A quick look around the “recent posts” area of this site reveals that 1990 has been on my mind a lot lately. In the last two weeks, there have been two podcasts posted celebrating the year in question, not to mention a 25th anniversary celebration of Public Enemy’s Fear Of A Black Planet.
While it’s top of mind, I decided to delve a little deeper and rank every song that hit #1 that calendar year. No particular reason why-I happen to love lists (there will be more coming!), and this seemed like a fun exercise. It also reminded me that as much as I may think Top 40 music kinda sucks these days, it sucked pretty bad 25 years ago, too. At least with (some of) these songs, though, I have the benefit of nostalgia. ‘Cause that’s really the only way I can justify ranking some songs as high as I do. Ah well–we like what we like, right?
Looking at this against the list of #1 R&B singles of 1990, which includes classics like “Feels Good” by Tony! Toni! Tone!, “Rub You The Right Way” by Johnny Gill and “Poison” by Bell Biv DeVoe only seems to illustrate how relatively awful top 40 radio was in 1990. I’d only argue for the top three songs as certified classics, and everything else that rates above good is a guilty pleasure. Thank God for living in New York where the radio had a little bit of renegade flavor. If you lived in Middle America during 1990, I feel for you.
Here’s what you (and truthfully, me too) heard the most of that year. From worst to first.
26. “Because I Love You (The Postman Song)”-Stevie B.
One thing that’s been said a lot about R&B groups who specialize in slow jams is that they should never do uptempo joints; Boyz II Men & Jodeci were prime offenders when it came to the “you really shouldn’t make too many danceable records” thing.
Flipping that theory, you have Stevie B.: a popular (and good) dance artist who should’ve never been allowed to go anywhere near a ballad. Case in point: “Because I Love You (The Postman Song)”. I can’t tell you which is worse: the mawkish sentiment or Stevie B’s off-key vocal. What I can tell you is that this song is putrid. Naturally, it became the Miami-based musician’s biggest hit. The American record-buying public is not very well known for good taste, but “Because I Love You” was not only the worst chart-topper of 1990; I’d submit that it ranks near the bottom of the barrel for the entire decade. The only songs coming to mind that I definitively enjoy less are the Jukebox From Hell standards “Macarena” and “Candle In The Wind 1997”. Ugh–what wretched company.
25. “Blaze Of Glory”-Jon Bon Jovi
Want proof that Jon Bon Jovi could’ve sneezed on a record in 1990 and it would’ve been a smash? Here ya go. On the title track from Young Guns 2, Jon takes the framework for “Wanted-Dead Or Alive” and kicks the “Western” up to 11. Boing-boing guitar noises, hackneyed cowboy cliches and the whole bit. Because if you think “cowboy”, your mind automatically goes to an Italian guy from New Jersey.
“Blaze Of Glory” is one or two “yee-haw”s away from Weird Al-style parody. And nowhere near as funny. In this case, the joke was on whoever bought this record and sent it to the top of the charts.
24. “If Wishes Came True”-Sweet Sensation
Kids: in the late Eighties and early Nineties, if you lived in or near a city with a large Latino population, you heard plenty of freestyle music. This subgenre sorta split the difference between dance-pop a la Debbie Gibson and electronic hip-hop. Stevie B., mentioned above, was the biggest male freestyle star. Sweet Sensation might’ve been second to the Cover Girls as the genre’s most popular group. I guess that depends on whether you consider Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam to be a freestyle act, an R&B group, or a pop outfit. Anyway, Stevie, the Cover Girls AND Sweet Sensation all had their biggest hits with treacly ballads. Apparently if you were darker than cardboard and needed to get over on top 40 radio, you couldn’t have a smash hit with tempo.
“If Wishes Came True” isn’t bad so much as it is bland. If this song were a body movement, it would be a soft sway. Actually, it would be a shrug. Yeah, I’m going with a shrug.
23. “I Don’t Have The Heart”-James Ingram
Between 1981 and 1990, if James Ingram wanted a hit, he had to call someone else to be on it.
His first two hits were as a featured performer on Quincy Jones singles. “Yah Mo B There” was a duet with Michael McDonald. “How Do You Keep The Music Playing?” and “Baby Come To Me” found him teaming with Patti Austin. “Somewhere Out There” played him against Linda Ronstadt, while he joined forces with Kenny Rogers AND Kim Carnes for “What About Me?” Just prior to “I Don’t Have The Heart”, he was a featured vocalist on “The Secret Garden”; a song released under Jones’ name that also featured Barry White, Al B. Sure! and El DeBarge.
