30 Songs From the ’90s You’ll Recognize From the First Few Notes
Certain songs are instantly recognizable from the moment they kick in.
Whether it's an earworm riff, an unforgettable vocal or some other extraordinary sound, there's something special about those rock and metal songs that you can always recognize straight away.
Plenty of these sorts of tracks are smash hits and the kinds of songs bands are best known for, but so too can they be deep cuts that just have that effervescent quality that get a live audience hyped as soon as the band starts playing.
Iconic intros come in all shapes and sizes, and below you'll find 30 examples we've chosen from the 1990s — a decade ruled by the likes of Nirvana, Alice in Chains and Green Day — of rock and metal songs you'll always recognize from the first few notes.
Judas Priest - "Painkiller"1990
How about that for some drumming? The majority of the songs on this list start out with guitars at the forefront, but the intro to "Painkiller" belongs to Scott Travis, who has rightly been lauded for his playing ever since joining up with Judas Priest in the late '80s.
Nirvana - 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'1991
Bursting out of the gates thanks to some iconic Kurt Cobain riffing, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is comfortably Nirvana's most recognizable song and possesses the kind of intro that easily gets stuck in your head
Metallica - 'Enter Sandman'1991
The withheld first few notes of "Enter Sandman" help build the suspense for what it an undoubted metal classic. This single from Metallica's celebrated Black Album is currently the band's highest-streaming song, with over 608,000,000 plays on Spotify.
Guns N' Roses - 'November Rain'1991
It has an argument to be rock's greatest ballad ever, and whether you agree with that statement or not, no-one can deny the raw emotion conveyed by "November Rain" from the soft keys all the way through to Axl Rose's impassioned vocals.
Rage Against the Machine - 'Killing in the Name'1991
Dissonant riffing gives way to an unforgettable rumble of bass in the opening to Rage Against the Machine's 1991 classic, and the song remains as violently impactful today as it did 30 years ago.
R.E.M. - 'Losing My Religion'1991
The twinkly acoustic guitars of "Losing My Religion" are an utter delight. While this isn't a song that bursts out of the gate all guns blazing, this laid back approach doesn't detract from the track's emotional impact.
Temple of the Dog - 'Hunger Strike'1991
A simple, mellow guitar line is how "Hunger Strike" begins, with the song eventually developing into a cathartic duet between Chris Cornell and Eddie Vedder that remains a special piece of songwriting.
Pearl Jam - 'Even Flow'1991
This one goes hard. Starting out with some serious groove that only builds more as the track progresses, "Even Flow" shows Pearl Jam at their fiery best.
Red Hot Chili Peppers - 'Under the Bridge'1991
Another more sombre entry here, this time courtesy of Anthony Kiedis and co. Despite it's chilled-out vibe, "Under the Bridge" transformed the fortunes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, becoming one of the decade's most recognizable alt.rock songs
Alice in Chains - 'Them Bones'1992
Chunky riffs dominate the opening of Alice in Chains' '92 classic "Them Bones." A rumination on the concept of mortality, it's tracks like this that have always set the band apart from the '90s grunge pack.
Pantera - 'Walk'1992
A typically vulgar display of power from Pantera, "Walk" starts out with some stomping guitars that lead into five minutes of heavy metal punishment that could only come from Phil Anselmo and his bandmates.
Stone Temple Pilots - 'Plush'1992
The second single from STP's debut album, Core, "Plush" was a chart success for the band, peaking at No.18 on the Billboard Top 40. To this day, "Plush" remains one of Stone Temple Pliots' definitive songs.
Weezer - "Say it Ain't So"1992
This is Weezer at their quirked-out best. Frontman Rivers Cuomo shines throughout this track, but it all builds from the simplest of melodies, and one that proves that, sometimes, less very much equals more.
White Zombie - 'Thunder Kiss 65'1992
An ominous riff gives way to some classic White Zombie madness in this single from third LP La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Volume One.
