Listicles: Defining Songs – 90s Edition

When I am having a moment with music where I am trying to whittle down the exact ‘sound’ of a decade I end up making silly lists. A practice I’m sure familiar with many. I never post the lists. Why bother I think. My opinion isn’t worth much salt. Conversely, I’ve written reviews and stuck them online what makes a silly pointless list any different to those false senses of weight to my words and thoughts.

Today I want to capture the 90s in Britain as I imagine it was. Whilst I was born in the 90s and I do have a good memory for a lot of; I genuinely remembering hearing Stardust on the radio for example and thinking that’s really repetitive but I like it. On the other hand my opinion of these songs comes from what I’ve gathered the 90s would have been like if I was in my 20s. I guess that’s how until I hit my 30s I’ll evaluate the decades I can only experience second hand.

#1 Zombie – Cranberries

Dolores sudden passing this year was a shock to many who grew up through the time period. No Need to Argue was a fairly successful album and still adored by fans today. However Zombie sticks out as a massive titan amongst the tall. When she passed and radio stations hastily added it back into rotation as a tribute, when you close your eyes the feeling from the sluggish sludge guitars, the melancholic pushing drums and simplicity of the progression of the song, you feel like you’re shoulders to shoulder in baggy clothes embracing the anti-war message for the first time. The combination of American grunge with Dolores Irish laden rich vocals encapsulates the rise of female voices in rock and pop music at the time. Bands like Elastica and Hole for example are two female lead counters of rock music at the time. This song packs many different elements that to me define 90s music in one go, yet it will remain timeless. Smells Like Teen Spirit (SLTS) is easily the defining grunge song, but in the UK and from my experience, Zombie is the bigger song. SLTS is stuck as the ‘typical’ and ‘obvious’ song to represent the genre and thus has become somewhat diminished in its power. It feels like the song people who wanted to like grunge said they liked.

#2 Setting Sun – Chemical Brothers

Maybe it’s the afterglow of seeing the Brothers working it out this year that has made me pick this, but the collaboration with Noel Gallagher truly feels like the epitome of British 90s music. The combination of Beatles Tomorrow Never Knows -esque instrumentation and droning, with big beat drums and the main songwriter of the biggest Britpop band ever (I love Blur but I’m not going to pretend that people still care for Oasis more) you are hitting so many 90s tropes in one. It’s psychedelic and danceable, and singable. There’s something magical about it and it always will be.

#3 No Diggity – Blackstreet

Incorporating a Bill Withers sample as it’s main focus, this collaboration with Dr Dre and Queen Pen is a song that turned soul and hip hop into fortified buddies for life. The piano bass tone and tuned up snare sound with a simple sample loop makes it a sure fire definition for this period in rap and black american music. The vocal hook is infectious as it is effortless and lazy, in a complementary way. It’s both sleazy yet tender. Isn’t that all the more filthy?

#4 Music Sounds Better With You – Stardust

Whilst Homework was Daft Punk’s entry into dance music and is still one of the best debut albums of all time, it wasn’t until Discovery that they really defined a genre and scene with a song. Thomas Bangalter however produced this dance track that defined 1998 with perfection. The phaser shifted sample of Chaka Kahn with a four on the floor beat, not many songs can evoke the dance floor on the radio like this song can. It’s disgustingly repetitive yet not once does it feel tedious. The chords shifting underneath often go unnoticed because the strong core of the guitar pierces through. Da Funk might be just as a iconic in the dance music scene, but Music Sounds Better With You unites on all fronts.

#5 Common People – Pulp

The vacant vain poverty porn protagonist of this hit song is rumoured to be of someone of note. The disdain yet pride that is carried by Cocker through lines about smoking fags and playing pool sits at the pinnacle of the Brit Pop sound and ethos. Released bang in the middle of the decade it sounds a little old yet maintains a forward sound at the same time. It would be daft not to include something this big and obvious in a list about defining songs of the 90s.

Those are just a couple of songs that for me just reek of the 90s. I’ve avoided boy and girl band tracks as well as some more obvious songs (aside from Common People) like Wonderwall and Parklife. I’ll probably return to this concept again in the future, but for now feel free to suggest better alternatives in the comments or generally point out my short sightedness and other writing flaws.