With the rise of the internet and the swift evolution of the global landscape, it became evident that ’90s hits would distinguish the last few years of the 20th century as a uniquely transformative decade. The diversity in musical genres was unprecedented, from ’90s rap and ’90s grunge to some of the most unforgettable ’90s R&B songs ever to be produced.
The era’s music sparked a groundswell of artistry across a broad range of genres including the alternative rock resurgence, the Brit-pop explosion in the United Kingdom, the proliferation of country songs, and the golden age of hip-hop. Collectively, these musical stylings resulted in a renaissance that defined a decade. The following artists and their contributions represented a singularly productive time in the history of music.
Alanis Morissette: “Ironic” (1996)
The third single released from her Grammy-winning album Jagged Little Pill, “Ironic” was another lauded effort in the world of alternative rock that transcended the genre. With her insightful lyrics, biting sarcasm, and emotive voice, Alanis Morissette turned the song into an undeniable anthem for the decade and beyond.
Fugees: “Ready Or Not” (1996)
Before rising to the very top of the hip-hop heap in the ’90s, the Fugees were a widely respected underground trio of rap musicians from the East Coast. With the release of their second studio album The Score, the band went from virtual unknowns to household names nearly overnight. The melodic flow of Lauryn Hill’s soulful intonations paired with the masterful lyrics of Wyclef Jean and Pras served as an inviting foray into the world of hip-hop and inched the genre even further into the mainstream internationally.
Nirvana: “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (1991)
Without question, ’90s grunge music reached the peak of its powers during the decade, with Nirvana taking the sound from Seattle to Saigon. As a rallying cry that shook up the world, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” showcased the vocal prowess of Kurt Cobain and his ability to tap into the underbelly of grunge counterculture and present it to the masses in a way that continues to resonate decades later.
Shania Twain: “That Don’t Impress Me Much” (1997)
Some of the biggest country songs of the ’90s, such as “That Don’t Impress Me Much,” became juggernauts through the infusion of pop intonations added to their traditional sounds, and leading the charge was Canadian chanteuse, ShaniaTwain. With Come On Over, Twain solidified her status as both a country and pop act, with her songwriting skills just as centered and at the forefront as her pristine vocals and showmanship.
TLC: “No Scrubs” (1999)
Although it came at the tail end of the decade, Fanmail was and is undeniably one of those unforgettable ’90s R&B albums that are etched into the memories of anyone who hears it — then and now. As a biting song that brutally rebuffs inadequate men and their unwanted advances, “No Scrubs” played to the strengths of each woman in the trio and cemented TLC’s status as one of the defining girl groups of all time.
Beastie Boys: “Sabotage” (1994)
Proving themselves to be musical chameleons over the course of their careers, Beastie Boys took their sound to the next level with the unveiling of “Sabotage,” a song that perfectly merged their love of hip-hop, punk, and rock. The high-energy single from their album Ill Communication was a rambunctious effort melding in-your-face lyrics with rapid-fire syncopation — the end result leading to one of the band’s most iconic tracks and a triumph in the minds of ’90s hip-hop fans.
Billy Ray Cyrus: “Achy Breaky Heart” (1992)
The early ’90s marked the beginning of a significant shift in country music, and Billy Ray Cyrus burst onto the scene with a song that came with an inescapable hook, infectious chorus, and enough rhythm to birth a million line dances. “Achy Breaky Heart” powered its way across country radio stations and into the pop sphere, and in the process earned the genre a multitude of new fans that were now formally introduced to the sound.
Pearl Jam: “Animal” (1993)
As a grunge song that pulls no punches with its direct approach and biting lyrics from frontman Eddie Vedder, “Animal” is a song expressly about anger, and its visceral delivery combined with the band’s ferocious delivery placed the song as one of the defining singles of the decade. With its release, Pearl Jam brought the genre to the masses in an unapologetic fashion that has maintained its status as a quintessential track from the ’90s.
Aaliyah: “Are You That Somebody?” (1998)
Aaliyah took her classic R&B sound to the now-iconic producers Timbaland and Missy Elliott, who gave the singer and her fans an entirely new subgenre that remains a huge force in the music industry. “Are You That Somebody?” became a calling card for the producers’ signature sound and positioned Aaliyah as one of the first to take conventional rhythm and blues and underpin it with hip-hop and electro intonations.
’90s Songs: A Decade Like No Other
The ’90s brought forth a remarkable array of songs that collectively served as both a reflection of the times and a musical evolution. Whether it was the angst-driven grunge or the infectious hip-hop beats, these songs were impactful with audiences, creating a deep sense of connection to a pivotal period in history. These iconic tunes remind us of the profound impact ’90s music had in shaping the collective memory of an entire decade.