Summer has long since arrived, and the time for barbecues, beach trips, and basking in the chill of air conditioners is now. The arrival of what some consider the best part of the year seems to go hand in hand not only with sweat, sunscreen, and surf, but also with nostalgia. Whether rendered relevant by the zeitgeist or by our adolescence, the Nineties (for better or worse) are back. Third Eye Blind is on tour while L-train commuters sport Nirvana T-shirts with PVC backpacks and Birkenstocks. Adidas is back en vogue and Clueless is twenty years old. Consider it a postmodern time-warp or a well-warranted revival; the current lust for Nineties cultural artifacts is undeniably viable and in its own right irresistible.
There is no reason to fight it. Go ahead. Let yourself be transported back to the days of mall goths, grunge, and regrettable fashion choices. Green Day were relevant. Fred Durst was “cool” and Rachael Leigh Cook made millions of viewers weak in the knees as she descended the stairs in She’s All That to the sound of Sixpence None the Richer’s “Kiss Me.” It’s OK to indulge in the Nineties and its songs! The dudes and dudettes of Empire Records wouldn’t have it any other way!
Let our list of well-loved tracks from a bygone era intoxicate you like fine cabernet, lush with malaise and angst. Embrace the B sides and singles of a decade that refuses to be laid to rest. What better way is there to fill the time in between binge-watching Seinfeld on Hulu and subsequent trips to your local bodega for booze and snacks? Here’s our take on the songs from the Nineties that aged especially well.
The Smashing Pumpkins, “Zero” (1996)
Whatever your feelings are about Billy Corgan, the influence of the Smashing Pumpkins on the alt-rock scene of the Nineties is undeniable. The impact of quintessential LPs like Gish, Siamese Dream, and 1995’s Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness still lingers in the airwaves through grunge’s latest successors, like Nothing and Creepoid. Much like the Pumpkins’ earlier full-lengths, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is ripe with memorable cuts. Amid singles like “Tonight, Tonight,” “Bullet With Butterfly Wings,” and “1979,” the two-disc release that Corgan refused to label a “concept album” has been cited as one of the most successful and adored LPs of its era. Alongside Mellon Collie’s well-worn ballads, the album’s fourth track, “Zero,” remains poignant. The primal shreds of its opening riffs alone are enough to elicit a solo slam-dance from any and all fans who consider themselves devout. Corgan’s vocals are edgy and unabashedly evocative of discontent, his emotives laden with the dissatisfaction of a jaded rebel. By the time Corgan gets to the height of the track’s anguish, it is impossible not to shout along. Lines like “Emptiness is loneliness, and loneliness is cleanliness/And cleanliness is godliness, and God is empty, just like me” present themselves as a plausible epitaph for residual teenage angst or a suitable commentary on the tragedy of a quarter- or mid-life crisis. However listeners relate to “Zero,” one thing is clear: It rocks. As Corgan’s current tourmate Marilyn Manson’s recent Instagram post applauds, “Billy is a lyrical genius.”
Hole, “Rock Star” (1994)
Without a doubt, Courtney Love has perpetually been overshadowed by the fame of Nirvana and her late husband Kurt Cobain. But before Celebrity Skin, financial woes, and Twitter rants, Love’s energies resulted in an LP that was nearly flawless. Live Through This — Hole’s sophomore album, released on the heels of Cobain’s death — is as deserving of praise as Nevermind. Although “Doll Parts” and “Miss World” tend to trend the most on the Tumblr dashboards of Love’s millennial fans, “Rock Star” (often listed as “Olympia”) is a much more evocative snapshot of prime-era riot grrrl. The nearly acoustic start of “Rock Star” is intimate like a basement show, gradually growing in volume alongside a satisfying swell of aggression. Throughout “Rock Star,” Love’s tone oscillates between coy and caustic; unapologetic and at times scathing, “Rock Star” presents itself as a refreshingly unpretentious critique of a pivotal Nineties subculture while managing to melt the faces off any listener via Love’s visceral vocalization and equally killer riffs. Plus the nonchalance of the ending to “Rock Star” is totally badass (possibly badass enough to make you momentarily forget that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” exists).
