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Top 100 Greatest Alternative Rock Songs of the '90s

Updated: Nov 27, 2023


Top 100 Greatest Alternative Rock Songs of The 1990's

(Pictured - Pearl Jam)

Following alternative rock's introduction in the late '70s, alternative rock and mainstream rock seldomly intertwined, at least not on a large scale. The 1990s stand primarily as the lone decade where what was considered alternative rock, was also the popular mainstream rock making this list a tad different and a bit broader than the ones we have done in the past. The '90s was alternative rock's time to shine with the introduction of the grunge scene, a growing presence of post-Smiths indie rock and of course the explosion of Britpop. The decade found about the broadest classification alternative rock would ever have with the grunge scene drastically declining following the death of Nirvana frontman, Kurt Cobain and Britpop completely disappearing by 2000. Alternative music largely went underground, at least in the eyes of the mainstream by the 2000's with a growing presence of indie rock through the post-punk-revival route with groups like Interpol and The Strokes. In celebration of the golden age of alternative rock, we decided to take a stab ranking what we believe to be the Top 100 greatest alternative rock songs of the 1990s. With alternative rock being a broad classification, we will be including songs primarily considered alternative rock itself, along with grunge, indie rock, Britpop, post-punk, new-wave, jangle-rock, experimental rock and shoegaze. We are excluding songs primarily considered metal, pop, ska, pop-punk, punk rock, hip hop and rock artists who were never considered alternative (Guns N' Roses, Eric Clapton, Bryan Adams, etc.). Some artists, such as Green Day have been made eligible due to their place in alternative and post-punk music. Rage Against the Machine is also eligible, resulting from their impact on alternative music even though they could largely be considered rap-rock or metal, along with alternative rock. For a deeper dive into alternative music, check out the Top 100 Alternative Artists of All Time or the Top 100 Greatest Alternative Albums of All Time. Check us out on Instagram @melophobemusicfor new articles, releases, reviews, pictures and more!


1. Smells Like Teen Spirit - Nirvana

If there was a song that defined the '90s, it is undoubtedly Smells Like Teen Spirit. Singing about youth, angst and rebellion, Nirvana captured the spirit of an entire generation with this song. Being released off of their second studio album Nevermind, which we consider the 9th best rock album of all time, an explosion in the popularity of grunge music followed. Being described by frontman Kurt Cobain as "basically trying to rip off The Pixies," the song implemented distorted guitars, heavy bass playing and loud drums over aggressive lyrics. About as powerful of a rock song as there ever was, the song lives on in immense popularity being deeply respected and loved by fans and critics alike, long after Cobain's untimely death.


2. Losing My Religion - R.E.M.

By 1991, R.E.M. was pretty much at the top of the game for alternative rock. Having already been a well-established band for about ten years, they showed no sign of slowing down. Released off of their seventh studio album Out of Time, Losing My Religion depicted the other, non-Nirvana side of alternative rock. Still holding onto their jangle-pop influence alongside subtle-folk influences, R.E.M. continued to be revered from college radio to mainstream radio. With a bright mandolin riff propelling the words of Michael Stipe, Losing My Religion remains not only R.E.M.'s most popular song, but a song that is instantly recognizable to just about anyone.


3. Wonderwall - Oasis

Released from the bands second album What's the Story (Morning Glory), Wonderwall is the quintessential Britpop song. Written by Noel Gallagher about an imaginary friend, this beautiful song is set to a slow paced, swaying, danceable beat with subtle jangle-pop guitar licks, quite prominent in much of Britpop. Although the song is not quite a ballad, it still finds itself stuffed with heartfelt, genuine emotion, being able to resonate with just about anyone. Paul "Bonehead" Aurthurs on mellotron projects essentially the sounds of an entire orchestra over the piano, guitar and soft drum playing. Wonderwall remains as impactful and as catchy as ever, cementing it as the premiere Britpop anthem.


4. Everlong - Foo Fighters

As successful as Dave Grohl was as the drummer for Nirvana, it seems his true calling was as a guitarist and a frontman. Dave Grohl experienced a huge amount of well-deserved praise for his impact on rock in the '90's with Foo Fighters following the end of Nirvana. Of all of the noteworthy tracks released by the group, Everlong sits at the forefront with Grohl not only making his presence known with his singing and guitar playing, but also as the drummer on the track. The track stands as a perfect rock song filled with great musicianship, great lyrics alongside top-notch production. In a post-Nirvana world, Foo Fighters partly filled a void for a lot of heartbroken fans.


