The 1990s remain difficult to define because they began with the explosion of house music and dragged music out of its soft rock slumber. From Grunge to The Beatles-inspired 90s rock songs of Oasis, the decade had something for every music fan to enjoy.
1. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – Nirvana
Bryan Adams topped the global charts with “Everything I Do (I Do It For You)” in August 1991. Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was released the same month and changed youth culture for decades. Kurt Cobain’s thrift store chic and the dark video premiered on MTV’s late-night “120 Minutes” sector before crossing into the mainstream. Nirvana had hoped the single would build their base and lay the foundation for success with later releases.
2. “Common People” – Pulp
The Jarvis Cocker-led band had been kicking around the independent music scene since the late-70s. “Common People” broke through to the mainstream in 1995 and charted around the world. The combination of a catchy hook and Cocker’s autobiographical, whimsical lyrics has kept the song relevant into the 21st-century. The song was helped by a promo featuring actress Sadie Frost.
3. “Under the Bridge” – Red Hot Chili Peppers
“Under the Bridge” has been covered so many times it can be hard to remember the power of the song in 1992. The ballad peaked at number two on the Billboard Hot 100. The Red Hot Chili Peppers were unsure about the song until Rick Rubin explained its power.
4. “Wonderwall” – Oasis
Oasis had progressed from indie darlings to the self-proclaimed biggest band in the world by the mid-90s. “Wonderwall” went a long way to building on their reputation as global icons before they imploded in a haze of drug abuse and sibling rivalry. Noel Gallagher‘s most impressive song was a global success at the end of 1995.
5. “Killing in the Name” – Rage Against The Machine
Rage Against The machine had only formed a year before their signature song, “Killing in the Name” was released. The album of the same name launched the band on the world, with “Killing in the Name” recognized as a leading protest song. The song reached the top of the U.K. charts in 2009 as a protest against the dominance of the charts by Simon Cowell’s record label.
6. “Creep” – Radiohead
Thom Yorke may be reported to despise the song that launched Radiohead, but it still rocks. Blasts of guitar noise from Johnny Greenwood shape a song about obsessive attraction. “Creep” has been covered by artists including Kely Clarkson, Tears for Fears, and Jim Carrey.
7. “Sabotage” – Beastie Boys
The Beastie Boys completed one of the most impressive returns to popularity in the mid-90s. “Sabotage” was built around the impressive bass line played by MCA. The iconic music video based around the band members performing in a 1970s cop show pushed the song to even greater success. During a powerful period of success for MTV, the video became an instant classic.
8. “Kinky Afro” – Happy Mondays
Happy Mondays were one of the first British bands to complete the crossover from dance music to rock. Led by singer-songwriter Shaun Ryder, the band achieved their biggest success in the U.S. with this blend of rave and rock. The band is best remembered for their descent into chaos in the 90s, but this 1990-released cut remains a classic.
9. “Nothing Else Matters” – Metallica
Power ballads remained a popular choice in the 1990s for rock bands to break the mainstream charts. Metallica released “Nothing Else Matters” in 1992 and continues to perform this classic power ballad live. The song was not intended for release until Lars Ulrich heard the finished version and spotted its potential.
10. “Basket Case” – Green Day
Green Day remained a punk band when they released “Basket Case” in 1994. The band would later become stadium rock icons, but they had failed to break the mainstream until the release of “Basket Case”. The song is about the anxiety disorder of singer, Billie-Joe Armstrong.
11. “You Oughta Know” – Alanis Morissette
It’s hard to believe Alanis Morissette was a pop star in Canada in the early 1990s. The release of “Jagged Little Pill” launched her career as a rock star, with “You Oughta Know” the song that solidified her career change. The song remains one of the most popular of the 1990s.
12. “Stay Together” – Suede
The single, “Stay Together”, by Suede remains instantly recognizable for fans of the band. The song was released in 1994 as Bernard Butler was leaving the band. Suede has continued for decades without Butler, but the combination of “Stay Together” and its companion single, “Trash” remain the band’s most famous releases.
