Ah, the 90s. Unending amounts of denim, plaid, and poorly fitting clothes. But who doesn’t love the 90s? Alternative-rock and Indy were born, hilarious trends like the Macarena, Pogs and slap bracelets came into existence for reasons beyond human understanding. Many of us were too young to appreciate it, but the economy was booming in the U.S. like it never had before (nearly ten years of steady GDP growth), and thus prosperity trickled down into the lives of many middle class Americans. Heck, you could get a bachelor’s degree out of college and be basically handed a job in your field.
Certainly a stark picture by comparison to today, where we have been plagued by one of the largest recessions in history, Justin Bieber, evil reality television, and general incompetence and stubbornness in the government. But at least now we have, uh. . . iPhones, and . . .twerking? Well, it will get better. In the meantime, we can use the many nifty music-providing services we have now and stroll back down the ring-pop and Hey Arnold! graced times with some fantastic 90s jams. Nostalgia!
10. Weezer — Buddy Holly (1994)
Ooo-wee-ooo who doesn’t love Weezer’s self-titled album released in May 10th, 1994? One of the big classics on that album outside of “Say it Ain’t so” was “Buddy Holly”, famous for its Spike Jonze directed music video that merged video of the band, which filmed in Charlie Chaplin Studios, with classic clips from the show Happy Days. It was one of the most popular music videos on MTV, back when MTV actually had anything to do with music, and won four different awards during the MTV Video Music Awards. The single “Buddy Holly” was scheduled to be released on Buddy Holly’s 58th birthday: September 7th, 1994. Well played, Rivers Cuomo & company.
9. Marcy Playground — Sex and Candy (1997)
Another instant classic that came from a self-titled album, Marcy Playground’s “Sex and Candy” was an alternative rock gem, even if it was a one-hit-wonder. It reached as high as 8th at its peak on the Billboard hot 100 list, and spent 15 straight weeks at #1 of Billboard‘s modern rock tracks, which was a record at the time. Slow, strange, haunting and semi-melodic, if such a song would be released today it would probably be categorized as indy rock, which at the time was in its nascence, with bands like Modest Mouse, Built to Spill, the Shins and Beck leading the charge. The music video for “Sex and Candy” was perhaps even more strange and disorienting than the song, featuring Dali-esque landscapes and a spider crawling towards front man John Wozniak’s head in the ground. Really, even if you’re not a fan of the nineties, it’s a classic. Check it out.
8. Green Day — Longview (1994)
Off of the iconic album Dookie, this song epitomized much of the disenfranchised Millennials’ struggle with meaning and boredom, as one would equate with much of the Alt Rock of the generation. Green Day is quite possibly the most influential powerhouse punk/alternative band of the entire decade. Other classics off the album like “Basket Case” and “When I Come Around” are perfectly good Green Day jams that could take this song’s place on the list. Take your pick. Some may claim that “Good Riddance [Time of your Life]” should be on this list off the following album Nimrod, but at this point the song has degenerated into a tune played exclusively at High School graduations.
Longview is known for its then-obscene lyrics about masturbation, drugs, slothfulness and degeneracy. The content held it back from dominating the airwaves, but it was something of an anthem for confused youth at a time when Green Day were truly in their prime. The music video was simplistic, and harkens back to a drug-hazed Billie Joe Armstrong in his youth. The famous bass line in the song was written by Mike Dirnt while he and Billie were high on acid. The song was named after the city of Longview, Washington, which was where they would first debut it. Smell that? That’s the T.V. remote you accidentally put in the microwave while you were losing your mind to this song.
7. Third Eye Blind — Semi-Charmed Life (1997)
Yet another classic off a self-titled album (we get it 90s bands, you can self title your albums, you’re crazy) “Semi-Charmed Life” is an energized, up-tempo pop-punkish song that is actually about debilitating addiction to crystal meth and the life of a drug dealer. The music video featured lead singer Stephan Jenkins walking around San Francisco, as possibly the progenitor of the douchey chinstrap beard. Released as a single in June 17th, 1997 the song became instantly popular and was featured in many movie soundtracks, appearing in American Pie and even Contact (1997). The song is supposedly written in response to Lou Reed‘s “Walk on the Wild Side”– how that is exactly is a bit confusing. Regardless, the song got as high as #4 on Billboard‘s hot 100 list, as well as being #1 in both pop songs and Alternative songs categories. The self-titled album also yielded a number of other 90s classics like “Jumper” and “Graduate”.
6. Beck — Loser (1993)
Easily one of the best songs of the decade, “Loser” by Beck is both a generational and Indy rock masterpiece, combining self-deprecating themes of the 90s with a flair for the strange and the obscure. The classic twanging low-toned guitar riff that permeates the track is so unique it could define the song alone. Long adored for his unique songwriting and complete disregard for anything in musical trends, Beck (born as Bek David Campbell) has been pelting the musical world with unpredictable and strange gems like “Loser” for many years, inspiring Indy artists of the future along the way.
The song was originally released in March 8th 1993, despite the fact that Beck thought the song was mediocre and wasn’t sure he wanted to release it. The song was inspired by Beck listening to his own rapping with Rap-A-Lot record producer Carl Stephenson, as Beck thought to himself “I’m the worst rapper in the world, I’m just a loser.” Carl Stephenson was so enamored with the creation of “Loser” after dismissing Beck’s other work, that he produced it, and it became the sensation we know today. The music video that accompanied it was produced by Beck’s friend Steve Hanft, and is something of a perfect embodiment of the song with its American-trash depictions, unrelated occurrences and psychedelic colors. The song has been received so well that it placed 203rd in Rolling Stone’s 500 greatest songs of all time.
