The 50 Best Songs Of The 90s

20. Foo Fighters - Everlong

It’s hard to believe it now, but there was a time when the Foo Fighters were just seen as a superstar’s indulgence, a quirky side-project that would disappear as soon as an empty drumstool appeared in the next available supergroup. Then their second album, The Colour And The Shape, came out.

“I knew it had to be good,” frontman and former-Nirvana-drummer Dave Grohl said of the album in 2016. “I knew it had to solidify the band as a legitimate band.”

In writing for TCATS, Grohl’s songs became more ambitious. The band got in producer Gil Norton – a guy who had produced indie’s superleague: Sugarcubes, Pixies, Echo And The Bunnymen, and a renowned perfectionist. “Gil is awesome in that he fucking wrings you out,” says Grohl. “He wants every last drop of performance and song. It was intense.”

From the intensity, the album’s defining single was born. Everlong was an expansive, hooky, not-quite-ballad rooted in real experiences for the singer, specifically in the slowly unfurling relationship with his photographer wife Jennifer Youngblood. The singer had been served with divorce papers at Bear Creek, and his scars were still raw. It was no surprise then, that the lyrics on these latest recordings would be so stark, bruised and affecting.

“When I heard Everlong it was just like, 'Oh…' Norton recalled. “It made the album whole. It was the catalyst that brought it all together.”

19. Manic Street Preachers - Motorcycle Emptiness

In September 1991, the Manic Street Preachers took time out of recording their debut album Generation Terrorists to buy Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion when it went on sale at midnight on the 16th. The week before, a single called Smells Like Teen Spirit had been released. “And that’s when we just went, ‘Oh fuck it, we’ve had it now,’” laughs drummer Sean Moore.  

They didn’t realise it at this point, but they had an ace up their sleeves – a song so epic, elegiac and graceful that it would silence the doubters and make even the faithful do a double-take. That the seeds of Motorcycle Emptiness lay in two separate and unremarkable songs, one a sub-Talulah Gosh slice of twee pop called Go Buzz Baby Go, is like discovering that Kashmir was written by John Otway. “I remember [producer] Steve Brown saying, ‘This is going to be brilliant, but you need to have a middle section and you need a guitar solo,’” says singer/guitarist James Dean Bradfield. “So I stole a middle section from a song called Behave Yourself Baby and then did a guitar solo.” 

But Brown was insistent. It still wasn’t there.  “You need a riff,” he told James. “A riff that identifies you – you need your Sweet Child O’ Mine!” James duly complied.

“He came back and went: ‘You’re a guitar god now!’ It sounds corny, but he made this white-trash Taff feel good,” says James. “He told me I had to find my Slash moment. That’s good production, as far as I’m concerned.”

“If Steve hadn’t have kept pushing us, I don’t think it would have become the song it was,” says James. “He said that we had to atomise all the outrageous statements that we’d made, and all our ambitions. We had to atomise it in one song, completely and utterly, if people were going to remain convinced by all of our bullshit and bluster. And if he hadn’t, we might not have survived.”

Released in June 1992, Motorcycle Emptiness was the album’s last single. It went to No.17 in the UK singles chart, but it symbolised something greater, something that was way beyond the reach of These Animal Men or Birdland and all the other ‘New Wave of New Wave’ bands they’d been grouped with. In 2006, Q magazine readers voted it the 88th best song ever. Even more prestigious, it features on the collection Pure Guitar Heroes, alongside Black Magic Woman and More Than A Feeling. Now that’s proper.

18. Red Hot Chili Peppers - Under The Bridge

It was with Under The Bridge that the Red Hot Chili Peppers struck creative and commercial gold. Singer Anthony Kiedis took his enduring love of the band’s adopted home city, Los Angeles, personifying it (‘I drive on her streets/’Cause she’s my companion/I walk through her hills/’Cause she knows who I am’) and making it his starting point before reflecting on his downtime there as a heroin addict.

"I had was this connection named Mario, who was Mexican Mafia, ex-convict," he explains. "And one particular afternoon, it was very hot in the middle of the summer, and I’d been up for days, and he and I found what we’d been looking for. We went to this bridge that was downtown in the middle of Los Angeles in this ghetto; this freeway bridge, and a little passageway you had to go through to get under the bridge, and only certain members of this Mexican gang were allowed to go in there. And we lied just so we could get in there and do what we wanted to do.

