Billy Corgan playing the guitar with The Smashing Pumpkins.

13 of the best 90s alternative songs

The 90s saw the ascension of alternative rock, so it’s only right we look at some of the most iconic 90s alternative songs. From Nirvana to The Smashing Pumpkins, Green Day to R.E.M, the 1990s were stacked with a plethora of influential artists, so choosing 13 tracks is incredibly difficult. This is why this list is purely personal, and down to my preference, so if you have any alterations, that is down to your preference too.

Let’s get started, shall we?

1. “1979” by The Smashing Pumpkins

“1979” isn’t just one of the most influential 90s alternative rock songs, but possibly one of the most important songs of the 90s as a whole. The track by The Smashing Pumpkins sees Billy Corgan blend elements of alternative rock, shoegaze, and electronica. What resulted was a song that had never been done before. This combination laid the foundations of experimentation within alternative rock, and this is why I believe it belongs here with the best.

The song’s lyrics tell a coming-of-age story with Corgan longing for his childhood where he lived with no care. His only worries were those any teenager would have. The song’s title “1979” is the year the songwriter was 12. At this age, everything seems confusing, leading most people to discover who they are. The song reflects this attitude with wistful lead lines, echoing vocals, and a gated drum beat that grows into certainty as the song progresses. This is further supported by the legendary music video which sees Billy Corgan riding around visiting old sites, while it focuses on teenagers having fun.

The whole song can be described by one word… melancholic. See the full meaning of “1979” here.

2. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana

Again another song reflecting upon the artist’s teenage years, this time instead of melancholy we get teenage angst. The distorted grunge tones are on full show here, with angry thrashing chords, a slinking solo, and simple arpeggios in the verse, every element of this track’s composition screams alternative 90s. The reason this track of Nirvana’s is on the list is because the song rocketed alternative rock into the mainstream.

Initially released to very little success, the song only started to skyrocket when college radio stations picked up the song. The slurred lyrics of the song, allowed the college audience to relate to the track and interpret their own meanings, and the distorted tones spoke to their angst. A perfect blend of timing and composition led the track to such popularity that it ended up getting played on MTV during the night. When MTV caught on to how many views the track was getting, they rapidly increased the frequency it was featured on the channel. This music video is also important because it established the grunge aesthetic.

While this track isn’t my personal favourite, you cannot deny its importance. Read about the band’s influence on grunge here.

3.  “Under The Bridge” by The Red Hot Chili Peppers

When you have the individuality of Anthony Kiedis, the brilliant bass lines of Flea, and the groundbreaking guitar playing of John Frusciante, what you get is a recipe for uniqueness. Everything about this song is brilliant. Why is that? Well, the whole track works together to tell the story of  Kiedis’ drug addiction. The lyrics speak of his experience and the guitars are delicate to reflect this struggle.

Of course, it’s the Chilis so the song also shows his love for their hometown of LA. Cleverly he uses the city to symbolise how alone he felt, while also reflecting his struggle as the city’s. The chorus is completely about Kiedis’ reliance on heroin. Under the Bridge was a commercial success, getting to number two on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the United States. This success helped to introduce the Red Hot Chili Peppers to a wider audience, placing them at the centre of alt-rock popularity.

The song is also important as it blends funk chord patterns with rock drumming and pop sensibility. This blend was brilliant at showcasing the versatility of alternative rock, making it incredibly important to the genre.

4. “Friday I’m in Love” by The Cure

All of the songs above are included for what they created, this is included for what it ended. “Friday I’m in Love” was a massive departure from the band’s iconic sound. Before this release, The Cure were known for their gloomy downbeat sound, and this was the complete opposite. With an overall positive message, to which we can all relate, this song opened the band up to a brand new audience. Even to this day, you can’t beat listening to this song after a tough week!

Friday I’m in Love was also important because it went against the stereotype that alternative rock bands had to be dark and angsty. The song’s success showed that alternative rock could be happy and upbeat, which was important to diversifying the genre. “Friday I’m in Love” reached number six on the UK Singles Chart and number 18 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart. The popularity of this song and the depth of The Cure’s backlog leaves them as one of the most popular bands in the world. So yeah this song belongs with the best.