Cannibal Corpse - 'Hammer Smashed Face'1992
Disgusting. Absolutely fucking disgusting. That's the only way to describe both the intro to "Hammer Smashed Face" as well as the song at large. And we mean that as a compliment. This is violent death metal at its finest.
Iron Maiden - 'Fear of the Dark'1992
It's songs like this where Maiden's Steve Harris shows off just how great of a songwriter he is. Sure, Bruce Dickinson sounds great here, but the guitars and overall instrumentation are something else and make for a live experience unlike any other.
The Smashing Pumpkins - 'Today'1993
Yet more phenomenal songwriting, this time courtesy of the visionary Billy Corgan. Pairing upbeat music with dark-at-heart lyrics, "Today" is one of the Smashing Pumpkins' finest moments.
Nine Inch Nails - 'Closer'1994
This is another example of a simple start to a song that transforms into something mighty. One of the best examples of '90s industrial-rock, the lust-filled lyrics of "Closer" are certainly NSFW.
No Doubt - 'Just a Girl'1995
No Doubt's breakthrough single, "Just a Girl" is characterized by Gwen Stefani's characterful vocal delivery, which carries the song through three-and-a-half minutes of new wave excellence.
Deftones - 'My Own Summer (Shove It'1997
Beginning with an iconic riff that builds to some intense nu-metal on an epic scale, "My Own Summer" sees Deftones operating at their peak. One of the strongest moments on the band's revered '97 LP Around the Fur.
Foo Fighters - 'Everlong'1997
One of the biggest rock songs of all time, "Everlong" starts out with muted guitars, but the response whenever the Foos drop this live is anything but quiet. Calling this track "iconic" doesn't even come close.
Green Day - 'Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)'1997
A high-school prom staple, the reflective spirit of this Green Day classic is conjured the moment the acoustic guitars kick-in. A wonderfully simple yet special piece of songwriting.
Rammstein - 'Du Hast'1997
The Rammstein song everyone knows, "Du Hast" is a monumentally epic dose of industrial-metal that combines chunky guitar riffs and electronic sounds to great effect. As anyone who has seen Rammstein live knows, seeing the band perform this song is an experience unlike any other.
The Goo Goo Dolls - 'Iris'1998
It's been covered by every singer-songwriter to ever pick up an acoustic guitar, but despite it being played to death, there's no denying that "Iris" is a gorgeously-written soft-rock song. The track has been certified 4 times Platinum in the U.S., representing sales of over 4,000,000 units.
Hole - 'Celebrity Skin'1998
A feisty sugar-rush of power-pop, "Celebrity Skin" goes off as soon as its fun-loving guitars let loose. Speaking of the guitars, the main riff to this one was written by the Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan, so it's no surprise it sounds wicked.
Lit - 'My Own Worst Enemy'1999
One of the decade's best one-hit-wonders, Lit's "My Own Worst Enemy" epitomizes the American Pie era of party-starting pop-punk. The intro riff to this song is nothing short of iconic.
blink-182 - 'What's My Age Again?'1999
Another pop-punk smash, 'What's My Age Again?' contains everything that made the break-out era of blink-182 so great: a massive chorus, juvenile tomfoolery and power chords for days. A true throwback to a simpler time.
CKY - '96 Quite Bitter Beings'1999
Starting out with a distinctive rumble and groove, songs like '96 Quite Bitter Beings' pushed against the commercial brand of punk that bands such as blink-182 were making famous in the late '90s. This track remains by far CKY's most popular song, currently standing at over 42 million streams on Spotify.
Red Hot Chili Peppers - 'Scar Tissue'1999
Winning the Grammy for Best Rock Song in 2000, the Red Hot Chili Peppers were a rock behemoth by the time "Scar Tissue" dropped at the end of the '90s. The album to which the song belonged, Californication, peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200.
Limp Bizkit - 'Break Stuff'1999
A headbang-inducing nu-metal rager, "Break Stuff" doesn't relent from the second its unmistakable signature riff lets loose. Few nu-metal songs can touch this when it comes to getting an audience riled.