The 50 Best Pop Singles Of 1994 (Featuring New Interviews With Ace Of Base, TLC, Lisa Loeb, Real McCoy & Haddaway)
As 2014 draws to a close, one thing that stands out the most about this year is the huge wave of artists who broke international barriers and crossed over into our pop music consciousness. And we’re not just talking about the UK, where Disclosure, Sam Smith, Charli XCX, Ella Henderson and Clean Bandit hail from — you also had Australia (Iggy Azalea), Ireland (Hozier), Canada (MAGIC! and Kiesza) Norway (Nico & Vinz), Sweden (Tove Lo) and Amsterdam (Mr. Probz) waving their flags high. It got us thinking that we hadn’t seen a foreign invasion of the American charts like this in 20 years.
So what else is it about 1994 that made it such an utterly memorable year, musically? Before we get to that, let’s first paint a quick picture of what life was like during this particular 12-month period when iTunes and YouTube and Twitter didn’t exist, nor did texting or Snapchatting — when being “social” meant driving (sans GPS or the Maps app) to meet up with friends in person, or, at the very least, putting a pen to paper and mailing a letter.
First off, when 1994 rolled around, Bill Clinton was entering the second year of his first term as President. Cell phones were the size of bricks and e-mail and the Internet were sporadically-used luxuries. It was the days of Tonya Harding, Nancy Kerrigan and the 1994 Winter Olympics. And CD-ROMs. We watched O.J. Simpson go on the run on live TV and also tuned into the first seasons of Friends, ER and Party Of Five. Tom Hanks was America’s favorite silver screen star. At the box office, The Lion King roared loudest, while Speed, Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction also packed movie-goers in. And when Kurt Cobain was found dead at his home on April 8th, it was, as they say, the end of an era…
…which brings us back to music. It would have been the easy way out for us here at Idolator to assemble a simple list of, say, the 20 best singles from 20 years ago, and dash out a a sentence or two on each one. But it turns out, when we really dug deep into what pop had to offer in 1994, there were just far too many good songs to leave off the list. From sultry slow jams to trip hop to synth-pop to Eurodance to Swedepop to alt-rock, it truly was an eclectic year when popular music produced something for everyone.
So instead, we gathered up the 50 best pop singles that made an impact in 1994 below, and reviewed and ranked them by their overall awesomeness. Most of these songs sprung up that year, but you’ll find that some first appeared on albums released in 1993 and didn’t get a single release until ’94, or perhaps were released as a single in late ’93 but their chart run carried into the next year. Whatever the case may be, they’re the tracks we felt left an unforgettable impression.
To add a bit of flavor, we reached out to some of the artists featured — Ace Of Base, TLC, Lisa Loeb, Real McCoy and Haddaway — and asked them to share their memories of what it was like contributing to the year 1994 in pop. Ready to hop into our time machine and step back 20 years? On your mark, get set…
HONORABLE MENTION: JEFF BUCKLEY, “HALLELUJAH”
[Editor’s note: Though technically not released as a single until nearly a decade after his death, we felt Buckley’s iconic cover of “Hallelujah” should be included here, given that the song’s parent album arrived in August 1994.] Jeff Buckley released his cover of “Hallelujah,” from his only album Grace, ten years after Leonard Cohen recorded the original version. However, with all due respect to Cohen, it’s Buckley’s rendition that made the bigger mark in history. The California singer’s hauntingly powerful voice transforms the song from a religious ballad to an entire church sermon.
“Hallelujah” had critics at the time convinced that Jeff Buckley would someday join the ranks of legends like Bob Dylan, but three years after the release of Grace, Buckley passed away. “Hallelujah” has found life after death, and manifested itself posthumously, as many have covered Buckley’s version over time — even bouncing the song to the top of Billboard’s Hot Digital Songs in 2008. Softly sung, erupting where necessary, “Hallelujah” unfortunately doubled as Jeff Buckley’s breakout single and swan song. At least we have this relic of his drastically underutilized potential to warm our hearts. — KATHY IANDOLI
49. BOYZ II MEN, “I’LL MAKE LOVE TO YOU”
What might be considered off the cheese-o-meter charts today for sheer schmaltz was what epitomized pop ballads in 1994. There were those simple, on-point lyrics (um, the title of the song?), the sincerity within the sentiment…and the clothes in the music video—oh, those clothes! Let’s just forget for a moment that in the video all four Boyz II Men members are singing to one woman, who’s ready for a bubble bath, and the creepiness can morph into more romance than 12 dozen roses and a roomful of candles could provide.
