When it comes to the best alternative songs from the 90s, there’s no doubt that this era was a golden age for alternative music. The impact and influence of these songs on the alternative music scene cannot be overstated.
Each song on this list of the best alternative music from the 90’s has left a lasting impression on music fans worldwide, and listening to them now can transport you back to a time when alternative music was at its peak.
So get ready to be taken on a nostalgic journey as we explore the top 10 best alternative songs from the 90s, in no particular order, where each song was carefully selected based on their impact and significance in shaping the alternative music scene.
1. Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spirit
Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit is widely regarded as one of the best alternative songs from the 90s. The song was written by bandmates Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl, and Krist Novoselic and quickly became a smash hit in the early 90s. It catapulted Nirvana and lead singer Kurt Cobain to household name status, forever cementing their place in music history.
What makes Smells Like Teen Spirit so special is not only its catchy and explosive sound but also its impact and influence on the alternative music scene. The song’s success paved the way for a new wave of alternative rock bands and helped define the sound of the 90s. Its iconic opening riff and chorus have been covered, sampled, and referenced countless times in popular culture, proving its lasting impact.
The song’s rise to fame took time, however. According to NPR, the song’s success was gradual, with the band slowly building a following through constant touring and word of mouth. But when the music video premiered on MTV in 1991, it became an instant sensation and helped push the song to the top of the charts.
Interestingly, the song has also been deemed the most “iconic song of all time” by researchers at the University of London. Their study used a formula to measure a song’s popularity, memorability, and impact, among other factors. So the fact that Smells Like Teen Spirit came out on top is a testament to its enduring influence.
2. Radiohead – Creep
Radiohead’s Creep is a song that has captured the hearts of many with its emotional lyrics and raw sound. The song was released in 1992 as Radiohead’s debut single. It was initially unsuccessful, with BBC Radio 1 refusing to play it due to its depressing nature. However, the song eventually gained traction and became a hit, reaching the top 10 in the UK and the US.
Lead singer Thom Yorke’s haunting vocals and lyrics about feeling like an outsider and not belonging have resonated with many listeners. Yorke has said that the song was born from his struggles with self-doubt and feeling like he didn’t fit in. The iconic chorus of “But I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo” has become a staple of the alternative rock genre and is instantly recognizable to music fans.
The song has been covered by numerous artists and featured in various movies, TV shows, and commercials. Its popularity has continued over the years, and remains one of Radiohead’s most well-known and beloved songs. Overall, “Creep” is a powerful and emotional song that has touched the hearts of many and has cemented its place in music history.
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3. Beck – Loser
Beck’s hit single Loser is a unique and eclectic song released on March 8, 1993. The song was written by Beck Hansen and record producer Carl Stephenson, who both produced the song with Tom Rothrock. When it was first released independently, Loser began receiving airplay on alternative and college radio stations, which helped the song gain a following.
The lyrics are known for their cryptic and nonsensical nature, with the chorus repeating, “I’m a loser, baby, so why don’t you kill me?” Yet, despite the dark lyrics, the song features a unique blend of genres, including hip-hop, rock, and folk music.
The song’s production includes a mixture of acoustic and electric guitars, drum machines, and samples of other songs and noises. The song’s lyrics and sound were unlike anything else at the time, and it quickly became a hit.
According to American Songwriter, Beck and Stephenson spent only a few hours recording Loser in the early 1990s. The song was inspired by Beck’s experiences living in Los Angeles and his observations of the city’s culture.
4. Pearl Jam – Jeremy
Jeremy is a song by the American rock band Pearl Jam, released in 1991 on their debut album, “Ten.” The song tells the story of a troubled and isolated boy named Jeremy, who ultimately takes his own life in front of his classmates.
The song’s music video, directed by Mark Pellington, is based on this story and features images of the character played by Trevor Wilson interspersed with scenes of the band performing. The video was a staple of MTV and won four MTV Video Music Awards in 1993.
