The Student Playlist

Showcasing the Best New Music, Curating the Classics

The Top 200 Tracks of the 1990s

  1. Saint Etienne – ‘Hobart Paving’ (1993) (Heavenly)

As experienced auteurs of smart, sophisticated pop, Saint Etienne were responsible for countless great singles in the Nineties – far too many to squeeze fairly into this list – but their softer, emotional side often goes unrecognised in the shade of their dancefloor fillers. ‘Hobart Paving’, the final cut from their exceptional 1993 album So Tough, is a torch ballad of peerless, minimalist beauty in their catalogue, with Sarah Cracknell’s cooing vocals taking centre stage as sepia-tinged surrealist imagery (“rain falls like Elvis’ tears”) flicks past like scenes from some European art-house movie. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Avenue’

  1. The Source ft. Candi Staton – ‘You Got The Love’ (1991) (Positiva)

One of the best known house songs in existence had a long and convoluted journey to its global fame. Originally an a-capella gospel track penned by Candi Station in 1986 for a low-key TV documentary, the lung-busting vocals were spliced with an instrumental of Frankie Knuckles’ immortal house track ‘Your Love’ by European DJ Eren Abdullah. This bootleg was re-mastered, released and credited to The Source, and became a global hit (and not for the first time). Staton’s uplifting, spiritual performance acted as a multiplying factor for the effect of both tracks, and a Nineties classic was born. (LISTEN) Also try: Corona – ‘The Rhythm Of The Night’

  1. Cornershop – ‘Brimful Of Asha (Norman Cook remix)’ (1998) (Skint / Wiija)

Norman Cook may have had fantastic success under his Fatboy Slim moniker at the end of the decade, but no track better exemplifies his trashy aesthetic than this hit-making remix. Taking a minor hit from British-Asian duo Cornershop about film culture in India and speeding it up, making Tjinder Singh’s vocal into something weirdly androgynous, and underlaying the track with a splashy big-beat chassis, ‘Brimful Of Asha’ became a global success story and an immortal dance classic, as well as selling 600,000 copies in Britain. (LISTEN) Also try: Fatboy Slim – ‘The Rockafeller Skank’

  1. Beck – ‘Loser’ (1993) (Bong Load Custom / DGC)

Along with ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and ‘Creep’, Beck’s breakout hit completes a kind of holy trinity of stereotypically slacker songs that typified the public’s perception of Generation X. With its gently loping beats, distinctive slide-guitar hook and the onslaught of surrealistic lyrics, ‘Loser’ absolutely nailed the uselessness of a generation of disaffected kids eclipsed by the baby boomers. It could have become an albatross for Beck, but his delivery plainly showed he was playing it for laughs and, in any case, his musical genius was undeniable as he followed it up with the astonishing Odelay album. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘The New Pollution’

  1. Blur – ‘Tender’ (1999) (Food)

One of the greatest soundtracks to the healing after the heartbreak, ‘Tender’ was inspired by Damon Albarn’s break-up from his long-time girlfriend (Elastica’s Justine Frischmann) but also reflective of Blur’s burgeoning interest in a much wider range of music that happened post-Britpop. Characterised by soft edges and midnight ambience, ‘Tender’ blossomed from the quietest of beginnings to the widest of musical soundscapes, with haunting gospel choirs and aching blues guitar the order of the day. Graham Coxon’s “oh my baby” refrain was added at the last minute, and wrapped the whole package up with a bow. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘The Universal’

  1. Outkast – ‘Spottieottiedopaliscious’ (1998) (LaFace)

By the time of their third album Aquemini, Big Boi and Andre 3000 were seriously earning their stripes as hip-hop’s prime boundary-pushers in the Nineties. That album’s seven-minute centrepiece ‘Spottieottiedopaliscious’ shows just how far ahead of the field they were. Producers Organized Noize strike up a stoned, voodoo-esque atmosphere of wah-wah guitars and percolating drumbeats as a doe-eyed, love-struck Andre 3000 meets a girl at a club, while Big Boi casts a cynical eye over his bandmate’s attitude. The result was something incredibly ambitious for its time, and something that some hip-hop artists are still catching up with in 2018. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Rosa Parks’