13. “Yes” – McAlmont & Butler
The 60s inspiration for rock songs from the 1990s was obvious on “Yes”. Bernard Butler and David McAlmont came together after leaving their respective bands. Butler wanted to recreate the sound of 60s soul music and found the perfect foil in McAlmont.
14. “Everlong” – Foo Fighters
Dave Grohl emergence as a leading rock songwriter from a grunge drummer with Nirvana was one of the more impressive transitions in music history. Grohl was in the throes of a divorce when writing this song. “Everlong” would become a breakout for the band and remains a staple of their live performances. Dave Grohl described the riff of “Everlong” as a Sonic Youth ripoff.
15. “Even Flow” – Pearl Jam
Pearl Jam built its reputation as a live act across the U.S. The band, fronted by Eddie Vedder, found success with “Even Flow” despite never being satisfied with the recorded version. Two versions were completed, with different drummers to try and create a recording worthy of a classic song.
16. “Motorcycle Emptiness” – Manic Street Preachers
What would the Manic Street Preachers have become if Richie Edwards had remained with the band? The poetic brilliance of Edwards is on full display on “Motorcycle Emptiness”. The Welsh alternative rock band morphed into one of the world’s leading rock bands in the 2000s, but this early work shows the potential of Edwards’ lyrics.
17. “Bittersweet Symphony” – The Verve
“Bittersweet Symphony” was everywhere in the summer of 1997. The Verve had returned from a hiatus to become one of the biggest bands in the world on the back of the Britpop invasion of the U.S. The song may sound like a cliche in the 21st-century, but it was revolutionary for the time. Richard Ashcroft remains an enigma, but the band had the royalties taken from them by former Rolling Stones manager, Allen Klein. “Bittersweet Symphony” has been compared to The Verve’s “History” from the early-90s.
18. “Live Forever” – Oasis
The first incarnation of Oasis remains the standout lineup for most fans who loved the irreverent punk influence on the Manchester band. Before the snarling sibling rivalry of the Gallagher brothers destroyed the band, “Live Forever” shone on their debut album. Inspired by The Rolling Stones, “Shine a Light”, the song has become a cult classic among 90s rock songs.
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19. “Song 2” – Blur
By the middle of the 1990s, Blur had descended into a parody of London rock-pop from the 1960s. The art-rock excellence of their early work had been undone by the over-produced pop of “The Great Escape”. Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon returned with a grunge-inspired album, “13”. Inspired by the anger of the end of a relationship, “Song 2” was born. Now a stadium-rocking sports song, “Song 2” keeps Blur in the public consciousness.
20. “Into My Arms” – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
The Australian songwriter and his band were pop-punk icons in the 1980s and early-90s. Rock songs from the 1990s don’t get much better than “Into My Arms”. The transition from punk icon to piano-ballad specialist pushed Cave to a new level of success following Cave’s breakup with English rocker PJ Harvey. Cave’s tragic personal life only adds to the power of the ballad.
21. “Down By The Water” – PJ Harvey
The influence of John Parish can be spotted in 1995s “Down By The Water”. PJ Harvey had found success in the early-90s before transitioning into an icon of the era with “To Bring You My Love”. The album launched Harvey in the U.S. and gave us one of the classic 90s rock songs.
Music experts define the 1990s as beginning in 1989, with the emergence of rave culture. Dance music began to influence rock and vice versa to create a decade of creativity and innovation for rock bands. After the overblown productions of the 80s, music returned to its roots with the emergence of grunge in the Pacific Northwest.
Rock songs from the 90s are difficult to define because the influences of bands were so varied. Punk influenced everything from the look of The Prodigy to the sound of Nirvana. The 90s felt like a fast-forward through the history of modern music, with influences taken from the 1960s to the 1980s.
As the Head Editor at Music Grotto, Liam edits content produced from over 30 professional music/media journalists and contributing writers. He works closely with journalists and other staff to format and publish music content for the Music Grotto website. Liam is also the founding member of Music Grotto and is passionate in disseminating editorial content to its readers.