Treble’s Top 100 Singles of the ’90s

Treble staff
Our awesome '90s mixtape

The Cardigans – “Lovefool” (Stockholm, 1996)

The Cardigans suffered from a time honored disaster–type casting. Their infectious pop single, “Lovefool,” debuted in America with positive attention and was tacked onto the Romeo & Juliet soundtrack. This was both a blessing and a curse as it gave much needed exposure to the band but also molded them into one shape in the public’s eye. With its bright color scheme and sweet narrative, the video cast the band in the mold of foreign sugar pop. On quite the contrary, The Cardigans were anything but a clichéd pop band, but America would not see them as anything else after “Lovefool” hit. But putting all that doom and gloom aside for a moment, it’s not difficult to understand the effect of this song. It’s got that certain quality that digs right down into your being and glows with a precise sense of rhythm and pleasure. Remarkably, “Lovefool” is an exception to the rule of “movie soundtrack compilations usually bite” as it quite fits the movie without feeling gerrymandered. Charting successfully after its release propelled The Cardigans into the American music stratosphere, but doomed them when the single, “My Favorite Game,” thought to be too serious and not poppy like “Lovefool,” was released. – Dean Steckel
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Radiohead – “Creep” (Parlophone, 1992)

And to think that at one time, Radiohead were called `one hit wonders.’ Yet, rather than continue a diatribe on that über-ridiculous term, let’s instead concentrate on this Oxford band’s first foray into greatness, that being “Creep.” In the early-to-mid ’90s, the self-effacing quirky `alternative’ song was the staple of college radio. Beck’s “Loser,” Weezer’s “Buddy Holly,” and Whale’s “Hobo Humpin’ Slobo Babe” all fit the bill for disaffected teens and twentysomethings. However, nothing would be as dishearteningly sweet and as guitar-chunkingly energetic as Radiohead’s debut single. Thom Yorke, then a shaggy-haired blonde, pined for an unrequited love, building her up while growing ever more self-conscious about his place in the world and his status with her. Then, of course, there’s the fact that it was one of the few heavily played songs on the radio in which the unedited version repeatedly dropped the f-bomb. Only “Killing in the Name” possibly dropped more. I think most would agree it was a fairly big risk for both fledgling bands. The song was instantly huge, with even Beavis & Butthead waiting out the bulk of the song for Jonny Greenwood’s mind-crunching guitar chords, yet it would be given the aforementioned `one hit wonder’ tag. What it turned out to be was a blueprint for some of their most brilliant tracks to date including “Fake Plastic Trees” and “Let Down,” and now Radiohead are practically legends in their own time. Now who’s the creep? – Terrance Terich
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Pearl Jam – “Jeremy / Yellow Ledbetter” (Epic, 1991)

The single for one of Pearl Jam’s most successful songs, in both audio and video formats, also held one of the most revered of the Seattle band’s repertoire, the b-side “Yellow Ledbetter.” It’s difficult to decide between the two tracks as to their merits, so we simply decided not to decide. “Jeremy” was one of the most omnipresent songs in the early ’90s, along with “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Nevermind and Ten were the two albums that I simply knew each and every friend of mine owned. There was no getting around it. “Jeremy” was a dark tale, perfect for the disenchanted youth of the pre-millennial decade. Its video was even more disturbing, acting as somewhat the precursor to the rash of school shootings much later on. To this day I can’t hear the song without thinking of Eddie Vedder’s evil eyes and smile as he screamed his way into the coda of the track. “Jeremy” is one of those songs that finds you unable to restrain from singing along, no matter how long it has been since you’ve heard it, or how tired of it you might be.

“Yellow Ledbetter” is a (fellow Seattle-ite) Jimi-esque tune co-written by Vedder, bassist Jeff Ament and guitarist Mike McCready. I’m not even really sure when I heard it first, I just know that I was immediately taken by the track. Apparently, so was everyone else as “Yellow Ledbetter” has since become one of the band’s most requested tracks, often being played as an encore after every live set. Remember that slew of live albums they released all at the same time back in the day? I’m pretty sure it’s on all of them. This all despite the fact that I don’t think any one person knows every bit of lyric to the song. This is possibly because the song changes with every performance. Vedder has been known to improvise and alter lyrics to his whim and usually to fit an occasion. Once, Vedder changed the line “I don’t know whether I was the boxer or the bag” to “I don’t know whether my brother will be coming home in a box or a bag” to reflect the current war. Regardless of its escapable meanings, the song is a gem, a rare of instance of an album outtake being better than nearly every other song on the tracklist. – Terrance Terich
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Björk – “Hyper-Ballad” (One Little Indian, 1995)

Most songs from Björk seem to be about reconciling herself to the world around her. This recurring theme runs throughout her entire career, but no other song seems to capture this idea better than “Hyper-Ballad.” In the song, our little Icelandic narrator wakes up early from the bed she shares with her lover, goes out to the edge of the cliff, and simply throws shit over it. She imagines what it might be like to throw herself off, and it is at this moment that she has reconciled herself with this life on earth and returns to her lover’s bed. This isn’t one of those songs that made me a fan; I was a fan of hers when she was in the Sugarcubes. This isn’t one of those songs that changed my life; there are in fact no songs that have had that impact on me. What it did do was increase her in my estimation. The weeping strings and her beautiful voice were taken to another level, one in which she wasn’t just that cute singer from Iceland or that person with the crazy voice. With “Hyper-Ballad,” Björk turned a corner, and never went back. – Terrance Terich
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Foo Fighters – “Everlong” (Capitol, 1997)

