The Student Playlist

Showcasing the Best New Music, Curating the Classics

The Top 200 Tracks of the 1990s

  1. Daft Punk – ‘Around The World’ (1997) (Virgin)

The second of two all-time classic cuts from their industry-changing debut album Homework, Guy-Manuel de Homem Christo and Thomas Bangalter said that ‘Around The World’ was the result of trying to make “a Chic record with a talk box”. It’s a minimalist post-disco boogie, a re-imagining of the 1970s for the 1990s hewn from massive, choppy beats and rumbling bass that, despite its utter simplicity, still sounds remarkably fresh and unfuckwithable in the 2010s. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Burnin’’

  1. Alanis Morissette – ‘You Oughta Know’ (1995) (Maverick / Reprise)

Sure, ‘Ironic’ and ‘Hand In My Pocket’ are the megahits that still crop up on soundtracks and TV shows more than two decades later, but no one song better defined Alanis Morissette’s massive breakout album Jagged Little Pill better than this. About release as well as revenge against a cheating ex, ‘You Oughta Know’ was confessional, but also confrontational and utterly unapologetic, a subtle revolution on the meek/mild female singer-songwriter template that had held sway until the mid-Nineties. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Ironic’

  1. Massive Attack – ‘Teardrop’ (1998) (Virgin)

Set to a muted, heartbeat thump of a rhythm and a warm, womblike intimacy, Massive Attack shook off the acrimonious departure of Andrew Vowles and entered the second phase of their career with one of their biggest most recognisable hits. Former Cocteau Twins singer Liz Fraser lent her ethereal, almost wordless vocals to the already devotional mix to make ‘Teardrop’ one of the most intoxicating productions of the Nineties – much copied, rarely equalled. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Angel’

  1. The Notorious B.I.G. – ‘Juicy’ (1994) (Bad Boy / Arista)

A masterclass in rap self-mythologising as Biggy spins a classic rags-to-riches tale that avoids all of the obvious pitfalls. The detail is in ‘Juicy’s sparkling minutiae, detailing his childhood spent in grinding poverty in New York, his young dreams of rap stardom, his influences, his drug-dealing past and his eventual ascent to fame. Set to a big, bold and profoundly pop hook taken from a disputed sample of Mtume’s ‘Juicy Fruit’, it made the listener root for the song’s narrator. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Big Poppa’

  1. Teenage Fanclub – ‘The Concept’ (1991) (Creation)

Trying to pick just one track to encapsulate the sugar-rush retro-pop glory of the Fannies’ finest hour Bandwagonesque seems like an exercise in foolhardiness, but its opening salvo ‘The Concept’ perfectly demonstrates everything that the group stood for. A timeless and poignant tale of a scenester girl set to a clean, Big Star-esque production, it changes into a gracefully arcing, slow-motion instrumental halfway through. Norman Blake, Raymond McGinley and Gerard Love’s underlying classicism and fondness for gregarious and sincere power-pop stood out like a sore thumb in 1991, but it won admiration from none other than a certain K. Cobain. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘What You Do To Me’

  1. Pulp – ‘Disco 2000’ (1995) (Island)

The second stone-cold classic single from the group’s career-defining Different Class, ‘Disco 2000’ incontrovertibly secured Pulp as one of Britain’s greatest bands at the commercial heights of Britpop in 1995. The ‘Deborah’ of the song was a real childhood friend of Cocker’s, who moved from Sheffield to Letchworth when she was 10 and became a mental health nurse and OBE recipient. An immortal indie dancefloor-filler to this day, the group (very wisely, or else it would have become insufferable) decided to remove all licensing rights for adverts for the years 1999 and 2000 as the millennium approached. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Babies’

