Treble’s Top 100 Singles of the ’90s

Treble staff
Our awesome '90s mixtape

Massive Attack – “Teardrop” (Virgin, 1998)

This song, to me, is what love sounds like. That drum beat throbs like a heartbeat and Liz Fraser’s sweet angelic vocal is the sonic incarnation of love. “Teardrop” is the seemingly one bright song on Mezzanine, my personal favorite Massive Attack release, an album fraught with paranoia and dread. And yet, “Teardrop” remains a soundtrack to a love that sings within. All you have to do is put on headphones, close your eyes and press play. Let the music and the lyrics wash over you. – Adrian Cepeda
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Nirvana – “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (Geffen, 1991)

Categorized by the band themselves as a Pixies rip-off and embraced by everyone else as the revolution the music world was waiting for, Nirvana mightily slouched themselves into the mainstream with the anthemic track one, side one from their seemingly unassuming sophomore effort. Ten million copies and thousands of flannel shirts later, the band and, more importantly, the song stand as the defining moment of the nineties; perhaps if we knew at the time that Cobain and Biggie were as good as the radio was going to get we would have prematurely offed ourselves, too. But in the end, I am glad we didn’t cause love it or hate it, you know you needed it. – Kevin Falahee
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Blur – “Song 2” (Food, 1997)

Blur’s most recognizable song is an iconic anthem that has traveled the world ten times over. It signifies the band’s greatest success stateside even when most debate what the song is really about. Is it about drugs? Or is it a satire of pop music and the low standards that enable such songs to dominate the charts? The legacy of “Song 2” is founded on a bouncy intro that launches into an exhilarating session of “woo hoos” slows to an unsuspecting smattering of nonchalant , nonsensical lyrics (“I got my head checked/By a jumbo jet“), boisterously revisits the “woo hoos” and like that, subsides. While “Song 2” may offer a misguided point of reference for Blur’s catalogue it may be of some consolation that the track could be the greatest celebratory anthem of all-time. Played in stadiums, arenas, and every venue in which sports are played and covered by countless bands including fellow `90s darlings Weezer, you would be hard pressed to find a song from the `90s as widely known and as widely popular (Is there anyone alive that doesn’t like this song?) as “Song 2.” – Tyler Weir
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Daft Punk – “Around the World” (Virgin, 1996)

1997 was the year where electronica had its little moment in the sun on this side of the pond, thanks in part to the success of albums like the Chemical Brothers’ Dig Your Own Hole, Roni Size’s New Forms, Vegas by the Crystal Method and MTV’s late night tripped out program, Amp. While being an always eclectic listener of tunes since my pre teen years, thanks to my dad’s extensive record collection and a cool older cousin of mine that kept me in the loop, I was known to dabble into periodic phases with electronica being my second love after punk and metal. At 16 while leaving from one of my first raves (real raves which aren’t around today, mind you) at 7AM and feeling the waning effects of a microdot I had dropped that night, I was on the way to an after party and my friend slid Homework into his head unit. The first time I heard “Around the World” was like bliss. While the designer drugs were still lingering with their colorful and neurosonic effects, I reached a euphoric state that was tantalizing by the chic, disco suaveness and piercing synths, laid out along to the overlapping vocoder mantra in the title track. The “thud-thud” beat in place of the normal “un-tiss” “un-tiss” from other dance acts at the time remained in my head for weeks after that experience and up until now when just the very mention of Daft Punk makes me want to tear a hole in floor. You’d have to have no functioning nerves in your feet, hips, and ass in order to sit still during this song. – Chris Pacifico
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The Pixies – “Dig for Fire” (4AD, 1990)

While the rest of the indie world seemed to be into Sonic Youth and Pavement, I was a die-hard Pixies fanatic. The Spanish meets surf meets punk mix of this Massachusetts band’s first two albums had me giddy and reeling. But when Bossanova was released, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. Lead single “Velouria” was pretty decent, but it didn’t wow me like the songs from Doolittle. But then I delved deeper and heard songs like “Is She Weird” and “Hang Wire.” But what felt to me like an outtake from their previous album recording sessions was “Dig for Fire.” Lead singer Black Francis has claimed that “Dig for Fire” is his homage to the Talking Heads, and it’s easy to hear why. Francis gets as lyrically / storytelling quirky as David Byrne and the track is that fine balance of avant-garde art and straightforward pop song. Other than “Monkey Gone to Heaven,” “Dig for Fire” elicits the most audience response as well. Crowds shout “No!” as the answer to the repeated question, “Are you looking for the motherlode?” There’s something magical about Francis’ speaking voice through the verses, the guitar burst before the chorus and the closing breathy “Dig…..for fire!” It’s the little Pixies song that could. What I mean is, most people would probably pick other tracks as their favorite Pixies song, but when you mention “Dig for Fire,” those fans say, “Yeah! That one too!” – Terrance Terich
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Radiohead – “Let Down” (Capitol, 1997)

At the end of 1997, Dave Grohl took part in a music magazine’s end of the year poll. Now, Grohl’s a funny guy, hamming it up in videos, making faces at cameras even in his Nirvana days. So when he named Third Eye Blind’s `doot-doot-doot-doo-doo-doo-do” as the best lyric of the year (from “Semi-Charmed Life”), it was fairly easy to see he was being cheeky. At that point I expected the entire rest of the poll to be one big joke, which is until I saw that as best song, he in all seriousness picked Radiohead’s “Let Down.” You see, there’s no way that was a joke, because the song is just so achingly and painfully pretty.

