With culture’s ever-reliable 20-year cycle meaning that all things 90s are very much back in vogue, now seems as good a time as any to take a look back at the original artists that did it first. Whether you’re staring into the nihilistic, grunge abyss, indulging in some giddy Britpop escapism or charging up your riot grrl power, these are the tracks that started it all.
Words: Priya Elan, Matthew Horton, Ben Hewitt
100 ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’
Nowadays, Coolio whiles away the time ‘starring’ in US reality cooking shows, but for the briefest of periods in 1995 he was the epitome of cool. Eschewing any of the violent tropes of hip-hop, ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ was gospel-tinged and religion-indebted rap, with Coolio joined by tubby warbler L.V. as he twisted Stevie Wonder’s ‘Pastime Paradise’ into a dark tale of the pitfalls of gangster life.
99 ‘Reverend Black Grape’
Shaun Ryder and Bez rode off together into the sunset following the implosion of the Mondays. They were still bringing baggy beats and grooves and remained adored by many – ‘Reverend Black Grape’, their first single, shifted more copies than ‘Step On’ – but weren’t immune to the odd spot of controversy, either: the track drew parallels between the Pope, the Catholic church and Nazism.
98 ‘The Changingman’
By the time the Modfather released his third solo album ‘Stanley Road’, he’d firmly found his feet as a solo artist and was flourishing even without The Jam or Style Council. In many ways ‘The Changingman’ could neatly serve as Weller’s mantra for the era: a recognition of the need for constant evolution and boundary-pushing, backed by a riff-heavy stomp and white-hot licks.
97 ‘Who Am I? (What’s My Name)’
“She want the nigga with the biggest nuts, and guess what?/ He is I, and I am him” No self-deprecation for Calvin Broadus as he teamed up with Dr Dre for the first single from his debut LP ‘Doggystyle’. Snoop’s idle, laidback style was another pivotal moment in the transformation of West Coast rap, as it moved further away from the abrasive violence of NWA into funkier, more melodic pastures.
96 ‘You Get What You Give’
Regrettably, New Radicals didn’t make it to the 2000s, deciding to call it a day with just the one studio album under their belt in 1999. But they can rest content that they’re one of the most fondly remembered one-hit wonders of the decade: the feelgood guitar pop of ‘You Get What You Give’ stormed charts across the globe, and was named by U2 guitarist The Edge as the song he wished he’d written.
95 ‘November Rain’
Overblown? Guns N’ Roses? Nah, the original version of ‘November Rain’ was (reportedly) only a piffling 18 minutes long; the video cost a mere $1.5 million to make. But it’s that ridiculous bluster that makes ‘November Rain’ such a killer tune, from the highfalutin’ deployment of the orchestra to Slash’s never-ending solo. Grandiose guitar blowouts don’t come much more epic.
94 ‘Open Up’
A potentially great UK Number One that was robbed of the top spot by cruel coincidence? Production duo Leftfield were onto a sure-fire winner when they put their brain-pummelling electronica in a blender with John Lydon’s sneering vocals, but his yelp of “Burn! Hollywood Burn!” chimed uncomfortably in the wake of the Californian forest fires that spread the same week the track was released.
Don’t let that innocently jangling melody fool you, folks. ‘Laid’ saw Tim Booth getting hot and heavy with lines such as “The neighbours complain about the noises above, but she only comes when she’s on top,” and subsequently found himself an audience on US college radio. And who could resist that snare roll…
92 ‘Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang’
And lo did Dr Dre introduce the world to G-Funk, a new strain of West Coast rap with its slow, deep grooves and fat bass. The good physician wasn’t operating alone, though – Snoop Doggy Dogg provided the star turn, his languid drawl oozing machismo. “Before me dig out a bitch I have to find a contraceptive,” he purred, one eye already on a future in directing pornography.
On the cusp of greatness, or at least mainstream recognition, Pulp released one of their best-loved songs, a tale of fancying your girlfriend’s sister and hiding in her wardrobe. And who can say they haven’t done that? It hurtles along, and when Jarvis protests, “I only went with her ‘cos she looks like you… My God!” – well – 1992 peaks, doesn’t it?
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.
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.
80 ‘Dry The Rain’
The Beta Band’s unique selling point was that even though they were game-changers, they sounded so damned effortless with it. Their magical concoction of stoner folk, and lo-fi hip-hop may have drawn parallels with Beck and Folk Implosion but in the gentle majesty of ‘Dry The Rain’ theirs was a very particular proposition, with Scot Steve Mason leading the dour charge to this musical melting pot.
