The 90 Best Songs of the 90s (Part 3)

You’ve seen songs 90-51 and 50-11. So let’s slow down a bit at the end and let our writers go a little long-reads on you as we talk about the top ten best songs of the 90s as voted on by the crew.

The 90 Best Songs of the 90s, Part 3: The 10 Best Songs of the 90s

10. “Cannonball” – The Breeders (1993)

True fact: there are no Pixies songs on this list. It makes sense; their two best albums came out in the ’80s. Yet the band did loom over the proceedings; some people voted for songs off of Bossanova or Trompe Le Monde (had we endeavored to produce a traditional Top 100, “Dig for Fire” would have snuck on), while others voted for songs off, uh, Doolittle or Surfer Rosa, obviously absorbing songs like “Where Is My Mind?” into their ’90s experience (probably via Fight Club, if I may be so presumptuous). And of course, there is huge Pixies influence all over some of our grunge-era actual picks. In the end, though, it’s the Breeders who make this list – and it’s the Breeders, even, who had a bigger hit than the Pixies ever did, at least in their actual time as a band. As much as the Pixies seemed like a Frank Black project, especially by the end (and now in their depressing No Deal incarnation), Kim Deal brought something to the band, and with “Cannonball” (and the rest of Last Splash, moreso than Pod, which I’ve never been able to get into that much), she decided to bring it somewhere else: a new band, a different sound, and a groove as infectious as any Pixies guitar or bass lines. “Cannonball” is in the fine rock and roll tradition of mumbled lyrics and possibly accidental mystique; one of its most memorable lines is a squall of guitars that sounds like it might be mixed with a garbled vocal, but probably isn’t. I’m not sure what this song is about in a literal sense, because what it’s really about for me is that Kim Deal has it. She is the girl-bassist cliché transmogrified into a hot-shit rock star. And she endures. – Jesse

9. “Paranoid Android” – Radiohead (1997)

The politics of list making, part 7: the objective fact.

Some songs are objectively, absolutely, inarguably great. When asked to make a list, you immediately go to your small canon of monumental sure things, then you spend hours and days, days you could have spent truly living, pushing around a hundred other songs that all might as well be tied for tenth. But the sure things, they are unassailable, they will never die. You have always been sure of them, and you will always be sure of them. The greatness of these songs is worth fighting for. It’s worth loudly alienating people who may be confused or uncertain about the greatness. You may refer to such confusions as “deal beakers”.

You know these holy great ones are truly great because of their shining awesome greatness. And not because you got to know them during the impressionable, mind-expanding ages of 16-22 when you were an emotional wreck most of the time and placed enormous loads of significance on every eye-opening experience. No, that’s just a coincidence. The greatness is plain and available to all reasonable people. And a lot of critics agree with you, insulating you from the hassle of doubt. – Chris

8. “Criminal” – Fiona Apple (1996)

Fiona Apple is the devil. Seriously. She tells us so two-thirds of the way through her biggest hit. But she works up to it slowly. When she opens with “I’ve been a bad, bad girl,” it’s hard to be sure whether she’s repenting or bragging. That kind of ambiguity would go on to characterize a lot of her lyrics: I’m crazy, yeah, but part of you kind of loves it. And sometimes I kind of love it. Oh, and by the way? Here’s a list of your issues. But part of the “Criminal” appeal is that it doesn’t ask us to untangle a complicated dialogue between Apple and herself, or Apple and some unnamed former object of affection. We are instead her accomplice, though we don’t know it at first. The simultaneously sexy and ominous piano rumbling that opens the song starts us guessing all the way through the sinuous harem-esque chamberlin notes and up to the bridge, when she finally admits she’s not really sorry for what she’s done—she just needs a slick cover line. Now we’re complicit in her wrongdoing because we’re helping to cover up and likely perpetuate it.

And somehow, we don’t mind. It’s because at only nineteen years of age, Fiona Apple already so deeply understood not only the musical underpinnings of blues and jazz, but also their ability to make being bad feel so good. And nearly two decades later, she has grown so much. If you never got past “Criminal,” now is the time to make Fiona Apple a devil you know. – Jen

7. “The City” – The Dismemberment Plan (1999)

Dear Jesse,

I am very sorry this blurb is late, especially because my role as an ‘editor’ of when you compile these lists is to basically write back “ugh, our friends” when you email me about your concerns about everyone getting stuff to you by deadline. This blurb was very difficult for me to write, and not just because of my ill-fated, time-consuming concept of rewriting classic poems to make them about members of The Dismemberment Plan. For the other blurbs I did, I just wrote about a single thought I had about the song. The problem with “The City” is that a single thought is not going to do the job. I am responsible for “The City” being so high on the list, as I voted it first and turned many other voters (like my wife) onto the song years ago. It’s definitely the most obscure song in our top 10 and, save for another Dismemberment Plan song, the most obscure song in our top 20. I feel I owe the faithful an explanation. I did a ton of work to prep for said explanation:

