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Top 20 Most Depressing Hits of the '90s

So it's official. The '90s really was the most depressing time for music.

According to a report by the British Psychological Society, researchers analysing pop hits over the period of 1965-2009 found that "songs recorded in minor-mode has increased". They also say that "the proportion of slow tempo hits" reached "a peak in the '90s". It's a result that immediately got us wondering: what could they be?

First off: it would be rose-tinted cop out to say these are the most depressing songs because they're bad. That's your hipster hindsight. They're not. Sure they're nearly all earnest as hell, but beyond the dubious distinction of being "hits" (in that they charted), these songs (mostly) represent a time that was in hard comedown from the inane musical excesses of the '80s. They represent a shift in the pop music landscape - one that had "real" artists replacing the manufactured pop giants of the day. Authenticity became the buzzword, and what better way to suggest your authenticity than to moan about things, right? (Yes, a couple of these artists were at the slick apex of commercial megastardom, but the fact that their hit during this time was a weepy makes perfect sense in this context.)

A couple of rules to our list. The track in question had to be officially released as a single. The song had to be a "hit" in so far as it made it into the Top 100 charts in the acts home country, if not be a full-blown worldwide Number One. The '90s were a serious decade OK, so let's be respectfully po-faced about this.

Followed by ten songs that missed the cut, here's our Most Depressing Hits of the '90s.


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10. 'No Surprises' - Radiohead

Released: January, 1998

Supposedly 'No Surprises' was written in 1996 while Radiohead were on tour with R.E.M.. Makes sense. The most sing-song, melodic moment on OK Computer is (with the possible exception of 'Climbing Up The Walls' and 'Exit Music (For A Film)' - unfortunately for us neither were singles) also its most unnerving. "You look so tired and unhappy / Bring down the government" remains possibly Thom Yorke's greatest doom-inducing non sequitur.

YouTube comment: if anything; a tiny bit underrated. They def. have more talent than nirvana that's for sure, as much as i like their music... i like pie too. - dannymoney02220

 

9. 'Foolish Games' - Jewel

Released: July 1997

Man, videos in the '90s were really bad (as you will continue to see). In this one, the proto-Adele, Jewel, appears to be wearing a lot of lip gloss. All over her face. And is caught inside an icy Instagram-matrix wobbling about the backlot of Red Hot Chili Pepper's 'Give It Away' clip. Maybe. 

It's hard to believe that 'Foolish Games' was a single, so leaden is this number. There's nothing official about the line in the track's Wikipedia page that says: "The song details one's frustration and agony of knowing that one's lover does not care about them as much as they care for him," but it does strike as being perfectly applicable to every love song ever. Which this rain-soaked melodramatic coffee shop pencil-case-full-of-tears brow-furrower eventually collapses under.

YouTube comment: because she thinks its crazy to stand in the rain with your coat off is exactly why the relationship doesn't work, she must have been too boring for him. - PhnxOnAcid

 

8. 'Jeremy' - Pearl Jam

Released: 1992

Rock-ballad 'Black' would be the most obvious contender from Pearl Jam's debut record Ten but—at the band's insistence—it was never officially released as a single. Ancient B-Sides 'Yellow Ledbetter' and 'Footsteps' have more starkness to them, but it was the relentlessly bleak subject matter at the core of 'Jeremy' that both confirmed the band as angst-icons and would surely never allow it to succeed as a single today. A 5 minute+ song about a kid killing himself in front of his classmates—featuring cover art of a toddler playing with a handgun—would not trouble the outer reaches of the Billboard 100 in the '10s.

YouTube comment: Gingers are scary - mentosmenno

 

7. Losing My Religion - R.E.M.

Released: February, 1991

We could have said 'Everybody Hurts' here. But that song's inherent cheesiness and eventual hopeful outro doesn't quite hold up to the insistent UNKOWN misery that Michael Stipe is maybe/maybe not banging on about. 'Losing My Religion' also sums up what made R.E.M. so elusively great for a while: a bunch of traditional instruments backing a non-traditional singer who made no sense, but together they evoked something unnervingly important that no one could ever really define. Including Michael Stipe.

YouTube comment: The look on the bloke's fac when he fingers that angel's wound.... - Everista

 

6. 'Black Hole Sun' - Soundgarden

Released: May 1994

Soundgarden's biggest (only?) hit was a misnomer for the band. Probably the most boring and pedestrian song on the band's otherwise often brilliant Superunknown, 'Black Hole Sun' featured the cheery hook 'Black hole sun / won't you come / and wash away the pain'. For a band who's strengths lay in their telekinetic rhythm section and the banshee wail of Chris Cornell over complex drop-D riffage, 'Black Hole Sun' stood out like a overlong, snoozy, dated, thumb.

YouTube: This song makes me cry cause it brings me back childhood memories .Wish i can go back in time i hate this generation - Thaliat96

 

5. 'Brick' - Ben Folds Five

Released: January, 1997

A literal and emotionally bruising piano-led song about abortion? "SOUNDS LIKE YOU'VE A HIT ON YOUR HANDS, GUYS" - No one. Ben Fold's narrative about accompanying his girlfriend to an abortion clinic turned out to be the band's biggest hit. Also managed to fit metaphors of drowning in the chorus for good sing-a-long measure.

