The 250 Best Songs of the 90s

Listen: Sinéad O’Connor, “Nothing Compares to 2 U”


Pulp: “Ordinary People” (1995)

Formed in 1978 by a pair of Sheffield teenagers, Pulp plodded through lineup and label changes with no commercial success – until the Britpop explosion of the mid-’90s delivered a new global stage for their fifth album Other class and his career-defining first single. A much sexier, more exciting, and more appropriately cynical British counterpart to “Uptown Girl,” “Common People” was the story of incessantly magnetic frontman Jarvis Cocker’s art school who dabbled with a rich girl excited by the idea of ​​wrecking it with poor people. like himself. He laughed at her — and liked to sleep with her — but the song was a harsh critique of class tourism by people who would never know poverty, a populist anthem built for hours of sweaty dancing regardless of socioeconomic status. —Evie Nagy

Listen: Pulp, “ordinary people”


Portishead: “Sour Times” (1994)

Portishead are masters of digital psychedelia, of artificially eroded samples and breaks that envelop fervent desire in soothing layers of ice. Nestled in the unbridgeable chasm between fantasy and fate, the Bristol trio remains a monument to our own sublimated desires. “Sour Times” turns this existential despair into a fatalistic noir dreamscape. Singer Beth Gibbons tosses and turns a twisty bassline and guitarist Adrian Utley’s finest Morricone riffs, bathed in the cursed knowledge of the inescapable power of a lost love. The song takes its hypnotic majesty from the thrill of Gibbons’ graceful fury, balancing between succumbing to an eternity of desire and spewing poison into the eye of fate. It’s a ghostly waltz for starcrossed androids, doomed to soundtrack disconnected hearts far beyond the singularity. –Phillipe Roberts

Listen: Portishead, “Sour Times”


George Michael: “Freedom! ’90” (1990)

George Michael’s understated and pensive second solo album Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1 showed another side of the often bubblegummy superstar, and “Freedom! ’90” exposed his mission: sometimes the clothes don’t make the man. Perhaps to the chagrin of every hungry schoolgirl, the image of the star has never graced Prejudice, neither on the cover nor on the videos. The music would speak for itself, and on “Freedom!” it did this using a “Funky Drummer” break and Madchester-y piano riff. The style of the song rises until an exuberant chorus explodes, repeatedly harmonizing the song’s title. That freedom, according to Michael, had to be achieved through image revision: “There’s something deep inside me / There’s someone else I need to be.” Trying to conjure authenticity in show business is about as easy as declaring yourself vegan while eating only at steakhouses, but “Freedom!” is about concept, not practice, suggesting the journey to happiness rather than the destination. For the classic video, Michael enlisted a range of high-profile lip syncers — Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista — who helped create beautiful landscapes throughout his quest. –Rich Juzwiak

Listen: George Michael, “Freedom! ’90”


Mobb Deep: “Shook Ones, Pt. II” (1995)

“Shaken, Pt. II’ is such a rich text that isolated elements of it communicate more style and biographical depth than almost any other introduction to hip-hop history. There’s the Herbie Hancock piano that Havoc turned in his mother’s apartment into one of rap’s most undeniable bass lines; there’s Prodigy’s opening ad-lib – “To all the killers and the hundred-dollar billers / For real niggas who ain’t got no feelings” – and what it suggests is omitted in its verses; there are those hi-hats that for years people thought they were the sound of stoves in the Queensbridge Houses sputtering to life. Even the enchanting sirene loop tells a story: it’s taken from a song by Quincy Jones, who taught Prodigy’s grandfather to read music. And yet all of this becomes secondary when P raps — about burning bullets into flesh, about hoping to die in a place like Queensbridge, and about how, if you don’t look after yourself, “the next rhyme I write might be about you.” .” –Paul Thompson

Listen: Mobb Deep, “Shook Ones, Pt. II”


Fiona Apple: “Criminal” (1996)

“I’ve been a naughty, naughty girl”, Fiona Apple spins like a vixen in an old man’s sex dream, knowing that a woman at 18 is young enough to be harassed and old enough to be pilloried. “Criminal” is her most popular song, potent like a fizzy drink, selling a curious audience a sexual fantasy while pointing out the twisted dynamics below. A piano vibrates as if announcing the sudden onset of an earthquake, and Apple confesses to the sin of “being careless with a delicate man,” her voice dripping with irony. Men are so tough that it’s time to take responsibility, they’re helpless and angry like children. But Fiona cries out for punishment, sounding irresistible as she confesses her crime. As a new generation of girls likes to say: I support women’s rights, but more importantly, I support women injustice. –Kat Zhang

Listen: Fiona Apple, “criminal”


Mazzy Star: “Fade Into You” (1993)

A slow waltz, a few Dylan chords, a pedal steel like a lamp from an attic window, and Hope Sandoval’s downy voice, full of melting vowels and pregnant pauses: “Fade Into You” taps into the sweet exhaustion at the end of it all. Marketed as a make-out anthem to Mazzy Star’s major-label debut, it was the mainstream peak for this dream pop duo that emerged from the psychic group Opal, and the platonic ideal of a melancholic slow-dance number. Even as the dim, enveloping aura echoes through Beach House’s intentional dream pop, Taylor Swift’s glittering indie folktales, and Faye Webster’s weary steel guitar slides, the pain of the original remains unanswered: The space between us is small but vast, the only way straight forward into oblivion. –Anna Gaca

Listen: Mazzy Star, “Fade Into You”


Lauryn Hill: “Doo Wop (That Thing)” (1998)

Tender and fierce on her first solo single, Lauryn Hill offers empathy and firm counsel to women and men in difficult relationships. On Fugees songs, she often hardened her currents (or “add a ‘motherfucker’ so your annoying niggas hear me,” as she puts it on “Zealots”), but here and everywhere Lauryn Hill’s Wrong Teaching, her rapping is jovial, assured. Motown soul, gospel and hip-hop come together as she glides over bright horns, crisp drums and a jingly key riff. She sounds determined to channel, harmonize, scat, rap and hum every sound and inspiration she’s ever had. The music video has a split screen motif that portrays her as both modern and retro, but the real benefit of this song is that she’s just being herself. –Stephen Kearse

Listen: Lauryn Hill, “Doo Wop (That Thing)”


Daft Punk: “Around the World” (1997)

The music starts off not so much as superficial, as if “Around the World” emanates from a great depth, that low-pass filter cuts out the high-end without obscuring the “fundamental” signal. And then the song comes out in full, the bass suddenly goes like something’s been stolen under Bernard Edwards’ fingertips, the hi-hat does that clear, open chhhh things wrong. The up-from-underground stuff turns out to have been rather poignantly appropriate. “Around the World” was a dig, disco as reworked in post-industrial Chicago and Detroit, then re-adapted by two blessed Montmartre madmen, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo.

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