  1. Le Tigre – ‘Deceptacon’ (1999) (Mr. Lady)

A classic example of Kathleen Hanna’s enduring knack for making political songs sound fun, ‘Deceptacon’ questions the decline of meaningful lyrics in pop and sees its author bemoaning the commodification of riot-grrrl principles (which she herself had helped to forge with Bikini Kill) and their co-option by mass-marketed avatars like the Spice Girls. Plus, it’s an absolutely amazing party track, part post-punk rave-up and part playground chant, which was popularised the following decade via its use on several film soundtracks and online videos of its ‘aerobicon’ choreography. (LISTEN) Also try: Kathleen Hanna – ‘The Punk Singer’

  1. Nine Inch Nails – ‘Closer’ (1994) (Nothing / Interscope / Atlantic)

The king of unnerving meditations on self-loathing, NIN’s arch-genius Trent Reznor cold-bloodedly analyses his own obsessions on ‘Closer’, in a way that he’s been consistently brilliant at over nearly three decades. Here, his words fit nearly like a cog into the wider machine of ‘Closer’ itself, an icy, mechanical and detached masterpiece that introduces elements of slowed-down techno and warped, stilted funk into an industrial and electronic context, with hissing and thumping drums rubbing up against haunted, humming noises. As a result, ‘Closer’ is deliciously yet horrifyingly seductive. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Hurt’

  1. Nirvana – ‘Come As You Are’ (1991) (DGC)

An exceptional track that has always dwelled slightly in the shadow of its immediate predecessor ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, ‘Come As You Are’ had the unenviable task of being the second single from the pop watershed that was Nevermind. However, it turned out to be Nirvana’s second total classic in a row, and ensured that the album quickly reached the status of cultural phenomenon. Kurt Cobain’s cold, atmospheric guitar riff sends a shiver up the spine even after hundreds of listens, heralding a moodier and more subdued moment that displays Nirvana at their fullest emotional range. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘In Bloom’

  1. Ash – ‘Girl From Mars’ (1995) (Infectious)

Released at the height of summer in 1995, ‘Girl From Mars’ saw Ash perform on Top of the Pops just a few weeks after they had finished their A-levels. A stunning piece of pop perfection with an acoustic intro and a brilliant false ending, and its buzz-saw guitars evoking endless summers and teenage romances, it shows what a dynamic songwriter Tim Wheeler was, even at the precocious age of 16 when he penned it. ‘Girl From Mars’ proved to be their passport to chart success, as a slew of excellent singles followed it from their excellent 1977 debut album, and it remains Ash’s signature song. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Angel Interceptor’

  1. Future Sound Of London – ‘Papua New Guinea’ (1991) (Jumpin’ & Pumpin’)

Manchester duo FSOL helped expand the boundaries of electronica at the start of the Nineties, pushing clubbers off the dancefloor and into the blue room with ‘Papua New Guinea’, thus proving to naysayers that rave culture was capable of producing emotionally moving pieces. A proto-chill-out breakbeat groove based on the wordless incantation of a Lisa Gerrard vocal sample, a striking lone piano figure and panoply of studio effects made for an intoxicating, blissful but irresistibly rhythmic track. (LISTEN) Also try: Moby – ‘Go’

  1. Björk – ‘Army Of Me’ (1995) (One Little Indian)

Recorded just after the disintegration of Björk’s former band The Sugarcubes in 1992, the dark, brash and barnstorming ‘Army Of Me’ was kept off of her “polite, shy” Debut and saved up as the opening salvo for the altogether more complex Post, in which it made a lot more sense. The strident, ominous beat and tightly rolling synths were forged with 808 State’s Graham Massey as the Icelandic star hissed a call to self-sufficiency and self-confidence. The first of six extraordinary singles to come from Post (it was so hard to exclude the magnificent ‘Hyperballad’ from this list!), ‘Army Of Me’ is the true origin story of the Björk we know today. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Hyperballad’

