The Most Important Songs of the 1990s, Ranked
In the 1990s, musical genres came and went at breakneck speed. Grunge replaced ‘80s arena rock, gangsta rap switched up hip-hop and new inventions finessed legendary voices. At the same time, the British music scene influenced how we danced, how we rocked and how we thought about our spice rack.
It was a whirlwind decade of rapid change, and these massive songs were the driving forces behind the cultural shifts. Dust off your old portable CD player and check out the 30 most important songs of the 1990s.
30. Deee-Lite, “Groove Is in the Heart” (1990)
The 1990s kicked off with a funky party anthem for the ages. DJ Dmitry, Towa Tei and Lady Miss Kier’s genre-bending "Groove Is in the Heart" is a total crowd-pleaser. No matter what kind of party you’re throwing 30 years later, this track can still groove.
29. R.E.M., “Losing My Religion” (1991)
Hair metal rock in the ‘80s was an arena-sized explosion of sex, drugs and excess. Before grunge ended hair metal, R.E.M. released "Losing My Religion." The alt-rock staple didn’t start the grunge movement, but it paved the way for something different.
28. Cher, “Believe” (1998)
Was this song an achievement in songwriting? No. Was it another run-of-the-mill dance song about love? Totally. Some listeners, like the guys behind South Park, considered the song to be completely awful. All opinions on quality aside, Cher’s "Believe" achieved something critically important.
27. Various Artists, “ESPN Presents the Jock Jam” (1997)
In the ‘90s, you could get pumped for your favorite sports teams on the dance floor. The Jock Jams album series was the most popular compilation CD of the ‘90s, and it was a decade with lots of competition. Before you could make your own playlist of random songs on iTunes, compilation CDs were all the rage.
26. Nas, “The World Is Yours” (1994)
Nas’ debut album Illmatic was one of the greatest hip-hop albums ever recorded, thanks in part to this powerful track. At a time when gangsta rap was at its peak, Nas debuted with lyrical storytelling and NYC pride.
25. Fiona Apple, “Criminal” (1995)
She was a bad, bad girl. She was careless with a delicate man. Apple’s song and accompanying video introduced the MTV Generation to a powerful songwriter who fought against making music for the male gaze.
24. Ricky Martin, “Livin’ La Vida Loca” (1999)
At the 41st Annual Grammy Awards, the English-speaking world met the explosive entertainer named Ricky Martin. He was already a household name with Latin music audiences, thanks to his work with the boy band Menudo, but Martin wanted to cross over into the mainstream.
23. Underworld, “Born Slippy .NUXX” (1996)
The rave scene was a force in nightclubs throughout the ‘90s. Techno, house and electronica filled dance floors, and party children couldn’t get enough of the powerful beats. Thanks to a cameo at the end of the ‘90s cult classic Trainspotting, Underworld’s "Born Slippy .NUXX" provided the rave scene with its anthem.
22. Beck, “Loser” (1994)
In the time of chimpanzees, he was a monkey. According to Beck’s debut track, he was nothing more than a "loser." The song was a satirical take on self-deprecation while incorporating scuzzy grunge sounds. For Generation X, it was the perfect combination.
21. Salt-N-Pepa, “Let’s Talk About Sex” (1991)
Women in hip-hop have a complex relationship with music industry figureheads. The pressure to sexualize their appearance and music is well documented, but Salt-N-Pepa took matters into their own hands with "Let’s Talk About Sex."
20. Pulp, “Common People” (1995)
The Britpop musical invasion was an eruption of loud guitars, larger-than-life personalities and dance floor domination. No other song is a better representation of this era and its radical fanbase than Pulp’s "Common People."
19. Fugees, “Killing Me Softly” (1996)
In 1996, hip-hop was in the grip of gangsta rap. It seemed like success could only come in the rap game if you had a menacing, tough exterior. Enter The Fugees with their major-hit remake of Roberta Flack’s "Killing Me Softly," providing hip-hop with a softer side.
18. Elton John, “Candle in the Wind 1997” (1997)
The summer of 1997 was one for the record books. Diana, Princess of Wales, died in a tragic car wreck while fleeing paparazzi. The world came to a halt and needed time to mourn. Within two weeks, Elton John released a new rendition of his 1973 song to honor the loss of his friend.
