Treble’s Top 100 Singles of the ’90s

Treble staff
Our awesome '90s mixtape

DJ Shadow – “Midnight in a Perfect World” (Mo’ Wax, 1996)

No song on this list is better summed up by its title than “Midnight in a Perfect World.” In DJ Shadow’s sublime sample symphony from debut album Endtroducing, he creates a late night Utopia, a sad and beautiful dream world with hazy organs, the elegant taps of piano keys, and the surreal lure of angelic voices. One can easily get lost in its gently gorgeous layering of varied elements, each one complementing the next like a silk scarf to a finely tailored suit. In its wordless progression, “Midnight” presents a vivid picture of its own, the eerily beautiful blur of city lights from a rain-streaked car window, the onlooker half-drunk on nostalgia and vodka tonics. And yeah, it’s a hip hop song, which made its emergence all the more mind-blowing upon its 1996 release. It sounded nothing like Wu-Tang or Dre, and was clearly more AMP than Yo! MTV Raps, but the scratches and static-ridden, crashing boom-BAP made it perfectly clear that hip-hop had advanced into an entirely new realm. Ironically enough, Endtroducing also featured a 30 second track called “Why Hip-Hop Sucks in’96.” Well, by comparison to this, just about anything sounds underwhelming. – Jeff Terich
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Smashing Pumpkins – “1979/Set The Ray To Jerry” (Virgin, 1995)

Billy Corgan remains a wildly polarizing musician to this day, but I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t like “1979.” It’s one of his only songs that makes you feel something and miss it when it’s gone—I like to play it at twilight when the sky is the correct shade of purple and Corgan’s morphine city and zipper blues acquire a deeper poetic relief. But it’s the b-side to this megahit that serves as the perfect distillation of all that febrile, fraught-eyed Pumpkins mysticism. Corgan may be at his most laughably rancid (“let roar these fears/to the whore of my tears“) but “Set The Ray To Jerry” tips its bassline like a gravestone under creeping clouds of guitar. Jimmy Chamberlin, meanwhile, ties the song to his teeth in doing what he always did, which was create better angles for the other instruments to bounce off of than any drummer before or since. – Anthony Strain
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The Beta Band – “Dry the Rain”/Champion Versions (Regal, 1997)

To make a fairly obvious observation, certain songs will always evoke strong emotions and bring forth memories on individually personal bases for relatively unexplainable reasons – short of the fact that the songs were probably playing during significant life moments. For me, “Dry the Rain” is one of those songs that just always gets me, and I can’t quite explain why. It’s always been there, a musical backdrop for memories that fall into the most important life categories of friendship and love. Conversing, connecting, falling, laughing, learning, growing, etc. – when I hear this song, I basically always remember that I am alive, that I have real feelings and real life experiences that I can forever reflect upon. And besides this faithful reminder of my own existence, it’s just a really great song. And since it’s unavoidable to drop the High Fidelity bomb, I have to say that when Rob Gordon states that he “will now sell five copies of The Three EPs by the Beta Band,” the horn section kicks in, “I will be your light” is sung over and over, and the entire store starts bopping along, I just want to give everyone in Championship Vinyl a great big hug. Because we just all know that it’s a great song, and that’s what brought us together. It’s the simple theme of love and support tied in with the Beta Band’s style of experimental jam-folk that brings a fundamental sense of accessibility to the tune, and when you pair that with the alliance of a certain John Cusack, you’ve got a classic that’s made it far beyond its 1998 Three EPs introduction. – Anna Gazdowicz
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Portishead – “Sour Times (Nobody Loves Me)” (Go! Discs, 1994)

“Sour Times” is one of a handful of songs that I remember exactly where I was when I heard it first. I was on Strathmore Avenue, listening to KCRW, finding a parking spot near my apartment building, when a burst of trip-hop meets torch singer escaped from the speakers. I had found my parking spot, but I just couldn’t leave my car. When Beth Gibbons smokily declared, “nobody loves me, it’s true, not like you do,” my first thought was, `you’re damn right, sister.’ I wasn’t scrambling for a pen and paper to write down the name. It was burned in my brain. After all, what kind of name is Portishead? It was unlike anything I’d heard before. Trip-hop hadn’t been as big in America as in the UK, but thanks to this duo, it would soon explode. Tricky, Massive Attack and more were soon to follow, but it was Beth Gibbons’ sultry sixties voice and Geoff Barrow’s slinky tones and use of a Lalo Schifrin sample that would woo me toward the genre. To this day, very little music has kept me in the car, but I’d be hard pressed to leave the car even now when Portishead is on the stereo, especially this hypnotic track. – Terrance Terich
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Sleater-Kinney – “Get Up” (Kill Rock Stars, 1999)

This song could either be about dancing or death, or something else altogether. That’s the funny thing about Sleater-Kinney. Though they frequently delved into feminist issues or political themes, they had a special knack for the abstract, best displayed in this unlikely single from their 1999 album The Hot Rock. Corin Tucker narrates, in spoken word fashion, a curious verse: “when the body starts to let go/ let it all go at once/ not piece by piece/ but like a whole bucket of stars.” It was this song that marked their debut on MTV, and a hell of a track overall—melodic, cryptic, and beautiful, but driven by Janet Weiss’ furious beats, reminding us that these ladies are here, first and foremost, to rock. One listen and I was in love. – Jeff Terich
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My Bloody Valentine – “Soon”/Glider (Creation, 1990)

