We here at SportsAlcohol.com can get down with a good list, but we’ve never attempted one quite so expansive before: a list not just of a band’s best songs, but the best songs of an entire decade: the ’90s, which have been experiencing a major nostalgia boom over the past five years or so, and which we hope to cash in on in a major way with this very undertaking; we just haven’t worked out the specifics of how that will work. In the meantime, you can send us personal checks.
While we wait for those to clear, let me reiterate: yes, this is the biggest list project yet undertaken by this organization. As it turns out, though, even a big list of 90 songs can feel too short when you’re dealing with a whole and particularly eclectic decade. Over 500 songs received votes, and plenty of favorites were left off the final list. Participants were asked to send their ranked lists of the 40 best songs of the ’90s, and the votes (weighted by ranking) were diligently counted in Excel to come up with the list that kicks off today. No adjustments were made for any reason beyond math. No fudging the rules to include a song by a particularly important artist or to cut down on the number of songs by an over-represented ones. This is the list of 22 children of the ’90s, though many of us approach that designation from different ages, directions, and backgrounds.
Today we’ll unveil songs 90 through 51. Tomorrow, we’ll hit 50 through 11. And on Thursday, we’ll get to the top ten. Look for other Best Songs of the ’90s content on SportsAlcohol.com all week, including our biggest podcast ever where a bunch of us got together to hash out this list.
And before we get started on list itself, I’d like to introduce your Best Songs of the ’90s voters. The panel included beloved SportsAlcohol.com mainstays, editors, and contributors whose biographies and past contributions are available at the click:
Plus these great people I’ll introduce here:
Shelly Casper is an artist, photographer, and teacher.
Sara Ciaburri is a librarian and former DJ.
Kerry Cullen is a fiction writer and editorial assistant.
Derrick Hart is a music fanatic and librarian from Boston by way of Upstate New York.
Michelle Paul is Director of Product Development at Patron Technology.
Lorraina Raccuia-Morrison edits textbooks and makes pottery.
Cristin Stickles is a book buyer for McNally-Jackson who makes New Jersey look good.
Erin Styne is a teacher and mother.
Alex Templeton is a middle school teacher, voracious reader, and writer in Philadelphia.
Bayard Templeton is a teacher, Mets fan, and theater enthusiast.
Jennifer Vega is a birder, administrator, and Mariah Carey scholar.
I am especially proud of two things about our contributors:
1. The gender makeup is majority female.
2. None of us are professional music critics.
The 90 Best Songs of the 90s (Part One of Three)
90. “Autumn Sweater” – Yo La Tengo (1997)
This song was on a mixtape that my worst college boyfriend made me. But despite that unfortunate association I still think of young romance when I hear it. Many of Yo La Tengo’s best known songs are much louder so it’s all the more striking to hear them strip down the sound here. The shuffling drums and chilly drone of the keyboard mimic those first cold days of the fall season while the uncertainty of the lyrics expertly evokes a boy’s overtures to a first love. Listening to it makes me want to wrap myself up in my warmest, well, you know. – Sara B
89. “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” – Neutral Milk Hotel (1998)
Everyone in the universe has spent the last 15 years singing the praises of this whole album, so I’ll stick with praising this one track. Fun fact: If you’re just learning to play the guitar, this is a super easy song to practice with. It’s impossible for me to hear this song and not think of sunshine and green grass and springtime; it’s not exactly a happy song (“one day we will die” and all that), but it’s just so pleasant! Or is it? I guess it depends how you feel about the sound of singing saws. – Michelle
88. “Last Stop: This Town” – eels (1998)
This song after the eels’ second studio album Electro-Shock Blues eked onto the list; leaving it off would have been almost as tragic as the album itself, written mainly in response to the deaths of Mark Oliver Everett’s (E) mother and sister by lung cancer and suicide, respectively. This particular song may be one of the catchiest songs about suicide ever recorded, with lyrics that speak both to E’s pain and the way he tries to make sense of it. It also features simplistic but excellent record scratching and the video has an anthropomorphic carrot that eventually is strapped into a robot before walking away. Even with dark and tragic origins, it’s a strangely lovable affair. – Jason
87. “Wannabe” – Spice Girls (1997)
