The Best Songs of the 1990s Defined the Restlessness of Gen X Via Angst-ridden Songs and Sentimental Ballads

The 90s were the last decade of true music revolution. As brief as it was, Grunge had managed to turn the musical world on its head – and it was about damn time. Post 80s-synthetics gave the 90s a renewed interest in the do-it-yourself attitude. There was a desire to return to something real, something that had value, not just monetary but spiritually, emotionally, mentally. The music that came out of the 90s was full of questions not in want of answers. Instead, merely asking the question was enough. These five songs charted the varying experiences of Generation X during the 90s, and provided a foundation for the strange ways the world was going.

5 “Name” – Goo Goo Dolls

Despite fading into alt-rock obscurity, the Goo Goo Dolls were one of the best bands of the 90s, and Name is a song that put them on the map (sorry Iris lovers, the song is just too damn cheesy). John Rzeznik’s, Robby Takac’s, and Mike Malinin’s acoustic-y ballad, “Name” was unique for its decade. In 1995, Grunge wasn’t famous for its love songs (Everlong was two years away), but “Name” suddenly filled the gap that grunge was missing – that personal connection, that sadness in a lost relationship. Rzeznik’s own life may have made him a bit better at articulating this sadness than the average musician. Name speaks from the heart in decided manner, asking the question that everyone was thinking: “don’t it make you sad to know that life is more than who we are?” It was the question everyone was wondering, and the Goo Goo Dolls provide no answers. They simply illustrate the sadness that comes along with growing up, watching people move and change, leave and come back. The anonymity of life that we are all so desperate to break out of – yet never seem to be able to. “Name” is a song with depths beyond what most would anticipate. It is a desperate offering of a safe haven in a world where they are few and far between. Sad and hopeful all at once, Name remains an exceptional song even ten-plus year later.

4 “Free” – Phish

Phish is a strangely amazing band. A unique beast, Phish’s “Free” is one of those songs that you smile as you listen to, but when you actually sit down and listen to the lyrics you go “oh… wait a minute… ah-ha”. It is a song that epitomizes 90s apathy in a way that you don’t expect to hear it (as Phish definitely weren’t a grunge band). Their sound doesn’t follow suit with what you expect from the average 90s despondency, and that’s what makes “Free” so great. It is proof that the message of apathy wasn’t exclusive to wet, flannel-clad, Seattleites – but instead it was a universal feeling for all of Generation X. Free has a sound that is reminiscent of a plugged in version of the Grateful Dead – but there is no flower power here. “I feel no curiosity” is another sweet and simple anthem for the apathetic Generation X-er who wants to divorce themselves from the world of their parents. “Free” allowed another subculture of music lovers to express the same unified message that all were feeling. It loosened the musical boundaries, and proved that the 90s weren’t just about grunge, but the message within all music of the time was something to be taken seriously.

3 “Everlong” – Foo Fighters

After the unfortunate demise of Nirvana, Dave Grohl was left without a band. He formed the Foo Fighters out of the ashes of his previous musical ventures, and released a self-titled album to little fanfare, despite its prowess. Then came “Everlong.” If there was ever a love song for the 90s, “Everlong” was it. With a heavy desperation in the lyrics and music, Everlong is four minutes and ten seconds of flawless music, lyrics, and quietness. Perhaps it’s Grohl’s unique life experiences that allowed him to write a song that is so meaningful in its straightforwardness. Short of sticking the MP3 file in this article, there is no other way to describe the significance of “Everlong.” It still remains one of the most heart-wrenching love songs to exist in the extensive collection of rock n’ roll. We all know that desperation, that sadness, that loss. Grohl had the inexplicable ability to craft that deep sadness and turn it into purely poetic musical expression. Unfortunately, all of Grohl’s music will be viewed in the hindsight of the death of Cobain – it’s impossible not to. And while “Everlong” does evoke Nirvana-nostalgia, it’s hard not to think of a certain flannel-clad front man when Grohl desperately wonders “when I sing along with you/if anything will ever be this real forever.” But that said, it doesn’t even matter what Grohl is really singing about – what matters is the message in the lyrics. The eloquence is unparalleled. “Everlong” will always be that perfectly melancholy love song, with hope that glistens in the distance just brightly enough, making it simply flawless.

2 “Stupid Girl” – Garbage

In true apathetic 90s spirit, Garbage’s “Stupid Girl” ranks high on the list for many reasons. While maybe not as well known of an anthem, Garbage was the true woman powered grunge band to mean something (sorry Courtney Love, you just don’t cut it). Produced by Butch Vig (the man responsible for “Smells Like Teen Spirit”), “Stupid Girl” has a unique, flat honest to it. Shirley Manson’s droning voice, dragging her vowels, really makes you feel the menace, the anger, and the eye-rolling annoyance at that stupid girl. Stupid Girl represents all of that outward hatred for the stereotypical role a girl is supposed to fill. Musically, the song has a distinctive bass driven hook, which separated Garbage from all the other riot grrrl acts of the 90s. Shirley Manson’s talent was unparalleled for her generation, and gave real power to the women trying to make it in a male-driven music world. “Stupid Girl” is a truly empowering song, and Garbage’s success proves that Manson practices what she preaches; not settling for less than what she wants is a message we could all use.

1 “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – Nirvana

Fact, not opinion. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is the anthem of a generation. It is a song that, from the first second, grabbed you by the gut and didn’t let go. Simply writing out the lyrics would be proof enough as to why “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is the number one song of the 90s. The power-trio of Cobain, Novoselic, and Grohl, provided the deepest, darkest, and most tenderly distressing sounds to be delivered in the 90s. It is a song you can actually lose yourself in, and yet find a community in as well. Like every anthem, it soon outgrew its fans, and Nirvana’s fame skyrocketed into unexpected, territory – eventually destroying what made “Smells Like Teen Spirit” so perfect. The song was wrenched from the hands of those to whom it meant something, and mass marketed. That said, it was still the beginning of something new, of asking questions without caring, of not just giving respect to your elders because they were old, but instead withholding respect until it was earned (which it rarely was). It was a song that provided a whole new set of glasses with which to look at the world. They weren’t rose colored, that was for damn sure. Instead, they stripped away all the false glory America lived in, and showed the world for what it was – a cruel place. Everything about the song is poignant and purposeful. Each word, note, drum beat, crescendo and even silence, means something to the listener. It was an anthem that stretched not only from the 90s, but also to generations that followed. The world’s only gotten worse, and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” will always be relevant to those who truly feel despondent about it, but hopeless to change it.


Countess pages have been penned about the 90s – it was, after all, a decade that seemed to speed right by. Nirvana’s short lived but huge impact, combined with the swift rise and fall of Grunge turned the world on its head. These five songs forever changed music, and those who lived through the 90s at all are aware of the impact they had. To this day, these songs remain meaningful – not just for their nostalgia, but also for their timeless applicability to the fraught struggles of human existence in the modern world. “Oh well, whatever, nevermind” is still pointedly bandied about; “stupid girl” still cuts to the bone when spat out at an adversary; “the only thing I ask of you” still inspires desperation and sadness; “a” is still a feeling we frantically seek; and “I won’t tell ‘em your name” is still a promise we are desperate to keep.

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