Top 50 Rock Songs of the 90s


Godsmack – “Whatever” – (1998)

This was Godsmack’s first single – and it remains one of their best-remembered songs. You can tell it was the first single but an up-and-coming rock band because the video is terrible: it’s the band playing a show at some outdoor venue. It’s quite typical of late-90s rock videos. This song was a top ten hit on the Mainstream Rock chart back in 1998.

Aaron Lewis & Fred Durst – “Outside” – (2000)

Fred Durst was a big deal in 1999 and 2000. Limp Bizkit was huge and they did this little (okay it was huge) tour called “The Family Values Tour” with Korn, Orgy, Primus, Ja Rule, Method Man & Redman, DMX, Filter, The Crystal Method, and a little known band called Staind. That was the 1999 lineup and it was huge. “Outside” (which would later become a hit for Staind – a band led by Aaron Lewis and promoted and produced by Durst) was first performed live and acoustically in Biloxi, Mississippi in 1999 by Aaron Lewis featuring backing vocals by Durst. Some of the lyrics were made up on the spot. Radio stations started playing the acoustic version and it ended up at #56 on the Hot 100 in 2001. Later that year, Staind released Break the Cycle – which was a monumental album (in popularity). This song, for me, marked a transition from the bubblegum pop of 1999/2000 and the more rock-oriented days of 2001 and on.

Pearl Jam – “Black” – (1991)

Pearl Jam was one of the most important bands of the 1990s and one of the biggest in the grunge scene – even if Nirvana gets so much of the credit. “Black” was the fifth track on Ten – one of the best/most-important albums of the decade. This reached #3 on the Mainstream Rock chart and if you want an example of classic grunge music – it doesn’t come much better than this. It remains one of their best-known and most well-received songs despite the fact that it was never released as a single.

Ozzy Osbourne – “Mama, I’m Coming Home” – (1991)

How about a little more hard rock this week? Ozzy’s style from the 1980s bled over seamlessly into the 1990s. This is from one of Ozzy’s two best-selling albums. The song is about his as-famous-as-he-is-now wife Sharon. Interestingly, this is Ozzy’s only solo Top 40 single on the Hot 100 – it peaked at #28. The song was written by the lead singer of Motorhead and Zakk Wylde, Ozzy’s former guitarist.

Godsmack – “Going Down” – (1997)

Why do rock bands always have stupid names? I liked Godsmack back when it was really cool to like Godsmack, but as I look back, all I think is “Man, what a stupid name for a band… way to try and be hard.” They have some pretty decent rock songs, but I don’t count this among them. So why is it here and why do I have it? Wel, 1: this week is kind of a burn until I can get to Christmas music on Friday and 2: this song was featured on the very popular Mission: Impossible II soundtrack. Originally, it was released on the band’s independent debut album All Wound Up. It would later come out on their 2000 album Awake.

AC/DC – “Ballbreaker” – (1995)

“Ballbreaker” was the title (and final) track on AC/DC’s 1995 album. This is the only song I’ve ever heard from this album, and it was never a single (the album had three singles and only one of them charted). In any case, this is not AC/DC’s best work – but the album is still certified 2x platinum (that’s over two million sales) by the RIAA. Which is crazy. AC/DC is one of the biggest selling musical acts in history and it’s no wonder – whatever they put out people buy.

Oasis – “Don’t Go Away” – (1997)

Oasis is one of the best bands that Britain has ever produced (this week kind of has a British theme). Britpop tracks like this is what they did best. It’s not quite an “epic weepy” like some of their other songs, but it’s still a song about loss – a break-up song. Liam’s vocals are really good and it really encapsulates Oasis’ 90s sound and is my favorite track from 1997’s Be Here Now – their final album of the 1990s. This song was a big hit in the U.S. – hitting #5 on the Modern Rock chart.

Toad the Wet Sprocket – “All I Want” – (1991)

Mmm, early-90s alternative rock. At the height of grunge, there were still bands out there performing less angst-y, more pop-y rock n roll. There was a wonderful type of music produced in a short-lived era of about 1991-1997 that songs like this exemplify. I miss it dearly. This was the first successful single from Toad the Wet Sprocket, peaking at #15 on the Hot 100. It is also one of two tracks by the band that still pops up on radio airwaves every now and then. It’s a 1990s pop rock classic.

Eve 6 – “Tongue Tied” – (1998)

As Monday’s song was sappy, this song is awesome. Eve 6 was known for “Inside Out” which got all the airplay off their self-titled debut album. But “Tongue Tied” is more alternative rock – or, at least, the late-90s version of alternative rock. It kicks-ass in the same way those Third Eye Blind hits kick ass. The video stars a young Katie Holmes and is mega-1998: the clothes, the hairstyles, the VCR in the classroom. Gah, the good old days.

