The Student Playlist

Showcasing the Best New Music, Curating the Classics

The Top 200 Tracks of the 1990s

  1. Portishead – ‘Sour Times’ (1994) (Go! Beat)

Proving that Portishead were always more chilling than chilled-out, ‘Sour Times’ provided the springboard for their Mercury Prize-winning debut album Dummy to vault into the mainstream. The whole thing seems to take place in some Cold War espionage film-noir, something aided by the jangling, goosebump-inducing sample from Lalo Schifrin’s ‘Danube Incident’ from his Mission: Impossible score. Beth Gibbons’ ghostly vocal is the very embodiment of the word ‘crestfallen’ as she wails “nobody loves me, it’s true / not like you do”. Foreboding, cinematic and totally spellbinding, ‘Sour Times’ is still Portishead’s defining moment. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Glory Box’

  1. Smashing Pumpkins – ‘1979’ (1995) (Virgin)

Lodged in the middle of Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, a sprawling double-album of hammering quasi-metal and symphonic, psychedelic pop-rock was this restrained, futuristic synth-rock gem that seemed to totally nail the ennui of the Pumpkins’ Gen-X fanbase, while also subverting expectations. On ‘1979’, Billy Corgan got to indulge his long-standing New Order fantasies in a paean to bored suburban youth in nameless nowhere-villes, and the waiting and yearning to escape therefrom. Coupled with a distinctive video, it became a gold-selling single and was nominated for Record of the Year at the Grammys. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Tonight, Tonight’

  1. Jeff Buckley – ‘Hallelujah’ (1994) (Columbia)

Jeff Buckley was not only a frighteningly talented original artist, but also a highly skilled interpreter of other people’s songs, and from disciplines outside his singer-songwriter oeuvre. No song better illustrates this than his rendition of ‘Hallelujah’, taking Leonard Cohen’s brooding, philosophical original and transforming it into something soaring and sensual, as well as a vehicle for his octave-vaulting voice. ‘Hallelujah’ might have become horribly omnipresent in the Noughties – seriously, nobody needs to hear it soundtracking another film or TV montage ever again – but in the Nineties it was still just a cult touchstone, just like Buckley himself. In the context of Grace, Buckley’s sole studio album before his death in 1997, ‘Hallelujah’ still retains its majestic power. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Lover, You Should’ve Come Over’

  1. Sugar – ‘Changes’ (1992) (Rykodisc / Creation)

Following the demise of the brilliant Hüsker Dü in the late Eighties, Bob Mould risked being one of the forgotten men of American indie. Forming Sugar with younger musicians and signing with the open-minded British indie Creation, Copper Blue was, by a distance, the biggest commercial success of Mould’s career, reinvigorating his sense of purpose and bringing him the public profile he so richly deserved. Maintaining the thick, buzz-saw punk guitars of the Hüskers and Mould’s typically slate-grey lyrics, but slowing down the tempo and emphasising sonorous, trebly melodies, ‘Changes’ was the phenomenal album’s lead single and prime cut. Breezy and relaxed with a tune that even Lennon and McCartney would have killed for, Mould almost sounds like he’s enjoying himself. Almost. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘If I Can’t Change Your Mind’

  1. Pavement – ‘Shady Lane’ (1997) (Matador / Domino)

On the surface of it, ‘Shady Lane’, the second single from Pavement’s fourth record Brighten The Corners that saw them tack in a more melodic and radio-friendly direction for the first time, isn’t particularly exceptional. Mellifluous, clear-toned guitars; shambling yet charming execution; skewed, word-association lyrics from Stephen Malkmus – all things that they had specialised in for half a decade by now. However, with repeated listens, the subtly clever construction underpinning ‘Shady Lane’ becomes absolutely indelible, with every note, every single second filled with an effortless joy that illustrates exactly why Pavement were the greatest American indie band of the Nineties. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Stereo’

  1. R.E.M. – ‘Losing My Religion’ (1991) (Warner Bros.)

Most groups have to compromise in order to achieve the worldwide, ubiquitous exposure that a track like ‘Losing My Religion’ can bring, but R.E.M. did it with their credibility not only intact, but boosted even further. With Peter Buck’s mandolin-driven line and desperate, introspective lyrics, ‘Losing My Religion’ was defiantly non-mainstream, and Warner Bros. had to be persuaded at length to release it as a single. And yet, its sheer catchiness camouflaged that deep ambiguity and it ushered in the second phase of R.E.M.’s career, one filled with hit singles, multi-platinum albums and stadium tours, as the song swept the board at the following year’s awards ceremonies. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Country Feedback’

