Nirvana's iconic 1991 single "Smells Like Teen Spirit" beat out hits from Madonna, Britney Spears and U2 to be named the best pop song in 20 years by Britain's Q Magazine.
In its November issue, which celebrates Q's 20th anniversary, the publication set out to identify the top 20 singles of the past two decades. Their picks range from pop sensations like Britney Spears' " … Baby, One More Time," and Outkast's "Hey Ya" to The Prodigy's punk/techno mix "The Firestarter" and Guns N' Roses' hard-edged rock ballad, "Sweet Child O' Mine."
"The thing about 'Smells Like Teen Spirit,' it was a watershed moment in rock music. It changed everything," said Q magazine deputy editor Gareth Grundy of the iconic Nirvana hit. "It put heavy music back on the map in the early 90's, really, that combination of punk-rock anger and the heavy Black Sabbath 70's metal. It was something new. Sulky kids everywhere loved Nirvana and continue to do so."
During its relatively hype-free release, few guessed that front man Kurt Cobain's sound and lyrics would become the defining one of an era. To this day, nearly 15 years after its release, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" remains MTV Europe's most played video and continues to strike a chord with angst-ridden teenagers everywhere.
The songs were chosen by the staff of Q, and while the tunes have little in common, Grundy said they are all "instantly memorable."
"The song just basically had to be a good song," Grundy added. "We took a poll of all our writers and the staff of the magazine and we counted the vote and the list came in as you see it in the magazine."
These hits sparked dance trends (head banging and hip-hop grooves), infused teen culture with new lingo (as with Outkast's "shake it like a Polaroid picture,"), and served as anthems for youths across the world.
"You can't put your finger on what specifically makes a song great," Grundy said. "You know it when you feel it."
Take Madonna's 1989 hit "Like A Prayer," for example. Ranked at number 16 on Q magazine's list, Grundy said it's "the definitive late 80's, early 90's Madonna song."
"[It] actually is probably Madonna's best pop song. It's proof that there is more to her than the visual element," he said.
And while Madonna is an easy pick for a list of classic songs from this time period, there are other daring choices which make the Q magazine list noteworthy. The list ends with the Arctic Monkeys' eclectic guitar funk single "I Bet You Look Good On the Dance Floor," and at number 12 is this summer's hip-hop smash "Crazy," by the virtually unknown Gnarls Barkley.
"'Crazy' is one of those songs which blends hip-hop and old soul. It's one of those things that's just an all-time classic song. In future years, people will be covering that song," Grundy said. "As soon as you heard it, you felt instantly that this was a massive record."
Something which even the savviest of record producers may not be able to predict. "Great songs are often a happy accident," admits Grundy. "You can't predict necessarily what makes a hit despite the music business trying and continuing to try."
Whatever their appeal, these songs reflect the music that defined a generation.
The full list:
1. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" Nirvana, 1991
2. "Hey Ya!" OutKast, 2003
3. "Sweet Child O' Mine" Guns N' Roses, 1987
4. "Unfinished Symphony" Massive Attack, 1991
5. "One" U2, 1991
6. "Live Forever" Oasis, 1994
7. "Bitter Sweet Symphony" The Verve, 1997