The Top 200 Tracks of the 1990s: 20-01 (2023)

This is it! The top 20 tracks of the 1990s. Thanks for reading, and we'll be back with our regular coverage on Tuesday.(Listen to most of the tracks on ourSpotify playlist.)The rest of our list is here:


The Top 200 Tracks of the 1990s: 20-01 (1)

20. DJ Shadow
"Midnight in a Perfect World"
[Mo Wax/FFRR; 1996]

Trip-hop was already plenty cinematic by 1996, when DJ Shadow dropped his stunning debut LP Endtroducing.... His contribution to the scene was to focus on the small stuff. Shadow dropped the world-weary narratives associated with the genre and zoomed all the way in, creating richly detailed atmospheres out of samples that felt less like film scenes and more like a master painter's collected work. Nearly 15 years later, nobody's been able to make a record that sounds like it-- not even Shadow himself.

The last decade was less kind to DJ Shadow's career, but Endtroducing...'s nocturnal showstopper "Midnight in a Perfect World" still feels infinitely expansive. It's the kind of song that situates you into the present moment, a quality accentuated by Gift of Gab's chopped-up single-word utterance, "now." Every sampled element, from the soulful vocal lifted from Baraka's "Sower of Seeds" to the ghostly, wordless incantations borrowed from Meredith Monk's "Dolmen Music" to the warped tones of Pekka Pohjola's "Sekoilu Seestyy", seems to exist outside of time, like they were always destined to find a home in this track. And while the clock on the wall reads a quarter past midnight, the ticking sound that comes in during the final seconds of the song suggests that it's been 11:59 the entire time. In Shadow's perfect world, tomorrow never comes. --Larry Fitzmaurice

See also: DJ Shadow, "In/Flux"; DJ Shadow, "Building Steam From a Grain of Salt"; DJ Shadow, "What Does Your Soul Look Like (Part 3)"

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The Top 200 Tracks of the 1990s: 20-01 (2)

19. Mazzy Star
"Fade Into You"
[Capitol; 1994]

"Fade Into You" was an unlikely hit-- a slow, barroom waltz with a pedal-steel solo. Maybe it was the 90s' thirst for all things alt; maybe it was the lingering taste of David Lynch's "Twin Peaks". (There was more than a touch of Lynch's aesthetic to Mazzy Star's noirish, tarnished Americana.) Maybe it was just dumb luck: Mazzy Star's David Roback had been writing similar songs since his years in Opal, and 1993's So Tonight That I Might See, which gave us "Fade Into You", wasn't all that different from Mazzy Star's debut, three years earlier. Whatever the case, everything about the song, from Hope Sandoval's smoky country voice to the slide guitar and honky-tonk piano, gave it a lush, reassuring weight. Mazzy Star never strayed far from the sound that made them famous; they didn't have to. --Philip Sherburne

See also: The Jesus and Mary Chain [ft. Hope Sandoval], "Sometimes Always"; Chris Isaak, "Wicked Game"; Slowdive, "Blue Skied An' Clear"

The Top 200 Tracks of the 1990s: 20-01 (3)

18. Daft Punk
"Da Funk"
[Virgin; 1996]

Daft Punk don't show their faces much, but they're far from faceless; the duo may be the most image-savvy electronic artists to ever programa drum machine. It's difficult to think about "Da Funk" withoutthinking of Spike Jonze's classic video for the track starring alonely man with a dog's head named Charles. It's an absurdly tragicclip, and it still resonates because it gives character and feeling tosomething alien and strange. The same could be said for Daft Punk'smusic, which continues to entice all sorts of music fans, includingthose who prefer house parties to all-night clubs.