  1. Suede – ‘The Drowners’ (1992) (Nude)

While all debates around British music in the Nineties centre on a ‘Blur vs Oasis’ dichotomy, it must never be forgotten that Suede started Britpop. End of argument. Even if they did so unintentionally. In 1992, the British charts were dominated by anonymous dance acts, anodyne post-shoegazers and scruffy Seattle complaint-rockers. Giving great interviews while coming across as androgynous, foppish rakes, Brett Anderson and Bernard Butler were the antidote. They had the music to back it up too: their debut single ‘The Drowners’, with its louche, tottering riffs and rhythms combined with Anderson’s superb, sexually ambiguous lyrics, was a seedy yet glamorous adrenaline shot to the heart that roused a generation of fans out of its collective coma. Suddenly, nothing else mattered. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘My Insatiable One’

  1. Spiritualized – ‘I Think I’m In Love’ (1997) (Dedicated)

One of the most sonically forward-thinking records of the Nineties, Spiritualized’s magnum opus Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space worked best when its twin emotional driving forces of beauty and heartbreak were slammed together in the same song. Album highlight and second single ‘I Think I’m In Love’ personified Jason Pierce’s divided psyche, as a call-and-response section between his confidence and his self-doubt is set up (“Think I’m the heart and soul / probably just snorting”). All set to the most amazing, hypnotic drone of throbbing bass, singing slide guitar and backing choirs imaginable. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space’

  1. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – ‘Moya’ (1999) (Constellation / Kranky)

Where their stunning debut LP F#A# Infinity had been a sombre and post-apocalyptic affair, constructed as much from field recordings as conventional instrumentation, Canadian collective Godspeed made the follow-up EP Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada more of a straightforward exercise in dynamics. Slowly rumbling to life like some long-dormant machine, its opening side ‘Moya’ gets as much atmospheric mileage out of the absence of noise as its presence. When the booming drums finally drop on the five-minute mark, it truly begins to unfurl and rise up to the heavens, growing louder and more fervent before accelerating for its bombastic final two minutes. Along with fellow ideologues like Mogwai, the genre we know as post-rock was born. (LISTEN) Also try: Mogwai – ‘Mogwai Fear Satan’

  1. DJ Shadow – ‘Midnight In A Perfect World’ (1996) (Mo’Wax)

A crate-digging vinyl enthusiast who deploys sound with an almost scientific care and precision, Josh Davis laid down an evolutionary milestone for hip-hop in 1996’s Endtroducing….., the first-ever album to be created entirely from samples. These found sounds were used not as a platform to create party-starters, as was the aim in most hip-hop sampling for the genre’s first two decades, but repurposed to create new art that was bigger and deeper than the sum of its parts. The cinematic ‘Midnight In A Perfect World’ showcases both sides of Shadow’s artistry, starting off all smoky and seductive as the warm organs and film-noir piano lure the listener in before becoming subtly more upbeat by dropping in skulking snares in its second half. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘What Does Your Soul Look Like? pt.1’

  1. The KLF – ‘Justified & Ancient (Stand By The JAMs)’ (1991) (KLF Communications)

The brainchild of pop guerrilla-warriors Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, The KLF aimed to subvert the music industry from within, and enjoyed huge success despite their short-lived career. ‘Justified & Ancient’, a track that they somehow persuaded Tammy Wynette (the self-styled ‘First Lady of Country’) to provide guest vocals for, worked absolutely brilliantly despite everything about it being a bit naff. Clanging alarm bells, flourishes of house strings and pummelling breakbeats belied its status as maybe the greatest novelty single of all time, standing up as a brilliant meta-commentary on the music industry they were side-eyeing at the time. It became an enormous international hit, but it proved to be their final single before they deleted their back catalogue and symbolically committed suicide at the 1992 BRIT Awards. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘3am Eternal’

  1. Blur – ‘For Tomorrow’ (1993) (Food)

Having scored a one-hit wonder at the arse-end of Madchester, Blur re-discovered fame the hard way. Enduring a miserable tour of America to save themselves from bankruptcy while helplessly watching the post-Nirvana scene shift away from them in front of their eyes, the band was drinking in the last-chance saloon when recording commenced on their sophomore album Modern Life Is Rubbish. Its lead single, whose melody came to Damon Albarn in a hungover haze on Christmas Day, marked the point of their gradual revival throughout 1993. Combining universal emotions with specific and detailed settings (Primrose Hill, the Westway) and reinforcing that theme with Julien Temple’s black-and-white video shot around London, ‘For Tomorrow’ was a jaunty, melodic and melancholic number that felt like a Nineties update of Ray Davies’ ‘Waterloo Sunset’. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Popscene’

