Treble’s Top 100 Singles of the ’90s

Treble staff
Our awesome '90s mixtape

When it comes to singles released in the ’90s, the first ones that come to mind are likely to be grunge favorites like “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” obnoxious fads like “Macarena,” gangsta rap from either Dr. Dre or Snoop, or anything from the soundtrack to The Bodyguard. These were the megahits, the landmark songs that were recognized in every household and made every MTV list during its tenure as “music” television. They’re the songs you’ll see mentioned on I Love the ’90s, and the songs you’ll hear on Time Life’s decade compilations. And yet, these are merely the songs that skim the surface of what the decade was all about.

The 1990s were an exciting time for music, and an exciting era for singles in particular. For one there were the aforementioned grunge and gangsta rap movements, the former displaying a cynical and mega-distorted outlook, while the latter revealed a gritty and raw take on ghetto life, set to some hot party beats. Additionally, the Britpop movement offered up seemingly dozens of bands wearing their Smiths and Bowie and Beatles influences on their sleeves, cheeking it up for the camera while pounding out fierce guitar riffs. The rave scene gave way to multiple flourishing electronic styles, from the Chemical Brothers’ big beat, to Underworld’s epic techno, to Aphex Twin’s own bizarre cut-ups, which would later be dubbed IDM. In Bristol, the tempo was dropped, as were some Isaac Hayes samples, and trip-hop was soon the coolest thing on the planet.

Back in the States, American indie rock was going in countless directions at once, from Pavement’s sloppy lo-fi pop to the riot grrrl movement, which was responsible for birthing bands like Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney. Singer songwriters like Liz Phair and Elliott Smith had made the sensitive solo artist with an acoustic guitar cool again.

And then there was Radiohead.

While all of these artists certainly released amazing albums of their own, their singles had a special something that somehow finds the busy writers at Treble constantly revisiting them. We’ve never really done a list on singles before, and while we were due for an annual list, we decided to hold off on the best albums of the ’90s this year, so we could focus on those top 40 hits, college radio staples and longtime mixtape favorites. Our only criteria was that each entry had to be a single in some form or another, be it CDs or 7″, cassingle or promo flexi-disc. And as we tallied everything up, preferences for certain bands became quite apparent. We make no claim that this is the definitive list to which all ’90s singles collectors and fans should refer. Rather, this is a list that gives an indication of the varied and numerous influences of the decade that molded and formed the writers you read on this very site. We can all agree that this set of 100 songs thoroughly rocks—this much is almost beyond debate. Almost.

Aimee Mann – “Save Me” (Reprise, 1999)

Not many musicians can claim to have their lyrics inspire a film and its characters, but Aimee Mann sure can! Paul Thomas Anderson’s three hour epic tale of coincidence, crossed paths and the search for meaning, Magnolia, not only featured almost an entire soundtrack by Mann, but was also inspired by the songwriter’s lyrics. “Save Me” plays during the all-important final scenes of the film and the closing credits. I won’t go into a lengthy diatribe about the brilliance of the film itself, other than to say that those who `didn’t get’ the final shot are idiots. “Save Me” and the rest of the songs from the Magnolia soundtrack provided a turning point in Mann’s career, going from major label casualty / survivor to independent artist with an unique vision. The song is one of those few instances of music that crosses boundaries, unable to be pegged as a particular genre, and finding listeners of all types, mostly due to its incredibly universal theme of sought love.

“Save Me” is one of Mann’s most straightforward and heartbreakingly unabashed songs. The song finds its singer in desperate need of love, much like most of the characters in the film. William H. Macy’s character says it best, I think, when he cries, “I have love to give; I just don’t know where to put it.” Mann’s narrator wants to be saved “from the ranks of the freaks who could never love anyone,” seeking not only someone to love them, but also to have the capacity to love back. The last lines, providing a counterpoint to the chorus, say that the only ones that self-same freaks can love are in turn the freaks who could never love anyone, providing some sort of irony, a paradox and an emotional M.C. Escher drawing at the same time. Aside from all of this it is ridiculously singable, catchy and beautiful. Plus, Anderson directed an amazing video for the single by shooting at the end of filming days with each of the principal actors, with Mann singing alongside quiet and contemplative characters from Magnolia including Melora Walters, Julianne Moore, Philip Baker Hall, Jason Robards, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tom Cruise, William H. Macy, Jeremy Blackman and John C. Reilly. How many other videos have that kind of star power? – Terrance Terich
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The Cure – “Pictures of You” (Fiction/Elektra, 1990)

