. Those of you lucky enough to have Sky TV or crackly cable in the late ’90s probably saw its creator gyrating in a cowboy bar in his classic baggy pants-and-white shirt combo. But there’s more to ‘Pony’ than perfectly sculpted abs: it was one of the defining releases by R&B powerhouse Timberland, and its belching bassline has influenced producers and musicians from Rihanna to French beat-smasher Debruit, not to mention the makers of ‘Magic Mike’. Hayley Joyes

35
‘1979’ – Smashing Pumpkins

‘1979’ – Smashing Pumpkins

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 videoMichael Curle

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34
‘The Private Psychedelic Reel’ – The Chemical Brothers

‘The Private Psychedelic Reel’ – The Chemical Brothers

We could have picked a whole crop of Chems tracks: the club-dominating ‘Hey Boy Hey Girl’, or their Britpop moment ‘Let Forever Be’, or the endlessly funky ‘Block Rockin’ Beats’. But this epic trip best shows the confidence and eclecticism that allowed Ed ’n’ Tom to lead the Big Beat pack. Assisted by Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donohue and borrowing from ’60s rock, world music and jazz as well as house, ‘The Private Psychedelic Reel’ is an incredible surge of energy that hardly lets up for almost ten minutes. James Manning

33
‘You Oughta Know’ – Alanis Morrisette

‘You Oughta Know’ – Alanis Morrisette

A sarcastic missive to an ex in the key of grunge-lite: it doesn’t sound too promising on paper, but in 1995 ‘You Oughta Know’ became an anthem for the jilted generation, catapulting its young Canadian singer to international stardom. Morissette’s debut album ‘Jagged Little Pill’ went on to sell an eye-popping 33 million copies and spawn several more hits, but ‘You Oughta Know’ with its cathartic, provocative lyrics (‘Would she go down on you in a theatre?’) and amped-up chorus is the best of the lot – especially after a good cry and a vat of red wine. Michael Curle

32
‘Animal Nitrate’ – Suede

‘Animal Nitrate’ – Suede

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

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31
‘Step On’ – Happy Mondays

‘Step On’ – Happy Mondays

Was ‘Madchester’ a) the greatest musical movement since punk; b) the final nail in the coffin for a proud industrial city; or c) just a canny bit of marketing? Whatever your view, it’s hard not to bust a groove when the piano-bashing intro to ‘Step On’ kicks in. Shaun Ryder’s E-powered hoodlums turned an obscure ’70s funk track by John Kongos into a rave-rock hit, and a whole generation grew up with the phrase ‘you’re twistin’ my melon, man’ as a result. Surely that’s got to count as an achievement. James Manning

The 50 best ’90s songs

30
‘Windowlicker’ – Aphex Twin

‘Windowlicker’ – Aphex Twin

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

29
‘Rebel Girl’ – Bikini Kill

‘Rebel Girl’ – Bikini Kill

Without the riot grrrl movement, our culture would look very different. Lena Dunham’s ‘Girls’, Pussy Riot, ‘Rookie’ magazine, Taylor Swift’s feminism: the seeds of all these things were sown by early-’90s activist punk bands like Bratmobile, Huggy Bear and Bikini Kill. Written and wailed by radical frontwoman Kathleen Hanna, Bikini Kill’s 1993 single ‘Rebel Girl’ was the movement’s anthem: a visceral roar about female admiration and friendship that turned rock ’n’ roll’s male gaze inside out. In other words: kickass. James Manning

28
‘Vogue’ – Madonna

‘Vogue’ – Madonna

The jump from the ’80s to the ’90s was tough for pop’s top rank. Michael Jackson was one high-profile victim. Madonna was another, at least until her ‘Ray of Light’ mini-revival. But before the Queen of Pop descended into heavy-breathing self-parody, she produced this glistening dancefloor workout that still packs them in 25 years later. Her use of the (gay, black) Harlem ballroom scene’s now-iconic dance moves was either shameless appropriation or heartfelt tribute – it’s still a divisive question. But while those silky strings shimmer, such divisions just vanish. James Manning

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27
‘Enter Sandman’ – Metallica

‘Enter Sandman’ – Metallica

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

26
‘Stutter’ – Elastica

‘Stutter’ – Elastica

Forget the Beatles-aping of their Britpop contemporaries – Elastica were always more in thrall to the post-’77 art-damaged punk of early Wire (whose ‘Three Girl Rumba’ they ripped off big time on their hit single ‘Connection’). That spikiness is all over the band’s 1993 high point ‘Stutter’, a two-minute punked-up sprint melded to wicked pop hooks. Special mention should also go to Justine Frischmann’s deliciously cocky lyrics about drunken male impotence: ‘No need to whine, boy/Like a wind-up toy you stutter at my feet’. Who on earth could she have been talking about? Michael Curle

25
‘Juicy’ – The Notorious BIG

‘Juicy’ – The Notorious BIG

No-one before or since has done more to justify the gangsta rap lifestyle than Christopher Wallace, on the lead single to his immense debut album ‘Ready to Die’. ‘Juicy’ works because Biggy balances his history of Bed-Stuy poverty so precisely against the braggadocious trappings of fame and fortune (including a Super Nintendo and a Sega Genesis – a reference that now sounds as quaint as the Sugarhill Gang’s ‘hotel, motel, Holiday Inn’). James Manning

