The 30 Most Influential Rock Songs of the 90s
Criteria: In compiling this list I considered the impact, influence, popularity and lasting appeal of the following songs. Most of these bands had a huge impact on the 90s rock scene. I set it up so that each band was allowed one song, which for better or for worse will always define them. I have done my best to include all the big trends and bands of 90s rock, from grunge to alternative/indie and from punk to metal; I even fit in the obligatory one hit wonder.
1. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (Nirvana- Nevermind)-
Nobody expected anything different, right? Grunge was, justifiably, the biggest craze of the decade, and Nirvana was grunge. They were the most influential, hyped, and popular band of the decade. They are already legendary just 14 years after Kurt’s death. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is undeniably the 90s most influential and popular rock song which formally booted hair metal out of the spotlight and really began 90s rock.
2. “Jeremy” (Pearl Jam- Ten)-
It was tough for me to put this list together, because if I had my way an Alice in Chains song would occupy this spot. However, no matter my personal opinion on Pearl Jam (I used to hate them, but I’ve been digging them more lately) their impact was immense. Thus, “Jeremy” which is their anthem and most popular song, forces its way up to #2 on the list.
3. “1979” and “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” TIE (Smashing Pumpkins- Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness”)-
OK, so I’m really indecisive. Choosing between these two absolute classics is nearly impossible. Smashing Pumpkins are the first pure alternative band on the list so far. It is obligatory to include both songs to exemplify the beauty of the Smashing Pumpkins- their unbelievable capacity to flawlessly alternate between sheer power and pure tenderness.
4. “Californication” (Red Hot Chili Peppers- Californication)-
The second alternative band is virtually incomparable to the first one. RHCP were shape shifters during the decade, producing three markedly different albums which combined to make them one of the most popular bands of the decade. “Californication” beats out “Under the Bridge” by a hair, pretty much just because I like it a little more.
5. “Wonderwall” (Oasis- (What’s the Story) Morning Glory)-
To this day, this song is incredibly popular. Along with Radiohead, Oasis had the biggest impact on rock music of any British band. With that unforgettable intro and beautiful lyrics this gem is certainly the crown jewel of britpop and one of the best and most influential songs of the 90s.
6. “Losing my Religion” (REM- Out of Time)-
This song is partially responsible for bringing the college rock or (as it came to be called later) alternative movement into the forefront of rock. Not only that, but this song finally introduced this immensely talented band to a broad audience (for better or for worse) and paved the way for classic albums like Automatic for the People.
7. “Plush” (STP- Core)-
Although “Plush” is not my favorite STP song (that honor goes to “Creep”), it is undeniably their most popular and definitive song. This is the one that put them on everyone’s radar, and propelled their multi-platinum record, Core. Subsequent albums proved STP’s versatility and proved once and for all that they are not just run of the mill Pearl Jam imitators.
8. “Karma Police” (Radiohead- OK Computer)-
I have several reasons for using “Karma Police” over the highly overrated “Creep.” First, it is so much better than “Creep” it’s tough to do otherwise. Second, “Karma Police” came from arguably the highest rated, respected, and influential album of the decade, OK Computer. Lastly, while “Creep” may be more popular, “Karma Police” has ten times more lasting appeal and has also made a bigger impact on rock music.
9. “Man in the Box” and “Rooster” TIE (Alice in Chains- Facelift)-
Anyone who knows me can understand how painful it was for me to put anything by AIC this low on a list that I created. Though very much influential, AIC (unfairly!) received much less attention than any of the other bands on the list so far, and thus I could only get them this high. “Man in the Box” and “Rooster” will forever be tied to this ill fated but spectacularly talented group.
10. “Killing in the Name of” (Rage Against the Machine- Rage Against the Machine)-
Can you think of an angrier sounding song in the 90s? When it came to hard rock in the 90s, Rage was second to none. Rage’s success in the 90s brought about thousands of no talent posers like Korn and Limp Bizkit, however their talent and contribution to the decade cannot be diminished by crappy bands that came after them (just look at Nirvana).
11. “Buddy Holly” (Weezer- Blue Album)-
These guys were the definition of geek rock, and in the 2000s they became the definition of sell out (I never miss an opportunity to rag on Weezer). Anyways, before that, the straight up guitar rock of their landmark Blue Album has been often imitated but never outdone. For many it represented a nice break from grunge music. Everyone remembers the video, and everyone loves this song.
12. “Brain Stew” (Green Day- Insomniac)-
I want to start off by saying that I hate “Basket Case,” which I know would have been the pick of many. Green Day was undoubtedly the most influential and best pop-punk band of the 90s. The one good song from the weak Insomniac album, “Brain Stew” still reminds many of the times when pop-punk was actually good (suck it, Fall Out Boy).
13. “Black Hole Sun” (Soundgarden- Superunknown)-
Led by heavy guitar riffs and Chris Cornell’s snarling wail, Soundgarden burst into the forefront of grunge in 1991 with Badmotorfinger (which included my favorite Soundgarden song “Jesus Christ Pose”). It was not until 1994’s Superunknown and “Black Hole Sun” that they received widespread fame.
14. “Ænima” (Tool- Ænima)-
“Schism” and “Stinkfist” might be more popular, however many Tool fans will tell you that “Ænima” is the best. Throughout the 90s, Tool were trailblazers of metal and were almost single handedly responsible for bringing it into the mainstream. Everyone from the Deftones to Breaking Benjamin would be nowhere without Tool.
15. “Everlong” (Foo Fighters- The Colour and the Shape)-
Dave Grohl is notable for being the only member of a band on this list twice. The former drummer of Nirvana scored this massive hit from the increasingly popular band’s second album. Today they are one of THE biggest rock bands out there, and that is in much thanks to this classic song.
