The 1990s presented a wind of change in the music industry. Hair metal was on its way out, and the angst-riddled youth of Generation X was ready for something that spoke to them. In 1991, Nirvana released Nevermind, and the grunge music scene was officially underway. While many bands would follow suit, others chose to forge their own path, and define a sound all by themselves. The rise of hip-hop to the front and center of mainstream music was another major part of the music scene in the 1990s, as was the rebirth of boy bands for pop music.
To say that the 1990s offered a wide array of genres on the radio is an understatement. MTV was a huge part of many acts’ success, so artists from all different facets of music had a shot at making it big and collecting a quick buck. An interesting video combined with a catchy melody was a recipe for success. I mean, how else do you explain Barbie Girl being as big as it was? It was quirky, catchy, and was widely accepted in a time where many genres were able to succeed.
Some of the songs on released during the 1990s still have us singing along two decades later. The possibilities for this list are endless, and I’m confident that you’ll let me know in the comments section some tracks that you feel should have been included. The songs found on this list are some of the catchiest tunes in a decade that had too many songs to possibly sing along to. While there are a number of others that hold a place in your heart, these songs encompass a number of different genres, and still keep audiences singing right along.
15. Bittersweet Symphony – The Verve (1997)
To start our list, I’ve selected a song that’s title is very fitting for the circumstances surrounding its history, as well as a song that’s music and lyrics have had the world hooked for nearly 20 years. In 1997, the English rock band The Verve burst onto the scene in the United States with the release of the song Bittersweet Symphony. The strings in the song are instantly recognizable, and Richard Ashcroft’s lyrics had fans everywhere singing along.
Unfortunately for the band, they used a sample of The Last Time by the Rolling Stones that wasn’t approved by the band. Things got nasty, and when the dust settled, the Rolling Stones received writing credits and royalties. The Verve would go on to resent the song, and would eventually split up. During their reunion tour in 2008, the band obliged fan’s requests, and played the song live. It was a bittersweet situation, indeed.
14. C.R.E.A.M – Wu-Tang Clan (1994)
Straight from the slums of Shaolin, Wu-Tang Clan struck in a major way in 1993 with the release of my all-time favorite hip-hop album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). There was nothing like it at the time, and the Wu have always maintained a unique sound that is all their own. Though the album is packed with classics, few have withstood the test of time and have been as catchy as C.R.E.A.M has. Even though Ghostface is left off of the track, the group has more than enough talent to bring forth some real heat in its music.
The song acts as an introspective record, combining gritty story-telling with a piano-tinged beat that will make you bob your head, as well as think about what’s being presented. Raekwon and Method Man are incredible, and Inspectah Deck compliments the two very well. Through the years, very few things have remained true, but one has; cash rules everything around me, and always will.
13. Jumper – Third Eye Blind (1998)
Third Eye Blind exploded onto the scene in the 1990s, and choosing just one of their catchy songs to include on this list was a bit difficult. With its use in Jim Carrey’s film Yes, Man, I chose to use this song because it got stuck in my head all over again. Coming out one year after its album’s release, Jumper was a major hit for the California band, reaching as high as number five on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and cementing the band’s popularity in the expiring decade.
Needless to say, Semi-Charmed Life definitely deserves a mention in this article. The song is super catchy, and was also a huge hit for the band. It was the lead single for the album, and both songs would help the record achieve a certification of 6x platinum. If you think I chose the wrong song to put on this list, I would understand.
12. Loser – Beck (1993)
For the last 30 years, Beck has made a living by producing his own unique brand of music that seems to go against the grain. He can’t really be placed into one specific genre, and the multi-instrumentalist has proven his talents time and time again, despite being quirky as hell. Make no mistake about it; Beck is as talented as they come, and in 1993, his song Loser would bring him his first taste of mainstream success.
The following year, the song would be included on his 1994 album Mellow Gold, and would propel the album to a 2x platinum certification. Through the years, Beck has continued to do things his own way, twisting and bending his way through various genres and styles. In 2014, Beck released Morning Phase, and the album would go on to win several Grammy Awards, including the coveted Album of the Year. Not bad for a kid who thinks he’s a loser, baby.