"Da Funk" is aninstrumental song steeped in house and hip-hop, but itsindustrial-revolution bass and neon zipper synthlines are endued with more personality than almost any traditionalvocalist. It's practically identifiable based on the air between thedrum hits alone. The sound is articulate. And, in the video, the songisn't just background-- it plays an important role as it blasts fromCharles' boom box, weaving in and out of scenes and between dialogue.Similarly, their pyramid tour recalibrated the liveelectronic experience in toto by gunning for all senses at oncewhile offering a distinct focal point. Ironically, Daft Punk are one of few button-pushing acts that don't need visual aids to stand out. But I wouldn't say that to their faces.--Ryan Dombal

See also: Daft Punk, "Around the World"; Daft Punk, "Phoenix"; Motorbass, "Ezio"

The Top 200 Tracks of the 1990s: 20-01 (4)

17. Belle and Sebastian
"The State I Am In"
[Electric Honey; 1996]

In 1995, American alt-rock radio would've been dominated by bands like Bush and Green Day. The next year, Thom Yorke would have been finishing up lyrics for a song in which alt-rock radio just "buzzes like a fridge"-- something his own band used to do. Yorke sounds creeped-out and harried; so did lots of people. You can spot this conflict across the decade: everyone's different reactions to the way "alternative" music was a mainstream proposition, the way certain buzzy versions of it were getting trendy.

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And sometime in the same year, someone would have been putting on a cassette dub that started with "The State I Am In". You can imagine, right, how the cozy intimacy of this would be an Alpine-sized gust of fresh air? Amid the fridge-buzzing and cryptic shouting, here's Stuart Murdoch telling stories in your ear-- faceless and unknown; left out of promo shots like the ones above in favor of friends or bandmates. Almost every time he lilts through the melody of the verses, he's introducing a new character or event; before the chorus hits, his brother has come out, his child bride's gotten married and fallen in love (in that order), and a priest has ripped off his confession for the plot of a cheap novel. About all of which Murdoch just makes bemused jokes, but not because it's not important. Isn't this a song about the things you can devote yourself to-- things like love, religion, work-- and the strange feeling of not finding one? When he tries to give himself to god, god has to think it over.

And strangely enough, this wasn't just some big retreat into the privacy of an indie bubble. Sort of the opposite: Over the next few years, Belle and Sebastian would bring together a bigger, deeper audience than most of the bands grabbing at brass rings. It was a pretty good decade for bemusement and slackers, I guess. --Nitsuh Abebe

See also: Belle and Sebastian, "Lazy Line Painter Jane";Belle and Sebastian, "Get Me Away From Here, I'm Dying";Belle and Sebastian, "The Stars of Track and Field"

The Top 200 Tracks of the 1990s: 20-01 (5)

16. OutKast
[LaFace; 1998]

First they were some pimps, then some aliens (or some genies), but by Aquemini-- OutKast's third and arguably best LP-- Andre 3000 and Big Boi had become master conversationalists. And no track in the 'Kast catalog feels so much like a late-night ridearound with a couple ultra-reminiscent old friends like the slowpoke chatterbox soul of "Spottieottiedopaliscious".

After a scene-setting, Curtis Mayfield-channeling verse from Sleepy Brown, Dre and Big Boi get to riffing on a bygone night out at the old Charles Disco in West Atlanta; Andre runs play-by-play on a scuffle and a gal fine as all outdoors through a malt liquor haze while Boi brings us up to date, as he and his Spottieottiedopaliscious angel now have their own young one to raise, their own set of problems. Aquemini found both MCs growing looser and more loquacious by the track, and "Spottie"-- all seven minutes of lax, billowy horns and slinky southern smoke-- allows both MCs room to talk out every tangent, explore every aside.

It maybe shouldn't work-- the track's too diffuse, the tone's too casual, what in tarnation is a "Spottieottiedopaliscious"-- yet it all blends perfectly, a testament to OutKast's ridiculous risk-to-reward ratio and, of course, their mastery of the art of storytelling. Now that's a beautiful thing. --Paul Thompson

See also: OutKast, "Elevators (Me & You)"; OutKast, "Player's Ball"; OutKast, "Rosa Parks"

The Top 200 Tracks of the 1990s: 20-01 (6)

15. Depeche Mode
"Enjoy the Silence"
[Mute/Sire; 1990]

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R.E.M.'s "The One I Love" and the Police's "Every Breath You Take" proved a lovely melody or tender takeaway lyric can get an anti-romantic sentiment misconstrued as alove song. "Enjoy the Silence" doesn't initially seem to fit into that legacy, but that's what's so devious about it. It's easy to see why it turned Depeche Mode into arena fillers: Every sonic element is widescreen, the synths are gothic cathedrals, the guitars as vast and lonely as the Wild West, the electronic underpinning of the drums evoking a warehouse rave and an elegant singalong chorus that would've scored big even if David Gahan was reading the Yellow Pages.

