Top Ten Songs Of The Nineties

Despite my typical derision of the nineties as the worst decade for music since modern music exploded, its inferiority to the surrounding decades does not prevent it from yielding its share of classic albums (to be visited at a later date) and songs.  Today, we look at the ten greatest songs of the nineteen nineties, most of which aren’t exactly known by your average person.

10. Absolutely Cuckoo – The Magnetic Fields (From 1999’s 69 Love Songs)

So Stephen Merritt decided to write nearly three hours of love songs, the first of which, “Absolutely Cuckoo”, would wind up as the greatest song that he’s ever written.  Instead of going into why the song is so great, I’ll present the entirety of the song’s lyrics, which are repeated once.  “Don’t fall in love with me yet/We only recently met/True, I’m in love with you, but/You might decide I’m a nut/Give me a week or two to/Go absolutely cuckoo/And when you see your error/Then you can flee in terror/Like everybody else does/I only tell you this ‘cause/I’m easy to get rid of/But not if you fall in love/Know now that I’m on the make/And if you make a mistake/My heart will certainly break/I’ll have to jump in a lake/And all my friends will blame you/There’s no telling what they’ll do/It’s only fair to tell you/I’m absolutely cuckoo”.  It’s silly, but my, it’s perfect.

9. When I Come Around – Green Day (From 1994’s Dookie)

I considered a few songs from Green Day’s Dookie for this list.  There’s the masturbatory anthem “Longview”, the angsty “Basket Case”, and a contender for the sweetest song ever written, “She”, but I decided to go with the song that made Billie Joe Armstrong’s then-girlfriend marry him, “When I Come Around”.  Green Day’s aforementioned teenage angst works in their favor rather than against them, and the best lyric in the bunch seems to go against the theme until you remember how the story played out: “You can’t go forcing something if it’s just not right”.

8. Mama Said Knock You Out – LL Cool J (From 1990’s Mama Said Knock You Out)

By 1990, we’d already seen our fair share of great hip hop.  Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back was two years old, and Run-DMC were already acknowledged, maybe improperly, as “The Beatles of hip hop”.  LL Cool J, after coming off of an album dismissed for being overly cheesy, decided to rap about being rich for the duration of his glorious return to form Mama Said Knock You Out, but the true gem on the album was the titular track, which was a fight song that displayed a level of vigor never before seen from a rapper.

7. November Rain – Guns N’ Roses (From 1991’s Use Your Illusion I)

Guns N’ Roses have always taken themselves to seriously, but this is the only time when their pretensions have flat-out transformed into sincerity.  “November Rain” is the musical equivalent of the word “gorgeous”.  It’s a power ballad where you stop thinking that it’s cheesy and start actually feeling something.  Of particular note are Slash’s guitar solos, all three (!) of them.  Slash’s guitar virtuoso surpasses the usual Steve Vai level of “wow” to actually, you know, sound good.

6. Paranoid Android – Radiohead (From 1997’s OK Computer)

From the acoustic guitar intro of “Paranoid Android” to the noisy ending, the song is grand on a scale that it’s humorous title, a reference to Marvin The Paranoid Android from The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, barely allows.  Having been the first Radiohead song that I had ever heard maybe four years ago, I simply said “Thom Yorke sounds like a bitch” and didn’t have the opportunity to hear it again for years to come.  Had I kept listening, I would have been taken with his change in voice when he declares “ambition makes you look pretty ugly!”  Not you, Mr. Yorke.  Not you.

5. Losing My Religion – R.E.M. (From 1991’s Out Of Time)

The tone of R.E.M.’s best song, “Losing My Religion” (sorry “Radio Free Europe”, “The One I Love”, and “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”), has always reminded me of The Who’s 1971 classic “Behind Blue Eyes”.  It’s confessional, it’s solemn, and it doesn’t really hold back.  You might think that Peter Buck is losing his faith in religion, his faith in music, or simply his faith in himself, but in the end it’s just a song about losing your temper?  Or is it?  Associate with it what you will.

4. Cut Your Hair – Pavement (From 1994’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain)

Along with Beck’s smash hit “Loser”, Pavements “Cut Your Hair” partially launched independent music into the mainstream.  It starts out with a half-hearted vocal harmony that sounds like The Beach Boys being lazy, and then it launches into a song about cutting your hair, escaping from the hokiness of the eighties and moving into the hipness of the nineties.  As Stephen Malkmus proclaims along with “songs mean a lot when songs are bought”, “no BIG HAIR!”

3. Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana (From 1991’s Nevermind)

In 1972, David Bowie wrote Mott The Hoople’s generation-defining anthem “All The Young Dudes”.  In 1991, Kurt Cobain did the same for Nirvana with “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.  The song defined grunge-era angst with lyrics like “I’m worse at what I do best, and for this gift I feel blessed” and “here we are, now entertain us”.  Some of the best songs define their era, and this is one of them.

2. Race For The Prize – The Flaming Lips (From 1999’s The Soft Bulletin)

“Race For The Prize”, undoubtedly The Flaming Lips’ best song, tells a story of two scientists searching for a cure, even if it kills them.  Musically, the song is so grand that it propels the chorus “Theirs is to win/If it kills them/They’re just humans/With wives and children” to take on a deeper meaning.  It’s difficult to explain exactly why “Race For The Prize” is such a gem, but its tale of ambition and humanity is probably a part of it.

1. Gold Soundz – Pavement (From 1994’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain)

I didn’t understand all the Pavement hype until I gave Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain a try.  Seven songs in, while I’m fading in and out of listening to the music, I hear “You’re the kind of girl that I like/Because you’re empty/And I’m empty/And you can never quarantine the past”.  At that moment, I fell in love with the band, and the reason is because they wrote one of the sweetest songs ever made.  Every listener connects differently with the song, but it’s always on a very, very deep level.

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Published in: on March 11, 2010 at 1:46 AM  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. >implying Teen Spirit as supposed to be an anthem

  2. Never said it was supposed to be, man. But it is.


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