“I Don’t Have The Heart” was the fourth single from Ingram’s third solo album, It’s Real. Ingram was no stranger to banal ballads (listen to some of the songs I mentioned above), but for some reason this connected with radio and gave the singer the only top 20 hit he ever had under his name alone. Now, James Ingram probably couldn’t sing a song badly if you paid him, but “I Don’t Have The Heart” is pure easy-listening piffle. It’s also one of four singles on this list originally recorded by someone else–Stacy Lattisaw snuck a version out weeks before Ingram.
22. “Black Velvet”-Alannah Myles
In 1990, Pat Benatar was on the decline, and Melissa Etheridge was still ascending. The world needed a leather jacket-sporting tough rock ‘n roll gal, and Alannah Myles fit the bill for a couple of seconds. “Black Velvet” is one of those songs neither here nor there qualitatively (it’s got a memorable chorus and that’s about it) but it was also played to death and as such I never want to hear it again. It’s been hard enough to keep the chorus out of my head as I was putting this list together.
21. “Black Cat”-Janet Jackson
Y’all know how much I love Janet, right? I’ve owned Rhythm Nation at least four times in my life-bootleg cassette, real cassette, CD & vinyl. “Black Cat” just seems like a really hamfisted version of a “rawk” song to my ears. It’s also the only song on Rhythm Nation that Jam & Lewis didn’t produce. Fellow Time member Jellybean Johnson did the honors on “Black Cat”. Thankfully, it’s an experiment that Janet decided not to repeat on future albums.
20. “Release Me”-Wilson Phillips
1990 was a big year for acts who were the progeny of rock royalty. Wilson Phillips contained 2 daughters of Beach Boy genius Brian Wilson and the daughter of creepy Mamas and the Papas dude John Phillips. They were a pretty big deal in 1990, with their first two singles soaring to #1 on the charts. “Release Me” contains some pretty singing, but the song itself is boring as hell. Man, synth washes also had a big year in 1990. Take the vocals out and this works perfectly as incidental or theme music for a police or law procedural. Now that I think about it some more–it sounds like the music that plays in the background when Doogie Howser, M.D. is typing in his journal!
(no, I won’t torture you with a full episode of Doogie Howser, M.D. I’m tempted, though).
19. “(I Can’t Live Without Your) Love & Affection”-Nelson
Speaking of rock star progeny, two of music/TV legend Rick Nelson’s kids topped the charts with their debut single.
Nelson (a duo consisting of identical twins Matthew & Gunnar) were sort of the Teen Beat version of hair metal. If you found Bon Jovi too aggro, Nelson hit the spot for you. Plus, they had Rapunzel-esque blonde tresses that made them so dreamy!
“Love & Affection” is pleasant, catchy pop/rock. Nothing more, nothing less.
18. “How Am I Supposed To Live Without You”-Michael Bolton
Michael Bolton made his initial entry into the music world as a songwriter (artists like Cher and Kiss recorded his songs) and a hard rock vocalist. Think Eddie Money with a bit more suburban mom appeal. Somewhere along the line, the artist (or his record company) had the brainwave to turn him into a softer, more sensitive object of female affections. Like a white, straight Luther Vandross crossed with a less buff version of Fabio.
1987’s The Hunger introduced this version of Bolton to the world, and middle-aged housewives rejoiced. Two years later, Soul Provider charged up the charts and became a multi-platinum success, thanks to songs like “How Am I Supposed To Live Without You”. It became the first of Bolton’s two chart toppers, performing significantly better than Laura Branigan’s original version, released back in 1983.
Admittedly-I do not hate Michael Bolton. If this song was to pop up on shuffle in my iTunes library, I probably wouldn’t skip it. I might even sing along. But I’d be embarrassed. I totally understand why people dislike Bolton to the extent that they do. Not only is there some slightly uncomfortable cultural appropriation happening, but he’s a prime proponent of what folks call “over-souling”. Hey, melisma has its place. But where someone like Patti LaBelle (a duet partner of Bolton’s) gets carried away vocally and it sounds like genuine emotion, Bolton often sounds like he’s passing a kidney stone. Check out his covers of “Georgia On My Mind” and “When A Man Loves A Woman” for examples of when a perfectly talented vocalist goes way overboard on the pyrotechnics.
