The 90s were formative years for rock music, ushering out the old glam rock and arena rock staples and pushing forward the punk and grunge sounds that are more common today. Thanks in large part to bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, we now have a divide in music history between classic rock and modern rock, a split that got tons of indie alternative bands major record deals and made alt-rock mainstream. In this article, we’ll take you back to 31 of the best alternative songs that came out in the 90s.
1. Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana
Nirvana is the band that brought alternative rock to the mainstream, and Smells Like Teen Spirit was the song that got them there. They’re going to show up on this list a few times, and realistically most of their songs should be here, but I’ll limit their entries.
Smells Like Teen Spirit knocked Michael Jackson off the top of the Billboard charts and ushered in a new era of rock music, paving the way for most of the other songs and bands on the list to gain traction in major markets. I can’t put it anywhere else on the list because the song is Nirvana at its absolute best and the quintessential song of 90s alternative rock music.
2. Black Hole Sun – Soundgarden
Black Hole Sun dips into the psychedelic side of alternative rock, pairing the late great Chris Cornell’s incredible vocals with Black Sabbath-style guitar tunes. At the end of 1994, the song sat at the top of Billboard’s Alternative Airplay chart and is still played today on most rock stations.
Additional recordings have been released, especially in the years since Cornell’s death, that highlight the incredible vocal skills of the late singer. I highly recommend checking out the acoustic and raw versions of the song after listening to the original release.
3. Under The Bridge – Red Hot Chili Peppers
The Red Hot Chili Peppers are known today as one of rock’s most prominent groups, largely thanks to their unique stylized sound, but Under The Bridge was the song that started everything for them. Originally an indie band, the release of Under The Bridge gained RHCP their first top-10 hit and transformed them into a group that sold out arenas instead of playing small gigs.
4. Creep – Radiohead
The initial release of Creep wasn’t planned on by the band, with Radiohead having to be persuaded into recording it at all and it sounded different from most of their work later on. Despite this, Creep became Radiohead’s biggest hit ever after its rerelease in 1993 and has been named one of the greatest singles of all time by Rolling Stone magazine.
5. Alive – Pearl Jam
Pearl Jam’s debut single became one of the best songs of the 1990s alt-rock wave. The line delivery in Alive would end up being the signature style you could expect of Pearl Jam songs going forward, enthralling audiences with the storytelling of the lyrics and depth of delivery by Vedder.
6. Loser – Beck
Loser is a definitive song when it comes to alternative music because it’s so hard to nail down exactly what’s going on with it. Is it rock? Is it hip hop? Is it some kind of folk music or a style of Latin music? Who knows? It’s catchy as all hell, relatable, and one of the biggest hits of the 90s.
7. Come As You Are – Nirvana
I said Nirvana would be on here a bit right? Come As You Are was the second release from the vaunted Nevermind album that delved into the band members’ and Seattle area’s experiences while featuring contradictory lyrics that outlined the difference between expectations and reality. It’s another song that landed on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
8. Everlong – Foo Fighters
After the death of Cobain and the end of Nirvana, Dave Grohl founded the Foo Fighters and picked up right where he left off. Everlong featured the same grungy, alternative sound Nirvana played and is widely considered one of Foo Fighters’ best songs. It lacks none of the edges you expect from an alt-rock great but is also deeply emotional, which is at least partly why it’s so popular.
9. Self Esteem – The Offspring
Alt-rock found massive popularity worldwide. Self Esteem is one of my personal favorite 90s bangers, breaking into the top 10 alternative singles in numerous countries. It’s got the perfect mixture of alt-rock tones and angsty young adult themes that make it ridiculously popular even today. It’s also got a bit of a whimsical feel that seems to take everything lightly despite the sort of heavy topics it’s touching on.
10. All The Small Things – Blink-182
Blink-182 is the kind of band that’s definitely alternative rock, but their music crosses over into alternative pop, and you’ll see their songs charting incredibly well. One of their all-time hits, All The Small Things, hits these goals: It’s simple, it’s catchy, and it has widespread appeal. It’s the song that brought a lot of fans to Blink-182 and gained them a cult-like following for quite some time, despite none of their other songs matching up to the success of All The Small Things.
11. Hurt – Nine Inch Nails
Johnny Cash’s soulful cover of Hurt brought plenty of attention back to the song in 2002, but the original release of the song was just as powerful. Trent Reznor’s Hurt is widely considered one of Nine Inch Nails’ best songs ever for its raw, emotional, and honest sound. You can interpret the lyrics in a few ways, but the most popular theories place it as a note about the struggles that come with self-harm and depression. Frankly, it’s incredibly relatable for a lot of people and one that resonates incredibly hard.
12. Santa Monica – Everclear
Have you ever wanted to just go sit on a beach and forget about your problems? How about swimming way out in the ocean while the world burns down around you? That’s about what you get with Santa Monica from Everclear. The upbeat tune doesn’t hide the pain of the protagonist and is all about getting away from the bad times. While it wasn’t released as a single in the US, it still saw enough play on the radio to make it to number 29 on Billboard’s Radio Songs chart, and the top spot of the Mainstream Rock Airplay chart.
13. Sabotage – Beastie Boys
Sabotage is another song that made it onto Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. The rap-rock lyrics over traditional rock instrumentals went a long way in making it a crossover hit that blends old-school rap and punk music and features an epic (albeit fictional) tirade about their manager sabotaging their careers.
