Warner Bros.

The 100 Best Singles of the 1990s


Public Enemy, “Welcome to the Terrordome”

So much of Public Enemy’s militant shtick now reads as bullshit, especially with Flava Flav dissolving into a minstrel-show stereotype and Chuck D relaxing into armchair radicalism. Yet it’s impossible to argue with something as mean and animated as “Welcome to the Terrordome,” so packed with jagged pieces that it’s hard to know where to focus. Fully exemplifying the group’s violent grab-bag sound, the samples here come fast and loose, shot into the mix with little regard for meaning or context. They contribute to an atmosphere that’s willingly chaotic, a twitching patchwork of found sounds, vocal clips, and misbegotten snatches of conversation. Cataldo


Radiohead, “Fake Plastic Trees”

So what if Alicia Silverstone’s Cher Horowitz dismissed it as “the maudlin music of the university station” and asked, “What is it about college and cry-baby music?” There were a lot of things that Cher didn’t get, and Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees” was chief among them. It’s a single that aims for epic and hits its mark dead-center, not because of Thom Yorke’s cryptic lyrics, but because of the slow-building crescendo of Jonny Greenwood’s guitars and the structural perfection of the arrangement. Just as Yorke sings, “I can’t help the feeling/I could blow through the ceiling,” the whole production does exactly that before gravity inevitably wears him out and brings it all back to Earth. Keefe


Sonic Youth, “Kool Thing”

For a song that is essentially a vengeful invective against LL Cool J, the breezy, punchy “Kool Thing” is a largely angst-free slice of punk rock. The song would be many listeners’ first exposure to Sonic Youth, and the band did not disappoint: Kim Gordon smirks her way through the track’s aloof-cool vocal parts, fighting the growling pack of guitars and Chuck D’s wildly disjointed cameo for the spotlight. Together, the three parts construct the ultimate parody of fame-fueled chauvinism, and no matter the personal anecdote that fuels it, “Kool Thing” is a snarky, lead-in anthem for the decade’s irreverent youth. Liedel


Jeff Buckley, “Last Goodbye”

The most commercially successful single of Jeff Buckley’s career, “Last Goodbye” has retained a purity that his version of “Hallelujah” has since lost after being whored across countless television montages and a string of woefully insincere cover versions. It’s easier, then, to turn to “Last Goodbye” as a fitting eulogy to his wonderful talent. Buckley’s singing is, perhaps, the area in which he was most gifted, and here he sashays between his gorgeous falsetto and a raw emotive power with what seems like relative ease. That few singers have since matched his extraordinary vocals proves that this was indeed no mean feat, and only further emphasizes the tragedy of losing such a glorious talent. Jones


Erykah Badu, “On & On”

Boasting the roundest bassline since Digable Planets got cool like dat, “On & On” is Erykah Badu’s mission statement from a higher plane. Her money might be gone, she might be all alone, but she’s feeling high and mighty, and the siren song pours forth from her honeyed lips like a fount of alien wisdom. Backed by a languorously snapping, swinging backbeat and expansive, half-heard piano chords that repeatedly collapse back on themselves, “On & On” is as sonically introspective as its creator, a woman who can believably claim to have walked the entire cipher of Earth, clear her throat, utter “Goddammit, I’ma sing my song,” and still seem like she’s hiding more than she’s revealing. Henderson


Michael Jackson, “Remember the Time”

Back before he lost “it” (that is, the ability to remain relevant and produce quality songs with a prolific ease only few could muster), MJ gave us gems like “Remember the Time” Jackson turns in his most sincere, low-key vocal performance since “She’s Out of My Life,” perfectly matching his delicate, unaffected voice with the song’s snappy funk percussion and razor-sharp jazz embellishments. But out of all its great qualities, the bittersweet but lighthearted dance track is most memorable for catching the King of Pop in a rare but refreshing state of candor, his voice managing to remain sincere without losing any of its beguiling qualities. Liedel


Björk, “Bachelorette”

This is where we reach peak Björk: Debut and Post were nothing if not idiosyncratic, but on Homogenic, the Icelandic singer envisioned a genre all her own. “Bacheleorette” completes a triptych that began with “Human Behaviour” and continued with “Isobel,” and if the earlier songs demonstrate Björk’s continuous interest in the electronic and classical avant-garde, then “Bachelorette” shows her pursuing those influences to the outer limits of pop. Impressive as it is, the song’s cataclysmic arrangement of beats and strings is ultimately overshadowed by Björk’s searing vocal; typically restrained, she finally unleashes the cosmic wail that would power Vespertine and Medúlla’s most transcendent moments. I can’t imagine how anyone could hear this song and persist, as does much of the music press, in describing Björk as a pixie or a nymph. She sounds like she’s 10 stories tall. Cole


Foo Fighters, “Everlong”

There’s a definite sense of irony in the fact that Dave Grohl had to return to his position behind the drum kit in order to finally escape from beneath Kurt Cobain’s giant shadow. His thunderous drumming on this song’s impassioned crescendo affords “Everlong” a balls-to-the-wall gravity that was missing in almost all of the Foo’s previous work, and this marked the point where the wider world began to take them seriously as a band. Of course, “Everlong” wasn’t all about the drumming: This was a beast of a single, starting and stopping with a series of delirious riffs and delectably somber verses. Jones


Madonna, “Secret”

Despite the common misconception that she often sings about sex, Madonna’s songs aren’t always sexy. “Secret” is perhaps the finest exception to that rule. As it slinks along a simple R&B backbeat and an unfussy acoustic guitar figure, “Secret” is also one of the most organic-sounding singles of Madonna’s career, taking its sweet time to get where it’s going and not giving up too much along the way. The arrangement gets off on being withholding, and, at least for one glorious single, so does Madonna: When she sings, “You knew all along/What I never wanted to say,” she sounds positively rapturous. Keefe


Fugees, “Killing Me Softly”

“Fu-Gee-La,” stern and topical, made Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean, and Pras Michel the faces of a new kind of hip-hop, but it was The Score’s second single, “Killing Me Softly,” that won them audiences who, prior to the song’s release, may never have cared about hip-hop of any variety. By reworking Roberta Flack’s classic “Killing Me Softly with His Song” into a spare and heartfelt showcase for Hill’s voice, the Fugees dropped their tough exterior and made personal the raw emotions that had always propped up their pleas on behalf of outcasts. Politically minded MCs have never been in short supply, but few have understood as clearly as the Fugees that hip-hop needs heart as much as it needs conscience and intellect. Cole