  1. Blur – ‘This Is A Low’ (1994) (Food)

Blur’s rapid ascent to superstardom with their third album Parklife may have attracted some ignorant derision for the ‘mockney-cockney’isms of chant-along tracks like ‘Girls & Boys’ and ‘Parklife’, but any cursory inspection of the album showed there was something much more substantial going on. Located near the end of it was ‘This Is A Low’, a mournful and quintessentially English show-stopper which evoked national decline with lyrics based on the Shipping Forecast, as if Damon Albarn were looking at the entirety of the British Isles all at the same time. Washed-out winter weekends never sounded so beautiful. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘End Of A Century’

  1. Lauryn Hill – ‘Doo Wop (That Thing)’ (1998) (Ruffhouse / Columbia)

Having found global success with the Fugees just two years previously, Lauryn Hill broke free and made herself into a megastar with her debut solo album The Miseducation Of… Set to plinking pianos, soulful horns and a breezy groove, the flexibility and virtuosity of Hill’s vocal performance on ‘Doo Wop (That Thing)’ is spellbinding, effortlessly flitting between a classic, crooning diva and a b-girl rapper. Staying in the charts seemingly forever and scooping TWO Grammys, it was a track that truly defined Hill’s career. Two decades on, she’s still not finished a follow-up. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Ex-Factor’

  1. Smog – ‘Teenage Spaceship’ (1999) (Drag City / Domino)

Throughout his lengthy career, Bill Callahan has been a zen master of economy and understatement. While his lyrics are often extremely literal, his deadpan drawl always hints at something deeper. ‘Teenage Spaceship’, a simple ballad of loneliness and yearning from 1999’s Knock Knock, is the absolute pinnacle of his unique style. With only a simple acoustic riff, the track is buoyed and lent its warmth by a similarly bare piano figure, yet the result is spellbinding, with lyrics like “I was beautiful / with all my lights” perfectly evincing the pains of adolescence. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Cold Blooded Old Times’

  1. Leftfield ft. John Lydon – ‘Open Up’ (1993) (Hard Hands)

Fusing punk-rock fury with cutting-edge electronica, an ageing John Lydon regained his vitality in teaming up with production duo Leftfield for this incandescent floor-filler. ‘Open Up’ was an absolute beast, recalling Lydon’s groundbreaking work with Public Image Ltd. nearly 15 years previously. He came on like some kind of possessed witch doctor, chanting his revenge-fantasy lyrics (“burn, Hollywood burn / take down Tinseltown”) which meshed brilliantly with Neil Barnes and Paul Daley’s skull-crushing house concoctions. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Original’

  1. Orbital – ‘Chime’ (1990) (FFRR)

The track that laid the foundation for the Hartnoll brothers’ outstanding career in techno, ‘Chime’ is possibly the represents the single greatest return-on-investment in pop history. Allegedly originally recorded to tape and costing less than £2.50 to produce, the sublime melodic nous, staccato refractions and interlocking beats of Orbital’s debut single had applicability both on and off the dancefloor, and helped make rave music socially acceptable after the Second Summer of Love and a barrage of idiotic tabloid scaremongering. Their most famous track by a country mile, ‘Chime’ has been their iconic set-closer ever since. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Belfast’

  1. Jurassic 5 – ‘Concrete Schoolyard’ (1997) (Rumble / Interscope)

At a time when rap seemed to be engaged in an arms race of machismo, bling and lyrical gangbanging, alternative hip-hoppers Jurassic 5 took the genre back to its roots in a timely fashion. With laconic, line-swapping lyrics like “no playground tactics / no rabbit in a hat tricks” and giving off a vibe like they were simply hanging out and having fun, ‘Concrete Schoolyard’ was old-skool innocence through and through, recalling the so-called golden age of hip-hop, reliant on MCs, DJs and simple grooves. (LISTEN) Also try: De La Soul – ‘A Roller Skating Jam Named “Saturdays”’

  1. Blur – ‘Girls & Boys’ (1994) (Food)

Marking the precise point at which true celebrity struck, ‘Girls & Boys’ was the hugely well-deserved reward for all of Blur’s hard work the previous two years. Built on a bendy Alex James bassline, a robotic Graham Coxon riff and a happy-clappy synthesiser motif, Damon Albarn’s lyrics were a misunderstood satire on the behaviour of young Brits abroad that many assumed it was celebrating. ‘Girls & Boys’ was a joyous moment of exuberance, and was the first single from Parklife, which went on to sell over a million copies and helped define the Britpop zeitgeist. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Parklife’

