Okay, 90s music peeps, where’re you at? This playlist is for YOU. It’s made with love (and was a much bigger task than I first thought, mostly because nostalgia-related rabbit holes are especially long and sticky).
Folks love to use the phrase “coming-of-age” when talking about movies and books. I think it’s meant to evoke a tenderness in our hearts as we remember, and maybe even offer compassion to, our younger, probably-awkward selves.
I use the phrase for this post because coming of age is practically all I did in the 90s. I turned twelve in 1990 and graduated university in 2000, so basically ALL of my coming-of-age milestones were in the 90s. You name it: first period, first bra, first kiss, first boyfriend, first real job, first proper bank account, driver’s license, convocations, travelling alone, living away from home… It was, when I reflect, an astonishing number of frontiers breached in one decade.
(Also, If you’re wondering, there was plenty of awkwardness, as well as moments of dizzying confidence, crushing insecurity, and everything in between.)
So anyway. The 90s contained ALL MY GROWING-UP FEELS. How’s a gal supposed to deal with all that??
The answer, in my case, is by
1) journaling like a fiend,
2) composing piano music I never had the skill to write down, and
3) making mix tapes.
I’m not talking about edgy, self-produced, underground-y hip-hop mixtapes of the sort people make now. (Let’s face it, I’ve never been edgy.) I’m talking about sequences of songs carefully curated into 45-minute blocks for Side A and Side B of the cassette, with wildly varying sound quality and volume. So much listening, sourcing, collecting (/borrowing), planning, timing, rewinding, forwarding, pausing, and synchronized button-pushing went into every mix. (I know you remember, 90s mixers.) I made one for every summer of my teens (plus a few others – including some for other people, of course. Because what is more emblematic of devotion than a handmade mix tape??).
My mixes were always… quirky. Back in the 90s, I preferred variety and mood changes to any kind of cohesive theme. (I guess that fits with the ever-mutable spirit attributed to teens, even though I was a pretty even-tempered one.) Genres and eras got interwoven for true trail-mix-style collections. As a result, many of the songs I associate most strongly with my adolescence are actually from the 70s or 80s. For example, yes I did put “Jack & Diane” on my Summer ’94 mix and proceed to hold on to sixteen as long as I could. Ya know?
You may also notice that some really obvious choices are missing. I mean, this may be the only 90s playlist EVER that contains zero songs by Nirvana. It’s pretty light on the grunge in general, considering the genre’s birth-to-dominance voyage during that decade. I wore my plaid flannel and corduroy like any normal kid of the era, but I was just not disaffected enough to connect deeply with the angst. On the other hand, the list contains no Boyz II Men either…so. It’s just songs that I gravitated towards, that meant something to me.
Folks, I had to squeeze to make it down to a “reasonable” number of songs. It’s just that once I got going… Even limiting myself to one decade (thus eliminating key beloved tracks by Madonna, U2, The Bangles, Johnny Clegg, L.A. Guns, Joe Satriani, INXS, Kate Bush, and Guns ‘n’ Roses), there were too many songs to love. I ended up with fifty. (Or maybe I should say seventy-five, if you count the Canadian tunes, which I’ve excised to honour with their own post.) Hence, this is Volume 1, half the list, to start off. Just 25 songs for today! Easy-peasy.
Here goes! Twenty-five (non-Canadian) 90s songs that shaped my coming-of-age, and therefore my selfhood.
1. Birdhouse In Your Soul (1990) – They Might Be Giants. It’s hard to pick a favourite on this album when every song calls out so charmingly to the weird inner dork in all of us (well, some of us), but Birdhouse is so reassuring. We all need that little glowing friend.
2. U Can’t Touch This (1990) – MC Hammer. My best friend N and I choreographed a dance to this for her big brother to teach to his Grade 3 class, and I’m pretty sure it was a masterpiece. My body still remembers some of the moves and I CAN’T not dance when I hear it.