Being from Northern NJ, the mile markers of my life from ages 15-18 were Sweet 16 parties. I don’t know how the trend got started at my school, but I suspect that, a decade or so prior to my time in that age pool, some Christian teenager got jealous while on the Bar/ Bat Mitzvah attendee scene and decided to throw herself a party. Mine was a joint Sweet 16 party with a friend I had known since preschool, and we spent over a year planning it with our parents. Much of the party coordination was outsourced to an events planning company that mostly did weddings; during one of the meetings at their office, my dad started looking at their promotional photo catalog and straight-up lost it at the thought of the wedding that I still have not, 18 years later, given him the opportunity to plan. We rented a hall and hired a DJ and, per the locale’s requirements, security guards, even though the worst thing my friends did was serenade the security team when the DJ played “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.” The playlist was meticulous, and though we remembered to include instructions as to when “Sixteen Candles” would play for the father-daughter dance (yes, really), we didn’t specify timing as to when the new megahit “Wannabe” would be played, and the burden of that mistake would be shouldered by everyone in the room. “Wannabe” was the third song played, and my cohost and I quickly panicked about the song coming up before half our party attendees had arrived. We made the DJ sign a blood oath that he would repeat the song a half-hour before the party ended (closed out by Donna Summer’s “Last Dance,” natch) in a play to maximize crowd enjoyment. Now I have to live with the fact that I’m not only a human who had a Super Sweet 16, but one who insisted that such an event contain not one, but two, rounds of effing WANNABE. Let’s say it was for friendship, like the song preaches. – Cristin
86. “Go West” – Liz Phair (1994)
I didn’t find this song (or should I say this song didn’t find me) until the spring of 2003, but the fact that it found me via a mix tape makes it feel much more ’90s in my mind. My housemate from college made it the last song of good-bye mixtapes she made for each member of our house for graduation. The line “I’m not looking forward to missing you,” gives me a lump in my throat every time I hear it. Its combination of the acceptance of moving on, coupled with the wish that your time together could last longer exemplified my feelings at the end of my undergraduate years. You’re going to miss being near those people who are special to you, but the time does come when you need to head in a different direction. West, perhaps. – Bayard
When I was a senior in college about to graduate, I wanted to make a mix tape for all of my housemates. A graduation mix has to end on a certain feeling: You want to convey the good times, but also the sadness of the era’s end—and do it all without being totally depressing. Liz Phair’s “Go West” is basically the only song that fits the bill. Lyrically, there’s nothing crushing about the situation of the song. Clearly, someone is headed on a journey, and that person is both escaping the past and hopeful for what may be ahead. But, really, “Go West” is all about mood. It evokes all of the unsettled emotions about taking off for someplace new, and the wistful feelings towards those you’re leaving behind. Capturing the feeling you get one when one part of your life ends and another begins is something that many ’90s songs have tried to varying levels of success—I’m thinking of Semisonic’s “Closing Time” and Eve 6’s “Here’s to the Night”—but Phair does it without expending as much effort and without vying to be the go-to track for the graduation/breakup/Big Moment, and her sparseness makes the song all the more evocative. –Marisa
85. “A Long December” – Counting Crows (1996)
The traditional choice for Counting Crows is “Mr. Jones,” but “Mr. Jones” falls short of “A Long December”‘s delicate balance of hope (“maybe this year will be better than the last”), the unrelenting retrospection that accompanies experience, and the feeling of time passing (“it’s one more night in Hollywood”). “Mr. Jones” is a song about longing for a future and the struggle for belief, while “A Long December” is about the simple struggle of moving on and hoping not for fame necessarily, but for something just a little bit better than what just happened. This song should be sung instead of “Auld Lang Syne” for every New Year’s Eve party. – Ben
84. “The State I Am In” – Belle and Sebastian (1996)
Stuart Murdoch spent years of his early life bedridden due to chronic fatigue syndrome. “The State I’m In,” the opening track from Belle & Sebastian’s seminal debut album Tigermilk, tells the tale of Murdoch’s emergence from disease. It is perhaps the best early example of the frontman’s unique talent, cramming dense stories full of realistic characters, sly allusions, dark humor, and religious imagery into one tender melody. – Rob
83. “Exit Music (For a Film)” – Radiohead (1997)
The politics of list making, part 1: shamelessly picking your favorite band over and over and over.
