30 Songs That Defined the '90s
Angst. Heartbreak. Grunge. Line dancing. Power ballads. Yep, you guessed it: the '90s. A volatile time of the happiness and excess of the '80s crashing headfirst into a new decade full of peace and prosperity.
What’s interesting is that the music of the decade couldn’t have been farther from it. While we were all obsessing over our supersized meals and Beanie Babies, bands out of the Pacific northwest were rising, along with a host of country crossover superstars. And when we weren’t trying feverishly to keep your Tamagotchi alive or tearing through the Harry Potter series, we were glued to the radio—listening for metal that was becoming mainstream, rap that was taking over, and everything in-between.
Thanks to those nifty fellas at Google, you likely surfed your way into this list of the 30 songs that defined the '90s. Throw on your FUBU, a worn flannel, your best Goth look, some Doc Martens, and read ahead.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana, 1991
The album “Nevermind” became a guiding star for all other bands coming out of the Northwest to emulate, as well as a style sheet for everything grunge. Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, and Dave Grohl blew the doors off modern sound with “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” For the video, Nirvana advertised in a local newspaper asking for volunteers between 18-25 to adopt a "high school persona" and show up to a sound stage.
The rest is history: the video went on to become legendary as a portrayal/mockery of traditional high school dances and kids during that time. And the baby on the cover? He just lost a lawsuit over the band using his likeness.
“MMM Bop “ by Hanson, 1997
A band of teenage brothers created a song that was an absolute shocker—and not even English, or a common saying at the time. Bursting onto the scene out of Tulsa in 1997 with “MMMBop”, the band played at SXSW, which led them to a real record deal.
The girls went crazy for these fellas, and the music world stood puzzled. The industry rewarded them with three Grammy nominations. All grown up now, the brothers reconnected and released a mini-album in 2022.
"1979” by Smashing Pumpkins, 1996
Billy Corgan was fronting the American alternative rock band Smashing Pumpkins, which originated in Chicago. Their sound was different—a blend of gothic rock, heavy metal, and dream-pop infused with electronica; not unlike Oasis at the time. However, “1979” harkens back to the smooth sounds of the '70s, a departure from their hard rocking sound—and it worked.
The video, showing a bunch of disaffected teens riding around in a Charger, nabbed Best Alternative Video at the MTV awards in 1996, and the song racked up a whopping seven Grammy noms too.
“U Can’t Touch This” by MC Hammer, 1990
The first rap entry on this list, MC Hammer came out swinging in 1990 with a signature dance and a look that was unlike anything anyone had ever seen before. Sampling the opening riff from Rick James’s “SuperFreak,” the song wasn’t just magic on the mic, it was magic in our feet. The fans went wild for Hammer and his sparkly, baggy, harem pants.
When you break it down, Hammer is one hell of a rapper—keeping it clean to keep it on the radio and for the kids. The song won Best R&B Song at the Grammys, as well as Best Rap Song. Rick James enjoyed a moment of resurgence with a writing credit, and Hammer dropped the mic on everyone on the charts.
“Mambo No. 5” by Lou Bega, 1999
At the other end of the decade, you have the craziest little remake of an instrumental piece with fresh rap and Lou Bega. Fans were exhausted from one of the most diverse decades, and Bega hit it big with Latin Pop, which happened to be exactly what the country needed at the time.
Big horns, peppy synthesizers, and a bouncy tune have cemented “Mambo No. 5” as an all-time favorite to be played at weddings and celebrations. Another “clean” song ensured “Mambo No. 5” would become an earworm for all to try to lose heading into the new decade.
“My Heart Will Go On" by Celine Dion, 1997
Near, far, wherever you are, you couldn’t escape the biggest love song of 1997 as the signature song for the film Titanic. Absolutely nothing could sink Dion’s soaring voice, which became a global phenomenon. Known as “the Jack and Rose song,” it went on to grab awards all over the world, including an Oscar, A Golden Globe, four Grammys, as well as numerous international accolades.
The fact that Celine recorded the demo version in its entirety in one take, which was released for the film, is remarkable—and impressed even the most jaded Tommy Mottola. It was later re-recorded for an album.
“Loser” by Beck, 1993
Beck rose to fame in the early 1990s with his experimental and wide-ranging genres that encompassed folk, funk, and alternative. With “Loser,” Beck proved that he not only had the songwriting chops, he also had some of the most lyrically incredible musical rap. The song hailed from Beck’s stint being homeless and having no opportunities in the late '80s.