The late ’90s was an era of mainstream musical crisis, to say the very least. A trigger squeezed too tight quickly ushered in a SoCal pop-punk movement that would fade only to be resurrected in rouge stained girls’ jeans on guys come the turn of the century. A war with only two causalities anyone seemed to care about made hip-hop safe for the streets but boring for the everyday listener who is unmoved by tribute albums. And somewhere in Florida, a chubby date rape fan was re-vamping a George Michael hit that would have boring people everywhere pogoing like they just didn’t care. This musical depression did carry a few notable spikes, the most print worthy being the Foo Fighters’ unblemished second offering, The Colour and the Shape. Grohl thrusts from the Cobain shadow and polishes just a much as he pulverizes with the track “Everlong,” an unconventional love song that finally lays to rest any notion of his front man talents or songwriting abilities. Would Cobain have released it? No, and this is just one of many reasons, “Everlong” is Grohl’s prize creation. As classic as rock n roll can get in any era. – Kevin Falahee
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Placebo – “Pure Morning” (Elevator Music/Virgin, 1998)

Sure, Brian Molko’s voice sounds a little like Geddy Lee’s, but Rush never went to places like this. Molko sneers “A friend in need’s a friend indeed,” at the beginning of every verse, but one gets the sense it’s sarcastic, especially as the lines “a friend with weed is better, a friend with breasts and all the rest, a friend who’s dressed in leather” follow. The churning combination of drums, bass and guitar rarely change throughout the song, which hypnotizes the listener. One is lulled into a trance-like state with the repetitive chords and lyrics, but that’s the genius of the song. The video for the song only enhances the pleasure, featuring Molko threatening to jump off a building, finally doing so, falling, then landing sideways on the way down and walking the rest of the way. It’s like The Matrix meets Queen. “Pure Morning” is the perfect introductory single into the world of Placebo, and quite possibly their best song. Other tracks on Without You, I’m Nothing, especially the title track, are dripping with guitar drama, but “Pure Morning” is something altogether fantastic. – Terrance Terich
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Elliott Smith – “Miss Misery” (Capitol, 1998)

He stood out of place, dressed in a white suit and shaking like a hummingbird. Performing in front of millions of people who had never heard his name, let alone seen his face, Elliott Smith eked out an abridged version of “Miss Misery,” his Oscar nominated tune from the Good Will Hunting soundtrack at the 1998 Academy Awards. Despite releasing albums for years previous to this moment, Elliott was coming out in a way through the words of his most memorable and most well known song that never graced an album. Hesitant, conflicted and grappled by innumerable demons, “Miss Misery” captured Elliott in his most uncompromised of moments, and when the world remembers him hopefully they picture the boy inside the man, onstage with a thrift store guitar, strumming for all to see the comfort and the sadness in pain. – Kevin Falahee
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Pavement – “Gold Soundz” (Matador, 1994)

Although Pavement was really more of an album-oriented band, they did release at least a couple of singles per album, and “Gold Soundz” (from Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain) was one of the best of them. Stephen Malkmus’ ever-cryptic lyrics are harnessed into one of the catchiest melodies in their catalog, no mean feat considering all the other Pavement tracks that could have just as easily landed on this list. Somehow, he even manages to throw in the line “and we’re coming to the chorus now” just before, you guessed it, the chorus! The tune itself is memorable, but what really puts this track above all the other Pavement singles of the decade (for me, anyway) is the video, a hilarious action/adventure spoof which finds the band dressing up in Santa suits and sneaking around (in broad daylight) through some southern California-esque outdoor mall with bows and arrows. There’s more to it, of course, but I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t seen it. – Michael Henning
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R.E.M. – “Losing My Religion” (Warner Bros., 1991)

The opening mandolin strains of “Losing My Religion” are some of the most recognizable notes in modern music history. Those indelible notes combined with some of Michael Stipe’s most memorable lyrics make the song something that went beyond mere `hit’ and into a realm of cultural phenomenon. As might have been mentioned before in another of these ’90s song reviews, the ’90s, at least the early part, was a golden age for MTV. Music videos were huge, and reality shows hadn’t yet bumrushed the landscape of the network. Hell, most of the great music video directors of the time are now feature film directors! “Losing My Religion” was no exception, with a gorgeous video directed by Tarsem, the one named artist from India. Stationary wings, mythological references and Stipe’s spastic dancing all made this already intelligent and beautiful track into that angelic something alluded to in the video. Much was made of the title of the song, a Southern bit of slang for `going crazy,’ but the controversy certainly didn’t hurt R.E.M. Today, one only has to hear those opening mandolin notes and they’ll not only be transported back to a different time and place, but they’ll also be compelled to sing along in that corner and spotlight with Stipe. – Terrance Terich
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The La’s – “There She Goes” (Go! Discs, 1990)

The La’s and frontman Lee Mavers were a band hopelessly and brilliantly lost between two eras. Their Zombies-esque sweet psychedelia was over two decades too late and they were too early for the Britpop resurgence with Blur and Oasis. Their album is a cult classic among those in the know, but still fails to get the rightful attention it should. “There She Goes,” however, the lead single from the album, lives on in perpetuity. There is such an innocence surrounding the repeating lyrics of this straightforward love song, that you just can’t help but smile and bob your head along to its jangly rhythms. Since its release, the song has been for various soundtracks and covered many times over. Truly, the sign of a great song that has unfortunately outlived its songwriters. – Terrance Terich
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