  1. Björk – ‘Venus As A Boy’ (1993) (One Little Indian)

The glacial, sensual highlight of Björk’s star-making first album Debut, ‘Venus As A Boy’ positively swoons with beauty. Sparsely arranged with proto-trip-hop rhythms, glassy keyboard effects and Eastern strings, as arranged by collaborator Talvin Singh, it sits somewhere between jazz, chillout and avant-garde music as the former Sugarcube crushes intensely on a boy who sees the world in a unique way (“he believes in beauty…”). Falling squarely into the ‘strange and beautiful’ category, but also perfectly accessible to a mainstream audience, ‘Venus As A Boy’ is a flawless perfect snapshot of the first incarnation of Björk’s solo career: the quirky and mysterious ‘pop pixie’ that’s probably still her most widely-remembered era, before she moved quickly into bolder and more experimental territory as the decade wore on. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Human Behaviour’

  1. Oasis – ‘Live Forever’ (1994) (Creation)

While they quickly went on to secure higher chart placings and much bigger sales figures, ‘Live Forever’ was the greatest display of melodic, cultural and emotional power that Oasis ever projected. Its soaring, irrepressible message of positivity and self-confidence was deliberately constructed by Noel Gallagher as a riposte to the negativity of the post-grunge ‘complaint rock’ bands dominating the music scene in the early Nineties. Liam actually sings rather than sneers, and does it with enough brazen bravado to make the almost laughable rhyme-scheme of the lyrics seem like the most profound human insights ever. This was Oasis’ great skill: to transform the mundane into the majestic, and it was what allowed them to communicate past the indie ghetto and to the country at large. More than any other single, ‘Live Forever’ also sums up the classicist tendencies of Britpop, a fleeting second golden age for British rock. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Slide Away’

  1. Daft Punk – ‘Da Funk’ (1995) (Soma / Virgin)

Originally released in the summer of 1995 as a limited-run 12” single but re-released in late 1996 by Virgin after a frenzied bidding war, ‘Da Funk’ was the moment that things really started to take off for Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo. In equal parts an acid-house rave banger, a city-street b-boy throwdown and a Studio 54 roller-rink bonanza – all the while keeping itself moored to a concrete four-to-the-floor beat – ‘Da Funk’ effortlessly straddles completely disparate eras of dance music and twists its influences into something totally timeless. Becoming a Top 10 hit in the UK and introducing them to the U.S. with the help of its adorably bizarre Spike Jonze video, ‘Da Funk’ was also powerful enough to tilt European continental dance music off its ‘Eurodisco’ axis and into more credible territory. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Alive’

  1. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – ‘Into My Arms’ (1997) (Mute)

Having spent his twenties and early thirties irreligiously invoking the wrathful, vengeful God of the Old Testament, as Nick Cave approached his forties, the more merciful, New Testament God began to appeal as a presence (or absence) in his work. This is on show immediately in the very first lines of his 10th album The Boatman’s Call, an extraordinary break-up album written following the dissolution of his first marriage and then the ending of a brief but passionate affair with PJ Harvey, when he intones “I don’t believe in an interventionist God”.

A barebones arrangement of Cave’s mournful piano and the softest of bass accompaniments, ‘Into My Arms’ is an utterly mesmerising display of songcraft. It’s a solitary candle surrounded by darkness, tended to by the heartbroken and resigned protagonist in quiet, forlorn hope that somebody is listening to his prayer – despite his lack of faith, he yearns for divine protection. This benevolent sense of spirituality was a hugely unexpected turn from an artist who was dealing with destruction, death and desecration just 12 months earlier on Murder Ballads. Cave himself counts it among the achievements of which he is most proud, and the public agrees, with ‘Into My Arms’ now ranking as a favourite choice for newlyweds’ first dances. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘(Are You) The One I’ve Been Waiting For?’

  1. The Flaming Lips – ‘Race For The Prize’ (1999) (Warner Bros.)

Oklahoma’s The Flaming Lips had dealt in acid-fried psychedelic alternative rock for more than a decade before they achieved their career peaks around the turn of the millennium, beginning with their first magnum opus The Soft Bulletin and its opening track and lead single ‘Race For The Prize’. Fusing a lush, ‘70s prog-rock aesthetic to the structural requirements of a conventional pop track, they achieved the kind of fragile splendour that was to define the next phase of their career. A lush, sweeping and symphonic arrangement constructed from thunderous, distorted drums and soaring synthetic strings, ‘Race For The Prize’ never fails to rouse your spirits.