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24
‘Poison’ – The Prodigy

‘Poison’ – The Prodigy

There are a ton of tracks from the Prodge that could be included in this list, but none sum up Keith Flint and Liam Howlett’s rowdy rave punks better than ‘Poison’. The mix of chunky breakbeats, sludgy electronics and wide-eyed carnage was the perfect rhythmical remedy to those who fancied a dab of dance music (and those who wanted to find out what the hell rave culture might have been about), but just couldn’t get to grips with the eight-minute Chicago house workouts of the time. Were The Prodigy ‘proper’ dance music? Who cares? It was big, not-at-all clever and loads of fun. Tristan Parker

23
‘Inner City Life’ – Goldie

‘Inner City Life’ – Goldie

For a moment in the 1990s jungle really was massive, and no one epitomised that most uniquely British of movements better than Goldie. His 1995 album ‘Timeless’ is a landmark in the evolution of electronic music, taking jungle from the dancefloor to the coffee table without compromise – and the vocal-led ‘Inner City Life’ was its clear stand out track. Fusing jungle’s intricate breakbeats, sub bass and unbridled futurism with heart-aching soul soundscapes and the lamenting voice of Diane Charlemagne, this beautiful-yet-brutal piece of sonic art switched an entire generation on to the power of jungle and D&B. Not bad for a gold-toothed graffiti artist from Wolverhampton. Jonathan Cook

22
‘The Boy With the Arab Strap’ – Belle And Sebastian

‘The Boy With the Arab Strap’ – Belle And Sebastian

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

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21
‘Bittersweet Symphony’ – The Verve

‘Bittersweet Symphony’ – The Verve

The classic existential Britpop banger, ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ is an indispensable ’90s tune for three reasons. One: it’s the go-to end-of-the-night floor-filler for none other than Moby. Two: it soundtracked the final scene of the quintessential late-’90s teen film, ‘Cruel Intentions’. Three: it’s a great example of the decade’s penchant for recycling the ’60s. The Verve never got a penny in royalties because the strings were based on an orchestral version of The Rolling Stones ‘The Last Time’, and Jagger and Richards successfully sued. As Richard Ashcroft sings: that’s life! James Manning

The 50 best ’90s songs

20
‘Killing in the Name’ – Rage Against The Machine

‘Killing in the Name’ – Rage Against The Machine

Fuck you. I won’t do what you tell me. Not our words, but those of springy haired, eternally angry singer Zach De La Rocha, whose repeated rebellious chant in this anti-establishment rock-rap anthem started a million moshpits in the early ’90s. Sure, the moshpits were mostly full of privileged teens, but it took little away from the song’s message (‘Fuck you, establishment’, in case that wasn’t clear) and nothing away from the wonderfully raucous riffing. Tristan Parker

19
‘Sure Shot’ – Beastie Boys

‘Sure Shot’ – Beastie Boys

The opening track to the Beasties’ breakthrough album ‘Ill Communication’ was more than just a brilliant song. It also coolly demonstrated how three cocky but loveable suburban music nerds from New York had arrived at a stage where they were not just accepted but actively embraced by various super-cliquey music scenes: punks, grunge kids, the hip hop community. And who could blame the scenesters? ‘Sure Shot’ is impossible to resist: a funky flute loop, a killer break, the Beasties’ trademark trick of shouting the last word of every line TOGETHER and – let’s not forget – some stone cold hip hop chops too. Tristan Parker

18
‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ – Sinéad O’Connor

‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ – Sinéad O’Connor

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

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17
‘Born Slippy.Nuxx’ – Underworld

‘Born Slippy.Nuxx’ – Underworld

Who knew that a pounding techno track about getting out of your tree – made famous by a film about heroin addiction – could reach Number Two in the UK charts? Closing Danny Boyle’s ‘Trainspotting’ opened up ‘Born Slippy…’ to a huge audience, but it’s still a certified banger in its own right. The ambient intro soon comes up hard into pulsing techno, with Karl Hyde ranting trippily over the top like that bloke in a club who corners you on the dancefloor, talks at you for half an hour and then hugs you. Tristan Parker

16
‘Midnight in a Perfect World’ – DJ Shadow

‘Midnight in a Perfect World’ – DJ Shadow

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

15
‘Loser’ – Beck

‘Loser’ – Beck

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

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14
‘Deceptacon’ – Le Tigre

‘Deceptacon’ – Le Tigre

After changing the face of music with riot grrrl pioneers Bikini Kill, Kathleen Hanna ended up swapping spray-paint slogans and guitar thrash for girl-group chants and day-glo synths as frontwoman for Le Tigre. Her new-found pop smarts allowed Le Tigre to smuggle radical ideas into the mainstream, and their outspoken stance was a massive influence on noughties rock icons like Beth Ditto and Karen O, giving ‘Deceptacon’ a surprisingly enduring afterlife for a band with lyrics like ‘Your disco dick is sucking my heart out of my mind.’ Michael Curle