Perhaps no other song as dreamy, abstract, psychedelic, and in a sense, un-pop, has ever been released into the public consciousness as a single on a high profile label (Creation in the UK, Sire/WB in the US). With only a trace of a simple looped drumbeat hidden deep in the background, a swirl of blurred guitars takes center stage, shifting in and out of focus in some kind of omnipresent yet abstract haze. Atop (actually, mostly underneath) this evanescent framework, an otherworldly vocal melody floats, an angelic voice cooing almost completely incomprehensible lyrics, which become wordless “ooohs” during the, um, “chorus.” MBV spawned a legion of imitators in their wake, yet none have ever managed to match the transcendent beauty of Loveless, an album so innovative sonically that the mastermind behind it has not even been able to release another album in the 16 years since. Talk about pressure to record a follow up… – Michael Henning
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Air – “Sexy Boy” (Source, 1997)

When I first heard Air’s “Sexy Boy,” I believe my first thought was “boring” and went back to listening to Bush records. My taste in music has gotten exponentially better over time, as I have discarded my Bush records and Air is no longer boring, but rather great tastemakers in French pop music. “Sexy Boy” and the album that spawned it, Moon Safari, launched Air in America and it’s no wonder. Moon Safari is the sleek, sexy album that Serge Gainsbourg would have made in the electronic music age. Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel have picked up exactly where Gainsbourg left off. It’s easy to imagine Jane Birkin, for example, cooing the lyrics to “Sexy Boy.” Its similarities to a Gainsbourg song are exactly what make “Sexy Boy” so deliciously good. It’s lounge, it’s sexy and it has an intrinsic coolness that automatically makes the listener feel more sophisticated. – Jackie Im
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Wilco – “A Shot In the Arm” (Reprise, 1999)

There’s something painfully tear-jerky about a sad lyric set to a particularly beautiful arrangement; this is something Jeff Tweedy knows all too well. Wilco’s third album summerteeth contained 14 such emotional maelstroms, its single “A Shot in the Arm” being one of the heaviest. Its tune is graceful and elaborate, yet upbeat, simultaneously borrowing the best of The Beatles, Big Star and The Beach Boys to be reconfigured into an awe-inspiring original. Tweedy’s lyrics are somewhat cryptic. As he sings “the ashtray said you were up all night” he could be speaking to a friend or a lover, or even himself, and creates a clever musical metaphor with the lines “we fell in love/ in the key of C” and “you followed me down/ the neck to D.” Some speculate the song is about drug use, its imagery of needles and “something in my veins bloodier than blood” used as central themes. Only Tweedy knows for sure. Yet two simple words, the quiet resignation in his remark “you’ve changed,” are by far the most devastating. Long before he admitted as such, Jeff Tweedy was trying to break our hearts. – Jeff Terich
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Elliott Smith – “Needle In The Hay” (Kill Rock Stars, 1995)

My introduction to Elliott Smith came through misnomer; a friend gave me a mixed CD he’d entitled `Sad Bastard,’ comprised of Smith’s early bedroom-recorded material which included “Needle In The Hay.” I had no reason to doubt my friend’s facetiousness in naming the disc as he did, and after listening to the songs I quickly hearkened to the melancholy Smith’s music captured so well. Even more than the emotions that his music invokes, one experiences the sense of a lost soul wandering the trappings of a hopelessly urbanized world. “Strung-out and thin, calling some friend, trying to cash some check,” Smith croons in trademark desperation in the opening verse. The simple (by Smith’s standards) strumming pattern on acoustic guitar serves as the only accompaniment to his tortured vocals, layered with subtlety. He conjures with no shortage of stark imagery the plight of a typical junkie but it’s unclear how much is biographical and how much is fictional. That honest ambiguity gives lines like: “so leave me alone, you oughta be proud that I’m getting good marks,” an even greater sense of urgency and helplessness of its central character; whether it is Smith or not doesn’t seem to matter, the sadness shines through in minor chord beauty. – Mars Simpson
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Blur – “Girls & Boys”(Food, 1994)

The first song on 1994’s Parklife is a rather straightforward satire of the UK club culture – a song based in traditional party beats and riffs with lyrics like “Avoiding all work / Cause there’s none available / Like battery thinkers / Count your thoughts – on one two three four five fingers / Girls who are boys / Who like boys to be girls / Who do boys like they’re girls / Who do girls like they’re boys / Always should be someone you really love.” The song also pokes fun at the growing promiscuity and increasingly ambiguous sexual trends of the UK of the time, suggesting the frivolousness of empty sex that had become much more prominent amongst the young folks. The single actually saw heavy rotation within the club scene (was that the point, Damon Albarn?), which makes sense, given its absolutely irresistible tempo. Overall, the song manages to represent the growing popularity of the Britpop movement and a jab at the culture it was based in – not an easy feat for a measly opening tune. – Anna Gazdowicz
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