The 50 Best Songs Of The 90s

10. Radiohead - Creep

Originally released as their debut single to lukewarm reception in ‘92 (Radio One refused to play it because it was “too depressing”... say whaaat? Surely not! Etc etc), Creep was re-released in 1993 and shit suddenly got mega for the young alternative rock hopefuls from Oxford. Featured on the album Pablo Honey, it overcame unpromising beginnings and provided Radiohead with an immense whack of success dizzyingly early on in their career.

It was depressing, but exquisitely so. Armed with plaintive guitar lines, Thom Yorke’s perennially sad “I wish I was special” refrain and a raw, gut-grabbing chorus, it was an unrefined yet poetic, on-the-nose ode to human insecurity – and, as Jonny Greenwood has said, “recognising who you are”. Recorded in a single take, it was simple enough to be fiercely catchy but sufficiently brooding to have real depth.

So naturally they got tired of it, and refused to play it live for a time – as so many bands must do, seemingly, when they’ve written an incredibly popular song. It did intermittently ‘creep’ back into live sets though, and has continued to be widely featured, admired and covered (by artists including Prince, Kelly Clarkson and The Pretenders) – or even “copied”, as the band have argued pop songstress Lana Del Ray did earlier this year.

9. The Verve - Bitter Sweet Symphony

International law states that every time Bitter Sweet Symphony is mentioned, someone has to point out that the song sampled its string parts from the Andrew Oldham Orchestra’s take on the Rolling Stones The Last Time, which must piss off Richard Ashcroft something rotten. 

Those string parts – a grand, repetitive hook originally arranged by David Whitaker, a composer and arranger who had worked with Jimmy Page on the Death Wish II soundtrack, as well as credible-pop artists like Johnny Halliday and Lee Hazlewood – sounded nothing like the Stones’ The Last Time but did form a substantial part of the track. And although the band had already been given permission to sample the tracks, former Stones manager Allen Klein’s ABKCO records reckoned they were taking the piss and sued and won 100% of the song’s royalties. Shit on a stick.

It’s a shame, because Bitter Sweet Symphony really does deserve to be remembered as a triumph. 

If Britpop really began with the release of Suede’s The Drowners in 1992, it was well on the way out by the time Bitter Sweet Symphony was released in the summer of 1997. The Verve were the comedown after Britpop’s coke-fuelled cockernee knees-up. These weren’t gurning cheeky chappies – they were a beaten generation with hard-won wisdom: the drugs don’t work, they said, they just make things worse.

And even those grandiose violins couldn’t disguise Symphony’s bummer-of-a-message: ‘it's a bitter sweet symphony, this life/Trying to make ends meet, you're a slave to the money then you die’. (Awright, Richard. Fucks sake man.) 

Music was the remedy, he said: ‘I need to hear some sounds that recognise the pain in me, yeah/I let the melody shine, let it cleanse my mind, I feel free now’ and if Bitter Sweet Symphony didn’t bring him the rewards it should have, it no doubt warms the cockles of his heart to think that it’s probably still paying for Mick Jagger’s yacht right now. 

8. Queen - Innuendo

Clocking in at over six minutes in length, Innuendo may have come late in Queen's career, but it showed that - even with an ailing Freddie Mercury - the band were as capable of making ambitious, multi-faceted music as they ever were. Innuendo shifted through the gears from its towering, Kasmhir-inspired, Bolero-esque hard rock intro via flamenco guitar (played by Yes man Steve Howe) and light opera to wailing climax. It might not have been Bohemian Rhapsody, but it was an utterly triumphant note for Mercury to finish on. 

"They played it and I was fucking blown away," Howe told Prog in 2012. "They all chimed in: 'We want some crazy Spanish guitar flying around over the top. Improvise!' I started noodling around on the guitar, and it was pretty tough. After a couple of hours, I thought: 'I've bitten off more than I can chew here.' I had to learn a bit of the structure, work out [what] the chordal roots were, where you had to fall if you did a mad run in the distance; you have to know where you're going. But it got towards evening, and we'd doodled and I'd noodled, and it turned out to be really good fun. We have this beautiful dinner, we go back to the studio and have a listen. And they go: 'That's great. That's what we wanted.'" 

"I think Innuendo was one of those things which could either be big - or nothing," Brian May told Vox when the album was released. "We had the same feelings about Bohemian Rhapsody. It's a risk, because a lot of people say 'It's too long, it's too involved, and we don't want to play it on the radio.' I think that could be a problem, in which case it will die. Or it could happen that people say 'This is interesting and new and different', and we'll take a chance.

The gamble paid off: Innuendo became Queen's first UK number one since Under Pressure more than a decade earlier.

7. Metallica - Enter Sandman

The opening song on their self-titled ‘Black Album’, Enter Sandman was the song that kicked-in the doors to the mainstream for Metallica. Lars Ulrich might attract ridiculous levels of hate, but it was his skill in identifying and re-arranging Kirk Hammett’s intro riff which sets Enter Sandman rolling in such spectacular, impactful fashion and precious few rock songs shift the air with such force and conviction. 

