I’m realizing rapidly I had no idea what was popular in the early 90s.
This is very much due to watching a lot of MTV and listening to a lot of alternative rock because my mom did. You would think that stuff was everywhere. And I’m sorry but grunge was way more a look and style than it was an actual thing in 1993 or at least on the year end 100. You want proof? Billy Joel had a bigger hit in 1993 than any grunge act. Tears For Fears had a hit and Stone Temple Pilots did not. Duran Duran had TWO hits in the era they were supposedly dead and not just hits but songs you probably remember!
Now there’s another side to this. If you know your rap, you know 1993 was a great year for it. And that’s actually all over the charts. Dr. Dre had several hits. So did Ice Cube. Naughty By Nature, Cypress Hill, Mary J. Blige, 2Pac, and even derided acts like Snow and Kris Kross had hits. And that’s on this list. I have enough respect to put it on and mean it. This was the year that rap became mainstream and would never go away.
We’ve got a big and diverse year. The cuts I had to make hurt. Let’s get to it.
OK, so like I said, Duran Duran had two hits in 1993. That’s weird. Like yeah, a few of their peers scraped the bottom of the list but they had massive hit songs. Not just songs that got airplay but songs that are signature tracks. How did the ultimate pretty boy MTV band have hits in 1993 when that kind of clean, slick look was out? Well, they got dark. Ordinary World is a beautiful song about grief that so narrowly missed this list. Seriously it’s a fantastic song. Their other song? I totally get why it was a hit too.
10 Duran Duran- Come Undone. I stress, this band didn’t have a hit by fluke. This song actually feels perfectly of the moment. It’s pure dark swirling guitar work and moody obtuse lyrics which Simon Le Bon actually wrote for his wife of 36 years. Go figure. This is exactly what 1993 sounded like. Bizarre as it is, Duran Duran actually did sound grungy and weird here in a way that fit. This song is a surreal sonic landscape that feels perfectly in line with the culture. I actively hated their 80s stuff but this song rules.
Making a list like this really makes me feel like a prude. I don’t mean it to do so but look, most sex songs kinda aren’t any good. I think it’s because they’re usually from a place of toxic thought. R. Kelly started at this time. Need I say more. And you can discuss toxic subjects but you need to actually say something. And if you do it right, you can make it incredibly seductive.
9 Sarah McLachlan- Possession. Yeah, this is about as good as it gets. This is a song about stalking that isn’t hiding what it is. It’s hard to see it as about anything other than a very dark, unnerving situation. The lyrics are outright creepy. But it’s all on McLachlan’s voice. She makes the most unsettling thoughts sound so seductive. Even as you know how wrong this song is, it aggressively works. You are in the shoes of someone dangerous and it feels good. We’ll be back to her in a few years.
Behind the scenes info: I originally had another song in this spot. If I Ever Lose My Faith In You by Sting was the first draft entry here. And look, it’s a classic. I don’t think it doesn’t belong on this list. But another song kept popping up in my plays. Is it honestly a better song than that? No. But I’m putting it anyway
8 Bryan Adams, Sting, and Rod Stewart- All For Love. The naked attempt at recreating Everything I Do, one of the biggest hits of the decade that I hate on an atomic level. And it’s funny because on every level this is a better song. For one thing, Adams is sharing the weight with two guys I love though they honestly feel like guests in a song that’s more Adams’ style. The song is also upbeat, a huge plus over that slog. It’s an anthem to be shouted along with. It also has the late great Michael Kamen doing some of his best work. Fittingly, this was a Three Musketeers writing situation with Kamen and Adams teamed with rock legend Robert “Mutt” Lange. Everything about this song is joy. But what really elevates it is the fun of the three men handing off. The whole song is a relay race. One starts a line and another finishes. There’s every blend of harmony possible and all three, blessed with throaty voices, sound fantastic together. It tried to be a song I hate and failed by being fantastic. Though it didn’t fail on the charts as this was a massive hit.
Cool. I’m back to Billy Ray Cyrus! I seriously do have nothing but love for him. He seems like a good dude. He let his kids have their space to be themselves. He threw in with a young gay black man and helped him get a hit. He’s a solid vocalist. Glad I can point out that while he never hit the pop charts again, he should have.
7 Billy Ray Cyrus- In The Heart of a Woman. I think the pop world was ready to abandon Cyrus out of shame and I can’t agree because this song is wonderful. It’s a song about being wholly devoted to a woman. That’s a great topic and it works expressly because Cyrus has such a great masculine voice. He gives the song a nice contrast. It’s a sweet sensitive song and he belts the hell out of it. It’s a great classic country ballad. It makes you feel good.
