Top 20 Songs of the Past 20 Years

Obviously this is a list that will vary greatly from person to person. The massive amount of material for the list combined with the huge variation caused by personal taste – the combinations are endless. I don’t claim to be an expert in music, or good at writing about it, but Australian radio station Triple J are celebrating 20 years of their famous ‘Hottest 100’ countdowns. Now officially the biggest music poll in the world the annual countdown allows the public to pick their votes from the previous years offerings. For this anniversary edition they’re casting the net over two decades.

It’s been a noodle scratcher. My personal list started with over a hundred picks that have been mulled over, rewritten and pondered. With the 20 day voting window rapidly coming to a close I have a complete voting slip, and am here to share it with you. Before we start I did impose one rule on myself – one song per artist/band. I also used a loophole to cheat that rule. Twice. In no particular order…

#20 – Pumped Up Kicks

Foster the People

Having been a teen the 90s it’s only natural that most of my picks will be from that era as it is the music I most closely associated with. That’s not to say that some modern tracks can’t still have an impact. The juxtaposition between the dark subject matter (a school shooting) and the jaunty whistle might be considered distasteful but it somehow adds an extra edge to the message. Whether you’re in an up or down mood it finds a way to fit.

#19 – Wonderwall


Although I was certainly around and listening to music when Oasis made their Earth shattering debut onto the scene I wasn’t on the bandwagon. For people who doesn’t immediately click with the music their public image and attitude was all it took to turn people off. That said some of their music, this track in particular, has managed to stay at the forefront of people’s mind almost two decades later.

#18 – Devil’s Haircut


I always had an extra appreciation for musicians who crafted a unique sound for themselves and few people walked to their own beat like Beck. Although his personal beliefs and politics are unsavoury the man has cut a niche for himself in the alternative musical scene and although I have no freaking clue what a ‘devil’s haircut’ is this remains his best song.

#17 – Mister Brightside

The Killers

The latest offerings from The Killers have been…well, they’ve been there. Their early work stood out as a new breed of feel-good music, almost a reboot of what happened the 1980s in terms of image and musical style. Whilst there are a number of solid tracks on their first two albums – and some surprisingly dark ones – it’s this song about jealousy and paranoia that sticks around. A track like ‘Somebody Told Me’ was fun at the time but the sheer, agonising passion exhibited in ‘Mr. Brightside’ means that the listener feels the emotion of the singer every time.

#16 – No One Knows

Queens of the Stone Age

Whilst Brandon Flowers and The Killers are impeccably styled and dressed Josh Homme and his Queens of the Stone Age are down and dirty rock stars. The heavy hitting music and the don’t-give-a-fuck attitude of the front man and his ever changing line-up has never been better captured then in this track.

#15 – Palaces of Montezuma


The benefit of having one of your favourite performers appear in multiple acts is getting them around the ‘one song per artist’ rule. The 55 year old Australian gothic beanpole is still going strong and recently recorded and toured with with Grinderman. Less romantic than the Bad Seeds but making up for it in vicious attitude. This track doesn’t have the shock value of ‘Heathen Child’ or ‘No Pussy Blues’ but it is their best track.

#14 – Porcelain


It’s really hard not to like this song. For me the initial association came from the film adaptation of The Beach, which did not manage to capture the spirit of one of my favourite books. One thing it did right it was the introduction of the beach itself accompanied by this song. For a whole generation this song was about chilling out.

#13 – Help, I’m Alive


There’s a reason why this group provided the sound for The Clash of Demonhead in Scott Pilgrim vs the World.  The world is lucky to have so many fantastic female vocalists like Lana del Ray, Florence Welsh and Lisa Mitchell working in the business but few match the talents of Emily Haines. The indie rockers draw upon many influences but it’s the driving vocals of Haines that help them stand out from the crowd.

#12 – The Girl of My Dreams (is Giving Me Nightmares)

Machine Gun Fellatio

I did say that I liked unique bands. The drug fuelled mayhem of Australian alternative act Machine Gun Fellatio gave the down under music industry a much needed shot in the arm. Unlike most musicians in the post-Nirvana era they actually seemed to be having fun. Many of their songs pushed the boundaries of taste (such as ‘I Want to be Your Dirty Fucking Slut’) quite a few managed to slip into the mainstream and they achieved a decent amount of success in their time.

#11 – Henry Lee

Nick Cave and P.J. Harvey

From the album ‘Murder Ballads’ came the famous duet between Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’. Whilst that is the better known duet a strong argument should be made for ‘Henry Lee’ which featured Nick Cave performing with P.J. Harvey. The two have perfectly matched vocal styles the energy between them is electric. The video of the aforementioned Kylie Minogue collaboration focused heavily on cinematography the same director employed a simple set-up for Cave and Harvey. The choice to rely on the performer’s body language and relationship is a good one.

