The Student Playlist

Showcasing the Best New Music, Curating the Classics

The Top 200 Tracks of the 1990s

  1. The Chemical Brothers – ‘The Private Psychedelic Reel’ (1997) (Virgin)

The piece-de-resistance that closed the Chemical Brothers’ era-defining second album Dig Your Own Hole, ‘The Private Psychedelic Reel’ is one of the most outrageously forgotten tracks from the whole of the Britpop era. Indeed, it represents everything that Britpop should have been – fearless, futuristic invention assembled from elements of pop history. A nine-minute epic of cosmic big-beat, made in conjunction with Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donohue, with a nagging sitar line stringing it together amid the howling, swooping and disorientating effects. Magical. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘The Sunshine Underground’

  1. TLC – ‘Waterfalls’ (1994) (La Face / Arista)

A wise and melancholic track that portrayed the formerly sassy TLC in a new and mature light, ‘Waterfalls’ was the final single from CrazySexyCool, and bore an empowering message warning about the destructive temptations offered to youths by crime and sexual promiscuity. That theme was reinforced by F. Gary Gray’s mini-epic video and featured future star Cee-Lo Green on backing vocals, but the icing on the cake came in the form of Lisa ‘Left-Eye’ Lopes’s spotlight-stealing rap, both remorseful but hopeful and coloured by her own chaotic experiences. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘No Scrubs’

  1. Elliott Smith – ‘Waltz #2 (XO)’ (1998) (DreamWorks)

Having recorded a trio of spectral, lo-fi albums in quick succession, the shy, retiring cult figure of Elliott Smith was unexpectedly thrust into the spotlight in 1997 when his song ‘Miss Misery’ was nominated for an Oscar, winning a major label deal as a result. With wry yet unflinching lyrics analysing his perceived inability to make romantic connections, the graceful ‘Waltz #2 (XO)’ exemplified his ability to make the most of the expanded musical opportunities that deal afforded him, yet still retain the disarmingly personal touch his fanbase loved him for. It’s arguably the single most accomplished musical achievement of his tragically all-too-brief career. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Between The Bars’

  1. The Beta Band – ‘Dry The Rain’ (1997) (Regal)

Off the back of their first three EPs, The Beta Band put themselves in the vanguard of a new, more ambitious strain of guitar-based music as Britpop was dying out in the late Nineties. ‘Dry The Rain’, the lead-off track from their debut release Champion Versions, is a perfect illustration of that early promise. Beginning with a stoned, shuffling acoustic intro, in which Steve Mason sings like he has a really bad hangover, horns and drums rush in with the second half, and the effect is like the sun coming out from behind storm-clouds. Low-key, for sure, but utterly triumphant. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘She’s The One’

  1. The Lemonheads – ‘My Drug Buddy’ (1992) (Atlantic)

The Lemonheads’ brief goldrush period in the early Nineties spawned so many mini-masterpieces that it was almost unfair on their competitors. Slowing things down for a loping, countrified torch ballad, with a puppyish performance from their magnetic but volatile leader Evan Dando who analyses his own problems with drugs in such a disarming and arguably naïve way that you just want to hide him away from the cruel outside world, and complimented by Juliana Hatfield’s sweet backing vocals, ‘My Drug Buddy’ was their career highlight. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Big Gay Heart’

  1. My Bloody Valentine – ‘To Here Knows When’ (1991) (Creation)

Initially released on the Tremolo EP but an integral part of Kevin Shields’ eventual sonic masterpiece Loveless, ‘To Here Knows When’ is in some ways the archetypal My Bloody Valentine track. Bilinda Butcher’s vocals are masked to the point where they’re virtually unintelligible, but this just heightens the sensual thrill of the throbbing, miasmic fog of sound in which it was embedded, like it was functioning simply as another instrument. With its eternally amazing percussive loop that underpins its breathy roar, the listener is left disorientated, suspended in zero gravity, but also rendered suggestive to every microscopic detail. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Only Shallow’

  1. PJ Harvey – ‘Sheela-Na-Gig’ (1992)

The prime cut from her confrontational debut album Dry, ‘Sheela-Na-Gig’ set out Polly Jean Harvey’s manifesto in three minutes of alluring, helter-skeltering blues-punk. With a title referencing ancient iconography (Sheela na gigs are Celtic carvings of women with exaggerated vulvas) and skewering male-made fantasies of feminine submissiveness (“look at these my child-bearing hips / look at these ruby-red lips”) with an incredible vocal performance, half-alluring and half-taunting, Harvey immediately differentiated herself from the British guitar music scene during its the creative dead-zone of 1992. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Dress’

