Treble’s Top 100 Singles of the ’90s

Treble staff
Our awesome '90s mixtape

Pavement – “Summer Babe” (Drag City, 1991)

In 1992 a pack of four guys from Stockton, California who looked like grad school drop out misfits released an album known as Slanted and Enchanted which nobody would suspect would become a classic. Pavement relied on lead man Stephen Malkmus whose mostly lethargic vocal style seemed like he had just gotten shot in the jugular with a tranquilizer gun. Along with Sebadoh’s III, Slanted and Enchanted remained an album that most indie kids, as well as the band members themselves, never would have guessed would shoot out of left field to influence many bands and sub genres a decade and a half later. “Summer Babe” has Malkumus proclaiming his infatuation for a girlie in the summertime by drummer Gary Young’s just sloppy sounding reverb on the skins which is the rhythmic foundation for this fractured and timeless pop ditty. – Chris Pacifico
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Smashing Pumpkins – “Cherub Rock” (Hut, 1993)

The opening seconds of any great album usually make you drop whatever you are doing, stop and listen, mouth agape, while the words “wow, what is this?” struggle to form on your trembling lips. Jimmy Chamberlin’s emphatic snare roll on “Cherub Rock” did just that the first time I heard the song, and still to this day snaps me from whatever menial task I happen to be doing, forced to pause and just listen. The pairing of Billy Corgan and James Iha on electric guitar only further invigorates the salvo, as the distortion crackles through the speakers like distant thunder approaching from the horizon. The rhythm section of Chamberlin on drums and D’arcy on bass anchor those careening guitar wails, rife with short and ever-so-sweet solos, that by now, I’ve pretty much memorized note for note. “Who wants that honey?” Corgan screams, his whiny nasal intonation at once endearing and somehow fitting. Sarcasm seems to drip across the fret board. The percussion remains constant, at times more necessarily rampant, ushering the listener through the vast corridors of guitar sound that solidified the Pumpkins a place in the alternative movement, but elevated them above most of their peers, as they simultaneously scoffed at the so-called curse of the sophomore slump. – Mars Simpson
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The Flaming Lips – “Race For The Prize” (Warner Bros., 1999)

It’s inevitable that a song from The Soft Bulletin, what the self-proclaimed indie rocker holds close to his heart like a rosary, would be on this list, and personally, I think this is the best bead on this rosary. This song showcases what The Flaming Lips are best at: exuberance. “Race For the Prize” gets carried away with itself, shooting itself to the highest levels of fabulism and irony. The lyrics of the song strike on a very important aspect of human nature, competition, and how it has preceded quality of service, even in areas where it seems like the idea of competition is frightening; in this case, medicine. Two scientists are racing to find a cure for something that isn’t mentioned in the song, because it’s not important. Beating the other guy is what’s important. The two scientists pit themselves against each other “hope against hope,” as if their hope wasn’t one in the same, to cure whatever disease they’re trying to rid the world of. The concise lyrics point out not only the antipathy that arises in competition, but the disregard for objectives outside of beating the other guy, as the disease they are trying to cure is never even brought up in the song. These solemn themes that would drive normal artists to deep contemplation and bitter seriousness is barely even taken notice of in this song, piano raising the tone of the song after every verse into an air of celebration where synths wail like the wind and drums shout like lightning. The music revels in itself, completely ignoring the things it just brought up so it can have itself a party, because after all, “They’re just humans/ With wives and children.” Aren’t we all entitled to a little fun? It’s a question that this song asks its listeners and itself. – Paul Bozzo
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A Tribe Called Quest – “Award Tour” (Jive, 1993)

A friend’s father bought the “Award Tour” single for me on an evening trip to a record shop one night in the early ’90s. There was a small window of time when groups like Tribe, De La Soul and Digable Planets were getting a lot of radio play and I can remember listening avidly, more entranced by hip-hop than I would be for quite some time to come. The cool evinced by A Tribe Called Quest was unmatched at the time and listening now their style sounds as fresh and inimitable as it did then. Q-Tip is at his best here, slinging intelligent, referential rhymes inviting any number of suitable yet incomplete interpretations. – Tyler Parks
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Mazzy Star – “Fade Into You” (Capitol, 1994)

There are some songs that transcend their parts to become wholly, irrationally sublime. Through its simplistic veneer “Fade into You” refracts something delicate and rare, a stirring, still-life beauty fringed with dread held tentatively at arm’s length. Behind the strumming of simple chords and feather-light piano notes, the waifish vocals of Hope Sandoval and David Roback’s bleary guitar give the song its over-riding undertone of cinematic grandeur. – Tyler Parks
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Nine Inch Nails – “Closer” (Nothing, 1994)