Toadies, “Possum Kingdom” (1995)
If you have a penchant for romantics reminiscent of Lord Byron or Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Oz, Texan rockers the Toadies’ “Possum Kingdom” is the perfect throwback anthem. The idea that the second single from the Toadies’ sophomore release, Rubberneck, is rooted in Fort Worth folklore only makes the song more alluring. Whatever its origins, “Possum Kingdom,” with its creepy lyricism and meticulously executed chords, is laced with enough riveting melodics to continuously make former (and possibly current) mall goths swoon. Frontman Vaden Todd Lewis’s croonage is timeless, making the chorus of “Possum Kingdom” an everlasting ode to mid-Nineties gloom. It’s no shock that “Possum Kingdom” once ruled the alt-rock charts, later making an appearance on the former “it game” Guitar Hero 2 before being revived as a sample by the now nearly forgotten mash-up artist Girl Talk. The years continue to pass and the magic of “Possum Kingdom” remains. With a lyrics befitting a mixtape curated by anyone fond of infatuation, longing, or aggressive innuendos, the glory of “Possum Kingdom” is steadfast. Its urgency is eternal. Even if this track doesn’t fall within your top pre-Y2K favorites, it’s pretty difficult to overlook its brilliance.
Veruca Salt, “Seether” (1994)
Named after the bratty antagonist of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Chicago’s Veruca Salt wowed fans with the grungy perfection of their pre-Geffen debut, American Thighs. Nearly twenty years later, the band’s most notable single, “Seether,” continues to be cited as one of the Nineties’ most memorable hits. “Seether” pairs impressive orchestration with a lyrical (and relatable) representation of rage and frustration. Like the musical equivalent of Plath’s The Bell Jar, “Seether” is an audible bildungsroman that kick-starts without hesitation. When Gordon sings, “I can’t see her till I’m foaming at the mouth” to the backdrop of buzzing guitar and pulsing drumbeats, we believe her without question. The catchy hooks and contagious tempo of this song make it easy to understand why it garnered love from the legendary John Peel and MTV. 1994’s “Seether” is the perfect track to blast through the headphones of your Sony Walkman (or its contemporary successor) any time of the year.
Garbage, “Only Happy When It Rains” (1995)
Nineties “it girl” Shirley Manson and her band Garbage are known for being the poster children for alt-rock’s darker side. Despite the intentional downer vibe of their aesthetic, Manson and her bandmates’ efforts were applauded by the masses, granting their LP platinum status and even leading to a coveted Grammy win. Although “Vow” came first, Garbage’s second single, “Only Happy When it Rains,” is equally deserving of praise. Idiosyncratically gloomy, the track is unforgettably brooding, Manson’s delivery and moody demeanor immaculately amplifying its orchestration and persistent beat. The atmosphere of “Only Happy When It Rains” feels cinematic, like a viable soundtrack depicting the emotional interior of The Craft‘s Catholic-schoolgirl coven or Empire Records’ resident rebel Debra. Seeped in shameless “sadness” and “misery,” Mason’s explanation of “why it feels so good to feel so sad” might not be uplifting, but it is definitive of the privileging of discontent that plagued alt-rock’s heyday. Rooted in an emotional territory that many bands explored in excess, the disillusionment of “Only Happy When It Rains” is moderate, counterbalanced by its lush harmonies. There’s no denying it. Garbage’s cheerless single is iconic.
The Offspring, “Self Esteem” (1994)
Left-coast punks the Offspring were, much to the presumable dismay of conservative parents and normcore suburbanites, an adolescent favorite for many. Given all-star status by Smash’s “Come Out and Play,” the jaded wonder of the album’s second single, “Self Esteem,” is classic. Dexter Holland’s vocals, prefaced by a jarring prelude, recount the universally relatable scenario of a deteriorating relationship and the adverse effects of low “self esteem.” The song’s narrative is one informed by interpersonal toxicity and a willingness to be taken advantage of. The dynamics of “Self Esteem” are complicated yet eerily familiar. We’ve all been there, and Holland’s nearly shouted declaration of “I’m just a sucker,” although slightly deadpan, is heart-wrenching. “Self Esteem” is an emotive bummer, yet the track’s latent aggression and persistent bassline are cathartic, fostering solidarity between the song’s protagonist and its listeners. Rhetorical questions like “The more you suffer/The more it shows you really care/Right?” leave the audience hanging on Holland’s diction, doubly transforming “Self Esteem” into a confessional and a dialogue. A fitting epilogue for bad breakups or Tinder hangouts gone awry, “Self Esteem” offers solace. Indulge.
