Warner Bros.

The 100 Best Singles of the 1990s


Madonna, “Vogue”

Much has been written (specifically on this site) about the cultural impact of the appropriation of queer and nonwhite motifs in Madonna’s “Vogue,” so I’ll focus instead on the song’s musical archaeology and influence. Lest I completely ignore its substance, Madonna’s message is clear (“Beauty is where you find it”), but the track’s origins are part and parcel with its star’s mining of gay club trends and Old Hollywood: Inspired by the Salsoul Orchestra’s “Ooh, I Love It (Love Break)” by way of Danny Krivit’s remix of MFSB’s “Love Is the Message,” the song has a family tree that even includes producer/DJ Shep Pettibone’s remix of Janet Jackson’s “Miss You Much” and serves as a sort of musical map of disco. Pettibone recorded “Vogue” with Madonna as a B-side for her single “Keep It Together,” making its impact all the more impressive (it would go on to inspire a glut of pop-house copycats) and begging the question: If disco died a decade earlier, what the fuck was this big, gay, fuscia drag-queen boa of a dance song sitting on top of the charts for a month for? Cinquemani


Björk, “Hyperballad”

In “Hyperballad,” Björk confesses to a puzzling ritual: She rises each morning to indulge her destructive side, tossing household items off a cliff and observing their plummet before returning to the comfort of her lover. She imagines herself taking the big dive too, but never actually jumps. After all, as she assures over the song’s perfect club chorus, she’s doing this for us. Björk’s lyrical Rubik’s Cube is endlessly interpretable, but however powerfully it insists on the tension between love and individuality, its composition is all Romantic reconciliation. Björk’s cosmopolitan pop sensibility makes room for disco, baroque pop, and acid house, while her singular voice eventually dissolves into the song’s grandiose strings. If she senses something tragic in the desire to lose oneself completely to love, she apparently detects no such danger in surrendering, at least momentarily, to music. Cole


The Breeders, “Cannonball”

The legend goes that Kim Deal was denied much creative input with the Pixies, and the resulting fracas with the band’s frontman Black Francis eventually lead to the group’s demise in early 1993. When listening to “Cannonball,” the lead single from the platinum-selling Last Splash, it’s difficult to understand why Ms. Deal wasn’t allowed to spread her creative wings with the Pixies. The song is blessed with a clutch of feverish hooks, gradually building in tempo to a frantic refrain at the death. And that bassline is surely one of the best of the decade, simple but endlessly effective. “Cannonball” proved that Deal was more than worth her salt as a songwriter, delivering an album’s worth of zinging melodies with this one track alone. Jones


Beastie Boys, “Sabotage”

Who would’ve thunk that the decade’s hardest rocking shot of electric guitar testosterone this side of the stupid and the contagious would come from the trio of scrawny boy-punks who made their name with the Casio krush grooves “Brass Monkey” and “Girls”? The Beastie Boys’s “Sabotage” brushes past the cheap novelty of Aerosmith crashing Run DMC’s party, borrows a little bit of Anthrax from Public Enemy, and, to put it bluntly, throws a dump truck through the picture window of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria. (The accompanying Spike Jonze video, in which Ad-Rock, Mike D, and MCA careen through a 1970s cop drama, would be an even bigger classic if its interpretation of the song’s octane rating weren’t just a tad too on the nose.) Henderson


Lauryn Hill, “Doo-Wop (That Thing)”

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill wasn’t designed as a crossover record, but with “Doo-Wop (That Thing),” her conquest of the pop charts and the Grammys was effectively guaranteed. And “Doo-Wop” isn’t just her best single; it’s the definitive snapshot of the Lauryn Hill persona, capturing a poised and candid truth-teller in her hip-shaking, finger-wagging prime just before she disappeared into her own ego and then, literally, disappeared. But she performs her breakthrough single with such purpose that even her less ingratiating traits seem vital, minimizing neither the street in her wisdom nor the self in her righteousness. Sometimes a sister’s got to preach, and Hill’s equal-opportunity call-out on two-timers made for her most resonant sermon: Where her political slogans often dated themselves, Hill’s message in “Doo-Wop”—that there are finer things than fine booty (among them, integrity)—will never want for relevance. Cole


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