By Classic Rock
The best 50 songs from rock's most divisive decade, as voted by you
When we polled our readers to find out their favourite songs of the 1990s, the reaction was instant, and often vitriolic. "There were no good songs released in the 90s," argued one. "It would be easier to ask about the worst songs," said another. And then the votes started rolling in, in their thousands.
For a whole group of rock fans, the arrival of grunge was a hurdle they were unable to cross, and it still appears to be a barrier a quarter of a century on. And that's kinda sad. To write off an entire decade's music suggests a refusal to engage rather than an educated choice, and for anyone who came of age in the 90s it was a delirious decade.
It was the age of MTV. It was an age when you could mix hard rock and 60s pop and board a train that rattled off towards superstardom. It was an age when metal's best acts grew up and the sillier ones expired. And it was an age when even Britpop was able to provide some bona fide rock classics.
It was the 1990s. And these are your favourite 50 songs.
50. Slipknot - Wait And Bleed
The best part of two decades have passed since Slipknot's Wait And Bleed first festered into public consciousness, and while time may have diluted the song's sonic impact, it's still an utterly ferocious piece of work. Equal parts aggression and fury, the howling despair of small-town American youth hadn't been expressed with such precision since Axl Rose got the bus out of Indiana.
In choosing Wait And Bleed in the 40 Best Nu Metal Songs Of All Time, Metal Hammer got it about right: "Slipknot were far heavier than the average nu-metal band but they still had an ear for a chorus, thanks to Corey Taylor’s then‑unheard melodic vocals. It still scared the shit out of TFI Friday viewers, mind."
Ahh, yes. TFI Friday. Slipknot's debut TV UK performance (opens in new tab) took place on a show more comfortable with Britpop's stragglers than masked, boiler-suited maniacs. "The genius move here was to put cameras right in the middle of the mosh, surrounded by real fans going crazy, capturing up close the no-holds-barred rush of a metal crowd," wrote The Guardian (opens in new tab). "The performance caused more complaints than any other act on TFI, but it’s easy to imagine that, for some kids, this would have been a life-changing piece of telly."
49. Placebo - Pure Morning
With a drum sound straight out of the John Bonham school of cavernous tub-thumping, Brian Molko & Co. created something of a monster with this song. Pure Morning was a lascivious, mid-paced grind with a lyric that highlighted Molko's distinctive accent and featured plenty of clever internal rhymes. Molko disagrees. "The lyrics make me nauseous," he said in 2013. "They sound as if they were written by a teenager."
Pure Morning was almost an afterthought, recorded at the end of the sessions for second album Without You I'm Nothing, at a point where the band had moved on to writing b-sides. It started out as a simple loop, but instruments were quickly added and Molko's lyrics were written on the spot. The band's record label were the ones who spotted Pure Morning's true potential, and it ended up opening the album.
Despite the song's obvious popularity, Placebo have always had something of a love/hate relationship with Pure Morning. Booked to play Linkin Park's Projekt Revolution touring festival in 2007, the band finished the song during their final set in Englewood, Colorado with Molko announcing from the stage, “I hate this fucking song. The tour ends tonight and I’m happy to know that we’ll never play it again." Today, it's a regular highlight of their show.
48. Faith No More - From Out Of Nowhere
The first single from Faith No More's The Real Thing album, From Out Of Nowhere heralded the arrival of Mike Patton as replacement vocalist for the fired Chuck Mosely, and his introduction had exactly the same blue-touch-paper impact as Bruce Dickinson's debut with Iron Maiden: It was a statement of ambitious intent, the sign of a band finding another gear, unwilling to settle for mere cult status. For Patton was a star in the making, with a voice that could move from sinister croon to raging howl without any apparent effort.
A thrilling jumble of chords and keyboard stabs, From Out Of Nowhere was another nail in the coffin of hair metal, helping to usher in the age of nu metal. It was written at the band's rehearsal space in San Fransisco shortly after Mosely left the band, with Patton completing the lyrics in a rush after he joined. "It's about Jello shots, hermetic philosophy and Ptolemaic cosmology," said the singer. "You know, your average commie/junkie jibber-jabber.”
