The Nineties music boom was a gold rush for singles – everywhere you went on the radio, you heard a high-speed collision of different beats. Every style of music out there was booming, from grunge to gangsta rap, from dancehall to disco, from riot-grrrl punk to TRL midriff mall-pop, with a thousand different electronica schools and nearly as many Wu-Tang solo records. Whatever kind of noise was ringing your bells, the Nineties held more of it than any fan could absorb. There’s no way one list could sum up such a bountiful decade – hell, you could run through two or three hundred great tunes from summer ’94 alone. But these 50 crucial songs capture glorious moments from all over the Nineties music explosion – hits, obscurities, cult classics, dance-floor jams, guitar ragers, karaoke standards. Here we are now. Entertain us.
Out of nowhere and soon to return, quasi-grunge kids from Boston with exactly one perfect song in them: a sad girl singing barely comprehensible words about a flashlight and feeling her way around in the dark. It went totally unheard except by the lucky few who might have caught it on MTV's 120 Minutes during one of its late-night favor-dumps. How many other magnificent quasi-grunge tunes are out there buried on forgotten major-label albums from the post-Nirvana gold rush, waiting to be discovered? There can't be many this great. But happy hunting.
Britney's second hit – in other words, her first comeback hit. Nobody really expected the "…Baby, One More Time" girl to last all the way to the spring of 1999, but "Sometimes" was the Total Request Live jam that proved this girl was here to stay and the prototype for a new breed of pop star. Welcome to the next century.
Just another bunch of Orange County hardcore dudes going megaplatinum with a ditty about masochism. "I may be dumb, but I'm not a dweeb" remains relevant, unless of course you do happen to be a dumb dweeb, in which case you're probably the guy in this song.
The Tejano queen reinvents the Pretenders' "Back on the Chain Gang," translated into Spanish – and it went Top Five on the Billboard Latin charts the week she died.
If hell has a honky-tonk lounge, this is the song on the jukebox at closing time, with David Berman crooning his fractured barstool philosophy.
The quintessential Bad Boy hit – a strangely melancholic synth loop, Lil Cease catching Biggie's keys and the uncrushable bravado of the Queen Bee, Kim herself, showing off her collection of wigs and matching furs. "Shall I proceed?" "Yes, indeed!"
Voulez vous coucher avec le revolution? These European vintage-keyboard aesthetes made album after album of lush agitprop trance-prog – this song was their summit.
Picking just one song from the Clueless soundtrack? That's almost as difficult as searching for meaning in a Pauly Shore movie.
The world's biggest Swedish reggae band gets mystical with a hit that couldn't have possibly involved a native English speaker. ("Life is demanding/Without understanding" – so true.) It was a very Swedish reggae kind of decade.
A boho sex priestess wails about an unrequited crush. The word "damn" never hurt so bad.
Uptown, baby. The late great Bronx MC and the R&B smoothie meet over lovers-rock piano to woo "highly intelligent bachelorettes" with a pan-cultural party chant ("boricua, morena") and some dirty talk. R.I.P., Pun – he wasn't a player, he just crushed a lot.
Punk wolf boys take a bold step to humanhood with a folk-to-feedback ballad about opening your bitter little world to scary new feelings and smiling back at that girl across the room.
The scariest gangsta tale ever, ending with Willie D pounding his bloody fists on the concrete over a chilly jazz-fusion loop.
The purest one-hit wonder imaginable – one gloriously grandiose prom anthem, complete with bucket hat and mall-riot video and insults to Beck, Hanson, Courtney Love and Marilyn Manson. And then goodbye. The New Radicals guy got nominated for an Oscar in 2015 for Begin Again, but tragically failed to rock the bucket hat on the red carpet.
Elegant trip-hop melancholy, with Beth Gibbons drowning her sorrows to that timeless Seventies sample of cheeba-zonked Isaac Hayes funk – a sample brought back to the radio in 2015 by the not-born-yet Alessia Cara.
Sheryl, you had us all at the line about scraping the mold off the bread – the ultimate Nineties vision of rock & roll stoner torpor.
The funky divas' steamiest slow jam, on the topic of lovemakin', heartbreakin' and soul shakin'. Best moment: "If I could wear your clothes… I'd pretend I was you… and looooose controoool!"
Guitar hero Mary Timony (later of Wild Flag and Ex Hex) croons a sweet little ballad about how if you hassle her on the street, you're gonna pay with your life, because her guitar will kill you. Then her guitar actually does just that, while Timony sings her hilariously deadpan kiss-off lines: "My heart is a cab…your love is a fad…and you're a draaag!"
Foxy: "I'm 2 live, nasty as I wanna be." Jay: "Don't shake your sassy ass in front of me." Jigga had just arrived on the scene with Reasonable Doubt, and this hit with his teen protégée was just one of the ways he proved his mastery. Who would have guessed he'd remain on top for decades to come?
A blast of techno sensory bombardment, exploding into mass popularity after it appeared in Trainspotting with that "lager lager lager lager" chant. Although guessing by the sound of it, lager might be one of the few substances not involved in making this record.
Butt of course. Everybody in the English-speaking world can quote a few lines from this pro-ass manifesto.