1. ‘Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)’ by The Backstreet Boys
I feel like it’s only fitting to start with this little ditty, as it was also the Boys’ first real single and they spent a great deal of time proclaiming they were “back.” From what? Back again from where? And while I have to admit bias because I am and always will be Team *N Sync, you kind of have to question the quality of a song in which Nick (because of course I can tell their voices apart, STILL, after all these years) asks his fellow boys if he’s sexual and they all agree without so much as missing a beat.
Props to the killer Halloween-inspired music video, though.
2. ‘Men In Black’ by Will Smith
Because when historians look back at the 90s, we are all going to have to explain why we made this song a hit — and how we did it without a single shred of irony. Yes, it was a song tie-in for one of the most awesome movies of the same era, but the Fresh Prince is rapping, Big Willie-style (why we let him live that album title down is beyond me), not about Philadelphia or Bel Air or anyone or anywhere else in between, but about defending. the. galaxy. from. aliens.
Oh, yeah, and it won a Grammy.
3. ‘Bailaimos’ by Enrique Iglesias
Enrique, son of Julio, was already a bit of a Latin music star before his big “make it big in America” crossover, but this song, (as well as Ricky, whom we’ll get to in a second) set off a veritable flurry of imitations. What made four white boys from middle America qualified to croon at you about spending una noche together? This song. This song made that okay. (Though, it has to be said, the 2014 update is not bad. A total guilty pleasure, something that will play at every one of my baby cousins’ quinceañeras from here on out, and a top contender for being on a ’20 terrible songs from the ’10s that everyone secretly loves’ playlist, but not bad.)
4. ‘Truly Madly Deeply’ by Savage Garden
Because no 90s playlist is complete without the kind of song that fueled entire series on the WB, and like, if someone serenaded you with it, it’d be cheesy, but you wouldn’t objectively hate it.
5. ‘I Do (Cherish You)’ by 98°
This music video came into the world before the glory that was Newlyweds (also known as America’s greatest reality show of all time), so we’re stuck with a music video in which Ali Landry frolics with all four members of 98° in turn, but Nick Lachey has always been the beta-testing prototype for Channing Tatum, so that makes up for the bad-joke plot twist at the end. Also, I am willing to bet good money* that approximately 75% of late-90s couples had their first wedding dance to this song.
(*Good money constitutes the price of an iced coffee; I’m a writer, not an heiress.)
6. ‘I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing’ by Aerosmith
It is no ‘Crazy‘ (which is honestly a really solid song, and gave us the magic that is Alicia Silverstone, even though she does get kind of homoerotic with Steven Tyler’s own child) but this song was also the main track to support Armageddon. And honestly, I can’t make it through that movie without sobbing like an idiot, so that is my cross to bear.
7. ‘C’est La Vie’ by B*Witched
Most of us would not know this song existed if it weren’t for the Disney Channel’s classic movie, Smart House, but regardless of the fact that this song has clear Irish influence, most 90s kids ran around thinking we were cool because we knew a total of three words in French after this song came out. (And like, yeah, can we admit now that this song was way too sexual to be on the Disney Channel? Because it was.)
8. ‘Baby Got Back’ by Sir Mix-A-Lot
You know what’s going to make us all feel old? The first time we start humming along to, “Oh my God, Becky, look at her butt,” and some teenager butts* in and asks why we’re singing Nicki Minaj and not Sir Mix-A-Lot. I guess this is how the ‘Under Pressure’ crowd feels with ‘Ice, Ice, Baby.’ And as phenomenal a track as ‘Anaconda’ is, this is what is going to divide the generations.
(*Pun entirely intended.)
9. ‘Barbie Girl’ by Aqua
Could you imagine the ragey thinkpieces that would accompany this song if it had been released today?! ALL OF THEM. I mean, sure, you could call it satirical, but I’m also kind of amazed Katy Perry has not released a 100% sincere cover of this yet (add that to the list of things you never knew you needed, because really, I would listen to that).
10. ‘Say My Name’ by Destiny’s Child
It’s a cheap joke to make, but we’re just going to do it: you just know that all of the other girls sing this under their breaths whenever they hear about Beyoncé in the news. (So, like, every day.)
11. ‘When The Lights Go Out’ by Five
Free costume ideas for any bros with four other bro friends out there: this group. I can guarantee you girls will understand the reference. Really, you’d look like any other late 90s boy group, but still. They’d get it.
