100 best songs of the 90s
The 90s were bloody brilliant. From its scrappy beginnings in the 50s, its romantic childhood in the 60s, its bloated stumble at the start of the 70s and its startling recovery at the end, then the cynical wobble in the 80s, pop music was old enough to know what it was doing, and smart enough to know what it shouldn’t be.
No other decade has thrown up more variety and diversity. You can’t look at that decade and define it by anything; there was simply too much going on. Rock and pop bestrode the entire planet like rarely before or since. With grunge, guitar music enjoyed possibly its last true innovation. The decade wins for ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ alone, but the heady college rock scene that surrounded it created one of the most glorious eras in all of pop culture; a world of Reality Bites and Generation X and My So-Called Life and even Beavis And Butthead. The vision of living in an apartment block in 1993 Seattle talking about issues with short-film-making buddies at open mic nights in coffee houses remains a fantasy me and my friends cherish to this day.
It’s easy to laugh about Britpop now, about how jingoistic and lairy it could be, and whip out Ocean Colour Scene as a stick to poke its corpse with. But for the most part, it was amazing. A homegrown scene of the breadth and quality we hadn’t really enjoyed since punk, at the top of it the politically-savvy wit and style of Pulp, the colourful whizz of Blur, an the thrill of Oasis who, let’s not forget, weren’t actually Britpop at all. When else could a band as awesome as, say, Elastica, be considered merely bit-part players?
The irony of course is that while Britpop flourished, British pop was also in spectacular health. With the distance of time that lets indie snobbery dissipate, who honestly doesn’t adore most of the oeuvre of Take That and the Spice Girls? And in US pop, the decade started with Madonna’s ‘Vogue’ and ended with Britney’s ‘…Baby One More Time’. But beyond that, after the sleeper attack of dance music at the end of the 80s, club culture infiltrated the mainstream, and the charts were that bit more colourful, funkier, and danced a little harder than have before or since. In fact the only genre that wasn’t bloody amazing in the 90s was hip-hop, which having got fat, bottomed into its unfortunate gangsta phase and briefly lost a little of its soul.
And there was so much brilliant stuff that you couldn’t even place in a scene; REM’s massive period, Throwing Muses, ‘OK Computer’, the first Garbage album, Michael Jackson’s ‘Black Or White’, the C96 revival, Green Day’s ‘Dookie’, Pixies, ‘All That She Wants’ by Ace Of Base, Prince’s Batman soundtrack, ‘Groove Is In The Heart’ by Deee-Lite, ‘Unbelievable’ by EMF, Guns N’Roses, the rise of the superstar DJ and of course, the birth of my beloved Manic Street Preachers.
But just as the decade found rock and pop at their most advanced and powerful, it also provided the high watermark for the best of how things used to be. For just as it ended, something else was becoming advanced and powerful – the internet. And just as the internet has given us many great advances – social networks; massive educational advances; amusing videos of cats – as we all know, it fundamentally transformed the music world.
And that’s about more than doomsaying about how filesharing ripped the music industry of many of its vital organs, leaving labels unable to afford to develop artists properly, and new artists unable to afford to eat – although there is that as well. But now we all have as much access to as much music as we want, a little bit of the strange and unknowable magic of it has been lost.
There have been benefits of course, but now that we can find out so much about them, and there’s more of them doing that little bit less, rock stars now feel that little bit less like superheroes. And that’s a shame. Memes and micro-scenes are brill, but is there anything quite like the thrill of all being behind something together? That still happens, just not as often as it used to. Yes, the 90s were amazing. We should revive them at once.
Disagree? Here are five good reasons never to revisit the 90s
100 best songs of the 90s