  1. Super Furry Animals – ‘Ice Hockey Hair’ (1998) (Creation)

No song better encapsulates the self-contained universe of the Super Furry Animals – musical diversity, wit, ideas and charisma – than 1998’s stand-alone single ‘Ice Hockey Hair’. Arriving directly between their twin LP masterpieces Radiator and Guerrilla, it was conceived as a love-letter to every “cheesy” musical guilty pleasure the band remembered about their childhoods. While it boasted a surging, fuzz-toned chorus that fell somewhere between ‘70s power balladry and ‘80s indie, its genius is never to lapse into parody or even tribute, subtly reinventing its principles for the modern age. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Smokin’’

  1. Erykah Badu – ‘On & On’ (1996) (Kedar / Universal / MCA)

Almost single-handedly inventing the neo-soul movement, the sultry, blissed-out vibes of ‘On & On’ are a one-track short-hand for Erykah Badu’s entire aesthetic – though it shouldn’t eclipse its highly enjoyable parent album Baduizm. Furthermore, it achieved substantial success while standing in contrast to how the major labels tended to treat black female stars in the Nineties. Compared to Whitney or Mariah’s octave-scaling, her vocals were calm and restful; the track itself consisted of little more than a microphone, three backing singers and a click-track. In the video, Badu is portrayed as genuinely beautiful, rather than as an airbrushed R&B fox. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Next Lifetime’

  1. Primal Scream – ‘Higher Than The Sun’ (1991) (Creation)

The likes of ‘Come Together’ and ‘Loaded’ may have captured the essence of acid house’s ‘60s/’90s hybrid, but their 1991 masterpiece Screamadelica was about looking forwards as well as defining the present. Teaming up with The Orb’s Alex Paterson on production, the cosmic ‘Higher Than The Sun’ was a lysergically-enhanced waking dream of thunderous dub, woozy drum breaks and acid-washed sound effects. Thus, it pointed the way towards trip-hop, post-rock and chill-out music that would evolved as the Nineties unfolded. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Movin’ On Up’

  1. Massive Attack – ‘Safe From Harm’ (1991) (Virgin)

Although ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ rightly steals the spotlight on Massive Attack’s groundbreaking debut album Blue Lines, their subsequent single (and the album’s opener) ‘Safe From Harm’ runs it extraordinarily close in pretty much the same stakes. An admission of intense vulnerability blown up to the biggest of widescreen dimensions, set to rolling, down-tempo beats and shimmering production, it’s one of the most humanistic artistic statements that the Nineties had to offer. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Five Man Army’

  1. Goldie – ‘Inner City Life’ (1994) (FFRR)

British producer Goldie was at the forefront of the evolution of the underground-based jungle genre as it became the more commercially palatable drum’n’bass, and the transcendental ‘Inner City Life’ was a seven-minute encapsulation of that paradigm shift, as well as his signature song. Yearning for spiritual and physical sanctuary from the grinding pressures of urban life, the addition of the soaring soul vocals of Diane Charlemagne and some gorgeous jazz instrumentation to the concrete-hard rhythmical elements gave it an almost orchestral depth. (LISTEN) Also try: Underworld – ‘Dark & Long (Dark Train)’

  1. Belle & Sebastian – ‘The State I Am In’ (1996) (Electric Honey)

The opening track from the underground sensation that was Belle & Sebastian’s debut Tigermilk, ‘The State I Am In’ represents Stuart Murdoch establishing the nervous, wrapped-up-in-books aesthetic that has defined his career ever since. Valorising shyness at the very point at which the machismo of Britpop was in full bombast, Murdoch is sketchy on details in this lo-fi chamber-pop beauty but is precise when it comes to emotion. Few songs about loneliness and rejection are as funny as this. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Lazy Line Painter Jane’

