Nirvana’s “Nevermind” (1991)

Nirvana's "Nevermind" (1991) (Photo by Stefano Chiacchiarini '74 on Shutterstock)

The 1990s were the legendary years of Britney Spears, Tupac, Spice Girls, and Snoop Dogg releasing epic music videos and wearing insane fashion (that we somehow still love today). Oh yeah, those were the days. It was a time when pop culture was at its peak, with iconic musicians dominating the charts and shaping the music industry. The ’90s also showed the rise of grunge music, with bands like Nirvana bringing a raw and rebellious sound that resonated with an entire generation. MTV also played a pivotal role in popularizing new artists and creating unforgettable moments that still hold a special place not only in pop culture but in people’s hearts. With so many genres of music in the era, from grunge to rap, pop, R&B, and rock, it’s no easy feat to narrow it down to the top five best songs of the ’90s, but we love nothing if not a challenge at StudyFinds, and we also don’t mind listening to endless ’90s bangers either.

Of course, we aren’t the only ones nostalgic for the ’90s. A recent survey commissioned by Greatest Hits Radio released the top 50 songs it says are most likely to put you in a good mood. Researchers add that 58 percent of adults say the songs that made them the happiest were the ones released in their youth. Some songs on the aforementioned list that made the cut included Ricky Martin’s “Livin La Vida Loca” and The Rembrandt’s “I’ll Be There For You” (the theme to another piece of ’90s nostalgia, “Friends”). These songs not only have the power to uplift your mood but also transport you back to a time that was more carefree and simple. It’s no wonder songs from our youth are carried along with us through life. 

Even though it feels like just yesterday, 23 years ago, we were all using beepers, debating the legitimacy of Y2K, and marveling at the wonders of America Online. A whole lot has changed and improved since then, but a new study finds that modern life may be much more stressful than the simpler times of the 20th century. Using data collected before COVID-19 appeared on the global stage, a team of Penn State researchers noted higher levels of reported stress among all age groups in comparison to the ’90s. “On average, people reported about 2 percent more stressors in the 2010s compared to people in the past,” comments David M. Almeida, professor of human development and family studies at Penn State, in a release. That being said, it’s unsurprising that people would feel nostalgic for the ’90s when comparing it to the pressures of the modern world. With so many technological advances being made in such a short amount of time, there seems to be no excuse for not being available or knowing what’s happening in the world, making people miss the times when you’d have to catch the nightly news or return a beeper call when someone needed you. Ah, the ’90s.

But let’s dive into the real nostalgia—the music of this era. What songs defined the decade? Luckily, we at StudyFinds have researched across multiple expert sources to bring you the top five best songs of the 1990s, most recommended by fans! Disagree with our list? No worries; we would love to hear from you and your favorite ’90s tune in the comments below! 

Whitney Houston discography
Whitney Houston discography (Photo by Kraft74 on Shutterstock)

The List: Best Songs of the 1990s, Per Music EXperts

1. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (1991) by Nirvana

Kurt Cobain took the old sound of ’80s rock and roll, crushed it into a ball, and kicked it across the stage before shredding his Fender Mustang into the ’90s with “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” No song had ever and has ever sounded the way this classic hit does. “This song’s anger and powerful riffs were resonant to an entire generation. Kurt Cobain’s nonsensical lyrics, which still seem to make some kind of sense, made the song even more unique. ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ defined the ’90s, brought grunge rock to the masses, and paved the way for bands like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Mudhoney,” writes Music in Minnesota.

“If you didn’t wear flannel and mosh around to this song, were you really even around in the ’90s? Nirvana set the standard for ’90s grunge music and (for better or for worse) opened the door to the millions of disaffected rock music that followed for the rest of the decade,” comments Good Housekeeping.

“That brutal four-chord riff is the death knell for hair metal, the end of spandex, the funeral march for all preening ’80s rock. Kurt Cobain was more blasé about it, admitting its kinship with Boston’s ‘More Than A Feeling,’ but it was the raging delivery of both riff and vocal that changed the game as Cobain poured scorn and pain into a new nihilist hymn. The kids that missed punk had their own rallying call,” adds NME.

2. “Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang” (1992) by Dr. Dre ft. Snoop Dogg

“Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang” is a classic hip-hop song released in 1992. The song became a massive hit and an iconic representation of West Coast rap, showcasing the talents of both artists at the peak of their careers. “The NWA producer, a whole career already behind him, comes back mightier than ever, with a lot of help from the new kid on the block. This groove makes any car bounce up and down, with a bass line more real than ‘Real Deal’ Holyfield,” reports RollingStone.

“If ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ didn’t invent the ’90s so much as put an end to the ’80s, then the decade didn’t really start until Snoop Doggy Dogg and Dr. Dre showed up at the door. Neither was truly a stranger to the public: Dre had already shaken the rap world—and the nerves of white America —as a member of NWA, and Snoop’s actual-factual debut occurred months earlier on the soundtrack to the movie Deep Cover. But “G’ Thang’ still resonated as an introduction, simply because it sounded unlike anything hip-hop had heard before —a meticulously crafted gangsta symphony, built from smokey wah guitar, whistling synths,and creeping bass, all flowing smoother than a river of Courvoisier. No wonder kids all over the world aspired to live in this version of inner-city Los Angeles —and for a few years, the whole world did,” says TimeOut.