You want to appear as a sophisticated person with diverse tastes, but deep down you know that the 10th best song by your favorite band is a staggering universe compared to all that dusty obligation crap you threw on your list to save face. – Chris
82. “Lovefool” – The Cardigans (1996)
I doubt anyone who was 13 to 16 years old in 1996 can possibly hear this song without picturing Leonardo DiCaprio’s face, or Claire Danes’ angel wings, despite its definitely high ranking on the universe’s list of “iconic movie soundtrack songs that weren’t even really featured heavily in the movie.” When I listen to it now, though, I most end up focusing on the music itself — that little trill in the background at the end of each line of the verse is hypnotizing. – Michelle
81. “So Low” – Self (1995)
Subliminal Plastic Motives, Self’s debut and probably best-known album, was released in 1995. When I found it a few years later, I loved it, specifically its second single “So Low.” It may not have enough popular support to rank as high as some grunge mainstays, but it can stand proudly beside them (with equally bad posture) in the area of teen angst. With lyrics like “I’m so low that I wish I were dead, with a knife in my chest and a bullet in my head,” and “gave everything away/Now I’m bound only by twine and thread,” it could scarcely get angstier, although the song’s Beck-like rhythm keeps it from wallowing in those negative feelings. True story: I love this song so much that I used the line “Gone sour to the bone, gone bad to the marrow” as a senior quote in my high school yearbook. I also wrote it in Sharpie on the ceiling of a girl from summer camp who was infatuated with me, which I think speaks to the song’s potent combination of angst and being kind of an asshole. – Jason
80. “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” – Nirvana (1994)
Is it cheating to have this song on this list? It’s a great cover, unquestionably, but is it fair to have a Leadbelly song on a list of ’90s tracks? I think it is. This is not a rote, copycat cover. This is a Jimi Hendrix “Watchtower” make-it-your-own kind of cover. There’s a ragged edge to the performance here that isn’t even there in the Leadbelly version, and that’s a guy who knows a thing or two about ragged edges. A singer once told me that Kurt Cobain was a really fantastic singer, and that most people don’t realize that because they don’t know how hard it is to scream on key. The way he screams the last verse of this song makes that really clear, and it takes a song that’s traditionally melancholy, and makes it absolutely chilling.
The other thing that I really like about this song is that it’s on this album at all. Like most children of the ’90s, I have a lot of affection for Kurt Cobain, and one of my favorite things about him is the MTV gave him a high-profile concert and he decided to use about a third of it to feature other people’s songs, bringing them into the lives of a lot of ’90s kids. – Craig
79. “Dry the Rain” – The Beta Band (1997)
The first time I heard “Dry the Rain” was likely the first time almost everyone heard it: the first time I saw the film High Fidelity. You know the scene. The record store is unusually full. Rob, sensing an opportunity, leans over to his co-worker and whispers, “I’m now going to sell five copies of The Three EPs by The Beta Band.” The needle drops, the customers in the aisle start bobbing their heads, an iconic moment is born. The Beta Band has other great songs, I’m sure, but I haven’t heard them. From the opening groove to the sing-along fade out this is the only one I need. – Sara B
78. “Fantasy” – Mariah Carey (1995)
Hip-hop and R&B were always part of Mariah Carey’s deal, but “Fantasy” was her first major single that put those sounds front and center, and it was the pivot on which Carey’s career turned. She never looked back. And why would she? It was halfway through the ’90s by this point, and in a few years pure adult pop ballad singers would be relegated to “guilty pleasure” territory (though I still love you, Céline Dion); even Mariah’s older work, taken as a body, was starting to sound a little dated and homogeneous. Though it surprised a lot of fans at the time, in retrospect “Fantasy” was part of an obvious and ingenious progression for Carey. Along with its inspired ODB-augmented remix, the track proved she had the forward-looking business sense to continue cashing in on her immense natural musical talent. And twenty years later, it still sounds fantastic. – Jen
77. “Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space” – Spiritualized (1997)