The Cranberries, “Sunday” (1993)
Celtic sensations the Cranberries dominated the Billboard charts for nearly a decade with their distinctive brand of dream-pop. Their debut LP is a proper primer for anyone with an affinity for the era’s best. The slow-yet-satisfying start of the Cranberries’ breathtaking “Sunday” is somber and nearly instrumental save for Dolores O’Riordan’s despondent vocals. As impressive as “Dreams” but somehow more twee, the jangly riffs and soaring strings of “Sunday” elicit feelings of yearning and uncertain desire, its duration wholly befitting the thematic arc of Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We? Released in ’93, “Sunday” is forlorn and vulnerable, earnest and filled with indecisiveness. As if it were a preface to “Linger,” the momentum of “Sunday” mirrors the plausible internal dialogue of any smitten individual stuck at the precipice of what-ifs. Although “Sunday” is viewed as a lesser-known great by the mainstream, diehard fans of the Cranberries can attest to the genius of the song. More pragmatic than the band’s most celebrated singles, “Sunday” makes the most of impending abandonment and vague outcomes. In spite of the weight of its narrative, it’s catchy and thankfully still underrated.
Nada Surf, “Popular” (1996)
NYC natives Nada Surf put the spotlight on American high school students and the social hierarchies to which they subscribe in their debut single, “Popular.” Filled to the brim with disdain and sarcasm, “Popular” is eerie in its accuracy. Refreshing in its non-aggrandized portraiture of teenage mentality, Nada Surf’s chart-topping single is an unapologetically acerbic analysis of the world of jocks and cheerleaders that managed to become the very thing that it demonized: popular. Featured on High/Low, the spoken-word-esque start of “Popular” gives a glimpse into the thought process of teenage dating rituals and the subsequent consequences of their implementation. Mocking in every way, lead vocalist Matthew Caws’s pitch is impossible to dismiss. Possibly the best song to blast before heading to your high school reunion as a reminder of how trite being cool in high school was, “Popular,” thanks to Nada Surf’s caustic and catchy caricature, encapsulates a rite of passage: surviving adolescence and its absurd social dynamics.
The Brian Jonestown Massacre, “Mary, Please” (1996)
The focus of 2004’s rock documentary Dig!, neo-psych gods the Brian Jonestown Massacre are hands-down one of the most influential Sixties-rock revivalists of the Nineties. Fronted by the wildly talented yet erratic Anton Newcombe, the BJM’s success stems directly from their ability to consistently generate material that is simultaneously inventive and impressive. Although never quite experiencing the commercial success of their close friends and rivals the Dandy Warhols, the band’s discography remains untainted by commoditization, each song presenting itself as authentic and constantly attuned to Newcombe’s artistic intent. Spawning acts like Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Darker My Love, the BJM were pivotal to the resurgence of psych and shoegaze, possibly even paving the way for crucial outfits like the White Stripes. Featured on third studio album Take It From the Man!, “Mary, Please” is trippy with partially dejected yet sincere lyricism. Filled with meticulously placed tambourine and cymbals, “Mary, Please” brings to mind the disenchantment of Oasis without the detriment of overproduction and conventional chord execution. “Mary, Please” isn’t quite as dancy as “Not If You Were the Last Dandy on Earth” or as mesmerizing as “It Girl,” but it is just as essential and equally good.
The Promise Ring, “Happiness Is All the Rage” (1999)
At the end of the Nineties, emo’s dominance began to rise. Before Dashboard Confessional and Taking Back Sunday took over the scene, Midwestern natives the Promise Ring were paramount. Plucked from the track listing of their third full-length on Jade Tree Records, Very Emergency’s “Happiness Is All the Rage” was a pop-friendly departure from the band’s delectably glum Nothing Feels Good. Frontman Davey von Bohlen’s vocals fall somewhere between enthusiastic and suffering from fun-induced fatigue while the track’s chords and crashing cymbals perfectly frame the practical thrills of the song’s narrative. Despite slipping under the radar of many listeners in 1999, “Happiness Is All the Rage” deserves as much praise as “Is This Thing On” and “Why Did We Ever Meet.” It’s a guaranteed pick-me-up. Who knew that emo could be so posi?