“Dr. Dre was involved in a lot of the best songs of the ’90s, but he owned the early 90s with his debut album, ‘The Chronic.’ The first single from the album, ‘Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang,’ was the most successful on the album. Some publications named it the hip hop song of the decade, and even the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame gave it its due,” comments MusicGrotto.

3. “I Will Always Love You” (1992) by Whitney Houston

Birthed from the soundtrack of the Kevin Costner classic, “The Bodyguard,” comes the Whitney Houston track that became one of the best-selling singles of all time. I mean, “Who hasn’t screamed the chorus of this song from the top of their lungs in a poor attempt to sound like Whitney? Whether you’d like to admit it or not, let’s be real: we’ve all done that. ‘I Will Always Love You’ was a huge hit, hitting number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and staying there for four weeks. The timeless love song, originally written and recorded by Dolly Parton, was about her love for country star Porter Wagoner, who discovered her,” explains Music in Minnesota.

“I think ‘I Will Always Love You’ has to be the best song of the ’90s—and is probably the best love song of all time. I love Dolly Parton’s original, but really grew up on Houston’s version. It’s the best thing about ‘The Bodyguard’ movie, and it truly never gets old. Sometimes that dramatic, final ‘And III’ just pops into my head, and I’m absolutely never mad about it,” describes Glamour.

“‘The Bodyguard’ was an all-right film, but the soundtrack was really what made it a classic. With Houston’s rendition of ‘I Will Always Love You,’ pop music’s most beautiful voice was paired with one of the most stunning ballads ever written. Houston’s cover of Dolly Parton’s country song remains the best-selling single by a woman in music history. The song spent 14 weeks at number one on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, and it will forever be a pop music classic,” adds Ask.

4. “Juicy” (1994) by The Notorious B.I.G.

“Juicy” by Notorious B.I.G. is a classic hip-hop anthem that vividly portrays the rags-to-riches story of Biggie Smalls. Through his lyrics, Biggie narrates his journey from humble beginnings in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood to achieving immense success and fame in the music industry, becoming an embodiment of the American Dream for many aspiring artists. “Christopher Wallace (AKA Notorious BIG) was a ’90s rap titan, and this, his breakthrough song, is widely considered to be one of the greatest hip-hop tracks of all time,” adds PureWow.

“No one before or since has done more to justify the gangsta rap lifestyle than Christopher Wallace, on the lead single to his immense debut album ‘Ready to Die.’ ‘Juicy’ works because Biggie balances his history of Bed-Stuy poverty so precisely against the braggadocious trappings of fame and fortune,” writes TimeOut.

“Everything Biggie put out is legendary, but this rags-to-riches rap chronicle had something about it that set it above the rest. Every major publication that’s done a list of the best rap songs ever, the best songs of the ’90s, or even the best songs ever has included it in their offerings, and it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. ‘Juicy’ fundamentally changed the hip hop scene and was the pinnacle of East Coast rap then,” says MusicGrotto.

5. “No Diggity” (1996) by Blackstreet ft. Dr. Dre and Queen Pen

“No Diggity,” released in 1996, with its infectious groove and cool vocals, became a chart-topping hit that continues to resonate with audiences today. The hit that blends hip-hop and soul even went on to win a Grammy Award! “While they were a great group on their own, this song saw Dr. Dre drop by to help drop one of the best hip-hop songs of the era. From being recognized as one of the best songs of all time to winning a Grammy Award and internationally ending the reign of ‘Macarena’ at the top of the charts to being the last number one by Cash Box, its greatness is undeniable,” notes MusicGrotto.

“The protagonist here wants to let a woman he’s attracted to know that he’s definitely interested in her: ‘No Diggity, no doubt.’ The acoustic guitar music comes from ‘Grandma’s Hands’ by Bill Withers,” writes Zing Instruments.

“Teddy Riley, a Virginia-via-Harlem beastmaster, blends doo-wop, Dr. Dre, old-school R&B harmonies, a piano rumble, and a sample of acoustic blues guitar from Bill Withers into a utopian celebration of all that is rump-shaking about American music. We’re all living in the future that this song foresaw, and we’re all better off for it,” concludes SiachenStudios.

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 Note: This article was not paid for nor sponsored. StudyFinds is not connected to nor partnered with any of the brands mentioned and receives no compensation for its recommendations.

About Jilly Hite

Janelle is a freelance writer from New York. Her writing focuses on parenting, tech, business, interior design, education, and telling people’s inspiring stories. Janelle has written for Mustela and Newton Baby and has bylines in Pregnant Chicken, Syracuse Woman Magazine, the Baldwinsville Messenger, and Family Times Magazine. She holds a master’s degree in literacy from the State University of New York at Oswego.

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