Just about 25 years ago, Mariah Carey arrived on the scene, and she hasn’t left. Just last week, her new single “Infinity” debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. Take a look at any singles chart from 1990, and Mimi might be the only artist from that list (sans Madonna) that will manage a hit single this year.
Mariah’s weathered bumps and bruises that would derail a lesser personality. She’s been accused of shameless trend-hopping (by myself and many others), fans have wondered whether her golden voice is shot (my opinion–it’s aged, but not shot). I, for one, admire her ear for a catchy song, her witty lyrics (certainly moreso than the average pop singer), and her career smarts. She wisely fought label boss/husband Tommy Mottola to identify as a hipper/more street-conscious singer, and that move not only resulted in a series of great singles, but it probably extended/saved her career.
The only act with more #1 singles than Mariah is The Beatles. She’s got 18 of ’em. Some are fantastic, some I’d just as soon never hear again. I’m ranking ’em for you, because lists are fun. And since her Vegas revue recently opened, and her new #1s album is out shortly, it’s timely too.
18. “Hero” (1993)
I have a love/hate relationship with big, cheesy ballads. I enjoy my fair share (more than my fair share, actually) but there’s a dividing line that separates the Jim Steinmans of the world from the Diane Warrens. Although I’m not sure I can even think of a Diane Warren ballad more banal than “Hero”.
I objectively understand why “Hero” resonates with so many people. However, there’s something about it that just feels cloying to me, like those movies that seem lab-designed to push as many emotional buttons as possible. If there’s one Mariah song that makes me run away screaming, “Hero” is it.
17. “My All” (1998)
In case you’ve ever wondered what Mariah Carey on AutoPilot sounds like, I present you with “My All”. She seems to be yawning through much of this gauzy ballad, which would not have topped the charts in a more competitive environment. However, at the time, most record labels weren’t releasing singles of their biggest radio hits (pissing fans who refused to pay $16 for the one good song on an album off and unwittingly setting the stage for a decade of wanton piracy). A single had to be commercially released to qualify for the Hot 100, and labels would price certain ones at 99 cents (or 49 cents) to give them a better chance of topping the chart. “My All” was one of several beneficiaries of these loopholes.
It also is one of many Mariah songs from this period that are greatly improved via remixed versions. The remix for “My All” was more uptempo, sampled/interpolated Loose Ends’ R&B jam “Stay A Little While, Child”, and recruited rappers Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz.
16. “Touch My Body” (2008)
“Touch My Body” is Mariah’s most recent chart-topper, and while it’s pleasant enough, it doesn’t stand up as a classic.
The lyrics-which reference YouTube and Wendy Williams, are already sort of dated. The video, co-starring the dude who played Kenneth on 30 Rock as a “Geek Squad”-esque computer technician, is definitely dated.
I just noticed how similar the melodies of “Touch My Body” and “Always Be My Baby” are. Come on, Jermaine Dupri. Step your game up. Or maybe I should step my game up, considering it took me seven years to realize the similarity.
15. “I’ll Be There” (1992)
When there’s no way to improve on a classic, maybe it’s best to leave it alone.
Not to say Mariah and Trey Lorenz don’t do a great job with “I’ll Be There”, but the same thing happens every time I listen to their rendition: I want to pull out my Jackson 5 albums and listen to a pre-pubescent MJ warble the original version. I guess that isn’t a bad thing.
Trey Lorenz is a talented cat. He deserved a more successful solo career. He may have also been America’s first inkling that Mariah was kind of a fag hag. That’s not a diss song, it’s just a real song. Feel me?
14. “Don’t Forget About Us” (2005)
Surprise hit singles (like “We Belong Together”) are usually followed up at some point by songs that sound just like it. Case in point: “Don’t Forget About Us”. Docked a couple of points for being an obvious re-write.
13. “Heartbreaker” (Mariah Carey featuring Jay-Z, 1999)
Even not-surprise hit singles can be followed up at some point by songs that sound just like it.