But for a group whose lyrics rarely left much to the imagination, "Enjoy the Silence" is strikingly ambivalent and rife with doubt. "All I ever need is here in my arms" is the sort of thing you'd say to a lover and be proud of your own sensitivity, but the song also comes off as diabolical and manipulative. True love can't exist without communication, and yet the narrator here knows he's incapable of doing so without causing hurt. --Ian Cohen

See also: Depeche Mode, "Policy of Truth"; Depeche Mode, "I Feel You"; Siouxsie and the Banshees, "Kiss Them for Me"

The Top 200 Tracks of the 1990s: 20-01 (7)

14. The Notorious B.I.G.
[Bad Boy; 1994]

Biggie's first crossover hit is the most enjoyable hip-hop historylesson ever told. Smack in the middle of Ready to Die,"Juicy" is a personal narrative that doubles as a tale of rap's rise. Ifyou knew Mr. Magic and Marley Marl's pioneering early 80s "Rap Attack" radio show or black teeny-bopper magazine Word Up or the absurd JohnWayne-spoofing 1984 novelty track "Rappin' Duke" or Mtume'sbubble-funk classic "Juicy Fruit", Biggie's memories were yourmemories. And if you didn't know, well, now you know.

"Juicy" looked back to hip-hop's early days not only in name but inspirit. The guns and drugs were put aside for a frank positivity thatwas far from lame or pandering. It's ultimately a song of amnesty,with Biggie blessing those who sinned against him while summing up anew life filled with Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, and Robin Leach."Stereotypes of a black male misunderstood/ And it's still all good,"he abides. The man born Christopher Wallace sounds happy, at peace--not exactly en vogue hip-hop sentiments in 1994.People in New York City (and beyond) know every word to this songbecause it's Biggie's story and it's rap's story and it's their story."Juicy" is the way we want to remember.--Ryan Dombal

See also: The Notorious B.I.G. [ft. Puff Daddy and Ma$e], "Mo Money Mo Problems";The Notorious B.I.G., "Hypnotize";The Notorious B.I.G., "Things Done Changed"

The Top 200 Tracks of the 1990s: 20-01 (8)

13. Nirvana
"Smells Like Teen Spirit"
[DGC; 1991]

More than any single song, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" altered the face of the 90s. You'll hear people push revisionist history saying otherwise, but it did. When "Teen Spirit" was released in September 1991, albums from future alt-rock titans Pearl Jam (Ten) and the Smashing Pumpkins (Gish) were already gathering dust on record shelves. Underground rock heroes Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. had released major-label records. Fellow Seattle bands Soundgarden and Alice in Chains had charting albums; the former had been nominated for a Grammy, while the latter was flirting with a gold record. But it was the release of "Teen Spirit" that galvanized all of these scattered pieces into what could be packaged and sold as a movement.

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Nirvana helped ensure that hard rock in the 90s (and in the 2000s) was based in grunge, and that youthful rebellion was based in a mix of big riffs and some semblance of punk roots. Modern rock radio changed-- out went the Anglophile and dance influences there (they'd return in the new decade). In the American underground, the response to the sheer size and weight and force of alternative rock was to re-focus on the lo-fi, on textures, on a new set of retro influences (exotica, krautrock, dub, minimalism, to name a few at first; garage rock, underground disco, and new wave a few years later).

