The 50 Best Songs Of The 90s

40. Megadeth - Holy Wars... The Punishment Due

After replacing Chuck Behler as Megadeth’s drummer in 1989, Nick Menza immediately stamped his personality and unique playing style on Megadeth’s sound. Rust In Peace remains an undisputed classic, of course, and its towering opening track still has the power to take the breath away. Underpinned by Menza’s brutally precise drumming, Mustaine’s razor-sharp riffing and skewed melodic sensibilities were instantly rendered more potent and startling than ever before. 

An incongruous collision of real-world troubles and comic-book kicks; Holy Wars is about "killing for religion", while The Punishment Due concerns Marvel's gangster-wasting vigilante antihero. "I loved The Punisher! I've been reading The Punisher for years and years," declared Dave Mustaine in 2009 (although in 1993 he complained the comic had been 'commercialised'). It's Megadeth's second Punisher song after 1984's debut title track, Killing Is My Business… And Business Is Good.

Just listen to that ageless syncopated intro and witness the arrival of a major, groundbreaking talent.

39. Nine Inch Nails - Closer

Recorded at the address where actress Sharon Tate was murdered by the Manson family, Closer paints a chilling moral and personal collapse. Influenced by Bowie’s Low, and constructed from heavily processed guitar sounds, glacial electronics and distorted samples, its nightmarish atmospherics are enhanced by Trent Reznor’s man-on-the-edge musings on kinky sex, degradation and despair. Backed by a video which included a naked woman and a man in S&M garb singing, "I wanna fuck you like an animal,” a severed pig's head, and a monkey on a crucifix, it wasn't perhaps the easiest sell. 

"From a commercial standpoint, we were aware that the song lasted over six minutes and that there's virtually no singing for the last three-and-a-half minutes,” says Sean Beavan, who engineered the album. "However, Trent always operated on the basis that if you make something beautiful, people will follow you." 

It was beautiful. Closer is also unremittingly bleak, utterly believable and possibly Reznor’s finest hour. 

38. Blur - Song 2

For sheer unadulterated yet ferocious euphoria in the 90s, Damon Albarn’s immortal ‘woo-hoo!’ chorus – combined with meatily distorted bass and Graham Coxon’s simple but colossal hook – was hard to top. 

Nicknamed ‘Song 2’ as a working title before the name stuck, it wasn’t a carefully thought-out hit by any means. Indeed, bassist Alex James has said “we didn’t really think about it at all”, and added that he had a “really bad, sweaty hangover” the day the song was written. Coxon, meanwhile, wrestled with drink problems and the whole band were said to be on the verge of a nervous break-up prior to the record’s release.

Still, it’s immortality has been consistently reaffirmed over the years. Live and on playlists at 90s-inclined club-nights, it’s continued to be a surefire bet for making vast crowds of people whoop and pogo giddily to the point of passing out. If you found Blur a bit posey otherwise, this short, infectious blast of sweat and distortion was the song you probably made an exception for. Not surprising, then, that it’s featured on so many commercials, TV series, games and the like (BMW, Daria, Fifa…) since its release in 1997.

37. Pantera - Walk

1990’s Cowboys From Hell made people sit up and listen, but it was Vulgar Display Of Power – and this key track in particular – that cemented young, hungry Texan hellraisers Pantera as groove metal masters. And what a groove Walk had; a socking great behemoth of intensely distorted guitars, hard liquor and fist-fighting ferocity (turbocharged with Phil Anselmo’s ‘RE! SPECT! WALK! ARE-YOU-TALKIN’-TO-ME?’ refrain), it was completely brutal and magnificently catchy at the same time. 

It’s easy to see why why Entertainment Weekly called the album "one of the most satisfying heavy metal records since Metallica's early-80s cult days". But it’s the simple infectiousness of Walk that’s consistently lured even non-fans of Pantera as a whole. “There was something about the lyrical message and the militaristic grind of it,” drummer Vinnie Paul told Spin. “It’s heavy as fuck, but it’s not fast. It just has a groove to it. It made the fans move.”

Over two decades after its release (during which guitarist Dimebag Darrell was tragically shot and killed onstage, in 2004) it’s still one of Pantera’s most popular tracks, and has been featured in video-game soundtracks and as walk-on music for wrestler Rob Van Dam. Listening to the aggressive, swaggering intent therein, it’s hard to imagine a more apt accompaniment for the arrival of a hulkingly powerful WWE star.

36. Rancid - Time Bomb

When Madonna famously sent nude polaroid photos to Rancid frontman Tim Armstrong in a bid to lure his band from Epitaph records to her own Maverick imprint in the mid ‘90s, it was both a ridiculous metaphor for punk rock’s belated assimilation into the mainstream and an acknowledgement of the huge commercial potential of the former Operation Ivy man’s songwriting.

The biggest single of Rancid’s career, Time Bomb is a ridiculously catchy ska-punk anthem, powered by a vamping Hammond organ, which taps into both gangster movie imagery and ska iconography to tell a tale of a rebellious kid fighting his way up from the streets to become a respected, feared and ultimately marked for death underworld king-pin. Basically it’s side one of London Calling distilled into two minutes and 24 seconds.

35. Rush - Roll The Bones

Remember the time John Cleese almost appeared on a Rush song? Roll The Bones is that moment. Released in 1991, it featured the kind of synth blasts that had been a fixture since Signals and a surprisingly funky chorus, but it was something else that caught peoples' attention: Neil Peart had written a lengthy section of the song's lyric as a rap. "Get busy with the facts," it went. "No zodiacs or almanacs/No maniacs in polyester slacks/Just the facts/ Gonna kick some Gluteus max/It's a parallax, you dig?" MF Doom would be proud. 

