67 Best 90s Songs That Shaped the Decade

As the last decade of the 20th century, the 1990s were a peculiar ten years. They were a hangover from the excesses of the ’80s, and in many ways felt like one long countdown to the turn of the millennium – remember the fears about the ‘Y2K’ or the ‘millennium bug’? Of course, nothing happened.

The music of this decade was a bit of a mixed bag too. After the synth-heavy and drum machine-obsessed days of the 80s, many musicians returned to their roots, and new acts (such as Oasis and Nirvana) sought to bring music back to a more earnest, rock-oriented place. With the rise of hip-hop and dance music (it was the decade of the rave, remember), it was one of the most diverse decades musically.

As you’ll see, some very good music came out these ten years. So, here are the best 90s songs. Get ready for a blast back in time…


7 Seconds – Youssou N’Dour ft. Neneh Cherry

The “7 seconds” of this track refers to the first few seconds of a baby’s life. It talks about an infant’s fresh innocence before it knows about the pains of life. The song includes lyrics in English, French, and Wolof. It won the MTV Europe Music Award for Best Song in 1994.

Rush – Big Audio Dynamite

‘Rush’ samples several other songs. The protagonist looks back on life and realizes there’s no reason to change one’s past events – even the negative ones – because they are all part of life’s rich tapestry that makes you who you are. The song does include apologies, though.

Man on the Moon – R.E.M

Andy Kaufman inspired this track, which was used as the title for a 1999 movie about the comedian. The lyrics sometimes seem somewhat abstract, but they reference Kaufman and his career.

Related: Find this song on our playlist of full moon songs.

Teardrop – Massive Attack

Elisabeth Fraser is featured on the vocals of this track; the death of Fraser’s friend Jeff Buckley inspired its lyrics. It seems to talk about finding strength and faith even as love leaves you and “falling apart.” The song relies heavily on a sample of Les McCann’s ‘Sometimes I Cry.’

Related: Here are the best emotions songs.

Under the Bridge – Red Hot Chili Peppers

This song talks about the loneliness and despair that can accompany the lifestyle that comes from addiction. The protagonist feels that his city is his only friend in this painful and confusing state. It was inspired by lead singer Anthony Kiedis’ real-life struggles.

Recommended: Our pick of Chili Pepper fan favorites.

Nothing Compares 2 U – Sinéad O’Connor

Prince gave this song to a band called The Family, but it didn’t garner much attention until Sinéad O’Connor covered it five years after its original release. It’s a very human song about losing a relationship with someone who seems incomparably wonderful. O’Connor’s version hit Number One in 17 countries after its release.

Related: Listen to the best songs about mistakes and regrets.

Bitter Sweet Symphony – The Verve

This iconic track talks about the sometimes pointless drudgery of everyday life. Richard Ashcroft wrote the lyrics after realizing that money doesn’t automatically make someone happy and can actually cause more problems. The orchestral riff is from a lesser-known instrumental version of the Rolling Stones track called ‘The Last Time.’

Related: See more songs from the Cruel Intentions soundtrack.

No Diggity – Blackstreet ft. Dr. Dre, Queen Pen

The protagonist here wants to let a woman he’s attracted to know that he’s definitely interested in her, “No Diggity, no doubt.” The acoustic guitar music comes from ‘Grandma’s Hands’ by Bill Withers.

Related: Dance along with our dance songs playlist.

Loser – Beck

Other than finding Beck declaring himself a loser, this song is quite bizarre and abstract, especially considering what a huge hit it became. “Soy un perdedor” is Spanish for “I’m a loser,” highlighting Beck’s roots in a Latin section of Los Angeles.

They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y) – Pete Rock & CL Smooth

The 1990s was a huge decade for hip-hop. ‘They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y)’ was a staple of early 1990s hip hop, a joint inspired by the death of Troy Dixon (the rapper known as “Trouble” T. Roy of Heavy D & the Boyz). This track was used exquisitely in an important scene at the end of the TV series Ozark season 4.

Common People – Pulp

These lyrics were based on Jarvis Cocker’s chance encounter with a woman he never had the chance to know better. While the song is from her perspective, it is possible that Cocker was writing from his own experience and thoughts. It highlights class inequality and the ways that the upper classes will never truly understand the challenges and lives of the lower classes.

Related: This song features on our playlist of the best songs for underdogs.

Glory Box – Portishead

The woman who serves as this song’s protagonist has had enough of being hurt in her romantic relationship. She’s ready to move on, so the man she loves needs to give her a reason to stay with him if he wants the relationship to work.

Related: Feeling hurt? Here are the best songs about pain.