“Let Down” was originally intended to be the leadoff single from OK Computer, but because of the band’s dissatisfaction with the video, they opted for “Paranoid Android” instead. Considering how successful the album was and still is, it’s hard to imagine what would have happened had “Let Down” been the first single. The song’s lyrics discuss the alienation one feels everyday in human society, with the repeated chorus of “Let down and hanging around / Crushed like a bug in the ground.” But it’s Thom Yorke’s earnest and yearning voice singing “One day I am going to grow wings / A chemical reaction / Hysterical and useless” that really sells this song. It touches something deep inside you, reaching for hope, but then dashing those hopes with reality. Yes, maybe we will grow wings, but they won’t do us any good, we won’t know how to use them. Sure, Radiohead songs are known to be somewhat depressing, but depressing songs are what pop music are all about, and Yorke makes depression real, dramatic and beautiful. There are only a handful of songs that make me wish I could sing like the vocalist: Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah,” the Delays’ “Nearer than Heaven” and Radiohead’s “Let Down.” – Terrance Terich

PJ Harvey – “Down By the Water” (Island, 1995)

Like it was with many other artists, I was introduced to PJ Harvey through Beavis and Butthead. They were making the usual moronic comments during her video for “50 Ft. Queenie,” and my first impression was that she was weird. At the time I was a big fan of Silverchair and TLC, so of course PJ Harvey seemed weird to me. That first impression didn’t exactly wear off when To Bring You My Love came out a few years later, but ‘weird’ wasn’t such a bad thing to be anymore. I first heard “Down by the Water” on the local ‘modern rock’ radio station. This, of course, would be the only PJ Harvey song they would ever play. I was intrigued by Harvey’s haunting lyrics and her wonderfully husky voice. It was at once eerie and incredibly sensual. In retrospect, this was an unusual choice for a single and even more unusual for a pretty unadventurous radio station to put on heavy rotation. Harvey moans (and hollers!) for her daughter, and interestingly ends with repeated whispers of “little fish, big fish swimming in the water, come back here and give me my daughter.” Musically, the song eschews guitars for fuzzed out organs and shivering strings, giving it a tightly wound edge. Let’s give credit where credit is due: thank you PJ Harvey for convincing me that ‘weird’ is a good thing. – Jackie Im
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New Order – “Regret” (Qwest, 1993)

On the leadoff track from their last album of the decade, New Order eulogized their Hacienda heyday with a perfect blend of grace and pressure; “Regret” rivals the moodiest moments of New Order’s perilous, brilliant trajectory. Peter Hook’s bass lead, always the conscience of the band, would be mortally missing from the rest of Republic but here he unreeled one of his best. Elsewhere the synths cued to optimal shimmer as New Order cracked the Top 40 and, in a surrealist what-were-they-thinking scenario writ larger than life, played it on Baywatch before disappearing for seven years. – Anthony Strain
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The Breeders – “Cannonball” (Elektra, 1993)

I once wrote a short story for a writer’s workshop in high school that began with the “Ahwooooo” that you hear at the opening of The Breeders’ “Cannonball.” This song was all over the radio and I remembering it being more successful than any Pixies song up to that point. I always had a thing for Kim Deal. She was the sexiest thing about both The Pixies and her band The Breeders. She rocked hard as a singer, bass player, guitar player and songwriter. She was every indie/alternative rocker boy’s wet dream—a female rocker who sang with fury and played bass like a warrior princess. – Adrian Cepeda
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The Flaming Lips – “Waiting For a Superman” (Warner Bros., 1999)

There are a lot of songs about “Superman” out there, from “Superman” to that God awful “Kryptonite” song, and in each one Clark Kent’s alter ego represents something greater, or perhaps an ideal to strive for. The Flaming Lips don’t necessarily do away with this ideal, but rather paint “Superman” as fragile, himself. Even more than that, “Waiting For a Superman” is a song about how fragile all of us are, and how there are phenomena so dire that even Superman, himself, can’t save the day. As Wayne Coyne sings “Is it getting heavy?/ I thought it was already as heavy as can be” over an enormous drum sound and a rush of strings and piano, one can’t help but feel a punch to the stomach—things, which seemed as bad as they possibly could have been, have gotten worse. But while the world waits for Superman to stop Lex Luthor or fly around the world to reverse its rotation, Coyne admits that maybe that’s not quite enough: “tell everybody waiting for superman/ that they should hold on as best they can/ he hasn’t dropped them, forgot them, or anything/ it’s just too heavy for superman to lift.” Supe’s fight for truth and justice is noble and honorable, but even he can’t take away the pain from within. The heart breaks and that lump starts to build up in one’s throat, but just as it seems hopeless, the Lips themselves have saved the day, putting together a beautiful and touching song that brings a little bit more comfort to those waiting for our cape-clad protagonist. – Jeff Terich
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