True story: Jesse assigned this blurb to me the same day some inexpensive earbuds my wife ordered came in the mail. What better way to test them than with one the ultimate headphone songs of the ’90s? With its layered vocals, Quindar tones, and orchestral instrumentation, you are transported to J. Spaceman’s alternate universe where religion, love, and drugs are all the same thing. It’s a singular experience, even if your cheap ’10s earbuds aren’t that great. – Rob
76. “The End of the Tour” – They Might Be Giants (1994)
In AP English, senior year, after we actually took the AP, we turned to probably the most fun assignment I was ever given in high school: to present a song to the class as a poem, complete with discussion questions after we all listened to it. Some choices I remember include “Breaking Into Heaven” by the Stone Roses, “Eddie Walker” by Ben Folds Five, “Glycerine” by Bush, and “Liar” by Henry Rollins. But this is not an anecdote about how I presented “The End of the Tour” for that assignment, because I presented “Ana Ng,” also by They Might Be Giants, because it was (and remains) one of my very favorite songs ever recorded. Despite my forever love for that tune, I think in retrospect “The End of the Tour,” the last song on TMBG’s less-beloved but utterly fantastic 1994 record John Henry, might have been a better choice. They Might Be Giants have plenty of lyrics open to interpretation, but John Linnell’s words for “The End of the Tour” strike a particularly affecting balance: they feel coherent while not being entirely clear about what’s happening in the song. TMBG nerds on the internet can insist, in that strenuous nerd way, that the song is absolutely about a car crash, and there’s certainly car-crash imagery in the song, but Linnell’s plainspoken poetry is more than a series of metaphors to decode. So many bands write songs about touring and “the road” as they get older and traditional life experiences fall away from them, but this one eschews the clichés of road-weariness in favor of a more hopeful sense of ending. It ends, in fact, with Linnell singing, twice: “And we’re never gonna tour again.” They did, of course; this song came out before I’d ever seen TMBG live and I’ve seen them 53 times and counting since. But somehow this song never feels like a lie. – Jesse
75. “I Touch Myself” – Divinyls (1991)
In the compendium of masturbation songs, most are about the act of self-love—whether it’s pumping it up, going off like a blister, or turning Japanese. In comparison, it can be forgotten that “I Touch Myself” is foremost a love song—a love song about the sharing of self-love. While the vocalist might love you, she also loves herself, and because she loves you, she wants you to experience the same type of love that she gives when she loves herself. With logic like that, this love inevitably leads to compulsive masturbation upon the mere thought of one’s beloved. And in that way, perhaps this is the greatest love song ever written. – Ben
74. “This Is How We Do It” – Montell Jordan (1996)
When I offered to write a blurb for this list, Jesse assigned me this choice on my Top 40 with the comment, “It’s sort of an odd one.” It is. There are certainly other “party rockers” that would fit the best-of-the-decade bill and feel a little less mainstream. But I have a soft spot for “This Is How We Do It”—maybe because it was on heavy rotation in February 1995 when my rural town finally was able to get cable; maybe because in my school district, this was one of the few “hip-hop” songs the DJ could play without a reprimand from the principal. Either way, when I hear Monty belt out the opening notes, I can’t help but feel like doing the running man and putting my hands in the air like just don’t care. – Erin
73. “Moya” – Godspeed You! Black Emperor (1999)
The politics of list making, part 2: force-representing the “great band”, despite the lack of stand-out song
Sometimes making your point is worth missing the point entirely. And bravo, the playlist is unlistenable now. – Chris
72. “Oh Comely” – Neutral Milk Hotel (1998)
It’s haunting. It’s beautiful. One could even call it hauntingly beautiful. There is no album or song that has the ability to move me, often to the point of tears, every single time I hear it. I considered choosing a specific lyric to draw attention to, but all eight minutes are flawless poetry and breaking it down to moments is too analytical for a song this raw and powerful. Full disclosure, more than a couple boys have gotten laid almost exclusively because I saw Neutral Milk Hotel turn them to into puddles of emotion… just in case getting into my pants is something that interests you. If you need me, I’ll be over here trying to will away my full body goosebumps. Fuck, man. The feels. – Shelly
71. “Laid” – James (1993)
