Definitive Songs of the 90s

In his most recent post, Eric contended that ‘Stay’ by Lisa Loeb was the “perfect song of the 90s”. He also added that I countered with the assertion that the Friends theme song, ‘I’ll Be There for You’ by The Rembrandts, was the perfect song of the 90s. This is only half true. My point was that more people would recognize the Friends theme song than ‘Stay’; mainly because Friends was one of the definitive sitcoms of the 90s (a topic/list for another post, perhaps). I’d also add that when I made this assertion I was slightly distracted by yet another lackluster fantasy football draft and a rousing game of poker that we were playing, so I probably wasn’t thinking clearly.

All that being said, however, Eric’s choice of ‘Stay’ as THE song of the 90s is curious (as is his story about singing it at the top of his lungs out the car window with 3 other buddies whilst driving the hilly roads of San Francisco…not that there’s anything wrong with that), because there are SO MANY better songs from this era to choose from. Musical preference is, of course, subjective, and I can only imagine what was going on in adolescent Eric’s life when Lisa Loeb emerged with her folk pop ballad about lost love. Personally, the song doesn’t do anything for me, but there are plenty of other songs from this era that do.

So put on your favorite flannel shirt, pour yourself a giant cup of java, and let’s take a trip down memory lane. Here are my picks of the five songs that define the 90s (better than ‘Stay’), in no particular order:

  1. ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, Nirvana. Is this a cliche choice? Probably. But there is no denying that the “grunge” movement, in all of its angst-y, anti-establishment glory, was a defining cultural touchstone of the early 90s. I was raised by conservative parents who always had the radio dial set to the oldies. Without an older sibling to subvert my musical preferences, I grew up thinking Chuck Berry was edgy. So when a friend handed me a cassette tape (yup, remember those?) of Nirvana’s album Nevermind, my young mind nearly exploded. The sound was raw and powerful, and the lyrics were a giant middle finger to the man. There were a lot of good songs/bands that came out of grunge, but Nirvana and ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ perfectly captured the disillusionment with consumerism and life in post-trickle down America that defined the genre. 
  2. ‘Nuthin’ but a G Thang’, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. The 90s were huge for hip hop and its many sub genres. N.W.A., Tupac, Notorious B.I.G., Snoop Dogg…the list of great hip hop artists that came out of this decade go on and on. As such, choosing the best hip hop song might have been one of the harder decisions to make on this list. Just to illustrate the spectrum of songs under this multi-branching genre, think of an artist like MC Hammer and his song, ‘Can’t Touch This‘, and Wu-Tang Clan’s ‘C.R.E.A.M.‘. Both are really different, but really good, and arguably each deserving of a place on this list. But in the end, I had to go with ‘Nuthin’ but a G Thang’. The song has that classic west coast hip hop sound, is instantly quotable, and gets my head bobbin’ every time it comes on the radio. 
  3. ‘Sabotage’, Beastie Boys. There were a few different bands that attempted to mix rock and rap, a genre known as rapcore, in the 90s. Some didn’t work out so well (yeah, I’m looking at you, Crazy Town), but the Beastie Boys were another story. The Beastie Boys made a lot of great songs in the 90s, but ‘Sabotage’, off their album Ill Communication, stands out. With its turn table scratches, distorted base riffs, and great lyrics, ‘Sabotage’ is an example of rapcore done right. It also has an amazing music video that serves as a reminder of a time when MTV actually showed, y’know, music videos. 
  4. ‘Ironic’, Alanis Morissette. Is there anything more 90s than Alanis Morissette? Ok, maybe Saved by the Bell. But other than that, is there really anything more 90s than Morissette? To me, it felt like she was the omnipresent voice of jaded women everywhere. From songs like ‘Head Over Feet‘ to ‘You Oughta Know‘, her lyrics could have been ripped right out of the diaries of some of the girls I knew in high school. Her album Jagged Little Pill had tons of hits on it, including the aforementioned singles and ‘Ironic’. I heard these songs A LOT, in 1995 and thereafter; which is why she’s the folk pop queen of the 90s, not Lisa Loeb (sorry, Eric). 
  5. ‘Crash Into Me’, Dave Matthews Band. I was never a huge fan of the Dave Matthews Band. I don’t know if it was because they were SO popular, or that their particular brand of soft rock was a little too…soft for my taste, but I was just never able to get on that bandwagon. But the force that DMB was in the mid- to late 90s is undeniable. Playing ‘Crash Into Me’ in the background helped an entire generation of young men (myself included) make it to second base. For that reason alone, it deserves a place on this list. 

So there you have it; my list of top five songs that define the 90s…at least better than Lisa Loeb’s ‘Stay’.

Honorable Mentions:

‘Under the Bridge’, Red Hot Chili Peppers
‘Enter Sandman’, Metallica
‘California Love’, Tupac
‘Say it Ain’t So’, Weezer
‘Loser’, Beck
‘Basket Case’, Green Day
‘Bullet with Butterfly Wings’, The Smashing Pumpkins


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