This definitive Robert Smith composition from the 1989 album Disintegration was released in the year 1990, and was then later remixed on the Mixed Up album later that same year. It’s odd that the titles of the albums in which the two renditions of “Pictures of You” appeared apply more to the other rendition than itself. The Disintegration track has a couple of guitar rhythms going on at once, all mixed up with Smith’s thick vocals, all of the ingredients churning into dense musical mouthplay, Smith’s stream of consciousness vocals being the main ingredient in this stew. The Mixed Up track breaks up all of the these ingredients, allowing every guitar riff stand on its own and then separates Smith’s sorrowful lyrics. The Cure was truly breaking apart its “Pictures of You” in the Mixed Up version, but the emptied sound produced by this disintegration only magnifies the lyrics of the song, allowing for Smith’s desperation to become an instrument itself. In the Mixed Up version, I heard a man not desperate to have his loved one, but desperate to simply remember his loved one. This turned what I once thought to be a whiny, heartbroken Robert Smith into a man plagued with the amnesia of time. For this man, “There was nothing in the world/that I ever wanted more/than to feel you deep in my heart,” but time has erased even the feeling, and all that’s left are “these pictures of you.” – Paul Bozzo
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Broadcast – “Echo’s Answer” (Warp, 1999)

When I think of Broadcast, I think of drums—giant, echoing, colossal drums, billowing and cascading, crashing and collapsing. Ironic, then, that the first single from their drum-heavy The Noise Made by People doesn’t have any percussion whatsoever. Just lighter-than-air looped samples, blowing gently, mimicking Trish Keenan’s lyrical personification of the atmosphere surrounding: “the wind is near/ the invisible hear/ come my thoughts away from fear.” It’s a single built more around absence than of mass, the hook’s progression breathing and sighing, ebbing and flowing. It’s hypnotic, calming, and certainly an atypical choice for a single. Listen to the graceful verse, and the warm and soothing chorus, and it all makes perfect sense. – Jeff Terich
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Built to Spill – “Carry The Zero” (Warner Bros., 1999)

Though Doug Martsch may say he puts more stock into the meter of his lyrics than the meaning (i.e., finding the words to fit the melody rather than vice versa), there’s something about the lyrics of “Carry the Zero” that make it so moving. The effortless chord progression that plays throughout four of the song’s nearly six minutes doesn’t hurt either. “Carry the Zero” is for anyone who’s befriended someone who wears a different persona around others. Martsch’s expert songwriting saves the mathematical metaphors from sounding hokey. In less capable hands, notions of fractions, sums, counting and carrying zeroes would be trite, but here the removal of phrases like “forgot to carry a zero” and “you have become a fraction of the sum” would mark the song’s collapse. By the end, the laid back chords give way to a bouncy, playful melody, the lead guitar in the song’s final minute like the sound of schoolboy taunting. Perhaps the only complaint about “Carry the Zero” is that you wish the final minute would continue for another three. – Hubert Vigilla
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Beck – “Loser” (Bong Load, 1994)

The 1990s, as clearly as I can recall, was the age of the “slacker.” It’s not so much that the twenty-something, disheveled, directionless quasi-boho dude didn’t exist beforehand, but in the ’90s, he was very much in fashion. So while youthful angst had its share of generational anthems, the sloppy, schlubby doofy guy with a self-deprecating wit was just beginning to find its voice—enter Beck Hansen. “Soy un perdedor/ I’m a loser, baby/ so why don’t you kill me” may have seemed a bit distasteful or grim upon first listen, but being that “Loser” was such a fun and absurd dadaist folk-hop jam, its initial intent clearly seems to be one whose tongue is carefully placed inside cheek. Thus a new style was born. And while we can probably look back toward Beck for so many of the latter part of the decade’s lesser white guy beatbox acts (The Beastie Boys may also be responsible), the original never loses its oddball charm. – Jeff Terich
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Hum – “Stars” (RCA, 1995)

Hum’s Matt Talbott is not known for being the most gifted singer, additionally Hum wrote songs that, while melodic, were not very catchy. “Stars,” a single off of their RCA debut, can be considered an attempt at the opposite. Among all of the louder, more layered songs,
“Stars” was a tender ballad of interstellar space travel (or something to that effect) that only occasionally roared. The idea was pulled off to an extent. This made the hit minor enough to get them on MTV, but no further than Beavis and Butthead. Any attention they received for
“Stars,” however little it was, tapered off however as soon as their sophomore record was out. It took a while, but in recent years “space” rock bands like Failure and Hum have been getting more attention and more imitation, the most fitting tribute for a band as creative as Hum. – Chris Morgan
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Weezer – “Undone – The Sweater Song” (Geffen, 1994)