  1. Manic Street Preachers – ‘Faster’ (1994) (Columbia)

Richey Edwards’ great song of self-justification, the single track that encapsulates his mythology more than any other and sees him at the peak of his powers as a lyricist, ‘Faster’ could not possibly have stood out more from the prevailing trends of Britpop in 1994. An asphyxiating, urgent rush of dark post-punk is matched by Edwards’ mile-a-minute lyrics, which singer James Dean Bradfield struggles to enunciate at times. Its performance on ‘Top of the Pops’, in which the band performed wearing para-military uniforms and balaclavas, also saw a record number of viewer complaints for the show. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Motown Junk’

  1. Oasis – ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ (1995) (Creation)

It’s easy to be sniffy about Oasis in hindsight, but nobody has been able to do closing-time anthems of brotherhood and self-confidence even half as good as them since. ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ is one of them, telescoping from personal memories (“Stand up beside the fireplace / take that look from off your face”, for example, is a reference to the Gallaghers’ mother telling Noel to smile when taking family photographs) to universal sentiment in the blink of an eye. At the time, Gallagher was accused of plagiarism of Beatles tracks, so the brazen lift of the opening piano chords from Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ was an outrageously cheeky middle-finger to his critics. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Champagne Supernova’

  1. Weezer – ‘Buddy Holly’ (1994) (DGC)

Weezer benefitted from the boom in so-called ‘alternative rock’ post-grunge, but did it while standing out from the rest of that flannel-shirted Seattle sound. Full of chugging, perky guitars and fuzzy power-pop chords, ‘Buddy Holly’ was Weezer’s mainstream breakthrough single and remains their somewhat reluctant calling card (singer Rivers Cuomo was highly sceptical about even recording it), and typified the nerdy, self-effacing and downright charming approach that made the band and their 1994 debut album such a brilliant time-piece. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Say It Ain’t So’

  1. Radiohead – ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ (1995) (Parlophone)

A firm fan favourite for ages, as its performance at last year’s Glastonbury headline set proved, ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ was a symbol of the musical progression that Radiohead had made in the three years since the potential career-albatross that was ‘Creep’. A stately and spectral masterclass in the build-up and release of tension, it was one of the key moments that made The Bends one of the most enduring sellers of 1995. In the long term, it also laid down a rudimentary template for the arena-filling indie that Coldplay, Snow Patrol et al began to operate with in the new millennium. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘High And Dry’

  1. Wu-Tang Clan – ‘C.R.E.A.M.’ (1993) (Loud Records)

In a decade when the commercial focus of hip-hop had headed out west, Wu-Tang Clan reminded everybody that the genre’s spirit still resided in New York’s streets and projects. Their gritty yet philosophical debut album Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) changed perceptions of what the ‘rap crew’ could be, nurturing various talents to the point that each could sustain individual careers. Hard, then, to pick just one cut, but ‘C.R.E.A.M.’ best portrays what Wu-Tang had to offer that differentiated from Dr. Dre’s G-funk. Although the refrain “cash rules everything around me / dollar dollar bill y’all” mimicked the materialism of West Coast’s more brainless practitioners, hustling was portrayed as a means of pure survival, not a route to prosperity. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Protect Ya Neck’

  1. The Prodigy – ‘Firestarter’ (1996) (XL / Maverick / Mute)

An amped-up take on the rave/rock/hip-hop fusion that had made 1994’s Music For The Jilted Generation such a credible cross-genre success, ‘Firestarter’ rocketed to the top of the British charts in early 1996. Built on brutal, careening beats and blaring, looped samples that sounded like howling sirens, frontman Keith Flint’s vocal performance is pure punk. The result was so incendiary that its grooves could barely contain it, sounding really loud even when the volume’s turned down, and it turned The Prodigy into international superstars when The Fat Of The Land was released a long 15 months later. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Breathe’

  1. Depeche Mode – ‘Enjoy The Silence’ (1990) (Mute)

Depeche Mode were such enthusiastic observers of pop trends that they were able to score their biggest hit nearly a decade into their career. ‘Enjoy The Silence’, along with its parent album Violator, briefly turned the Basildon-based trio into the biggest band in the world, winning the BRIT Award for Best Single the following year. Every musical element is panoramic, with the sweeping, low-key majesty of its chorus, and its construction is so beautiful and pristine that the lyrics seem purely secondary – suitable, considering they concern the inability of words to do justice to real emotion (“words are very unnecessary / they can only do harm”). (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Policy Of Truth’