#10 – Teardrop

Massive Attack

Yeah, you should only start that video if you can handle a singing foetus. Aside from singing foetus issues this is one fantastic song. The mournful melody was, in part, inspired by the death of Jeff Buckley – a close friend of vocalist Elizabeth Fraser. The song almost took a very different turn with Madonna vying for the opportunity to perform the song, but it’s hard to imagine the song would have the same soul behind it. Many will think of the song as the music from House but to me it’s just a damn fine piece of music.

#9 – Tonight, Tonight

The Smashing Pumpkins

 Being a teenager during the 1990s meant that The Smashing Pumpkins formed a cornerstone of my formative musical years. Along with Nirvana and Offspring they were one of the bands that were always there at parties or in people’s cars. They may have waned after only a few albums but their double disc release ‘Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness’ is one of the best albums of the era with a dozen tracks that could make the cut. In the end the double win of the melodic music and the video being a remake of Un Voyage da le Lune make this the winner.

#8 – Bitter Sweet Symphony

The Verve

Given what a fantastic track this is, really something unique and special, it’s a shame about how the credits and royalties went to someone else. Richard Ashcroft became a household name off the back of this song, but writing credits went to Mick Jagger and Keith Richard. The opening orchestral sample was negotiated for use prior to release but copyright holders claimed that The Verve used ‘too much’ of the sample and demanded that the song be taken of the shelves.

#7 – Somebody That I Used to Know


You may have heard of this one. It’s the first Australian act to break into the US charts in about two decades, which is a shame because the Oz music industry has been putting out some serious gold. This track struck a chord with many listeners due to the impassioned delivery of the lyrics by Gotye and Kimbra. Rather than being another break-up song halfway through the track we get the other perspective, and it comes down to two angry, hurt people. A powerful performance.

#6 – Fake Plastic Trees


There’s a great line in Veronica Mars when the leading lady is looking moody and her boyfriend asks if she has “been listening to Radiohead again”. Another staple of the 90s (and what staple of the 90s alt music scene doesn’t have a music video in a supermarket?) Radiohead was the thinking disaffected teens choice of tunes. ‘Paranoid Android’, ‘Karma Police’ and ‘Creep’ tend to be the best remembered tracks but my personal favourites are ‘Exit Music (From a Film)’ and this title.

#5 – Knights of Cydonia


Following on from the moody 90s came a return to big shows and bombastic tunes, and few things are more bombastic than ‘Knights of Cydonia’. Rather than include the music video we’ve opted for the live performance because there are very few bands that can put on a show like Muse. Sci-fi and conspiracy theory themed design, visual art displays and plenty of noise. This track appeared on the fourth album and it seemed like their career had been building to that point.

#4 – Bohemian Like You

The Dandy Warhols

Making fun of hipsters before hipsters were a thing. How ironic. Sure the lyrics are fun – riffing on bohemian culture has possibly never been done better – but it’s the instantly catchy tune that makes it a classic. As soon as you hear the opening bars you’ll have the song looped in your head for the rest of the day and it won’t bother you single bit.

#3 – Common People


Whilst we’re on the subject of hipsters…

Some have referred to Nick Cave as the ‘Godfather of Goth’. By this standard you could refer to Jarvis Cocker as the hipster babydaddy. This ode to the working class starts out rather light-hearted, telling the tale of rich Greek girl attending college and wanting to live like ‘common people’. By the end it turns vicious, labelling her a tourist and warning that they’ll ‘rip her insides out’ while maintaining an up-beat tone. The song as a whole speaks of solidarity between people of the working class community and a sense of pride in what they have. Sing along and you’ll find yourself having a better day.

#2 – Seven Nation Army

The White Stripes

If you’ve been alive at any point in the last ten years then you know this track. For some people The White Stripes were that kooky alternative duo where it wasn’t clear if they were husband and wife or brother and sister. They’d had success with their first few albums but it was the first track form ‘Elephant’ that caused them to explode in popularity, and it all originated from a couple of random chords plucked out during a sound test. ‘Seven Nation Army’ has since been used as everything from a sporting chant to a protest song and still carries an impact today. It will especially have an impact on your eyes if you watch that clip closely enough.

#1 – Into My Arms

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

He’s an odd one, Nick Cave. He’ll put out songs like ‘Stagger Lee’ and ‘Red Right Hand’ – violent and disturbing tracks that positively drip menace and blood – and then he’ll follow it up with a heartfelt, beautiful love ballad like this. A reflection of his broken down relationship with Viviane Carnerio and then P.J. Harvey the song is melancholic in tone but with uplifting lyrics. Absolutely perfect.