79 ‘Groove Is In The Heart’
With a dream team of collaborators (Bootsy Collins, Q-Tip, and a Herbie Hancock sample from which the main riff was built), Deee-Lite’s only real hit was a pretty faultless collage of G-Funk, Daisy Age hip-hop, salsa and dippy disco. It stood out like a funky sore thumb in a UK chart full of synthetic dance hits from the likes of NKOTB and Snap!, but made more of a brilliant lasting impression because of that.
78 ‘What Time Is Love?’
Released in three versions, the development of this track from insistent Trance earworm to industrial, goth/gospel thumper is fascinating and also doubled as a comment about the speed with which dance music was developing during this late 80s/early 90s halcyon period. In typically bombastic fashion KLF impresario Bill Drummond dubbed the track a “warhorse” of a tune.
77 ‘Sexy Boy’
Jean-Benoit Dunkel and Nicolas Godin’s ‘Moon Safari’ was a pivotal electronic album; mixing easy listening elements with Serge Gainsbourg-like melodiousness and the atmospherics of experimental electronica. ‘Sexy Boy’ was a perfect unification of all these pieces, and, in the repeated hook of the lyrics of the chorus, seemed to also serve as a knowing comment on the vapidity of the fashion industry.
76 ‘Come Together’
Significantly this was the first track recorded for ‘Screamadelica’, setting a template for the sound of the record. Featuring producer Andy Weatherall’s gentle melding of gospel backing vocals, house-y piano riffs, samples from the film Paris, Texas and Jesse Jackson (on the remix), it showed The Scream cresting the wave of the new decade by ushering in a new dance/indie genre.
75 ‘Celebrity Skin’
Courtney Love’s then flame Billy Corgan parachuted in to get Hole back on the straight and narrow and came up with the monster riff that does all the heavy lifting on ‘Celebrity Skin’. But Hole would be damned if they’d let a man take the glory and it’s Courtney’s throaty howl and confrontational confidence (“You’d better watch out for what you wish for”) that steals the show.
Perhaps their last great single, ‘Regret’ served as a testament to the band’s survival following the collapse of Factory Records (this was released on London Records) but also saw them stretching the boundaries of indie dance-pop for the umpteenth time. That the song was actually about Bernard Sumner’s search for a new house didn’t seem to matter one jot.
73 ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’
Prince penned this track five years earlier for The Family, allegedly inspired by the death of his personal assistant’s father. For her version, Sinead O’Connor thought about her stormy relationship with her late mother, adding a resonance to the “All the flowers that you planted, mama/ In the backyard/ All died when you went away” line that leads her to cry in the video.
72 ‘Brimful Of Asha (Fatboy Slim Remix)’
Tjinder Singh penned this track about the luminous cinematic power of Bollywood actress Asha Bhosle. As it stood, it was an absolutely pleasant slice of indie pop dreaminess. However, late 90s DJ de jour Norman Cook got hold of it and gave it a fresh lick of paint in the form of speeding the track up and placing some crashing beats behind it, transforming it into a surprise chart smash.
71 ‘Protect Ya Neck’
As strident a ‘statement of intent’ as can be expected from a debut single, Wu’s opening shot was a slice of “hardcore” rap, somewhere left of NWA and Public Enemy’s sloganeering, but still deadly serious in its glorious intensity. The RZA’s beats were rudimentary but they provided the perfect platform for unforgettable verses from Method Man, Ghostface, ODB and GZA.
The fact Thom Yorke penned ‘Creep’ on an acoustic guitar while he was at Exeter University seems perfect; you can imagine him looking at the cool collegiate lot who were “so fucking special,” half pining for them, half wanting to destroy them. It evoked the same outsiderdom Kurt Cobain knew so well, with Jonny Greenwood snapping his electric guitar like a snarling member of Yorke’s posse.
The emotional opposite of Bjork’s biggest 90s hit ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’, ‘Hyperballad’ was an earnest attempt to try and make old love alive once more. She said it was about the art of “not forgetting about yourself” in a relationship and this was reflected in the music which altered from gentle folktronica to drum and bass-tinted acid house.
