Matt Daniels of Polygraph used playcount data from Spotify to identify the most played songs from the past, which he labeled The Most Timeless Songs of All Time. The most timeless song of the 90s, by a wide margin? Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit.1
Out of the entire catalog of music from the 90s, these are the tracks on the trajectory to survive. Some of my friends were deeply disturbed by what’s been lost in time (e.g., Pearl Jam). And No Diggity isn’t just anecdotally timeless, it’s the fifth most-played song from the 90s.
Note the tracks that hardly charted on Billboard, in their day. Smells Like Teen Spirit, a track that never reached the Billboard Top 5 when it was released in 1992, is now the most-played song from the 90s.
Daniels makes the point that it is not the generation that made the music that will determine its long-term prospects for being remembered, but subsequent generations, which sounds obvious when it’s put that way, but I’d never really thought about it.1
Biggie has three of the Top 10 hip-hop songs between 1986 and 1999. This is a strong signal that future generations will remember Biggie as the referent artist of 80s and 90s hip-hop. And there’s No Diggity as the top - perhaps it’s that glorious Dr. Dre verse.
Hip hop heads will lament the omission of Rakim, Public Enemy, or Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt. It’s a depressing reality that exists for every genre and generation: not every artist will be remembered. The incoming generation will control what’s relevant from the 90s and carried into the future, independent of quality and commercial success. For rock, that might be Blink-182. For electronica, that might be Sandstorm.
I made a playlist on Spotify of the top 30 most timeless songs from the article:
Update: Mike Harris made a Spotify playlist with all 1001 songs from the article. 66+ hours of timelessness is a lot of timelessness.
Keeping in mind that not all recorded music is on Spotify.↩
And now I can’t stop thinking about it, particularly in the context of the Internet/Web. Who and what from the 1990s and early 2000s will be remembered in the context of the Web 10 or 20 years from now? Marc Andreessen might because he’s relevant to a whole new generation of startup bros right now whereas David Filo or Pierre Omidyar might not be. Flickr might because of Slack but not Delicious. Jorn Barger and Dave Winer may be lost to the sands of time in favor of John Gruber or Dooce.↩