The band were thinking about who might suit the role, and Cleese was an early favourite, but in the end the band decided against a cameo. "Geddy asked me to do it," said producer Rupert Hine, "but after some experimentation we managed to effect his own voice to achieve a similar apparent depth."

On the Roll The Bones Radio Special, Neil Peart explained his thinking: "I was hearing some of the better rap writers, among whom I would include like LL Cool J or Public Enemy, musicality apart, just as writers, it was really interesting. And it struck me that it must be a lot of fun to do that; all those internal rhymes and all that wordplay and everything. That's meat and potatoes for a lyricist; it's stuff you love to do and can seldom get away with being so cute in a rock song."

By the time the R40 tour rolled around, the song came accompanied by a video in which a number of celebrities lip-synced the part, including Rage Against The Machine's Tom Morello, Red Hot Chili Peppers' drummer Chad Smith, and Alex Lifeson's favourite dope-smoking comedy trio The Trailer Park Boys. 

34. Aerosmith - Crazy

One of Tyler, Perry and co’s lighter-swaying, video-starring-Alicia-Silverstone-accompanied ballads, Crazy screamed ‘90s’ more than boybands, Hooch or Britpop. Part of their gleaming, MTV-ready run of the late 80s and 90s (I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing, Dude Looks Like A Lady, Cryin’ – which sounded eerily similar to Crazy…) this what the generation too young to remember the likes of Toys In The Attic tend to associate with Aerosmith.

But to leave it at that is to ignore the musical layers that make it such a classic ear-worm. Built on a dulcet doo-wop-nodding rhythm, and laced with countrified sensibilities (all that Southern-infused guitar, mournful harmonica, almost Elvis-y longing…), Crazy didn’t so much tug at listeners’ heartstrings as rip them out and drag them through a sea of man tears and stonewash jeans. It wasn’t a major chart hit (no.23 in the UK) but easily one of the most memorable, not to mention replayed, Aerosmith tunes of the decade. 

33. Lenny Kravitz - Are You Gonna Go My Way

When you think of the greatest music videos ever made, straight away you probably think of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, Michael jackson’s Thriller or Peter Gabriel's Sledgehammer, or some over-rated eye candy like that. Maybe some filth by Madonna or Johnny Cash’s Hurt if you’re in a thoughtful mood.

You probably don’t think of Are You Gonna Go My Way? by rock’s renaissance man Lenny Kravitz. But you should.

Are You Gonna Go My Way? arrived in February 1993, and was the song that sealed Kravitz as an A-list talent. Mama Said and It Ain’t Over Til It’s Over had announced his arrival – Are You Gonna Go My Way? took him up a level. First there was the song itself. Few songs from the 90s sound as timeless or as classic. Loads of bands have payed homage to Jimi Hendrix – Kravitz didn’t just pay tribute, he wrote a song that could stand side by side with the tracks on Jimi’s Are You Experienced? album, a Manic Depression for modern times.

The video, directed by hotshot Mark Romanek (the guy who later did the Cash Hurt video and, uh, Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off) took the angst and dread of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit promo and transformed it into something positive. Vibrant, sexy, stylish – in an era of transient pop, it was rock’n’roll remodelled, a smart, swaggering call to arms for rock classicists.

32. Roger Waters - Amused To Death

The title (and final) track on Amused To Death opens soporifically, as if waking from a deep sleep. The mournful guitar, the meaningless TV show droning on and Waters asking: ‘Doctor, doctor, what’s wrong with me? ’

Images of celebrity culture, with women as eye candy, of people huddled round TV sets, and of feeling breathless, conspire to maintain the confusion which only begins to make sense when Waters pronounces: ‘This species has amused itself to death.’

The song swells into one of Waters’s classic grandiose riffs, propelled by soaring guitars. Meanwhile, mankind is watching its own demise on TV following a nuclear disaster. While some grab the last of the luxuries left lying around – jars of caviar, a fast car – most are simply transfixed by the spectacle being played out on television.

Typical Waters, really, turning apocalyptic levels of misery and despair into song. But it ended on a more positive note, with the voice of Alf Ruzzell of the Royal Fusiliers returning the listener to the album's beginning. "What struck me about Alf Ruzzell was the extraordinary humanity of his story," said Waters in a radio interview. "He had been living with having left his friend in no-mans-land 74 years before, and had carried this burden with him. I guess it struck me that we help each other a little to sort out those burdens. Though, I have to say that if I am optimistic about the future – which I am – it's largely because through modern telecommunications, we seem to be getting better at understanding each other and helping each other personally with our individual problems."  

31. Robert Plant - 29 Palms

Rumoured to be about Plant's relationship with singer and touring partner Alannah Miles, 29 Palms was named after the town of Twentynine Palms, California, where U2 stayed during the recording of their Joshua Tree album. "We're good friends," said Plant in a 1993 interview with Network Magazine, before continuing in typically cryptic fashion. "I think the world of her... But the road is the road. Forget about all the rumours. Everything is true and untrue."

The song was a clever mix of country rock and southern-fried soul, but it also served as a reminder of Plant's earlier work on songs like Zeppelin's All My Love, the rising 'Aaaah-aaah-aaah's after the verses also tipping a hat to his old band. Much of its success, however, was due to the atmosphere the song evoked: textually speaking, it conjured up the same feeling of empty space and big sky that Big Log had a decade earlier.  

According to Songplaces, a website that tells the stories of the places mentioned in song, "The desert is not for sissies. It tries people by fire. It challenges you to survive. But if you persevere, then it rewards you with a magical display of roaming spirits and faded watercolours," before adding that 29 Palms got the evocation just about right. We're not going to argue.  

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