I never really got the ‘90s. I’m a kid raised on the classic rock that my mum loves – the ‘70s, Californian sound of Fleetwood Mac, ‘80s pop years of Queen or the lovable glam of Def Leppard. Sure, we both adore Oasis and Suede, but outside of that, we’ve both shunned the 1990s as a decent decade of music. I never liked grunge, rave or the club scene. I was never that into R&B or rap. As soon as rock stopped being the mainstream around 1994, I never bothered to explore past it.
And that’s wrong of me. Because every decade of music has its highs and its lows, and all are important in paving the way for new artists, diversity, and different sounds. So to settle the balance somewhat, I’m looking at my picks for the ten best songs of the 1990s. Yes, I’m still favouring rock here. Yes, it’s hardly a melting pot of genres. But there’s only so much this boy can do.
Before we get to the final ten, however, I must give an honourable mention to Blur’s Tender (from 13, 1999) – perhaps the group’s un-Blurriest (clearest?) track. It’s a hauntingly tragic composition of gospel and country which really showcases Albarn and Coxon’s artistic prowess. If I hadn’t already formulated this list, ‘Tender’ almost certainly would have made the cut.
10. I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That), Meat Loaf (Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell, 1993) – Only the combined might of Meat Loaf and songwriter Jim Steinman could produce a sequel for 1977’s Bat Out of Hell and make it even better. It’s a cheesy start to the list – that goes on for twelve minutes in its unedited, album version – but it’s a ballad that rocks. And remains iconic to this day – played on the radio, questioned, pulled apart, examined, and cried over. It’s powerful, to say the least. It also marks an era where rock music – particularly that of the ‘70s and ‘80s – was finally coming to an end, and is perhaps the genre’s final hurrah.
9. I’m Afraid of Americans, David Bowie (Earthling, 1997) – Bowie’s got to take some sort of medal home for being the most experimental artist, genre for genre. His hippie-ish, psychedelic sixties days are almost incomparable to the glam of …Ziggy Stardust… or Diamond Dogs. Then he went a bit arty, then poppy again, and finally in the ‘90s he settled on the industrial (with a bit of art rock thrown in for good measure). Outsider paved the way, and Earthling brought around a hearty selection of numbers which wouldn’t look out of place on a Rammstein album. Chief among these, though, is ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’, a lovably cynical ode to Bowie’s opposition to cultural homogeny. Building McDonalds in Thailand, and all that. It’s got a battering chorus, shedloads of distortion and Bowie going full madman. A great entry, and a great high in the starman’s already shining career.
8. The Stairs, INXS (X, 1990) – X was what made me really begin to love INXS, even if it’s usually tossed aside in favour of the Aussies’ previous work, the titanic Kick. X is home to some great rockers, in ‘Suicide Blonde’, ‘Disappear’ and ‘Bitter Tears’. But it’s ‘The Stairs’ that takes the crown for me. A beautiful ballad on the topic of how seemingly disconnected lives so often nearly intertwine – a chance meeting on the stairwell of a shared apartment block. That might sound skull-poundingly dull, but it’s a song that sounds great in the studio, and just as awe-inspiring live. Just take a listen to the rendition at the band’s 1991 Wembley gig. Ethereal, divine, and spectacularly delivered. Not much to say than that.
7. Come As You Are, Nirvana (Nevermind, 1991) – I’ve never really been a Nirvana fan, to be honest. I’ve tried to get into Nevermind, and I can’t. Sorry. But even I can’t refute the nightmare-like pull of ‘Come As You Are’, with its haunting bassline and despairing vocals. Cobain lays bare his intentions here, and it makes for one hell of a song. The fuzzy guitar throughout is everything the 1990s were about – being loud, without melody and indifferent to what anyone else thought. Nirvana were the pure body and soul of all that. You can have ‘Teen Spirit’, or ‘Lithium’. I’ll stick with this as my top pick of the record.