68 ‘Hey Boy Hey Girl’
The big beats and looped psychedelia of 1997’s ‘Dig Your Own Hole’ were jettisoned when The Chemical Brothers returned with ‘Hey Boy Hey Girl’. They stamped on the house button, whipping up a storm of pumping beats and nagging bleeps to build something truly vast. If you’re wondering, that vocal hook’s from Rock Master Scott and the Dynamic Three’s 1984 hit ‘The Roof Is On Fire’.
67 ‘Hell Is Round The Corner’
Isaac Hayes’ ‘Ike’s Rap II’ was all over trip hop in the mid-90s, from this to Portishead’s ‘Glory Box’. Chancer that he was, Tricky also recycles his rap from Massive Attack’s ‘Eurochild’, another 1994 release – but combined with Martina Topley-Bird’s witchy vocals all these elements sound original, fashioning another of Tricky’s peculiar stoner nightmares.
66 ’The Boy Is Mine’
It’s not quite as friendly as Macca and Jacko’s 1982 cheesefest ‘The Girl Is Mine’, instead featuring two R&B heavyweights piling on the passive aggression – “I’m sorry that you seem to be confused”, amazing. A Rodney Jerkins and Dallas Austin production, it’s such a highpoint of both Brandy and Monica’s career that they tried in vain to rekindle the magic earlier this year.
All that reinvention on 1991’s ‘Achtung Baby’ and the only song anyone remembers isn’t the daring ‘Mysterious Ways’ or raunchy ‘Even Better Than The Real Thing’, but this classic U2 ballad. The lyrics, according to Bono, came from nowhere and The Edge’s chord sequence emerged from a jam session. Obviously Brian Eno hated it – too goddamned simple – but the rest of us had an anthem to cherish.
64 ’The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)’
With this astonishing debut single Missy Elliott and producer Timbaland launched a beast on the world, presaging half a decade’s worth of stellar, questing production and tasty rhymes. It’s based, clearly, on a sample from Ann Peebles’ ‘I Can’t Stand The Rain’, but the portly bassline is all Timbaland and the sexy drawl is all down to Missy, an instant star who went straight into the UK top 20.
63 ’Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space’
Jason Pierce originally wanted to interpolate Elvis Presley’s ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’ into the title track of Spiritualized’s grand opus but was denied by The King’s estate. No matter, he did it anyway a decade later. In its original album form, ‘Ladies And Gentlemen…’ is a shimmering, devotional intro to a record that plucks heartstrings even while whacked out on every chemical under the sun.
Nirvana’s slipstream dragged in copious imitators, but also bands that hadn’t been lucky enough to break through on their own terms. Eddie Vedder’s Pearl Jam benefited from Nirvana’s impetus to hit big with first single ‘Alive’ a record of stern power led by Vedder’s grim voice, some stunning guitar work from Mike McCready and a LOLfest of a lyric about incest and mistaken parental identity.
61 ’It’s A Shame About Ray’
It took eons for Evan Dando to become a star but when grunge and the dawn of Generation X opened the door he shambled right in with a fifth album that surfed the laidback slacker wave. ‘It’s A Shame About Ray’ – the album’s title track – was inspired by a mix of vague stories about newspaper headlines and a bar owner who called everyone Ray, but its melody is crystal clear and quite lovely.
Away from the Pixies, Kim Deal could exercise her ultrapop muscle, teaming up with sister Kelley, Josephine Wiggs and Jim MacPherson to make the quirkiest of alternative hits. ‘Cannonball’, lead single from second album ‘Last Splash’, is playful and raucous but unspeakably neat, firing off ideas and effects in all directions and storing up enough hooks to feed them all winter, because that’s what hooks do.
59 ’Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)’
‘Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)’ or ‘Time Of Your Life (Good Riddance)’ – whatever you fancy – was a true punk statement by the snotty-nosed revivalists: a ballad. Suckers worldwide clutched it to their hearts and sent it up the mainstream charts in 1997, but it had actually been knocking around for years, an earlier version surfacing as a B-side to the conflated ‘Brain Stew/Jaded’ in 1996.
58 ’Friday I’m In Love’
After the blissful misery of 1989’s ‘Disintegration’, ‘Wish’ was a return to the more poppy Bob Smith of mid-80s glory – and ‘Friday I’m In Love’ was its dangerously upbeat signature track. Not that its genesis was all that happy. The paranoid Smith was sure he’d nabbed the chord progression and spent hours ringing people up and playing it to them to see if they knew.
