The 1990s saw the re-emergence of Rock music as a force to be reckoned with. The 1980s Rock scene was dominated by spandex-wearing Hair Metal bands. The decade also wasn’t kind to the legendary bands of the late 60s and 70s.
The start of the 90s saw a changing of the guard with the rise of many new and exciting subgenres of Rock getting mainstream attention. It was a time of creativity, with the music video also at the height of its powers as a means of spreading a song’s popularity.
It wasn’t easy…
But, I’ve compiled my list of the 20 best 90s rock songs for your consideration. All of these songs were game-changers in one way or another, lighting up the cultural zeitgeist of the time and for decades after.
Whether you remember these from the time or you’re on a journey of discovery, I’m sure that you’re going to find something that will blow your socks off on my list. Enjoy.
- Top 20 Best 90s Rock Songs
- 20 Zombie – The Cranberries (1994)
- 19 Jeremy – Pearl Jam (1991)
- 18 Thunderstruck – AC/DC (1990)
- 17 Losing My Religion – REM (1991)
- 16 Say It Ain’t So – Weezer (1995)
- 15 Common People – Pulp (1995)
- 14 Everlong – Foo Fighters (1997)
- 13 Been Caught Stealing – Jane’s Addiction (1990)
- 12 Cannonball – The Breeders (1993)
- 11 Under The Bridge – Red Hot Chili Peppers (1992)
- 10 Killing in the Name – Rage Against the Machine (1992)
- 9 Black Hole Sun – Soundgarden (1994)
- 8 Nothing Else Matters – Metallica (1992)
- 7 Kinky Afro – Happy Mondays (1990)
- 6 Come As You Are – Nirvana (1992)
- 5 Karma Police – Radiohead (1997)
- 4 Today – Smashing Pumpkins (1993)
- 3 Song 2 – Blur (1997)
- 2 Bitter Sweet Symphony – The Verve (1997)
- 1 Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana (1991)
- Looking for More Great Music?
- Final Thoughts on My List of the Best 90s Rock Songs
Top 20 Best 90s Rock Songs
20 Zombie – The Cranberries (1994)
This iconic song from the 90s was by far The Cranberries’ biggest hit, reaching #1 on charts all over the world. The fact that it’s been watched over a billion times on YouTube should tell you all you need to know about its enduring appeal.
Lead singer, Dolores O’Riordan, wrote this song in the wake of an IRA bomb attack on mainland Britain. Two young boys were among the dead, and the Irish songwriter felt compelled to write a song lamenting the troubles in Ireland and the senseless death they’ve caused.
It’s essentially an anti-political violence protest song, a subject people around the world can relate to. Powerful grungy guitars and mournful yodeling make this one of the more unforgettable Rock songs of the 90s.
19 Jeremy – Pearl Jam (1991)
Featured on their hugely successful debut album, Ten, “Jeremy” is another song about a controversial subject. Eddie Vedder wrote the song after reading an article about a teenage boy in Texas who shot himself in class.
He also based part of the song on another kid that shot up a classroom at his junior high school. These events shook up Vedder enough to write this 90s classic. And it was the first song to propel them to an audience outside of their hometown scene.
The Seattle rockers went on to become a staple of the exploding Grunge movement, which dominated the music scene of the early nineties.
18 Thunderstruck – AC/DC (1990)
Having a huge hit in your third decade of making music is an impressive feat not many bands have managed to pull off. This is AC/DC, however, and this 1990 hit went to show that the Aussie rockers had no intention of growing old gracefully.
“Thunderstruck” has gone on to be one of their most recognizable songs, up there with “Back in Black” and “Hell’s Bells.” Classic AC/DC guitar riffs are complimented by one of Angus Young’s most epic guitar shredding solos.
The song has been used in eight movie soundtracks and multiple TV shows and rode high in the charts of almost every western country. As long as AC/DC is still performing, you can expect to hear this one at their live shows, usually the opening number.
17 Losing My Religion – REM (1991)
This is probably the song that moved REM from being a college band to a group with serious mainstream appeal. It was their most successful US release and a huge hit on charts everywhere.