“I had tried to write the heaviest thing I could think of,” Hammett said. The riff had then sat on The Riff Tape, a cassette-full of ideas, which is where Ulrich discovered it. “It had this first part and a tail. I said make the first part a three [repeated three times], and then the tail,” Ulrich explained. “Could have been a whole different story [if he hadnʼt].”

Hammettʼs riff remained without a completed lyric after all of the other tunes. Its title, though, was on a list James Hetfield kept.

“This song has been on the fucking titles list for the last six years,” said Lars. “Iʼd always looked at Enter Sandman and thought: ʻWhat the fuck does that meanʼ Me being brought up in Denmark and not knowing about a lot of this shit, I didnʼt get it. Then James clued me in. Apparently the Sandman is like this childrenʼs villain. The Sandman comes and rubs sand in your eyes if you donʼt go to sleep at night. So itʼs a fable. James has just given it a nice twist.”

Pushed by producer Bob Rock to make an album that captured the band and made an impact on the charts, the balance between Metallica’s heaviosity and Rock’s commercial nouse was perfect: “Some people thought Bob would make us sound too commercial,” said Hetfield. “You know: ʻOh, Bob works with Bon Jovi, Bob works with Mötley Crüe.ʼ But if Flemming Rasmussen [Metallicaʼs producer to that point] worked on a Bon Jovi record, would Bon Jovi all of a sudden sound like Metallica?”

The result was an all-time metal classic.

6. Soundgarden - Black Hole Sun

By the time Superunknown was released, the unassuming Chris Cornell had become an iconic figure on the ’90s musical landscape, and his performance on Black Hole Sun still send shivers down the spine. The song is a beauteous slice of grungeadelia, which rivals the best of Nirvana for Beatles-meets-Sabs noisy melodicism, and in Cornell they had one of the best singers operating in any genre.

In 2014 he told Uncut magazine, "I wrote it in my head driving home from Bear Creek Studio in Woodinville, a 35-40 minute drive from Seattle. It sparked from something a news anchor said on TV and I heard wrong. I heard 'blah blah blah black hole sun blah blah blah'. I thought that would make an amazing song title, but what would it sound like? It all came together, pretty much the whole arrangement including the guitar solo that's played beneath the riff."

"I liken it to Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd," he added. "Where there's a happy veneer over something dark. It's not something I can do on purpose but occasionally it will happen by accident." 

The song went on to win the Best Hard Rock Performance Grammy in 1995, beating out Alice In Chains, the Beastie Boys, Green Day and Pearl Jam, a shortlist which just goes to show how far 'rock' had moved away from its 80s hairspray heyday. 

5. Guns N' Roses - November Rain

November Rain, perhaps the most pivotal song on the band’s second album proper, Use Your Illusion, pre-dated Axl joining the band, and he brought it to the Appetite For Destruction sessions. A&R guy Tom Zutaut had to talk him out of including it on their debut – they already had a big ballad in Sweet Child O’Mine. One more and people might think his band of bad boys were… soft. 

Axl relented but the recording of November Rain became almost an obsession to him and caused tensions in the camp. “Well, Axl’s a… perfectionist,” says Duff McKagan. “That’s what makes him great. The end product’s great, but it gets maddening to work with that person. There’s no hashing out with them. November Rain in particular, the song was torturing him.”

Axl said it had to be perfect or he would quit making music. Just as his hero Freddie Mercury had created his magnum opus in Bohemian Rhapsody, so Axl put everything he had into November Rain – a grandiose power ballad, complete with full orchestra and a preposterous big-budget video – at the time, the most expensive promo ever made, costing the label $1.5 million. The result was a classic rock ballad, arguably Guns N’ Roses’ biggest song after Sweet Child O’ Mine, a monument to obsession and excess, and for Axl, his own masterpiece.

It went to no.4 in the UK and no.3 in the US – the longest song ever to enter the US top 10.

4. Pearl Jam - Alive

Although Pearl Jam eventually rejected the mainstream, the band’s best album is also their most commercial: their magnificent debut, Ten. Instead of wallowing in misery following the demise of their band Mother Love Bone after the death of its singer, guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament put together Pearl Jam, a much more back-to-basics unit. In came Eddie Vedder on vocals, who had a knack for singing in a part news reporter/part campfire style, and the rest, as they say, is 13x platinum-selling history.

Its stand-out single Alive is arguably what marked the album out as a stone-cold classic. From Gossard’s stadium-ready intro lick to Mike McCready’s spring-heeled solo (which he admits, incidentally, that he stole from KISS’s She) and Vedder’s stadium-size vocal turn, Alive was where Pearl Jam nailed their quintessential sound for the first time.