YouTube comment: I came here to watch a video about abortion, but I was too distracted by the excessive amount of turtle necks to pay attention. - williamschatten

 

4. 'I Will Always Love You' - Whitney Houston

Released: November, 1992

A cover of a Dolly Parton song being used to sell a Kevin Costner flick doesn't seem like a recipe for melancholy, but Houston's version not only provided the singer her most iconic moment, it also wrought universal weepiness. At least up the back of dive bars/couches the world over. The track is the longest running Number One single from a soundtrack album ever. It's also almost unbearable listening to it twenty years on: not because Houston turned into a tragic drug-abused figure and passed away in a bathtub last year, but because there's a sax solo. Way to further tarnish your legacy 1992. Still...that voice. It's now common lore that the pause/snare hit/key change on the vocal note at 3:05 is one of the most extreme karaoke moves in the game.

YouTube: my guinea pig is sick, she's very old so i think she will die :'( I just decided to always think about her when I listen to this song... :'( - MissFlummigaJag

 

3. 'Nothing Compares 2 U' - Sinead O'Connor

Released: February, 1990

Written by Prince. Covered by Sinead. Sinead stares down the barrel of the camera and cries. Sinead wins. Considering the nigh-impossibility of trumping Prince, that's high praise indeed.

O'Connor supposedly actually cried in the video at the line: "All the flowers that you planted, Mother / in the back yard / All died when you went away," because she had "a very complex relationship with her late mother, who used to abuse her in childhood." If that's not an added shard of brittle emotion to consider while watching/listening then you're an LMFAO cover band.

YouTube comment: I remember this came out Jan 1990, it was a cloudy depressig day I was 5 years old.. went perfectly - joeyjeremiah1985

 

2. 'One' - U2

Released: March, 1992

We had this at Number One for a while but ultimately dropped it back because, well, it's pretty. (Also, watching a few U2 videos reminded us that Bono is a big cheeseball.) U2's most lasting song was influenced by a band at the beginning of a recording process and in fractures. It is, as Bono has said explicitly, about "breaking up". It was used as an AIDS benefit charity single. Its cover photo showed a herd of Buffaloes leaping to their deaths. It has the line "and I can't be holding on to what you got / when all you got is hurt" which is a fairly great line to have in a massively popular song that's universally considered to be an ode to love.

 

1. 'Hurt' by Nine Inch Nails

Released: April, 1995

"I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in, totally isolated and alone," says Trent Reznor of possibly his darkest musical moment. Can you believe this was a single? I mean, who in the record company ever thought they might make money by sending this to a pressing plant so that someone thumbing through the singles section at (insert dead record store) would pause to idly whistle a familiar refrain and pop over to the counter for 'Hurt' and a dozen-pack C-60 cassettes? People in the '90s I guess.

Of course Johnny Cash came along in 2003 and covered it for his acoustic "American" series. Reznor said that Cash "took" the song away from him, similar to the way that Jeff Buckley's stark version of (John Cale's version of) Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah' is widely considered the defining take. But I don't buy it. There's something about the incessant, dying-machine-like wind hum in Reznor's original that inspires more dread than even a wrecked Johnny Cash-video can trump. "Everyone I know goes away in the end," goes the choice of lyric. Came with a video featuring charred corpses and maggots rebuilding a fox carcass, in case you didn't get the vibe.

YouTube comment: HOW DARE THIS EMO COPY JOHNNY CASH - it8nky0u

 

Bonus: here's the Johnny Cash version for added doom.

 

Honourable mentions:


'Heart Shaped Box' - Nirvana: too stirring.

'Under The Bridge' - Re Hot Chili Peppers: too shirtless.

'My Heart Will Go On' - Celine Dion: too demonstrably awful.

'Disarm' - Smashing Pumpkins: too self-absorbed.

'Round Here' - Counting Crows: too funky (Seriously, this nearly made the list but that funky middle-eight is disgusting).

'I Try' - Macy Gray: too cafe-latte-plinky-soy-lite-coupon-special-vegetable-co-op.

'Killing Me Softly' - Fugees: too kind've still pretty good.

'Everything I Do (I Do It For You)' - Bryan Adams: too soar-bro.

'Hallelujah' - Jeff Buckley: not a single. In the '90s, anyway.

'Miss Misery' - Elliott Smith: while nominated for an Oscar as part of the Good Will Hunting soundtrack, never especially a "hit"..

Miss anything?

Relive the fun with TheVine's Spotify playlist.

(Note: We didn't include 'My Heart Will Always Go On' for medical reasons. Also, the Jewel song doesn't exist in its original form on Spotify, so we put in a cover. Lucky for you.)

41 comments so far..

  • jseidler's avatar
    Commenter
    jseidler
    Date and time
    Friday 31 Aug 2012 - 11:43 AM
    'Killing Me Softly' - Fugees: too kind've still pretty good.