57 ’Needle In The Hay’
Quite beautiful but harsh all the same, Elliott Smith’s semi-confessional acoustic hymn to addiction feels like one of many foreshadowings of his death. It bristles with anger and bitterness, while keeping both under shaky control, and provided an almost too close to the bone soundtrack for Richie Tenenbaum’s suicide attempt, portrayed by Luke Wilson in Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums.
56 ’Got Your Money’
It wasn’t a hit in the UK until 2000, scraping the Top 10 on the back of guest vocalist Kelis’s breakthrough with the raging ‘Caught Out There’, but in 1999 ‘Got Your Money’ and parent album ‘Nigga Please’ scandalised the States as ODB became public enemy no.1. Back to the music, The Neptunes’ whipcrack production and ODB’s bananas delivery gave Kelis the perfect platform for a big career.
55 ’Ready Or Not’
In 1996 the Fugees could’ve released five minutes of Wyclef chanting, “One time, two time” and it would’ve gone to No.1. But ‘Ready Or Not’ deserved its success, lifting The Delfonics’ ‘Ready Or Not Here I Come (Can’t Hide From Love) and shaping it into a downbeat groove. Lauryn Hill was rarely more soulful and her cohorts keep it simple, trading braggadocio with a deft flow.
54 ’Doo Wop (That Thing)’
After the demise of the Fugees, Lauryn Hill announced her arrival as a solo star with this startlingly original blend of hip-hop and doo wop. To an insistent piano vamp she shoots out warnings to each side of the gender divide, rhyming with dextrous speed and singing like a dream. It topped the charts in the US, made No.3 here and just adds to the whole heap of pity that Hill’s not cutting it anymore.
Everyone got all unnecessary about Justine Frischmann and Damon Albarn’s perfect Britpop union but the real story was Elastica’s knack for a crisp, punchy tune. Of course there was a lot of chat about Wire and The Stranglers, but on debut single ‘Stutter’ Elastica’s spiky allure sounds brand new, Frischmann belittling some poor fellow to the strains of their most killer chorus.
It’s hard not to read volumes into ‘Lithium’ as it struggles to keep a grip on life in the face of pain, neuroses and general bad vibes. Still, its protagonist finds solace in religion, which isn’t general Cobain practice even though he could see the benefits. Pop psychology aside, it was a pain in the neck to record – precipitating Dave Grohl’s arrival – but rocks like a holy mother.
51 ’One Love’
We thought it was going to be the overture for that difficult second album but ‘One Love’ ended up being four years adrift. Taking its cue from the new groove-based Roses of ‘Fools Gold’ it skittered around another ‘Funky Drummer’ beat, with John Squire firing off the kind of axe-based pyrotechnics that would come to the fore when the band finally re-emerged.
50 ’Caught By The Fuzz’
“You’ve blackened our name… You should be ashamed!” Whether those were the actual words Gaz Coombes’ mum used when she picked up her 15-year-old son from the nick doesn’t matter. ‘Caught By The Fuzz’ sums up the white fear of getting your collar felt then having to deal with the folks and Supergrass burst into British pop with wit, tunes and sideburns you could use for a doormat.
49 ’Losing My Religion’
Years of college radio respect finally turned into worldwide recognition for REM – and all they had to do was put a mandolin on the track. Peter Buck’s versatility makes the record but it’s Michael Stipe’s weepy performance that connected with record buyers. REM never looked back, took on the mantle of Biggest Band in the World and, in ‘Losing My Religion’, got that long craved-for Dutch No.1.
48 ‘For Tomorrow’
As Britain was enveloped by the shadowy squall of grunge, Blur returned from an unsuccessful tour of the States with nothing but disdain for the promised land. Damon Albarn took to studying from the Bible Of Ray Davies and from it came a new lyrical view full of character studies, everyday whimsy and what we now call Britpop. This story of Jim and Susan trying to make it through the modern world kicked it off.
47 ‘Jump Around’
Hip-hop trio The House Of Pain were Irish-American, but you would never have guessed it. Apart from all those shamrocks. But in a brief and undistinguished career they put out one stone cold smash: ‘Jump Around’ was irresistible, the ultimate easy floorfiller, and floor-destroyer. It was produced by Cypress Hill’s DJ Muggs, another thing you’d never guess, what with all those whistling kettles.
46 ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’
Sarah Cracknell’s pipes would eventually become synonymous with Saint Etienne, but it was Moira Lambert who provided lead vocals on their breakthrough single, a classy dance overhaul of Neil Young’s standard ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’. Tapping into a melancholic groove, it formed the centrepiece of their debut LP ‘Foxbase Alpha’ and provided the launchpad for their future success.