Soon – My Bloody Valentine

‘Soon’ may be the most upbeat track on the album Loveless as well as the longest—it runs seven minutes long. The protagonist wants a love interest to be brave, have faith, and take a chance on their relationship. The track’s breakbeat drum styling contributes to its uplifting sound.

Gin & Juice – Snoop Doggy Dogg

As the title suggests, this song finds Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre enjoying parties where Gin & Juice are present. Dr. Dre also served as the producer for the song. The song includes samples and inspirations from other tracks; it was Snoop Dogg’s second single.

Related: Hear this song on our list of bar songs.

Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana

Of course, you couldn’t have a best ’90s songs compilation without including Nirvana. And really, the song has to be Smells Like Teen Spirit, as it was their signature tune.

Related: go to our best cover songs playlist to hear their excellent version of Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World.

Big Time Sensuality – Björk

While its title may sound sensual and seem to allude to a romantic relationship, this song is actually about friends. It highlights the power and deep love that can be present in true friendships. This 1993 track was Björk’s biggest hit in the United States until 2007.

Related: Gather your friends and enjoy these songs about friendship and memories.

Midnight in a Perfect World – DJ Shadow

This track seems to allude to a countdown of some sort. There’s a sense of foreboding and the end of a love-type relationship, which may not be its main focus. It also highlights the uneasiness that often comes with watching time pass or being out and about after dark.

Related: Waste no time listening to our playlist of clocks music.

Island in the Sun – Weezer

While it almost wasn’t released, this piece ended up being a big hit for Weezer. It’s about enjoying warm weather on an island and finding romance and escapism there. Emma Roberts covered this for the soundtrack of the 2006 film Aquamarine. It also had two separate music videos made for it.

Related: Check out more songs with sun in the lyrics.

Loaded – Primal Scream

DJ Andy Weatherall remixed this track, turning it into a hit. The protagonist doesn’t want to lose someone’s love; he just wants to have fun with this person. The album on which this appears won the first-ever-awarded Mercury Award.

Related: Head over to our list of the best songs about being free.

Killing Me Softly With His Song – The Fugees

Who doesn’t love the Fugees? I’ve yet to meet one! Everything they did was class, and their album ‘The Score’ remains one of the best hip-hop albums of the ’90s. This track was one of its highlights.

Range Life – Pavement

This song’s country-folk vibes lend to its lyrics’ theme: yearning for a simpler lifestyle. It’s a coming-of-age piece that finds its protagonist wanting to move on from chaotic, messy teenage years into a calmer young adulthood. The song seems to criticize Smashing Pumpkins within its lyrics.

Recommended: Our curated list of Pavement classics.

Born Slippy – Underworld

The title of this track was the name of a greyhound dog the band saw at a race track. The lyrics were inspired by a time when Karl Hyde was struggling to get home after closing time at a pub. The song was fitting for the 1996 film Trainspotting that it was featured in.

Related: This song is on our list of Trainspotting songs.

Live Forever – Oasis

Here’s a song with a melody based on the Rolling Stones’s song ‘Shine a Light.’ The protagonist wants to live forever; some of the lyrics are based on Noel Gallagher’s mother, whose garden is mentioned within the lyrics. This song was one reason Gallagher was let into Oasis as a member.

Learn to Fly – Foo Fighters

The narrator here is searching for signs and inspiration to make him feel better about life; he is “looking to the sky” to save him. On a more concrete level, the lyrics are about Dave Grohl wanting to become a pilot, which may be something that he thought would help him find inspiration in life.

Related: Fly away with the best songs about airplanes.

Crash Into Me – Dave Matthews Band

This track’s obsessive protagonist is stalking a woman. He watches her through her windows, presumably while in the bathroom. Many listeners have mistaken the song for a romantic track due to Dave Matthews’ reputation as a normal guy.

Related: Keep an eye on our playlist of stalker songs.

Alright – Supergrass

Here’s a summery feel-good track that was actually written in the winter. It’s a teen anthem about young people having a good time with friends, despite world problems. Two films—1995’s Clueless and 2000’s On The Edge—feature the track.

Related: You may know this song from the Clueless soundtrack.

Rosa Parks – Outkast

This song briefly references civil rights activist Rosa Parks—”move to the back of the bus”—to describe the harshness of the entertainment industry. The song offended Parks, believing OutKast was exploiting her image. OutKast then vowed to teach new generations about Parks’ significance in society and history.

Basket Case – Green Day

The narrator of this song highlights the discomfort of suffering through an anxiety attack. Billie Joe Armstrong was inspired by his own history of panic attacks when writing the song, which in turn helped him process his emotions. The song is unique in that the verse starts at the very beginning of the song.

