The Most Important Songs of the 1990s, Ranked

By Michael KasianLast Updated Apr 2, 2020 5:27:19 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Ray Burmiston/Photoshot/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis Historical/VCG/Getty Images

The song was a sign of things to come in the decade. With a little help from Bootsy Collins, Maceo Parker and Q-Tip, the song incorporated hip-hop, house and funk. Thanks to Deee-Lite, radio stations made room for funky, genre-blending dance tracks.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: R.E.M./YouTube

Introspective, thought-provoking music found a home on ‘90s radio stations. As cafes and lounges grew in popularity, so too did the demand for intellectual soft rock. You can almost hear this song in the background of a Friends episode as they shared their problems in the Central Perk cafe.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Cher/YouTube

The song was the first of its kind to use Auto-Tune, an invention by Dr. Andy Hildebrand to correct a singer’s pitch. Cher’s robotic vocals ushered in a new wave of music for the fast-approaching digital 2000s. Now anyone could believe in their own vocals with a little help from Auto-Tune.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: @davidcsaint/Twitter

This particular song was the perfect mix of some of the top-selling dance tracks of the ‘90s. Within seconds, you could hear "Whoomp! There It Is," "It Takes Two" and "Pump Up the Jam" combined with motivating sports references.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Nas/YouTube

The track set the groundwork for more cerebral hip-hop. The song wasn’t about partying and violence, but it still kept a hard, street-smart edge. It launched Nas into the upper echelon of respected rappers, and he continues to share his wisdom in the rap game.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Fiona Apple/YouTube

Although the song wasn’t Apple’s most anthemic track, it did offer her the chance to speak out against commodifying her music and image. In her famous speech at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards, Apple lambasted the music industry for pressuring viewers with impossible standards of beauty and wealth.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Ricky Martin/YouTube

After his electrifying performance of "La Copa de la Vida" at the Grammys, Martin released "Livin’ La Vida Loca." The song created a Latin pop explosion and allowed other Spanish artists like Enrique Iglesias, Marc Anthony and Shakira a chance at stardom in the States.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Channel Four Films/Figment Films/Noel Gay Motion Picture Company/IMDb

The British music group unknowingly created an anthem for the afterparty, where even lyrics can become inconsequential. It just so happens that the song also charted around the world and appears in several "best tracks of the ‘90s" countdowns.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Beck/YouTube

The video was in heavy rotation on MTV, which gave Beck the platform to be the new court jester of rock music. Little did his fans know that he was more than a ‘90s one-hit-wonder. Years later, Beck won Album of the Year at the 57th Annual Grammy Awards.

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."

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Photo Courtesy: Salt-N-Pepa/YouTube

Salt, Pepa and DJ Spinderella broke away from the pressure to sexualize themselves and instead took control of the conversation. The song wasn’t about being objectified. It was an education on safe sex that also instructed men how to treat women better.

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."

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Photo Courtesy: Pulp/YouTube

The dance song was instantly relatable to a generation of middle-to-lower-class citizens. By telling the story of a wealthy girl who relished in her financial security and carelessly had her way with a poor boy, the song became a critics’ favorite and an anthemic standard for the working class around the world.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Purschke/ullstein bild/Getty Images

The supergroup took a pleasant R&B song and turned it into a brooding ode to a lost love. Wyclef Jean and Pras provided intense rap verses, and Lauryn Hill’s voice brought soul to hip-hop.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Anwar Hussein/WireImage/Getty Images

The single flew off the shelves and became the second best selling single of all time with 33 million copies sold. The newer version won John the Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance at the 1998 Annual Grammy Awards.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: HECTOR MATA/AFP/Getty Images

Santana released his Latin rock album Supernatural in the heat of the Latin music craze of the late ‘90s. His secret weapon to guarantee success and increase his exposure was to recruit current hitmakers like Thomas, Lauryn Hill and Dave Matthews to provide vocals on tracks. His formula resulted in nine Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Sinéad O’Connor/YouTube