5. Blur — Song 2 (1997)
This English alt-rock band started in obscurity before eventually catapulting into British rock history alongside rival band Oasis during the 90s. “Song 2” was something of an epic one-hit-wonder in the U.S., being incredibly popular on the airwaves during the 90s. However, in England it carried much more renown than just a one song hit. That’s mainly because “Song 2” was purposefully made in the vein of American grunge, whereas much of the other music by Blur had a far different style. The music video was quite popular, getting a lot of air time; It was a toned-down, music-in-a-box depiction of the band– if that box was being shaken violently and thrown into a hurricane. The buzzing, distorted bass line that serves as the punch of the song is unmistakable, and the opening lyric “I got my head checked/By a jumbo jet/It wasn’t easy/but nothing is” is the classic intro during the indy/alt empire of the 90s.
What some may not know, is English rock icon Damon Albarn (lead singer of Blur) would later go on to create Gorrilaz, where he remains as the central figure of the worlds most popular “virtual band”. Inspired by hip hop, electronica and alternative, Albarn created Gorrilaz, which would become even more successful and groundbreaking than Blur.
4. Notorious B.I.G. — Mo Money Mo Problems feat. Mase and Puff Daddy (1997)
There’s hardly a more famous figure in the 90s, especially in hip hop, than Notorious B.I.G. Because of his untimely death, the song became even more popular– and simultaneously catapulted Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs‘ career from stardom to superstar status. It’s without a doubt one of the most popular singles in hip hop history, as well as being an absolute blockbuster of a hit during its time. Biggie Smalls (born as Christopher Wallace) remains the only person in history to have two songs #1 on the Billboard 100 posthumously– both “Mo Money Mo Problems” and “Hypnotize”. Similarly to Dave Grohl’s popularity and success making Foo Fighters after the death of Kurt Kobain and the dissolution of Nirvana, it’s fascinating to wonder how the career arc of artists like Puff Daddy may have been altered by the death of artists close to them. Regardless, “Mo Money Mo Problems” remains one of the most iconic hip hop songs of the decade.
3. Oasis — Wonderwall (1995)
There were few cross-continent rock superhits like “Wonderwall” and its album, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? Probably the most famous band of the 90s in England, Oasis easily crossed the sea to America to become nearly as popular here as it was there. The single “Wonderwall” went platinum in England and gold in America, and absolutely enthralled millenials everywhere with its haunting sound and impressive lyricism. The lead vocals of the song were sung by Liam Gallagher— as he and brother Noel Gallagher generally alternated between singing, but Liam sang lead often. Noel wrote and composed most of the songs for Oasis, and he and Liam were infamous for being at each other’s throats constantly during the band’s tenure. The tension between the two became so heated it broke into scuffles often, and eventually lead to the band’s dissolution. It wasn’t until 2012 the two brothers began to mend their relationship– of all the reasons– because of bonding over the Premier League soccer club Manchester City’s championship season. Sometimes sports can bring people together, it seems. Oasis remains a legendary alternative rock band that absolutely dominated the 90s, and remains beloved, especially in England, to this day.
2. Blink-182 — Dammit (Growing Up) (1997)
At this point, just saying the name Blink-182 has become something of a gesture of musical nostalgia to the 90s. Nothing crushed the souls of millennials more than the breaking up of the band in 2005. But thankfully, the band would reform in 2009 after several ventures into side projects like Angels and Airwaves and +44 failed to come close to the success of Blink-182. The pop-punk/alt rock stylings of Blink-182 has long been seen as the pinnacle of their genre and style, as they mixed often serious and dark lyrics with an unmitigated sense of humor that permeated the music. They were always very self deprecating, saying things like “dude, we’re not real musicians” (Tom Delonge), and commonly being excessively lewd, making fun of themselves and everyone else around them (see “What’s My Age Again?”)
With punk roots and melodic tone, “Dammit” confronted young love and the growth out of high school into adulthood. The original recording of the song was outside of Mark Hoppus‘ vocal range, but he loved the sound of his voice on the recording as it sounded scratchier and more raw, due to the strain on his vocal chords from recording the rest of the album. The song became so popular and dominant on the radio during the late nineties, it was called a “radio staple” by the Los Angeles Times. As for today, well, it’s just an amazing song that fills hearts with joy and wisftulness to a punk-ier time.
1. Nirvana — Smells Like Teen Spirit (1991)
Let’s face it– Nirvana is the band of the nineties. Nirvana was the alt/grunge anthem of the disenfranchised youth of the decade. Even before Kurt Kobain‘s tragic suicide, the band had already ripped across America, easily topping charts and dominating rotations on MTV. As many know, the band’s unstoppable success was unwanted; Kobain stated early and often that he hated the limelight, hated being famous, and wanted nothing to do with the prosperity the band had provided itself. Basing an identity on being unknown and unappreciated, this sudden transformation to popularity clearly messed with the band’s sense of self.
As for the song itself, Kobain said plainly in a Rolling Stone interview: “I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies… When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily that I should have been in that band… We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet then loud and hard.” Ever one to deflect praise and self-deprecate, this isn’t much of a surprise. Also, the famous slow tempo of the song was credited to the bassist Krist Novoselic, who thought the original tempo made the song “ridiculous”. The song title was inspired by Kurt’s friend Kathleen Hanna, who was the lead singer of Bikini Kill, when she spray painted “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on his wall. She actually meant that Kurt smelled like his girlfriend’s deodorant, though Kurt read into it to have a deeper meaning. Despite the misunderstanding, the title is now a part of music history, as Nirvana has become one of the famous rock bands in American and the entire world.
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