Treble’s Top 100 Singles of the ’90s

Treble staff
Our awesome '90s mixtape

Blur – “The Universal” (Food, 1995)

I have a strange relationship with “The Universal” by Blur. I’ve always loved the song, which is why it was so high in my own list of the best songs of the ’90s. But now, because of one incident, the song is forever changed in my perception. People argue about the meaning of the song, possibly being about a futuristic mind-numbing drug or about conspicuous consumption or getting everything you want in life to find out its not all its cracked up to be. But I had The Great Escape playing in my car stereo on the day I turned 30. Because of the occasion, I began to look back on my life and my accomplishments. It didn’t take long. When the strings swept in and the horns blared through the gospel-like chorus of “When the days they seem to fall through you, well just let them go,” I began to weep. Such is life. The days fall through us more often than we pass through time. There’s nothing to hold on to. I’ve since had better days and even some that are far worse than that birthday, but it all just seems to wash away, and I’m not sure whether that’s good or bad. Some people hold on to high school memories or magical moments in their lives. My memory doesn’t work that way, and I find it hard to recall specifics. So, for me, the days do almost literally fall through me and I have to just let them go, or simply go crazy. I take comfort in one notion, specifically cited in the lyric, “It really really really could happen.” Damon Albarn doesn’t specify what that `it’ is, but I think it’s different for everyone. And yes Damon, maybe it can happen, and I’m hoping it does. – Terrance Terich
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Soundgarden – “Black Hole Sun” (A&M, 1994)

Hugely influential in defining the grunge sound of the early ’90s, Seattle-based Soundgarden was a cornerstone of the genre. Their single “Black Hole Sun” brought a sharp critique of the then-current socio-political climate. Accompanied by an incredibly disturbing and surreal video, it argued for a sense of nihilistic culture cleansing, which in a way, grunge was all about. Destroying the over-dramatic “big hair” rock of the ’80s with its “ME ME ME” philosophy, and replacing it with something honest was a key part of their ethos. Ironic that this single only furthered grunge’s acceptance and popularity in the mainstream. “Black Hole Sun” is full of the apocalyptic energy that heralded the approaching demise of grunge. Its hard riffs posed a great question, “well that worked, but what’s next?” – Dean Steckel
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Sleater-Kinney – “Little Babies” (Matador Europe, 1997)

The now-defunct female rocker trio known as Sleater-Kinney (why, Sleater-Kinney, WHY??) was born in the 1990s from the infamous riot grrrl movement, finding themselves as both critical darlings and politically-charged steamrollers of the ’90s indie rock scene. From 1997’s Dig Me Out, “Little Babies” is a one-two punch of S-K’s classic garage-pop with an underlying feeling of sarcastic playfulness. Furthermore, Dig Me Out saw the addition of drummer Janet Weiss (who now plays with Stephen Malkmus – talk about ’90s singles list incest!), a change in lineup that saw the band’s sound developing towards the pinnacle of greatness that was 2005’s The Woods. “Little Babies,” in particular, demonstrates everything that’s fantastic about Sleater-Kinney – the rough yet elegant guitar work and those piercing yet vulnerable vocals by Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, augmented by Weiss’ intrepid percussive framework. It’s all there, paired with the traditional two-pronged lyrics: “‘I’m the water I’m the dishes I’m the soap / I will comfort make you clean help you cope / you’ll come and see me cause you know / I’m always here / mother’s little helper / dum dum dee dee dee dum dum dee dum yeah / rock the little babies with one two three four yeah.” If you must choose only a few of Sleater-Kinney’s songs in which to remember them by (and there certainly are a lot of them), “Little Babies” ought to be one of them, as it fully captures Dig Me Out as a pivotal point of the band’s journey. “Indefinite hiatus,” be damned. – Anna Gazdowicz
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Beastie Boys – “So What’cha Want” (Capitol, 1992)

“So What’cha Want” was one of the first Beastie Boys songs I remember hearing. It was the gateway song to the rest of their work, and given how bad my music collection was at that time, it was a welcome thing. “So What’cha Want” is cool as a cucumber in hot sauce, sweeter than a cherry pie with Reddi-Wip topping, and one of the reasons is because of lyrics like those. Yes, the song has enough clever similes, fresh metaphors and smart turns of phrase to make Raymond Chandler holler “Yeah, you can’t front on that!” The entire song from its vocals to the backing track is staticky and scratchy. Even Money Mark’s organ lick bubbles on the raw side. It’s almost as if “So What’cha Want” has a sheen of rust on it, and I can’t think of it working any other way. – Hubert Vigilla
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Mos Def – “Mathematics” (Rawkus, 1999)

It’s both secret shame and pride of mine that I did better on the math portion of the SAT than verbal (look where it got me), and yet I can’t deny the elation I feel when hearing Mos Def drop some mad arithmetic. On “Mathematics,” one side of a single shared with the lighter “Ms. Fat Booty,” Mos sounds his most pissed off, assigning quantitative values to the shit on his mind and laying it out neatly and honestly, tackling everything from urban crack abuse to unemployment to his own struggle at making a buck in the music industry: “I got sixteen to thirty two bars to rock it, but only 15% of profits ever see my pockets.” As sick as Def’s rhymes are, his secret weapon is DJ Premier, a scratch wizard that spin any hip-hop song into gold. He makes this song doubly kick-ass with his choral sample collages, but it’s the wicked conclusion that brings this uppercut of a wake up call home: “Why did the straw break the camel’s back? Here’s the secret: the million straws underneath it.” – Jeff Terich
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My Bloody Valentine – “To Here Knows When” (Creation, 1991)