What is it about the awkwardness of Rivers Cuomo that our generation related to? Not since Buddy Holly had a pair of horn-rimmed glasses been so relevant. Sporting a look that could put Velma Dinkley to shame, Cuomo and his band of über-geeks signified the emergence of a new era in music–an era in which America’s youth broke from the shackles of ineptitude and embraced their inner nerd. Weezer’s self-titled “Blue Album” was the smashing debut that carried the flag for a generation that prior to its release, hadn’t had a voice. The essence of Weezer was that they were loveable in spite of their peculiarity. Perhaps, that endearing quality was something that derived from the combination of their blatantly uncomfortable appearance and their bizarre lyrics set to the most catchy, unassuming music. Weezer’s debut is a requirement to the music collection of any respectable `90s child, and of the tracks, “Undone-The Sweater Song” best captured the hilarity of the album. While there are countless theories as to what is at actually at the root of the song, the only thing we can safely ascertain is that somewhere in the mixture of its background conversation and outlandish lyrics, we encounter a song that evokes feelings of both frailty and urgency. Where the band’s later works may be called into question the reputation of the “Blue Album” precedes itself and “Undone-The Sweater Song” served as the lead single from a record that captured the imagination of my peers and I alike.- Tyler Weir
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Failure – “Stuck on You” (Slash, 1996)

It starts innocently enough, Ken Andrews hears a song while driving in his car, but shrugs it off like it’s just a mild irritant. Soon enough, it “burrows like a summer tick,” and turns his nights to “sleepless itch.” Yeah, that bugger’s in there alright, and it’s not going to get out anytime soon. While getting a song stuck in one’s head could be considered mundane fodder for a pop song, Andrews (a known audiophile and sonic marvel) and songwriting partner Greg Edwards went the megalomaniacal route, turning this humdrum, everyday bother into a swelling, space age rock epic. As the group’s one big single (mostly big in sound rather than in popularity), “Stuck on You” made romantic legend of being reeled-in by a catchy hook, and in the process burrows with a meaty, effects-drowned riff of its own. Alongside the post-grunge dreck that flooded radio around the time Failure brushed with mainstream success, and released its visually stunning James Bond homage video, this track sounded like a monsoon, enveloping and devastating anything its path. – Jeff Terich
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Björk – “Army of Me” (One Little Indian, 1995)

A dark bit of industrial brooding that opened the album Post, Bjork’s “Army of Me” comes across as an indictment of laziness and constant whining; this coupled with the threat that further complaints will be met with an army of Bjorks. This may not seem so bad since she is only 5’4″, but a pack of wild Björks can and will overwhelm a kvetcher quite easily. Lines such as “You’ve got to manage / I won’t sympathize anymore” and “You’re on your own now / We won’t save you” waver between frustration and the toughest forms of tough love, which makes the song seem less a call to action and more a wag of the finger. Björk noted in one interview that the song was written for a relative whose life was out of order for awhile. She added that given the politeness of her album Debut, “Army of Me” might have been an attempt to even things out. She also noted that the song was about people trying to take things from her, hence the video where she wrestles a gorilla dentist for a diamond. – Hubert Vigilla
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Prince – “Sexy MF” (Paisley Park/Warner Bros., 1992)

No one can accuse Prince of ever being obtuse. The same would hold true for “the Artist formerly known as Prince.” In 1993, His Purple Badness’ relationship with longtime record label Warner Bros. was going sour, and so the Kid changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol that became the representation of his fourteenth album. Yet, while the name had changed, the music hadn’t (at least not until The Rainbow Children). That album spawned five singles, one of them the requisite sex jam, “Sexy MF.” Be not fooled, though Prince claims to want the woman in question’s mind and not her body, he ends the song by reflecting on the subject `shaking that ass.’ Prince really nails that James Brown flavored funk in this track, while also somewhat spitting in the face of the PMRC by repeatedly dropping the f-bomb. Hell, it’s even in the title! Prince’s funky sex tracks are always fun, but there’s something deliciously mischievous about “Sexy MF.” By today’s standards the song seems tame, but then again Prince was always ahead of his time. – Terrance Terich
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