11. MMMBop – Hanson (1997)
As a product of the 1990s this song never fails to crack me up. I remember 1997 like it was yesterday, and Hanson became a phenomenon with the release of MMMBop. My dad would tease me mercilessly about liking the track, and I denied with such passion that I’m sure that he was able to see right through my Hanson loving facade. How could anyone not like this song?
MMMBop was released as a single in support of the band’s album Middle of Nowhere, and would propel the record to incredible sales. While Hanson did enjoy some success with their follow-up releases, MMMBop was their bread and butter, and is not only the band’s most recognizable song, but perhaps the most recognizable song of the 1990s. The band continues to record new music and tour to this very day, making their success anything but short-lived. Not bad for a group of kids from Oklahoma.
10. California Love – 2pac ft. Dr. Dre (1995)
Perhaps the biggest song released in his legendary career, 2pac’s California Love is an ode to the greatest state in the United States, and is still a banger in the state all these years later. Released as a double A-side with How Do U Want It just one year before his tragic death, California Love was a massive success for 2pac, reaching the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100.
The music video, set in a post-apocalyptic world, was in constant play on MTV, and its exposure was another huge reason for its success. Each rapper is able to deliver big on the track, but it’s 2pac’s verse that really shines. Personally, it’s one of my favorite songs by 2pac, and his shout out to the Bay Area (the place in which he gained his footing in the rap game) never fails to give me chills, as 2pac’s voice is one of the most recognizable of all-time.
9. Two Princes – Spin Doctors (1993)
Two Princes by the Spin Doctors holds a unique distinction in the sense that very few people know the actual title of the song. Most would assume that it’s called Just Go Ahead Now, as those words are used during the hook of the song. Nevertheless, the band’s 1993 single was a huge success, and is one of the most recognizable songs of the decade.
The song was released as the second single in support of the 1991 album Pocket Full of Kryptonite, and it would be the band’s most successful song to date. With the success of Two Princes and Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong, Pocket Full of Kryptonite would go on to be certified 5x platinum by the RIAA. Though the band has failed to reach the same level of popularity as they had in the 1990s, their hit Two Princes left a lasting legacy, and will continue to please listeners for years to come.
8. Under the Bridge – Red Hot Chili Peppers (1992)
1991 was a huge year for music. Pearl jam released their album Ten, Nirvana released Nevermind, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers released Blood Sugar Sex Magik. The three classic albums were all released within a month’s time, and the music industry would be forever grateful. In the case of Blood Sugar Sex Magik, it included some of the Chili Pepper’s biggest songs, but no song in their catalogue has been able to duplicate the success of Under the Bridge.
John Frusciante’s guitar introduction on the track is instantly recognizable, and Anthony Kiedis’ reflective lyrics about his past drug addiction were absolutely heartbreaking. The chorus has had fans and concert goers singing along for 25 years, and the song is the band’s highest charting single to date. The music video, highlighted by a shirtless Kiedis running down the dried-up L.A River was a massive success, and the band became superstars.
7. Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana (1991)
This is the song that catalyzed an entire movement in the 1990s. Nirvana’s album Nevermind is regarded as one of the greatest in music history, and Smells Like Teen Spirit is the band’s most recognizable hit to date. While Kurt Cobain’s guitar playing on the track has been compared to More Than a Feeling by Boston, no one can deny how insanely catchy that intro riff truly is.
The song’s mainstream success was incredible, and Nirvana became the biggest band on the planet. Smells Like Teen Spirit would help the album Nevermind achieve a Diamond certification (for sales of 10 million records), and would secure the band’s spot in the pantheon of legendary recording artists. Just think; there was a time when the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana, and Pearl Jam all went on tour together in the prime of their respective careers. Many festivals are able to compile loads of talent, but these bands playing together is almost unfathomable.
6. Macarena – Los Del Rio (1995)
I’ll be completely honest here; I have absolutely no idea what this song is about. I couldn’t tell you the lyrics, and I sure as hell can’t explain how it seemed to randomly catch fire around the world in 1995. Nevertheless, here I am 20 years later writing about it. Written and recorded by Los Del Rio, Macarena was a phenomenon in the 1990s, and I have truly horrible memories of doing the dance at middle school dances in my awkward youth.