45 ’No Scrubs’
‘No Scrubs’ taught you a new word: a scrub is “a guy who thinks he’s fine/Also known as a buster”. TLC’s sinuous number flipped the bird at those divvies “hanging out… his best friend’s drive” and sailed by on a bed of looped guitar and creeping synths – but did the scrubs get the message? No, they came right back with a rubbish answer record, Sporty Thieves’ ‘No Pigeons’.
After the scratchy Buddhist funk meets thrash metal of ‘Ill Communication’ the Beasties came back dumb as ever with this electro larkabout based around Modest Mussorgsky’s ‘A Night On Bald Mountain’. All the classic BBs elements were in place – shouting the last syllable of each line, clowning around in boiler suits in the video – and they added up to their only UK Top 5 hit.
43 ‘No Diggity’
Roping in Dr Dre and Queen Pen to provide some steely-edged raps allowed Blackstreet’s smooth ‘n’ sexy number to romp the charts and gave them Top 10 hits on both side of the Atlantic (including nabbing the top spot in the US). Arguably, they’d never better ‘No Diggity’ – but there’s no shame in failing to top such a classy concoction of urban swagger and classic R&B.
42 ‘Where’s It At’
‘Odelay’ was Beck’s defining musical statement of the 90s – the LP that saw him become a fully-fledged darling of the music press – and ‘Where’s It At’ showed there was more to him than ‘Loser’. It defies categorisation – at its most basic it’s a rap song, but one that encompasses everything from washed-out Hammond synths to oddball samples. A genre-splicing genius was born…
41 ‘The Only One I Know’
The Charlatans’ first Top 10 hit invited the odd unfavourable comparison with Manchester forefathers The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays, and even had them pegged as one-hit wonders. They’d later prove such accusations monumentally daft, but ‘The Only One I Know’ was evidence enough that brilliance beckoned as they took the baggy grooves of Madchester and added a sprinkling of pop gold dust.
40 ‘If You Don’t Want Me To Destroy You’
An early snapshot of the weird and wonderful world of Wales’ finest purveyors of eclectic pop, ‘If You Don’t Want Me To Destroy You’ is Gruff Rhys and co at their dreamiest best. The grazing electric guitars provide a pillow-soft melody as Rhys coos, “And when the animals gather around you/ Do you ask them for the time, or do you run away and whine?” Off-kilter but pitch-perfect.
A wonderful fusion of mad sounds mish-mashed together into one glorious whole, that cemented The Boo Radleys’ place as ground-breaking sonic pioneers. In a just world, ‘Lazarus’ would be a chart-topping behemoth; sadly, it failed to even dent the Top 40, but its seamless blend of dub lines, honking horns and slinky harmonies was all evidence of a band at the peak of their powers.
Angelo Badalamenti wrote the music (the instrumental was the theme song for Twin Peaks) and David Lynch penned the lyrics. The result was an eerie 50s-flecked ballad. But this being a Lynch production meant hints of something darker beneath the surface. Although singer Julee Cruise appeared in the show, the rumour mill reckoned this the words of murder victim Laura Palmer put into song.
37 ‘Around The World’
The duo of Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter managed to create a dance track that was almost krautrock in its determination not to deviate from the framework of repeated bass line and vocodered hook. Michel Gondry’s promo built on this concept with robots, synchronised swimmers and skeletons repeating the same mechanical movements to the tune. The effect was hypnotic.
36 ‘Fade Into You’
This beautiful witchy waltz suggested Hope Sandoval and David Roback had been watching a lot of David Lynch films and listening to loads of old country songs. Released in 1994, it seemed beamed in from another time and place, transcending the musical waves of the time. Sandoval, whose vocal was filled with a unique, sumptuous sadness, said of the song, “It’s about faith, losing faith.”
35 ‘Where The Wild Roses Grow’
Inspired by the old folk song ‘The Willow Garden’, Nick Cave sent a “sinister demo” version of this track to Kylie Minogue’s management (with Bad Seed Blixa Bargeld singing the female parts – creepy). Her “people” went ballistic but Kylie, a long time admirer of Cave, agreed. Beauty meets the Beast as Cave’s vengeful vocal sits against Kylie’s honeyed tones to create something unforgettable.