17. “Opposites Attract”-Paula Abdul w/The Wild Pair
A pleasant dance/pop trifle made immortal by a fucking RAPPING CARTOON CAT. 1990. We were so innocent then.
16. “I’m Your Baby Tonight”-Whitney Houston
I love Whitney. But has any other pop giant of her era gotten so far with such mediocre material?
“I’m Your Baby Tonight” was the title track of Whitney’s third album. It was produced by L.A. Reid & Babyface, and kicked off a lengthy association between the production team and Whitney’s label boss, Clive Davis. This agreement would ultimately lead to L.A. & ‘Face getting their label deal through Clive’s Arista Records, and would eventually result in L.A. ousting Clive as Arista’s president. Talk about awkward.
Whitney’s relationship with the R&B community was also awkward at this time. Let’s face it: us Black folks are a little sensitive when we feel as though we’re being “betrayed”, and Whitney was tagged with the “sellout” label that we’re quick to toss on folks who are a little too successful (Michael, Prince, Lionel and every other major Black music superstar at this time got the same treatment). Conscious of the criticism, and seemingly more stung by it than the other artists, Whitney and Clive teamed up with the La’Face team with at least the partial goal of re-ingratiating Whitney with a Black audience.
Commercially, I’m Your Baby Tonight was a moderate success (for Whitney, anyway) selling about 4 million copies, which was about half of what either of her first two efforts sold up to that point. It was her first album to not peak at #1 on the pop charts, held from the summit by the Vanilla Ice juggernaut. The title track is a good song-like quite a few songs on this list, it’s grown on me over the years-but it doesn’t have that ear candy quality that previous uptempo hits like “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” and “How Will I Know” did. It almost-almost-seemed as though Whitney was trying a bit too hard.
Truthfully, Whitney & ‘Face were never the best creative partners. They worked together solidly for about a decade, and I think I’d only rank “Exhale (Shoop Shoop)”, “Why Does It Hurt So Bad” and maybe “My Name Is Not Susan” as above-average.
15. “I’ll Be Your Everything”-Tommy Page
Five words will explain why “I’ll Be Your Everything” went to #1: New. Kids. On. The. Block.
The ballad was co-written by New Kids Danny Wood and Jordan Knight, and produced by Knight and Donnie Wahlberg, with an assist from NKOTB Svengali Maurice Starr’s brother Michael Jonzun.
Three quick observations:
1) The New Kids do some nice harmonizing towards the song’s conclusion.
2) I can’t hear the name “Tommy Page” without thinking of that damn Full House episode.
3) HOLY SHIT. Tommy Page is kind of a big deal these days. He was the publisher of Billboard Magazine for a couple of years, and is now a hotshit hotshot exec at Pandora. Go Tommy! You’ve come a long way from being Stephanie Tanner’s crush.
14. “Another Day In Paradise”-Phil Collins
Something happened on the way to Phil Collins’ …But Seriously album. Dude lost his sense of humor. (Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks must’ve been holding it for him, as it resurfaced in Genesis’s “I Can’t Dance” video).
The kooky guy from “Sussudio” or the (naively offensive) “Illegal Alien” video? Barely present.
Not that anyone expects a happy song about homelessness (the topic of “Another Day In Paradise”, but the …But Seriously album as a whole could’ve used a jolt of looseness, a crack of a smile, something to lighten the mood just a bit. I guess Phil would’ve had to change the title then, though.
Here’s a very nice performance by Phil and David Crosby at the 1991 Grammys (where “Paradise” won Record Of The Year).
And here’s a surprisingly good cover of “Paradise” by Brandy & Ray J.
13. “Love Takes Time”-Mariah Carey
Mariah Carey set a record when her first five singles went to #1 on the chart. “Love Takes Time” was the second of the five.
Worth mentioning-all five of those songs have stood up to repeated listens, which is more than I can say for much of what Mariah’s been recording for the past fifteen years. While I’m glad she broke out of the ballad-heavy pop diva mode that would’ve strangled her eventually, I wish her more contemporary efforts were a little better written/constructed. And I really hope she gets out of the “find new hot rapper and has him put a lame 16 on her single” phase. Though it’s hard to call something that’s lasted 20 years a “phase”.
