23 Of The Best Rock Songs Of The 1990s

Written by Dan Farrant

The 1990s was a massive decade for music in every genre, though rock music stands out. Groups and solo artists like Nirvana, Beck, Pearl Jam, Beastie Boys, and more had some of their top hits in the 1990s.

If you’re ready to slip back into that decade and listen to some excellent rock music, you’ll get much inspiration from our list of 23 of the best rock songs of the 1990s. Let’s get started!

1. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” By Nirvana

We begin with one of the most iconic rock songs of the 1990s: “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It’s the lead single from the rock band Nirvana’s second album, Nevermind, released in 1991. The success of the hit was unexpected, and many believe this song made grunge mainstream.

The late great Kurt Cobain wrote this song after getting inspiration from Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna. Hanna painted “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on his bedroom wall after a drunken night. At the time, Cobain didn’t realize “Teen Spirit” was the brand name of a deodorant for young girls.

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” was a massive commercial success, reaching the top 10 of the charts in several countries and helping to catapult Nirvana to superstardom.

2. “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing” By Aerosmith

A 1990s rock song list is not complete with Aerosmith‘s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.” The power ballad was recorded for the theme song of the blockbuster hit Armageddon in 1998.

The lyrics express the feelings of the narrator, who is deeply in love he doesn’t want to miss a single moment with their significant other. Steven Tyler’s soaring vocals and emotional delivery perfectly captures the song’s themes of love, devotion, and longing.

“I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” is one of Aerosmith’s greatest hits. It topped not just the US Billboard Hot 100 and Mainstream Top 40, but it also peaked at #1 on the charts of over 8 countries, including Australia and Switzerland.

3. “Smooth” By Santana Ft. Rob Thomas

Our only Latin rock on the list, “Smooth,” has had us dancing to its beat since 1999. It was released as the lead single of Santana’s 18th album, Supernatural.

The catchy Latin-inspired melody features the soulful voice of Matchbox Twenty’s lead singer Rob Thomas and the unforgettable guitar riffs of Carlos Santana.

“Smooth” was Billboard‘s #1 song on the Hot 100 chart for 12 consecutive weeks and further stayed in the top 10 for another 30 weeks. It also won three Grammy Awards in 2000, including Song of the Year, Record of the Year, and Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals.

4. “Thunderstruck” By AC/DC

Whether you are a fan of AC/DC or not, you would most likely be familiar with the rocking guitar riff intro of their 1990 song “Thunderstruck.” From their album The Razors Edge, the song was an instant hit, peaking at #5 on the US Billboard Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks.

The lyrics and music suggest that “Thunderstruck” was written as a celebration of the power and energy of rock and roll. The title and lyrics make reference to lightning and thunder, which are often used as metaphors for the explosive impact of rock music.

The song’s main riff, which features heavily throughout the track, was composed by guitarist Angus Young and is widely regarded as one of the greatest guitar riffs of all time.

5. “Black Hole Sun” By Soundgarden

Considered Soundgarden’s signature song, “Black Hole Sun” is the third single from the band’s 1994 studio album, Superunknown. Though not the only charting song by the group, it is the only one certified (by both ARIA and BPI).

“Black Hole Sun” sounds bleak, with lyrics that paint a surreal and enigmatic image. However, some believe this song holds some responsibility for the grunge genre having an association with angst and depression.

Regardless of one’s impression of the lyrics, it’s hard to deny that the song’s entirety is catchy. It hit #1 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart, holding its spot for seven weeks.

6. “Everlong” By Foo Fighters

Up next, we have the Foo Fighters’ first commercially successful single, “Everlong.” It is from their 1997 album, The Colour and the Shape.

Despite the upbeat tempo, the signature song of the Foo Fighters is a love song. The narrator sings of how great and harmonious he and his beloved are when they sing together. For him, it feels so real and is the best thing ever.