“Laid’ proves that, if a song is upbeat and has a catchy chorus, people will just kind of assume the best of it. Even though the title should’ve been a dead giveaway, I remember where I was when I finally realized how filthy the lyrics to the song actually were. (I was in the car with my sister, trying not to make it obvious that I just caught on.) In that way, it’s a song that grows with you the more you listen to it. At first, you can just get into the poppy fun of the rhythm and see if you can hit the high note in the chorus. This phase is best to do in the car, preferably alone, where you can bang on the steering wheel during the drum parts and scream to get into that higher register. Then, once you learn the lyrics to the verses, it’s like you and the song have a dirty little secret together, and you can revel in the deliciously wicked pleasures of that. Finally, you can use “Laid” as a gateway to other James songs, which may not be as titillating but prove the band is better than its one-hit-wonder reputation. –Marisa
I was walking around downtown Lake George Village in the middle of August 1999 on a well-deserved night off from my job at a summer camp, wearing a James t-shirt that I had gone all the way to London to get the previous year. Lake George Village in the summer is a special kind of hell crammed full of tourists, bikers, theme park attendees, and people searching for “Two Dollar T-Shirts (or 6 for $20.00).” I illegally cut across the street through the throng of cars, people, and motorcycles, with swagger only a recent high school graduate on a night off from his summer job could have when all of a sudden a biker roared up next to me and jumped off his bike. As I wondered what I did to attract his attention and braced myself for at the very least a verbal attack, he grabbed the left shoulder of my shirt (which said Get Laid!) and said, “Laid!, I FUCKING LOVE THAT SONG”. He then proceeded to sing the song at me, including all the high notes, before getting back on his bike and speeding off. It really kind of sucks when your favorite band is pretty much known only for the theme song of the American Pie franchise in your home country but at least I didn’t get my ass kicked crossing the street. – Jason
70. “Posion” – Bel Biv Devoe (1990)
There are really only two pieces of advice you need in this world: never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line, and never trust a big butt and a smile. – Cristin
69. “Everlong” – Foo Fighters (1997)
Easily one the best Michel Gondry videos of all time; so good, in fact, that the song needed to be looped at the end to cover the extra-long video. But it helps that it’s also the Foo Fighters’ best song (and a personal favorite of David Letterman!). Grohl, certainly well-versed in the quiet/loud alt-rock method, uses it to great effect in this paean to getting caught up in a new love, written about his actual relationship with Louise Post from Veruca Salt after the break-up of his first marriage. Against the absurdity of a giant-handed Grohl making his way into Gondry’s warped Evil Dead parody, it’s nice to know that even when it seems like love might end, it can be found again, everlong. – Jeremy
68. “Ruby Soho” – Rancid (1995)
Surprise! I fucked this up real bad, guys. I somehow neglected to count one of the votes for this Rancid song, even though I actually voted for it and hoped it would make the list. So Marisa wrote this whole thing about how great the song is, and as it turns out, it totally made the list. So because it already got the blurb treatment, let me use this space to apologize to “You Get What You Give” by the New Radicals (I know, really just that one guy), which have been bounced on and off this list about three times due to my various spreadsheet adventures. Sorry, “You Get What You Give.” Jeremy had some nice things to say about you, too. Maybe if we do a Best One-Hit Wonders Ever list down the line… – Jesse
67. “Bittersweet Symphony” – The Verve (1997)
Picture a sixteen-year-old girl standing on a dormitory balcony on a humid afternoon in June. Temporarily housed inside are all the other attendees of a summer writing workshop, including seven other sixteen-year-old girls who have told this eighth that she is talented, kind, and has, in the words of one, “down-to arth and sarcastic hilarious remarks that kept us all level-headed and happy.”Someone is blasting this song out a window, and the strings, and the feeling in the girl’s heart, defy the lyrics. I’m kind? I’m talented? I’m FUNNY? This triumphant moment is much more sweet than bitter. – Alex
66. “Polyester Bride” – Liz Phair (1998)