  1. Neutral Milk Hotel – ‘Holland, 1945’ (1998) (Merge / Domino)

This track is often seen as a convenient ‘public face’ for all the labyrinthine, bewildering themes of Jeff Mangum’s masterpiece In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, partly because its smoother production made it much more accessible than most of its parent album. On ‘Holland, 1945’, innocence is destroyed by unspeakable evil, but those innocents don’t lose their sense of wonder about the simple beauty of the everyday, as a buoyant, rising bed of fuzzy guitar chords and angelic horns raise it aloft. It’s the key track on one of the Nineties’ most definitive indie-rock albums, and its creator has never recorded another album in the subsequent two decades. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘The King Of Carrot Flowers pt.1’

  1. The Verve – ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’ (1997) (Hut)

While it unintentionally seemed to capture the sense of hysterical, mawkish sentimentality that gripped the British nation directly after Princess Diana’s death, ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’ remains a powerful and moving song. Richard Ashcroft wrote it about the death of his father from cancer, which happened when he was just 11, and the unique of imagery of lyrics like “a cat in a bag waiting to drown” reinforced the spine-tingling sadness of the beautiful production. Directly following another massive hit in ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’, it propelled The Verve into the realms of superstardom. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Sonnet’

  1. PJ Harvey – ‘Rid Of Me’ (1993) (Island)

Kicking off your major label debut with an excoriatingly loud and wincingly brutal revenge fantasy is a bold move that only few would dare to contemplate, but such things are what Polly Jean Harvey’s reputation is made from. The title track of her second record Rid Of Me benefits from Steve Albini’s sledgehammer, low-end production, which brings out all the power and nuance of the power-trio set-up and turns Harvey’s guitar into an animalising force of its own. The maelstrom of bluesy punk suddenly extinguishes itself at the end, leaving Harvey shrieking herself hoarse with a repeated refrain of “lick my legs / I’m on fire!”. Terrifying and memorable, it’s surely not possible to hate anyone as much as PJ hates the subject of ‘Rid Of Me’. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘50ft Queenie’

  1. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – ‘Red Right Hand’ (1994) (Mute)

Nick Cave has made a long career from menacing character portraits, but the entity lurking on the edge of town “past the square, past the bridge, past the mills, past the stacks” and manipulating the wills of men so that they’re “one microscopic cog in his catastrophic plan” on ‘Red Right Hand’ is his most terrifying and enduring creation. The apocalyptic, spaghetti-western backing conjured up by the Bad Seeds scores it through with the appropriate sense of impending doom. Only a minor hit at the time, it’s now widely popular after acting as the theme song for hit BBC series ‘Peaky Blinders’ and the Scream movie franchise. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Do You Love Me?’

  1. Guided By Voices – ‘Game Of Pricks’ (1995) (Matador)

GBV’s indefatigable leader Robert Pollard has literally got thousands of songs registered to his name, but no track better defines his aesthetic or contribution to Nineties indie than ‘Game Of Pricks’. At just over 90 seconds, it is an economical distillation of his love of British Invasion-era guitar-pop crossed with the sketchy, lo-fi sensibilities that made Guided By Voices such a vital force. Despite the tinny production and the hiss and echo of the four-track recorder on which it was made, ‘Game Of Pricks’ sounds utterly anthemic. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘I Am A Scientist’

  1. Stardust – ‘Music Sounds Better With You’ (1998) (Roulé)

Stardust was a one-off venture between Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter, fellow house DJ Alan Braxe and singer Benjamin Diamond, yet it yielded one of the decade’s most influential and memorable house tracks. Even more remarkable, considering that not that much happens: there’s no verse/chorus split (in fact, just two couplets), no real intro, in fact nothing more complicated than a simple loop of the bass and guitar-lick from the intro of Chaka Khan’s ‘Fate’… but its construction and beautiful disco filters made ‘Music Sounds Better With You’ one of the most sublime and irresistible dance singles ever, and a stunning worldwide success. (LISTEN) Also try: Together – ‘Together’