    I am all about this sentence.
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  • sixfoothairdo's avatar
    Commenter
    sixfoothairdo
    Date and time
    Friday 31 Aug 2012 - 1:01 PM
    What does it say about a decade where a song about Courtney Love's vagina ranks a mention in a list of most depressing hits of the 90s....?
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  • crystaltowers's avatar
    Commenter
    crystaltowers
    Date and time
    Friday 31 Aug 2012 - 1:54 PM
    "...the proto-Adele, Jewel...".
    "...rain-soaked melodramatic coffee shop..."
    "...most boring and pedestrian..."
    "...too self-absorbed..."

    TOO *FACEPALM*
    Was looking forward to some flashbacks, but instead got everything filed under "cool now! uncool now!". Old stuff that was huge in it's day but now isn't, is the cheapest target. Everything had something going for it, at one point in time.
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  • Carigo's avatar
    Commenter
    Carigo
    Date and time
    Friday 31 Aug 2012 - 2:20 PM
    No Smiths? No Morrissey?
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  • thechieftain's avatar
    Commenter
    thechieftain
    Date and time
    Friday 31 Aug 2012 - 2:29 PM
    Does anyone remember an Indie song played on JJJ quite a bit in the 90s (fairly certain) that from memory the band (which I think was British) used a lot of synthesizers and had as the refrain 'the man who would kill for love...'? I have tried to find out who it was, for no particular reason I might add, but to no avail so far.

    I am sure there are a lot of other songs from a wider pool of music genres that are far more depressing than the most commercially successful ones. Was it not Bono who in a not so recent interview referred to at least some of U2's output as 'emotional pornography' (or have I got that completely ar*e about face)?

    What about the really hard heavy metal bands and the themes they were punching out - they make the glossy 'chart-topping' sad songs look really tame and lame.

    It all depends what you mean by 'depressing' - much of what passed for 'music' was so bad, and so much of it was a carbon copy of earlier hits, including none-too-subtle rip-offs from The Beatles by certain mega-groups who even ripped off the Fab Four's fashion. To witness such brazen plagiarism was depressing.

    The glaring omission from the list would have to be much of the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds output during the period, especially Henry's Dream - but not for the same reasons as I outline above - 'Saint Nick' and the band put together (as they always do) a remarkably original and challenging album that is as original and dark today as it was when first released - pulling no punches, masterfully delivered, totally uncompromising, with flashes of dark humour interspersed with very grim, gritty and disturbing imagery. 'Henry's Dream' was absolute magic, transporting, somewhat horrifying in parts, but altogether majestic. Depressing subject matter (you name it, it's in there) but peerlessly executed (no pun intended) ballad after ballad. Despite the fact Nick reportedly was far from happy with the result, I guess their fans' can't ever be as critical as the artists themselves, not knowing what result the band aimed for - the result was pure magic regardless. A warning though - give it a listen then make sure you go outside for a cathartic walk in the sun...the album not recommended for those needing a lighthearted 'gee-up'...

    Which takes me to a question I have always wondered about - was the album title ('Henry's Dream')referencing the movie 'Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer' directed by John McNaughton and starring Michael Rooker (who has lately been starring in a brilliant cameo as a redneck left chained at the top of a building to fend for himself against the zombie hordes, in season one of 'The Walking Dead')?

    Now, those subjects are what I would call 'depressing' - pop stars wailing about lost love is not 'depressing' by comparison, just commercial, cynical, narcissistic, self-indulgent drivel by comparison.

    Another masterpiece from the 90s was the David Bowie/Brian Eno collaboration '' Outside' - one track, 'the heart's filthy leasson' used in David Finscher's film 'Seven', another track 'I'm Deranged', used in David Lynch's film 'Lost Highway', and another track used in the rather hilarious sci-fi flick Starship Troopers. If you want to see depressing, take a look at the video clip for 'The Heart's Filty Lesson' on YouTube - anything else is mere fluff by comparison.
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  • SGunn's avatar
    Commenter
    SGunn
    Date and time
    Friday 31 Aug 2012 - 3:05 PM
    Marilyn Manson - Sweet Dreams
    Marcy Playground - Sex & Candy
    Silverchair - Cemetary
    too many easy kills
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  • Mares's avatar
    Commenter
    Mares
    Date and time
    Friday 31 Aug 2012 - 3:15 PM
    The song you're looking for is Begin Again by Space, thecheiftain
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  • Marcus's avatar
    Commenter
    Marcus
    Date and time
    Friday 31 Aug 2012 - 3:29 PM
    Hence the positive comments elsewhere you didn't highlight.
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  • Marcus's avatar
    Commenter
    Marcus
    Date and time
    Friday 31 Aug 2012 - 3:30 PM
    ...(@crystaltowers)
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  • Philthy's avatar
    Commenter
    Philthy
    Date and time
    Friday 31 Aug 2012 - 7:59 PM
    I always found ""Born Slippy" to be enormously depressing, to me it's the perfect audio portrayal of coming down from a massive speed binge.
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