13
‘Big Time Sensuality’ – Björk

‘Big Time Sensuality’ – Björk

Beating off stiff competition from half a dozen superb Björk tracks, ‘Big Time Sensuality’ makes this list for its groundbreaking sonics (which did for house music what Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’ had done for disco), the iconic video (which instantly made Björk the world’s most interesting pop star) and its sheer effervescent joy in the face of life’s chaos: ‘I don’t know my future after this weekend, and I don’t want to.’ See, dance music can be clever too! James Manning

12
‘Paranoid Android’ – Radiohead

‘Paranoid Android’ – Radiohead

Thom Yorke’s merry men started the ’90s as a crunchy, Americanised alt rock band called On A Friday. They ended the decade recording the ultra-moody, minimal, esoteric electronic tracks that would end up on ‘Kid A’. ‘Paranoid Android’ represents the exact fulcrum of that shift, foreshadowing Radiohead’s future with its weird time signatures and conceptual lyrics, but also harking back to the early period when the band weren’t too cool and clever to write a killer riff. James Manning

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11
‘Live Forever’ – Oasis

‘Live Forever’ – Oasis

In today’s fragmented musical landscape, it’s hard to fathom the full-spectrum dominance Oasis enjoyed in the mid-’90s. All over the TV, all over the radio, all over the school yard. Legions of mad-fer-it teenage boys swaggered under crap sun hats. How did it happen? Because for a short period Noel Gallagher’s smash-’n’-grab raid on the ’60s pop canon yielded magnificent results. Oasis were always at their best when dreaming: of money, of drugs, of… well, living forever. Close your eyes and listen to that soaring melody, that soaring voice (Liam never sounded better) and try to forget what a dreadful load of shit they eventually became. Michael Curle

The 50 best ’90s songs

10
‘Unfinished Sympathy’ – Massive Attack

‘Unfinished Sympathy’ – Massive Attack

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

9
‘Waterfalls’ – TLC

‘Waterfalls’ – TLC

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

8
‘Beetlebum’ – Blur

‘Beetlebum’ – Blur

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

Read our Blur interview

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7
‘Soon’ – My Bloody Valentine

‘Soon’ – My Bloody Valentine

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

6
‘Never Forget’ – Take That

‘Never Forget’ – Take That

It’s a hard truth to admit, but when it comes to volume of classic pop songs produced, the reformed Take That absolutely spank the original ’90s model. (If you don’t believe us, force yourself to sit through their entire greatest hits album.) But the tragedy is that the ’90s Take That were getting sensationally good just as they fell apart, and ‘Never Forget’ is their finest hour. The mid-tempo sort-of-ballad starts with a cheeky choral nod to the Stones’ ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ before launching into a pop song that’s as catchy as it is devastatingly articulate. Gary Barlow’s warning that ‘one day this will all be someone else’s dream’ is one of the most poignant lines in all pop music ever, not least because of the decade in the wilderness he was about to experience. Andrzej Lukowski

5
‘Glory Box’ – Portishead

‘Glory Box’ – Portishead

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

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4
‘Da Funk’ – Daft Punk

‘Da Funk’ – Daft Punk

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

3
‘Rid of Me’ – PJ Harvey

‘Rid of Me’ – PJ Harvey

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 thisMichael Curle

2
‘Common People’ – Pulp

‘Common People’ – Pulp

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

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1
‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ – Nirvana

‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ – Nirvana

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?

Listen to the 50 best ’90s songs

Comments

12 comments
M w
M w

Wow this is probably the worst ranking of songs i have ever seen. Most of the top ten is completely ridiculous

Daniel S
Daniel S

Who the hell picked these shitty songs?

EastCoast S
EastCoast S

So the song that changed the sound of rock in the 90's ,Smells like teen spirit ,is ranked # 50 F.O.H. !

christine p
christine p

Any "Latin/Spanish/cuba" type tunes that chorus went a bit like Speedy Gonzalez tune... "Lalalalalalala LARRR La Larr, LA LARR la Larrr..in 90's, maybe late 80's? heard it first in Spain, thought saw in uk indies charts (years ago) but cant find artist(s) or name of song... frustrating.

Siobhán O
Siobhán O

Sorry Unfinished Sympathy should be number one

Carli R
Carli R

Britney Spears is there and Pearl Jam is not? Come on people, you can do so much better than this mediocre list.

Chris Y
Chris Y

Britney Spars no !, it must be a joke! One Oasis song in the 30's, I can only assume whoever voted for this chart wasn't around in the nineties?

Edward W
Edward W

Charlatans' 'The Only One I Know' is just what the whole decade sounded like, to me.

Videoke L
Videoke L

Good to see Common People up there. Great song and brilliant dancing by Jarvis Cocker on that multi-coloured dance floor.

You can dance along like the Common People (and learn those dance moves) at VIDEOKE on 22 August ...


James D
James D

"Did I ask too much, more than a lot?

You gave me nothing now it's all that I've got"


Q Magazine's Greatest Song of All Time doesn't even make your Top 50. Mmmmm