Robert Smith once made sex into a vile, harrowing experience of horror on Pornography, and perhaps fittingly, Trent Reznor, inspired in part by Smith, turned that idea around on “Closer,” turning something disturbing and depraved into something sexy. Much to the contrary of The Downward Spiral‘s first aggro single “March of the Pigs,” this Moog fueled disco number was a slithering, lascivious dance song, one fraught with Reznor’s own demons, of course, but a fun bit of industrial groove nonetheless. Like any great single, it pairs dance beats with sexual themes, something that was hard to escape in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s…well basically since the dawn of pop music straight to this present day. Still, while the themes are simple and the grooves dirty and base as necessary, there’s a sense of salvation in Reznor’s dirty deeds. For while he may “desecrate” his other, she brings him “closer to God.” I can only imagine how bizarre breakfast the next morning must be. – Jeff Terich
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Radiohead -“Karma Police” (Parlophone, 1997)

“Karma Police” was the song that made me love Radiohead. Yeah, I heard my share of “Creep” and liked The Bends, but this song resonated with me on a deeper level. The idea of there being an actual Karma Police was quite fascinating to me. The line that really got me is that chilling, if reassuring refrain “for a minute there, I lost myself.” We have all been there, having been in a situation with someone or something where you just lost yourself, if only for a moment. Brilliant. – Adrian Cepeda
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The Verve – “Bittersweet Symphony” (Virgin, 1997)

Rare is it that a title reflects the content and tone of the actual song as does The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony.” A tragically underrated band in its own right, The Verve’s swan song gave them the notoriety they deserved (albeit a little too late) with the release of their third and final album, Urban Hymns. Wispy orchestration and Richard Ashcroft’s deliberately paced singing offer an unusual yet strangely complementary arrangement. Crashing drums and the sweeping of violin strings congeal in a sound that would shake the foundations of even the highest cathedral, raining shattered stained glass on startled patrons; it’s heavenly. Atmospherics are one thing, and the background mastery of “Bittersweet Symphony,” all swirling synthesizer and guitar effects, is another wonder for the ears to behold altogether. As magnificent as it sounds, even more remarkable are Ashcroft’s sentiments, sung with aplomb: “Try to make ends meet, you’re a slave to money then you die.” Bleak doesn’t begin to describe such wisdom, but then, the truth is usually such. In spite of the outcome, hope is found within these symphonic revelations, in Ashcroft’s yearning repetition of “I can change.” You can’t help but want to believe it. – Mars Simpson
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Elliott Smith – “Ballad of Big Nothing”/ “Angeles” (Domino, 1997)

Just about any of Elliott Smith’s songs, particularly those from his breakthrough either/or, have a strong emotional wallop that leave most powerless to overcome. It just so happens that two of them, “Ballad of Big Nothing” and “Angeles,” were packaged on the same single, along with the two-minute outtake “Some Song.” The A-side is one of the few full-band arrangements on either/or, louder and more boisterous, yet still intricately performed and beautifully executed. In “Big Nothing,” Smith takes a cynical look at the idea of independence and decisions not bound by others. As he sings “you can do what you want to whenever you want to/ you can do what you want to, there’s no one to stop you,” he eventually comments that “it doesn’t mean a thing.” For every decision we make for ourselves, there’s always the possibility of making the wrong decision, and regardless of your outlook, what you do ultimately affects others and yourself, the metaphorical drug themes in the song being part of a greater series of problems tearing away at a relationship. The cycle is hollow and meaningless, each person walking by in formation as if in some empty, nihilistic parade. And in true Elliott Smith fashion, the sound of this heartbreak is ever so sweet.

“Angeles,” meanwhile, tugs at the heartstrings in subtler ways. The lyrics are more about the cutthroat music industry and the way Los Angeles can chew you up and spit you out, to rehash a tired cliché. Smith’s own words are far more eloquent, as he describes “someone’s always coming around here/ trailing some new kill” and “what’s a game of chance to you in this world?” Ultimately it pairs perfectly with “Ballad of Big Nothing” in that it still has everything to do with choices and of personal autonomy, but whereas the A-side is about the futility of one’s independence, its companion is about knowing the stakes beforehand and embracing those decisions. As Smith insists “no one’s gonna fool around with us,” he sure sounds determined, though you get the feeling he’s been fooled with before. Ultimately, it’s the chances we take in life that make it worthwhile, as does this flawless and devastatingly beautiful song. – Jeff Terich
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