The lyrics were rolling around in his head, and he laid it down perfectly in a six-hour session. The video was originally shot on a $300 budget on 16mm film, and Geffen gave them $14,000 to master the track. Ain’t nobody choking on a splinter any longer.
“I Want It That Way” by Backstreet Boys, 1999
It’s hard to talk about the '90s without mentioning boy bands, which started making a ripple in the music industry in late 1989 and continued through the new millennium. However, Backstreet Boys helped shape the trend in the mid-'90s. Created from five fellas and using the Lou Perlman formula, BSB was formed.
Their biggest hit in the '90s came at the end of the decade with “I Want it That Way.” Nominated for three Grammys, the video featured these smooth crooners on a runway singing of relationships going bad in the music video. Teenage girls all over the world were forever changed.
“Gangsta’s Paradise” by Coolio, 1995
Coolio came out of Compton and started rapping back in 1994 after signing to Tommy Boy Records. However, his hit "Gangsta’s Paradise” hit the bigtime in 1995 as part of the soundtrack for the film Dangerous Minds, featuring Michelle Pfeiffer. Even the B side of the single was extraordinary, with “Fantastic Voyage,” a previous hit.
The gritty song, which opened with Psalm 23, described life in the projects as a 23-year-old wondering if he would make it to 24 because of the violence on the streets. Fun fact: this is one of the few Coolio songs that doesn’t contain profanity—allowing it to be played widely on both MTV and radio. The single and album went on to win Grammys, respectively.
“Baby One More Time” by Britney Spears
We’ve had the King of Pop, the Queen of Country, The King of Grunge—so here’s the Princess of Pop! Spears's debut album by the same name was an immediate hit, with Spears following in Tiffany’s footsteps of touring in malls. Dressed as a catholic schoolgirl, Britney showed she wasn’t above using her girlish sexuality.
As time would show, Britney was often the target of media and some bizarre choices, which led to her father becoming her conservator. She just got released from that at the age of 40 and has said on multiple occasions that she'd like to retire from music.
“Ice Ice Baby” by Vanilla Ice, 1990
“Stop, collaborate, and listen.” Possibly one of the most memorable lyrics ever written by rapper Vanilla Ice, aka Rob Van Winkle—who hails from Texas and South Florida. He got his name because he loved breakdancing with his friends but was the only white one.
Writing the song at the age of 16, “Ice Ice Baby” strongly sampled “Under Pressure” with the bassline—but failed to give either Queen or David Bowie credit until after it became a hit and was sued. Ice helped diversify hip hop and introduced it to a mainstream audience. After his career, he went on to pursue carpentry and has become famous for renovations. Word to your mother.
“Believe” by Cher, 1999
No one told Cher her career was over, and you should never count her out. The Goddess of Pop should never be dismissed. While she gained fame in the '60s as half of the husband/wife duo Sonny and Cher, she worked even harder in the 70s on her solo career. She stopped to act in numerous films, where she won as Oscar. You’d think that’d be enough for an ordinary human, but Cher is anything but normal. He relaunched her music career in the 90s, reaching a new level with “Believe”- which featured the pioneering use of Auto-Tune. At 53, she was just getting started again.
“You Oughta Know” by Alanis Morissette, 1995
We all had a favorite breakup song, from the sweet sounds of the '70s to the rock ballads of the '80s. However, no one captured the angst and anger of a breakup quite like Alanis. The Canadian singer released her album, “Jagged Little Pill,” which featured the hit “You Oughta Know,” which changed the scape of breakup songs and became the anthem for a bad breakup.
Featuring strong music, explicit lyrics, and an angry tone that hit home, Morrisette helped cement women’s voices in music in a different light. Featured as a musical accompaniment in season 2 of Bridgerton, Morissette rereleased the song as a special cover.
“Wonderwall” by Oasis, 1995
In 1995, BritPop was having a moment—and Oasis was in the middle of it. Brothers Liam and Noel Gallagher founded the band in the early '90s. At first, the band struggled, trying to find a unique sound to bring to the market. But with the release of “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?" they found their audience and joined mainstream music.
"Wonderwall" is based on a story that an “imaginary friend is coming to save you from yourself”. Regardless, it's one of the most memorable, searing hooks of the '90s.
“Man, I Feel Like a Woman” by Shania Twain, 1997
Hitting the market as a country singer, Twain is one of the few acts that successfully crossed over to pop with her forward country-pop sound. Collaborating with husband Mutt Lange, Twain released “Come on Over,” which had numerous hits, including “Man, I Feel Like a Woman,” which helped earn her four Grammys.