Nirvana – “About a Girl” – (1989/1994)

This song was originally released on Bleach in 1989 but was recorded for the band’s live Unplugged set for MTV. It was the first single released from the Unplugged album after Kurt Cobain’s death. I’ve linked to the live version because it was a #1 Modern Rock single in the U.S. Cobain didn’t even want to include this track on Bleach because he found it might alienate the grunge fan base. He wrote it after listening to early Beatles records on repeat. He thought it was too “poppy.” I find it kind of funny, 20 years removed, that this was too pop for grunge. It’s very grunge. But I would have very much liked to see what Kurt Cobain could’ve written if he were uninhibited by his perceived grunge-God-ness and free to experiment with his Beatles obsession all he wanted.

Red Wanting Blue – “Audition” – (2012)

Tell me this doesn’t sound like it came out in the mid-to-late-1990s. Well, I guess it kind of did. Originally released on the band’s 2000 album Model Citizen, “Audition” was re-recorded (but still sounding pretty much the same) for their 2012 release “From the Vanishing Point.” It sounds like a Counting Crows song or something similar. I don’t remember hearing it on the radio, but it very well could’ve been on it back in 2000/2001. And, yeah, on Monday I said we were done with 90s songs that sounded older. Well this is a 2000s/2010s song that sounds like it was from the 1990s.

 AC/DC – “Moneytalks” – (1990)

This is easily one of AC/DC’s best songs and it comes off one of their better albums. It’s also one of their biggest hits. AC/DC made a lot of good, hard rock n’ roll music, but some of those songs were able to cross into the mainstream. This is one of those songs that has more of a pop rock feel to it. Brian Johnson’s fantastic vocal delivery as well as the multiple people singing on the chorus really adds to it. It came out in 1990 but it sounds just like – and just as good as – the songs AC/DC did in the 80s. It’s awesome.

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – “Into the Great Wide Open” – (1991)

Well crap. I was going to do “You Wreck Me” here but I’ve already done that song. This one doesn’t sound quite as 80s as that one, but it’ll work. The music video features Johnny Depp and Matt LeBlanc, among others – and Tom Petty, still in his “Dressing-Like-A-Character-From-Alice in Wonderland” phase. This is the title track to the Heartbreakers’ 1991 album and it hit #4 on the Mainstream Rock chart.

Warrant – “Cherry Pie” – (1990)

This oh-so-subtle glam rock song about… erm… dessert, is, perhaps, Warrant’s best-known song. It was a top ten hit in the U.S. The video is fairly memorable for the band in a big white room and an attractive woman dancing around while being sprayed by a hose and eating cherries. Oh yeah, subtle. Apparently, according to Jani Lane (Warrant front-man) he wrote this song in 15 minutes, which isn’t too terribly hard to believe once you’ve listened to it. It’s fairly basic and high-schoolers everywhere loved the dirty, innuendo-laced lyrics (although some were more blunt than others). Sounds just like every 80s hair band.

Depeche Mode – “Personal Jesus” – (1990)

This song, which is a great example of Depeche Mode’s signature sound, was their first big hit in the U.S. since 1984. It’s one of their best known songs and, like many of their other songs, it completely rocks. 1990 was not a high watermark for music – yet this album, Violator, tries very hard to convince you otherwise. But the staggering amount of awful pop music from the likes of Sweet Sensation and New Kids on the Block (etc.) overwhelm the awesome stuff like this.

Billy Idol – “Cradle of Love” – (1990)

This very 1980s Billy Idol song was actually released in 1990. Why do I say it sounds very 80s? Because it sounds just like “White Wedding,” that’s why. This was a #2 on the Hot 100 and a #1 on the mainstream rock chart. It remains one of Billy Idol’s best known hits. The music video was directed by David Fincher and received heavy airplay on MTV, helping the song’s success.

Concrete Blonde – “Joey” – (1990)

“Joey” was the biggest single from Los Angeles-based alternative rock band Concrete Blonde. The belted chorus of “Joey if you’re hurting so am I” (or whatever it changes to after subsequent verses) may sound somewhat familiar when you hear it come from the somewhat raspy vocal chords of Johnette Napolitano – even if it doesn’t in text. It was a top 20 on the Hot 100 and a #1 on the Modern Rock chart. Does it sound like it came from the 1980s? You betcha.

Jesus Jones – “Right Here, Right Now” – (1991)

This is one of a handful of tracks that were actually the genesis of this list. It’s also one of the best songs on this list. In the U.S., the British band Jesus Jones is known for this and… well that’s about it. A #2 hit on the Hot 100, it was a super smash in the early 90s – but as far as rock songs go, it differed drastically from the very popular rock scene at the time: grunge. Which is why I always forget it came out at that time. It receives more airplay on adult alternative and adult contemporary radio stations than it does on pop music stations (and it did then, if I remember correctly). And in my eyes, all adult contemporary music came out in the 1980s. And it kind of reminds me of “In a Big Country,” which is from 1983. It’s too happy to be from a time that tried its best to be unhappy. Great tune.