Soon after its release, “Everlong” reached the #3 spot on the Alternative Airplay chart and #2 on UK’s Rock & Metal. This song was the last one that the band’s former drummer Taylor Hawkins performed before passing away in 2022, resulting in a rise in its popularity, landing it at #123 on the Global 200 chart.

7. “Closing Time” By Semisonic

In 1998, alternative rock band Semisonic released a song that was so catchy it makes one sing along to it. “Closing Time,” from their album Feeling Strangely Fine, received so much airplay it landed the top spot on Billboard‘s Alternative Airplay chart.

The lyrics are simple and melodic, and it literally talks of being asked to leave the bar when it closes. However, for the group’s lead singer and the song’s writer Dan Wilson, the lyrics have a much deeper meaning.

At the time of writing, Wilson’s wife was pregnant. The anticipation of a new beginning as a father soon became the inspiration for the song, hence the final line, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”

8. “Bitter Sweet Symphony” By The Verve

Our next song is by the English rock group The Verve. “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” released in 1998 from their album Urban Hymns, quickly became a massive hit, reaching the top ten in several countries, including the UK, US, and Canada.

The song is characterized by its lush orchestral arrangement and the distinctive strings—an Andrew Loog Oldham orchestral version of the Rolling Stones’ song “The Last Time.”

The lyrics of the song, written by The Verve’s lead singer Richard Ashcroft, speak to the themes of ambition, disappointment, and the struggle to find meaning in life.

The song’s success was bittersweet, however, because The Verve faced legal issues over the use of the Stones’ sample, leading to a lengthy legal battle.

Songwriting credits were assigned to Jagger and Richards of the Rolling Stones, and The Verve lost all royalties from the song. In 2019, however, Jagger and Richard returned all credits and royalties to the band.

9. “Don’t Speak” By No Doubt

No Doubt’s lead singer Gwen Stefani and her brother, Eric, wrote “Don’t Speak” originally as a love song for their third studio album, Tragic Kingdom, in 1995. However, after rewrites, it transformed into a breakup song relating to Gwen’s separation from her bandmate and then-boyfriend, Tony Kanal.

Although this was a hugely popular song, it did not chart on the Billboard Hot 100 due to specific rules at the time. However, it did top the Hot 100 Airplay chart for 16 weeks. “Don’t Speak” was also an international hit, taking the top spot in charts of over 15 countries.

For those going through a breakup, the lyrics in this song cut deep. The lyrics accurately describe not wanting to hear excuses and other words from the person you’ve broken up with, especially while still enduring the deep pain of heartbreak.

10. “All Star” By Smash Mouth

Though Smash Mouth released “All Star” late in the decade—1999—we still included it in this list because of its cultural impact, not to mention the song’s catchy melody and upbeat lyrics that captured the optimism and excitement of fans.

The anthemic lyrics encourage listeners to embrace their dreams and pursue their passions with confidence and determination because “You’ll never know if you don’t go, you’ll never shine if you don’t glow.”

Because of the song’s message, “All Star” has been used in several films, like Digimon: The Movie and DreamWorks’ Shrek. It’s also popular in sporting events.

“All Star” reached #1 on the Adult Top 40 and Mainstream Top 40 charts while peaking at #4 on Billboard’s Hot 100. It also ranked in the top 10 of several countries and received a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals.

11. “Zombie” By The Cranberries

In 1994, the Irish alternative rock band The Cranberries released a powerful and haunting song that would become one of their most iconic and enduring hits, “Zombie.”

The song’s lyrics, written by the band’s lead vocalist Dolores O’Riordan, address the conflict in Northern Ireland during the time and the devastating toll it had taken on the country’s people.

The song’s chorus, “In your head, in your head, they are fighting,” has become a rallying cry for those who seek an end to the senseless bloodshed and division that has plagued the region for decades.

Despite the dark subject matter, the song’s message has resonated with audiences around the world and remains one of The Cranberries’ most beloved songs. Even with the passing of O’Riordan in 2018, the legacy of her music and the impact of “Zombie” continues to live on.