Alive is one of those songs that I'd listen to constantly right before bed,” Pop Evil guitarist Davey Grahs told us in 2015. “Listening to the way that Stone Gossard and Mike McCreedy's guitar lines worked together made me want to make music like that. The great part about it is that you couldn't play one guitar line by itself and have it genuinely sound like the song. You needed that contrast of both of the guitar parts to make it sound whole. It made me feel like being in a band was like being a part of a team, and less of a one-man show." 

3. Alice In Chains - Would

An emotional high point on one of the greatest rock albums of the 1990s, the melancholic Would? first appeared as the opening track on the soundtrack for Cameron Crowe's 1992 film Singles. It was written by Jerry Cantrell in tribute to his friend Andrew Wood, the frontman of Mother Love Bone, who passed away following a heroin overdose in March 1990. 

"I was thinking a lot about Andrew Wood at the time," wrote Cantrell in the liner notes to 1999's Music Bank box set. "We always had a great time when we did hang out, much like Chris Cornell and I do. There was never really a serious moment or conversation, it was all fun. Andy was a hilarious guy, full of life and it was really sad to lose him. But I always hate people who judge the decisions others make. So it was also directed towards people who pass judgments." 

Would? went on to score the band its first MTV award, winning the Best Video From A Film prize at the 1993 ceremony in Los Angeles, beating out competition from Arrested Development, Boy George and Paul Westerberg.

2. AC/DC - Thunderstruck

For their first album of the 90s, producer Bruce Fairbairn, the man who had revitalised Aerosmith’s career three years before with Permanent Vacation, took Angus Young to one side: “I want you to sound like AC/DC when you were seventeen,” he said. Nowhere was that trademark sound captured better than on The Razors Edge’s opener and first single, Thunderstruck. Introduced by an electrifying Angus Young riff, comprised of hammer-on and pull-off fingering on an open B string, the track builds dynamically using terrace chants and new drummer Chris Slade’s brutal but simplistic poundings to emerge as a state-of-the-art stadium leveller. Thunder (the band) still come onstage to it. 

Thunderstruck has gotta be the AC/DC song for me,” said Black Star Riders‘ Scott Gorham. “Great guitar playing, cool groove, and tight production. What more can you ask from a classic rock song?”

Even Joe Satriani is impressed by the guitar playing: “Thunderstruck is unique in the way the Young brothers arrange their guitars. The two main guitar riffs are syncopated, yet bone crunching. Their entire catalogue contains the most absolutely wonderful sounding electric guitars ever! How do they do that?”

1. Nirvana - Smells Like Teen Spirit

You cannot overstate the influence Nirvana have had on the geography of music since the release of their Nevermind in 1991. In the UK, the trio made alternative, heavy music dominate the mainstream for the first time since punk. In the US they did the same... for the first time ever. In one fell swoop metal, rock and indie were irrevocably altered – not entirely for the good – and the doors to the charts were smashed open for a legion of bands that would include The Offspring, Green Day and even Weezer.

Smells Like Teen Spirit has, put simply, probably the most instantly recognisable and catchy rock intro to anyone under the age of 35 in the western world, and is up there with Back In Black, Whole Lotta Love and Smoke On The Water for anyone older. Its clanging four-chord motif caused the world’s ears to prick up before Grohl’s armour-piercing tattoo signalled the start of the last great revolution in rock music – grunge. The song became the ubiquitous anthem of Generation X slackers everywhere and a Top 10 hit on both sides of the pond. The album – which, in a massively symbolic victory, knocked Michael Jackson’s comeback effort Dangerous off the top of the UK charts – is a taut and muscular beast dripping with hit singles. Released on another major label it could have easily become the grunge Thriller, with practically every track being released as a single.

“We’d always start rehearsal with a jam, and a lot of the songs came from that. I didn’t really think that much of Teen Spirit at first,” drummer Dave Grohl told journalist Paul Brannigan in 2012. “I thought it was just another one of the jams we were doing… But Teen Spirit was one we kept coming back to because the simple guitar lines were so memorable. That song definitely established the quiet/loud dynamic that we fell back on a lot of the time. And it became that one song that personifies the band.”

"This song turned a whole new generation of kids on to rock music again in a really positive way,” Feeder frontman Grant Nicholas told us in 2016. “I know it's one of their most commercial songs and it probably wasn't Kurt's favourite one to play, but it really put them on the map for better or worse. It's got that classic quiet bit/heavy bit, and you can hear so many influences, from More Than A Feeling to Pixies. Kurt Cobain was an amazing frontperson, a great songwriter and he just made rock cool again. And I think rock music needed that, after the '80s.”

  • Issue 247 of Classic Rock features an extensive look at the 100 Best Albums Of The 90s, including features on Gary Moore, Def Leppard, Thunder, The Wildhearts, Pearl Jam, Live, Metallica, Buffalo Tom, Porcupine Tree and more. It's available to buy online.
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