5. “Nancy Boy” by Placebo

Nancy Boy is an incredibly important song for the 90s thanks to its impact on popular culture. This is because the song comes out swinging. Bold and provocative lyrics raise the topics of drug addiction, sexuality, and gender identity, all of which were important conversations happening at the time. Brian Molko’s lyrics made this song an LGBTQ+ anthem in the 1990s.

The song helped challenge the masculinity of mainstream rock and opened the door for LGBTQ+ artists to enter the realm of alt-rock. The song’s distorted chords, deliver a message of anger and angst against society at the time. This song did a lot for combating the ‘Britpop’ chokehold the UK was under at the time. This was because the song is more akin to the Grunge scene than that of its origin. This song established Placebo’s sound to the masses and solidified its importance in the UK music scene.

6. “Don’t Look Back in Anger” by Oasis

From a song that challenged Britpop to a song that elevated Britpop. “Don’t Look Back in Anger” may not be the most popular Oasis track, but it is still important. The song helped establish the band in the history books, being their 2nd number one single, and developed their sound. The song already felt familiar to audiences, and this is because the track pays homage to the band’s inspiration in The Beatles using the same opening chords as John Lennon’s “Imagine”. These chords are combined with a classic rock feel to create a Britpop track that is considered to be one of the greatest anthems of all time.

The positive lyrics and message of resilience resonated with their audience garnering incredible success. Even to this day, you will hear this song sung at sporting events, and you won’t hear a silent voice in the crowd. This places it into a similar category of songs such as ” Sweet Caroline” and “Hey Jude”, which is impressive in its own right. “Don’t Look Back in Anger” is a timeless song that since has inspired a whole new generation of songwriters.

7. “Basket Case” by Green Day

Everything about “Basket Case” is energetic. From upbeat guitar playing, drums that drive the song along, and lyrics that tell an honest story, the song pushes everything forward. The lyrics tell the story of Billie Joe Armstrong’s struggles with anxiety. This honesty and transparency make the song relatable, as it allows the listener to understand what he is experiencing. Pop-punk through and through, the fast chord patterns make the riff instantly recognisable. This song helped launch Green Day into the mainstream, reaching number two on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the United States.

Ultimately, the song is a message of hope, with Billie Joe remaining resiliant, and this allows us as an audience to get behind him. This song was released when pop-punk and alternative rock were becoming increasingly popular. The song’s raw energy and angst perfectly captured the attitude at the time. While it may not be the first song that pops to mind when you think of pop-punk, it does belong in the list of best 90s alternative songs.

8. “Zombie” by The Cranberries

When mentioning a list of the best 90s alternative songs, “Zombie” has to be included. The song goes through trauma and suffering, reflecting on the tension between Ireland and Britain at the time. Released in 1994, a year which had recently seen an increase in bombings by the IRA in the UK. “Zombie” reflects on the effect these attacks were having on both sides, highlighting the feelings of an Irish woman in Britain. The song is a cry for justice, an attempt to appeal and stop the attacks.

The Cranberries’ signature sound, with Dolores O’Riordan’s soaring vocals and the band’s atmospheric guitars, creates a powerful and unforgettable listening experience. “Zombie” is an important song that continues to resonate with people all over the world. The melodic, yet sombre tone of the chorus catches your ear and sticks in your head (pun not intended). It is a song that speaks to the pain and suffering of war, while also offering a message of hope. It is because of this the song deserves to be on this list.

9. “when you sleep” by My Bloody Valentine

“When you sleep” is a monumental track in shoegaze, a genre My Bloody Valentine helped to pioneer. The thick textures of the guitars, which are bound in fuzz, push the boundaries of rock. Then when you add in the feedback what you are left with is a soundscape so deep it almost becomes unruly. Textures like this would become a staple of shoegaze. One thing that is a testament to this song is its production. The work done to ensure every element has its own space helps to bring the song to life.

The song tackles the fragility of love and the subsequent pain of loss and is delivered in a way that is both ethereal and heartbreaking. That is the word to describe the result of Belinda Butcher and Kevin Shields’s guitar playing. The combination of their vocals is also processed to create a unique sound. Everything about this song is unique, that is what makes it great. You can see why both are considered inspirations for a wealth of modern guitarists. It is a song that continues to be beloved by fans of shoegaze music and beyond.