  • I listened to “The City” at least 100 times in the past week. If anything, this estimate is low. While Emergency & I is a desert island disc for me, I took a break from it for the past year or so as it was the only thing I listened to for about a month last year when writing a book proposal about the album.
  • I pulled out the lyric sheet from one of my copies of the album. I’m pretty sure I know these by heart, but I wanted to make sure. While it’s a tale of longing and detachment told through metaphor and observation, it’s not necessarily about a lover. While frontman Travis Morrison did get dumped while recording Emergency & I, he lost his father while he was writing it. The lyrics are also notable by how inwardly focused they are. Through their five albums, there is notable growth in the band’s maturity not just musically but in Morrison as a person; as a narrator he is melancholy, but willing to take his share of the blame.
  • I double checked the original release date of Emergency & I to confirm what you said on the podcast: that it was the newest song that made the list. I knew it was October 1999, but it was actually the end of October 1999 (the 26th, to be precise). This makes a lot of sense as I’ve spent the last decade standing on my head, trying to get anyone to listen that all the dance/art punk they were listening to in the ’00s sounded suspiciously like “The City.” Maybe the song is less revolutionary in the context of the intervening years, but it sounded like nothing else at the time.
  • I also looked up that time I asked the band something I think about all the time: what would have happened had they stayed together through the Death-Cab-On-The-OC ’00s? I always thought if they didn’t break up and were an ongoing concern when their sound finally became popular, maybe people would finally agree with me about the greatness of this band, this album, and this song. The band disagreed with me.
  • I dug up a bootleg (full disclosure: from my own Emergency & I related blog) from a Plan show I had attended to make sure I had the exact quote I heard Morrison say many times before the Plan would play “The City” live. Turns out it is: “Can anyone here dance? Can anyone here not dance but like to dance?” I can’t stress enough how divorced the idea of dancing was to indie rock in the ’90s that he felt the need to say this (another Plan song, “Do The Standing Still,” addresses this issue directly). It worked, though; he got a lot of people to awkwardly groove along in the ’90s. This has given way to full-fledged stage invasions since the band reunited this decade.
  • Most importantly, I attempted to break down the drum beat. With the distant firework sound effects, double-octave synth bass line, and two distinct guitar parts there is a lot going on musically for a four-piece. This drum beat is the most important part; drummer Joe Easley’s unique shuffle both ties the song together and drives its forward momentum. The kick drum varies from landing on the one and the three like any other rock song to four on the floor depending on the measure. Like the kick, the snare follows a familiar pattern (on the two and the four in this case), until it doesn’t. The hi hat (I think) plays three sixteenth notes on the one and the three except when the snare occasionally comes in to replace it. I don’t know if shuffle is the right word, but it almost swings without actually changing the emphasis on any part of the measure. Somehow, there are also fills that follow the general patterns but incorporate the rest of the kit. You will be unsurprised to learn that in his day job, Joe Easley is a Robotics Engineer for NASA. While Easley cites the polyrhythms of Zach Barocas as his primary influence as a drummer, Jawbox never had a beat this deceptively complex and accessible at the same time.

At the end of all this, all I can really say is it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it. However, given the context of the aforementioned prep work, that is high praise. I hope that is enough.

Your pal,

– Rob

6. “Holland, 1945” – Neutral Milk Hotel (1998)

Is it weird that my favorite song of the ’90s is about Anne Frank? From, of all things, a concept album about Anne Frank and reincarnation (at least I think that’s what it’s about; I can’t really tie the business about semen-stained mountaintops in there). In The Aeroplane Over the Sea is widely, and correctly, regarded as one of the best albums of its decade. It’s such a critical darling that the very idea of giving it a mediocre review can be used as a punchline. And though it has a lot of fantastic songs (some profiled earlier on this list), I’d say “Holland, 1945” is the standout. It starts with a classic “2,1,2,3,4” and then just does not stop. It throws down the signature Jeff Magnum dream logic pretty quickly, identifying the only girl its narrator has ever loved (Frank, presumably) a few lines before telling us “now she’s a little boy in Spain/ Playing pianos filled with flames/ on empty rings around the sun.” Neutral Milk Hotel is probably not a band for everyone, and those lines do a pretty good job of finding out whether or not they’re for you. She’s a kid in Spain who’s orbiting the sun now. Can you handle that?

Actually, here’s how lyrically rich this song is: it’s my favorite song and I just realized for the first time that actually there’s no contradiction between being in Spain and making rings around the Sun, because the Earth orbits the Sun. I’ve been listening to this thing for years, and I’m still seeing new stuff there.