Despite its minimum use of the English language, Macarena reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100, and would be certified 4x platinum by the RIAA. While not common, this has happened before. Back in the 1980’s Nena released 99 Luftballons, which, despite being in German, was a huge hit in the United States. It just goes to show you that a catchy melody and a dance can transcend language barriers, and bring about success.
5. I Want It That Way – Backstreet Boys (1999)
Towards the end of the decade, the rebirth of boy bands helped redo the landscape in pop music. The early 1990s saw a decline in the groups, as New Kids on the Block eventually faded away. Lou Pearlman (yes, the crooked one himself) helped bring boy bands to relevancy, and he was manager for both the Backstreet Boys and NSYNC. The Backstreet Boys were successful beyond words, and I Want It That Way dominated the radio in 1999.
Released as a single in support of their album Millennium, I Want It That Way had the whole world singing along. Even I, in all of my bleached-haired glory was singing the words. The song was catchy in its music, lyrics, and melody. The music video was critical in the song’s success, and was even parodied by Blink-182 in hilarious fashion. At the end of the day, Millennium would be certified 13x platinum, and would be nominated for 5 Grammy Awards.
4. Good Riddance (Time of Your Life) – Green Day (1997)
Prior to the release of their album Nimrod, Green Day helped spark the 1990s punk revival with the success of their album Dookie. The punk scene in Berkeley, CA helped the genre become relevant again, and bands like Green Day and Rancid are to thank for that. This song, however, is as far away from punk as one can get. The song was a drastic change in sound for the band, but would be one of the biggest songs of the decade.
From top-to-bottom, Good Riddance is catchy as hell. Billie Joe Armstrong’s guitar playing really shines, as does his laid back vocal performance. The song’s emotional lyrics seemed to strike a chord with younger people, and their requests helped the song take over airwaves for months. While it’s not my favorite Green Day song, it has a place in the decade’s history, and I’m pretty sure that it has been played at every high school graduation ever since.
3. Wonderwall – Oasis (1995)
English rock band Oasis has had quite the history. On one hand, the band has cranked out some incredible music, and Wonderwall may be the best of the lot. On the other hand, the band was unstable at best, as brothers Noel and Liam Gallagher have had no problem in publicly calling each other out, and even getting into fights during live performances. Despite it all, Oasis was one of the best bands of the 1990s and Wonderwall is one of the decade’s catchiest tunes.
Released in 1995 as the fourth single from their album (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, Wonderwall was a huge hit for the band, reaching the top ten on virtually every major chart across the world. In 2004, the song was back in the limelight, as Green Day’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams had some incredible similarities to Wonderwall. To this day, no copyright suit has been filed.
2. Enter Sandman – Metallica (1991)
Metallica is the biggest metal band that has ever walked the planet. In the 1980’s Metallica, along with Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax would bring thrash metal to household worldwide, and would encourage the youth of the 1980’s to grow out their hair and wear way too much denim. As the decade progressed, the band continued to build on their popularity and expand their sound. At the turn of the decade, Metallica would release their album Metallica (often referred to as The Black Album), and the band’s change in sound brought both backlash and massive sales.
Abandoning their classic thrash metal ways in favor of a more hard rock/ metal hybrid, Enter Sandman would become bigger than the band could have imagined. It was a game changer for Metallica, and the soon began selling out stadiums all over the world. Despite the backlash, Metallica continued to do things their way, and are still as big today as they were all those years ago.
1. Killing Me Softly – The Fugees (1996)
It’s not often that a cover version of a song becomes the definitive version, but that’s exactly what happened back in 1996 when The Fugees unleashed Killing Me Softly. The original version, performed by Lori Lieberman, was a smash hit back in the 1970’s and the song has been covered many times since. Appearing on The Fugees classic album The Score (which is one of the greatest albums of all-time), Killing Me Softly provided enough spark to garner a certification of 6x platinum.
Sung by Lauryn Hill, most people would assume that it’s a solo song by the artist, as the other members of the group are virtually non-existent on the song. While her own record The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill solidified her as a bonafide star, her work on Killing Me Softly is what warmed people up to the talented singer. The song would go on to win a Grammy Award, and the music video would win an MTV Video Music Award. Killing Me Softly helped define the group’s legacy, and remains one of the catchiest songs ever written.