Warner Bros.

The 100 Best Singles of the 1990s


Nine Inch Nails, “Closer”

If the truly maladaptive take pleasure in their corruption, then Nine Inch Nails's “Closer” is the Who's Afraid of Virginia Fucking Woolf of industrial rock. It's certainly the most persuasively seductive effort to ever flow from Trent Reznor's pretty hate lips. With effortless grace, he moves from insisting “I've got no soul to sell” to promising “I want to fuck you like an animal” And just as the deal has been sealed by producer Flood's heady synth-pop approximation of the sound of a headboard banging away inside a torture chamber, he profanes the entire indecent proposal with a discursively profane “You get me closer to God” Good sex never sounded so bad, but a word of advice: Gag Reznor with a rubber ball after he comes. You don't want this brand of post-coital chatter. Henderson


The Verve, “Bittersweet Symphony”

Me on the video for the Verve's “Bittersweet Symphony”: “Life sucks, especially when the government milks you dry and doesn't so much as give you a wider sidewalk for your troubles” This gorgeously anthemic song is a requiem for a jilted generation, and given the state of the economy these days, it resonates more than ever. And that's nothing to say of the bittersweet irony of the Verve losing ownership of the song. The simple lyrics, now shamelessly credited to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, are about frustration and desperation, and Richard Ashcroft's vocal performance coasts above the symphony of strings with a soulful detachment. He's grandiose because he's talking about life—not just his, but all of ours. Gonzalez


R.E.M., “Losing My Religion”

We've all gotten to the point that we agree that “Losing My Religion” isn't actually about religion, right? The phrase itself is a terrific, versatile bit of Southern vernacular that can add color to even the most ho-hum, familiar stories, and that's precisely how Michael Stipe uses it on R.E.M.'s most enduring single. That ominous little mandolin figure that drives the single gives real gravity to Stipe's free-form images about wanting to give into—to really just commit without reservation or thought, which is the gist of the idiom—a hopeless romantic crush even when crippled by the possibility of rejection and humiliation that crush might bring. Keefe


Sinéad O'Connor, “Nothing Compares 2 U”

Nothing compares to this song, in which pop music's most emotion-rich voice sings words by pop music's most emotion-rich lyricist. Similar such meetings of titans have resulted in disasters before, solipsistic earsores mostly, but Sinéad O'Connor—like she would do some time later with Nirvana's “All Apologies”—doesn't treat “Nothing Compares 2 U” as if it were a cover. She performs Prince's lyrics as if the emotions inscribed in them were her own, and the proof is in her hauntingly aching belting. The experience is, like that tear that streaks O'Connor's face in the song's video (a response, the singer has claimed, to the line “All the flowers that you planted, Mama/In the back yard/All died when you went away”), practically holy. Gonzalez


Nirvana, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”

For a song that has long been championed as the theme of a specific crowd of slacker youth, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” endures beyond the ownership of any one subgroup. Kurt Cobain's self-admitted attempt at a pop song achieved many things (helping to bring grunge from the sweaty depths of the mosh pit to the radio-friendly mainstream, launching Nirvana into Gen-X superstardom, and so on), but perhaps most importantly, it set the tone for all alternative music that followed. Its stuttering riff line instantly recognizable, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is akin to Chuck Berry's “Johnny B. Goode” in raw industry impact, pushing not just the rock genre, but the entire music world forward. “Here we are now,” Cobain announces, “entertain us!” Liedel



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