The lyrics, which were written with a lens on female empowerment, and the accompanying video that paid homage to Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love,” immediately caused audiences to fall in love with Twain.
“Basket Case” by Green Day, 1994
Mike Dirnt and Billie Joe Armstrong formed a band at just 15 years old in 1987. Armed with only their musical talent, they picked up Tre Cool along the way and formed Green Day. After their first album, “Kerplunk,” did well, they set out to record “Dookie,” which featured several top hits like “Basket Case.”
Considered punk rock, Green Day’s high energy helped propel the single about Armstrong’s struggle with anxiety because he thought he was going crazy—which is where the line, “sometimes my mind plays tricks on me” comes from. "Basket Case," which was filmed in an abandoned mental institution, won a VMA for best alternative video. Green Day continues to tour and release new music today.
“Waterfalls” by TLC, 1995
Formed in Atlanta in 1990, girl group TLC—made up of Tionne T-Boz, Lisa Left Eye Lopez, and Rozonda Chilli Thomas—burst onto the hip-hop scene reminiscent of Bel Biv DeVoe. With a unique sound, it didn’t take long for Kenneth Babyface Edmonds to sign them to a deal to produce.
With their second album CrazySexyCool, the group put together one of their most memorable songs, “Waterfalls”—a ballad that addresses drugs, promiscuity, and HIV. The trio earned two Grammy awards and toured with MC Hammer. Most importantly, TLC opened the doors for many popular groups to come, like Destiny’s Child.
“Friends in Low Places” by Garth Brooks, 1990
Garth Brooks was an up-and-coming singer in the early '90s but hit solid gold with his album “No Fences.” The first single, “Friends in Low Places,” was actually written on paper napkins—and then Garth was recruited to demo the song.
The song entered the Hot Country Songs in August of 1990 and only took eight weeks to reach #1. What’s more impressive is the huge crossover appeal of the song, which helped the enormous country-to-pop sound that dominated the early '90s .
“Tubthumping” by Chumbawamba, 1997
If you live outside of the UK, it's likely you've never heard of a band called Chumbawamba until 1997, when they released their best-known hit, “Tubthumping.” It’s also likely you don’t really know the name of the song and describe it as the “I get knocked down” song. What many people don’t know is the underlying themes of class struggles and anti-fascism that the band is known for...
But in this instance, they were looking for something to break the mold and describe the "resilience of ordinary people." Noted as a dance-rock, alternative-rock, and dance-punk song, it took the world by storm. The quirk hit of the year also ranked as one of the most obnoxious songs ever. I bet you have that earworm now.
“One” by U2, 1992
Headed into the '90s fresh off critical successes of Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum, the band started looking for a slightly different vibe for the '90s. The result: a searing album Achtung Baby—with critically released, award-winning songs including “One.” The single was written as the band was going through some internal struggles with sound and quality.
“One” benefitted AIDS research, but more importantly, solidified the group's vow to stay together. Often used to promote human rights and social justice, the song also lends itself to Bono’s charitable campaign, ONE campaign—fighting extreme hunger and poverty.
“La Vida Loca” by Ricky Martin, 1999
Ricky Martin is a successful Latin artist with numerous albums under his belt. But it was his first English-language album, “Ricky Martin,” that led to commercial success worldwide. “Livin the Crazy Life” or “Living La Vida Loca” was irresistible to American audiences, who went wild for Ricky and his good looks while swiveling his hips, somewhat reminiscent of Elvis Presley.
People in the '90s often compared the beat accompanying the rhythm and danceable lyrics to “Copacabana.” Ricky is also the first of the Latin pop artists who came next, like JLo, Shakira, Christina Aguilera, and of course, Enrique Iglesias.
“Walkin' on the Sun” by Smash Mouth, 1997
Smash Mouth was formed in 1994, so with a fairly quick transition, the band released their first album, “Fush Yu Mang,” which held one of their best-known hits, “Walkin' on the Sun.” While they typically covered other artists' works between 1994 and 1997, "Walkin' on the Sun" was the aftermath of the Rodney King episode in LA.
The band members say it was an "anthem and battle cry" about trying to live together and in peace. They harkened that effort to being as easy to settle as walking on the sun. The rap has sometimes been referred to as "drug-forward," but the band maintains that it's not about race relations.
"Say My Name” by Destiny’s Child, 1999
You’ve got to walk before you can run, and that’s exactly what Destiny’s Child did. On their second studio album, “The Writing’s on the Wall,” the ladies broke through the noise to claim their spot as one of the greatest women’s vocal groups, and well, you know the rest...