Recommended: Our list of the best Green Day songs.

Don’t Speak – No Doubt

This piece talks about Gwen Stefani’s relationship with No Doubt bassist Tony Kanal. She doesn’t want him to talk about what happened or explain why their true romance ended, as it hurts her too much to think about it. What started out as a love song was turned into a breakup track after Kanal and Stefani split.

Related: Broken heart? Here are some songs about breaking up.

Sabotage – Beastie Boys

As it is with many Beastie Boys songs, this track’s lyrics are an in-joke for the band and its crew. What started as a sarcastic joke about the band’s producer hampering their creative process ended up being a huge hit for the group.

Related: Enjoy your run with our list of music for runners.

California Love – 2Pa ft. Dr. Dre and Roger Troutman

‘California Love’ celebrates the US state’s Hip-Hop lifestyle. It samples Joe Cocker’s ‘Woman to Woman’ and incorporates ‘So Ruff, So Tuff’ by Roger Troutman. 2Pac made it clear that he wanted the song to be about money rather than violence; he was killed a year after its release.

Related: Hear more on our songs about California playlist.

Between the Bars – Elliott Smith

Elliott Smith demonstrates addiction’s power on one’s life in this track. The lyrics personify a bottle of alcohol and the promises it makes to the drinker, even if the drinker knows at heart that those statements aren’t true and that giving in to dependency will just make life harder in the long run.

Song 2 – Blur

This song’s “Whoo-Hooo” chorus is often used as an alternate title for the track. The actual title was supposed to be a working name, but it eventually stuck. The song is only two minutes long, but it was a hit in the United Kingdom and has remained one of Blur’s most well-known tracks. The lyrics seem to present a protagonist who is happy to know someone but isn’t sure why that person is important to him.

Related: This song is on our list of the best walk up songs.

Wide Open Spaces – Dixie Chicks

Here’s a late-90s country hit that charted for four weeks straight. The song talks about a girl or young woman who wants to see the world and have the freedom to make her own choices and mistakes in the world, and who eventually leaves home to chase her dreams and live her life.

Porcelain – Moby

Moby was inspired by a real-life heartbreak when writing this track. The lyrics are about being in love with someone you know isn’t meant for you, no matter how strong your feelings are. With this piece, Moby hoped to re-introduce a gentler, more creative sound to the millennium airwaves.

Related: Check out more songs from The Beach soundtrack.

Little Fluffy Clouds – The Orb

This song focuses on interview clips of Rickie Lee Jones talking about the clouds she saw in her childhood years. The song adds other samples and features for a unique effect. Jones was unhappy that her voice was used without permission and had to get a legal settlement from The Orb.

Related: Float away with this cloud music.

All I Need – Air ft. Beth Hirsch

The protagonist here needs time, space, and a sign from the universe to move on with life. She needs to take a break and evaluate her life before she can relax and feel happy again. It could also be about waiting for that special romance to make life seem wonderful again.

1979 – The Smashing Pumpkins

The Smashing Pumpkins highlight the lives of Generation X in this piece. It also speaks to the struggles that youth of all generations face when transitioning from a teenager to young adults. A version of the song was written long before its release; it didn’t fit any previous albums.

Related: Reminisce the good days with the best songs about kids growing up.

Alive – Pearl Jam

Art imitates life in this piece, which fictionalizes a true story of a boy who learns that his dad is actually his stepfather. It turns out that his biological father has passed away. It’s based on Eddie Vedder’s life as a child with his mother and stepfather, whom Vedder didn’t get along with.

Creep – Radiohead

Thom Yorke talks himself down in this track as the “creep” of the title. In many ways, the song highlights issues of misogyny in the 1990s, which Yorke wanted to be in opposition to while also struggling with his own tendencies. If you liked this, check out our pick of Radiohead’s best songs.

Related: If you’re feeling down, here are some low self-esteem songs.

Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia) – US3

This is a cover of ‘Cantaloupe Island’ by Herbie Hancock. It references Birdland Jazz Club in New York City and is about letting yourself go and enjoying dancing to the rhythms of jazzy music.

Related: Listen to more songs with trumpets.

Scenario – A Tribe Called Quest

This track relies on wordplay to get its message across. It mostly serves to highlight A Tribe Called Quest’s strengths as a “tribe” and features five verses from five different rappers.

Full Clip – Gang Starr

Full Clip’ serves as a eulogy to Big L. It features a sample of Cal Tjader’s ‘Walk on By’ and presents Gang Starr as one of the best, as both a person and a rapper.

