Ahhh, the 90s. A decade of laddy excess, musical class battles (hey Blur v Oasis), US grunge vs the Britpop invasion and riot grrl declaring war. Before the slump of the early 2000s beige brigade that saw Travis et al dominate the charts, here was a decade that celebrated personality in all its forms. Here are the best. Words: Priya Elan, Matthew Horton, Ben Hewitt





90‘Can I Kick It?’

Members of the Native Tongues group of ‘conscious’ rappers along with De La Soul and The Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest got their UK breakthrough with this laidback chant-a-long. The Boilerhouse remix was the one that did it, hepping up the Lou Reed ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ sample and throwing in any effect knocking around the studio – including an intro from “It’s all gone” Pete Tong.

89‘The Boy With The Arab Strap’

They may look like the bookish types who’d tell you to ‘Sssh’ in a library, but Belle And Sebastian ramped up the raunchiness here, as they paid tribute to saucily tongued Arab Strap singer Aiden Moffat. “You’re constantly updating your hit parade of your ten biggest wanks,” winked Stuart Murdoch over a rollickin’, rollin’ tune. Always the quiet ones, eh…

88‘Enter Sandman’

Metallica at their thrashing best. Singer James Hetfield was so aghast at the prospect of ‘Enter Sandman’ being too catchy that he set about penning some of the most disturbing lyrics he could muster, with lines such as “It’s just the beast underneath your bed” thought to be references to cot death. Suddenly, all that group therapy they underwent years later makes more sense…

87‘A Design For Life’

Forced to carry on as a three-piece after the disappearance of Richey Edwards, ‘A Design For Life’ saw the Manics backed into a corner but coming out fighting against elitism and displaying the proud battle-scars of class conflict, as Nicky Wire’s near-perfect lyrics become entangled in the grandiose string arrangement. James Dean Bradfield proffered one of his finest vocal performances too.

86‘Wonderwall’

Only The Chief himself really knows if ‘Wonderwall’ was written for his ex-wife Meg Mathews or, as he’d later claim, an “imaginary friend”. But it doesn’t matter in the slightest: ‘Wonderwall’ is one of those rare songs that’s about whatever you choose it to be, a singalong classic for the ages that’s equal-parts anthemic, tender, boozy and sympathetic.

85‘Sugar Kane’

Eyebrows were raised when Sonic Youth plumped to work with producer Butch Vig on ‘Dirty’, especially as he was fresh from twiddling the knobs on Nirvana’s alternative behemoth ‘Nevermind’. But rather than chasing the grunge money train, ‘Sugar Kane’ saw Kim and Thurston stick to their strengths, casually tossing out a knockabout pop melody charged with raucous riffs and scuzzy guitars.

84‘Don’t Speak’

Legend has it Gwen Stefani discarded the early, slushy version of ‘Don’t Speak’ after her relationship with No Doubt bassist Tony Kanal fell apart. It may have made rehearsals a tad awkward, but her decision to slow down the tempo and give the lyrics extra bite paid dividends. A drastic sea change from their trademark ska-pop, the lovelorn ballad became their biggest single to date.

83‘Step On’

The monster hit from the Mondays’ epochal LP ‘Pills ‘n’ Thrills And Bellyaches’ was loosely based on John Kongos’ 1971 hit ‘He’s Gonna Step On You Again’. However, its sonic template is given such an almighty shake-up that it becomes an unrecognisably lurid party anthem that’s blessed with the filthiest of swaggers, and still twists your melons 20-odd years on.

82‘California Love’

Two of West Coast hip-hop’s biggest icons joined forces for this ode to their home state, released shortly after 2Pac was released from prison on sexual assault charges. Dre mixed an old Joe Cocker sample with an explosive beat which allowed him and 2Pac to ride roughshod over the top, while the Hype Williams-directed, Mad Max-aping video celebrated the pair’s larger-than-life characters.

81‘Vapour Trail’

Oxford shoegazers Ride were more about the songs than their forebears My Bloody Valentine, and no less than on this single from debut album ‘Nowhere’. Breathtaking not only in its sonic scope (from Loz Colbert’s drumming to the string quartet featured on the outro) but also in the sullen vocal of Mark Gardener which suggests all sorts of sadness bubbling under the surface. A gem.

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