The song and video have been the subject of much analysis and interpretation. Some critics have praised the song’s portrayal of the struggles of young people in a world that often doesn’t understand them, while others have criticized it for potentially glamorizing or romanticizing suicide. Nevertheless, Jeremy remains a powerful and poignant statement on the struggles of adolescence and the need for greater understanding and empathy.
The song was inspired by the real-life story of Jeremy Delle, a 15-year-old boy who took his own life in front of his classmates at Richardson High School in Richardson, Texas, in 1991. Pearl Jam’s lead singer Eddie Vedder read about the incident in the newspaper and was deeply affected by it, feeling a need to pay tribute to the young boy. Vedder wrote the lyrics to Jeremy in just one night.
The song became one of Pearl Jam’s most popular and enduring songs and is often cited as one of the defining songs of the grunge era of the early 1990s.
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5. Weezer – Buddy Holly
Buddy Holly is a song by Weezer, released as the second single from their debut album, Weezer (Blue Album), on September 7, 1994, which coincided with what would have been Buddy Holly’s 58th birthday.
The song was written by Rivers Cuomo and referenced the 1950s rock and roll icon Buddy Holly and actress Mary Tyler Moore in the lyrics. The song’s catchy chorus, “Ooh wee ooh, I look just like Buddy Holly, oh oh, and you’re Mary Tyler Moore,” has become one of Weezer’s most recognizable lines.
Cuomo initially did not believe the song fit the album and was considering leaving it off, but the album’s producer, Ric Ocasek, convinced him to include it. Despite Cuomo’s initial hesitations, Buddy Holly became one of Weezer’s most popular songs and has been included on several of the band’s greatest hits albums. It reached number two on the US Modern Rock Tracks chart and 34 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart.
The song’s music video, directed by Spike Jonze, features Weezer performing on a soundstage that resembles the original set of the 1970s sitcom Happy Days, complete with lookalikes of the show’s characters, including the Fonz (played by Al Molinaro), Richie (played by Pat Morita), and Potsie (played by Weezer’s drummer, Patrick Wilson). The video has become iconic and recognized as one of the most memorable music videos of the 1990s.
6. The Smashing Pumpkins – Today
Today is a song by The Smashing Pumpkins, written by the band’s lead vocalist and guitarist, Billy Corgan. The song was released as the second single from their 1993 album, “Siamese Dream.” Despite the song’s upbeat melody, the lyrics are quite dark and speak about Corgan’s suicidal thoughts on a specific day.
According to Corgan, he wrote the song after feeling incredibly down and depressed. The upbeat melody was an attempt to try and cheer himself up. The song has since become one of The Smashing Pumpkins’ most iconic songs and continues to be a fan favorite.
The contrast between the song’s grim lyrics and the soft instrumental part during the verses, coupled with the use of irony in the chorus, has been widely praised. The song features a catchy guitar riff coupled with a driving drum beat and a simple yet effective bassline. The lyrics speak of Corgan’s struggle to find meaning in his life and his fear of not being able to achieve everything he wants before it’s too late.
Today has received critical acclaim since its release, with many citing it as one of the band’s best songs. The song has been covered by numerous artists, including Taylor Swift, who performed a rendition of the song during her “1989” tour.
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7. Foo Fighters – Big Me
Big Me was written by Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl and is known for its catchy melody and playful lyrics. According to Grohl, the song was inspired by the music of the Beatles and the Beach Boys.
The song’s music video, directed by Jesse Peretz, gained widespread popularity for its parody of the Mentos candy commercials, which were popular at the time. The video features the band performing on a fake Mentos commercial set, with each band member doing a different gag involving the candy. The video was nominated for five MTV Video Music Awards in 1996 and won the award for “Best Group Video.”
Lyrically, the song reflects the struggles of communication in relationships. The lines “Big me to talk about it / I could stand to prove / If we can get around it / I know that it’s true” reflect a desire to communicate more openly and honestly while acknowledging the challenges of doing so. The chorus, “When I talk about it / Carries on / Reasons only knew,” suggests that despite the difficulty, it is important to keep trying to communicate.
Overall, Big Me is a fun and upbeat song showcasing the Foo Fighters’ ability to write catchy pop melodies while incorporating rock influences. The song and its accompanying music video have become beloved by fans and are considered classics of the 1990s alternative rock era.