The song was nominated for seven Grammy awards in 1992, winning two for Best Song and Best Video. Rolling Stone magazine consistently features “Losing My Religion” in their list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Despite the title, the song isn’t about religious faith but an obsessive unrequited love. It’s a thoroughly relatable song that can be interpreted in many ways. That probably goes a long way to explaining why it was such a big hit rock song in the 1990s.
16 Say It Ain’t So – Weezer (1995)
Featuring one of the most legendary guitar breaks of the 90s, “Say It Ain’t So” is an out-and-out headbanger of epic proportions. If you can hear that chorus break and not want to channel your inner air guitarist, then you have way more self-control than me.
The song is about the alcoholism that led to lead singer Rivers Cuomo’s parents splitting up. It details his fear of coming home and discovering a beer in the fridge and the worry that his stepdad might be going the same way.
Not the most Rock and Roll of subject matters, but there isn’t anything much more Rock and Roll than that chorus. So, all is forgiven.
15 Common People – Pulp (1995)
You can’t talk of the Brit-Pop era of the mid-nineties without mentioning “Common People.” Frontman Jarvis Cocker wrote this song as a scathing put down of gentrification. It’s a critique of well-off people pretending to be working class, a fashionable phenomenon in the UK.
Pulp had been knocking around on the indie scene for years before this song shot them into the spotlight. The combination of humorous and whimsical lyrics, together with the incredibly catchy hook, made this song a huge hit in the UK. It’s a working-class anthem that’s still going strong to this day.
14 Everlong – Foo Fighters (1997)
Emerging from the wreckage of his former band Nirvana to create the Rock juggernaut that is the Foo Fighters, has to be one of the more impressive Rock and Roll achievements of modern times.
It would have been all too easy to disappear…
But, fortunately for us, Dave Grohl kept going. And, because of his perseverance, we have awesome songs like this.
Released to wide critical acclaim in 1997, it’s a typically fast-paced affair full of thrashing guitars, adrenaline-pumping drums, and a chorus that is almost impossible not to sing along to at full volume.
The video is also worth a mention. Directed by Michael Gondry, it’s an entertaining parody of classic zombie horror films and is currently topping over 200 million views on YouTube.
13 Been Caught Stealing – Jane’s Addiction (1990)
The first year of the decade brought us this staple of 90s Alt-Rock from Jane’s Addiction. It was by far their biggest hit, reaching the top of the US Alternative Rock chart and remaining there for four weeks.
It’s an upbeat ditty…
…all about the joys of shoplifting. The funky Trip-Hop beat is accompanied by acoustic and electric guitars to great effect. Rolling Stone magazine loved the inclusion of dog barks in the track.
Ironically, the barks were a result of lead singer Perry Farrell bringing his dog, Annie, to the studio. She got overexcited, and her barks were accidentally recorded and then left in the final mix.
The classic video depicts band members hilariously shoplifting from a local grocery store. VH1 voted it #47 on their list of 100 greatest videos.
12 Cannonball – The Breeders (1993)
Former Pixies band member, Kim Deal, formed this band alongside her sister, and “Cannonball” is the song they will be remembered for.
It’s unbridled fun all the way. The unusual balance of quirky Pop with the powerful surge of the chorus and the goofy lyrics convey the sense of freewheeling fun perfectly.
Critics loved it. And, to this day, it still makes the greatest 90s Rock song lists of respected media outlets such as Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and VH1. As indie anthems go, it’s right near the top of the pile.
11 Under The Bridge – Red Hot Chili Peppers (1992)
“Under The Bridge” was the song that put the Red Hot Chili Peppers on the map. It’s a very personal song about lead singer Anthony Kiedis’s struggles with staying clean from drug addiction. As a result, it became one of the best 90s Rock songs.
It almost didn’t get made at all…
Kiedis felt that it was too emotionally personal. Legendary producer Rick Rubin, thankfully, convinced him otherwise. And it became the second single released from their wildly successful album, Blood Sugar Sex Magik.
The song went on to top charts worldwide, reaching #2 on the US Billboard Hot 100, where it spent a total of 26 cumulative weeks. It’s since become a vital cog in the landscape of the best 90s alternative rock music, justifiably earning its place in the canon of Rock and Roll fame.
Songs simply don’t come any more anti-establishment than “Killing in the Name” by Rage Against the Machine. The song is a savage, expletive-ridden takedown of the worst aspects of American society.