N.Y. State of Mind – Nas

Nas aimed to highlight the mindset of himself and many others in New York during the 90s with this song. The song also has the New York sound common in hip-hop at the time; it was listed at Number Nine on Complex’s list of The 100 Greatest Hip-Hop Beats of All-Time.

Related: Planning a trip to New York? Here are the best songs about NYC.

Killing in the Name – Rage Against The Machine

Here’s a piece that addresses the serious topic of racism in the United States police force. Despite its US topic matter, this track—Rage Against The Machine’s first single—never charted in the United States. It was popular in the United Kingdom and was listed at number 24 on Rolling Stone’s list of the Greatest Guitar Songs.

Related: Rage against “the man” with this powerful protest music.

November Rain – Guns N’ Roses

This is based on Del James’ short story Without You. The protagonist seems to be asking a love interest to give him a chance again, even though their relationship may fail. While this is the longest-running Top 10 hit in the United States, the original version was much longer than the 8:59 release at an impressive 25 minutes of run time. It’s easily one of Guns N’ Roses’ finest tracks.

Related: Crunchy leaves and sweaters, please! Enjoy these songs about fall.

Here Comes The Hotstepper – Ini Kamoze

‘Here Comes The Hotstepper’ was Ini Kamoze’s only hit release. While the lyrics tell the tale of a man on the run from the law, the Jamaican sunniness of the track makes Kamoze and the story seem harmless, even endearing. This piece features samples of two other tracks.

Ai Du – Ali Farka Toure ft. Ry Cooder

The lyrics of this guitar-heavy track have a simple yet powerful message: you need to know yourself to have trust and faith in others, which is an integral part of living life well. The album on which it appears received a Grammy Award for Best World Music Album in 1994.

On & On – Erykah Badu

This was Erykah Badu’s debut single, which won a Grammy Award. The song finds Badu separating herself from the troubles of the world and viewing them as a detached observer, which ended up being an impressive approach in the eyes of critics at the time of its release.

Coolio – Gangsta’s Paradise

Coolio reworks Stevie Wonder’s ‘Pastime Paradise’ with this track. It was written for the film Dangerous Minds and represented the rough lifestyles held by the kids in the film, who feel as if they don’t have control over their own lives. It won a Grammy Award in 1995 for Best Rap Solo Performance.

One – U2

While Bono has vaguely described this song as being about relationships, it’s been perceived to have a few different topics in its lyrics, from the reunification of Germany to U2 putting differences aside to make an album after struggling to complete a project. Proceeds from the song were donated to AIDS research; it’s possible that the song has themes related to the struggles of AIDS victims, as well.

Related: Count up the songs on our number songs playlist.

Jump Around – House Of Pain

Considered to be one of the 90s’ most enduring tracks, this party staple instructs the audience to get on their feet and jump. It highlights the popularity of jumping themes in 1990s hip-hop tracks. Despite its fun-filled sound, the song does have some dark and aggressive lyrics about fighting and similar topics.

Related: Grab a jump rope and enjoy these jump songs.

Cosmic Girl – Jamiroquai

The narrator here has been lovestruck by his car, even though it sounds as if he’s talking about a woman. The song was written about Jay Kat’s appreciation for his own vehicle. The song could still be listened to from a romance perspective, however.

Save Tonight – Eagle-Eye Cherry

This track’s protagonist wants to be sure to enjoy his last night with his special someone. He appreciates the present moment, love, life, and the night. The track brought Eagle-Eye Cherry sudden yet short-lived fame; his second album did not receive much attention.

Related: Hear this song on our playlist of one night stand songs.

Cream – Prince

This innuendo-focused and highly suggestive track ended up being Prince’s last number one hit. The lyrics weren’t necessarily what made the song popular, as its music is what made it really stand out for most listeners. The lyrics are also about perseverance, making it a highly relatable track for many.

Rebel Girl – Bikini Kill

Three separate recorded versions of this song were released in 1993, with some varied lyrics between the different releases. It’s about wanting to be best friends with a rebellious girl and looking up to her because she is unique and independent. The song shows how powerful friendships and platonic, unconditional love can be.

You Get What You Give – New Radicals

New Radicals had a hit with this track in the late 90s, largely because it’s an uplifting anthem that appealed to young, idealistic listeners. As the title suggests, the song lets listeners know that they can live out their dreams as long as they keep the needs of others in mind.

Related: Celebrate your accomplishments with these graduation songs.

Peaches – The Presidents of the United States of America

It’s unclear whether this song is about real peaches or women. In any case, the lyrics were inspired by a homeless man who was heard saying that he planned to move to the country and eat a lot of peaches. The part that closes out the track varies in sound compared to the rest of the song.