14. Song 2 – Blur
Song 2 has a funky kind of alternative style that just sucks you in and jumps into a heavier and more energetic sound once you reach the chorus. It consistently appeared on listener polls of the best songs of the 90s and did extremely well on the UK charts.
15. Say It Ain’t So – Weezer
Weezer nailed the vibe of the alternative rock scene when they released Say It Ain’t So. It’s a slow-tempo, love song that struggles with not being cool enough and the struggle of alcoholism.
16. Heart-Shaped Box – Nirvana
This will be my last Nirvana entry to the list, though they have plenty more songs that probably deserve a spot. It was released as the first single from Nirvana’s In Utero album, two years after Nevermind brought alt-rock to the mainstream. Its meaning is debated, though it’s likely a love song about the dependencies you grow for your partner in a relationship.
17. Man In The Box – Alice In Chains
While it was the second-most played song on mainstream rock radio stations between 2010 and 2019, Man In The Box was released back in 1991. It’s one on the heavier side of alt-rock, crossing over into alternative metal, but the song is great for anyone feeling confined and stuck in some life situation.
18. Buddy Holly – Weezer
Hey, “what’s with these homies dissin’ my girl?” Buddy Holly is one of the best songs of the 90s overall and its cheesy Hollywood references are always a welcome addition to any playlist.
19. When I Come Around – Green Day
Before Boulevard of Broken Dreams, When I Come Around was Green Day’s biggest hit and what really helped put the band on the map and their second-best-selling single of the 90s, only behind Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life).
20. 1979 – The Smashing Pumpkins
1979 is just one of those perfect nostalgia songs that you’ve probably seen used as the background for a commemorative collage. It’s one of Smashing Pumpkins’ best songs and was even nominated for two Grammy Awards at the 39th Annual Grammy Awards.
21. Interstate Love Song – Stone Temple Pilots
The title of this one is pretty explanatory. I can’t really tell you why, but Interstate Love Song is one of those perfect driving songs. The up-and-down tones of the verses transition perfectly into a smooth-flowing chorus that talks about how they’re fed up with the lies and heading out.
22. Glycerine – Bush
90s alt-rock wasn’t just an American thing; it happened over in the UK as well. Bush gained a foothold in the US music scene with Glycerine, seeing it reach the top of the Alternative Airplay chart and even make it to number four on the Mainstream Rock chart. Even today, it’s one of the top-performing alternative rock songs when it comes to digital downloads.
23. Possum Kingdom – The Toadies
Possum Kingdom was based on a lake in Texas and the legends of cult activity that surrounded it, but while it always had a bit of a creepy vibe, a casual listener will assume the singer is just trying to make it with a girl at the lake. Overall, it struck the perfect 90s alt-rock vibe of its time and was one of the band’s most successful songs.
24. Bound For The Floor – Local H
Bound For The Floor is one of those super simple songs that a lot of people just loved. All of the lyrics feature the teenage angst you’d expect from an alt-rock song, forever looping about how things don’t go your way, and you don’t know why but you just accept it.
25. Even Flow – Pearl Jam
The second release from Pearl Jam’s debut album found loads of success, reaching number three on the Mainstream Rock chart and being included on the band’s greatest-hits albums later on.
26. Closer – Nine Inch Nails
While Hurt is a slow emotional burn of a song, Closer takes a similar tempo and ramps the explicit level up to 10. I’ll go ahead and not leave any lyrics in this description, but the aggressive sexual nature of the song is one of the things that made it so great (even if radio plays see extreme censorship).
27. Basket Case – Green Day
Inspired by Billie Joe Armstrong’s struggles with anxiety, Basket Case was and is one of Green Day’s most popular songs of all time and one of the songs that earned them a major record label deal. Not only did it reign at the top of the Modern Rock chart for five weeks, but it also earned the band a Grammy nomination and its music video earned nine MTV Music Award nominations.
28. Losing My Religion – R.E.M.
Losing My Religion gained huge popularity thanks to its music video, reaching number four on the Billboard Hot 100 and winning two Grammy Awards in 1992. Unlike most rock songs that base around the guitar, this one was based on mandolin chords played by Peter Buck.
29. Sex and Candy – Marcy Playground
Sex and Candy mixed psychedelic rock with grunge tunes and came up with a slick but unorthodox love song. You could say the lyrics don’t make too much sense, but the song still reached number eight on the Billboard Hot 100 and the top spot on the Alternative Airplay chart.
30. Killing In The Name – Rage Against The Machine
The alt-rock movement felt like a revolution of rock and roll, a violent death of the old glam rock, and what’s better in that is a song that literally calls for revolution? Killing In the Name is really all about the day that the corrupt get what’s coming to them when we finally wake up.
31. What I Got – Sublime
What I Got is one of Sublime’s biggest hits, despite releasing and shooting the video for it after the death of frontman Bradley Nowell’s death. It’s an awesome song and you’ll still hear it played on mainstream rock radio stations regularly.
As a contributing writer for Music Grotto, Dakotah writes and produces professional music/media content. He works closely with editorial staff to meet editorial standards and create
quality content for the Music Grotto website. Dakotah is passionate about music in a wide variety of genres, from hip-hop to country and lo-fi to metal, and he enjoys creating music pieces for Music Grotto.