“I’ll Make Love To You” set a record for the most weeks at #1 at the time (tied with only Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”). This Babyface-produced lead single off the foursome’s sophomore album II also won the 1995 Grammy for Best R&B Performance By A Duo Or Group, as well as two American Music Awards. But, perhaps it’s biggest accomplishment was — let’s be frank — getting people laid the globe over. — MIKE WOOD
48. ALL-4-ONE, “I SWEAR”
Anyone who shuffled, sweaty-palmed, through a middle-school dance in 1994 remembers the hormone-popping power of “I Swear.” So popular was this song that year, that it lived two glorious lives. Country-loving fans swooned to the original, performed by John Michael Montgomery, which hit #1 on the country charts, #42 on the Hot 100 and became 1994’s biggest country hit.
Incredibly, that very same year, pop fans sent vocally gifted boy band All-4-One’s cover to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for a jaw-dropping 11 weeks. “I Swear” won the quartet a Grammy and was the year’s second-biggest Hot 100 hit, behind Ace Of Base’s “The Sign.” In a world already primed for their success by such acts as Boyz II Men, New Kids On The Block and Color Me Badd, All-4-One’s image was much safer and less sexual than their contemporaries. The group’s spirit lives on in every boyish, chart-crossing ballad, such as the late ’90s *NSYNC/Alabama collaboration “(God Must Have Spent) A Little More Time On You.” — JONATHAN RIGGS
47. TONI BRAXTON, “YOU MEAN THE WORLD TO ME”
Growing up, Toni Braxton listened to gospel music. This wasn’t by choice; her father, a minister, was raising his family under the strict Apostolic faith. His daughters sang at church and would only watch Soul Train when their parents were out. They weren’t allowed to wear pants. When Braxton pursued a solo career in her mid-20s, though, she was of a different ideal. “The most romantic singer on the planet,” Will Smith gushed at the 1994 MTV Movie Awards, before Braxton performed “You Mean the World To Me” in the same, now terribly-dated light-wash jeans from its music video.
Critics called her the next Anita Baker, being a singer with class and a lustrous voice. With “You Mean The World To Me,” her 1993 self-titled debut album’s fourth single, though, Braxton showed that she was a young voice with an outlook also mature enough for contemporary R&B. The point, as Braxton told producers Babyface and L.A. Reid, was to sing realistically about love. The result: “You Mean The World To Me” became the third Top 10 singles off Toni’s first LP. — CHRISTINA LEE
46. CRASH TEST DUMMIES, “MMM MMM MMM MMM”
Like a floppy, flowered hat or a Hypercolor shirt, sometimes things that seemed the height of cool back in the 1990s can now seem…kind of awful. How else to explain why the #4 Billboard Hot 100/#1 Hot Modern Rock Tracks hit “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” by Crash Test Dummies now regularly tops Worst Songs Of All Time lists? Although time hasn’t been kind to the only hit song in history sung by a bass-voiced Canadian about a lurching-in-church boy, there was— and is — something still compelling about it. After all, “Weird Al” thought it was memorable enough to parody. Plus, “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm,” the album from whence it lurched, God Shuffled His Feet, and the band itself all received Grammy nominations.
A weird, one-of-a-kind song, the vowel-less ditty seemed to scream (or at least “Mmm” deeply) “One hit wonder!” But then again, so did “Gangnam Style.” Or “Harlem Shake.” Or “The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?)” The charts wouldn’t be as much fun as they are if the unusual, unexpected and inexplicable didn’t occasionally “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” up. — JONATHAN RIGGS
45. R. KELLY, “BUMP N’ GRIND”
In the beginning, R. Kelly, in some ways, was Elvis, reincarnated, and he knew it. Take his “Bump ‘N Grind” video: A woman protests his advances, because she doesn’t want to be a groupie. He was on stage, strutting and gyrating for as long and as slowly as he can. When she gives in, though, the R&B Lothario breaks the fourth wall and shoots a hard glance at the camera. The point is to simply imagine that he’s broken a sweat. “What I do now is what I know I want people to hear. Sex sells,” he once said.
“Bump ‘N Grind,” off his debut 12 Play, earned Kelly the reputation of setting a bad example. He became a poster child for how other male crooners were shifting to harder posturing — “simulated soul.” Yet, as his proteges could still stand to learn, this slow jam aches because R. Kelly makes it all seem forbidden, and in 12 seconds flat: “My mind is telling me no.” Pause. “But my body, my body is telling me yes.” Of course, by that point he had already caved. — CHRISTINA LEE
44. R.E.M., “WHAT’S THE FREQUENCY, KENNETH?”
R.E.M.’s sometimes maligned, though pretty great in hindsight ninth studio album Monster marked the peak of the band’s imperial phase, and followed (plus matched) previous quadruple-Platinum sellers Out Of Time and Automatic For The People. Kicking things off, in true ’90s fashion, was Michael Stipe‘s ode to older media pundits trying to assess the then-current generation’s overall X-iness, “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” (Brilliant sample lyrics: “I’d studied your cartoons, radio, music, TV, movies, magazines / Richard said, ‘Withdrawal in disgust is not the same as apathy’ / A smile like the cartoon, tooth for a tooth / You said that irony was the shackles of youth.”)