Related: Hungry? Enjoy these songs about peaches.

Groove is in the Heart – Deee-Lite

‘Groove is in the Heart’ was Deee-Lite’s only hit track. While there may be romance at play in the lyrics, the song seems to focus on the power of music as its main theme. The whistling head in the track was sampled from ‘Get Up’ by Vernon Burch, and Q-Tip is featured in the rap section of the song.

Insane in the Brain – Cypress Hill

This track seems to be about using mind-altering substances. The protagonist feels like he’s lost his mind due to doing just that. The song is also about rappers who had dissed the members of Cypress Hill, according to Senen “Sen Dog” Reyes.

Firestarter – The Prodigy

Keith Flint wrote this song’s lyrics to describe himself, as The Prodigy lead singer’s last name is in itself a fire starter. The song was supposed to be an instrumental piece but ended up being a song about Flint’s reputation as a troublemaking person. ‘Weenie Beenie’ by The Foo Fighters also inspired the track.

Related: Find more fire songs on our playlist of hot songs.

Zombie – The Cranberries

A tragedy in Warrington, Cheshire, England, inspired this track; two children died. The lyrics are about the seemingly unending fight for independence in Northern Ireland. The Cranberries hoped that the song would inspire peace between England and Ireland. ‘Zombie’ was controversial, but that didn’t stop it from being a huge success for the band. The IRA called a ceasefire a few weeks after the song was released; no one knows if the song influenced this decision.

Related: Don’t get scared! These are the best songs about monsters.

The Sign – Ace of Base

This song finds a man and a woman wondering if their relationship has a future, where the audience members must ponder the end on their own. The man seems to put a damper on the woman’s life, so she wonders if she should even be around him anymore. The music video puts this story into live action.

Related: All signs are pointing toward our playlist of songs about signs.

C.R.E.A.M. – Wu Tang Clan

‘C.R.E.A.M.’ is an acronym for “Cash Rules Everything Around Me.” The lyrics find various rappers telling the stories of their rough lives as young people and hoping to have an impact on the Black youth of the time. The song was certified Gold in the United States in 2009—15 years after its release.

Related: Enjoy the best songs about making money.

No Closer – Nine Inch Nails

The narrator here is searching for signs and inspiration to make him feel better about life; he is “looking to the sky” to save him. On a more concrete level, the lyrics are about Dave Grohl wanting to become a pilot, which may be something that he thought would help him find inspiration in life.

Thunderstruck – AC/DC

AC/DC’s 1990 hit is as thunderous as its title. The lyrics seem to be about different events that leave the protagonist feeling hit by a powerful force. The song was a huge comeback for the band; its previous three albums didn’t receive much recognition among audiences.

Related: Check out our booming thunder songs playlist.

Runnin’ Away – The Pharcyde

Produced by the legendary producer J Dilla, ‘Runnin’ Away’ uses a sample from Stan Getz’s ‘Saudade Vem Correndo’ to great effect. The LA-based band (pronounced ‘the far side’) were one of the most influential hip-hop bands of their day, and ‘Runnin’ Away’ one of their standout tracks.

Related: here are some more songs about bailing out.

Tears In Heaven – Eric Clapton

Eric Clapton wrote this song about the accidental death of his four-year-old son, Conor. The boy fell out of a window on 20 March 1991. Clapton was hesitant to release the song but was convinced to include it for the film Rush, as it might help listeners somehow.

Related: Going through a tough time? Here are the best tragedy songs.

Say My Name – Destiny’s Child

The woman who serves as this song’s narrator suspects her boyfriend is cheating on her. She wonders why he is so secretive about their relationship and his affection for her when that isn’t the case if they’re alone. The 1999 release won two Grammy Awards at the 2000 awards ceremony: Best R&B Song and Best R&B Performance.

Related: Listen to more songs about being played.

More of the best 90s songs:

  • Wannabe – Spice Girls
  • I Want It That Way – Backstreet Boy
  • Baby One More Time – Britney Spears
  • Always Be My Baby – Mariah Carey
  • Black Hole Sun – Soundgarden

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About Ged Richardson

Ged Richardson is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of ZingInstruments.com. He has been featured in Entrepreneur, PremierGuitar, Hallmark, Wanderlust, CreativeLive, and other major publications. As an avid music fan, he spends his time researching and writing about new and old music, as well as testing and reviewing music-related products. He's played guitar in various bands, from rock to gypsy jazz. Be sure to check out his YouTube channel, where he geeks out about his favorite bands.

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