17. Santana ft. Rob Thomas, “Smooth” (1999)
Carlos Santana recruited Matchbox 20 frontman Rob Thomas for the most unlikely musical pairing of the ‘90s. The Latin guitar legend knew the English-speaking market wanted Latin music, meaning it was his time to break back into the mainstream.
16. Sinéad O’Connor, “Nothing Compares 2 You” (1990)
Before Sinead O’Connor was an outspoken critic of the Catholic Church and Western culture at large, she was an outstanding singer. This song was originally written and performed by Prince, but O’Connor’s rendition was an emotional tour de force.
15. Spice Girls, "Wannabe" (1996)
The United States was far from prepared for the onslaught of Britpop in the ‘90s, and no other group landed with such strength as the Spice Girls. Their positive energy shot across radio airwaves, and their brand of power pop changed music on a global scale.
14. The Notorious B.I.G., “Hypnotize” (1997)
Widely considered to be one of the greatest rappers of all time, Biggie Smalls had a flow that was smooth like honey. His music was a driving force in East Coast hip-hop that countered the dominant force of West Coast hip-hop.
13. Bruce Springsteen, “Streets of Philadelphia” (1993)
In the early ‘90s, the HIV/AIDS crisis threatened the lives of thousands. As activists fought for government officials to acknowledge the crisis, Hollywood raised awareness with Philadelphia, a powerful film starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington. Springsteen’s haunting song written for the film painted an even stronger picture of the crisis.
12. Madonna, “Vogue” (1990)
Madonna was the embodiment of pop culture in the early ‘90s. Whatever she touched seemingly turned to gold, but every good artist needs inspiration. Luckily for Madonna, she stumbled into the NYC ball culture of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.
11. Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men, “One Sweet Day” (1995)
No R&B song was as powerful in the ‘90s as Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s "One Sweet Day." Universally loved by critics and fans alike, the song topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart for a record-setting 16 weeks in a row.
10. Missy Elliott, “Supa Dupa Fly” (1997)
In 1997, hip-hop needed something fresh. Enter Missy Elliott. With Timbaland at her side, Elliott experimented with futuristic styles and avant-garde sounds to create a world of her own. Miles ahead of the East Coast vs. West Coast rap wars, Elliott was in the future.
9. 2Pac, “California Love” (1996)
"California Love" hit the airwaves two weeks after Tupac Shakur got out of jail and prepared himself for another chapter. His ode to the Golden State was a certified banger, reaching the top slot on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart for two weeks.
8. Alanis Morissette, “You Oughta Know” (1995)
Women in rock music were few and far between in the ‘90s until Morrissette made her debut in ‘95 with "You Oughta Know." It was an aggressive display of anger from a lover scorned, which was the perfect mood for ‘90s radio airplay.
7. Oasis, “Wonderwall” (1996)
Liam and Noel Gallagher were the driving forces behind the wave of British rock bands in the ‘90s. Their inescapable hit "Wonderwall" was catchy and lyrically unchallenging, which made it easy to sing in bars late into the night.
6. TLC, “Waterfalls” (1994)
TLC’s "Waterfalls" was one of the girl group's most successful songs. The song actually deviated from the norm for TLC and had a chilling message. The women usually performed songs about friendship, love and female empowerment, but this time around, they offered a warning.
5. Radiohead, “Paranoid Android” (1997)
As the dust from the grunge explosion settled, Radiohead brought their alternative brand of British rock to the States. Their success was gaining steam after two albums, but with their third record, they wanted to go bigger.
4. The Verve, “Bitter Sweet Symphony” (1997)
No other decade has as many crash and burn stories for musicians. You could make countless CD mixtapes out of all the one-hit-wonders from the ‘90s, but The Verve’s "Bitter Sweet Symphony" was truly the one to top them all.
3. Whitney Houston, “I Will Always Love You” (1992)
The Bodyguard was an all right film, but the soundtrack was really what made it a classic. With Houston’s rendition of "I Will Always Love You," pop music's most beautiful voice was paired with one of the most stunning ballads ever written.
2. Dr. Dre ft. Snoop Dogg “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang” (1992)
Dr. Dre’s foray into a solo career was the wisest decision he ever made. His solo debut album The Chronic is one of the best rap albums of all time, but "Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang" was a hip-hop game-changer.
1. Nirvana, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (1991)
In the late '80s and early '90s, arena rock was full of larger-than-life theatrics and big-haired band members — and then came Nirvana. Their debut single, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," was the first alternative song to cross into mainstream success.