This is not the Liz a lot of people would expect to see on a list like this. These lists tend to favor trailblazing Liz, raw and deep-voiced Liz – “Divorce Song” Liz. And “Divorce Song” is great. Exile in Guyville is great. And whitechocolatespaceegg is even better. Her minor alt-rock hit from that album, “Polyester Bride,” is a brighter, shinier, chorus-heavier song than some of her other classics, but it is so deeply and inimitably Liz Phair anyway: the conversational phrasing as she relates an exchange with a bartender that she’s “lucky to know.” Henry, this bartending friend, eventually poses a series of options for the song’s sparkling chorus that might sound arbitrary at first, but take on a kind of poetic ruefulness in their mixture of the mundane (“alligator cowboy boots they just put on sale”) and the fantastical (“flap your wings and fly away from here”). In retrospect, it feels like a midpoint check-in on Phair’s career, finding her a little older, a little wiser, and a little more playful while still retaining the open honesty of her earliest work. It’s also a catchy song with a nice little acoustic guitar churn to its central riff. That’s why her later attempts to make hit pop singles felt so weird to me: not because she couldn’t do it, but because she didn’t seem to know that she already did. – Jesse
65. “To Be With You” – Mr. Big (1991)
My alma mater was somehow still required two Kinesiology credits in order to graduate during the time in which I attended, and I left both of mine until senior year because I loathe physical activity/wanted to take as many Medieval Literature classes as possible and didn’t understand how Archery would round out my Bachelor of Arts. The first one I took was Weight Training, which consisted of a lot of laying hungover on the sit up mats and gossiping with girls from my sorority, and the second was Adventure Games, which gave me a semester of climbing up trees and jumping off them with my three closest friends as my belay group. Going into and during the class I loudly announced to anyone who would listen and scores of people who refused to that, having done Outward Bound in high school, this was old hat to me. I then proceeded to have a meltdown halfway through one of the climbing elements when I was three stories off the ground and completely froze up, unable to jump to safety. The only thing that got me moving was my friends singing, very loudly, what they knew was my favorite song: Mr Big’s “To Be With You.” I made it to the ground in one piece and am alive today to tell you that this song can help you do ANYthing. – Cristin
64. “A Letter to Elise” – The Cure (1992)
This is a good song to be heartbroken to. It’s upbeat but regretful, perfect for dancing around your room in a disappointed mania, then collapsing on your bed crying. It has a spinning quality: a quality of trying to forget, and then remembering again. – Lorraina
63. “Hyperballad” – Bjork (1995)
Back in the ’90s when my Saturday nights consisted of chatting on AOL and watching 120 Minutes on MTV, I saw the “It’s Oh So Quiet” video and thought: “That’s weird, but on the other hand, choreographed dancing with a mailbox!” So on a whim I bought Post. “Hyperballad” was an immediate favorite because of the imagery in the lyrics. What would my body sound like slamming against those rocks? Even now, hearing that line makes me a little uneasy. But that’s why I love this song. It makes you sad, uncomfortable, and filled with the uncontrollable urge to bust a move all at the same time. – Sara C
62. “One More Hour” – Sleater-Kinney (1997)
As excited as I was for Sleater-Kinney’s comeback this year, their new record is missing the one killer breakup song found on all of their previous albums. The best one of the bunch is “One More Hour,” all the more poignant because it is about two members of the band. Corin Tucker’s plaintive wail is at its finest here, obsessing over the little moments of the end of a romantic relationship. For a band filled with righteous punk anger, this melancholy midtempo number hits the hardest. – Rob
61. “Fake Plastic Trees” – Radiohead (1995)
I am not one of those Bends classicists/regressives who admit all too readily that nothing Radiohead has done since then really kicks it like the pure anthemic alt-rock of that great 1995 record. I am one of those Kid A devotees who thinks Amnesiac is nearly as good and if nothing Radiohead has done since 1995 “rocks” enough for you, please, by all means, go listen to Muse; someone has to, apparently. That said, I do love The Bends and if I prefer it to the seminal OK Computer it’s because of the elegant emotional devastation wrought by songs like “Fake Plastic Trees.” The key, as I believe fellow list contributor Chris once pointed out, is the way Thom Yorke repeats one of the song’s final lines: “If I could be who you wanted… if I could be who you wanted, all the time.” Though repetition is a hallmark of pop music, here the effect is more like beautiful prose: simple but so tearjerkingly effective. – Jesse
