7. U2 – “Mysterious Ways”
The ’90s were a strange time for U2. They went from critical darlings of the proto-indie underground of the ’80s with definitive art rock statements like The Joshua Tree (1987), almost guaranteed a place on every hipster’s record shelf. The ’90s found the Dublin quartet finding an uneasy equilibrium between underground music and mainstream pop spectacle.
Before eventually falling from grace, U2’s ’90s albums yielded some sonic gold, managing to find the sweet spot between innovation, pretension, and accessibility.
“Mysterious Ways”, from 1990’s excellent Achtung Baby, still manages to thrill with Bono’s bright, bold vocals and the Edge’s funk-fried guitar. It’s one of those major singles that’s every bit deserving of its hype.
6. Depeche Mode – “Enjoy the Silence”
It might as well have been the ’80s, as music from 1990 still feels indebted to ’80s genres like new wave, synthpop, and hair metal. Some of the best music from the ’80s came out in 1990.
1990 also saw career high points from some of the ’80s most beloved acts. Synthpop idols Depeche Mode released what might be their most definitive, and probably most popular, album in 1990. Violator has all of what makes ’80s music so good – synths galore, infectious electronic drums, and romantic sing-along lyrics.
“Enjoy the Silence” remains one of Depeche Mode’s best and most enduring songs. It also hints at some of the darkness into which the band, and the decade, would soon fall.
5. Marcy Playground – “Sex and Candy”
The ’90s were haunted by the ghosts of the ’60s and ’70s – for better and worse. The culture was becoming increasingly nostalgic as we raced towards the millennium, with all of the accompanying anxiety and uncertainty. The burgeoning internet was kicking off a new Spiritual Age based out of Silicon Valley instead of Venice Beach. People were rediscovering mind-expanding drugs and Eastern religion, and it genuinely seemed like a new Golden Age might be dawning – or at least possible.
Reading through this list, it becomes obvious the damage that drugs were wreaking on the underground. Philosophies like Zen or Buddhism could be seen as an attempt to put a rosy lens on the ’90s native nihilism. All was not well, despite things limping toward progress.
Marcy Playground’s “Sex and Candy”, from their 1997 self-titled debut album, is an ode to the post-hippy disco decadence of drugs, hedonism, and meaningless sex. It’s also oddly sweet.
4. Sinead O’Connor – “Nothing Compares 2 U”
You don’t hear enough about Sinead O’Connor these days. Her massive popularity and cultural influence in the ’90s haven’t necessarily translated well into the 21st Century. Perhaps her outspoken nature about abuse in the Catholic Church and contentious stances about religion is too much for some, even now.
It’s worth winding back the clock and reconsidering Sinead O’Connor before the controversies – if only to reassess her music with the cool light of history. “Nothing Compares 2 U”, from 1990’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, was massively popular, and rightfully so. She’s got one of the decade’s most powerful voices, dripping with heart and burning with heat.
Indeed, Sinead O’Connor has one of those rare musical voices that pair genuine talent and a powerful message. She’s also an early example of speaking truth to power and using her platform to speak about cultural-political topics important to her.
3. TLC – “No Scrubs”
The only artist to appear on this ’90s nostalgia playlist twice, we simply couldn’t leave “No Scrubs” off our playlist. From 1999’s Fanmail, the song’s advice is as timeless as its dusted beat, especially when delivered with such honeyed vocals.
“A scrub is a guy / Who can’t get no love from me.” Us either, sister, us either. Guys, take this song’s message as a lesson.
2. Red Hot Chili Peppers – “Under the Bridge”
With the success of Californication taking the Red Hot Chili Peppers beyond the stratosphere of mainstream success, the SoCal quartet to ever be (openly) taken seriously by the musical cognoscenti. Let’s not be elitist, though, Red Hot Chili Peppers have some great songs. They were everywhere in the ’90s, as well, so it feels disingenuous to leave them off our musical trip down memory lane.
“Under the Bridge”, from 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik, hits that sweet spot between sentimentality and energy. A mid-tempo rock ballad at heart, it showcases Anthony Kiedis’ vocals to great effect. It’s a great representation of why John Frusciante is such a cherished guitar player.
Lastly, “Under the Bridge” is a love letter to Los Angeles, one of the greatest cities on Earth, that would soon be plunged into chaos and tumult.
1. The Sundays – “Here’s Where the Story Ends”
Not all of the songs on our list are big hits – or as big as they could’ve been. “Here’s Where the Story Ends” is the second single from the Sundays’ 1990 debut album Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic. It was their biggest international hit but was never released domestically in the UK due to their label, Rough Trade, declaring bankruptcy in 1991 before their triumphant resurrection in 2000.
“Here’s Where the Story Ends” is a unique ’90s song, with its simple acoustic guitar backing Harriet Wheeler’s one-of-a-kind vocals. “Here’s Where the Story Ends” seems to be a missing link between indie, alternative, college rock, dream pop, and goth.
With That ’90s Show just launched, artists like Soccer Mommy rediscovering the beauty of ’90s lofi and the prevalence of bucket hats on city streets and public transportation everywhere, it’s safe to say that for ’90s music nostalgia, the story is just beginning.