10 Criminally Underrated ’90s Songs

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In typical NME fashion, the magazine has caught on to ’90s nostalgia a few years after the rest of the music media and released its list of the top 100 songs of the decade. Aside from a few unmistakably British flourishes (Pulp’s “Common People” edging Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” out of the #1 spot, McAlmont & Butler’s “Yes” in the top 10), there are few surprises. No one can deny the excellence of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” or Daft Punk’s “Da Funk,” but we’re getting sick of seeing the same songs honored over and over when there are so many other equally great tracks to celebrate. We’ve done just that below, rounding up a handful of criminally underrated ’90s songs that you may have forgotten over the years. Since there are literally thousands of tracks that also deserve a place on this list, we hope you’ll add your suggestions in the comments.

Radiohead — “Black Star”

NME certainly didn’t forget about the most important British band of the ’90s — Radiohead has no fewer than three songs on the list. But none of them are from The Bends, the 1995 album that bridged Pablo Honey‘s grunge bandwagon-jumping with the epic, era-defining technology neurosis of OK Computer. This is a mistake, because that record contains some of the band’s loveliest and most emotionally rich, if not musically groundbreaking, work. “Fake Plastic Trees,” “Just,” and “High and Dry” would all be irreproachable additions to the list, but the apocalyptic break-up song “Black Star” is the one with the greatest tendency to sneak up and devastate us. You might think you’re unsentimental enough to resist lyrics like, “I get on the train and I just stand about now that I don’t think of you,” until that power chorus and those chiming guitars kick in, priming anyone with half a soul for a momentary breakdown.

Erykah Badu — “Next Lifetime”

Not one Erykah Badu song shows up on the NME list — not even her biggest hit, “On & On.” We love that song, but we could have forgiven its omission if the editors had thought to include “Next Lifetime.” With a teasing melody that has often seized hold of our brain for days on end, it’s an unusually clearheaded take on being the focal point of a love triangle: “What am I supposed to do when I want you in my world? How can I want you for myself when I’m already someone’s girl?” Badu’s conclusion — “Guess I’ll see you next lifetime” — is among the all-time classiest kiss-offs in music.

Mercury Rev — “Opus 40”

For the past 20 years, Mercury Rev have been making vivid psych-rock that recalls The Flaming Lips’ prettier, less bizarre moments. But the band pulled ahead of Wayne Coyne and co. for a brief moment in 1998, with the release of Deserter’s Songs, a loose concept album about cutting ties and running away. (Of course, the Lips would go and release The Soft Bulletin less than a year later.) Slightly — but also entirely appropriately — overstuffed with symphonic swells and flowery poetry, “Opus 40” is a portrait of dislocation so beautiful in its desperation that it sounds the way we imagine drowning might feel.

The Apples in Stereo — “Strawberryfire”

No song makes a greater case for that old chestnut about how good artists borrow, but great artists steal than The Apples in Stereo’s “Strawberryfire.” It is an unabashed rip-off of/homage to “Strawberry Fields Forever” (and just about every other song from The Beatles’ psychedelic period), but it takes that song to a transporting extreme the Fab Four never quite reached. When the whooshing, zooming sounds kick in just before 3:30, you don’t have to be in a chemically altered state to feel like you’re blasting off.

Liz Phair — “Help Me Mary”

These days, there are basically two Liz Phair talking points: 1. She was so bold and feminist and shocking on Exile in Guyville! 2. She is so pathetic and old and attention-seeking now! Some combination of those two probably explains why there are none of her songs on the NME list. Instead of being blown away by the songwriting on Exile, most critics — even 20 years later — are still stuck on sensational lyrics about blowjob queens and having casual sex at age 12. (Fun fact: Phair was actually a virgin until college.) That’s a shame, because “Help Me Mary” is one of our favorite rock songs of all time. It’s got a simple but killer riff, and everyone who’s been young and poor in the city should be able to relate to its prayer for relief from terrible roommates.

Gang Starr — “Mass Appeal”

NME saw fit to squeeze in Coolio’s tiresomely self-serious Dangerous Minds jam, “Gangsta’s Paradise,” at #100, but couldn’t find room for anything by the perennially underrated Gang Starr. You could make an argument for any number of their singles, but “Mass Appeal” — with its still-fresh minimalist beat and confounding success at making scratching new — might be the best showcase for Guru and DJ Premier’s forward-thinking hip-hop.

Fiona Apple — “Fast as You Can”

Another puzzling omission is Fiona Apple, who released two fantastic albums in 1997 and 1999. The first, Tidal, was packed with fiercely vulnerable singles — but even if it didn’t make the NME list, no one’s going to argue that “Criminal” is underrated. That’s cool, because we’ve got even more love for “Fast as You Can,” a song from When the Pawn… whose jazzy, feverish, disordered greatness was partially obscured by water cooler chuckling about the 400-character length of the album’s full title.

Imperial Teen — “Yoo Hoo”

As its official music video underscores, for those of us who worshiped dark teen movies in the ’90s, this song is eternally inseparable from Jawbreaker, the flick that stars Rose McGowan as the most murderous mean girl this side of Heathers and cues up “Yoo Hoo” every time she and her gang of color-coordinated sidekicks stride down their high-school hallway. Thankfully, there’s no better sonic representation of subtly sadomasochistic teenage power dynamics than this slinky, breathy sing-along.

Lauryn Hill feat. D’Angelo — “Nothing Even Matters”

Both Lauryn Hill and D’Angelo have resurfaced of late, drawing as much attention as you’d expect from two innovators who released classic albums and then promptly disappeared. So we’re surprised no one’s revisiting this delicate duet from The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, a paean to all-consuming love so sexy it could give Al Green a run for his money. In a low-key twist on the typical co-ed duet formula, D’Angelo’s voice is pure honey, while Hill’s has enough jagged moments to cut through sweetness.

The Faint — “Call Call”

Ten years later, we’re still not sure why The Faint’s Danse Macabre was their breakthrough. That album of dark dance-punk may have been on-trend back in 2001, but it was also a pretty hackneyed screed about how technology and capitalism are turning us into machines and stuff. We’re far fonder of the simpler themes that governed The Faint’s previous album, 1999’s Blank-Wave Arcade: sex and cars, basically. Its best song is “Call Call,” a harrowing recount of a hospital visit with an exuberantly propulsive synth line that occasionally engulfs the vocals.