A glorious decade, the 90s were. Economic prosperity. Nickelodeon was the king of children’s television (GUTS!). And after almost 20 years of toiling in medicority, the Yankees won the World Series in 1996, and would win the next two of three Series. Okay, so maybe the 90s weren’t all sunshine and rainbows, but hey, it was pretty close. We who grew up in this decade reminisce of it often; the television shows, the video games, the movies. But I think the one product of this decade we hold dear over all these things is the music that came out during this time.
As I began research for this project, I quickly realized that it would be a much tougher task than I had originally anticipated. Every song I heard jogged my memory of another song I remembered from my pre-developed youth. Eventually, my friends and I came up with a list of over 50 songs to choose from. It’s tough to narrow that down to ten, but I think I chose some good ones. I needed to develop the ground rules first though:
One, it did not matter to me the genre of the song. If ten rap songs were to comprise the list, then so be it. I wanted to pick the best songs of the decade, not one song from each genre. Sometimes we can’t be all-inclusive.
Two, these are songs that we who were not teenagers until the year 2000 remember. If I were doing objective research of the songs of this decade, Nirvana, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Dave Matthews would all be on this list. But I, and most others, were not aware of these bands’ existence, most likely until late middle school, which was 2001/2002. I could not worry about picking songs I had never heard at the time.
Three, these songs had to have some significance in shaping the way we grew up. This was the toughest rule for me to define. None of these songs really changed our minds about anything, but I do believe we would be very different had we grown up in the 80s or 2000s. I tried to ignore radio play, both back then and now, but found it to be impossible; staying power does matter. This was the last decade in which album sales were a good barometer of an artist’s success, due mostly to the iPod not having been invented yet, and CD Walkman’s (the one in that picture is actually pretty high-tech, most of them were a lot clunkier than that one. See kids, this is how we used to listen to music.) This was also the last decade in which the music video was actually relevant, thanks to Total Request Live. Whether the video was good played an important role in the popularity of the song. Many chosen for this list have a very memorable video attached to them.
And a side note, I toyed with the idea of including television theme songs on this list, such as “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” but eventually decided against it for really no apparent reason. We’ll just say the kid from “West Philadelphia, born and raised” came in at number 11.
So those were my guidlines for choosing the best, most important, and all-around awesome songs of the 90s. Without further ado…
10. Walkin’ On the Sun, Smashmouth – This is probably the only legitimately good song this band had (and don’t you try to sit there with a straight face and tell me “All Star” was good as well.) This is also one of the first songs for which I realized the power so automatically bestowed upon my parents in changing the radio station if they heard something that didn’t meet with their approval. Purely because of the lyric, “And they folked out with guitars around a bonfire/Just singin’ and clappin’ man, what the hell happened?” With that one utterance of the most tame curse word out there (at least in the context of its usage here) the station was flipped to 102.1, and I had to suffer through Delilah playing Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” for the thousandth time. But my parent’s objection only made me like the song more. Others on this list fall into that category as well.
9. Waterfalls, TLC – Not since the Supremes had a girl group gained such notoriety. Their 1994 album CrazySexyCool produced four top 5 Billboard chart hits, including the song at number nine on this list. Very few albums from R&B or hip-hop artists can make that claim. Everything about this song – the lyrics, the funky rhythym, and yes, its music video – qualifies it for this list. Fun fact, these girls also sang the theme song for Nickelodeon’s “All That.”
8. Good Riddance (Time of Your Life), Green Day – It was impossible to listen to the radio for 45 consecutive minutes without hearing this song on one station or another. This song was, understatedly, played A LOT when it was first released, and for a while thereafter. So much so, that it quickly became extremely annoying. Good thing it only lasted about two-and-a-half minutes. But, this is the song that will probably define Green Day as a band, the one that everyone will remember.
7. Tubthumping, Chumbawamba – Legitimately speaking, this is an awful song. However, this was another one of those songs that was EVERYWHERE when it came out. And at that time, the song was awesome. Not only for its vulgarity and drinking references, but the chorus was just so motivating. “I get knocked down, but I get up again, you’re never gonna keep me down.”
6. Flagpole Sitta, Harvey Danger – Not only does this song fall into the best of the 90s category, it should be in serious running to be on the list of the best one-hit wonders of all time. I have no idea what he is singing about, the verses do not seem to be connected to one another. There’s something about paranoia, psychiatric hospitals, and not being sick but not quite being well either. Whatever these things have to do with each other, quite frankly, is a moot point; disecting this song takes away from it’s simplistic pop formula: just throw a bunch of words together, who cares if it makes sense.
5. Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems, Puff Daddy ft. Notorious B.I.G. – There was a time in my life when I knew every single word to this song. TRL played it all the time, and that was just fine by me. The music video is awesome, and the lyrics, while inappropriate for my age at the time, at least show creativity. No one is “supermanning” anything, and no one is trying to teach me how to dougie. Each artist wrote their own part for the song, and that just adds to the respect I have for this song. Rap and hip-hop just isn’t what it used to be. Also, how relevant is this song’s title today?
4. One Week, Barenaked Ladies – This song forced me to be the most motivated I’ve ever been to look up the lyrics to a song, and I loved it. I still remember every single word too. I mean come on: “Ticket to China, the chinese chicken, ya have a drumstick and your brain stops tickin.'” How hard is that to understand? It also helps that “Stunt,” the album on which this song appears, is probably one of, if not the, best album of the 90s. This song and band is the epitome of music nerdom.
3. Ghetto Superstar, Pras ft. Mya and ODB – Ah, the days when a rap song would make sense in the real world. Much like number five’s “Mo’ Money,” this song actually took some creative thinking and innovation lyrically. It doesn’t seem to be about any specific politician or current event, but it does reference a few times what life is like in a bad neighborhood. No curse words, protest slogans, or inflammatory remarks are needed to make this record great. In my opinion, this is the best hip-hop song ever. And seriously; Warren Beatty, Oliver Platt and Halle Berry in the same music video? What’s not to love?
2. I Want It That Way, Backstreet Boys – It is the quintessential boy band song. I haven’t heard it in about ten years and there’s a strong chance that I still remember all the words, as much as it pains me to admit that. According to the charts, it was far and away the best pop song of the decade, having reached number one in more than 25 countries. We’re almost 15 years after the fact of this song’s release and it has over 33 million hits on YouTube. Nothing can overstate just how big this song, and this band, were in the late 90s.
And now, for the number one absolute, without a doubt, nothing better than this song of the 1990s…
1. Baby One More Time, Britney Spears – Go ahead, try. Try to think of a more popular, more widely played, more genuinely loved song by pre-teens at the time of its release. You can’t do it. This song stayed on the top of the charts forever. The video stayed at number one on TRL forever as well, and for good reason. Spears single-handedly made plaid skirts popular in the U.S., doing what Scotland never could. The pigtails, the low cut blouse, the high socks. She made every girl want to be like her, and every boy sit back and say, “Okay, I guess girls are cool.” And, despite all the criticism that comes her way, despite all the tabloid hoopla that surrounds her, she still finds a way to stay relevant. She has toured and recorded consistently since her debut in 1998. Nearly 15 years later, it has almost 52 million hits on YouTube. There is no song that better sums up 90s music than this.
So there you have it, my hotly debated list of the best songs of 90s. Feel a song got the shaft? Was one too high or too low on the list? Or do you think one of these songs should not have been on the list at all? Feel free to leave comments. By the way, for those of you wondering, my last three songs out were: “The Way” Fastball, “Intergalactic” Beastie Boys, and “Jump Around” House of Pain.
I hope you had as much fun reading this as I did writing it.