  1. Pavement – ‘Summer Babe’ (1991) (Drag City)

Pavement are indispensable in understanding the evolution of the musical lexicon of Nineties indie, moving it away from the earnestness of ‘80s college rock to the post-modern, eclectic approach that many would adopt in the ensuing decade. Seeing Stephen Malkmus flitting between sincerity and irony, ‘Summer Babe’, their final single for Drag City before they made the step up to heavyweight indie Matador, utterly personifies the slapdash charm that made Slanted And Enchanted such a wellspring of inspiration for so many dozens of other Nineties art-rock acts. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Trigger Cut’

  1. Warren G ft. Nate Dogg – ‘Regulate’ (1994) (Def Jam / Death Row / Interscope)

Sampling heavily from Michael McDonald’s chilled ‘I Keep Forgettin’’ and featuring a half-sung, half-rapped surrealist story about fighting guys and chasing girls, ‘Regulate’ became a stone-cold G-funk classic in no time at all over the summer of 1994. Originally featuring on the Above The Rim and later Warren G’s solo debut, it managed to get nominated at the Grammys and MTV Movie Awards and made superstars out of both him and collaborator Nate Dogg. (LISTEN) Also try: Ice Cube – ‘Bop Gun’

  1. Underworld – ‘Cowgirl’ (1994) (Junior Boy’s Own)

The jewel in the crown of Underworld’s genre-defining dubnobasswithmyheadman, ‘Cowgirl’ straddled the gap between worlds and audiences. After acid house had climaxed, Karl Hyde, Rick Smith and Darren Emerson had the vision and nous to make emotionally engaging and complex techno that made sense at home as well as on the dancefloor. Here, Hyde’s delightfully nonsensical lyrics play off beautifully against an undulating and restrained performance by his bandmates on the production desk. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Rez’

  1. Brandy & Monica – ‘The Boy Is Mine’ (1998) (Atlantic)

Flipping the gender perspective of Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney’s 1982 hit ‘The Girl Is Mine’ and setting up a rivalry between two female singers that the media seized upon in a feeding frenzy, ‘The Boy Is Mine’ became the biggest-selling single of the year in the States. The love-triangle dynamics were inspired by watching Jerry Springer, with Brandy’s rival Monica roped in producer by Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins at the last minute to set up the song’s intense dynamics. (LISTEN) Also try: Christina Aguilera – ‘Genie In A Bottle’

  1. Radiohead – ‘No Surprises’ (1997) (Parlophone)

A moment of almost eerie restfulness amid the frenzied anxiety of its parent album OK Computer, ‘No Surprises’ was the album’s final single. The tension is brought forth through the juxtaposition between Thom Yorke’s vague and unsettling lyrics (“a heart that’s full up like a landfill / a job that slowly kills you”) and the serene gentleness of the chiming glockenspiel melody that could have come straight off of Pet Sounds. Combined with an inexplicably moving video directed by Grant Gee, it made for one of Radiohead’s most distinctive hits. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’

  1. Pulp – ‘This Is Hardcore’ (1998) (Island)

As Different Class and ‘Common People’ chronicled the heights of the Britpop party, so its follow-up This Is Hardcore and its morbid title track soundtracked the self-loathing of its hangover. A seedy, funereal dirge about an amateur porn auteur, this was the sound of Pulp committing commercial suicide in the most entertaining way possible. A woozy, narcoleptic brass fanfare is cast against an orchestral swell that gets louder as its protagonist grows more desperate, ‘This Is Hardcore’ is shrouded in an Ingmar Bergman-esque cinematic noir that shows how much pride Jarvis Cocker and co. had in their work. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Party Hard’

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.