"Smells Like Teen Spirit" was the rock that started these waves-- some were breaks, some were ripples, but they all came from a "More Than a Feeling" riff, an underrated lyric, and this head-turning four minutes of music. If anything, its shadow has been too long. The sound of Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains are more often copied-- no surprise, since neither is nearly as special or singular as Nirvana. But mainstream rock is still so in hoc to the movement "Teen Spirit" kicked off nearly 20 years ago that underground music has yet to return to huge guitar/bass/drums gestures. Maybe this decade. --Scott Plagenhoef

See also: Nirvana, "Drain You"; Nirvana, "Sliver"; Nirvana, "All Apologies"

The Top 200 Tracks of the 1990s: 20-01 (9)

12. Aphex Twin
[Warp/Sire; 1999]

It's kind of dumbfounding to think that an experimental electronic artist could make music videos in the late 90s-- big-budget ones with a renowned director-- that grabbed a piece of the cultural zeitgeist. But central as the clips for "Come to Daddy" and "Windowlicker" are to the Richard D. James legacy, he didn't really even need them. Aphex Twin tracks are fascinating enough on their own. James' music was always about wild contrast-- oscillating between harsh, uncompromising noise and remarkably warm ambient texture-- and that all comes together in "Windowlicker". The song moves through so many stages that it's hard to pick a favorite part: there's the tech-y drum'n'bass intro, the gooey middle section, the abrasive noise coda, and several smaller asides in between. Incredibly, a melodic thread runs through it all, which might explain why something so odd hit the top 20 in the UK. Today you can still hear so much current music in the track: Flying Lotus' digital deconstruction, James Blake's bent vocals, the wobble and knock of dubstep, it's all in there. Seriously: if this thing got released today, people would be freaking out about how future-forward it is. Shit was that far ahead of its time.--Joe Colly

See also: Aphex Twin, "Girl/Boy Song"; Aphex Twin, "Come to Daddy"; Squarepusher, "Come on My Selector"

The Top 200 Tracks of the 1990s: 20-01 (10)

11. Björk
[One Little Indian; 1995]

It's not very common to hear a love song about needing space and time for yourself. If anything, that sentiment is more likely to be found in a break-up song, with someone declaring a need to discover who they are outside the context of a relationship. "Hyperballad" is about trying to negotiate a balance of loving commitment and fierce independence as a way of avoiding ever having to become the subject one of those break-up songs. Björk's character describes a private ritual she's created for herself-- throwing objects off a cliff; a morbid routine that satisfies a need for solitude and allows her to maintain a sense of self within her relationship.

She doesn't make it sound easy. The song is full of tension-- traditional balladry backed by pulsing house music; modernity contrasted with the natural world; Björk's voice vacillating between focused discipline and unrestrained expression. The contradictions and conflicts within the song are never resolved, but the piece nonetheless achieves an amazing extended catharsis, letting out the character's anxiety if not entirely extinguishing it. "Hyperballad" is ultimately an optimistic song, tapping into common neuroses and exploring them in a way that seems manageable. If only by the strength of her brave, uncompromising voice, Björk makes you believe that love can work, and that being part of a couple doesn't have to mean giving up your individuality. --Matthew Perpetua

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See also: Björk, "Jóga"; Björk, "Unravel"; Björk, "Big Time Sensuality"


What is considered the best song of the 90s? ›

Best '90s songs, ranked
  1. 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' by Nirvana. All the cool kids will tell you that they were into Nirvana back in '89 when they released Bleach on Sub Pop. ...
  2. 2. ' Nuthin' But a “G” Thang' by Dr. ...
  3. 3. ' Juicy' by The Notorious BIG. ...
  4. 4. ' Da Funk' by Daft Punk. ...
  5. 5. ' Common People' by Pulp. ...
  6. 6. ' ...
  7. 7. ' ...
  8. 8. '
3 Mar 2022

What was the most popular song in the 90? ›

This is a list of Billboard magazine's Top Hot 100 songs of 1990.
Billboard Year-End Hot 100 singles of 1990.
1"Hold On"Wilson Phillips
2"It Must Have Been Love"Roxette
3"Nothing Compares 2 U"Sinéad O'Connor
4"Poison"Bell Biv DeVoe
96 more rows

What was a popular musical trend in the 1990s? ›

The most popular style of music in the '90s was hip-hop, closely followed by rap and contemporary R&B. Hip-hop redefined the Billboard charts in the early '90s and continued to dominate for two decades.

