The 250 Best Songs of the 1990s


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


Pulp: “Common People” (1995)

Formed in 1978 by a teenage couple from Sheffield, Pulp navigated line-up and label changes without commercial success – until the Britpop explosion of the mid-90s provided a new world stage for their fifth album. Different class and her first career-defining single. A much sexier, soulful and more suitably cynical British counterpart to “Uptown Girl”, “Common People” was the tale of singer Jarvis Cocker’s endlessly magnetic art school mingling with a rich girl who was excited at the idea of ​​slumming with poor people. like himself. He pleased her – and was happy to sleep with her – but the song was a harsh critique of class tourism by people who would never experience poverty, a populist anthem built on hours of sweaty dancing, whatever socio-economic status. –Evie Nagy

Listen: Pulp, “ordinary people”


Portishead: “Sour Times” (1994)

The Portisheads are masters of digital psychedelia, artificially eroded samples and breaks that encase longing in soothing layers of ice. Set in the impassable chasm between fantasy and fate, the Bristol trio endures as a monument to our own sublimated desires. “Sour Times” transforms this existential despair into a fatalistic noir dreamscape. Singer Beth Gibbons tosses in and out a meandering bassline and guitarist Adrian Utley’s finest Morricone riff, bathing in the cursed knowledge of the inescapable power of a lost love. The song draws its hypnotic majesty from the thrill of Gibbons’ graceful rage, poised between succumbing to an eternity of longing and spitting venom in the eye of fate. It’s a haunted waltz for cursed androids, damned to the soundtrack of disconnected hearts far beyond the singularity. –Philip Roberts

Listen: Portishead, “The Acid Times”


George Michael: “Freedom! ’90” (1990)

George Michael’s understated and thoughtful second solo album Listen Without Prejudice, vol. 1 showed another side of the often bubblegummy superstar, and “Freedom!” ’90” laid bare her mission statement: sometimes clothes just don’t make the man. Perhaps to the chagrin of every starving schoolgirl, the star’s image never graced Harm, neither on its cover nor on its videos. The music had to speak for itself, and on “Freedom!” he did this using a “Funky Drummer” break and a Madchester-y piano riff. The song’s strut rises until an exuberant chorus explodes, repeatedly harmonizing the song’s title. This freedom was to be achieved, in Michael’s estimation, through image editing: “There’s something inside of me / There’s someone else I gotta be.” Attempting to evoke authenticity in show business is about as easy as declaring yourself a vegan by only eating at steakhouses, but “Freedom!” is a matter of concept, not practice, suggesting the journey to happiness rather than the destination. For the classic video, Michael enlisted a roster of top lip-syncers — Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista — who helped provide beautiful scenery in his quest. –Rich Juzwiak

Listen: George Michael, “Freedom! ’90”


Mobb Deep: “The Shaken, Pt. II” (1995)

“The Shaken, Pt. II” is such a rich text that isolated elements impart more style and biographical depth than almost any other introduction in hip-hop history. There’s the Herbie Hancock piano that Havoc transformed, in his mother’s apartment, into one of rap’s most unmistakable basslines; there’s Prodigy’s off-the-cuff opening – “To all the killers and the ones who charge a hundred bucks/To the real niggas with no feelings” – and what it suggests is elided in its verses; there are those hats, which people believed for years to be the sound of stoves crackling in the Queensbridge Houses. Even the mesmerizing mermaid loop tells a story: it’s taken from a song by Quincy Jones, who Prodigy’s grandfather taught to read music. And yet it all becomes secondary when P raps – about the burning of bullets in the flesh, the hope of dying in a place like Queensbridge, and how, if you don’t watch yourself, “the next rhyme I write could be about you.” –Paul A. Thompson

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


Fiona Apple: “Criminal” (1996)

“I’ve been a bad, bad girl” Fiona Apple purrs like a vixen in an old man’s sex dream, knowing that at 18 a woman is young enough to be preyed upon and old enough to be pilloried. “Criminal” is his most popular song, potent as a fortified drink, selling ogled audiences a sexual fantasy while underscoring the fucked up dynamic underneath. A piano shakes as if announcing the sudden onset of an earthquake, and Apple confesses the sin of being “careless with a delicate man,” his voice dripping with irony. Men are so tough until it’s time to take responsibility, then they’re helpless and angry like children. But Fiona screams for punishment, looking irresistible while confessing her crime. As a new generation of girls like to say: I support women’s rights, but more importantly, I support women’s rights wrongs. –Cat Zhang

Listen: Fiona Apple, “Criminal”


Mazzy Star: “Melt Into You” (1993)

A slow waltz beat, a few Dylan chords, a steel pedal like a lamp from an attic window, and Hope Sandoval’s fluffy 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-up anthem of Mazzy Star’s major-label debut, it was the mainstream peak of this dream-pop duo from psych band Opal and the platonic ideal of a melancholic slow-dance song. Even as its dark, enveloping aura echoes in the deliberate dream pop of Beach House, the scintillating indie folk tales of Taylor Swift and the weary steel guitar slides of Faye Webster, the pain of the original remains unanswered: the space between us is small but huge, the only way forward straight into oblivion. –Anna Gaca

Listen: Mazzy Star, “Melt Into You”


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

Lauryn Hill is tender and fierce on her first solo single, offering empathy and tough advice to women and men in difficult relationships. On Fugees’ songs, she’d often harden her flows (or “add a ‘motherfucker’ so you hear me, igneous niggas”, as she puts it on “Zealots”), but here and throughout The bad education of Lauryn Hill, his rap is conversational, assured. Soul, gospel and Motown hip-hop converge as she glides over gleaming brass, crisp drums and a jingly-keyed riff. She seems determined to channel every sound and inspiration she’s ever had, harmonizing, scattering, rapping and humming. The music video features a split-screen motif that portrays her as both modern and retro, but the real takeaway from this song is that she’s just herself. –Stephen Kearse

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


Daft Punk: “Around the World” (1997)

The music doesn’t start so much as on the surface, as if “Around the World” surges from a great depth, this low-pass filter cutting through the treble without obscuring the “fundamental” signal. And then the song fully emerges, the bass suddenly becomes like something stolen from under Bernard Edwards’ fingertips, the hi-hat making this clear, open sound shhh off-time business. The basement stuff turns out to have been poignantly appropriate in a way. “Around the World” was an exhumation, disco as if reworked in post-industrial Chicago and Detroit, then adapted again by two blessed Montmartre crackpots, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo.

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