34 ‘Glory Box’
Portishead’s Beth Gibbons donned a variety of men’s outfits in the cross-dressing video for ‘Glory Box’, but she didn’t need to dress in drag to turn heads here. A sexy and seductive tale of a woman at the end of her tether with love, her breathless and sultry vocal steals the show, providing the emotional heft for the woozy, trippy instrumentation that envelops her voice like velvet.
33 ‘No Good (Start The Dance)’
Legend has it that Liam Howlett ummed-and-ahhed over his decision to release ‘No Good (Start The Dance’), fretting over whether the sample – a hyper, sped-up version of Kelly Charles’ vocal from her 80s hit ‘You’re No Good For Me’ – was too much like pop-froth. Thank heavens he went through with it, then, and birthed one of The Prodigy’s finest singles with its scuzzy euphoria and thumping bass.
A last-minute addition to the already seriously overstretched ‘Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness’, ‘1979’ was the one true classic of the finished record. It revolves around some very Peter Hook bass and looped “ooh”s from Billy Corgan, drifting through hazy nostalgia and, in its stripped back sense of restraint, pointed the way to a future Pumpkins.
31 ’Unfinished Sympathy’
Trip hop progenitor ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ is really a slick piece of hip-hop soul blessed with Shara Nelson’s broken bawl and some muted beats and cowbells from 3-D, Mushroom and Daddy G. It came out under the more politically sensitive band name of Massive during the first Gulf War and ensured the collective remained the urban sophisticate’s artist of choice for the next decade.
30 ‘Born Slippy’
It was no coincidence that this track was chosen to soundtrack a key moment in Trainspotting. Penned on a drunken night as Karl Hyde got bleary-eyed in Soho, the fragmentary lyrics are mirrored by the music, which hurtles between speeds and moods, perfectly echoing the state of inebriation one needs to get to before belting out “lager, lager, lager” to passersby.
29 ‘Girls And Boys’
Not content with giving the middle finger to the grungesters, Damon and co showed their bums in the general direction of hedonistic club culture with this, their, er, most clubby song to date. It hurtled along at breakneck speed, a four-to-the-floor beat meshed with Albarn’s schoolyard taunt of a chorus and Graham’s buzzing guitar work. A first: a Blur song that made you dance first, think second.
Unlike the popular perception of the Foo Fighters and “nicest guy in rock” Dave Grohl, ‘Everlong’ subverts these received ideas to present the Foos as brooding and unsettled as Nirvana ever were. A jagged-edged guitar riff is paired with a creepy Grohl vocal delivery to create a whirl of uncertainty and regret. The effect is possibly one of the most winning and genuinely touching songs they’ve ever made.
27 ‘Down By The Water’
PJ Harvey shape-shifted from genius guitar banshee screeching about bodily functions to glamour puss teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown. ‘Down By The Water’ was her purest pop song to date, but there was something more complicated lurking below. The track’s tale of infanticide and innocence lost found its inspiration in old blues songs but the sonics were pure Beefheart meets dancehall.
The G-Funk Era didn’t last a terribly long time but there was a big enough window for some choice cuts from Snoop and this defining moment from the otherwise fairly anonymous Warren G. Snaking along over a hefty chunk of ex-Doobie Brothers/Steely Dan vocalist Michael McDonald’s oh-so-smooth ‘I Keep Forgettin’’, the late Nate Dogg helps G out of a jam while ladies crash their car staring at him.
Released as a single after Richard Ashcroft and his long-suffering troops first decided to call it quits, ‘History’ would have made a fitting epitaph: a suitably grandiose affair that pillaged its opening lines from visionary poet William Blake’s work ‘London’. Instead, when they reformed, its use of strings proved to be something of a catalyst for future hits such as ‘Bittersweet Symphony’.
24 ‘Caught Out There’
Kelis’s “I HATE YOU SO MUCH RIGHT NOW!’ didn’t just perfectly crest a wave of emancipated divas, it was the breakout hit for The Neptunes. The duo, who would go on to dominate pop radio, created a unique audio world full of sparse beats, sci-fi styled keyboard sounds and spluttering rhythms. Kelis’s honeyed vocal, which broke into unfiltered madness, was the thing that took this track over the top.
23 ’Last Goodbye’
A gorgeous, regret-tinged ode that shines the spotlight upon Buckley’s dazzling, once-in-a-generation talent but also gives a tantalising glimpse of what he might have gone on to achieve. As with much of his back catalogue, its lyrics have been given a hefty poignancy in light of his untimely death, but there’s something irrefutably hopeful in hearing his faultless falsetto vocal soaring into the skies.