10. “Karma Police” by Radiohead

Radiohead are legends of alternative music, but their sound needed to develop for them to get there. Don’t get me wrong, Radiohead have always made outstanding music, but the album Ok Computer saw them move to a more interesting sound. In Britain, most 90s alternative songs fell within the Britpop genre, and to begin with, so did Radiohead. Pablo Honey is seen as the band’s search for what people wanted to hear, while Ok Computer is more experimental and contains elements from other genres. Ultimately it fully established Radiohead’s sound.

The song is famous for its haunting melody, Thom Yorke’s distinctive vocals, and the song’s use of delay and reverb. The guitar swells throughout until the end where the delay fully takes over. The track is crafted to emulate a dream-like sound thanks to the layering of the vocals, and the depth of the guitars. The lyrics are seen as a warning about the dangers of power and the importance of taking responsibility. “Karma Police” is a truly unique and special song, and deserves a spot in the history of alternative music.

11. “Black Hole Sun” by Soundgarden

This Soundgarden classic is an impressive feat of the Seattle grunge scene. The unique influence of psychedelia is unlike anything that had been heard at the time. This combined with the cryptic and ambiguous lyrics leaves the meaning of the song up to you. The title itself creates initial confusion, as the term “Black Hole Sun” is an oxymoron. Then we get to the delivery of the lyrics. Chris Cornell’s vocals are simply stunning in this song. He delivers each word with a passion and intensity that is truly unmatched.

Another reason this song is a classic is its anthemic structure. The verses brood building with the tension thanks to the tone of the guitar while the choruses have a driving release. The unique guitar tone is instantly catchy with its delayed chorus mix that echoes with ambiguity. All of these elements come together to create a song that is both sonically and emotionally powerful. “Black Hole Sun” is a masterpiece of rock music and a staple for 90s alternative songs.

12. “Song 2” by Blur

“Song 2” was somewhat of an accidental success. This is because it went against the standard tone Blur had set in their conquest of Britpop. The song itself is more akin to that of the American grunge scene, which some say it was trying to make a mockery of. The high-octane guitar riff flies up to 11 after the initial opening drum pattern. The beauty of the song is its simplicity. The guitar riff repeats and the lyrics are direct, making the song accessible for people to sing along to, and in our case play along to. This is why to this day it is always on at sporting events.

Song 2 reached number two on the UK charts and number six on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart in the US. This meant that the track brought Blur to a wider audience. This brought American fans to the world of Britpop, and consequentially other contemporaries. The thing that it might be the most impactful for however was signifying to the world that UK rock still had a place at the head table.

13. “Losing my Religion” by R.E.M

R.E.M. tend to not get as much credit as they deserve when it comes to alternative rock. They were pioneers over in America, setting the scene and moving the genre into the limelight. “Losing My Religion” is an important song to alternative rock because it was a commercial success, a critical success, and a genre-defying track. The song reached number four on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the US and number one on the UK chart, placing it as one of the trendsetters for the mainstream alternative surge.
The song’s iconic opening blend of mandolin, acoustic guitar, and electronica is instantly recognisable. This mix of instrumentation broke the barriers that had been placed there by traditional rock music whilst also embedding the sweet, yet eerie tone of the track. This made it an important track in the world of 90s alternative songs. The song has made its way into countless films and tv shows, truly making it a cultural phenomenon.

90s alternative songs that just missed the cut

“Today” by The Smashing Pumpkins

“Lithium” by Nirvana

“Alive” by Pearl Jam

“Everlong” by Foo Fighters

“Common People” by Pulp

“Creep” by Radiohead

A round-up of 90s alternative

Overall, 90s alternative songs had a profound impact on popular music. They helped to popularize alternative rock music, influenced other genres of music, and ultimately shook up the mainstream and left it fighting to return to the normality of pop music. If you’re a fan of alternative rock, then you owe it to yourself to check out some of the great 90s alternative songs. These songs are classics for a reason.
Read more about 90s alt-rock here!