12. “Mr. Jones” By Counting Crows

Folk rock song “Mr. Jones” was released as the lead single of the band Counting Crows‘s debut album, August and Everything After, in 1993. The first notes of the guitar strumming and relatable lyrics would be familiar to fans.

Despite its upbeat tempo, the lyrics of the song reveal a sense of melancholy and yearning. The narrator sings of his desire to “be somebody,” to find his place in the world and make a name for himself, so he’ll “never be lonely.”

“Mr. Jones” became Counting Crow’s breakout hit. A commercial success, it reached #2 on all three Alternative Airplay, Mainstream Rock, and Mainstream Top 40 charts.

13. “One Headlight” By The Wallflowers

In 1997, alternative rock band The Wallflowers released their greatest album, Bringing Down the Horse, and the song to help push the album to the top five of Billboard 200 was “One Headlight.”

The song describes the narrator’s struggles to come to terms with the loss of someone close to him. Lost emotionally, he is searching for a way to make sense of his grief and find a path forward.

Because of rules at the time, “One Headlight” did not chart on the Billboard Hot 100. However, not only did it take the top spots on the Adult Alternative Songs, Adult Top 40, Alternative Airplay, and Mainstream Rock charts, it won Best Rock Song and Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals Grammys.

14. “Ordinary World” By Duran Duran

At the start of the ’90s, the popularity of the English rock band Duran Duran was waning. However, when they released “Ordinary World” in 1992, the band found itself resurging through the charts.

The emotional ballad describes a man who is struggling to come to terms with the loss of someone he loves and finding it difficult to move on and accept the “ordinary world” without them.

The success of the song landed it at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and #1 on Mainstream Top 40. In the UK, it peaked at #6. In 2000, British group Aurora released a cover of “Ordinary World,” which charted in the top 10 of the UK charts.

15. “November Rain” By Guns N’ Roses

Written by Guns N’ Roses’ lead vocalist Axl Rose, we have next their 1992 power ballad “November Rain.” The song was released as a single from their album Use Your Illusion I and soon landed the third spot on Billboard‘s Hot 100 chart.

At the start of the song, as the narrator looks back on his relationship with his significant other and remembers the good times they had together, one would think this is a song with a happy ending.

However, the lyrics soon make it clear that the relationship has ended, and it takes us through the narrator’s emotions as he struggles to come to terms with the fact that it is over.

16. “Losing My Religion” By R.E.M.

The first commercially successful album that alternative rock band R.E.M. released was Out of Time. Its lead single, “Losing My Religion,” was critically acclaimed and the first of the band’s songs to reach Platinum status.

Contrary to what some people believe, the song isn’t about religion. The title comes from the southern phrase that means being at wit’s end, with the lyrics that imply that the narrator is fed up “trying to keep up with” his friend.

After its release in 1991, “Losing My Religion” became an unlikely hit for R.E.M., getting regular airplay. It became the band’s highest-charting hit at #4 on Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on Mainstream Rock.

17. “Tubthumping” By Chumbawamba

For our next song of the ’90s, we have “Tubthumping,” a catchy single released by the British rock band Chumbawamba in 1998. Reaching #2 on the UK Singles Chart, the song is the group’s most successful single.

Despite the title’s origin—from the English word tubthumper, referring to political protesting—the song is not political at all. With the lines “I get knocked down, but I get up again, you’re never gonna keep me down” it is an anthem for resilience, perseverance, and overcoming adversity. It’s also become a football (soccer) anthem

Though many consider “Tubthumping” a one-hit wonder, the song remains a beloved and enduring classic of 1990s pop culture, providing an upbeat melody and infectious energy for those in need of it.

18. “Always” By Bon Jovi

With its powerful guitar riffs and poignant lyrics, “Always” became a staple of 1990s rock music. Released in 1994 as part of the album Cross Road, the song is one of the most popular and enduring hits of the band Bon Jovi.

A power ballad, the lyrics speak of forever loving another even after they have separated. The narrator, who’s left with pictures and “memories of a different life,” wishes he’s given a second chance to show his enduring love.