Musically, it’s a fusion of Rap and Alternative Metal that features the otherworldly guitar skills of Tom Morello and the vocal conviction of lead singer/rapper Zach de la Rocha.
Due to its subject matter…
It remains a controversial song to this day. It’s virtually unplayable on mainstream radio due to the ending refrain of “F*** you, I won’t do what you tell me,” being repeated over and over, building to a spectacular crescendo.
The song had a resurgence in 2009 after an online campaign was successful in making it that year’s Christmas #1 in the UK. A less appropriate holiday song is hard to imagine. You’ve got to take your hat off to the Brits for that one.
9 Black Hole Sun – Soundgarden (1994)
The Seattle Grunge scene produced some of the most popular rock songs of the 90s, and “Black Hole Sun” is a proud member of that group. Released in the aftermath of Kurt Cobain’s premature death, the song was a bright spot in an otherwise rather depressing time for Grunge music fans.
Lyrically, the song doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Songwriter, Chris Cornell, confirmed that he was playing with words rather than trying to write anything particularly meaningful.
Where it catches your attention…
The shift between serene melody and the immense guitar riffs of the chorus. “Black Hole Sun” went on to become the band’s biggest hit reaching #1 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart and cementing their place in 90s rock history.
8 Nothing Else Matters – Metallica (1992)
“Nothing Else Matters” was the third single from Metallica’s hugely successful, The Black Album. James Hetfield wrote this power ballad on tour whilst feeling homesick and never intended it to be released.
Fortunately, drummer Lars Ulrich overheard him singing it and insisted it was included on the album. Fans were certainly grateful for Ulrich’s insistence.
The song achieved a platinum level of sales in multiple countries. The song showcases the softer side of the Heavy Metal titans and has remained a staple of their live shows ever since. Likewise, it’s one of the best 90s Rock songs with an unending appeal.
7 Kinky Afro – Happy Mondays (1990)
The Dance music revolution of the late 80s inspired many hybrid crossover bands from the thriving Manchester music scene. Probably the most successful was Happy Mondays. Their blend of funky House and Rock and Roll psychedelia single-handedly created a whole new genre of music.
“Kinky Afro” was the second single from their platinum-selling album, Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches. It went on to become their biggest selling single worldwide, even riding high in the US Billboard charts.
It wasn’t long after this that the band imploded due to out-of-control drug addiction. But, for a short while there, Happy Mondays changed the face of 90s music and left us with gems like this song to treasure forever.
6 Come As You Are – Nirvana (1992)
Nirvana was the defining band of the decade. Rock music had arguably become somewhat stale in the late eighties, with hair metal bands like Motley Crue and Poison doing their thing. Then, like a breath of fresh air, along came Nirvana to breathe new life into a stagnant scene.
“Come As You Are” was the second release from their legendary breakthrough album, Nevermind. Although not as commercially successful as the first single from that album, it still rode high in charts across the world.
It’s lasted the test of time as Spotify reports it to be the 6th most streamed song from the 90s. Younger generations have also discovered this seminal band and like what they hear. Thereby ensuring this song will continue to be a 90s rock classic for a long time yet.
5 Karma Police – Radiohead (1997)
This exquisitely haunting song was Radiohead’s second release from their truly magnificent album, OK Computer. It’s hard to overstate the significance of this album. Universally hailed by music critics on its release, it’s been the inspiration for a host of subsequent and generally inferior bands.
There are so many great tracks on OK Computer. Each one brimming with genuine emotion amongst the experimental and complex arrangements. “Karma Police” is a great representation of the album as a whole, a cornerstone of this exceptional 90s album.
Radiohead has gone on to bridge the gap between Rock and Electronic music, experimenting and evolving with each new album. For a legion of fans, though, OK Computer and songs like “Karma Police” were the pinnacles of the band’s output and the nineties as a whole.
4 Today – Smashing Pumpkins (1993)
If there was a band that perfectly captured the sense of alienation felt by large sections of American youth in the 1990s, it would be the Smashing Pumpkins. Tracks like “Today” became a defining song of the 90s generation.
Whilst the music is quite upbeat, the lyrics were written about struggling with suicidal thoughts. The light and dreamy verses clash nicely with the loud distorted guitars of the chorus.