12. “Love Will Lead You Back”-Taylor Dayne
Semi-random Taylor Dayne anecdote: I remember watching Video Soul with my folks in early 1988. Taylor Dayne’s “Tell It To My Heart” video came on and my aunt and I got into an argument about whether Taylor was white or Black. I turned out to be right-Taylor Dayne is a nice Jewish girl from Lawn Guyland. She packs a punch vocally, though. And in the initial stages of her career, there definitely seemed to be a little bit of deliberate racial obfuscation happening.
“Love Will Lead You Back” was Taylor’s lone #1 hit and it’s one of Diane Warren’s most emotionally heartfelt songs. No less an authority than Patti LaBelle co-signed it when she recorded her own version of “Love Will Lead You Back” a decade or so later.
11. “She Ain’t Worth It”-Glenn Medeiros featuring Bobby Brown
Two words will explain why “She Ain’t Worth It” went to #1: Bobby. Brown.
I would have to imagine that a suit at MCA called Bob’s guest appearance in as a favor. It worked, though.
If internet rumors serve correctly, Mr. Medeiros is now an educator in his home state of Hawaii. Maybe he should bring Bob in as a guidance counselor? “Son…the girl’s jazzy, but she’s nothing but trouble.”
10. “Hold On”-Wilson Phillips
I’ve never seen Bridesmaids. Okay, I’ve maybe seen the last ten minutes of Bridesmaids. The girls of Wilson Phillips owe the producers of that film their last half-decade of royalty checks for exposing “Hold On” to a generation of young girls who had no clue who Wilson Phillips was. As much as I hated this song back in 1990, I’ve warmed up to it over the years.
I could totally picture Taylor Swift cutting a remake of this.
9. “It Must Have Been Love”-Roxette
I’ve never seen Pretty Woman, either. I don’t know if I’m the intended demographic for a story about a hooker with a heart of gold. The biggest hit from that film’s soundtrack was this slow jam from Swedish duo Roxette.
Here’s another song that took a long time to grow on me. When I was 14, you couldn’t get me to change the station fast enough if this song came on the air. I guess I’ve gotten soft(er) in my old age.
That said-for my money-the best of the Pretty Woman singles was this jam from Go West.
8. “Escapade”-Janet Jackson
Does anyone else substitute “let me take you to the Ice Capades” for “let me take you on an escapade” when singing this song? Only me? Okay, I’ll sit down now.
7. “Praying For Time”-George Michael
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s very easy to see that George Michael had some major crises of conscience following the success of Faith in 1987-88. World domination clearly comes with a price, and George not only faced backlash from some of the R&B artists he admired (Freddie Jackson & Gladys Knight openly criticized the fact that George was as successful with Black audiences as he was) but he appeared to be coming to terms with his sexuality. Dealing with all of that in your mid twenties when you are viewed as a sex symbol to millions of women has got to be a little rough. Coming out as gay public figure in 2015 is not easy. In 1990, it would’ve been career suicide (and George’s career in America suffered greatly when he eventually did come out nearly a decade later).
I’m sure all of this factored into Listen Without Prejudice, George’s follow-up to Faith. The album was definitely (and deliberately) less R&B/dance-flavored than its predecessor, and a listen to songs like “Freedom ’90” and “Waiting” reveals that George was definitely hinting towards something. Doesn’t mean the music isn’t good though. Actually, I’d consider Prejudice to be Faith‘s artistic superior. Less calculated, more passionate.
I bought “Praying For Time” on cassette single right before my sophomore year in high school started. As we (my grandfather, my uncle and me) were driving home from the mall, we popped the single in. My grandfather immediately asked “is this John Lennon?” High praise for George, indeed.
6. “Close To You”-Maxi Priest
“Close To You” topped the pop charts, hit #2 R&B and reached the top 15 of the adult contemporary and dance charts, an across-the-board smash. It was the lead singer from Maxi’s second album, Bona Fide, and took advantage of two things: Maxi’s clear pop smarts (his first big hit was a cover of Cat Stevens’ “Wild World”) and the public’s fascination with all things Soul II Soul. The musical background of “Close To You” owed more than a little to hits like “Keep On Movin'” and “Back To Life”-so much so, that I was surprised to go to the song’s Wikipedia page and not see Jazzie B or Nellee Hooper listed as a producer. While not exactly a reggae song, Maxi was indeed a reggae artist (in the melodic Barrington Levy lovers rock sense of the term) and he became only the second artist to originate in that genre to score a #1 hit, with UB40 beating him to the punch two years earlier.
