Warner Bros.

The 100 Best Singles of the 1990s


Public Enemy, “911 Is a Joke”

He started out as Public Enemy’s comic relief, a court jester with an oversized clock around his neck who could actually rap when he wanted to. And considering the extent to which he devolved into a pop-culture punchline, thanks to spawning the “Flavorverse” of trashy VH1 reality shows and sitting for an especially mean-spirited Comedy Central roast, it’s easy to forget that there was once a real wit behind Flavor Flav’s comedy. Nowhere is that more apparent than on the gallows humor of “911 Is a Joke,” a party jam that calls the LAPD out on its institutional racism. The line “They don’t care/’Cause they stay paid anyway” is loaded with genuine conflicts of class and race, and it takes actual skill—genius, even—to couch those issues as comedy. Keefe


Björk, “All Is Full of Love”

Though it has been as oft-remixed as any other Björk single from the landmark Homogenic set, no version quite achieves the ethereal effect that the album mix of “All Is Full of Love” does. Coming off the tail-end of “Pluto,” a sonic threnody for a suicidal fan, Björk’s open-source, beat-free echo chamber is both absolution and resurrection. Building quietly from a warm hexadecimal hum that’s the diametric opposite of sensory deprivation, the song accrues momentum as Björk simultaneously frees herself from the burden of expectation until cascades of shimmering, opal-hued harpsichord notes emerge from a curtain of glimmering white noise. Henderson


My Bloody Valentine, “To Here Knows When”

Among the most exquisite pieces of experimental rock ever recorded, “To Here Knows When” doesn’t quite encapsulate all that was great about My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, but it comes close. The droning guitar licks, the hypnotic swirl of vocals, the simulated flurry of electronic sounds—it’s all here, and usually all at once. My Bloody Valentine could sometimes overwhelm the ears entirely, but “To Here Knows When” walks the line, never quite devolving into noise. A minute into the song, one of Kevin Shields’s guitar lines peals out like a jet plane engine while he and Belinda Butcher sigh in unison. It’s an evocative pairing of human and machine noises whose beauty is enhanced by the sonic density, by an underlying threat of unintelligibly which imbues even the most intimidating movements with a sense of fragility. Cole


Pulp, “Common People”

An unashamed working-class anthem penned by Britain’s screwy poet laureate, “Common People” revelled in all of the grotty culture staples of which the nation became ironically proud in the ’90s. Britpop was conquering all in its path by 1995, which made this celebration of the humbler elements of Britain’s nine-to-five culture a refreshing shift away from the genre’s tendency for overblown pageantry. Jarvis Cocker spills the beans on a chance meeting with a well-to-do college student, and perfectly sums up Britain’s collective insecurities about punching above our weight and, on the other side of the coin, the joys in “slumming it” every now and again. Jones


Blur, “Girls & Boys”

Were it merely a withering take on ’90s sexual omnivoresness, or a snappy vessel for the semi-ironic safe-sex message that seems to linger at its edges, Blur’s first hit might have seemed almost instantly stale. But it’s the tortuous, hypnotic hook, its roadblock arrangement standing in defiance of the song’s litany of throbbing motifs (stabbing guitar, pulsed hi-hat, bouncing synth) that cements the song as timeless. Challenging the limits of catchiness while remaining insistently unforgettable, the morass of the chorus stands out as one of the decade’s finest pop moments. Cataldo


Weezer, “Buddy Holly”

They’ve always walked a fine line between designs on power-pop greatness and embarrassing novelty, and “Buddy Holly” is perhaps Weezer’s most deft balancing act. Years before nerd couture became an obnoxious celebrity trend, Rivers Cuomo and his wide-framed glasses turned “I look just like Buddy Holly” into a self-deprecating sing-along, deflecting some of the attention from his complicated relationship with his public image via the single’s Happy Days-inspired video. While it took a few more albums before Weezer finally jumped the shark, “Buddy Holly” stands as their punchiest hit. Keefe


Smashing Pumpkins, “Disarm”

Smashing Pumpkins’s most personal song—essentially my MTV generation’s answer to “Cat’s in the Cradle”—proves that there’s a fine line between a serial killer and a singer. Because the cherub-faced Billy Corgan’s poetry is so often metaphoric, it makes sense that the song’s lyrics (namely “Cut that little child”) were thought to be about abortion, but “The killer in me is the killer in you” seems like the unmistakable cry of an abuse victim. The production suggests a gothic fairy tale, while Corgan’s vocal performance gives haunting expression not only to his feelings of perseverance, but to his obvious fears of repeating the worst chapters in his past. Gonzalez


DJ Shadow, “Midnight in a Perfect World”

Either the most dour New Year’s celebration of all time or the most comfortably numbed comedown anthem ever. Either way, it’s the most fun you’ll ever have on the cusp of either falling asleep or passing out. DJ Shadow’s rhapsody in black stitches drum breaks from a number of tracks atop a liberal sample from Pekka Pohjola’s “The Madness Subsides,” and the result is a truly intoxicating bit of introspective sensationalism, a microcosmic slice from Shadow’s monstrous Endtroducing… LP, a skittering cascade of percussive interjections and, above all, a lumbering slow-motion fall into the muted bliss of a night well spent. Henderson


Erykah Badu, “Tyrone”

Erykah Badu is sensitive about her art, but her laughter let’s you know that she has a sense of humor. That alone makes her one of our richest afrobellas. But Ms. Badu is more than that: her spoken-word technique is precise, her hooks uniquely catchy, her rhymes both sassy and assy. I could listen to her all day, and there was a time in 1997 when this playful admonishment of a cheap, selfish, unnamed boyfriend (Tyrone is the best friend she no doubt resents for encouraging his bad behavior) exhausted my last CD player. What’s especially marvelous about the song is that, while Badu makes clear that there’s no gray area here, her arrangements, structures, and harmonies are alive with possibility: Though she would have told Whitney that it’s not right and it’s not okay, she would have also given her a million ways to kick Bobby out the door. Gonzalez


Alanis Morissette, “You Oughta Know”

In a seething, typically semi-delusional letter to Spin’s Bob Guccione Jr. in 1996, Courtney Love called Alanis Morissette “a Product of Madonnas [sic] Fatal Flaw, contrivance at every level.” What with Alanis being a former pop tart and with Wilson Phillips producer Glen Ballard on board as songwriting partner, it’s hard to disagree with Court’s assessment. But it’s not Alanis’s fault that she was able to harness the rage of a movement that had already sold itself out and spit out a perfect pop song that became the defining moment of ’90s Female Angst. That Hole was never able to sell 16 million must have been a jagged little pill to swallow. Cinquemani