“And that’s always stuck in my brain as a low point in my life. When I talk in the song about being taken to the place I love, that’s here. That’s where I am now, the most sacred place, making sounds with my best friends.”

17. Iron Maiden - Fear Of The Dark

The 90s were not kind to Iron Maiden. Following a highly successful, vibrant run of albums in the 80s (Killers, The Number of The Beast, Powerslave, Seventh Son Of A Seventh Sun…) the NWOBHM forerunners’ fortunes went decidedly south. Blaze Bayley entered the fray after Bruce Dickinson jumped ship; testing the goodwill of all but the most devoted Maiden fans (and even they probably felt pretty short-changed). They swapped dungeons n’ dragons for morose musings inspired by Steve Harris’s divorce on X-Factor (if there’s one thing people don’t come to Iron Maiden for, it’s gritty realism). Virtual XI brought some of the fantasy back, but not much else.... There are reasons why no one looks back on 90s-era Maiden with great fondness.

But before all that set in, however, there was Fear Of The Dark – the galloping, gusto-packed title track from the last album (no.1 in the UK album charts) to feature Dickinson until the ‘00s, and a beacon of hope in an otherwise pretty dire decade for Harris and co. Of everything they released during that time, it’s telling that this was one of about two tracks that’s remained a consistent fixture in their live shows. 

If you didn’t like Iron Maiden already, chances are this wouldn’t have changed that. But for those of the alternative persuasion, or possibly even on the fence, Fear Of The Dark was an assured, larynx-shredding explosion of heavy metal fire n’ brimstone – complete with the kind of chorus you could bellow easily back at Dickinson’s umpteenth “SCREAM FOR ME INSERT-TOWN-NAME-HERE!” declaration. Because that’s what he does.

16. Green Day - Basket Case

The third single from Green Day’s third album, Basket Case was the perfect pop punk anthem; a three-chord thrash that could be approximated by any covers band, and burnt out as fast as it had reared up (it lasts exactly three minutes). “It got to the point where I wasn’t even singing the lyrics any more,” Armstrong told VH1 of audiences’ reaction to the song. “People were just doing it on their own.” This sense of egalitarianism – the fact that it didn’t challenge, patronise or exclude – meant Basket Case could be enjoyed by anyone.

But it’s misleading to suggest that Basket Case was an overnight success. It didn’t – as media sensationalists would have you believe – pogo its way into the punk history books without breaking a sweat. Upon its original 1994 release, the single stalled at number 55 in the UK chart, before nosediving into oblivion, while its parent album Dookie initially limped to number 141 in the US Billboard charts. 

Inevitably, it was the asylum-themed video’s heavy rotation on MTV and Green Day’s anarchic performance at Woodstock in 1994 that finally saw Basket Case reach its slacker demographic. With momentum gathering, the band reissued the single in the UK (where it hit number 13 in February 1995) and planted a firm foothold with an incendiary set at that summer’s Reading Festival. Both sides of the Atlantic were now dancing to Green Day’s tune.

15. Oasis - Wonderwall

“Outside of England, it’s the one song we’re famous for all over the world, and it annoys the fuck out of me,” Wonderwall’s writer Noel Gallagher told NME. “It’s not a fucking rock’n’roll tune. There’s quite a vulnerable statement to it. When people come up to me and say it’s one of the greatest tunes ever written, I think, ‘fucking hell, have you heard Live Forever?”

Love it or loathe it, you’d have to have been living in a cave (underwater, with earplugs) to not have Wonderwall stuck in your head at some point during the 90s. Taken from (What’s The Story) Morning Glory?, it’s the simple yet majestic ballad that neither the Gallaghers nor the rest of mankind have been able to escape since its release in 1995 (the third single from ...Morning Glory). From club nights and drunken singalongs to weddings and about a gazillion covers bands the world over, Wonderwall is basically more famous than God. 

And yet for all its overplayed-ness it is a class tune, arranged with a seamless, acoustic-strumming grace that makes it an instantly moving and enveloping listening experience. It’s the ultimate everyman anthem that also reaches for the heavens, and the biggest selling Oasis song that never made it past no.2 in the UK charts.

14. REM - Losing My Religion

A Mike Bills song based on a simple mandolin line Peter Buck had idly come up with while watching The Nature Channel, Losing My Religion was the song that turned underground favourites REM into genuine mainstream superstars. "Our career can be divided into two parts," said Buck. "Pre-Losing My Religion and post-Losing My Religion. Afterwards, we had hit singles and platinum albums." 