  1. Slint – ‘Breadcrumb Trail’ (1991) (Touch And Go)

Although they didn’t stick around to enjoy it, Slint’s second and final album Spiderland helped re-draw the boundaries of guitar music as it evolved in the Nineties, re-imagining rock music along more cerebral and angular lines and removing its traditional saviour complex. Opening track ‘Breadcrumb Trail’ best encapsulates its unnerving, predatory rhythms, creeping guitar lines, scary frequencies and blood-chilling midnight ambience. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Good Morning, Captain’

  1. R.E.M. – ‘Everybody Hurts’ (1992) (Warner Bros.)

Although it has since become hideously overplayed, R.E.M.’s most famous song remains interesting in the context of their illustrious career as it is one of their most uncharacteristic. Always compassionate but normally cryptic and reserved as a lyricist and singer, Michael Stipe is disarmingly direct on ‘Everybody Hurts’, urging the listener to find solace for anxieties in the simple comforts of friendship. The music itself is still utterly spectral when listened to in the context of Automatic For The People, with Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones also providing a beautiful orchestral accompaniment to Peter Buck’s distinctive arpeggiated riff. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Nightswimming’

  1. Saint Etienne – ‘Nothing Can Stop Us’ (1991) (Heavenly)

The first Saint Etienne single with Sarah Cracknell as lead vocalist, ‘Nothing Can Stop Us’ was the perfect encapsulation of the group’s cut-and-paste, style-collision aesthetic from their debut LP Foxbase Alpha, incorporating their love of 1960s pop and refracting it through the lens of contemporary club and dance culture. Based on a looped sample of Dusty Springfield’s ‘I Can’t Wait Until I See My Baby’s Face’, the trumpet and flute flourishes on top of Cracknell’s cooing, confident vocals make this a truly special moment in a wonderful discography. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘He’s On The Phone’

  1. The Orb – ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’ (1990) (Big Life)

The first ever ‘ambient house’ hit single, ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’ seems for all the world like a novelty song when you first hear it. But then again, many beautiful things are created by accident. Dreamt up by former punks Alex Paterson and Jimmy Cauty (later of pop anarchists The KLF), there’s a playful beauty to the dreamy babble of Rickie Lee Jones’ answer to an interview question about cloud formations she remembered when she was little (“purple, red and on fire”), but the comfortable dub bassline and skipping beat prevents it from ever seeming twee. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Oxbow Lakes’

  1. Björk – ‘Bachelorette’ (1997) (One Little Indian)

The superstardom that followed the success of Post had not suited Björk well at all, and she retreated from the chaos of London to the peacefulness of her native Iceland to concoct her career masterpiece. Powered by Michel Gondry’s surrealistic, award-winning video, Homogenic’s second single ‘Bachelorette’ represented her move away from dance music and into more avant-garde territory. The creeping tick and thump of the Kraftwerk-esque beat, combined with a dramatic piano hook and sumptuous string embellishments made it the most immediate and forceful moment on a futuristic masterpiece. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Jóga’

  1. Oasis – ‘Wonderwall’ (1995) (Creation)

Written for Noel’s girlfriend Meg Matthews but sung by his brother Liam, ‘Wonderwall’ is simply one of those deathless pop songs, and was such a ubiquitous presence in British consciousness throughout the winter of 1995 that it became an alternative national anthem. Noel’s crystalline acoustic guitar, and its stripped-down music video, are some of the defining sounds and sights of Britpop. Astonishingly, it failed to reach #1 in the UK, kept off the summit by the obnoxious Robson & Jerome – although the Mike Flowers Pops easy-listening cover version did. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Talk Tonight’

  1. Ash – ‘Kung Fu’ (1995) (Infectious)

Name-checking comic characters, Ramones songs and martial arts movie characters that hinted at the trio’s nerdy teenage years and with artwork featuring charismatic bad-boy footballer Eric Cantona, ‘Kung Fu’ condensed everything that was brilliant about Ash into 2 minutes and 17 seconds of magic. A piece of fizzing pop-punk and moshpit energy that also found time for an amazing breakdown before its final chorus, this was a precociously young band with a masterful grasp of their genre. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Jack Names The Planets’

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