  1. Aphex Twin – ‘Windowlicker’ (1999) (Warp)

For all his ground-breaking and idiosyncratic full-length albums, the uniquely British genius of Richard D. James is summed up best by the one-off single ‘Windowlicker’. It’s a sonic anomaly that doesn’t really fit with any other part of his labyrinthine Aphex Twin catalogue – but then again, that kind of seems like the whole point. Featuring a comparatively conventional melody of warm synthesisers and twisted backing vocals, which is then constantly undermined or swamped with slippery, modulated effects and time-shifting breaks, it shows how accessible he could be if he ever wanted. Propelled by a highly memorable and acutely weird video that became the stuff of late-night MTV legend, ‘Windowlicker’ notched up a freak UK Top 20 hit for James. (LISTEN) Also try: Squarepusher – ‘Come On My Selector’

  1. The Breeders – ‘Cannonball’ (1993) (4AD / Elektra)

The Breeders began life as an outlet for Pixies’ bassist Kim Deal to blow off creative steam, but very quickly she achieved much greater commercial recognition than her parent band ever did. Joined by her identical twin sister Kelley on guitar by the time of second album Last Splash, ‘Cannonball’ was a delightfully off-centre gem that provided a huge crossover moment and one of the decade’s finest indie hits. With its iconic, bendy bassline, its goofy, juddering surf-pop highs and anything-goes rhythms, it provided an immensely fun and apposite alternative to the dour, male-dominated outlook of most post-Nirvana grunge in the early Nineties. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Divine Hammer’

  1. Fugees – ‘Ready Or Not’ (1996) (Ruffhouse)

After an unconvincing attempt at mimicking gangsta-rap with their 1994 debut, it was second-time lucky for the Fugees with their sophomore effort The Score. Reaching the top of the British singles charts, its second single ‘Ready Or Not’ absolutely transcends its heavy Delfonics and Enya samples and teems with originality, and an eerie ambience that put it ahead of the vast majority of the hip-hop scene in 1996. All three Fugees are given time and space to showcase their talents, but the best bits belong to Lauryn Hill, who raps with considerable flow and also sings the choruses with a kind of steely-eyed tenderness. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Killing Me Softly With His Song’

  1. Bikini Kill – ‘Rebel Girl’ (1993) (Kill Rock Stars)

Indisputably Kathleen Hanna’s enduring anthem, ‘Rebel Girl’ is virtually synonymous with the wider riot-grrrl movement which her first band Bikini Kill spearheaded. With a theme and lyrics that subvert the traditional hetero tropes of pop (“that girl she holds her head up so high / I think I wanna be her best friend”) ‘Rebel Girl’ is political but, crucially, is also tremendous fun, with Hanna’s lusty vocals are pitched somewhere between a snarl and a wail. While it was never a ‘hit’, it remains one of the most vital rock tracks of the early Nineties. (LISTEN) Also try: L7 – ‘Pretend We’re Dead’

  1. Manic Street Preachers – ‘A Design For Life’ (1996) (Epic)

Following the disappearance of their talismanic lyricist Richey Edwards, few gave the Manics any chance of survival, let alone going on to achieve the greatest commercial success of their career. Quite simply, ‘A Design For Life’ is one of the most stirring comeback singles of all time, absolutely electrified with sturm-und-drang and shackled to a tune that anybody could hum along to. Its lyrics indicated working-class pride and dignity, in an authentic and non-patronising way that most contemporary Britpop bands were totally incapable of communicating (“libraries gave us power / then work came and made us free”). It hit no.2 in the UK, sold a quarter of a million copies, and the second chapter of the Manics’ career began. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Everything Must Go’

  1. A Tribe Called Quest – ‘Check The Rhime’ (1991) (Jive)

One of the last great singles of hip-hop’s deservedly mythologised golden age, A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘Check The Rhime’ very quickly seemed like ancient history after the gangsta-rap revolution overawed the scene. Its bare-bones construction of one guy spinning the tunes and a tag-team of MCs seemed quaint almost immediately, as little actually happens other than Q-Tip and Phife Dawg slinging principled, pacifistic lines like “if knowledge is the key then just show me the lock” back and forth over a jazzy, low-down beat and an Average White Band horn sample. But sometimes, the simplest deployments are the most effective, as ‘Check The Rhime’ smashed its way to the top of the American rap charts. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Jazz (We’ve Got)’

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