Mostly when I talk about music I talk about lyrics. I have more English degrees than most people consider reasonable; it comes with the territory. But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the fuzzy, static, propulsive energy of this song. There are like five different kinds of horns playing, guitars are being furiously strummed, there’s a saw, and something called “Uilleann pipes.” It crackles from beginning to end, and it’s so much fun that it’s hard to remember what it’s about. That, I think, is ultimately what makes this song so great. Its subject matter is dark as hell – it forces us to imagine the impressions in a mattress caused by the bodies of the recently murdered – but it chooses to be joyful in spite of that. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea takes you on a pretty rocky emotional ride (you see kids, in the ’90s, sometimes you would buy a bunch of songs all together on a single piece of media and then listen to them all in order). Among the bitter nostalgia of “The King of Carrot Flowers,” the sympathetic sadness of “Two-Headed Boy,” the wistful hope of the title song, and the bleak resignation of “Oh Comely”, it’s important to pause for a party, even if that party is essentially a wake. – Craig

5. “Get Me Away from Here, I’m Dying” – Belle and Sebastian (1996) is nothing if not consistent. The highest-ranking Belle & Sebastian song on our ’90s list also easily took the No. 1 spot on our list of the best Belle and Sebastian songs from last year. “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying” speaks to us so strongly as a collective that, if had a tagline, we could make it one of this song’s best lyrics: You Could Either Be Successful or Be Us.

It’s hard to elaborate on what Jesse already said so succinctly about “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying” over on the Belle & Sebastian list, about how it starts off at a trot and doesn’t slow down to repeat a chorus or switch to a bridge. And yet, even at its evenly uptempo pace, it can be alternately heartbreaking, uplifting, yearning, or underdog-triumphant. This may be just a pet theory, but I think it’s all there in the first syllable of the song. The “ooooh” that Stuart Murdoch uses to kick off the song is not exactly easy to read. Is it pained? Is it excited? Is there any winking at the listener going on in there? I always thought there was something a little bit sexy about that “ooh,” but a Belle & Sebastian kind of sexy, which is also a little broken. Toward the end of the song, Murdoch sings that he “could only make you cry with these words,” but, really, this song only needs one syllable to convey many more emotions than that, and it only gets better from there. –Marisa

4. “Juicy” – The Notorious B.I.G. (1994)

As a white girl who grew up comfortably middle-class in the Midwest I have pretty much nothing in common with The Notorious B.I.G. But I do know a little bit about feeling underestimated which is partly why I relate so well to “Juicy,” from its spoken word opening salvo to the assuring croon of its chorus (lifted from Mtume’s 80’s radio staple “Juicy Fruit”). The song itself is a fairly straightforward origin story (which the video unfortunately literalizes at every turn), juxtaposing Biggie’s impoverished upbringing in the projects with the fruits, both monetary and emotional, of his ascent to stardom (perhaps captured best in the line “Birthdays was the worst days, now we sip champagne when we’re thirsty”). It’s that alchemical mix of boastfulness and honesty in the lyrics, which Biggie spits out with a dexterity that belies his size, that makes it truly special, not to mention the earwormy sound effect sprinkled throughout the song like electronic fairy dust. The title of the album may have proclaimed Biggie was “ready to die” and he would have his share of beefs in the East-West coast battles to come but if “Juicy” isn’t quite an olive branch offered out to his fellow hip hop artists, it does paint a portrait of the peace and happiness that success can bring to those who expect it least, which only makes his untimely murder three years later all the more tragic. – Sara B

3. “Birdhouse in Your Soul” – They Might Be Giants (1990)

Our third-favorite song of the 1990s is also one of the first songs of the 1990s. As the almost-opening track off of They Might Be Giants’ (brand new) album Flood, “Birdhouse in Your Soul” came into the world on January 15, 1990, right at the start of the (brand new) decade.It would be easy to use that as a reason why “Birdhouse” doesn’t really contain any of the hallmarks of what we now consider 1990s music. It doesn’t have any slick, hypercolor R&B coolness; there are no sludgy, alternative guitar licks; it doesn’t have the bouncy, shambolic qualities of our favorite Britpop songs; and it sounds too polished to be shoegaze or indie, but it sure didn’t help usher in the beginning of the sparkly, overproduced pop music of the boy band era, either.

You could say this is all because the ’90s hadn’t yet come into its own when Flood was released, but They Might Be Giants continued to put out records all through the decade that stood apart from the rest of the music of the decade. That’s what we love about them: They don’t follow trends. If They Might Be Giants did try to chase the big sound of the moment, it’d be because they were trying to be “cool” or in-touch in some way. But people who listen to cool, in-touch music are not the ones who need the band. TMBG is for those who also stand apart from trends: the nerds who get the references to the Longines Symphonette or Jason and the Argonauts and who don’t want to dance at concerts so much as they just want to jump straight up and down without worrying about looking silly.

