The nineties picked up where the eighties left off musically. Hard rock dominated the radio with hip hop making inroads. However, the hard rock scene had run its course and became a caricature. New bands appeared that ran counter to the prevailing cultural musical paradigm. In 1991, these alternative acts broke nationally, which meant extinction for most eighties acts. The music from this early period informed the rest of the nineties in one way or another. By the late nineties, boy bands became the rage and grunge passed into history. At the decade's end, music downloads began to negatively impact the industry's bottom line and music quality. The following are the top 10 songs from the nineties.
1. Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana (1991): The rock scene had become blasé by 1991 when Nirvana appeared from nowhere. Their lead track off of the Nevermind album essentially wiped out the eighties music scene and created a new paradigm. Musically, the sound was not that much different from music of the previous two decades. In fact, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is very similar to Boston's "More Than a Feeling." The thematic content separated Nirvana and their peers from the eighties. The song became an anthem for apathy and disillusionment. Nirvana experienced success like no act since Michael Jackson during the Thriller era. They literally changed the industry for a time. However, the movement proved short lived and was replaced by the end of the decade by more pliable, plastic pop acts.
2. Losing My Religion by R.E.M. (1991): The eighties music scene transitioned into history in 1991. In February, R.E.M. released “Losing My Religion”, which became an unlikely smash hit. The song features a mandolin as opposed to electric guitar. The success represented a desire amongst the pop and rock audience for something new. Hip Hop and Country music also experienced amazing growth during this period. R.E.M. and a few months later, Nirvana and Pearl Jam, gave rock fans something different.
3. One by U2 (1992): U2 nearly broke up over musical differences. The four members battled over the band's direction while recording in Berlin. The discord led Bono to pen the words to "One." The song represented the U2's broken relationship at the time, but also German unification. Bono later appropriated the song title for his "One" Campaign charity.
4. Nothing but a "G" Thang (1992): Dr. Dre hit #2 on the charts with what some consider the greatest hip hop song of the nineties. The Rock n Roll Hall of Fame considers it one of the 500 most important songs of the modern era and it made Rolling Stone magazine's Top 500 songs of all time. The song features vocals from both Dre and Snoop Dog. It helped propel both men to super-stardom and took the genre to a new level of creativity and popularity.
5. Jeremy by Pearl Jam (1992): Eddie Vedder wrote "Jeremy" after reading about a high school student that shot himself in front of his class. The song was backed by a powerful music video in which a student is taunted by his classmates and ignored by his parents. In the end, Jeremy shoots himself in front of his peers. For a time, censors obscured the video's climax so viewers were left wondering if Jeremy shot himself or his classmates. Naturally, the video evoked controversy over violent imagery. The publicity over the video left the band disillusioned. They wanted to be known for their music and not their videos. As a result, Pearl Jam decided to forgo music videos until 1998.
6. Alive by Pearl Jam (1991): "Alive" broke around the same time as Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion." All three songs helped bury the eighties rock scene, while "Alive" made Pearl Jam superstars. Stone Gossard wrote the music to which Eddie Vedder added lyrics. The song became a fictionalized account of an actual experience from Vedder's past. Two decades later, the song regularly appears on best of lists for songs and guitar rock.
7. Creep by Radiohead (1992): Radiohead’s debut single did not experience success in its initial run. However, the re-release in 1993 became a smash hit worldwide. The song’s success disturbed the band and they refused to play it for a number of years. “Creep” was inspired by an experience in singer Thom Yorke’s college days. He apparently followed a girl around campus for awhile. Lyrically, the song evokes loneliness and alienation which was a hallmark of the period.
8. Under the Bridge by The Red Hot Chili Peppers (1991): Critics have dubbed “Under the Bridge” a seminal recording. It recounts Anthony Kiedis’ own inner demons and struggles with addiction. As a result, listeners related to the song on many different levels. A person did not have to suffer from substance abuse to understand loneliness.
9. Bittersweet Symphony by The Verve (1998): Verve frontman Richard Ashcroft wrote a cynical critique of modern life. “Bittersweet Symphony” states that “you’re a slave to the money and then you die.” Many people felt the same way. This line of thought led to questions about work-life balance. Meanwhile, this might be the greatest song to come from the Britpop Era.
10. Enter Sandman by Metallica (1991): “Enter Sandman” is one of the most recognizable and iconic works ever recorded. It is a nightmare of psychosomatic proportions, turns childhood into a horror show, and includes the greatest riff of the period. No wonder Mariano Rivera used it for his entrance music at Yankee games.
Nirvana combined The Sex Pistols with The Beatles and tapped into the zeitgeist. Kurt Cobain's suicide in 1994 left a major void in music.
R.E.M. became unlikely superstars in 1991. The band had built a loyal following over the previous decade and then exploded. "Losing My Religion" announced the end of the 1980s.
U2 has been the world's biggest band more than once. The so-called "band of the eighties" peaked a second time in the early nineties when they changed their sound. They reverted to form in 2000 and peaked a third time.
Dre might be the most talented hip hop artist to ever breathe. He changed the game with The Chronic and introduced the world to Snoop Dog. Later, he worked with Eminem.
Eddie Vedder (pictured) and Pearl Jam just wanted to eat when they broke. The band's success coupled with other fresh acts helped change the landscape. Unlike most of their contemporaries, Pearl Jam managed to remain together for the long run.
Radiohead might be the most respected band of all time. They march to their own drum and refuse to be dragged into the mainstream. The band does its own thing. When "Creep" became a smash hit, they refused to play it because they wanted people to hear their other work.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers
Like Pearl Jam, The Red Hot Chili Peppers managed to remain together for over two decades. They burst into the mainstream with "Under the Bridge" in 1991. The song struck a chord with audiences looking for honesty and something to relate to.
The Rolling Stones sued The Verve over a sample in "Bittersweet Symphony." The Stones lawyers secured songwriting credit for Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. In a sense, The Verve's success became bittersweet.
Metallica rose through the metal underground, scored a hit with "One" in the late eighties, and became superstars in that key year 1991. "Enter Sandman" still receives extensive radio play to this day.