5. Even Flow - Pearl Jam

Released as the second track off of Pearl Jam's masterful debut album Ten, Even Flow has its legacy deeply entrenched in the world of early '90s grunge. Released in 1991, the perfect time, its captivating melody, emotive lyrics, and raw energy made this one of the most memorable songs of the decade. The track's grunge-infused sound, coupled with Eddie Vedder's distinct vocal style, captured the essence of the early '90s grunge scene on a level that few did.

6. Friday I'm in Love - The Cure

Released as the second single from the ninth studio album by The Cure, Friday I'm in Love takes listeners back to the early days of The Cure in the late '70s with its guitar forward, jangly sound. Initially written to be played considerably slower and in a different key, the final result the group went with was the upbeat, danceable track which has resonated so well with listeners. In an early '90s post-Smiths world, an upbeat, jangly song like this was quite desirable of course to long time Cure fans, but especially to indie and alternative fans. The legacy of The Cure is a massive one and of all of the groups stand-out tracks, this might just be them at their best.


7. Paranoid Android - Radiohead

Not Creep? Not Karma Police? No, and here's why. Not only was OK Computer the best album of the '90's other than perhaps Nevermind, but Paranoid Android was also one of the most musically interesting, yet equally infectious rock songs of the era. With Thom Yorke's vocals setting an eerie scene, it's the repeating breakdown featuring guitar and bass guitar is top-notch and one of the coolest musical phrases of decade. For alternative rock fans, but especially musicians, this is just one of those songs you hold in a special place and simply marvel at its composition. Nevertheless, fear not Radiohead fans, this won't be their last time making an appearance.


8. Bullet With Butterfly Wings - Smashing Pumpkins

The world is a vampire.... perhaps one of the most iconic opening lines of all time comes from a Smashing Pumpkins song off of their critically lauded album, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Billy Corgan's iconic, recognizable voice paired with Jimmy Chamberlains drumming resulted in a duet of sorts between the musicians in the verses. The groups masterful dynamic control between quiet and immensely loud shows itself phenomenally on this track making it one of many factors it was such an era-defining song.


9. Zombie - The Cranberries

This powerful song sings about The Troubles in Northern Ireland in the early '90s. Although the song generally gets bunched in with the grunge sound, it's perhaps a bit closer to the pre-grunge sound of Pixies, Dinosaur Jr. or Sonic Youth. "This wasn't grunge, but the timing was good," remarked writer and singer of The Cranberries, Dolores O'Riordian. Regardless, the song captured a feeling of uncertainty and fear that many people, not only in Northern Ireland felt, but all over the world. Dramatic dynamic contrast, powerful guitar playing and interpersonal lyrics made this song stand the test of time.


10. Under the Bridge - Red Hot Chili Peppers

The most popular track off of what most people would say was the best Chili Peppers album, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Under the Bridge has it all. Starting with a beautiful, very exposed guitar riff, Anthony Kledis comes in shortly after with relatable, and melancholic lyrics. Perhaps one of the most praiseworthy feats of this iconic song is that essentially the entire song is a gradual build up to a huge chorale, singalong style outro. A perfectly crafted song, with all sides exposed just to see that not even the slightest thing is even a tad out of place.

