5 of the Best Rock Songs from the 1990s

How does one pick the best rock songs of the ’90s?

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For starters, genres still meant something back then. So, metal songs (“Enter Sandman,” “Walk,” etc.) haven’t been included and deserve a list of their own.

The goal here is to highlight the songs that defined the era. One version of the list would have just told you to listen to Weezer’s Blue Album; thank you very much.

How about Richard Ashcroft’s shamanic “Bitter Sweet Symphony” or Beck’s “Loser” or “Sabotage” by Beastie Boys? Or “Common People,” “Song 2,” “Even Flow,” “Bullet With Butterfly Wings,” “Kool Thing,” “Everlong,” “Killing in the Name,” “Black Hole Sun,” and so many more.

Traversing a decade of rock’s cultural dominance, using only strict scientific methods, here are five of the best ’90s rock songs. (The world is a vampire.)

“Under the Bridge” by Red Hot Chili Peppers

Rick Rubin discovered a poem in Anthony Kiedis’ notebook called “Under the Bridge.” He convinced the singer to show it to the band, but Kiedis wasn’t sure. After hearing the words, guitarist John Frusciante wrote uplifting chords in the style of Jimi Hendrix, adding hope to the feelings of isolation in a big city.

David Fricke at Rolling Stone said the song “unexpectedly drop-kicked the band into the Top 10.” The clip of a shirtless Anthony Kiedis running in slow motion toward the camera was played so often on MTV that it might have burned a hole in television screens across America.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers were famous for writing sexed-up, funky party songs. At times, what they wore (or didn’t) overshadowed their music. But “Under the Bridge” created a new framework for the band—one they’d continue to explore on songs like “Scar Tissue” and “Californication.”

Sometimes I feel like I don’t have a partner
Sometimes I feel like my only friend
Is the city I live in the city of angels
Lonely as I am, together we cry

I drive on her streets ’cause she’s my companion
I walk through her hills ’cause she knows who I am
She sees my good deeds, and she kisses me windy
Well, I never worry, now that is a lie

“Creep” by Radiohead

Two of the decade’s indispensable songs wouldn’t have happened without the Pixies. “Creep” also employs the quiet verse and loud chorus arrangement of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”—a hallmark of Black Francis’ songwriting and one Kurt Cobain admitted to “ripping off.”

But there was something different about Radiohead. Singer Thom Yorke crooned like Scott Walker, and guitarist Jonny Greenwood pulled the others into the track’s chorus with an antagonistic blast of fuzz guitar—part My Bloody Valentine, part Sonic Youth.

Radiohead ran from the success of “Creep,” determined not to be pigeonholed. “My Iron Lung” was the band’s response to the omnipresence of “Creep.” Radiohead blew up the limitations (or expectations) of a rock band and became one of the most innovative groups in history. First, they wrote one of the decade’s best songs; then they recorded one of rock music’s greatest albums, OK Computer.

When you were here before
Couldn’t look you in the eye
You’re just like an angel
Your skin makes me cry

“Wonderwall” by Oasis

Noel Gallagher’s opening chords are as identifiable as anything ever played on an acoustic guitar. Then, his brother Liam enters with a snarl somewhere between John Lennon and Johnny Rotten.

With songs this good, Oasis was always going to outlive Britpop, and their first two albums are one of the best one-two punches in rock and roll.

In 1996, Oasis played in front of 250,000 fans at Knebworth over two nights, a time before concert-goers stared aimlessly at their phones. Meanwhile, Oasis counteracted the prevailing gloom of ’90s rock bands.

Today is gonna be the day
That they’re gonna throw it back to you
And by now, you should’ve somehow
Realized what you gotta do
I don’t believe that anybody
Feels the way I do about you now

“Losing My Religion” by R.E.M.

“Losing My Religion” transformed R.E.M. from a cult band to a stadium band. Singer Michael Stipe told the BBC Out of Time didn’t fit in with popular music then. After its release, “Losing My Religion” played endlessly on MTV and suddenly R.E.M. was the popular music of the time.

As bassist Mike Mills explained, R.E.M.’s defining song is “a five-minute song with no discernible chorus, and the mandolin is the lead instrument.” No one could have predicted its success. The song is a tender and disarming folk-rock meditation. It took a three-piece band from the other side of the country to turn something as good as “Losing My Religion” into the second-best song of the decade.

That’s me in the corner
That’s me in the spotlight
Losing my religion
Trying to keep up with you
And I don’t know if I can do it
Oh no, I’ve said too much
I haven’t said enough

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana

Some tracks are so vital to pop culture that people discuss where they were when they first heard the opening chords. Kurt Cobain wanted to write the ultimate pop song, and he did. He composed Generation X’s singular anthem, named after a teen girls’ deodorant brand. Reacting against the Baby Boomers, Gen X challenged traditional values, and the introverts were outwardly cynical toward the mainstream.

Cobain captured his generation’s ambivalent mood with four chords and one line: Here we are now, entertain us.

With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us

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Photo by Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images

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