22 ‘Into My Arms’
‘The Boatman’s Call’ saw Nick Cave undergo a radical transformation from hell-crazed post-punk to bruised piano balladry. ‘Into My Arms’, a gentle ode that intertwined love and spirituality, was one of his finest heart-on-sleeve efforts – and gained even more emotional heft when he sang it at the funeral of INXS singer Michael Hutchence, although he insisted all TV cameras were switched off.
21 ‘Live Forever’
As the dying embers of grunge faded away, Noel Gallagher penned this defiantly optimistic number in direct opposition to Kurt Cobain’s nihilism. It was a bold move that paid off. ‘Live Forever’’s positive mantra resonated totally with the public and Liam Gallagher’s delivery made it seem as if – in escaping the everyday – the impossible was possible again.
20 ‘Basket Case’
‘Dookie’ placed Green Day as the loveable stoners who’d probably laugh at a fart joke before attempting to light their own, but there was something more going on beneath the three-chord wiggle. Billie Joe Armstrong was singing about the anxiety and panic under all the blissed-out wackiness, and this sense of outsider-ness was something they’d explore later on in their career.
19 ’Girl From Mars’
Fresh out of kindergarten, Northern Irish trio Ash made the big breakthrough with this paean to a lost Martian love. On ‘1977’ Ash were at their most vital, combining their love of sci-fi with breathless pop-grunge and giving the mid-90s punk revival a friendly face. In the Britpop whirlwind, Ash were often overlooked, but ‘Girl From Mars’ is proof that Tim Wheeler and co could write hooks to rival the best of them.
18 ‘Song 2’
Having spent half a decade thumbing their noses at the US invasion, and inventing Britpop in the face of the grunge wave, Blur confounded everyone by turning up in 1997 with an album so American it couldn’t pronounce Edinburgh. In many ways, ‘Song 2’ seemed like Blur’s dumbest song, a two-minute slab of “woo hoos” and massive riffs, but as the age old adage states, it takes someone pretty clever to make something sound so stupid and ‘Song 2’ knew exactly what it was doing.
17 ’Buddy Holly’
Would this have been that stellar breakthrough smash if it hadn’t been for the Happy Days video? It deserved it anyway, because a song that Rivers Cuomo considered throwaway is the perfect meld of pop and grunge, marrying a dumbassed chorus to some thick, churning guitar. Their producer – The Cars’ Ric Ocasek – knew it was a hit, and you should always trust a man who never removes his sunglasses.
16 ‘My Name Is’
Shocking as it was (and still is), the truth is Eminem’s opening gambit was a moment Marshall Mathers never matched again. As complicated as the rapper himself, it was initially hilarious (something only enhanced by the colourful video), but scrape the surface and it actually made for pretty disturbing subject matter. Eminem Inc was a pretty messed-up place to visit, and this was just the beginning.
15 ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’
Coming at the end of ‘The Bends’, ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’ is both a fitting and uncertain conclusion for the monumental album. It feels like a psychological stripping back of everything that has come before, with Thom Yorke intoning mysteriously about “cracked eggs…dead birds” as the band whip up a quiet riot of minor chords. No wonder Yorke named it as one of the band’s “saddest songs.”
14 ’Animal Nitrate’
Music press darlings Suede came out with a third corker in as many singles, delivering a firm kick in the teeth to anyone muttering about hype. ‘Animal Nitrate’ boasted their best chorus yet, some outrageous guitar swagger from Bernard Butler and Brett Anderson slapping his impossibly bony rump in an epoch-making BRITs performance.
“We wanna be free to do what we wanna do/ And we wanna get loaded” The Peter Fonda sample from cult flick The Wild Angels wasn’t just a nifty soundbite; it virtually served as Primal Scream’s mission statement as they espoused the joys of freedom and fucked-up fun, translating acid house and rave into a mainstream concern and somehow making a rambling, seven-minute epic with virtually no vocals one of their most loved tracks.
Madonna started the new decade at the top of her game. Originally recorded with new collaborator Shep Pettibone for the B-side of ‘Like A Prayer’ single ‘Keep It Together’, ‘Vogue”s melding of old Hollywood lyrical references, house pianos and heavy referencing of The Salsoul Orchestra’s ‘Ooh, I Love It (Love Break)’ was too good to go to waste as a mere flipside.