The rivalry and sacrifice of the two scientists at the core of the song, risking their lives and reputations “for the good of all mankind” to search for “the cure that is their prize” has the potential for corniness, but the sheer, almost messianic conviction of Wayne Coyne’s vocals and the song’s glistening production – remember, it doesn’t even have a chorus – carries the day. It also gave ‘Race For The Prize’ an appropriate fin-de-siecle feeling as Y2K approached. Arguably, rock has rarely sounded as futuristic or forward-thinking since. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Waitin’ For A Superman’

  1. The Verve – ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ (1997) (Hut)

The irony behind Richard Ashcroft and The Verve being sued for sampling a gloopy orchestral rendition of The Rolling Stones’ ‘The Last Time’ was that ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’, of all the great Britpop anthems, was probably the least indebted to the British Invasion sound that most of their contemporaries utilised so heavily. Building heavily upon the sample with a colossal drum-beat and monolithic pop production of which Phil Spector would have been proud, plus his own towering orchestration, the end result bears so little resemblance to the Stones’ original that the fact that Jagger and Richards continue to receive royalties is a bit churlish.

It also detracts from the fact that ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ is arguably the greatest comeback single of all time. Anthemic but not bombastic, its sense of grounded optimism, of one-ness with life, the universe and the fortunes and fates that befall a person, was a reflection of the nation’s self-confidence so soon after New Labour’s general election victory. Ashcroft’s street-poet wisdom and philosophy reinforces the song’s structural majesty, as he sums up “Trying to make ends meet / you’re a slave to money then you die”. The British public reacted in unprecedented fashion, transforming The Verve, a former rag-tag gang of psychedelic rock misfits, into megastars, and making Urban Hymns one of the biggest-selling albums in British history. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Lucky Man’

  1. The La’s – ‘There She Goes’ (1990) (Go! Beat)

An absolutely glorious piece of jangle-pop that sounds like it’s descended straight from the heavens, strongly reminiscent of The Byrds, Big Star and latter-day Velvet Underground, ‘There She Goes’ was the solitary hit single by The La’s and its reclusive, perfectionist songwriter Lee Mavers. Despite an equally wonderful debut album, practically nobody can name another song by them – but when the one they can is this brilliant, it simply doesn’t matter. ‘There She Goes’ is the kind of song that you can dine out on for life. Indeed, Mavers has never recorded another note in the subsequent three decades, so those royalty cheques must be pretty lucrative. It was actually first released in the late ‘80s and then remixed on more than one occasion, but by far the most well-known version was released in October 1990 and hit no.13 in the charts.

Structurally extremely simple, essentially consisting of one repeated chorus, it’s a testament to Mavers’ songwriting that ‘There She Goes’ is so contagious and yet never, ever becomes irritating. It goes to show how difficult pop writing is that so few songs released since can say the same. Long-standing rumours that the song is actually about heroin (“she” is never explicitly referenced as a girl, and the lyric “pulsing through my veins / and I just contain the feeling that remains” practically screams it) places it in a long lineage of ‘love=drug’ anthems. No amount of overplaying can sully its timeless, sonorous beauty – although those fucking annoying DFS sofa adverts gave it a good try. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Timeless Melody’

  1. My Bloody Valentine – ‘Soon’ (1990) (Creation)

As rave music and Madchester dominated the British scene at the turn of the decade, Kevin Shields and My Bloody Valentine were one of the few groups trying to reconcile guitar music with other groundbreaking innovations happening at the same time. ‘Soon’, which first appeared on the Glider EP in 1990 and then closed out the band’s sonic monument Loveless the following year, was the first real evidence of their ambitions in this direction. It features the most prominent and defined beat on the entire record, the strongest signifier that Shields was deliberately pursuing a template that could be interpreted as a ‘dance’ hybrid, but even so, nothing on ‘Soon’ sounds like it’s doing anything as cynical as chasing a zeitgeist – instead, it just sounds like My Bloody Valentine leading a pack of their own, threatening to leave all their contemporaries even further behind than they already were.

Ever the perfectionist in his quest to push back the boundaries, Shields buried the song’s chunky chords inside thick, looming textures, fluttering flute loops, warm soothing jets of guitar reverb and a head-nodding trance to create a musical compound that arguably represents the last time that British guitar music sounded truly revolutionary, before the classicist, nostalgic tendencies of Britpop descended. Even a superb remix from indie-dance talisman Andrew Weatherall, the man who had created Primal Scream’s era-defining ‘Loaded’ the previous year, couldn’t add anything new. The 22-year silence following Loveless only made the possibilities for MBV’s future more tantalising even as they went tragically unrealised, because ‘Soon’ sounded like the beginning of a new journey rather than the end of an existing one. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Glider’

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