The 50 Best Songs Of The 90s

30. Judas Priest - Painkiller

So much shrieking, so much speed, so much leather... The title track from the NWOBHM heroes’ Grammy-nominated 1990 album was a stellar display of fearless metal theatricality, and remains one of their most affirmative musical moments. It’s got it all; dazzling, complex drumming (courtesy of Scott Travis, making his Priest debut), flashy guitar soloing from Glenn Tipton, Rob Halford at the height of his falsetto powers, and lyrics about a “half-man half-machine” cyborg and “mankind on its knees”. 

The ‘80s likes of British Steel and Screaming For Vengeance may’ve been stronger as full albums, but there was something uniquely thrilling and bonkers about Painkiller that’s endured alongside the best of their back catalogue. Classic Rock’s Paul Elliott described the title track (and album opener) as “a brutal statement of intent. With a thunderous intro from drummer Scott Travis, and Halford sounding utterly deranged, it’s the heaviest of Priest’s many heavy songs.”

Painkiller became a defining moment,” Rob Halford has said of the record, in Metal Hammer magazine. “We set ourselves a challenge to make the consummate heavy metal album and that’s exactly what we achieved.”

Accordingly it’s the song many people think of first at the mention of Judas Priest – the consummate display of the band on a high. Even if Halford did quit the band afterwards, not to return until 2005.

29. Live - I Alone

One of the first and biggest post-Grunge hits, from a time when record companies were throwing money at bands who sounded like they might have once visited the Pacific North West on summer camp, I Alone started meekly before suddenly, aggressively launching into one of the 1990s' truly great choruses. It was a song built for arena crowds and drunken singalongs at rowdy frat parties, and was accompanied by a genuinely demented video.

"My daughters laugh their heads off at that video!” singer Ed Kowalczyk told Audio Ink Radio. “They say, ‘Dad, you were so skinny!’ And about my haircut, they said, ‘What is that tail, dad? What were you doing?’

“I look back on it, and I think, ‘What a moment. What an era of individuality. To me, the video screams individual. We weren’t faking anything or doing what was cool. We had this is a wacky idea to double time the song and half time the video in slow motion, and we did it.

"It was an off-the-cuff period. Some of that has been lost since then. I see a lot of videos now that all look the same. There was space in the ‘90s to do wacky stuff like that video and be intense and take chances. When I think of other videos of that era, like the Smashing Pumpkins’ Bullet with Butterfly Wings, these were great videos of the era. It was definitely a unique time to be coming up in a band.”

Like many of those catapulted towards superstardom by heavy rotation on MTV, the band didn't really know how to react to their newfound fame. "We went to people like the Ramones and Talking Heads, and said, 'what do we do?'", said guitarist Chad Taylor. "They were like, 'we don't know, your band is bigger than ours already!' And I didn't have Bono's cellphone number to ask how to be in a big band."

28. Def Leppard - Let's Get Rocked

Arriving at an unlikely point for such gung-ho joie de vivre (its parent album, Adrenalize, came out the year after guitarist Steve Clark’s tragic death in 1991) Let’s Get Rocked was a galloping, gleeful shot of escapism from a band struggling through difficult times. 

Astute musical poetry, this was not. Featuring such subtlety-proof pearls as “suppose a rock’s outta the question” and “I’m your average ordinary everyday dude/driving with my baby to get her in the mood”, it’s been (rather snootily) branded “garbage” by Rolling Stone – adding to the critical snubbing Joe Elliott and co have regularly endured over their career. 

Not that this is of much concern to their fans, or that it’s stopped Leppard filling arenas worldwide. Let’s Get Rocked is a beloved tune in the band’s cannon, and remains a singalong staple of their shows. Upon its release in 1992 it peaked at no.2 in the UK singles charts, making it their biggest hit song there up to that point. Not bad for a track that, according to Elliott, was inspired by watching The Simpsons – as well as his own childhood.

27. The Black Crowes - Remedy

Channelling late-60s Rolling Stones, all Street-Fighting attitude, singer Chris Robinson strutting with an arrogant sneer over brother Rich’s irresistibly funky, simple-as-it-gets yet cool-personified guitar riff, Remedy is one of those deceptively easy-to-do songs that many must have listened to it and genuinely reckoned: “I could have written that.” 

