Project X: The Nineties Were Both Better <em>And</em> Worse Than You Remember

Jun 11th, 2007 // 23 Comments

As part of Idolator’s continuing effort to geekily analyze every music chart known to man, we present a new edition of Project X, in which Jackin’ Pop editor Michaelangelo Matos breaks down rankings from every genre imaginable. After the click-through, he sorts through the best and worst Billboard singles lists from the ’90s:

The ’90s: what a decade. More different kinds of music than had been conceivable before were more readily available than had been conceivable before. Alt-rock, hip-hop, and electronic dance all scattered great songs and albums to the winds, the gods, and the cutout bins. R&B and country didn’t do too badly, either. “World music,” uncut or with help from American musicians, made serious inroads. The reissues industry got busy, too, but if you were committed to the now, first and foremost, there was loads of great stuff everywhere to feast on. That is, if you weren’t looking at the singles charts.

Blame Soundscan–I certainly do. Up to the ’90s, retailers had reported album and singles sales, not always necessarily accurately. But Soundscan began to report point-of-transaction sales figures. As a result, we discovered a lot, particularly just how well country albums sold: Garth Brooks’s Ropin’ the Wind hit No. 1 shortly after Soundscan’s inception. We also discovered that Americans bought the same goddamned records over and over again, for what seems, if you’re watching the charts, like forever.

Add to that the increasing segmentation of radio formats–the major change was the decrease of CHR (Contemporary Hits Radio) in favor of AC (Adult Contemporary) or Hot AC. (Essentially, older listeners–i.e., where the money is–didn’t want to hear rap or metal anymore; hence, mass format changeover.) Thus the Top 10 of the Hot 100 began to stay basically the same for longer than at any point since when there weren’t one-twentieth as many records to choose from for airplay. And as Idolator columnist Chris Molanphy noted in the comments (he posts as “dennisobell“) of my Billboard ’80s column a while back, not only did labels began to cut back on single releases, “until 1998 Billboard chart rules mandated that a song be released on 45/cassingle/CD-5/12-inch to make the Hot 100,” thus cutting many songs that were actual radio hits from competing for chart position.

Such stagnation meant that the mediocre or worse kept a foothold longer, strangulating the pace the charts had long been good for even at their worst. It made American pop look, on its surface, more sluggish than it actually was. (It still does.) Say what you want about the U.K. charts’ voracious novelty fetish, but their ridiculous chart turnover at least guarantees some variety. If the ’90s are when pop’s niche markets began to sustain themselves to the degree that they severed themselves from needing to cross over more widely, then the mainstream was, in effect, just another niche–one that reached its modest peak here:

Best: September 5, 1992
1. Boyz II Men, “End of the Road” (Motown)
2. TLC, “Baby-Baby-Baby” (LaFace)
3. Guns N’ Roses, “November Rain” (Gefen)
4. Bobby Brown, “Humpin’ Around” (MCA)
5. Madonna, “This Used to Be My Playground” (Sire)
6. Technotronic ft. Ya Kid K, “Move This” (SBK)
7. Shakespear’s Sister, “Stay” (London)
8. Sir Mix-a-Lot, “Baby Got Back” (Def American)
9. En Vogue, “Giving Him Something He Can Feel” (EastWest)
10. Jon Secada, “Just Another Day” (SBK)

Again: I said “modest.” This is a solid, workmanlike, unspectacular Top 10, and unlike the best lists of the ’70s or ’80s (or ’60s), it tells us little about what made the ’90s great.

It definitely tells us a lot about the ’90s, though. Let’s itemize it: Boyz II Men at the top for-fucking-ever (this was “End of the Road”‘s fourth week, of 13, at No. 1). Hip-hop-flavored R&B coming on strong with TLC and lesser Bobby Brown. Pop-rap ascendant with Sir Mix-a-Lot. One of the semi-tedious ballads Madonna was as full of during the ’90s as she had been party-starters in the prior decade, this time for one of her middlebrow film projects. Alt-pop (if Shakespear’s Sister counts). Mod-R&B nodding to its ’70s roots from En Vogue covering a song Curtis wrote for Aretha. Eight minutes of the arena metal Nirvana supposedly knocked out of commission, nearly a year after Nevermind came out (Use Your Illusion I & II were released the same day). Techno-pop from a two-hit wonder with a two-year-old song pushed up top by a Revlon commercial. And at No. 10, soaring-chorus pro-pop that to my ear holds up better than anything else on the list. In combo, though, this is about as unexciting a list of mostly good records as I can imagine. The Top 10 that came nearest is at least a little wilder:

Best, runner-up: June 26, 1993
1. Janet Jackson, “That’s the Way Love Goes” (Virgin)
2. SWV, “Weak” (RCA)
3. H-Town, “Knockin’ the Boots” (Luke)
4. Silk, “Freak Me” (Elektra)
5. Rod Stewart, “Have I Told You Lately (From ‘Unplugged’)” (Warner Bros.)
6. Robin S., “Show Me Love” (Big Beat)
7. Duran Duran, “Come Undone” (Capitol)
8. Tag Team, “Whoomp! (There It Is)” (Bellmark)
9. Dr. Dre, “Dre Day” (Interscope)
10. Inner Circle, “Bad Boys (Theme From ‘Cops’)” (Big Beat)

By now the Top 10 has more or less ceded most of its territory to big-bucks R&B, with and without hip-hop supplying large chunks of its gene pool. Only two white artists here: Rod Stewart with a not-bad, not-great Van Morrison cover (and none of the aggressive sleaze that turned him into rock criticism’s greatest lost cause for two decades), Duran Duran with a song so shameless Diane Warren herself could have written it. The times being what they were, meaning not the late ’80s, “Come Undone” was produced so that it sounded like music and not aural pyrotechnics, unlike most of the prior hits written by Diane Warren.

The aggressive sexuality brought to the fore by hip-hop even more than by Prince is on splendid display here: “Freak Me,” “Knockin’ the Boots,” and in party-hearty form, the eternal “Whoomp! (There It Is),” a true chart phenomenon that stayed Top 10 for eight months without ever going to Number One, including the two times it dropped off the Top 10 and then climbed back in (the second time after a month out). The last major hit to do this with such force was “The Twist,” No. 1 in both 1960 and 1962. Dance-craze records–can’t get enough of those. As for what is commonly referred to by snobs who don’t pay attention to pop charts as “dance music”: one of my greatest show-going moments of the decade was when Matthew Herbert, DJ’ing New York’s tiny club APT four years ago, segued from something that sounded like amplified Drano into “Show Me Love.” Dude killed with that.

After 1993, the Top 10 got and stayed middling for quite a while, though its dips could be sudden and harsh. For example:

Worst, runner-up: July 5, 1997
1. Puff Daddy & Faith Evans ft. 112, “I’ll Be Missing You” (Bad Boy)
2. Hanson, “MMMBop” (Mercury)
3. Meredith Brooks, “Bitch” (Capitol)
4. Mark Morrison, “Return of the Mack” (Atlantic)
5. Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, “Look Into My Eyes (From ‘Batman & Robin’)” (Ruthless)
6. Spice Girls, “Say You’ll Be There” (Virgin)
7. Rome, “I Belong to You (Every Time I See Your Face)” (Grand Jury)
8. Tim McGraw with Faith Hill, “It’s Your Love” (Curb)
9. Changing Faces, “G.H.E.T.T.O.U.T.” (Big Beat)
10. The Verve Pipe, “The Freshmen” (RCA)

I should note that I love “MMMBop,” don’t dislike the Spice Girls, and find this 10 more aggressively listless than horrifying. (It’s noteworthy, though, as an instance where country makes an appearance in the Top 10: even as ’90s Nashville ate with the big kids on the album charts, crossover singles were mostly rare, Shania aside.) Still, when I first jotted down the date in my notebook, two things immediately followed: “Worst?” and “Missy Elliott can’t happen fast enough.”