16. “Semi Charmed Life” (Third Eye Blind- Third Eye Blind)-
These guys rose to stardom in the late 90s upon the back of this incredible debut album. As I found out at their concert, it is still this song that gets EVERYONE to their feet. Unfortunately 3EB are a primary influence of many annoying emo bands, however they will always be remembered as one of the great bands of the late 90s.
17. “Enter Sandman” (Metallica- Metallica)-
I know it’s kinda low to put a band as popular as Metallica, but they really faded away in the late part of the decade and had many of their best songs in the 80s. Nonetheless, there are not many songs more representative of the 90s than “Enter Sandman.” One of the best intros and riffs ever.
18. "Velouria" (Pixies- Bossanova)-
One of the better songs from an incredible album, it is probably the most widely known, Pixies songs of the 90s. It is this low merely because a good amount of people criminally are ignorant of the Pixies, and unfortunately that is part of my criteria. Like I always say, the only ones who don’t love the Pixies are those that haven’t heard them.
19. “Self Esteem” (The Offspring- Smash)-
“She's drunk again and looking to score…” man that is so 90s. I had to throw one in from The Offspring. Along with Rage, these guys always seemed to have the best intros to their songs. Smash had a ton of classics, the best and most remembered of which is “Self Esteem.”
20. “You Ought to Know” (Alanis Morissette- Jagged Little Pill)-
Before she got all introspective and even before her naked video, Alanis created THE quintessential angry, jaded rocker chick anthem of the 90s; beating out Hole, Garbage, and a host of other commendable candidates. You can just imagine thousands of women dumping their husband’s clothing out of their windows to the sound of this one.
21. “All the Small Things” (Blink-182- Enema of the State)-
I realize I should hate this song, but it’s just not in me, it’s so damn catchy and nostalgic for me. The 90s ended with an upswing in really bad music. This song might be in that group, but I still love it. There is no better anthem for the late 90s than this one.
22. “Santeria” (Sublime- Sublime)-
Perhaps not Sublime’s best song, it’s both the most popular and one of the only ones I can stand. However, I didn’t want to upset the scores of potheads (many of whom are my friends) that would otherwise give out a collective “dude… no way” if I forgot to mention this one.
23. “Cut Your Hair” (Pavement- Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain)-
Though they have a ton of better songs, this did mark their crossover hit. I’d say about 90% of today’s indie rock bands were heavily influenced by Pavement, the Pixies, or Sonic Youth. Similarly to the Pixies, Pavement never got much mainstream popularity, and that’s why we love ‘em.
24. “One Headlight” (The Wallflowers- Bringing Down the Horse)-
You can now exhale… here is the long awaited one hit wonder. 90s rock had more than its share of one hit wonders. Although I believe the Wallflowers had several good songs, most people tend to disagree. This song is top ten of all time for me, and probably always will be.
25. “Iris” (Goo Goo Dolls- Dizzy up the Girl)-
The kings of adult contemporary from 1998 on, “Iris” may be my favorite song from the weakass genre. Yes, it’s corny and is featured in terrible movies, but that is what the Goo Goo Dolls are all about. Legions of wussy emo and AC bands better be paying homage to the Goo Goos this Thanksgiving.
26. “Closer” (Nine Inch Nails- Downward Spiral)-
Given my taste for gloomy music, people often assume I love NIN. I actually really don’t, however this sleazy, primeval sounding song deserves a spot because it’s so unique and powerful. Also, Trent Reznor deserves a spot for basically creating the industrial genre. Besides, in our weaker times, who hasn't wanted to fuck someone like an animal.
27. “Beautiful Disaster” (311- Transistor)-
Considering I don’t like Sublime, you can guess how much love I have for a band that has been called the ‘poor man’s Sublime.’ Somehow, though, they have a really devoted following. In my opinion 311 has created some of the most annoying songs of the decade (“Come Original,” “Down,” etc). “Beautiful Disaster” is actually quite catchy and is by far as good as 311 got in the 90s.
28. “Mysterious Ways” (U2- Achtung Baby)-
Though I’m not the biggest U2 fan in general, I am still struck by just how mediocre they were throughout much of the 90s. Ya, Achtung was good, but Pop? Really? Nonetheless, if U2 farted in front of a speaker they would influence hordes of followers, and thus I have to fit them in here somehow. “Mysterious Ways” far outweighs the vastly overrated “One” in my book.
29. “Song #2” (Blur- Blur)-
In Britain, these guys played second fiddle to Oasis, much like Pearl Jam was always just behind Nirvana in the States. Just like with Pearl Jam and Nirvana, Blur could never quite reach Oasis because they were nowhere near as good. Also, their music was sooo British and had next to zero appeal outside of the Island. Still, Song #2 is one for the ages.
30. “Comedown” (Bush- Sixteen Stone)-
Damn, I really wanted to put “Chemicals Between us” because it is a significantly better than this song. However “Comedown’ is the best song from the wildly popular Sixteen Stone. On a random note, is it me, or is Bush the least British sounding band to ever come out from England? It even sounds like Gavin Rossdale is faking his British accent.
Updated: 03/12/08: Extended from 20 to 30
- Top 100 Female Sung Songs of the 90s (100-76)
- Top 300 90s Alternative Rock Songs Part 1
- Top 20 90s Alternative Rock Bands
- Top 100 Grunge Songs (100-76)
- Top 100 Pop-Punk Songs of Modern Rock (100-76)
- Top 100 Female Sung Songs of the 90s (25-1)
- Top 100 Female Sung Songs of the 90s (75-51)
- Top 100 Female Sung Songs of the 90s (50-26)