What defines a hit? While the music industry defines a hit by how it ranks on the Billboard Charts, the essence of a hit is something else. It’s how a song manages to become a part of pop culture iconography. Music is always very autobiographical—where you were when you heard the song, how it affected your life, and how it transfers from one generation to another. Several of these songs on the list were mainstream Top 40 hits—others gained momentum on College Radio. In the 90s, the word “alternative music” was coined which went on to represent everything from indie rock to grunge to pop music. The 90s was a period before radio stations were run by monopolies, before the advent of the internet and filesharing, before satellite radio, and a time when more than just radio airplay mattered. Most of the bands on the list are no longer together, but all it takes for a band to succeed is that one hit. Also included on the list are some obvious guilty pleasures choices—the songs you don’t want to like, but can’t help turning up everytime you hear it—even when you think no one is looking.
1. “Nothing Compares 2 U” – Sinead O’Connor (1990)
One of the most famous love ballads of all time, this Prince penned song put the hairless Sinead and her political and religious antics on the map. It’s a beautiful and compelling song that echoes with palpable heartbreak and sorrow. Sinead should’ve made peace with the Pope while she still had the chance. Oh well, I guess we know where she’s going after death.
2. “Black Velvet” – Alannah Myles (1990)
Canadian Alannah Myles burst onto the scene in 1989 with her sultry and bluesy song that made men around the world swoon. This song was a number one hit in the States in 1990 and took over the airwaves for months on end before it and her career disappeared into the spring night. She even won a Grammy that year for “Best Rock Female Performance.” At least she has something to show for it.
3. “What’s Up?” – 4-Non Blondes (1993)
This became an anthemic and existential Generation X piece in 1993 with Linda Perry’s famous grainy voice singing about praying, cathartic crying, and shouting at the top of her lungs: “hey, hey, hey, what’s going on?” Luckily for them, the song still gets rotation on the radio.
4. “No Rain” – Blind Melon (1992)
Lead singer Shannon Hoon did a Kurt Cobain but no one talks about Hoon anymore. The song follows a child pariah who wants to fit in and finally does in the end with hooks and a bittersweet pop melody leading the way. The video was just as popular as it featured the now famous Bee Girl. The song was the anti-thesis to the grunge based songs of that period, and over ten years later, it’s still lovely to hear.
5. “Laid” – James (1993)
A guitar is strummed then builds to pounding drums on the lyric: “This bed is on fire with passion and love/the neighbors complain about the noises above/but she only cums when she’s on top.” James was deemed the “next Smiths” in their native England, but they never lived up to those expectations. Today, it’s one of the best songs about obsession—next to “Every Breath You Take,” of course.
6. “I Touch Myself” – The Divinyls (1991)
For years there have been songs about masturbation from the Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun” to Cyndi Lauper’s “She Bop.” Finally the Australian group the Divinyls released a song that’s very blunt about the deed: “when I think about you I touch myself.” After the approval from a mainstream hit, doing the deed seemed more appropriate–well, kinda….
7. “Song 2” – Blur (1997)
“Whoo Who!” screeches Damon Albarn on this succinct, two minute long song. Besides that lyric, most of the lyrics are basically incomprehensible and open to interpretation. Although Blur had been highly acclaimed and prolific, they had managed to stay under the radar for most of their career—at least in the States. But with this song, suddenly they were everywhere…and so was the fun to say “Whoo Who!”
8. “No Myth” – Michael Penn (1990)
Michael Penn evolved from a pedigree family. His brother is Academy Award winner Sean Penn and his wife is Academy Award nominee Aimee Mann. Penn contributed his one and only hit with this early-90s infectious pop hit filled with jangling guitars and an infectious chorus that asks the question: “What if I were Romeo in black jeans?” Too bad he couldn’t keep up with the Joneses.
9. “Cannonball” – The Breeders (1993)
Before the Breeders, Dayton, Ohio raised Kim Deal was better known as a member of the now revived Pixies. The achievement of the song comes from the heavy bass lines, high voltage guitar riffs and distorted vocals that penetrate right through the listener. But like the album title Last Splash insinuates, it was their last hurrah until The Deal sisters regrouped with members of the punk band Fear for 2002′s Title TK.
10. “Torn” – Natalie Imbruglia (1998)
She was the “It Girl” of 1998 after “Torn” sold millions of copies. For a while, there was a new pop princess in town, but as Andy Warhol always said, everyone has 15 minutes of fame and hers ran out around 1999. She released another album to a less than stellar response. Did the industry really think an ex-Australian soap opera star could have legs? Still, “Torn” remains a great pop song with its universal lyrics on love.
11. “Girl Like You” – Edwin Collins (1995)
British singer Collins had a hit in 1983 with his band Orange Juice, but it wasn’t until the mid-90s that Collins gained notoriety with this retro song featured on the soundtrack for the film Empire Records. It’s a very catchy and rhymatic song involving coarse guitars, Collins’ slightly sinister vocals and electro beats that pulsate and build to electrifying intensity.
12. “I’m Too Sexy” – Right Said Fred (1992)
It was 1992 when these Germans broke onto the scene eschewing shirt and hair and releasing a song about, well, being sexy. These guys were too sexy for their car, their shirt, their cat, and so on. They live on in infamy with the prolific use of the track in car commercials. I guess in the end they were too sexy for their mortgage. Drum roll, please.
13. “Tubthumper” – Chumbawumba (1997)
In 1997, everyone was singing “I get knocked down, then I get up again, you never can keep me down.” It was difficult to understand these Brits lyrics, but one lyric that did stand out was “pissing the night away.” It’s a pub song about the joys of alcoholism including falling down, peeing all night and fighting. With this one song, Chumbawumba sold a plethora of albums, but now those albums are being sold at garage sales. Oh, the irony.