But Missy and Timbaland’s ’90s Top 10 presence wasn’t nearly as decisive as I’d figured or hoped. Sure, the two of them would have dominated the charts sufficiently to shoo in a ’98 or ’99 Top 10 for best-of-decade consideration. Sadly, this wasn’t the case: many late-’90s lists are just good enough to quicken the pulse and feature just enough crap to chip away at any ease I might have handing them the crown. Which is why the hands-down worst Top 10 of the decade feels more like a late-’80s holdover than a true ’90s list:

Worst: October 6, 1990
1. Maxi Priest, “Close to You” (Charisma)
2. George Michael, “Praying For Time” (Columbia)
3. Nelson, “Love and Affection” (DGC)
4. Phil Collins, “Something Happened on the Way to Heaven” (Atlantic)
5. James Ingram, “I Don’t Have the Heart” (Warner Bros.)
6. Jon Bon Jovi, “Blaze of Glory” (Mercury)
7. Vanilla Ice, “Ice Ice Baby” (SBK)
8. Paul Young, “Oh Girl” (Columbia)
9. Bell Biv Devoe, “Do Me!” (MCA)
10. Wilson Phillips, “Release Me” (SBK)

This isn’t worse than the 9/9/89 list that rimmed the ’80s toilet. But despite being 13 months newer, it might be more dated. Who’d have thought in 1990 that “Do Me!,” then the most controversial item here–and without question the best–would 17 years down the line sound not just cute but quaint? I don’t mean the new-jack beats, either; I mean the raunch, which seems almost innocent after … oh, provide your own litany.

It’s striking how much of this Top 10 is an emblem of the various things that made the period’s mainstream so unbearable. We get Phil Collins’s least memorable mega-hit; whatever your feelings about the guy, at least his earlier annoyances had hooks. Three items are tepid offshoots of the better-old-days, either by birthright (Rick Nelson’s blonde twins; the female offspring of John Phillips and Brian Wilson) or copyright (Paul Young’s useless Chi-Lites cover). We get two arguable Lamest Evers in the categories of Movie Theme (Bon Jovi) and Rap Single (Phil Collins–just kidding).

That the Top 2 are not so much horrifying as endlessly blah–Maxi Priest turning Soul II Soul to mush, not that it took much; George Michael demanding to be Taken Seriously, Damn It–actually makes the list as a whole more emblematic. Growing pains, after all, are awkward, and the music business was on the verge of major change. You could even hear some of those changes on the radio. You just didn’t see most of them on the charts.

  1. Ned Raggett

    Wow at that worst list. So much I didn’t need reminding of. (Another great article in general, of course!)

  2. Hallux Valgus

    The 90′s were fantastic. There was grunge, um, Snow, Color Me Badd, more grunge, Jesus Jones, ZCavaricci pants, Right Said Fred, The Divynals, Hypercolor shirts, Chess King…

    …every single bit of this list is spectacular.

  3. RepentTokyo

    Return of the Mack is a fucking awesome track.

  4. heyzeus

    it was also the era of the boy band and teen girl pop stars. No NSYNC, Backstreet, Britey, Xtina, and their millions of offshoots on the worst lists?

  5. The Van Buren Boys

    Any chart that includes Limp Bizkit and/or Creed on has to be considered one of the worst. I’d take a Backstreet Boys or NSYNC song anyday over that.

  6. AcidReign

    …..I look at that list, and I remember that where I live, only the Hip-hop stuff would ever actually get played on the radio. “Blaze of Glory,” or “November Rain?” Never. I’m kinda surprised that there were no Backstreets or Nstinks in the bad lists. My kids ran me nuts playing a lot of that stuff. And my first argument with my wife was whether “Ice Ice Baby” was a good song or not. Gag. Let’s see, we’ll sample a barf-o-matic song from the synth days of Queen/Bowie (“Under Pressure”), and add in some cheezy, fake-rapper poseur video. I finally won this argument a couple of years ago, when Ice was on one of those reality shows, and acted like a total turd.

    …..And of course, my favorite new trend of the 1990s was the rise of the Industrial genre. No hit radio, there, though. You’d have thought Traci Lords would be a natural for music videos. Wait. MTV had stopped doing them. I forgot.

  7. RepentTokyo

    Traci Lords, industrial?

  8. Maura Johnston

    @RepentTokyo: co-sign

  9. Chris Molanphy

    Thanks to Matos for the name-check.

    I’m glad you recapped that point. Because – to all those wondering where Backstreet and even some of Missy’s output is – again: Billboard’s increasingly archaic Hot 100 rule requring a single release for chart eligibility, until the end of 1998, eliminated literally dozens of huge radio hits from appearing on the Hot 100 in the ’90s. (I blame the labels for killing off singles, but Billboard should have changed the rule a lot sooner.)

