20 90s Alternative Rock Songs You Need In Your Life

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 

Maybe you were a preteen in the ’90s. Maybe you were post-college. But wherever you were, you listened to the radio because mp3 just sounded like a nickname for some robot. You listened to the radio and if you liked the song on the radio you went out and bought the CD. And in the ’90s, alt-rock ruled the coastal radio stations. It was the soundtrack to everything — high school graduation, breakups, your goth years, your first beer, your love affair with Doc Martens, everything.

And while we’re not the same kids we were back then, we still love the way ’90s alt-rock makes us feel. So put on some heavy eyeliner. Maybe a little glitter. And reminisce with some of our favorite ’90s alt-rock music.

1. “I’m Only Happy When It Rains,” Garbage

This song’s gothy rants truly stand the test of time. Pour your misery down on me, indeed.

2. “Zero,” The Smashing Pumpkins

“I’m in love with my sadness.” Fuck you, Billy Corgan. I love you, Billy Corgan.

3. “Laid,” James

Little known fact: the American music video replaced the opening lyrics with “but she only sings when she’s on top” because “she only comes when she’s on top” was deemed to risque for a wider audience.

4. “Friday I’m In Love,” The Cure

You probably associate it with being in wildly in love with someone or having a blissful crush and all of these things are so 1998. Or it’s an earworm that annoys the hell out of you. Either one.

5. “Love Rollercoaster,” The Red Hot Chili Peppers

The Red Hot Chili Peppers were so joyously filthy, and so ubiquitous, that it was impossible not to love them.

6. “Sell Out,” Reel Big Fish

Remember that time when America went all batshit for ska? This was that time. For a brief period, you thought zoot suits were hot as hell. Take a moment to laugh riotously at your former self.

7. “Losing My Religion,” REM

Yeah, I know some say we were supposed to start hating REM two albums ago, but you know what? I don’t care. Because this song still kicks ass. BTW, “losing my religion” is Southern-speak for “I’m about to lose my shit up in here, up in here.”

8. “I’m Afraid of Americans,” David Bowie and Nine Inch Nails

Me too, David Bowie. Me too.

9. “Santa Monica,” Everclear

This may be the quintessential song of the ’90s. It’s got everything: angst, heartache, beaches, implied apocalypse, implied resurrection, that point when all this implied shit gets so muddled that it trips over its own emotion and falls headfirst into what can only be described as drugs.

10. “Starfuckers, Inc.,” Nine Inch Nails

Tell your children they are not allowed to repeat the words to this song under any fucking circumstances then blare it from your minivan while you drive through downtown. It will make you feel alive.

11. “In the Meantime,” Spacehog

In the words of my 4-year-old: “It be a hog. And it be in space!” He found this incredibly delightful.

12. “She Don’t Use Jelly,” The Flaming Lips

This was the song that The Flaming Lips were forced to perform on Beverly Hills: 90210. Worth a Google.

13. “All Apologies,” Nirvana

The MTV Unplugged version, of course, because everyone knows that Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged session is the best thing ever. In fact, you should just drop everything, watch the whole damn thing, then grab a bottle of wine and have a good cry about Kurt Cobain.

14. “The Rain King,” Counting Crows

This song is actually based on the Saul Bellow novel “Henderson the Rain King,” terrible colonial tripe about how a white man goes to Africa to save Africa and find himself. But it’s a great tune.

15. “You Oughta Know,” Alanis Morissette

Okay, we all know this was about Dave Coulier, aka Uncle Joey. End of discussion and/or useless speculation. Also: angriest Canadian in the history of Canada.

16. “Wonderwall,” Oasis

Not my fave, but lots of people loved it so anyway, here’s “Wonderwall.”

17. “No Rain,” Blind Melon

Which continues the ’90s meteorological obsession with precipitation (see also: Everything But The Girl’s “Missing”). Is this the Seattle thing? The world may never know.

18. “I Will Survive,” Cake

Basically sung rather than spoken, you learned the words to this amazing, famous girl-power anthem belted out by a black woman from the mouth of the lily-white dude from Cake, who actually had to take singing lessons between Fashion Nugget and Comfort Eagle. Truth.

19. “Stay,” Lisa Loeb

The quintessential ’90s VH1 song. Men who listen to it have been known to spontaneously develop a soul patch.

20. “MmmBop,” Hanson

Okay, so this isn’t so much alt-rock as pop, but…well, what are the ’90s without those cute, long-haired Hanson brothers, amiright? And this comes from a woman whose sons all have long hair.

And that’s it. Of course, this list isn’t comprehensive, but decisions had to be made. What would you have included on the list?

(You need these songs, so get our Spotify playlist here.)

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