As is so often the case in the 90s, MTV played a pivotal role in bringing the band to the masses, but it was video director Tarsem Singh whose vision made it all possible. While Losing My Religion wasn't actually about religion ("Losing my religion" is a Southern US phrase that basically means "At my wit's end"), Singh's beautifully crafted, enigmatic clip shoe-horned in enough crucifixes, angel wings and homoerotica (the video was eventually banned in Ireland) to ensure viewers were presented with something that seemed genuinely profound, rather that what Michael Stipe described as "a bunch of minor chords with some nonsense thrown on top."

Lyrically, the song was actually inspired by The Police's 1983 hit Every Breath You Take, with Stipe updating Sting's creepy slant on obsession with his "That's me in the corner, that's me in the spotlight" lines.

Either way, it was the video that turned the song into the career-transforming goliath it became. Nominated for nine MTV awards, it picked up six, and swept up a couple of Grammys along the way. 

13. U2 - One

U2's One has become one of those songs people gravitate towards when needing a piece of music to accompany moments of significant emotional importance. At first glance it might appear mawkish, but the song has the kind of genuine, unadorned depth that means the listener can cast aside any reluctance and just sink into the experience. It's also one of those rare songs loved by people who otherwise have no time for its creators. 

Selected as one of the 500 Songs That Shaped Rock And Roll by the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, One started out as a detour during the recording of Achtung Baby at Hansa Studios in Berlin. Working on Mysterious Ways, guitarist The Edge came up with two separate ideas for the song's bridge. The second idea became a new song altogether, Bono quickly came up with some lyrics, and in minutes a classic was born. "The writing of that song really saved the band," said Davis Guggenheim, director of the U2 documentary From The Sky Down.  

Despite One's supposed message of love and reconciliation, it's a song that's been frequently misinterpreted, much like REM's almost spiteful The One I Love. "On one level it's a bitter, twisted, vitriolic conversation between two people who've been through some nasty, heavy stuff," said The Edge. "I wouldn't have played it at any wedding of mine." 

12. Stone Temple Pilots - Interstate Love Song

Not many artist have had one of their singles replace another of their own singles at No.1 in a major chart, but Stone Temple Pilots joined that small club when Interstate Love Song knocked Vasoline (both from second album Purple) off the top spot of  Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart in September 1994. With the band still bewildered and hurting from the biting ‘grunge bandwagon jumpers’ accusations unfairly directed at them, especially from the media, following their magnificent debut album Core, they certainly needed such an endorsement from record buyers. 

According to singer/lyricist Weiland, the song dealt lyrically with a number of themes, particularly two relationships: his new one with heroin, and his lack of honesty in the one with his partner. It was also written from his partner’s viewpoint, what he thought she might be thinking. “She’d ask how I was doing, and I’d lie, say I was doing fine,” he admits. “I imagined what was going through her mind when I wrote: ‘Waiting on a Sunday afternoon, for what I read between the lines – your lies…’

With its descending staccato riff, the band’s typically muscular bass/drums combo, those also typically STP melodic and heartfelt lyrics and the track’s overall energetic drive, there’s no wonder it’s among the fans’ favourites.

11. Pink Floyd - High Hopes

Most clearly with the opening lines ‘Beyond the horizon of the place we lived when we were young/In a world of magnets and miracles’ and closing ‘The grass was greener/The light was brighter/The taste was sweeter/The nights of wonder…’ the lyrics by David Gimour and partner Polly Samson look back nostalgically to childhood wonder and innocence, before the realities of life conspire to break the spell. Interestingly, the final couplet from High Hopes (‘The endless river, forever and ever’) revisits a line in the early Floyd’s 1967 single See Emily Play (‘Float on a river/Forever and ever.’)

Beginning with the tolling of a bell and simple piano figure, musically the song builds and progresses with chords that create a mood that is strangely rather dark and at odds with the lyrics; more a feeling of sadness and regret than of warm nostalgia from looking back through the wrong end of a rose-tinted telescope. This uneasy mood is then continued with the orchestral middle section topped with Spanish-flavoured acoustic guitar. 

The dark clouds dissipate only with the arrival of the closing section, when David Gilmour delivers a  wonderful slide-guitar solo that is arguably among the best studio solos he has recorded, up there with those on One Of These Days and Comfortably Numb.

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