Who was the biggest band of the 90s? ›

So without further ado, here are some of the most famous rock bands of the 1990s.
  • Guns N'Roses.
  • Red Hot Chili Peppers.
  • U2.
  • Foo Fighters.
  • Green Day.
  • Pantera.
  • Blink-182.
  • The Smashing Pumpkins.

What was big in the 90's? ›

Music movements like grunge, Eurodance, and hip-hop became popular with young adults worldwide, aided by cable television and the Internet. The 1990s saw advances in technology, with the World Wide Web, the first gene therapy trial, and cloning all emerging and being improved upon throughout the decade.

What was the number one rock song of the 90s? ›

1. “SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT” – NIRVANA. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is undoubtedly one of the most iconic 90s rock songs. Released in 1991, the track by Nirvana quickly became a hit and has since been recognised as one of the best rock songs – of all time.

What was the top 40 in 1990? ›

1990 Top 100 (Own)
96 more rows

What was the top 5 songs in the 1990? ›

Top 100 Hits of 1990/Top 100 Songs of 1990
  • Hold On - Wilson Phillips.
  • It Must Have Been Love - Roxette.
  • Nothing Compares 2 U - Sinéad O'Connor.
  • Poison - Bell Biv Devoe.
  • Vogue - Madonna.
  • Vision of Love - Mariah Carey.
  • Another Day In Paradise - Phil Collins.
  • Hold On - En Vogue.

What was the biggest selling band in the 90s? ›

The Top Ten Best Selling Albums of the 90s in the US
  • Jagged Little Pill – Alanis Morissette.
  • Millenium – Backstreet Boys. ...
  • The Bodyguard – Various artists. ...
  • Supernatural – Santana. ...
  • Human Clay – Creed. ...
  • Cracked Rear View – Hootie & the Blowfish. ...
  • Double Live – Garth Brooks. ...
  • Backstreet Boys – Backstreet Boys. ...

What was the biggest selling single of the 90s? ›

Elton John had the best-selling single of the decade with "Candle in the Wind 1997"/"Something About the Way You Look Tonight", a tribute to Princess Diana. Cher had the best-selling single of the decade (as well as of all time) by a female artist, with the single "Believe".

Who was popular music in 1990? ›

Hits by Madonna, Sinead O'Connor and Roxette are among the top sellers of 1990. 1990 saw a dramatic shift in pop, and an unexpected classic becoming the year's biggest single - Unchained Melody by The Righteous Brothers.

What did they wear in the 90's? ›

Particularly common were black or dark red pleather pants, animal print clothing, halter tops, metallic clothing, crop tops, tube tops, maxi coats, maxi skirts, knee boots sometimes with knee socks slouch at the top, and boot-cut dress pants.

What was cool in the 90s? ›

The 1990s was a decade where pop culture took flight, we all made some Friends, dance moves were born and fast-food got even bigger. Although they ended more than 20 years ago, some of these American icons remain just as relevant today. Iconic shows such as Rugrats (1991), Doug (1991), Hey Arnold!

Why 90s is the best music? ›

The beauty of 90s music was both its diversity and the way artists took the styles of previous decades, refined them, then added a sonic dimension and attitude that matched both the optimism and, at times, despair of the decade. Grunge extinguished the raging fire that was late-80s hair metal.

What is the 90's known for? ›

The 1990s is often remembered as a decade of relative peace and prosperity: The Soviet Union fell, ending the decades-long Cold War, and the rise of the Internet ushered in a radical new era of communication, business and entertainment.

What was the biggest pop song of the 80s? ›

25 Biggest Songs of the 1980s
  • Physical – Olivia Newton-John.
  • Bette Davis Eyes – Kim Carnes.
  • Endless Love – Diana Ross & Lionel Richie.
  • Every Breath You Take – The Police.
  • I Love Rock & Roll – Joan Jett & The Blackhearts.
  • Ebony And Ivory – Paul McCartney & Stevie Wonder.
  • Billie Jean – Michael Jackson.
5 Oct 2022


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