Look not every song on this list is associated with 1993. American Pie 2 leaned hard on this song and y’all should be aware that in 8 weeks I’m going to put you hard in 17 year old me’s shoes. It’s a short song. It gets a short intro.
6 James- Laid. 2 minutes and a bit over 30 seconds and it’s a hell of a lot. Who the hell knows what the lyrics mean and who cares. It evokes a very turbulent relationship in a very short blast. And it couldn’t be better. Every note is dripping with angst that feels real. Brian Eno produced this and even though it’s not what I think of him for it’s solid. Just a nice song.
Ok I’m really cheating to get this song on my list. As with 1991, there was a December release that was so late it peaked the next year. The end of the year album rush results in this. I’m letting the cards fall as they do because I think this song is that great.
5 Mary Chapin Carpenter- He Thinks He’ll Keep Her. This is one hell of a bold song and it deserves far more love than it gets. It’s a song about a woman reaching the middle of her life, feeling dissatisfied, walking out on her family, and the song unambiguously calling it a good thing. And this is a country song. I am in awe this was a hit. And it was. And it’s not like Nashville ran from it. The video is an Avengers of the greatest female country artists of the time. But it speaks to how good the song is. This is a bold declarative even funny anthem. Carpenter was a beast of a singer who had a classic album this year which my mom owned. This is what country could be and what it should be.
What do I think of Ice Cube? Talented dude. He wrote the Friday films. He has a great filmography as an actor ranging from Three Kings to the Jump Street films. He’s a hell of a rapper. Devoted husband and dad, including father to the guy who played him in the biopic. Also he’s an anti-vaxxer who was far too nice to Trump. Let’s focus on the rap.
4 Ice Cube- It Was a Good Day. What I love about this song is how completely it sells an actual good day. What Ice Cube describes here sounds great. It’s him talking about what he actually loves and it’s relatable. The sample is massive too. The core of the song is a snippet from Footsteps in the Dark by the Isley Brothers and it is such a perfect sample. It’s smooth and relaxed and just gives the song what it needs. This is such a great song to rest to.
You know who’s awesome? Lenny Kravitz. Utterly a god on the guitar. A style icon. An apparently lovely guy. A, um, well honestly even though he’s not much of a singer he’s still damn good at what he does. He had one of his biggest hits in 1993. Let’s see why.
3. Lenny Kravitz- Are You Gonna Go My Way. So many artists tried to do retro in this era and almost none could’ve gone up against the real thing. Kravitz could. This song sounds just like the very best stuff of the Hendrix era. It helps that the lyrics are actually of that era. It’s a song about spreading love and peace but set against a blasting guitar. It’s adrenaline done right. A feel great song.
I’m going through the 90s and you know what movie I’m not nostalgic for? A Night at the Roxbury. It’s impossible enough to love the film knowing that behind the scenes, some outright evil things occurred including Chris Kattan basically being prostituted. But more than that, it’s awful. It’s not funny aside from Colin Quinn having some great reactions because Quinn rules and we deserved way more of him. It’s like Wayne’s World if it had nothing to say. I don’t even really enjoy the sketches now. But you know what still rules?
2 Haddaway- What is Love. This is both probably the most dated song of 1993 and the most perfectly aged song of 1993. It sounds like it could only have happened in this year. The Europe dance sound was huge in 1993-1996 and it never sounded as good as here. Which is weird because this song is honestly profoundly bleak. It’s a guy wondering what can possibly give him joy. This is not a fun song. It’s dark and grim and even the beat is dark and moody. That propulsive beat is the sound of a man suffering from a panic attack. Haddaway himself, and I should note that awesome stage name is in fact Nestor Haddaway’s real last name, just crushes the vocals. This is now and forever what I think of when I think of 1993.
Americans do not understand satire. This is a hard truth made clear over and over. Americans assume depicting something means you applaud it. That’s not how it works. Sometimes horrible things must be shown sadly because they exist and you have to be in the shoes of terrible people. Is it possible they embrace what you say? Sure. But terrible people are terrible. Never forget this. Good satire is a thing we need. And in 1993, an emerging band crushed it.
1 Stone Temple Pilots- Sex Type Thing. The official debut of STP is an iconic song for a reason. It sounds creepy and wrong yet also plausible as an anthem for a monster. The lyrics are utterly nightmare inducing. I don’t know how you can hear “you shouldn’t have worn that dress” and miss that the song is calling out rapists. People did and I don’t know how. Maybe because the song is also lightning in audio form. It’s just as energizing as any song on this list and it will pump you up. It’s just that there’s more there. Like most grunge bands, the wall that was 1994 cut them off and made them a relative one album wonder. But like the best grunge bands, Stone Temple Pilots killed and that’s extra true here. They brought the fire with a song we needed.