14. “I Know” – Dionne Farris (1993)
Before Dionne Farris had a solo career she was a member of the seminal progressive rap/hip hop group Arrested Development (not to be confused with the excellent tv show). But after she parted ways from them, she released this funky and sassy alt song. Unfortunately, her star faded too soon and she hasn’t been heard from since. Come to think of it, neither has Arrested Development (the band that is).
15. “MMMBop” – Hanson (1997)
When they first arrived on the scene, people couldn’t tell if they were little boys or little girls because of their long, silky hair. These kids even played their own instruments unlike other teen groups from that era (ie: Backstreet Boys). The track is a sugary and happy Jackson 5-esque song that you don’t want to like but secretly play alone in your room when nostalgia strikes. The oldest Hanson, who’s like 22 now, has 2 kids and a wife! Where does the time go?
16. “Seether” – Veruca Salt (1994)
This punky, high voltage song kept up with the alt-rockin riot grrl acts of the 90s like the Breeders. The ever unavoidable and catchy chorus: “Can’t fight the seether!” lingers in the brain along with the churning electric guitars. An angry and powerful rock tune just like the seether herself. Any band that names themself after a character in the trippy Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory has to be cool.
17. “Fade into You” – Mazzy Starr (1993)
A dreamy and poetic song about love that’s highlighted with Hope Sandoval’s luscious voice. Slow, acoustic guitars create a trance-inducing lullaby along with the use of the tambourine and piano. The psychedelic ambiance allows the listener to drift away as the music consumes. After hearing this song, everyone wanted to find that special someone and fade into them.
18. “Natural One” – Folk Implosion (1995)
Remember this band? Probably not. Frontman Lou Barlow and company contributed several songs to the controversial film Kids including this hit that was on the soundtrack but not used in the film. It was a sleeper hit that crept out of nowhere with its psychedelic tones, throbbing drums and discordant beats. Just like the film, this track is still very memorable.
19. “Bitch” – Meredith Brooks (1997)
In today’s world of five second delays, it’s surprising that unholy word doesn’t get bleeped out on the radio, but Brooks was audacious enough to test the system. Brooks made it pleasant and quite fun to be the aforementioned curse word with her use of clanging rock guitars and profound lyrics. She became popular during the Lillith Fair period then disappeared along with the breakthrough festival.
20. “Bad Reputation” – Freedy Johnston (1994)
A lamenting song with a mood of despondency, desperation and loneliness, it tapped into something deeper than most alternative songs of the time. At the chorus, the song picks up with Johnston asking “do you want me now?” with tangible forlornness. This folky and guitar driven singer/songwriter fare worked well during the end credits of the 1995 cult/angst film Kicking and Screaming.
21. “Closing Time” – Semisonic (1998)
No one wants to hear the words “Last Call” after a night of drinking, but this song was about those dwindling minutes of the evening when you’re bleary eyed, a bit lonely, and looking for someone to take you home. The song contains a contagious tinkering piano and a melodic guitar fueling the sage lyric: “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” Well said.
22. “I’d Walk (500 Miles) – Proclaimers (1993)
Mix identical twin brothers and Johnny Depp and you get this highly catchy and upbeat song about love that was prominently featured in the Depp romantic comedy Benny and Joon. This song became the feel good song of the year with its sentimental hooks and musings on love. Originally released off a Proclaimers album from1988, it was resurrected for the movie and became a huge hit.
23. “Flagpole Sitta” – Harvey Danger (1998)
“I’m not sick, but I’m not well!” screams the lead singer of Harvey Danger. This rock song covers everything from paranoia, stupid people breeding, insanity and hell with raucous guitar interludes and lyrics. “They’re all coming to get me!” Harvey Danger screams. Disturbed and twisted never sounded so good. The song was especially relevant on the trailer for the silly teen film Disturbed Behavior.
24. “Connection” – Elastica (1994)
UK alt rock was popular in the 90s especially bands with a female lead singer. Justine Frischmann left the influential band Suede and the band’s frontman Brett Anderson to form Elastica. This album ousted an Oasis album to become the biggest selling albums in the UK during that time. “Connection”’s appeal lies in its vivacious beats, gritty guitars and electro tinges that reverberate long after Elastica did.
25. “Right Here, Right Now” – Jesus Jones (1991)
These guys seemed to be all the rage with their poppy song about the world changing. This song featured some beginning techno beats, but the band failed after their foray into more techno material afterwards. The chorus still rings after a decade: “right here, right now/watching the world wake up from history.”
BONUS—The Group that Had More Than One Hit but Should’ve Stopped at One:
The Spice Girls
It seems hard to believe these women ever existed. The group was put together like a reality tv show and played out like one for about a year. With names like Sporty, Scary, Baby, etc, they found a place in Trivia Pursuit history. Their first and biggest hit was the catchy “Wannabe” (1997) with cheesy lyrics like: “If you want to be my lover, you got to get with my friends/make it last forever/friendship never ends.” Maybe they didn’t know how to write song lyrics, but boy could they pose! They followed up the infectious “Wannabe” with two duds: “Say You’ll Be There” and “2 Become 1.” Thankfully eight years later, these women have moved on to relative obscurity except for Victoria “Posh Spice” Adams who went on to Bend it like Beckham, David that is. Victoria, your secret past is safe with us.
Agree, disagree, have your own suggestions? We’d love to hear your thoughts.
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