As with so many of rock’s greatest tracks, strip it right down and there really isn’t much to crow about when you look at the bits strewn on the studio floor: a punchy intro riff (‘borrowed’, incidentally, from a vocal chant on Parliament’s Night Of The Thumpasorus Peoples); the two-chord main riff; the rhythm section’s solid, no-frills foundation; the decorative female backing vocals. Put all together and add Chris Robinson’s hip-swivelling, on-the-money vocal delivery, though, and you’ve got something that’s so much more than the sum of its parts – smokin’, if you like.

Remedy is a song that essentially is about freedom,” singer/lyricist Chris Robinson told Greg Prato. “We were into the whole idea that the ‘war on drugs’ was just silly… That song to me is about freedom, plain and simple, just put in a rock’n’oll framework.” 

Here’s to you Messrs Robinson.

26. Smashing Pumpkins - 1979

In their original incarnation, the Smashing Pumpkins were the grandest rock band of the 90s, yoking stadium rock ambition to alt-rock invention. At their best – like on their double-disc third album Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness – they came on like a grunge Queen, with all the fearlessness and foolishness that suggests. Their records sold by the bucketload, and for a while they were one of the most-talked about bands around.

As epic, and occasionally overblown, as its title, Mellon Collie… owed more to Styx than The Stooges. With songs like 1979 – a track Corgan has dubbed the most important on that album – Corgan developed his already keen taste for experimentation, introducing loops and samples into what had previously been relatively organic guitar music. It opened the band, and their music, up to an entirely different audience. Suddenly, Billy Corgan, perpetual misfit, was the king of the grunge castle. And he hated it.

“I think Pumpkins are great, and I think we probably follow similar paths in what we're trying to achieve as a band,” Feeder frontman Grant Nicholas told TeamRock in 2016. “I hear so many influences from the '70s. Led Zeppelin had those dynamics, the Pumpkins do and I think we do as well.

"On 1979, they went a little… I wouldn't say 'electronic', but something a bit different came in when they recorded with Flood. 1979 is a great-sounding track, with a fantastic groove and it sounds fantastic on the radio."

25. Soul Asylum - Runaway Train

In 1993, the alternative rock movement was in full swing, encompassing dozens of shiny new microgenres, from the mellow, hippy stonerbuzz of Blind Melon to the arena-rattling supergrunge of Soundgarden; from the wounded moan of Nirvana to the powergrrrl roar of Babes In Toyland.

The Alternative Nation’s heart, however, belonged to Soul Asylum, a scruffy quartet of ex-punks from Minneapolis who, like their former labelmates The Replacements, played an infectious brand of melodic, hook-heavy roots rock that possessed a rugged, touching honesty and often wrapped its rough-hewn jangle in an uplifting message.

After toiling in the indie world and at the bottom end of the majors for nearly a decade, Soul Asylum finally broke in 1992 with their seventh album, Grave Dancers Union. It contained four charting singles when all was said and done, but its third, Runaway Train, a scuffling acoustic ballad about love and loss, became Soul Asylum’s defining moment.

According to frontman Dave Pirner, the positive reaction to Runaway Train was immediate, even before it was released.

“I think the song just kind of rolled off my brain,” he recalls. “Sometimes a song takes six years to write, and sometimes a song takes a half an hour. This just happens to be one that came rather quickly. I wrote it all in one sitting, and then I showed it to the band. They thought it was good. It was really the first time I wrote a song and people had an immediate reaction. I wasn’t sure why people were so taken aback by that song. I was too naïve to realise they were all seeing dollar signs. I just had never experienced anything like it.

“It’s very near and dear to my heart, and it’s a very personal statement, and I’m pleased that it’s not a silly pop song or anything like that. I think it’s ironic that something that could be considered disturbing or extremely depressing could ring such a universal bell. It’s good, in a way, that people identify with it, because to me it indicates that there’s people out there who don’t think they’re fuckin’ perfect, and everybody doesn’t have this smooth-sailing, happy-go-lucky existence.”

24. Temple Of The Dog - Hunger Strike

Back in 1991, grunge broke through from the backstreets of Seattle to become a worldwide youth movement, making stars of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Mudhoney and others, and ensuring an entire generation decked themselves out in ripped jeans and plaid shirts.

One of the scene's less famous but most enduring records is the sole release from Temple Of The Dog, a project put together by Soundgarden's Chris Cornell and members of a nascent Pearl Jam in response to the death of Andrew Wood. Wood – the vocalist in Mother Love Bone with Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard – died of a heroin overdose on March 19, 1990, and Cornell began writing songs in tribute to his friend, the band completed by Pearl Jam's bassist Ament, guitarists Gossard and Mike McCready and drummer Matt Cameron. But when their future frontman Eddie Vedder joined them on impromptu backing vocals, leading to a spine-tingling duet with Cornell on Hunger Strike, an already special record was elevated to something truly remarkable.