This is the track that got the band the mainstream attention they deserved. The entertaining video received a huge amount of airtime on MTV, further propelling the song into mainstream consciousness.
Hailed as the new Nirvana at the time…
The Smashing Pumpkins had one more great album in them after Siamese Dream. Then, one by one, most of the original band members left, and the band never reached these hallowed heights again. Still, it was great while it lasted.
3 Song 2 – Blur (1997)
One of the most recognizable 90s rock songs is “Song 2” by the English rock band, Blur. If this song doesn’t get the blood pumping, then you must have ice in your veins. It’s such a rabble-rouser that sports stadiums all over the world regularly use this song to get the fans going.
It’s a bit of a departure from their previous output, more of an in-your-face adrenaline rush of Grunge-inspired glory than the slightly pretentious Brit-Pop of their past efforts.
From Graham Coxon’s opening guitar riff, it’s not long before all guns are blazing. We are thrown into a world of distorted bass, thrashing guitars, and extreme volume accompanied by Damon Albarn’s “woo-hooing” to his heart’s content. What’s not to like about this song?
The video is a cracker too…
Band members are thrown against the walls of a secluded room by the sheer power of the music ripping through the amplified speakers. There’s no doubt you’ll be hearing this song for decades to come.
2 Bitter Sweet Symphony – The Verve (1997)
When people think of the Brit-Pop era, they immediately think of bands like Oasis and Blur. The Verve, however, very much climbed to the top of that pile in 1997 with the release of their masterpiece, Urban Hymns.
“Bitter Sweet Symphony” is their cry against the mundaneness of modern life and how we need to find something that celebrates living rather than following the same old path. It’s far more ambitious than anything else from the Brit-Pop era, with an orchestral accompaniment throughout the track.
But not without controversy…
The string arrangement is borrowed from the Rolling Stones song, “The Last Time.” This led to a series of court cases that denied The Verve any royalties from by far their biggest hit. Fortunately, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards relented in 2019, and the band received what was owed to them.
The song went on to win numerous awards from publications like Rolling Stone and NME. And, it has historically been viewed as the high watermark of the Brit-Pop era.
1 Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana (1991)
There was only ever one song that could top this list of best 90s rock songs. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was the first song released from Nirvana’s album, Nevermind. The band and the record company were completely unprepared for the incredible success of the song.
This is the track that exploded Grunge out of apathetic teenage basements and thrust it into mainstream consciousness. What an awesome time it was to be a teenager rock fan. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was by far the most exciting thing to happen to Rock music for over a decade.
There’s something about this song that even gets my seven-year-old son’s head banging in 2022. The raw energy and sense of anarchy encapsulated in the song and its fantastic video touched a nerve for Generation X and every generation thereafter.
As recently as 2021…
Rolling Stone magazine placed “Smells Like Teen Spirit” at #6 in their list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. It’s also reached over a billion streams on Spotify, only the second song from the 1990s to achieve that feat.
We’ll never know what the band would have gone on to do for obvious reasons. But, with this one song, they redefined the parameters of Rock and Roll forever. In terms of cultural impact, no other song from that decade comes close to being as influential as “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
Looking for More Great Music?
Well, then take a look at our detailed articles on the Best Songs Of All Time, the Best Songs of The 2000s, the Best 90s Love Songs, the Best 90s Hip Hop Songs, and the Best 70s Rock Songs for more incredible song selections.
Of course, you need to hear them. So, check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Headphones For Rock & Metal Music, the Best Headphones for Music, the Most Comfortable Headphones, the Best Wireless Bluetooth Headphones, and the Best Headphones Under $200 you can buy in 2022.
Final Thoughts on My List of the Best 90s Rock Songs
In retrospect, the 1990s was an extraordinary decade when it came to Rock music. Alternative and Grunge music emerged from the shadows into the mainstream. In turn, they spawned a host of other sub-genres that re-ignited the Rock scene as a whole.
We didn’t know how bad modern mainstream music was going to get over the following decades. And just didn’t appreciate just how good we had it at the time.
All of these wonderful songs can be found in various audio formats. Hopefully, future generations will get to enjoy a taste of what an era it truly was.
I hope you enjoyed this trip down memory lane. Or, if you are new to 90s rock classics, this list helped introduce you to a very special decade.
Until next time, put on some flannel, and happy listening.