11. Creep - Radiohead

12. Killing in the Name - Rage Against the Machine

13. Black Hole Sun - Soundgarden

14. Come As You Are - Nirvana

15. Basket Case - Green Day

16. Say It Ain't So - Weezer

17. Man in the Box - Alice In Chains

18. Run-Around - Blues Traveler

19. Mr. Jones - Counting Crows

20. Interstate Love Song - Stone Temple Pilots

21. Iris - Goo Goo Dolls

22. Closer - Nine Inch Nails

23. 1979 - Smashing Pumpkins

24. Semi-Charmed Life - Third Eye Blind

25. Cut Your Hair - Pavement

26. Lover, You Should've Come Over - Jeff Buckley

27. Hunger Strike - Temple of the Dog

28. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea - Neutral Milk Hotel

29. Enjoy the Silence - Depeche Mode

30. The Distance - Cake

31. Karma Police - Radiohead

32. Drive - Incubus

33. Bitter Sweet Symphony - The Verve

34. Loser - Beck

35. Glycerine - Bush

36. Shine - Collective Soul

37. Spoonman - Soundgarden

38. Two Princes - Spin Doctors

39. Cannonball - The Breeders

40. Jeremy - Pearl Jam

41. Feel the Pain - Dinosaur Jr.

42. Hey Jealousy - Gin Blossoms

43. Song 2 - Blur

44. Just a Girl - No Doubt

45. Shiny Happy People - R.E.M.

46. Scar Tissue - Red Hot Chili Peppers

47. Bulls On Parade - Rage Against the Machine

48. 3AM - Matchbox Twenty

49. One Headlight - The Wallflowers

50. When I Come Around - Green Day


51. Champagne Supernova - Oasis

52. Pepper - Butthole Surfers

53. Plush - Stone Temple Pilots

54. Between the Bars - Elliot Smith

55. Love Spreads - The Stone Roses

56. Been Caught Stealing - Janes Addiction

57. Dreams - The Cranberries

58. Low - Cracker

59. Get Me Away From Here, I'm Dying - Belle & Sebastian

60. You Get What You Give - New Radicals

61. Heart Shaped Box - Nirvana

62. Sugar Kane - Sonic Youth

63. Man On The Moon - R.E.M.

64. Buddy Holly - Weezer

65. All Over You - Live

66. Runaway Train - Soul Asylum

67. Only Shallow - My Bloody Valentine

68. She Don't Use Jelly - The Flaming Lips

69. My Hero - Foo Fighters

70. Celebrity Skin - Hole

71. There She Goes - The La's

72. Autumn Sweater - Yo La Tengo

73. Carry the Zero - Built to Spill

74. All I Want - Toad the Wet Sprocket

75. Today - Smashing Pumpkins

76. Ocean Man - Ween

77. Alive - Pearl Jam

78. Tomorrow - Silverchair

79. Just - Radiohead

80. Movin' on Up - Primal Scream

81. Sex & Candy - Marcy Playground

82. Santa Monica - Everclear

83. What's the Frequency Kenneth? - R.E.M.

84. U-Mass - Pixies

85. California Stars - Wilco & Billy Bragg

86. You Oughta Know - Alanis Morissette

87. Would? - Alice In Chains

88. Alright - Supergrass

89. Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth - The Dandy Warhols

90. Brick - Ben Folds Five

91. Heart Cooks Brain - Modest Mouse

92. Flagpole Sitta - Harvey Danger

93. Closing Time - Semisonic

94. Start Choppin - Dinosaur Jr.

95. Suicide Blonde - INXS

96. Lithium - Nirvana

97. The Boy With The Arab Strap - Belle & Sebastian

98. A Long December - Counting Crows

99. Kool Thing - Sonic Youth

100. Nightswimming - R.E.M


 

Just Outside the Top 100

101. Good - Better Than Ezra

102. Wonderful - Everclear

103. Rid of Me - PJ Harvey

104. Blueprint - Fugazi

105. Linger - The Cranberries

106. Hurt - Nine Inch Nails

107. Holland, 1945 - Neutral Milk Hotel

108. Heavan or Las Vegas - Cocteau Twins

109. She - Green Day

110. License to Confuse - Sebadoh

111. Fake Plastic Trees - Radiohead

112. Lump - The Presidents Of The United States Of America

113. Voodoo Lady - Ween

114. Supersonic - Oasis

115. Take a Picture - Filter

116. Cherub Rock - Smashing Pumpkins

117. Vasoline - Stone Temple Pilots

118. Story of My Life - Social Distortion

119. Range Life - Pavement

120. The Old Apartment - Barenaked Ladies

122. Last Kiss - Pearl Jam

123. I Alone - Live

124. Suck My Kiss - Red Hot Chili Peppers

125. Gel - Collective Soul

For an expanded look at alternative rock from all decades including many of the songs and artists on this list be sure to check out the accompanying playlist! For a deeper dive into alternative music, check out the Top 100 Alternative Artists of All Time or the Top 100 Greatest Alternative Albums of All Time.



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