What Is The "Sound" Of The 90's?

Strange question, I know. The other day I was ruminating about what Stranger Things would be like if it was actually my childhood. So picture, if you will, not 1980’s rural Indiana U.S.A but 1990’s rural Scotland UK. I can picture it perfectly with the boys and their bowl cuts and kappa poppers (trousers with buttons all the way up the sides) and the girls with the crimped hair and chokers. But for the life of me, I can’t think of the “sound” of the 90’s. We all know the 80’s had the synth, form every Carpenter movie to every piece of Cyberpunk fiction. You can’t watch a single movie\tvshow\game that’s trying to capture that time period without hearing it. I can think of plenty of period appropriate songs but what the overall “sound” would be?


I’d say it sits somewhere between the likes of nu-metal and rap rock with a bit of pop singers, when I think 90’s I think early Linkin Park, Crazy Town and songs of that ilk

For the UK it is, probably, dominated by Britpop. The whole Blur vs Oasis thing was smack bang in the middle of the decade, and it took over the music industry in a deeply unhealthy way. You had the Indie scene generally become a bit more mainstream as well. So from my perspective at least (born in '78 so the 90’s were the first decade I started really caring about music and buying my own albums etc) I would say they would be the main part of any soundtrack.


A mix of grunge and East coast/West coast hip hop. Maybe shade into pop-punk if you’re set in the late 90s, but if you’re talking a Stranger Things-esque setting (i.e. suburbia) it’s probably going to be grunge.


That’s definitely the music I think of from that period Blur, Oasis and then Pulp. But I feel like the OST would be something else. Like how Stranger Things has actual songs from the time but also the overarching synth theme.

True. The music was all quite different though. I mean not polar opposites but the major bands of the time were going for different things so I wonder if there is a pattern.

If you can somehow link the Spice Girls, Radiohead and the Chemical Brothers then that would be a start, maybe!

1 Like

A Tim Allen grunt


Beyond the Manchester-derived/Britpop stuff mentioned, I’d say that soundtrack would probably include imported stuff - I’m guessing grunge is a shoe-gaze in, even if that might be via round-trip acts like Bush. Maybe not overflowing with it, because there is some very regional music that defined the local era but grunge sure was also popular at the time and mostly imported.

I would definitely expect the explosion from Bristol (trip hop) to feature heavily. Portishead, Massive Attack, etc feel like they almost define the era as clearly as the (much bigger) Britpop wave (and post-wave, and wave-adjacent) already discussed. I’d definitely push in a Future Sound of London direction from there too and then you’re into breakbeat (especially big beat) or experimental IDM. Aphex Twin, Autechre, into the Chemical Brothers, going to Prodigy. And now we’re ready to bring in the '90s UK rave scene/jungle/etc.

As it’s specifically Scottish, you probably get some early Mogwai in there (with similar works mixed in). Which starts to poke into the core issue: we’ve not got the distance to hear stuff from the era as being totally dissimilar to modern stuff. It may be 20 years but I’m not really prepared to call this stuff “of the era” because it does seem to smoothly flow into current music. There are a few movements that will ground a soundtrack and a few themes that run through it but it’s not been collapsed down to a singular note.


I don’t think any one thing revolutionized music as much in the 90s as the ubiquitous synthesizer keyboard did in the 80s. It’s not that the 90s doesn’t have an easy “sound” so much as the 80s has maybe the easiest “sound” any era ever has.

Sampling was becoming a lot more widespread, until the 1996 Telecommunications Act, so I think there’s something to be said for that. Rock music got a little more produced, incorporating elements of hip-hop and pop music.

The Bristol explosion absolutely needs to be mentioned @Shivoa, along with the rapid evolution in electronica that got us from rave to jungle to d&b in the space of only a few years, while big beat (Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy) was also riding high and flourishing off rap and rock collabs and cross-media connections like being part of The Matrix and other movie OSTs. Video game music after 95 or so was teeming with musical references to rave and jungle.

Hip-hop had its largest concentrated collection of masterpiece works in the genre in the 90s, the “golden era”.

That’s all I was listening to so it’s most of what I can speak to. If I had to pick one thing that defines the 90s from my perspective, it would honestly be joyful, free sampling.


I personally think that “the sound of the 90’s” is better defined by how stands in contrast to “the sound of the 80’s”, because a lot of what came to define especially the sound of the early 90’s was how it tried distance itself from what came before it. The 80’s were fucking BIG, capital letters and all, bright colors and lavish production galore. It reflected the culture, the money excess. If the 80’s was a party the 90’s were the hangover, where you damned al the stupid shit you did the night before and looked back on your excess bender with apathetic contempt.

The rock sound stripped away all the glitz and glam and transitioned into grunge, rap music stripped away the happy go lucky hammerpants and transitioned into grittier lyrical content as well as adopting a simpler approach to beats in the style of “boom bap” (although boom bap could also be argued was an east coast response to the west coast G-funk sound). Hell, even metal, as genre previously personified by high energy and especially speed in the 80’s specifically, moved towards a more “muted” and lower sound (on most cases literally tuning down their guitars). No flash, what so ever.

Everything was just darker, more depressive, a concerted effort to distance yourself from “the establishment”. it was cool to be in a bad mood and “over it”.


Synth snare drums and a pan flute.

Well, that depends on what part of the 90’s you are talking about because it could be pretty bright. Remember Saved By The Bell?

I think it’s very region-depended… For the US I would definitely say nu-metal or third wave, cali-punk: Linkin Park, Simple Plan or something. For Europe I tend to associate the 90s more with rave and techno. Europe in the 90s for me is kids in track suits and shell coats, denim jackets with a discman tucked in the pocket, mullets and songs like these: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WxBgGZMVQbY


True and I’m speaking in generalized terms of course. In reality it’s incredibly hard to boil any decade down to a single “sound”, especially from the 90’s and onward because of how the internet impacts how long and how far trends spread. Mobilizing a counter culture is so much easier thanks to the internet, that it gets progressively harder to actually establish long standing trends.

Smells Like Teen Spirit is pretty much 90s incarnate to me.

All-Star also came out in the 90s so…

The last note of Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” where the grungy guitar just lingers. Go to 4:25 to hear what I mean. I feel like that encapsulates “Generation X”, from My So-Called Life to Kevin Smith’s movies to the skinny jeans, heroin-chic of Melrose Place and The Craft.

1 Like

Orange Lazarus.


If I had to sum it up in one song…


I don’t know what you guys are talking about, it’s obviously third wave ska

1 Like