“We were just starting to play with Eddie and it was the second time that he had come up, and we were rehearsing the Temple record and Pearl Jam songs at the same time,” guitarist Mike McCready told Classic Rock in 2016. “Eddie was staying at the studio, so when we had practice one day we were going over the Hunger Strike song, and Ed just stepped up and started singing the lower part. It sounded really great, and Chris was like "hey, you take that part and go for it". I think Eddie felt a little bit intimidated from being in Seattle, about how would he be received by the locals. I loved his voice and felt amazed to be playing with a singer that was that good – and not only one, but two! Chris invited Eddie into the scene in terms of taking him out to dinner and saying "hey, relax, you’re one of us".

23. Counting Crows - Mr Jones

"It’s infectious, it’s simple, and you can never get sick of it," says Bowling For Soup's Jaret Reddick. "No matter when it comes on, I just turn it up and go.”

Reddick might be an unlikely fan of Counting Crows' 1993 hit Mr Jones – a debut single so well received the band never really got close to repeating it – but this was a song that landed in the mainstream with the sort of splash normally reserved for breaching whales. A rattling mix of REM jangle and Van Morrison blue eyed soul, it was also striking for being a song about dreams of fame which ended up making its writer famous. 

"It's really a song about my friend Marty [Jones, former bandmate of Counting Crows frontman Adam Duritz in San Fransiscan rock outfit The Himalayans] and I," Duritz told VH1's Storytellers. "We went out one night to watch his dad play. His dad was a Flamenco guitar player who lived in Spain, and he was in San Francisco in the mission playing with his old Flamenco troupe. 

"And after the gig we all went to this bar called the New Amsterdam in San Francisco on Columbus and we got completely drunk. And Marty and I sat at the bar staring at these two girls, wishing there was some way we could go talk to them, but we were too shy. We kept joking with each other that if we were big rock stars instead of such loser, low-budget musicians, this would be easy. I went home that night and I wrote a song about it."

22. Blind Melon - No Rain

A song that started out as part of bassist's Brad Smith's Venice Beach busking setlist, No Rain went on to become such an enormous hit that – like Radiohead and Creep – the band started to hate it. A year after the song crashed into Billboard's Top 5, the band were booked to open for The Rolling Stones and refused to play it. "That probably would have been the only song that crowd would have recognised," their tour manager remarked, forlornly. 

Released in desperation by the band's record company – it was an upbeat pop contender not typical of the band's usually scuzzy alt-rock – No Rain was accompanied by the colour-saturated "Bee Girl" video, which turned its 10-year-old star Heather DeLoach into something of an alternative icon. She went on to appear in ER and Reno 911, but it wasn’t all sweetness and light: despite the outwardly fluffy nature of the film, it was a song Smith wrote while battling depression.

"A lot of my songs come from a darker place," says Smith. "And if you just met me walking down the street, you'd say, 'Oh, you're such a happy guy, Brad. Why the dark songs?' I'm like, 'I don't know.' For me, it just has more meaning if you can get inside someone's soul and identify with them on a heavier level and try to connect with them on that level. Because when you're sad and you're down, you're the most vulnerable, and you feel the most alone." 

21. Cranberries - Zombie

By 1994, Limerick rock band The Cranberries had achieved international fame with their chart-topping, multi-platinum debut album Everybody Else Is Doing It So Why Can’t We?, and most people thought they knew exactly what the Irish four-piece were about. As the final days of grunge stormed around them, they were a barefoot, floaty, slightly hippie-ish oasis of calm, the romantic longing of Linger and the fairy tale sugar-rush of Dreams further sweetened by singer Dolores O’Riordan’s girlish, heavily accented vocal style.

Then in September, in the run-up to the release of their second album, No Need To Argue, they turned their own image on its head by returning with Zombie, a grungy, gloomy, furious anti-war song that found O’Riordan raging against the violence caused by the conflict in Northern Ireland, which was making the news headlines on what seemed like a weekly basis.

“I remember at the time there were a lot of bombs going off in London and the Troubles were pretty bad,” O’Riordan told Classic Rock 24 years later. “I remember being on tour and being in the UK at the time when the child died, and just being really sad about it all. These bombs are going off in random places. It could have been anyone, you know?

“It’s a tough thing to sing about, but when you’re young you don’t think twice about things, you just grab it and do it. As you get older you develop more fear and you get more apprehensive, but when you’re young you’ve no fear.”

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