60. “Girl at the Bus Stop” – My Drug Hell (1996)
While it’s true that multiple songs on our list could be considered one-hit wonders, “Girl at the Bus Stop” may the most one-hit of them all, at least in this country. This yearning song was released on their 1996 album This is My Drug Hell and achieved modest chart success in the U.K. along with some regional radio attention in this country; the band didn’t release another full-length album until 2010’s My Drug Hell 2. Their website still looks like it was created in 1996 and hosted on Geocities or Angelfire. Yet this song has stuck in my memory. I’m not sure what it is about it; maybe that it’s both sad and incredibly beautiful at the same time. Maybe one of the best-ever songs about being rejected. – Jason
59. “Inside Out” – Eve 6 (1998)
I’m not sure if putting one’s “tender heart in a blender” and “watch[ing] it spin around to a beautiful oblivion” is the blandest angsty lyric or angstiest bland lyric. Regardless, the song is catchy, builds up wonderfully from verse to verse, and in a display of old-fashioned pop craftsmanship culminates with a key change for the final chorus. Much like Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer,” karaoke novices should beware. – Bayard
58. “Zombie” – The Cranberries (1994)
To me, the Cranberries get a lot of credit for being an instantly recognizable band, elevated by Dolores O’Riordan’s distinctive voice. This song may almost fall victim to the somewhat vague political lyrics that can snag some of their other tracks, but those crashing guitars and drums and O’Riordan’s snarling of the title bring it home and get me every time. – Alex
57. “Are You Out There?” – Dar Williams (1997)
I was introduced to the intelligence, wittiness, and poignancy of Dar Williams’ songs only a few years ago – pretty late for someone whose musical tastes kind of permanently live in Lilith Fair 1997. Too bad, as Williams’ ode to independent late-night radio is also an ode to us who ourselves generally feel on the fringes, “perhaps…a miscreation.” There are many nights where I have lain in bed in the dark with my ear buds in, listening. The last verse especially gets me: “Calling Olsen, calling Memphis/I am calling, can you hear this? I was out here listening, all the time/I will write this down and then/I will not be alone again…” Williams clearly understands that the best music helps you feel less alone. – Alex
56. “Possession” – Sarah McLachlan (1993)
When I started college in 1994, it seemed like Fumbling Toward Ecstasy was issued to every freshman female. Without fail, you could find it in her CD stack, and it was easy to put in the player as the go-to make out album for 94-95—bookended with two different versions of “Possession”—the standard version and the superior piano acoustic version. Starting out the evening trying to kiss each other so hard that you took the other’s breath away was a good way to begin, and you know that if you got to the piano version at the end of the CD, you had a good night. – Ben
55. “Waltz #2” – Elliott Smith (1998)
This song is indirectly responsible for a lot of the way my life looks right now. When I graduated college back in 2004, I had absolutely no idea what to do with myself. I sort of panicked and took a job in finance that I was pretty clearly badly suited for, but that was easy to get, mostly because the company owner was a family friend. I was living at home with my parents and commuting every morning on Metro North, then down to Wall Street on the subway. I didn’t like anything that I was doing, I was terrible at it, and it started to seem like my whole adult life was just going to be a dull, gray slog.
It probably didn’t help that I was listening to Elliott Smith’s XO every morning on my way to work. I usually read the paper on the Metro North train, grabbed some breakfast at Grand Central, then put on my headphones and hit play as I went down into the subway. “Sweet Adeline” and “Tomorrow, Tomorrow” usually lasted for my subway ride, which meant that I was generally emerging from underground to approach the office at around the time that the opening chords for “Waltz #2” kicked in. It’s such a perfect little monument to resignation that I have an embarrassment of riches for examples of why this was a poor choice for my go-to morning song. Here are some: “she appears composed, so she is I suppose”; “it’s ok, I’m alright, nothing’s wrong”; “tell Mr. man with impossible plans to just leave me alone/in the place where I make no mistakes, in the place where I have what it takes…” It unquestionably made my mornings a little bleaker, but it’s such a beautiful song that I couldn’t stop listening to it.