11 ’Bittersweet Symphony’
The Verve’s triumphant return after one of their myriad splits was marked by a new ‘The’ in front of their name and a whole heap of Allen Klein-baiting cowbells. Klein owned the rights to Andrew Oldham’s arrangement of The Rolling Stones’ ‘The Last Time’ from whence they were lifted, and he sued Richard Ashcroft and co to within an inch of their royalties. But it was all worth it, wasn’t it?
10 ‘Killing In The Name’
The campaign to beat the 2009 The X Factor winner to the Christmas No.1 spot provided a timely reminder of just how much fire burned within Rage Against The Machine’s rallying call against the rank hideousness of US society. It’s a flame built on Tom Morello’s iconic, white-hot riff as Zack de la Rocha pours on the gasoline, taunting American forces with rhymes about racism and the Ku Klux Klan.
What a greedy swine Bernard Butler is: not content with peppering the upper echelons of this weighty list with tracks from his time with Suede, he also found time to create pop magic with singer David McAlmont. True to form, the pair would split before their debut LP was released, but that doesn’t sully the fists-in-the-air, sing-a-long triumph of ‘Yes’, unarguably their best – and most successful – single.
8 ‘Da Funk’
‘Da Funk’ seemed to appear out of nowhere – an insistent slice of massive, throbbing house pop. But in a rare interview Daft Punk revealed it was written after attempting (and failing) to make a hardcore hip-hop record. Instead they recreated one of their favourite tracks of the time (Warren G’s G-Funk classic ‘Regulate’), with some Giorgio Moroder-like synths thrown into the mix.
They started as punks, so it was only natural the B-Boys would return to their original musical influence. ‘Sabotage’ paired organic hip-hop beats with an alternative underbelly and the result was brilliant. Mind you, it will be eternally linked with Spike Jonze’s brilliant visual treatment which eked out the humour and irony in the track, hidden behind barnstorming guitars and propulsive beats.
Coming on like a twin of ‘Live Forever’, Noel Gallagher’s no-nonsense lyrics, a typically bolshy delivery from “our kid” and a guitar riff which echoed George Harrison’s ‘My Sweet Lord’ added up to the very first Oasis classic. “I need to be myself/ I can’t be no-one else,” drawled Liam, thus creating the Gallagher brothers’ utterly self-confident manifesto from the off.
5 ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’
While ‘Generation Terrorists’ has its critics, no sage soul has a bad word to say about ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ – and with good reason, because it remains one of the Manics’ glittering high-points. To this day, it shines as an undimmed soul-trodden elegy, buoyed by some of James Dean Bradfield’s finest fretwork, and topped off with Richey Edwards’ typically brilliant poetic flourishes.
4 ’Paranoid Android’
In which Radiohead revealed they were the new Pink Floyd and killed off any lingering fans of ‘Anyone Can Play Guitar’. After the stake in the ground that was 1995’s ‘The Bends’, ‘Paranoid Android’ was a rash comeback, a ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’-style epic with Jonny Greenwood trying new and exciting axe shapes and Thom Yorke sneering at Gucci piggies. But it worked and Radiohead now rule the universe.
3 ‘Stay Together’
The Valentine’s Day kiss-off between Brett Anderson and Bernard Butler came in the form of these nine minutes of swirling romantic drama. Anderson’s lyric spoke of the pull of a junkie’s fix versus love, whileButler’s fretwork was brash and bold, hinting at something more celestial. Its bombast didn’t give any hint of what was about to happen to band chemistry. ‘Stay Together’? As if they could…
2 ’Smells Like Teen Spirit’
That brutal four-chord riff is the death knell for hair metal, the end of spandex, the funeral march for all preening 80s rock. Kurt Cobain was more blasé about it, admitting its kinship with Boston’s ‘More Than A Feeling’, but it was the raging delivery of both riff and vocal that changed the game as Cobain poured scorn and pain into a new nihilist hymn. The kids that missed punk had their own rallying call.
1 ’Common People’
Pulp had been building up to this one, slyly chronicling our peculiar little ways to a soundtrack that rose above the Britpop mire. On ‘Razzmatazz’ and ‘Lipgloss’ Jarvis skewered his own roots with a half-smile and a touch of kitsch, but ‘Common People’ was almost serious in its study of the class divide. Based on a true story, it broke free of the specific and became an anthem for the lot of us.