The Best 90s Rock Songs: 10 Hits That Defined The Decade
The 90s were a great time for rock music. Grunge was at its peak, and bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam were topping the charts. Alternative rock was also becoming more popular, with bands like Radiohead and The Smashing Pumpkins gaining mainstream success. Whether you're looking to reminisce about the good old days or just curious to see what all the fuss was about, read on for our list some of the best 90s rock songs.
1. “SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT” – NIRVANA
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” is undoubtedly one of the most iconic 90s rock songs. Released in 1991, the track by Nirvana quickly became a hit and has since been recognised as one of the best rock songs – of all time. This song and its heavy distortion, off-beat rhythms, and Kurt Cobain's lyrics helped define the grunge genre generation.
2. “BLACK HOLE SUN” – SOUNDGARDEN
“Black Hole Sun” is one of Soundgarden's most popular songs. Written and composed by Chris Cornell, it was released as the lead single from their third studio album, Superunknown, in May 1994. This 90s rock song also won a Grammy Award in 1995 for Best Hard Rock Performance.
The tune's music video was almost as popular as the song itself. Played heavily on MTV at that time, it featured the band performing in an empty field, with images of a city destroyed by a black hole superimposed over them. The idea was that the whole world was turning into a black hole, drawing in everything around it.
3. “ALIVE” – PEARL JAM
Released in 1991, “Alive” is about a man realising that the man he thought was his father is actually his stepfather. His moms’ resulting grief results in an incestuous relationship with him (her son), who looks like the biological father. Pearl Jam played this song at almost every concert during their early years, and it quickly became a fan favourite.
One of the things that made Pearl Jam so great was their willingness to experiment with different sounds and styles. “Alive” is a perfect example of this, featuring a more grunge-influenced sound than their previous releases. It’s also notable for Mike McCready's legendary guitar solo and why we’ve included it as one of the best 90s rock songs.
4. “JUST A GIRL” – NO DOUBT
Released by No Doubt in 1995, “Just A Girl” was the third single from their eponymous debut album. Written by Gwen Stefani and Tom Dumont and produced by Matthew Wilder, the song is a ska-punk-reggae song that talks about Gwen's experience with sexism. It received positive reviews from music critics and reached the top ten in several countries, acting as No Doubt’s breakthrough track.
5. “BULLET WITH BUTTERFLY WINGS” – THE SMASHING PUMPKINS
The Smashing Pumpkins were one of the bigger alternative rock players of the decade, and their song "Bullet with Butterfly Wings" is a good example of why. With its heavy guitars and powerful vocals, the track is an angst-filled anthem that perfectly captures the spirit of the 1990’s. It's no wonder then that the track is still one of the most popular 90s rock songs.
6. “NOVEMBER RAIN” – GUNS N' ROSES
“November Rain” is another of the early 90s most emblematic rock songs. Released in 1991, it quickly became a radio hit and has since become one of Guns N' Roses' signature songs to this day. With its sweeping orchestral arrangements and poignant lyrics, “November Rain” is the perfect ballad about love and loss, and that emotional punch has made it a timeless classic sure to please any generation.
7. “SEMI-CHARMED LIFE” – THIRD EYE BLIND
“Semi-Charmed Life” was written as an anthem for anyone who has ever been bullied or felt like they quite didn't fit in, with darker lyrics in contrast to a catchier tune. The song was released in 1997 as the lead single from their self-titled debut album, then peaked at an impressive number four on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It was also later certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America. Its heartbreaking lyrics warrant a listen.
8. “BUDDY HOLLY” – WEEZER
If you were around in the 90s, then you no doubt remember the power of Weezer. They burst onto the scene with their 1994 self-titled album and quickly became one of the biggest rock bands in the world. One of their most popular and defining songs was "Buddy Holly," written by singer and guitarist Rivers Cuomo.
The tune was a huge success, reaching number two on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and becoming one of the best 90s rock songs. "Buddy Holly" is a fun, upbeat song that perfectly encapsulates the Weezer sound. It's catchy, clever, and rocks hard – definitely one of those songs you need to revisit.
9. “FAKE PLASTIC TREES” – RADIOHEAD
"Fake Plastic Trees" is a song by the English rock band Radiohead from their second studio album, The Bends. It was released as the album's third single in 1995 and was written by Thom Yorke about the negative effects of materialism and consumerism on society and the environment.
The song garnered great reviews by critics and is considered one of Radiohead's best songs alongside “Creep”, “Karma Police”, and “Paranoid Android”. It peaked at number 20 on the UK Singles Chart and charted on the US Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart, the New Zealand Singles Chart, and the Canada Rock/Alternative chart as one of the best rock songs of the 90s.
10. “EVERLONG” – FOO FIGHTERS
"Everlong" by the Foo Fighters was released in 1997, written by Dave Grohl. It’s a song that speaks to the experience of being so connected to someone that you love them physically and spiritually; when you sing along with them, you harmonize perfectly. This emotional connection is what makes the song so powerful; it quickly became a hit and was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Rock Song. This tune defined the Foo Fighters as a band in the late 90s. The song has a catchy riff and Grohl's signature vocals. Certainly, one of the best 90s rock songs and a must-have on any rock fan's playlist.
WHAT’S ON YOUR LIST OF BEST 90s ROCK SONGS?
Whether you grew up listening to these hits or are just discovering them now, crank up the volume and enjoy! How would you rank your own top 10 best rock songs from the 90s?
Go back in time with this collection of 90s rock songs.
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Writer | Manuel Torrece
Manuel (or Manu) is a Gen Z Latino Content Writer freelancer based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. When he's not researching and pushing all the buttons on the keyboard, he loves playing his Taylor acoustic guitar, writing Latin Indie songs in Spanish, and exploring/supporting different projects around the world, mainly related to arts, business, and education.