Best Songs of the 90s: Behind the Scenes

Now that the official list of the best songs of the 90s has been revealed to the world in full, I thought I’d offer the list geeks among you a quick peek behind the scenes at the making of the list. So if you’re wondering why Pavement didn’t make the cut or how assured Nirvana’s victory really was, read on!

As mentioned, we had 22 voters each assemble a ranked top 40 list. There were twelve women and ten men, and most of the participants spent at least some time as teenagers in the ’90s, though one of us didn’t enter teenagehood until after the turn of the century.

Because of the high number of participants, a single number-one vote was not enough to propel a song onto the master list. Every song on our final list garnered at least two votes, and while it was theoretically possible to make the list without any of those votes being in anyone’s top ten, that was not the actual case when all was said and done. Every song on this list was on at least one person’s Top Ten of the ’90s, and in fact several songs with two votes (where one was passionate enough) beat out a number of songs that garnered three or even four votes. That four-vote wonder, the most-voted song that failed to make the list? The subject of founding editor Sabrina’s t-shirt: “It’s a Shame About Ray” by the Lemonheads. A shame indeed; sorry, Dando.

Embarrassments of Riches
We made no limitations on the number of songs per artist (beyond any personal rules that went into individual ballots), and no assurances that a particular artist would automatically receive attention. This led to the unfortunate but probably unavoidable phenomenon of vote-splitting, whereupon bands would show an obviously broad support base without really dominating the list. Some bands broke through despite their great range of choices: no fewer than 14 Radiohead songs garnered votes, and three of those songs made the list.

On the other side, ’90s mainstays like Pavement (0 for 6), Pearl Jam (0 for 5), Portishead (0 for 5), Tori Amos (1 for 7), and Blur (1 for 6, and nothing in the top 50) are probably a bit more popular with our voters than they appear. But the kings of mentions that went nowhere were Ben Folds Five, with a whopping seven different songs receiving votes, and a whopping zero on the final list. “Philosophy” would have squeaked onto the list if we had gone for a top 100; nothing else was even close.

The lesson: It doesn’t hurt to have defining single, whether it’s in the U.S. or elsewhere. Only three different Oasis songs received votes, and two of those three made the list, both in the top 25. Several Pulp fans voted on this list, but with only four different Pulp songs receiving votes, “Common People” was free to dominate.

Race to the Top
Speaking of Pulp, they made a surprisingly formidable challenger for de facto winner Nirvana; “Common People” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” went back and forth as votes rolled in, and Nirvana won by only 18 points. This would be plenty in almost any sport, but keep in mind, this means a single additional vote for “Common People” ranked above #23 on someone else’s list would have put it over the top. It doesn’t seem insurmountable, especially because the two songs received an equal number of top-five votes (five voters put one song or the other in their top five). Perhaps more amazing, between the two songs, only one vote cast for either of them was outside of a voter’s Top 25, and the two songs tied for most number of votes garnered. Both received 11 votes total, so really, Nirvana won this close race fair and square. “Birdhouse in Your Soul” was over a hundred points out of second, and followed very closely by “Juicy,” “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying,” and “Holland, 1945” – those top six songs were wedged in there pretty hard.

Shiny, Happy People/Only Happy When It Rains
I looked through the individual lists to find out who had the most choices make it to the master list and figure out who should be “happiest” with the results, and I found out that it pays to be named Sara, apparently: Sara Ciaburri saw 24 of her 40 make the list (60%!), while Sara Batkie had 23. Most other voters were in the 10-20 range, but poor Alex Templeton did the worst, with only 7 of her 40 making the cut.

Talk About the Passion
As mentioned, songs needed at least two votes to have any hope of breaking into the Top 90. But the field wasn’t crowded enough but keep out plenty of two-vote songs – including some that you might otherwise assume, based on their general popularity, were major consensus choices. Of the many two-vote wonders that made into the Top 90, the highest-charting was one-two, princes who adore you. That’s what I said now: “Two Princes” by the Spin Doctors hit #48 based on just two (top ten) votes. As for those lonely songs that received just one vote, but in the #1 slot… well, that will be another post entirely.

Some ’90s Hits You May Ask About
Obviously we’re not going to lay out all 523 songs that received votes in this process. But I’m happy to provide a taste of where-are-they-now: “MMMBop” was #99. “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” was #128. “Under the Bridge” was #198. “I Got a Man” was #240.

As they used to say (fragmentarily) in the ’90s: THE MORE YOU KNOW.

Got further questions? Let us hear it in the comments.