6. Cigarettes & Alcohol (Definitely Maybe, 1994) – 1994 gave us Nirvana’s magnum opus, but it also revealed that five Mancunians could muster up the same teenage swagger. Definitely Maybe is, in my opinion, Oasis’ best. And ‘Cigarettes & Alcohol’ – from its frolicking guitar introduction – is a highlight. Mentions to cocaine and vicious social commentary, all from the words of some kids who couldn’t give a toss about any kind of authroity. Brilliant. Liam Gallagher’s vocals are about as whiny as they ever get, and it works to the song’s benefit. Add the mountains of guitar and you get yourself a pretty solid youth anthem. ‘Is it worth the aggravation/ To find yourself a job when there’s nothing worth working for?’ – Genius.
5. Bitter Sweet Symphony, The Verve (Urban Hymns, 1997) – A predictable entry, perhaps, but to be fair, it’s a corker. For a time when youthful revolution was the ‘in thing’ and traditionalist rock a thing of the past, releasing a track that’s built around a string arrangement is actually pretty brave. And the Britpop swagger of Ashcroft and co. adds to the sample of an orchestral cover of an old Stones song – crescendoing into a beast of self-reflection and self-doubt which seemed a grand malady upon the youth of the 1990s – as well as remarking on society as a whole (You’re a slave to the money/ Then you die) as well as Ashcroft’s distaste with the music scene. Its accompanying video is just as iconic and solidifies the track as one of those few musical moments which will never really come round again.
4. Beautiful Ones, Suede (Coming Up, 1996) – ‘Animal Nitrate’ was a contender, ‘Trash’ came close, but the apocalyptic-prophecy-cum-love-letter to the alternative scene of the 1990s is like something out of a fever dream, particularly as frontman Brett Anderson does his best wailing throughout this one. It’s essentially a list of things that made up the decade (‘Drag acts, drug acts, suicides/ In your dad’s suits you hide… Shaved heads, rave heads, on the pill’) – with the affirming twist coming in naming such rebels as ‘beautiful ones’ – condemning parents and haters alike who can’t accept them for what they are. It’s a song with a great beat, earnest message and remains a zenith of Britpop. Suede are considered one of the ‘Big Four’, but their name seems virtually forgotten in the modern battleground between Blur and Oasis. Suede kick ass, and this song shows it.
3. Sit Down, James (Single, 1991) – This entry’s probably the cheekiest on the list, as technically the iconic James hit was released as a single in 1989, albeit in a more stripped-back, seven-and-a-half-minute form. Two years later, some of the lyrics were rewritten, it was given a bit more bite and ‘Sit Down’ became one of the defining tracks of the ‘90s. James’ other big hit, ‘Laid’, nearly made the shortlist, but it’s ‘Sit Down’s oddly poetic lyrics (‘If I hadn’t seen such riches/ I could live with being poor’) and lovably upbeat chorus that make it one of my favourite songs ever, to be honest. It also became part of the sweeping Manchester scene in the early ‘90s, and remains a staple of most radio stations today. That opening drumwork is just staggeringly punchy, and the rest of the song refuses to let up.
2. Your Woman, White Town (Women in Technology, 1997) – When I first heard this song at work, I had little in the way of lyrics to remember and only the iconic trumpet tune that sounded vaguely like an alarm. A friend of mine went through a similar thing when they wanted to buy it at the time of release. So simple, indeed, is the structure of ‘Your Woman’, that it almost shouldn’t be surprising the band behind it, White Town, consoles of just one person. And he made the song alone, in his bedroom, with some second-hand equipment. It uses a muted, looped brass line from 1932’s ‘My Woman’, went number one in three countries and among the top ten in twelve others. That’s darn impressive for just one guy. It’s also catchy as all hell.
1. Common People, Pulp (Different Class, 1995) – An obvious choice, but one of those few songs you come across in life that just gets it right. From start to finish, this disco-rock track is flawless – in its ferocious attack on the middle classes who see anyone below as something of a holiday destination. From the clever content to raw guitar and Eurobeat finish, Jarvis Cocker et. all deliver a song you can jive to and get angry over. It’s never been more relevant today, and remains a cultural moment, as much as a hit single. But it also represents a time when the youth had enough, and they wanted to shout about it. ‘You are amazed that they exist/ And they burn so bright/ Whilst you can only wonder why’ – Defining stuff. The song for when you want to do predrinks at 7, and start a revolution a la the French at 8.