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50 Best Songs of the Nineties

From Britney Spears and Ace of Base to Beck and Nirvana

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.

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16

Sleater-Kinney, “Get Up” (1999)

The Portland punk goddesses nail that moment where you feel lost and isolated, but you refuse to go quietly, with guitars that sound like a bucket of stars dumped into the universe.

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15

Outkast, “Rosa Parks” (1998)

This Dirty-South booty chant was the funky-bus jam of the decade, plus the harmonica solo of the decade. (Sorry, Blues Traveler!) This was where the rest of the country first got a taste of what Big Boi and André were brewing down in the dirty-dirty ATLien nation. It was also where we learned the word "crunk." And it still sounds insane.

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14

R.E.M. “Nightswimming” (1992)

Prediction nobody would have made on New Year's Eve 1989: "R.E.M.'s best album is still ahead of them – in fact, they're about to roll off four stone-cold classics in a row. And Michael Stipe will slow-dance with Natalie Merchant at the inauguration of our next president. Yes, a Democrat. Just one beer with dinner, Officer – why do you ask?" A bittersweet piano reverie about skinny-dipping in the Georgia pines, with Stipe trying to hold on to these memories before they fade away and get replaced by everyday.

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13

Ol’ Dirty Bastard, “Brooklyn Zoo” (1995)

The Wu Universe was designed for album-length true mathematics, but this was their truest and funniest shot at the radio, with ODB, a.k.a. Big Baby Jesus, doing his shimmy all over the RZA's broken piano keys. Proof that Wu-Tang really is for the children.

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12

The Breeders, “Cannonball” (1993)

Kim Deal emerges from the wreckage of alt-rock heroes the Pixies with her twin sister, Kelley, on guitar and a freewheeling, shaggyheaded, bighearted mess of a song. "Cannonball" was one of the weirdest radio hits of the Nineties – or any decade before it.

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11

Hole, “Doll Parts” (1994)

Courtney Love's finest moment. You know how some nights your mom puts on this song, then goes out to the driveway to cry alone in the car? Someday you will ache like she aches.

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10

TLC, “No Scrubs” (1999)

Oh, yes, son, she's talking to you. The crazy-sexy-cool Atlanta trio close out the decade they owned with a hilarious rant that takes on street harassment, though it doesn't stop there. Burn on, Left Eye.

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9

Liz Phair, “Fuck and Run” (1993)

Believe it or not, we thought we had problems in 1993. Phair testifies about disposable dudes in a plain voice that goes right to your heart, with a plot that unfortunately never gets outdated. Same old story: Boys only want love if it's torture.

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8

Pulp, “Common People” (1995)

Jarvis Cocker has more soul and swagger exhaling a puff of smoke than most singers have in their entire catalogs. A Brit-pop masterpiece full of sex, sarcasm and despair. But mostly sex.

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7

Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott, 
”The Rain
 (Supa Dupa Fly)” (1997)

Introducing Missy and Timbaland, the duo who stole the decade. Together they warp a Seventies R&B sample into a long, sweaty Southern night, with crickets chirping and storm clouds rolling in. Oh, Missy, try to maintain.

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6

Pavement, “Gold Soundz” (1994)

All the boyish heart-on-sleeve urgency of Pet Sounds packed into three minutes. Stephen Malkmus and his slack-ass crew don't waste a second of this song – every guitar twang, every breathy mumble fits into a note-perfect emotional surge. Almost like they care or something.

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5

Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang” (1992)

The N.W.A. producer, a whole career already behind him, comes back mightier than ever, with a lot of help from the new kid on the block. This groove makes any car bounce up and down, with a bass line realer than "Real Deal" Holyfield.

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4

Bikini Kill, “Rebel Girl” (1993)

Three riot grrrls (led by ferocious singer Kathleen Hanna) and their token boy guitar player go into a recording studio with Joan Jett and come out with a seven-inch single that keeps every radical promise punk rock ever made. "Rebel Girl" is an anthem for the neighborhood girl with the revolution in her hips. Rock & roll that had political and emotional muscle? How bizarre.

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3

Notorious B.I.G. With Mase and Puff Daddy, “Mo Money 
Mo Problems” (1997)

The late, great Notorious B.I.G. has more soul and swagger just clearing his throat before his verse than most rappers have in their entire catalogs. This classic became an accidental epitaph, hitting Number One right after his death – yet making him sound impossibly alive. Burning question: Did Mase ever get to see his name on a blimp?

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2

Blackstreet, “No Diggity” (1996)

A utopian celebration of all that is rump-shaking about American music, with Virginia-via-Harlem beatmaster Teddy Riley mixing
a groove out of doo-wop, Dr. Dre, old-school R&B harmonies, a piano rumble and a sample of acoustic blues guitar from Bill Withers. We’re all living in the future this song envisioned, and all the luckier for it.

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1

Nirvana, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (1991)

The song that blew up the world. The song that defied all rules about how music worked and how much raw emotion you could cram into four cheap chords and a crummy guitar solo. The song that kicked the future in the teeth. The song that shattered all your complacency about settling for the politics of the inevitable. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was Kurt Cobain's challenge to the audience – and after all these years, the challenge still stands.

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