    Some examples; these are songs that charted high – some even #1 – on Billboard’s airplay-only charts; if they’d been released as singles, even if they’d only sold one copy, their appearance in the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 would have been guaranteed:

    Pearl Jam, “Jeremy,” “Black” and “Daughter”
    Nirvana, “All Apologies”
    Smashing Pumpkins, “Disarm”
    Green Day, “Basket Case”
    Goo Goo Dolls, “Name”
    Fugees, “Killing Me Softly”
    No Doubt, “Don’t Speak”
    Cardigans, “Lovefool”
    Blur, “Song 2″
    Missy Elliott, “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)”
    OMC, “How Bizarre”
    Sugar Ray, “Fly”
    Smash Mouth, “Walkin’ on the Sun”
    Busta Rhymes, “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See”
    Backstreet Boys, “As Long As You Love Me”
    Natalie Imbruglia, “Torn”
    Semisonic, “Closing Time”
    Ben Folds Five, “Brick”

  10. Christopher R. Weingarten

    Why did the Batman & Robin soundtrack yield so, so, so many singles? Could fill up Matos’ genre-mash theory just by looking at that thing alone!

  11. Chris Molanphy

    Correction to above: Goo Goo Dolls’ “Name” did chart (sorry, my bad). I was thinking of “Iris,” which also made the chart but only after Billboard flipped the rule in late ’98. “Iris” will go down in history as a #9 Billboard single, but if the new rule had been in effect at the start of ’98, it would have topped the Hot 100 for several months; it was #1 on the airplay-only charts for more than four months.

  12. AcidReign

    …..@RepentTokyo: Traci Lords/Juno Reactor: “Control.” 1995, on the Mortal Kombat movie soundtrack. You’d have to hear it. It’s been used in a LOT commercials and such. Very clever, ominous, high-energy synth stuff.

  13. Chris Molanphy

    @Matos W.K.: Hey Matos:
    As long as we’re talking alternatives to your Top 10s…I’m curious: were any of the 1992 top 10s containing Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or RHCP’s “Under the Bridge” any good? I seem to recall the latter coexisting with Kris Kross’s “Jump,” for which I have a blinkered affection.

  14. RepentTokyo


    I am aware of her work with Juno Reactor, but that’s not industrial music at all. I have heard the track you mention, in fact I used to play her only album on my student radio show back in the mists of time. It’s more techno than anything.

    Also for dennisobell: All Apologies was released as a single…

  15. RepentTokyo

    aaaaaand, i post before I am finished:

    @dennisobell: All apologies, disarm, don’t speak, and song 2 was actually released as a single 3 times. of course, for what markets, i don’t remember.

  16. Chris Molanphy

    @RepentTokyo: Not in America. None charted on the Hot 100. Swear to God.

    “Don’t Speak,” in particular, is widely credited as one of the big radio hits that forced Billboard to start reexamining the singles policy - it was so massive at Top 40, its inability to chart during the multiple months it dominated radio playlists was seen as something of an embarrassment. Not that Wikipedia is totally authoritative, but: check it out.

  17. Matos W.K.

    @dennisobell: The “Teen Spirit” Top 10s were all pretty middling. I’m not a fan of “Under the Bridge” so wouldn’t have seen that as a priority.

  18. Matos W.K.

    I should note that with the ’99 Top 10s, there were so many pretty good ones that nevertheless were disqualified for being topped by Santana/Rob Thomas’s “Smooth.”

  19. janine

    When I think 90s, I think EMF, Cathy Dennis, and Lisa Stansfield.

  20. Alfred Soto

    I couldn’t have done much better at describing Jon Secada’s “Just Another Day” as “soaring-chorus pro-pop.” Well done, sir.

  21. RodneyJ

    The “worst runner-up” list is better than either of the “best” lists. Hell, “Return of the Mack” is better than either of the “best” lists.

    I’ll actually vouch for the Iceman, but the “worst” list is thoroughly disgusting. I find it odd that you call “Do Me” quaint. It makes me more uncomfortable than anything on the radio now, with maybe the exception of their spiritual offspring Pretty Ricky.

  22. RodneyJ

    Actually, never mind the first part of that; the 7-10 spots of the “worst runner-up” are pretty dire, but the first six are all at least decent.

  23. I love it when people come together and share opinions, great blog, keep it up.

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