If one were to look up the words “brume” or “smaze” in the dictionary, surely one of the definitions would be “Very much like My Bloody Valentine’s ‘To Here Knows When.'” Additionally, if you were to look up “To Here Knows When,” one definition would probably be “A shoegazer lullaby.” Given, you’d need a pretty hip dictionary to get those definitions, but those words and phrases come to mind when listening to the song (and a majority of My Bloody Valentine’s output, for that matter). Lushly layered, “To Here Knows When” is a soothing mix of feedback like violin strings and whale songs, distant percussion and vocals that are so unintelligible that they are only just distinguishable from the other elements at play. The layers of sound on the song are a little reminiscent of “No More Sorry” from My Bloody Valentine’s Isn’t Anything, but whereas that track is disconcerting, “To Here Knows When” is something warm and comforting. – Hubert Vigilla
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Radiohead – “No Surprises” (Parlophone, 1997)

It has been ten years since this mournful lullaby was released, and it is still as pertinent as it was in 1997. This age still sees people content to live “the quiet life,” with “no alarms and no surprises.” The sweet electric guitar riff sings like mother to child, light as the glockenspiel that supports it. It sings us to sleep and lets us dream, or if preferred, nightmare, about the time when we retreated, gave up, and let ourselves become resigned to the boulder of current day society. We used to let it roll over us, used to go back down to roll it up, and then we used to let it roll over us again: used to? Industrialization and departmentalization has alienated man from the basis of life in the form of Evian water bottles, but we want “no alarms and no surprises,” so we remind ourselves that there’s nothing we can do but to fall into a deep sleep, a deep hole that separates us more from the people around us. Our own identities are products that we buy at clothing and record stores, completely estranged from us, but apparently, there’s nothing we can do, so we lull ourselves to sleep to cut us off from the very senses that keep us awake, hoping for “no alarms,” and “no surprises.” Whether the song was written in earnest or irony is something that we cannot judge, nor does it matter, as everyone has wanted to sleep away their lives at one point, and whether they have woken from the nightmare or reveled in the dream is their own judgment. “No Surprises” is both dream and nightmare. – Paul Bozzo
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Elliott Smith – “Division Day” (Suicide Squeeze, 1997)

Somehow, Elliott’s quavering voice fits perfectly with the keyboard-driven pop of “Division Day,” just as much as with his more heartbreaking, melancholic songwriting efforts. In fact, “Division Day” strikes me as one of Elliott’s most upbeat numbers, a beautiful and light-hearted tune of a story that’s both happy and sad while maintaining the purity of his skill. “Thinking about how to stay out / Out of troubles way and / Flying to fall away from you all / It’s over division day / Beautiful division day.” Perhaps “Division Day” means death, or perhaps that’s too obvious of an analysis – either way, the lyrics suggest that division day is a bittersweet destination, the liberation after a long and difficult journey. And while the influence of the Beatles can be heard in so much of Elliott’s music, “Division Day” seems most inspired by The White Album, in its multi-faceted, catchy arrangements, while keeping the traditional style of Elliott’s sweetness and vulnerability at its core. – Anna Gazdowicz
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Beastie Boys – “Sabotage” (Capitol, 1994)

Considering recent history, it’s almost impossible to imagine a band working the rock-hip hop hybrid into something interesting, if not downright listenable. But lo, it should come as no surprise that a group such as The Beastie Boys would be the one to pull it off. The elements for “Sabotage” had been set long before the song was conceived. Their hardcore roots resonate from the aggressive guitar and bass and the screeching turntables. Their stripped down old school lyrical delivery fits comfortably within a rock structure. What results is something enjoyable, original and not far from the flamboyant, eternally youthful personality of The Beasties. This was the Beastie Boys of the ’90s, getting in touch with their roots while adapting to the sounds around them, the fuzz of the bass is as close to grunge as an old school NYC rap group can get. And watch them revel in Gen. X retro irony as the song’s video riffs on ’70s cop dramas. – Chris Morgan
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Radiohead – “Just” (Parlophone, 1995)

There’s at least one moment on each Radiohead album where all the dreamy, atmospheric, conceptual opera stuff goes out the window, and Thom and the boys just rock out. On OK Computer it’s “Electioneering,” which some say is the worst track (I beg to differ), and on Hail to the Thief there are several instances of guitars cranked to eleven. Their coolest, flat out most rocking single is “Just” from second album The Bends. Sounding like a grooved-out take on Magazine’s “Shot by Both Sides,” this track retains enough of Radiohead’s artsy leanings while letting loose and having a good time. Coincidentally released around the same time as Björk’s “Army of Me,” “Just” shares similar themes, Thom Yorke reprimanding a narcissistic friend of his, warning “you do it to yourself, and that’s why it really hurts.” The song’s video, however, earned as much or more attention to the song, given its cryptic and chilling narrative that has to be seen to be believed. – Jeff Terich
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