Stipe had been heavily influenced by his friend Kurt Cobain‘s music with Nirvana at the time, and so R.E.M. plugged in and rocked out like never before to create Monster‘s crunchy, punky guitar aesthetic. Adding to the overall random weirdness of lead single “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” — because, duh: the ’90s — the title was borrowed from an incident where TV news broadcaster Dan Rather was attacked on the street by two men who bizarrely kept asking, “Kenneth, what is the frequency?” The song would wind up being one of the now-disbanded Athens band’s final Top 40 hits in the United States, and is by far one of their most electric. — ROBBIE DAW
43. 20 FINGERS FEATURING GILLETTE, “SHORT DICK MAN”
Let’s hope that each time modern day sisters of raunchy, attitude-filled rhymes like Nicki Minaj, Iggy Azalea, Khia and Kesha sit down to pen their naughty words, they big-up one of the true pioneers of jaw-dropping Did She Just Say What I Think She Said? pop: Gillette. In 1994, this New Jersey diva hooked up with production duo 20 Fingers for the debut single by all involved, “Short Dick Man,” and it became a dance-crossover sensation — due, largely, to attention-grabbing lyrics like these: “That has got to be the smallest dick I have ever seen in my whole life / Get the fuck outta here!”
In many ways, the song played at the time like the female response to hits by male artists that objectified women, such as “Rump Shaker” and “Bump N’ Grind” — and the music-buying masses, er, grabbed on tightly, thanks to slightly-edited (read: cleaned-up) version, “Short Short Man,” being put into heavy rotation. 20 Fingers and Gillette landed their dance smash in the Top 10 across Europe, and the Gold-certified “Short Dick Man” even sassed its way to #14 in the States. Gillette’s follow-up single, “Mr. Personality,” managed to scrape its way to #42 on the Hot 100, but she never repeated the initial success of her risque breakout hit. Oh, well — at least she can say she that, for a short time, she managed to make a little go a long, long way. — ROBBIE DAW
42. CRYSTAL WATERS, “100% PURE LOVE”
Legendary house siren Crystal Waters wasn’t always destined for the dance floor: In fact, she originally went to college to study business and computer science. Luckily for us, she found her way into a studio in the late ’80’s, writing and recording demos with the Basement Boys, which would eventually lead to her debut single and Top 10 hit: 1991’s “Gypsy Woman (She’s Homeless).” Waters wouldn’t find mainstream chart success again until 1994, with the release of her lead Storyteller single, “100% Pure Love.”
Produced alongside Basement Boys members Teddy Douglas and Jay Steinhour, and armed with a real subtle earworm of a chorus (“From the back to the middle and around again…”), the campy house anthem would go on to have a run on the charts for an impressive 45 weeks (eventually peaking at #11), resulting in one of the longest stretches for a US single to-date. The song hasn’t carried into the future quite as well as some of the other club cuts from the early ’90’s, although it did get a rather glam cover by Spice Girls goddess, Geri Halliwell. — BRADLEY STERN
41. SOUNDGARDEN, “BLACK HOLE SUN”
By the mid-‘90s, almost every man in rock gave up his hair (it took Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder a little longer to part with his), including Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell. Why does that even matter? Well, by the time Soundgarden released their fourth album Superunknown, the band’s sound changed, especially on their single “Black Hole Sun.” Perhaps the releasing of the locks was symbolic of the releasing of traditional rock? “Black Hole Sun” still had the alt power chords and the stuttering drums, but there are also dreamy undertones a la the trippy Beatles era. The song hit #2 on Billboard’s Modern Rock charts, but Soundgarden disciples may argue that this one was slept-on by the mainstream despite being a mid-level hit for the band.
The video took place in a warped suburbia, where everyone had Hilary Duff’s second set of teeth and everything looked peacefully scary. And while the song was meant to reference some alternate universe by way of a hole in the sun, we could act like environmentalists and say the group was referencing the hole in the ozone layer and the “washing away of the rain” is in reference to global warming. Paging (then-Vice President) Al Gore! — KATHY IANDOLI