3. Hold On (1990) – Wilson Phillips. Come on, this song! Irresistible, IMHO – singalong gold. So close to the 80s that full-throttle cheese factor was still going strong. I associate Wilson Phillips with lustrous hair, nature shots, and earnestness (and rewatching this video now, I see why). But then there’s a surprisingly poignant question: “Are you comfortable with the pain?”
4. Vogue (1990) – Madonna. Can I see a show of hands for everyone who can still recite the spoken part of this song word for word? (Me!) Madonna has always been a culture-shaper, but maybe never more than at this moment. She was basically just fan-girling about golden-age Hollywood movies, but with so much style and confidence that she originated a phenomenon in the process. There’s nothing to it. VOGUE.
5. More Than Words (1990) – Extreme. When this song became popular, it was a source of happy wonderment for me. I was amazed that these lovely chords and tender falsetto harmonies were produced by a long-haired, black-nailed metal band. And although I was not yet fully interested in sex so didn’t relate to that content (and nowadays question the possible coercion implied), I was interested in slow dancing and could definitely relate to “hold me close, don’t EH-VAH LET ME GO!”
6. Joyride (1991) – Roxette. Yep, I was a fan. I had (pirated tapes of) all their albums, and recently discovered I can still sing along with every compelling, nonsensical lyric. Joyride was special because, similar to #2 above, my best friend N and I did a dance to it at Camp Talent Night one year. I don’t remember the performance, but have very fond memories of practicing for hours in her backyard, feeling super-cool.
7. Shiny Happy People (1991) – R.E.M. If you know Michael Stipe, it won’t surprise you that this song is not as carefree as it sounds – it’s actually a comment on Chinese propaganda. But musically, it’s pure song-joy. Is there anything more exhilarating than that lyrical intro magically morphing into the bounciest guitar riff ever played? I mean, that bass line!
8. Under The Bridge (1991) – Red Hot Chili Peppers. A mere handful of notes from this intro and I can almost smell Grade 9. My first year in public school since Grade 1. I learned more about normal-personing that year than I did about any school subject – and this song was the soundtrack to many interesting moments.
9. Groove is in the Heart (1990) – Deee-Lite. I’ve put this one out of place chronologically because it goes with Grade 9 for me, when I first went to school dances. Back then, it was cool to have “MuchMusic video dances” where the videos for each song were projected on big screens in the gym. With no cable TV at home (and no internet, period), it was basically the only time I watched music videos. This one was funner than most – as is the song, n’est-ce pas?
10. Right Now (1991) – Van Halen. This song is epic in every way. I taught myself the piano bit (starting at 0:25) because I thought it was the coolest riff ever – and it still rocks today. And having just re-watched this video for the first time in years, I have to say its message holds up amazingly well.
11. Black or White (1991) – Michael Jackson. I remember laughing with my sister Beth about the weird intro to this song where the dad is telling the kid to turn off his music and the kid says “Eat this!” and Black or White kicks in. It’s just SO FUN. I’ve linked to a short clip of just the face-morphing part at the end, because that’s the part I remember – incredibly cool then, and still really entertaining now, even with all the tech progress that’s been made since.
12. Alive (1991) – Pearl Jam. It was 1992 by the time we got obsessed with the album Ten at Intermediate Camp, and we played the crap out of it. I still can’t believe this was their first single ever – it’s so masterful and confident. Close your eyes and listen – the intro alone is satisfying enough to be a whole song. (Or you can watch the live Official Video if you’d like to see Eddie all adorable in his flannel.)
13. Smells Like Nirvana (1992) – “Weird Al” Yankovic. This was the true access point for Nirvana for me. I have now a greater appreciation of both Weird Al and Kurt Cobain than I had in the 90s – both are artists who have had a huge impact on modern music in general. But the Smells Like Teen Spirit video does not make me LOL like this one does.
