Warner Bros.

The 100 Best Singles of the 1990s


Nas, “The World Is Yours”

One of the best examples of a song built on and entirely sustained by a sample, “The World Is Yours” owes almost as much to producer Pete Rock's tiny Ahmad Jamal snippet as it does to Nas. Borrowing almost exclusively from the jazz pianist's “I Love Music” while snatching a title from Pan Am's famous slogan, the song is a wonder of economy, allowing additional time only for a few scratch breakdowns beneath the vocals. The spare backing gives Nas ample space to theorize and motivate while also grounding his loftier tendencies, avoiding the condescending preachiness that poisoned so many of his later tracks. Cataldo


The Notorious B.I.G., “Mo Money Mo Problems”

Biggie's second posthumous #1 single did more than secure the East Coast MC's place in the rap history books: It ushered in an age where a street-hardened rapper could be a full-stop pop star (Jay-Z, T.I., Lil Wayne: You're welcome). Chris Rock called “Mo Money Mo Problems” the most popular song that almost no one could relate to, but he's only right if we believe that Biggie, Ma$e, and Puff Daddy actually regretted their good fortunes. The Diana Ross sample and the terminally catchy Kelly Price chorus spell slim chances for that hypothesis, suffusing the track with too much joy to be read as a straightforward wish for simpler times. Mixing optimism with pragmatic grit, Biggie's last great single is an anthem for “true players”: the guys who refuse to let haters and fair-weather friends spoil their success. Cole


Smashing Pumpkins, “Tonight, Tonight”

Songs by Smashing Pumpkins generally fall within easily definable extremes, erring either on the side of nasty snarl or heady romanticism. This is the peak of the latter, a magical track that whips itself up into a frothy orchestral bluster. Jimmy Chamberlain's greatest contribution comes in the form of a surging series of drumrolls, which match the ascending strings, as the guitar, usually the band's dominant voice, lies mostly dormant. Even Billy Corgan's reedy instrument is urged into higher registers by the climax, which reaches heights the band would never challenge again. Cataldo


The Orb, “Little Fluffy Clouds”

Standing in stark contrast to the premillennial tension that marked most of the decade's great dance music, the Orb's “Little Fluffy Clouds” posits the ghost in the machine to be none other than Casper. As the vocals suggest, Alex Paterson earns frequent-flyer miles by merely “layering different sounds on top of one another,” with Ricky Lee Jones droning on about the skies in Arizona as guitars sampled from Steve Reich turn a stuttering snare roll into a purple, red, and yellow summer panorama. Rarely has electronica achieved a delicacy like this. You don't hear music like this anymore, not even in the desert. Henderson


Prince and the New Power Generation, “7”

A Bible verse as related by a New World prince, “7” is a lush allegory for the perils of romantic strife, set across deserts and streets of gold and featuring armies, plagues, and angels. Among the fiercest tracks from Prince and the New Power Generation's Love Symbol Album, this rock soap opera is a predictable cock-storm of funk, the One and Only's vulnerable, emotion-rich falsetto wielding the same blunt-force trauma as the swords and tambourines that are dropped into the production with the sort of timing that would be corny if it weren't so swoony. Way before he takes it to church, Prince's intellect and savoir-faire has saved the day. Gonzalez