Extreme – “More Than Words” – (1991)

This awful hair ballad – I mean, wonderful acoustic rock song… was a #1 hit for Extreme in 1991. This song and Mr. Big’s “To Be With You” are more or less the same song (at least, in my mind). And I always say I don’t like either of them… except when listening to them. I really liked it back in the day, but it just kind of got on my nerves over time and now avoid it at all costs. It just sounds like an 80s hair metal band tried to go soft when the 90s came around – wait, that’s actually what it is. I understand that some people are fanatical about this song, and good for them. To each his own.

Mr. Big – “To Be With You” – (1991)

People love this song. My liking it very much depends on my mood. Sometimes I loathe it, but as I listen to it right now, it doesn’t seem so bad – maybe because I haven’t heard it in quite a while (yes, I’ve been avoiding it, but sometimes that helps you get back to be able to hear it with fresh ears). This is the song Mr. Big is known for – they were a hard rock band and their most famous song is acoustic. But it was a big hit, reaching #1 in the U.S., Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Germany, Canada, Austria and Australia. It’s the hair-band-ness of this song that makes me think it would’ve been big in the 80s – and it would have. Perhaps, most interesting (to me anyway) is the cover art of the album Lean into It. It is a photograph of the 1895 derailment of the Granville-Paris Express that overran the buffer stop and out the side of Gare Montparnasse in Paris, falling a story to street level. There was one fatality (a woman on the street killed by falling pieces of the two-foot thick wall that the train careened through). Unfortunately, Montparnasse does not look as interesting as it does in that picture. Aaand… end tangent.

Depeche Mode – “Enjoy the Silence” – (1990)

We already featured “Policy of Truth” during our Top Rock Songs of the 90s countdown, but it would have just as well fit here. “Enjoy the Silence” was the single released right before “Policy of Truth” and it also has a very 1980s feel. Synthpop was huge during the 80s, and this is a pretty good example of it, yet it was released in 1990. This is one of their best songs and its chart performance reflected it, hitting the top five or top ten in most countries where it was released. The chorus: “All I ever wanted, all I ever needed – is here in my arms. Words are very unnecessary, they can only do harm.”

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – “Learning to Fly” – (1991)

When learning to fly, coming down really is the hardest thing. Most people like to stay up flying around – that, and landing is the most difficult part. This was a #1 on the Mainstream Rock chart (where it stayed for six weeks) and a Top 30 on the Hot 100. This is one of Petty’s best songs and it doesn’t necessarily sound like all his other songs – the vocals do, of course. But the music is up-tempo and a little different. It’s good.

Dog’s Eye View – “Everything Falls Apart” – (1995)

Dog’s Eye View was a one-hit wonder in the immediate post-grunge alternative rock scene. You don’t hear this on the radio anymore but you used to hear it all the time in the mid-to-late-90s. The lyrics are really good and their delivery is even better. And the music just screams of the era. If you’re a fan of The Wallflowers, the Counting Crows, the Gin Blossoms or any similar band – then this is a song you must hear. You’ll remember it.

#1 – Nirvana – “Lithium” – (1991)

I’m wondering, if Nirvana knew how big this album would turn out to be, would they have changed the album cover at all? It’s not the content, but look at the typeface of “Nevermind.” It looks incredibly cheap, like this album was made in someone’s basement. Maybe it looked okay at the time, but it certainly hasn’t aged well. I guess it’s kind of irrelevant seeing how timeless this album has become. I’ve known a few gigantic Nirvana fans in my life and every one of them has called this their favorite song from the band. And I have to agree. There’s a lot of Kurt just yelling “Yeah!” over and over, dragging it out and such. The rest of the lyrics are pretty good too, “I’m so happy ’cause today I found my friends – they’re in my head. I’m ugly but that’s okay ’cause so are you.”

Nirvana was the biggest thing – and most important thing – in rock music in the 1990s. This might not be their signature song but it’s damned fine and a great example of their work. What an era grunge was. To have been in the Pacific Northwest in the early 1990s must’ve been one hell of a time.

#2 – Metallica – “Enter Sandman” – (1991)

While grunge was gaining steam and becoming the newest form of popular music, good old heavy metal was coming down off of its hair-crazed 80s-ness and resuming just being heavy and metallic. This is one of Metallica’s most popular songs and if you come across someone that has never been introduced to the music of Metallica, this is the song to send them to as it is the perfect introductory course. It hit #10 on the Mainstream Rock chart and then it went mainstream, hitting #16 on the Hot 100 and #1 in countries such as Canada, Finland and Norway. The song itself is about children’s nightmares. There is an eerie part where a kid is saying his bedtime prayers, and then the lyrics turn a lullaby into this: “Hush little baby, don’t say a word. And never mind that noise you heard. It’s just the beasts under your bed, in your closet and in your head.” And then right on into the chorus, “Exit light, enter night. Take my hand, we’re off to never never land.”

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