5. “Ice Ice Baby”-Vanilla Ice
I’m a hip-hop snob. I’m supposed to hate Vanilla Ice with every fiber of my being. I still dislike what he represented. But I can recite “Ice Ice Baby” from beginning to end no matter how much of a joke the song and artist were. Nostalgia is something else, y’all. Word to your mother.
4. “Step By Step”-New Kids On The Block
At the beginning of 1990, the New Kids were on top of the world, and the hysteria around them (especially with the teenage set) was at a level unseen since Michael Jackson six years before. By the end of the year, the bubble was dangerously close to busting. Backlash was inevitable, and it kicked in pretty quickly after the release of Step By Step, the official follow-up to NKOTB’s breakthrough album, Hangin’ Tough.
The album was pretty much a joke (note: don’t ever listen to Donnie Wahlberg’s naively offensive impression of a Jamaican on “Stay With Me Baby”) but the title track has legs. Producer/songwriter Maurice Starr originally recorded it years before on a group called The Superiors, but the New Kids version has flash, pizzazz and all those intangible elements that can turn an OK song into a great one.
Props to Donnie for rocking Public Enemy and Ice-T Rhyme Syndicate gear in the video. After The Beastie Boys, Donnie was really the first white kid to bring awareness of hardcore hip-hop to Middle America. That almost makes up for his “Miss Cleo” Ja-faican accent on “Stay With Me Baby”. Seriously, don’t listen to it. It’ll make you angry. But listen to “Step By Step” as many times as you need to.
3. “Vision Of Love”-Mariah Carey
As we discussed in part two of our 1990 podcast, “Vision Of Love” is a timeless record. It could’ve been a hit in 1955, 1975, 1990, and it could still be a hit in 2015. Mariah caught a lot of guff at the beginning of her career for being a Whitney Houston knockoff, but I don’t think Whitney had a song as good as “Vision Of Love” in her catalog until she recorded “I Will Always Love You”. Crazy to think that Mimi wrote this song as a teenager.
We all know that Madonna’s a major culture vulture, right? For the first decade or so of her career as a pop star, she stole wantonly (some might soften that a little to say “was influenced by” or “borrowed heavily from”, but let’s call a spade a spade here) from Black, Latino and gay culture. Truthfully, though, Madonna’s vulturism made for some great music for a good 10 years. Case in point: “Vogue”.
I was barely 14 when “Vogue” was a smash, but I’d have to imagine that most of America was not familiar with the concept of voguing prior to hearing the song or the video. I certainly wasn’t. Was she the first mainstream artist to showcase this element of gay subculture? No…Jody Watley’s “Friends” video beat “Vogue” by about a year. But I don’t know that Jody was getting play in Iowa and Wisconsin and all those places that are more amenable to new and strange concepts when they’re presented by someone who looks like them. So, as hard as it might be sometimes (and watching Madonna make a complete ass of herself in the name of maintaining cultural relevance has not been fun for about a decade), props to Madge for exposing voguing to the masses (and more importantly, crediting many of those who created the culture and giving them exposure beyond their circle).
1. “Nothing Compares 2 U”-Sinead O’ Connor
The first time I saw Sinead O’ Connor was on the Grammys in…1989, I think it was. Here was this woman on stage with the Public Enemy logo shaved into her head, singing passionately and looking unlike any other female artist I’d seen up to that point. I was smitten then, and still am. This is despite-well, actually, it’s at least partially because of-Sinead’s fearlessness and honesty.
“Nothing Compares 2 U” was written by Prince and buried on the debut album by The Family, one of P’s less commercially heralded side projects. Recording it and exposing a fantastically written song to a larger audience would have been enough, but Sinead made “Nothing” her own as surely as Aretha made Otis Redding’s “Respect” her song. No matter how many versions of “Nothing Compares 2 U” Prince re-records, that song will never be his again. Sinead’s version is definitive. While maybe not the best song of 1990 (I’d certainly rank “Welcome To The Terrordome” and “Poison” ahead of it, it was certainly the best thing to hit the top of the pops that year.