I lasted about two months at that job before quitting to apply to grad school. Oddly enough, I ended up in the same program as Elliott Smith’s sister. It always seemed like it was crossing a line to mention her brother to her, so I never said anything about how his song had affected my life. I’m not an angsty twenty-something anymore, and I didn’t even stay in academia. But I have the life I have now because of that decision, and I really think I made that decision because of this song. I still love it, but I don’t listen to it as often. These days, if I want some Elliot Smith for my commute, I listen to Heatmiser; that’s music for a job you like. – Craig
54. “Mayonaise” – Smashing Pumpkins (1993)
There were a good three years in my early teens where I blasted nothing but a constant rotation of Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins from my bedroom, much to my parent’s chagrin. This song has always felt wistful, painful, romantic, and hopeful, all of which appealed to my angsty teen sensibilities and still resonates in my cranky cat-lady thirties. I once read that Billy Corgan considered the lyrics of this song to be nonsensical garbage. Sorry, Billy-boy, but this song got me through some heavy shit in my formative years and, to me, it is what you will always be remembered for. I couldn’t ask for a better soundtrack for self-harm and writing abysmal poetry about long-haired skater boys who didn’t know I existed. – Shelly
53. “Girls and Boys” – Blur (1994)
The politics of list making, part 3: the bands with too many great songs.
You’re making a list and the real estate is scarce. There are some great bands you know you have to represent, and a few of them managed to crank out a dozen great songs each. You’re not going to get away with including more than one or two from each band. But it’s important these bands get represented, so you choose the songs that you’re pretty sure your list-making comrades would pick.
You do this because Blur truly deserves a slot. If your criteria for “Band of the 90s” is “existed for the entire decade, produced, matured and ended the decade on a high note… and didn’t lose a drummer,” then your band is Blur*. Blur spent much of the decade weathering ridiculous defeats by the likes of AIDS-wishers Oasis who won a ballyhooed chart battle via “Roll with It” [not on this list], and the hooligans Mogwai who offered to prove “Blur are shite” in a court of law. Despite phenomenal success elsewhere, they hurled their “oom-pah” music against the stubborn, “Wonderwall”-loving US for years, nonetheless, they remained for many here the UK’s best kept secret until finally scoring ubiquity via jock jam with “Song 2” in 1997. But over the intervening years, blur, like Pulp and The Stone Roses, slowly, retroactively took their rightful spot in US pop culture memory. As if we all knew all along. May the old and young dance together at wedding to “Girl and Boys” for many years to come. – Chris
One problem with Blur on this list was: our comrades did not pick the same songs. Sure, enough people backed “Girls and Boys” to throw it onto the list, but really: only one song from one of the best bands of the ’90s, and it doesn’t even crack the top 50? That’s Blur’s great decade working against them. I didn’t vote for “Girls and Boys,” but I understand why other people did, mainly because of something that happened in 2003. I saw Blur live, without Graham, but still. It was in America, so I figured the song that might get people to go crazy was “Song 2,” their 1997 alt-rock hit, one of many singles that garnered some but not enough points for this list. But no: they did play “Song 2” and people did seem enthused, but the song that made everyone lose their shit was “Girls and Boys.” Pogoing as far as the eye could see, carried along by the song’s beat, which should have felt dated almost a decade later, but did not, maybe because it never sounded much like the American version of 1994 in the first place. So yeah, I get it, because Blur turned the Hammerstein Ballroom into an English dance club for about four minutes. – Jesse
52. “Basket Case” – Green Day (1994)
Compared to, say, “Longview,” “Basket Case” is the accessible, self-absorbed musings about cracking up over a completely solid chord progression. This song is the pop punk Green Day that still feels free and fun—a San Francisco treat compared to the flannel-laden gloom of Seattle. This was a different kind of punk that would eventually lead to high school dance ballads and Broadway musicals. – Ben
51. “Car” – Built to Spill (1994)
While I like singer-songwriters, exuberant punk rockers, and performance art as much as the next self-important professional appreciator, sometimes I crave musicianship. This feeling leads people to bands with great players but poor, sometimes embarrassing songwriting. I’m talking about Jazz, Metal, Fusion, Prog, even (gasp) Jam Bands. Thankfully, there is a more elegant solution in Built to Spill. Doug Martsch has been inventing new sounds on the guitar for over twenty years now, and “Car,” with the heart of Elliot Smith and the chops of J Mascis, remains one of his finest songs to this day. – Rob
Onward to 50-11!