“Always” was a commercial success for Bon Jovi and reached high positions on various music charts worldwide. In the United States, the song peaked at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart while reaching #1 in Belgium, Canada, Ireland, and Switzerland.

19. “Semi-Charmed Life” By Third Eye Blind

Released in 1997, “Semi-Charmed Life,” the radio-friendly charting hit of Third Eye Blind, was quintessential of the 1990s. With the familiar “doo-doo-doot” refrain, it became one of the defining songs of the late 1990s alternative rock movement.

The upbeat song tells the story of a couple whose relationship is based on their mutual drug use, and despite the narrator wishing he could “could get back there, someplace back there,” both are ultimately trapped by their addiction and unable to escape.

Despite the dark subject matter, “Semi-Charmed Life” became a commercial hit, reaching #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Its catchy chorus and infectious melody have made it a popular karaoke and radio staple, and it continues to be one of Third Eye Blind’s most popular and recognizable songs.

20. “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” By Deep Blue Something

Originally released in the debut album of alternative rock band Deep Blue Something in 1993, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” did not get the attention it deserved until its re-release in 1995 on the album Home.

Unlike what one might think, the song has no direct connection to the classic film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, starring Audrey Hepburn. Instead, it tells the story of a failing romantic relationship and the couple’s attempts to find some common ground—the movie is “the one thing [they’ve] got.”

“Breakfast at Tiffany’s” remains Deep Blue Something’s greatest hit, peaking on the Hot 100 chart at #5 and #1 on the UK Singles. It has also been used in many TV series like Orange Is the New Black and Everything Sucks!

21. “Wonderwall” By Oasis

Next is a song by English rock band Oasis. “Wonderwall,” written by Noel Gallager, was released in 1995 from (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, the band’s second studio album.

Gallagher describes the lyrics as hearing a perspective from an imaginary friend who’s there to save you from yourself. However, many fans view the song as romantic and about how the love of your life will keep you.

“Wonderwall” was a massive commercial success, both in the UK and internationally. It reached the top 10 in several countries, including the UK, US, Australia, and Canada. It also received a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group.

22. “Two Princes” By Spin Doctors

American rock group Spin Doctors released the song “Two Princes” in 1992 as the second single on their debut album, Pocket Full of Kryptonite. Its catchy, upbeat melody and sweet lyrics made it a popular song of the ’90s

“Two Princes” tell the story of the narrator, who is courting a woman being courted by another man. While this man is rich and probably the one the woman’s father wants her to marry, the narrator is poor. However, he goes on to say, “I’m the one that loves you, baby,” despite their financial status.

The song reached #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 and hit the top 10 in several countries, including Australia, Canada, and Germany. It helped propel Pocket Full of Kryptonite to multi-Platinum status and solidified Spin Doctors’ place in the 1990s music scene.

23. “Scar Tissue” By Red Hot Chili Peppers

The rock band Red Hot Chili Peppers were at the height of their fame during the 1990s and 2000s. “Scar Tissue” was one of their first commercially successful singles, released in 1999 from the album Californication.

The song features a slower, more mellow sound than some of the band’s previous hits, with lyrics referring to the physical and emotional scars left by difficult experiences.

“Scar Tissue” is one of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ biggest hits, topping the US Billboard Mainstream Rock chart for ten consecutive weeks and peaking at #9 on the Hot 100.

Lead singer Anthony Kiedis also released an autobiography of the same title in 2004, where he speaks of his drug addiction and the effects it had on his life.

Summing Up Our List Of 1990s Rock Songs

Even if you weren’t a rock fan in the ‘90s, we’re sure there’s a song or two above you’ve heard and possibly even loved listening to. The best rock songs of the 1900s make a perfect nostalgic playlist for nearly everyone.

Whether you’re going through a heartbreak, need a beat for a dance, or feel like a loser needing uplifting words, there’s a song for you. Check all of them out. Who knows? Maybe you’ll find a new favorite or rediscover an old one.

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Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.