*a completely, subjective list, of course.
If we’re still talking about Mariah Carey twenty-seven years later, she’s doing something right.
The Long Island diva has had more lives than a cat. After arriving on the scene with five consecutive #1 pop singles, she’s weathered claims of being a producer’s pet, a studio creation, a singer of banal ballads, an out-of-touch diva, a certified crazy lady and a hoodrat. Yes, her Zsa Zsa-isms can occasionally be annoying, but it’s about the music more than anything else, and Mimi certainly isn’t the first nor will she be the last to carry a diva attitude. And let’s face facts, a lot of the criticism that gets lobbed Mariah’s way is based in coded misogyny and racism. She’s smarter, savvier and more talented than a lot of folks give her credit for.
Although her albums are almost all frustratingly inconsistent to me (two exceptions: her self-titled debut and 1995’s Daydream), there are at least a handful of good songs on every single one of them-even 2001’s much-maligned Glitter. She’s a talented lyricist who’s written almost every word she’s uttered since the beginning of her career. She also successfully slid from the Whitney-meets-Anita stylings of her debut to the Lite-FM leanings of her early ’90s work and then reworked herself into a hip-hop/R&B diva, a move that added a decade of relevance to her career and kept her becoming Celine Dion (note: there is absolutely nothing wrong with Celine Dion. Mariah’s just a much more interesting artist.)
I could’ve made this list 40 if not 50 songs and still had room for a couple of decent Mariah joints, but I’m not going past 25 for anyone, and this is truly the cream of the crop. I lean heavily on her debut (again, her most consistent album), but there are songs included up to “Dedicated”, a slept on jam from her 2014 album (the title of which is lengthy enough that I won’t be listing it here.) Mariah’s single remixes are often superior to the album versions, and I’ve included several here-although the original versions of “Always Be My Baby” and “Thank God I Found You” are top 25-worthy in and of themselves (it just felt silly to include songs more than once.)
Spotify playlist (with all 25 songs!) below. Enjoy!!
1. “We Belong Together” (from The Emancipation of Mimi, 2005)
I heard “We Belong Together” via an AIM message sent to me at work. One listen, and I knew I’d heard something special. Indeed, Mariah’d regained her mojo. In this case, less was more: a simple, affecting lyric; unfussy production (Jermaine Dupri’s beatjacking instincts were fairly subtle here, although it did not go unnoticed by me that the song had similarities to Lil Jon’s “Lovers and Friends”, a smash earlier in 2005). Mariah’s not scaled the same heights since, but to reach a career peak a decade and a half into your career is a feat in and of itself.
2. “Can’t Let Go” (from Emotions, 1991)
3. “Dreamlover” (from Music Box, 1993)
Mariah dips a pinky toe into hip-hop production, utilizing Dave Hall (Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love”) and re-purposing the Emotions sample that powered Big Daddy Kane’s classic “Ain’t No Half-Steppin'”. Even though she was still considered a pop diva at this point, this was an early sign that Mariah had more flavor than we figured.
4. “Butterfly” (from Butterfly, 1997)
Mimi’s self-referencing songs are often extremely melodramatic or whiny. Here, Mariah documents the dissolution of her marriage to the (allegedly) controlling Tommy Mottola with an intoxicating blend of fragility, regret and defiance.
5. “Vision Of Love” (from Mariah Carey, 1990)
Was a chart-topper in 1990. Could just as easily have been a chart topper in 1960. Probably could’ve been a chart-topper in 2010. Both out of time and timeless.
6. “Underneath The Stars” (from Daydream, 1995)
The strongest of Mariah’s Minnie Riperton homages.
7. “Always Be My Baby” (Mr. Dupri’s Remix) (from “Always Be My Baby” single, 1996)
8. “Fantasy” (Bad Boy Fantasy featuring Ol’ Dirty Bastard) (from “Fantasy” maxi-single, 1995)
Mariah’s remix game was pretty damn strong. JD’s “Always Be My Baby” re-rub offers an airy interpolation of The S.O.S. Band’s “Tell Me If You Still Care” and adds wispy background harmonies from Xscape, while Puff Daddy’s “Fantasy” remix does nothing more than add a couple of mumbled asides and a completely off-kilter 16 bars from Ol’ Dirty Bastard. When this hit the airwaves in the summer of 1995, it was audacious. Now, a pop princess like Taylor Swift can join forces with a hardcore rapper and no one will bat an eyelash. Mariah set the precedent.
9. “I’ve Been Thinking About You” (from Music Box)
10. “Dedicated” (featuring Nas) (from Me…I Am Mariah, The Elusive Chanteuse, 2014)
A deep cut from Mariah’s most recent (to date) studio effort that finds her, Nas, Dupri, and music executive Steve Stoute warmly reminiscing about hip-hop’s glory years.
11. “Melt Away” (from Daydream)
…in which Mariah gets her Barry White on…
12. “I Don’t Wanna Cry” (from Mariah Carey)
13. “Emotions” (from Emotions)
14. “Love Takes Time” (from Mariah Carey)
Worth mentioning: the run of five #1 singles that jump-started Mariah’s career consists of legitimately strong material.
15. “The Roof” (from Butterfly)
16. “Sent From Up Above” (from Mariah Carey)
17. “Make It Happen” (from Emotions)
18. “Alone In Love” (from Mariah Carey)
19. “After Tonight” (from Rainbow, 1991)
Written by Diane Warren, produced by David Foster. Don’t run away; it’s very good.
20. “Forever” (from Daydream)
21. “Thank God I Found You” (Make It Last Remix featuring Joe & Nas) (from “Thank God I Found You” Maxi-Single, 1999)
The LP versions of “Always Be My Baby”, “Fantasy”, and “Thank God” are good in and of themselves, but the remixes all kick things up a notch (not always the case when it comes to remixes in general, or Mariah remixes specifically.) Here, Mariah and duet partner Joe (98 Degrees-ostensibly added to the album version for some TRL cred-don’t make the jump to the remix) borrow the groove and melody from Keith Sweat’s slow jam “Make It Last Forever” and create a new millennium anthem of togetherness.
22. “All In Your Mind” (from Mariah Carey)
23. “Someday” (single version) (from “Someday” single, 1991)
A slightly new-jacked drum arrangement (and some Soul II Soul-ish strings) are used to spruce up the original version. Perhaps the most subtle of Mariah’s remixes.
24. “How Much” (featuring Usher) (from Rainbow, 1999)
The artist with the best selling album of 2005 teams up with the artist with the best selling album of 2004…in 1999.
25. “Yours” (from Charmbracelet, 2002)
Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis worked with Mariah a ton in the Rainbow/Glitter/Charmbracelet era, and their material wasn’t really up to the standard of either. This atmospheric jam is an exception. This was (allegedly) intended as a duet with Justin Timberlake, and I can totally hear how his voice would’ve fit here.