8. Oasis – Wonderwall
Wonderwall is a song by the British rock band Oasis, released as the third single from their second studio album, “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?” in 1995. It is considered one of the band’s signature songs and one of the greatest songs of the 1990s.
The song was written by Oasis guitarist and main songwriter Noel Gallagher, who originally intended it to be a B-side. However, upon hearing the song, the band’s record label executives insisted that it be included on the album and released as a single.
The lyrics of Wonderwall have been interpreted in various ways, with Gallagher stating that the song is about “an imaginary friend who’s gonna come and save you from yourself.” The song’s chorus, which includes the lines “Because maybe / You’re gonna be the one that saves me / And after all / You’re my wonderwall,” is widely considered to be one of the most memorable and singable in rock history.
Over the years, the song has become a cultural touchstone, with the song being covered by numerous artists and referenced in popular culture. Wonderwall has also been praised for its timeless quality and ability to resonate with people from different generations and backgrounds. In 2020, it was named one of the top 10 most-streamed songs from the 1990s on Spotify.
Interestingly, the song almost didn’t feature lead singer Liam Gallagher on vocals. According to mic.com, Noel Gallagher had originally offered Liam the choice to sing lead on either “Wonderwall” or “Don’t Look Back in Anger,” and Liam ultimately chose Wonderwall. However, Noel still sang backing vocals on the track.
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9. Soundgarden – Black Hole Sun
Black Hole Sun is a song by Seattle band Soundgarden, released in 1994 on their fourth studio album, “Superunknown.” The song was written by late lead singer Chris Cornell, who wrote it in his car while driving home one night in Seattle, Washington. The song features a haunting melody and dark lyrics, including the iconic opening lines, “Hides the face, lies the snake. In the sun in my disgrace.”
The song quickly became one of Soundgarden’s most popular and well-known tracks, earning them a Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock Performance in 1995. The music video also became an instant classic, featuring surreal and psychedelic imagery that perfectly captured the song’s eerie vibe.
Despite its popularity, the meaning of Black Hole Sun has been the subject of much debate over the years. Cornell himself has stated that the song was inspired by a news story he had read about a woman who had killed her children and herself and that the lyrics are a commentary on the idea of a perfect world that’s not really perfect.
The song has also been interpreted as a commentary on the state of society and the world in general, with its dark and foreboding lyrics warning about the dangers of conformity and the loss of individuality.
Regardless of its meaning, Black Hole Sun remains one of the most powerful and haunting songs in music history, a testament to Chris Cornell’s genius and Soundgarden’s enduring legacy.
10. Alice in Chains – Man in the Box
Man in the Box is a song by another Seattle-based band, Alice in Chains, released in January 1991 as a single from their debut studio album, Facelift (1990). The song peaked at No. 18 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart and was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock Performance in 1992.
The lyrics, written by late frontman Layne Staley, speak of being trapped in a box, unable to escape from one’s struggles and pleading for salvation.
The song’s distinctive riff, played by guitarist Jerry Cantrell, has been noted as one of the most recognizable in rock music history. In an interview with Guitar World, Cantrell said he wrote the riff while playing around with his wah-wah pedal.
Despite being one of their most famous songs, Alice in Chains had mixed feelings towards Man in the Box and the mainstream success it brought them. In a 1992 interview with Rip magazine, Staley said, “I’d rather people hear our new songs than Man in the Box. That song’s not even close to the newest stuff we’re doing”. Nonetheless, the song has become a staple in rock music and is often cited as one of the defining songs of the grunge era.
The Best Alternative Music From the 90’s – In Conclusion
The 90s was a decade of great innovation and experimentation in alternative music. Our list of the best alternative songs from the 90s represents just a small selection of the many incredible tracks that came out during this period.
Whether it was Nirvana’s raw energy, Radiohead’s introspection, or Oasis’ soaring melodies, 90s alternative music had something for everyone. As we continue to listen to and appreciate the music of this era, we can reflect on the lasting impact that it has had on modern music and culture.