"Say My Name" is considered one of the best tracks of the past 25 years according to Rolling Stone. The lead singer, Beyonce—you might have heard of her—went on to have a solo career and became an international icon. (Kelly Rowland hasn't done so bad for herself either!)
“Crash Into Me” by Dave Matthews Band, 1996
Dave Matthews Band, or DMB to their fans, formed in 1991—but it would take them a hot minute to become solidified as a band quite heartily embraced as one of the best American bands ever. DMB was on the circuit for a while before topping the charts with this hit off their second album, “Crash.” They were nominated for a Grammy.
Considered a jam band, their concerts are renowned events where they play their hits differently every time, and they enjoy a cult following that can only be compared to The Grateful Dead. Oddly enough, the song is written from the perspective of a peeping Tom watching a girl at night through her window.
“Everybody Dance Now” by C&C Music Factory, 1990
Back when the '90s were still deciding on their genres and fashions, C&C Music Factory ripped onto the scene with “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)”—and everybody did.
Having only formed a year earlier, the band wasn’t expected to have such a cultural impact so quickly. However, with rap vocals by Freedom Williams and searing vocals by Martha Wash, the song quickly went double-platinum. The song is still a favorite at high school dances and weddings all over the world.
“Nothing Compares 2 U” by Sinead O’Connor, 1990
No artist has been through the sheer hell that Sinead has in her career—partially of her own doing and partially because of the politics and controversy she brings with her. With one of the purest-sounding songs ever recorded, “Nothing Compares 2 U”, written by Prince, O’Connor became popular immediately. The song was a cover with Prince’s blessing, and the rest was history.
This powerful ballad left critics starstruck, and to date is one of the most powerful love songs of all time. Being an Irish woman raised in the catholic church, she gained instant notoriety ripping up a picture of Pope Paul II live on a now-iconic SNL performance—calling attention to the sexual abuse crisis in the church, which wasn’t formally recognized by the Pope until nine years later.
“Baby Got Back” by Sir Mix-A-Lot, 1992
While rap was often gritty and street savvy, there were a few artists who released some pretty funny tracks. In the '80s, Sir Mix-a-Lot got his footing as a popular DJ in the Northwest. With an ear for music and a passion for rhymes, he started his career in the late '80s. But it wasn’t until 1992 that he started singing about women and his fondness for a round female butt, earning him a brief ban by MTV.
However, the lyrics continued to bring in the fans, and the song went double platinum. When asked who inspired the song, Mix-A-Lot said that it hailed from Jennifer’s Lopez’ Fly Girl moves.
“Wide Open Spaces” by The Dixie Chicks, 1998
It’s important to note that during the country crossover appeal in the '90s, the majority of the acts were male or solo females. The Chicks (back then known as The Dixie Chicks) kicked the door wide open and invited themselves into American culture. The lyrics speak to women looking for a new start, and became a popular torch song for teenage girls looking to leave home and become independent.
Maines, Strayer, and Maguire found an audience that needed their ballads. But the music wasn’t without controversy, as The Chicks often found themselves political targets over their criticism of the invasion of Iraq. In 2020, they dropped “dixie” from their name to show their embrace of DEI initiatives.
“Jump Around” by House of Pain, 1992
American hip-hop trio House of Pain released three albums in the 1990s. The group consisted of DJ Lethal, Danny Boy, and Everlast. The band is often considered a one-hit wonder because their first song, “Jump Around,” went platinum. The beat was originally written by DJ Muggs and was originally produced for Cypress Hill and then offered to Ice Cube before the young group snatched it up.
Featuring multiple samples from different tracks, the song was a major hit in the US on both the regular and rap charts. The band extended and remixed it a dozen times for dance LPs, and everyone needed to “get out your seat and jump around!”
“I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston, 1992
There’s no denying that Whitney Houston had a huge impact on the '90s—and with this song from The Bodyguard (which she also starred in with Kevin Costner), Houston cemented herself as one of the greatest voices of the 20th century. As we all know, the lyrics were written by Dolly Parton, who recorded it but didn’t have commercial success with it. Linda Ronstadt's version was also not as commercially successful.
But Whitney had other ideas that included an acapella start, which soared into Americans’ minds and souls. Written as a song about a woman letting go of her true love, “I Will Always Love You” won every single award it was nominated for. And although Houston is no longer with us, her emotional rendition will always be here.