Also, it really makes you think about how many pop songs were riddled with thinly-veiled sexual innuendo and we were all too innocent to get it. They marketed this song to kids! On the Disney Channel! A TELEVISION CHANNEL FOR KIDS!
12. ‘Kiss From A Rose’ by Seal
Partially because the 90s were a magical time when Batman movies had yet to meet the magic of Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, and Christopher Nolan; and partially because my friend once asked me if I thought that Seal serenaded Heidi Klum with this song every day they were married and I have not been able to get that image out of my head ever since. (Side note: if you listen to this song in the car and do not lip sync the lyrics during the chorus, how? Asking for a friend who is really tired of getting weird looks from passing cars, thanks.)
13. ‘All That She Wants’ by Ace Of Base
Aaaand now this song will be stuck in your head for the next 74 hours. For that, I am sorry.
14. ‘Breakfast At Tiffany’s’ by Deep Blue Something
If I may, please let me distill this song’s plot line: girlfriend feels that she and the lead singer are drifting apart, and he saves their relationship by reminding her how they bonded over the 1961 film in which Audrey Hepburn plays an pretty freaking selfish call girl who becomes the point of her author neighbor’s obsession. This song can also be traced back as the catalyst for all those Holly Golightly posters in basic girls’ bedrooms — but it’s catchy, and that’s why you can still sing along, even after all of these years.
15. ‘Livin La Vida Loca’ by Ricky Martin
Most of the song just sounds like it would have made for killer Twitter bio material had this song came out at the right time — come on, you know you’d have put, “into superstition, black cats, and voodoo dolls” or, at the very least, “once you’ve had a taste of her, you’ll never be the same” up there if you had Twitter in high school. But also, if this song came on in a bar at 2 am (and it has, my friends; oh, it has and it is glorious when it does), so many girls would shriek with “Omg, this is my sooonnnggg!”-levels of excitement and sing along to every last word. And that is the mark of a classic.
16. ‘I’ll Be Missing You’ by who was then known as Puff Daddy (feat. Faith Evans and 112)
“Man, I really miss the days when Diddy was rapping,” said no one ever. (“I miss the days when Diddy was producing Biggie’s work,” is another story, and a completely valid lament, but we can’t always have what we want.)
17. ‘Mambo Number 5 (A Little Bit)’ by Lou Bega
I will always remember the completely irrational jealousy I felt for the Angelas, the Ritas, the Monicas, and the Sandras of the world (and my sister, Jessica) because they got a shoutout in a Lou Bega song, and I did not. You can’t feign that kind of disappointment when you’re 9. You just can’t.
18. ‘How Bizarre’ by OMC
Also, again, sorry that this song will be stuck in your head for the next three days, but it is the musical embodiment of the Chill Situations Twitter. Whether or not that is a bad thing is up to you.
19. ‘Genie in a Bottle’ by Christina Aguilera
Granted, Britney Spears’ first single was the equally-as-lyrically-confusing ‘(Hit Me) Baby, One More Time,’ but Christina’s melodic voice going on about how you have to rub her the right way, and that her heart is saying ‘no’ but her body is saying ‘let’s go,’ just kind of makes you wonder if any pop music was ever suitable for the young ears that listened to it. (I once asked my mom about this, and she said she just tuned everything out when I made her listen to Radio Disney, so, you know. Like muzak.)
20. ‘What Is Love’ by Haddaway
The clear punchline to make here is whether or not anyone ever clued Haddaway into what love is, but then again the older I got, the more I realized that none of us know the answer to this question. Have you tried dating in 2014? It’s bleak. Real bleak. This song is the theme song for Dating In 2014 (coming soon to a Bravo station near you, probably).
21. ‘End Of The Road’ by Boyz II Men
You want to think you’ve evolved from this song. Maybe Sam Smith would get you choked up. Adele would rip up your heart. You’re stronger than this song now. You can resist it. And then it comes on Spotify shuffle in a crowded subway train on a Wednesday morning when you’re on the way to work, and you find yourself crying in front of strangers. It’s a weird emotion. Trust me on this one. There is nothing particularly spectacular about this song, and yet it manages to get every last heartstring. It’s rude, really. Hear that, Boyz? Rude.
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