On four straight albums, Mariah had a surefire first single strategy. Sample a hit song (or a few hit songs) from the ’80s, get a guest rapper to spit a few bars on it, voila. In the summer of 1999, there was no MC hotter than Jay-Z, so the Jiggaman gifted Mimi with a few tossed-off playful lines and got his first credit on a #1 single for his trouble. Mariah returned the favor by blessing Jay with a guest shot on his album track “The Things That U Do”.
Not only was “Heartbreaker” an attempt to replicate the sound that took “Fantasy” and “Honey” to the top of the charts, but “Heartbreaker”‘s sample source-Stacy Lattisaw’s 1982 dance hit “Attack Of The Name Game” was clearly inspired by Tom Tom Club’s “Genius Of Love”, the song Mariah sampled on “Fantasy”. Full circle, y’all.
12. “Honey” (1997)
“Honey” is arguably Mariah’s best video. It’s also her most crowded work-not only do Ma$e, The Lox and Sean “Puffy” Combs appear intermittently throughout the song, but the track was co-produced by two separate hip-hop camps: Puffy’s Bad Boy crew and Q-Tip’s The Ummah. It also samples not one, but two early ’80s hip-hop classics; Malcolm McLaren’s “Hey DJ” and The Treacherous Three’s “Body Rock”.
The original version of “Honey” is solid, but the remixed version (co-starring Da Brat & Jermaine Dupri, and sampling The Jackson 5’s “It’s Great To Be Here”) is fire.
11. “One Sweet Day” (Mariah Carey & Boyz II Men, 1995)
“One Sweet Day” is (to date) the longest-running #1 single in history, topping the pop charts for a mind-boggling 16 weeks. Like “Hero”, the song’s heart is in the right place. Unlike “Hero”, it’s held up relatively well in light of massive radio overplay and a year or two’s worth of inclusion in sad news montages. It’s good–but not good enough to make the Top 10.
(and wasn’t good enough to win the Grammy for Record Of The Year, either. In a serious shocker, that year’s prize went to Seal for “Kiss From A Rose”.)
10. “Thank God I Found You” (Mariah Carey featuring Joe & 98 Degrees, 2000)
“Thank God” came from Rainbow, an album that found Mariah leaning heavily on guest appearances. Usher, Snoop Dogg, Missy Elliott, Da Brat, Mystikal and Jay-Z all stopped by, as did R&B titan Joe and boy band heartthrobs 98 Degrees. “Thank God” has simple but unobtrusive production from Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, as well as a pretty melody from Mariah. It’s also another situation where the remix is better than the original. The second version of “Thank God” substitutes rapper Nas for 98 Degrees, retains Joe, and adds in a healthy sample of Keith Sweat’s “Make It Last Forever”. Mariah definitely <3s the ’80s.
9. “Someday” (1991)
Remember when a remix meant just adding some synthesizer/sampler effects to a song and maybe fattening up the percussion a little bit? Compare the single remix of “Someday”, Mariah’s third #1, to some of the re-rubs of more recent vintage.
Sometimes simpler is better.
8. “Love Takes Time” (1990)
Mariah’s debut album was already complete when (as the story goes) she played “Love Takes Time” for Columbia label brass. The execs were so wowed by this pretty ballad that they stopped the presses to add it to the album. The first pressings of Mariah Carey don’t even include “Love Takes Time” as part of the track listing on the back cover.
“Love Takes Time” went on to become Carey’s second consecutive #1 record, and a signature vocal performance.
Also, Mariah allegedly hates this video. I don’t see anything to be embarrassed about. Sure, Mariah maybe looks a little less glam than usual, but hell…it was 1990!
7. “Always Be My Baby” (1995)
The first MC/JD collaboration is still the best. Jermaine Dupri gave Mariah a track that was similar in sound to “Just Kickin’ It”, which he wrote and produced about a year before for Xscape. He played the back, let Mariah write a winning melody, and the result was a track that gave Dupri cred beyond the R&B/hip-hop arena.