And what an anthem “Birdhouse” is for them: It starts off at a run, with a racing keyboard line, then follows through with the passionate punch of the song’s central question, “Who watches over you?” This should be a description, because it follows “blue canary in the outlet by the light switch,” but in John Linnell’s reading it becomes a deeply felt question, and “Birdhouse in Your Soul” is not afraid to mix such unironic emotion in its chorus with dense and brainy lyrics in its verses. That’s not very ’90s, but what we love most about the song is the same thing we love most about the band: It’s timeless. –Marisa

2. “Common People” – Pulp (1995)

I admit it: I was rooting for “Common People” during its long and surprisingly close battle with the #1 song on this list. It’s not a typical choice for the upper reaches of a list like this – at least not in the United States, where Pulp has always been more of a cult attraction than a breakout, never scoring even the token radio hits of, say, Blur, whose “Girls & Boys” and “Song 2” gained some radio traction here. In some ways, it’s not even a typical Pulp song. First and perhaps foremost, it’s hardly sleazy at all; This is Hardcore is the album with the debauched, creepy vibe, but on Different Class, where “Common People” hangs out, it’s preceded by “Pencil Skirt” (“but I’ve kissed you more than twice, and now I’m working on your dad”) and followed by “I Spy” (“…all that time I just wanted you to come home unexpectedly one afternoon, and catch us at it, in the front room”). But on “Common People,” even at his most cutting, Jarvis sounds both more earnest and bitterly wounded by the class unconsciousness unfolding in front of him. It’s one of Cocker’s “masterful” (as he’d like to be described, per “I Spy”) story-songs, describing a cultural tourist who takes him to bed to see what it’s like to fuck around on the other side of the tracks. England being England, this became more or less their national anthem, as far as I understand. But unlike singing along the instrumental riff part of a song in a live environment, this is a British obsession I completely understand. Over in the U.S., the ’90s were a time of relative prosperity for many – while also planting the dynamite needed for the economic collapses that followed. It’s a perfect grower, then, for those of us who got obsessed with Pulp as the decade was coming to an end and thrusting us into an uncertain job market. Even if class isn’t talked about often enough in America, the Englishness of “Common People” is, in its weird way, plenty universal.

Oh, and it’s also a great fucking song – one so epic, the U.S. video/radio edit actually (and shamefully) removes the climax of the song, the insistent repetition and crucial pauses as Jarvis reprises the line about calling your dad and stopping it all. Fifteen or twenty Pulp songs could have made this list, and to an extent this one beat them out because everyone thinking about voting for Pulp knew that this would be the one we could all rally behind. But on the other hand, everyone knew that because this song has maintained such a pull on us twenty years later. – Jesse

1. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – Nirvana (1991)

As a song, it is four minutes and 37 seconds of punk pop perfection—simple guitar licks punctuated by rolling drums before suddenly moving into a subdued bass line with a high pitched guitar. Then, back to the energy of that intro repeated in the anthemic chorus. The mumbled vocals feel like talking to a teenager—where they are trying to get the words and coming up with moments of profundity but also nonsense, ready to push into a rage atop the mosh pit.

As a video, it is all iconic now—the Chuck Taylors tapping to the beat, the tattooed anarchist cheerleaders, and the look of a band that was more suited to garages and abandoned churches than MTV.

As a representative of grunge alternative, Nirvana came out of the Seattle music scene fostered by Sub Pop records, and although none of those other grunge bands made this list, Nirvana’s prominence is a nod to the influence of the alternative 80s—the Pixies being the most pronounced. But then again, the whole alternative movement created the scaffolding for Nirvana and their breakout single, and origin stories about this song—Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna spray painting the title on Kurt Cobain’s wall—only add to the song’s power.

As mainstream representation of alternative, it would be played in heavy rotation on MTV when MTV still had monolithic cultural status. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” would share time with “I Want to Sex You Up” and “Humpin’ Around.” But “Teen Spirit” is a song of and about an angsty teen counterculture. Two years after “Smells Like Teen Spirit” came out, The Baffler is writing about the co-opting of alternative culture in the same issue as Steve Albini—Nirvana’s producer for In Utero—is writing about how major label economics bankrupt musicians. In those ways, culturally, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is an inflection point—from an era concerned by the mainstream and counterculture to an era of subcultures, independents, and market segments that would make up the post-90s.

As unsurprising as it is to find “Smells Like Teen Spirit” at the top of a 90s list in 2015 is as surprising as the success of the song was in 1991. In the end, this is the top song of the 90s because it made the ’90s. – Ben

This list is over but the 90s party ranges on like it’s the first weekend of college! Tomorrow, stay tuned for 90s music at the movies, 90s music videos, and our blowout 90s music podcast where we discuss the list we just dropped! In the meantime, enjoy the Spotify playlist with all of our ’90s songs.