The accompanying video added a new layer to the power of the R&B track. By focusing on a closeup shot of her face throughout the video, the viewer's attention was on the emotional overtones. As actual tears fell down her face, she solidified herself as a ‘90s icon.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Tim Roney/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Not since The Monkees had a pop act been so easily marketable. With their unique names and personas, the Spice Girls were a cash cow when it came to branding and merchandise. Plus, their upbeat music and positivity paved the way for the T.R.L. pop acts to follow.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Larry Busacca/WireImage/Getty Images

"Hypnotize" hit the airwaves a week before he was fatally shot in a drive-by shooting. It was a track destined for greatness but tarnished by tragedy. Even the video released for the track depicted haunting images of Biggie on the run.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Frans Schellekens/Redferns/Getty Images

The song went on to win the Golden Globe Award and Academy Award for Best Original Song in a film. It also collected four Grammy Awards, including Song of the Year. Springsteen’s track remains an emotional tribute to HIV/AIDS awareness.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Frank Micelotta/ImageDirect/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

She released "Vogue" before the documentary Paris Is Burning or Ryan Murphy’s Pose acknowledged the ballroom scene and its black and Latinx LGBTQ community. Whether you knew how to vogue or not, the song became an instant dance classic.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Mariah Carey/YouTube

No other collaboration was able to match the success of this one until 2017, when Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee released "Despacito." In 2019, that record was then dethroned by Lil Nas X’s "Old Town Road" after a series of re-releases and remixes.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Missy Elliott/YouTube

Her brand of bizarre beats and eye-popping videos helped her create a lane in hip-hop that the ‘90s needed. "Supa Dupa Fly," Elliot’s first single, was hip-hop’s first taste of what creativity could do for the genre.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

It was 2Pac’s most successful hit on the radio, and it was a different offering from his normal recordings. His work largely focused on social issues that plagued inner cities, but "California Love" gave us a glimmer of the troubled rapper as he briefly enjoyed the fruits of his labor.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Paul Natkin/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Jagged Little Pill went on to sell more than 33 million copies worldwide, making it one of the best selling albums of all time. It offered a new level of emotional depth from a pop singer, one that continues to inspire other singers who hope to achieve her level of success.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Runnacles/Gunion/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

Their cheeky British attitudes toward fame (and each other) made them MTV mainstays for years after their debut, but "Wonderwall" will always be their most recognizable track. The song lives on in jukeboxes and karaoke bars around the world.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: TLC/YouTube

"Waterfalls" was a song meant for young men who earned a living by engaging in street violence and for people who had unsafe sex. Rather than chasing something easy and fast, TLC wanted everyone to make better choices for themselves. It’s a wise warning from an R&B classic.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Jim Steinfeldt/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

"Paranoid Android," the first single from OK Computer, was Radiohead’s nearly seven-minute attempt at a "Bohemian Rhapsody"-style magnum opus against technology and commercialism. While the world prepared for the digital age, Radiohead focused on guiding us through the noise.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Gie Knaeps/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

This universally loved, feel-good song won audience and critical praise — until The Rolling Stones sued them for copyright infringement. The Verve lost out on royalties from their biggest hit for years. Maybe the song had it right. It truly is "a bittersweet symphony, this life."

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Fotos International/MoviePix/Getty Images

Houston's cover of Dolly Parton’s country song remains the best selling single by a woman in music history. The song spent 14 weeks at number one on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, and it will forever be a pop music classic.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic/Getty Images

The song, accompanied by hungry upstart Snoop Dogg, set the bar for the next two decades of hip-hop music. "Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang" expertly incorporated funk and soul with laidback vocals, unknowingly giving birth to the gangsta rap genre.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc/Getty Images

The song and accompanying video spoke to a generation that felt frustrated, apathetic and angsty. Life wasn’t one big party in a hotel room with big hair and spandex outfits. Thanks to the video's heavy rotation on MTV and the youth’s desire for mainstream recognition, Nirvana provided an anthem for Generation X.