“Always Be My Baby” also boasts another one of Mariah’s best remixes. On it, she’s joined by Xscape (and soon-to-be-constant-companion Da Brat) and croons over a sweet sample of The S.O.S. Band’s “Tell Me If You Still Care”. No one courted the pop and R&B/hip-hop worlds with as much natural aplomb as Mariah.
6. “I Don’t Wanna Cry” (1991)
Proof that Mariah was a great vocalist from the rip: she was able to take fairly banal production and make the songs pop from a lyrical/vocal perspective. I don’t know that “I Don’t Wanna Cry” would’ve stood out much from the pack had it been sung by Celine Dion or Michael Bolton or Wilson Phillips. I do know that in Mariah’s hands, it’s a stunning, dramatic ballad. It’s also interesting that her second and third albums fell deep into the pit of banality before Daydream allowed Mariah to cut the sappiness with a little soulful grit.
Probably the best use of “Spanish guitar” in an adult contemporary/pop ballad. Certainly leagues better than Toni Braxton’s “Spanish Guitar”.
5. “Emotions” (1991)
Cool Idea: Making a fun, upbeat song that’s reminiscent of The Emotions’ smash hit “Best Of My Love”.
Ballsy (and not very smart) Idea: ACTUALLY CALLING THE SONG “EMOTIONS”.
Maurice White and Al McKay, who wrote “Best Of My Love” allegedly received a settlement after pursuing legal action against Carey and co-writers David Cole and Robert Clivilles, AKA C+C Music Factory.
4. “Fantasy” (1995)
How geeked out were you when you heard the “Fantasy” remix with Ol’ Dirty Bastard for the first time?
While Mariah is well-known now for collaborating with rappers, her decision to team up with the dude whose album cover was a replica of a welfare benefit card raised tons of eyebrows when “Fantasy” first appeared. ODB delivers one of his most inspired (and clean!) verses, Mariah got some street cred, and the “Fantasy” remix opened up a whole new lane for her. What was an incredibly daring move at the time turned out to be one of her smartest.
3. “Dreamlover” (1993)
Two years prior to “Fantasy”‘s release, Mariah dipped a pinky toe into hip-hop waters with “Dreamlover”. While not featuring any actual rapping, it did utilize a hefty sample of “Blind Alley”, a song by The Emotions (there they are again) that was most recognizable at the time (and probably still is) for forming the musical bed of Big Daddy Kane’s hip-hop classic “Ain’t No Half Steppin'”. Mariah and producer Dave Hall added some churchy organ and walls of background vocals to the bass-heavy loop and came up with one of Mariah’s-and 1993’s-best singles. 1993 was no slouch as far as great singles go, either.
2. “We Belong Together” (2005)
I was sitting at my desk one morning in 2005 when my friend Carletta appeared in my AIM window with a message. “New Mariah. You’ll Love It” and a link.
After suffering through a half decade of “meh” Mariah, and being pretty non-plussed by The Emancipation Of Mimi’s first single, “It’s Like That”, I wasn’t expecting a whole lot.
Hooooooly shitballs. By the time Mariah hit the high note at the song’s end, I was ready to take my shoe off, throw it at the computer and scream “SING IT BITCH!!!” at the screen.
Great lyrics, great melody, understated but powerful vocal, unobtrusive production (clearly inspired by the Lil Jon/Usher song “Lovers And Friends”). There was no way that “We Belong Together” wasn’t gonna be huge. And it was. If you didn’t hear this song ad nauseous during the summer of ’05, you were dead.
1. “Vision Of Love” (1990)
In Mariah’s case, the first is still the best.
A great song is one that you can picture as a hit in any era. “Vision of Love” could’ve been a #1 smash in 1960, 1980, or 2010. For someone to achieve that timeless essence with a debut single takes a combination of supreme talent and supreme marketing (see: “I Want You Back”). Mariah was fortunate enough to have both, and the rest is history.