“That song was so good because most of our stuff was mid-tempo that the set was always in danger of dragging,” bassist Billy Gould told us. “With that one we could at least start things on a high note, and hopefully this spark would keep the rest of the set alive. There’s nothing worse than being on stage for 80 minutes or so when things are not working correctly. Generally it seemed to work out well, and we stuck with it as an opener until with hated it so much we scrapped it from the set altogether.”
47. Black Sabbath - Computer God
Ronnie James Dio's dystopian lyric about a computer worshipped by humanity like a God might look, in 2018, like an eerily precise prediction about the rise of the internet and Facebook, but, at the time, it was just a relief to have Ronnie James Dio back working with Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler. Computer God was a sprawl of chugging, epic riffs and clattering drums, with Dio spitting lyrics of pure venom. As far as album openers go, nothing will ever come close to the demonic call-to-arms of the title track of the band's debut, but there's no doubt that the song crushed. It was Led Zeppelin's Kashmir taken to the dark side and deeper.
The title came from an unreleased 1986 track by the Geezer Butler Band, but the beast had mutated significantly by the time it had found a home on Dehumanizer. "It's a completely different song from what it used to be, said RDJ at the time. "It's very forceful now, very aggressive, and it wasn't aggressive before. We needed a lot of time to listen to what we'd done and rethink it. It was changed totally, lyrically and melodically."
And the subject matter? "It speaks of things to come," he added, ominously.
46. Weezer - Buddy Holly
It’s perhaps hard for people who didn’t live through the ‘grunge’ years to understand just what an incandescent, irresistible, explosion of joy Weezer's Blue album appeared upon its release in 1994, and as much as Buddy Holly now appeals to winsome nostalgia, there’s still an undeniable life-affirming thrill in listening to that chorus. It was power pop at its best, and Rivers Cuomo's goofy singalong turned the band into the most unlikely of arena-fillers.
The spectre of MTV – as with many of the best songs of the 90s – looms large with Buddy Holly, with the ever-inventive Spike Jonze inserting the band into the set of Arnold's Drive In from Happy Days, seamlessly intercutting his footage with scenes featuring the original cast, and including a cameo from Al Molinaro himself. As Rolling Stone (opens in new tab) (who selected it as the 499th best song of all time) noted, "Watching the video brings forth an almost unprecedented level of nostalgia. Happy Days itself is a 1950s nostalgia show, but now it brings back the 1970s, also. The video is a 1990s classic, too, so it manages to evoke nostalgia for three different decades in a single three-minute video. That's a remarkable achievement." The video scooped four awards at MTV's awards show in 1995.
For the song's author, Buddy Holly wasn't something he was prepared to get analytical about. When culture website The Vulture (opens in new tab) asked if he's ever figured out what made the song so successful, he responded, "I have nothing interesting to say about it. It’s catchy, and it’s high-energy, and it’s fun to play. It’s nothing that anyone else couldn’t notice about it."
45. Gin Blossoms - Follow You Down
One of those examples of a song where the record company knows best. "We were working on the record [1996's Congratulations I'm Sorry], and I'd come home at night to my hotel room, and I had those chords, and finished writing by the time we got home," writer Jesse Valenzuela told Songfacts (opens in new tab). "We'd already finished the record, but I had this great song, so I demoed it up and I sent it to my main A&R man, David Andaly, the great David Andaly, and he said, 'Why are you hiding this thing? Let's put it on the record.' So we went and recorded it right away."
Despite the song's lyrics (“Anywhere you go, I'll follow you down", "Jumping off a bridge is just the farthest that I’ve ever been”) Follow You Down is a song whose inherent brightness is almost at odds with the fact that the band's co-founder Doug Hopkins had tragically killed himself three year's earlier. It was melancholy while uplifting, straining the boundaries between bitter and sweet, a weird, happy-sad mix that's nevertheless been the soundtrack to American road trips and porch parties ever since.
44. Eric Clapton - Tears In Heaven
Eric Clapton's Tears In Heaven was co-written with Will Jennings, the man behind Steve Winwood's Higher Ground and the Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes duet Up Where We Belong. It initially appeared on the soundtrack of the 1991 film Rush, while the more famous acoustic version was an undoubted highlight of the guitarist's 1992 MTV Unplugged set. But it's the the song's roots that have always dominated its performance. And it's almost impossible to imagine anything written under more difficult circumstance: the tragic, accidental death of Clapton's young song, Conor.