14. Two Princes (1992) – Spin Doctors. This one goes out to our friend K, the first person I officially dated in high school and with whom I was spending an inordinate amount of time on the phone when this song was at the top of the charts. Again, I can recognize and be transported by the first 0.7 seconds of this song and I still love it.
15. Walking on Broken Glass (1992) – Annie Lennox. One of the songs on my list of 20 Sad Songs that Sound Happy, and a perfect example of the way syncopation makes humans want to rock out. Even in corsets.
16. Sweat (1992) – Inner Circle. Here’s one I got a recording of by waiting by my boom-box when the Top 20 was on, blank tape in the cassette deck, finger poised over the record button. The lyrics were just suggestive enough to make me a tiny bit uncomfortable at the time, but the reggae groove was worth it.
17. Undone – The Sweater Song (1992) – Weezer. This song seems absurd – some would say hilarious – when you listen to only the chorus, but its economical verses (15-16 words each) have always sounded lost and hopeless to me – while also being super-singable. I guess some listeners were hooked by the inanity, some by relating to the words “watch me unravel […] I’ve come undone.”
18. I Will Always Love You (1992) – Whitney Houston. This is not my absolute favourite Whitney song (that title is a tie between I Wanna Dance With Somebody and How Will I Know), but it does affirm that she is a freaking LEGEND who could do ANYTHING with her incredible voice. It reminds me of the ski trip to Québec in Grade 10 – we heard it on the bus, at the dance, and probably in the chairlift for all I know.
19. Fixing Her Hair (1992) – Ani DiFranco. I brought this song to music class where our group presented it for a project on songs with messages. I remember discussing it with our music teacher who got tears in her eyes as she listened. Although there was not consensus about the fate of the friend in the song, there is no doubt of the narrator’s pain. No one could render it with more raw beauty than Ani.
20. Bring Me Your Cup (1993) – UB40. I bought the cassette of this album in Grade 11, basically just for this song. (But I often listened to the whole thing because that’s what you did with tapes.) I love the delicacy of the horns and the harmonies – and don’t give me the short version, because it’s just not the same without the reggae-rap.
21. The Sign (1993) – Ace of Base. This song was voted the most popular at my high school at the Top 20 (as chosen by us) Dance in Grade 11, followed by Loser (see below), which was always a funny contrast to me. (The Sign is infinitely danceable, whereas Loser… you can’t even mosh to it.) I consider it the next evolution of “I Will Survive”; not only will I survive, but I will drag myself up into the light! Where I belong!
22. Loser (1994) – Beck. Out of order because it was the foil to AOB, above. I thought this song was dumb initially, but somehow it grew on me. Such weird but original imagery in the lyrics, and it does make you want to sing along. (I’ll admit I rolled my eyes when I took Spanish a couple of years later and realized that that unintelligible line was just the translation of “I’m a loser”.)
23. When I Was a Boy (1993) – Dar Williams. My sister Emily introduced me to Dar not long after this album came out, and I listened to all the songs I could. Her guitar patterns felt already-known to a kid who grew up with folk music, and this song in particular moved me. It’s so simply written and so true. I still get teary when I hear “… and I have lost some kindness…”
24. I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) (1993) – The Proclaimers. This song was actually released in 1988 in the group’s native Scotland, but it took Benny & Joon to get it across the pond. And despite being an obstinate earworm, it’s too much fun not to love. Who doesn’t need the catharsis of bouncing around yelling “DA DA DAT-DA!” at the top of one’s lungs once in a while?
25. Today (1993) – Smashing Pumpkins. Such a classic 90s thing: come in with a sweet, immediately recognizable little guitar bit, almost like a music box (or ice cream truck) for sixteen counts… then CRASH IN with the hard version so everyone goes nuts. Fills any everyday moment with rock-drama and coolness.
And folks… we shall leave it there for today. I don’t want to abuse your readership with a ridiculous fifty-song list… at least not all in one day.
Stay tuned for Volume 2, coming soon! And please, tell me your 90s favourites below!!