In his autobiography, Clapton wrote, "I had always been haunted by Jimmy Cliff's song Many Rivers to Cross and wanted to borrow from that chord progression, but essentially I wrote this one to ask the question I had been asking myself ever since my grandfather had died. Will we really meet again? It's difficult to talk about these songs in depth, that's why they're songs. Their birth and development is what kept me alive through the darkest period of my life. When I try to take myself back to that time, to recall the terrible numbness that I lived in, I recoil in fear. I never want to go through anything like that again. Originally, these songs were never meant for publication or public consumption; they were just what I did to stop from going mad. I played them to myself, over and over, constantly changing or refining them, until they were part of my being."
For Conor's mother, Lory Del Santo, the song was also a difficult proposition. "I have never heard this song, nor do I ever want to," she said. "Once in Amsterdam, I heard it announced on the radio and heard the first few bars, but I just ran away."
43. Tom Petty - Crawling Back To You
Tom Petty's marriage was falling apart around the time his Wildfower album was released, and the beautiful Crawling Back To You was a plaintive, piano-led ballad that spoke of hope and reconciliation with an air of subdued resignation. "I'm so tired of being tired," he sang, "Sure as night will follow day," before following up with, "Most things I worry about never happen anyway." It was intimate, and honest, and entirely reflective of an artist who was always, always believable.
It may never have been a single, but Crawling Back To You made its mark. "This marked the moment of Petty’s career where he began transition from rock ‘n roller to singer-songwriter, and the result was some of the most intelligent, thoughtful lyrics of his career," wrote Uproxx (opens in new tab). Music Aficionado (opens in new tab) described it as, "Not just the best Petty deep cut, this gorgeous aching philosophical ode where Petty taps into his inner Dylan might be Petty's best song, period... A masterpiece." And City Pages (opens in new tab) said, "Petty’s music couldn’t often be described as 'majestic,' but there’s no better descriptor for this downtrodden ballad."
42. Bon Jovi - Bed Of Roses
Bon Jovi had already mastered the art of the power ballad by the time 1992's Keep The Faith swung into view, but Bed Of Roses suggested a growing maturity in a way their earlier, glammier hits had not. Written during a Jon Bon Jovi hangover, it featured a video in which, in the typical manner of expensive rock videos, guitarist Richie Sambora was filmed atop a mountain, with helicopters swopping in to capture the all-round epic nature of his playing. Jon, meanwhile, was snuggled up in the studio. "I was on top of a mountain in Blaze of Glory," he said, clearly unwilling to venture to such altitude a second time.
It charted worldwide, and peaked at number one in Spain, aided perhaps by the band recording a local language version, Cama de Rosas.
41. Rage Against The Machine - Killing In The Name
Few rock songs have enjoyed an afterlife quite like Killing In The Name did. Its adoption by a Facebook campaign in December 2009, intended to put the blocks on X Factor winner Joe McElderry claiming that year’s Christmas No.1 spot, was a phenomenal success. Killing raced to the top by racking up more than half a million downloads, leaving McElderry behind and becoming the fastest-selling digital single ever. The feat was all the more remarkable given that the track was 17 years old and peppered with potty-mouthed expletives.
Killing In The Name was written at a key moment in recent American history. The beating of black motorist Rodney King by four LAPD officers in March 1991. captured on CCTV footage, had enraged the nation – and Rage singer Zack De la Rocha – after it was serially beamed across every news channel.
“I was in LA when the whole Rodney King episode went down,” explains Garth Richardson, producer of the song and 1992’s self-titled parent album. “That was a big thing for the city. Zack and I had a long talk about the power of speech and how whatever he needed to say, he had to say it. Malcolm X was a major influence in Zack’s life, and this was not the time to back down.”
Killing In The Name is particularly notorious for its final verse, in which de la Rocha, having built to something of a belligerent frenzy, hollers: "Fuck you! I won’t do what you tell me!" no less than 16 times, topped off by: "Motherfucker! Uggh!"
“My jaw hit the floor,” Richardson recalls. “The song was a standout for an anthem and it knocked me off my feet. We all felt this was going to be big.”
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