The 50 Best Pop Singles Of 1994 (Featuring New Interviews With Ace Of Base, TLC, Lisa Loeb, Real McCoy & Haddaway)
20. MAZZY STAR, “FADE INTO YOU”
Dorm-room dreamers couldn’t have asked for a better soundtrack for staring up at their glow-in-the-dark ceiling stars than “Fade Into You.” Lyricist/singer Hope Sandoval’s clear, haunted voice floats across the ocean waves of sound with which guitarist David Roback surrounds her, building and rising, over and over, without actually getting anywhere. Hopelessly dreamy and dreamily hopeless, it’s hard to think of any song that more accurately captures the endless longing and loneliness of love.
Too solemn and artistically principled (in a manner not seen, sadly, since the 1990s) to play the commercial music game, Mazzy Star was never cut out to conquer the charts. Still, “Fade Into You” rose to #44 on the Hot 100 and #3 on the alt-rock chart, while parent album So Tonight That I Might See went Platinum. Its mixture of romantic mystery and dark atmosphere can be found today in the music and persona of Lana Del Rey. For those of us who swoon for David Lynchian songbirds singing obliquely of sweet, sweet sadness, here’s hoping she covers this classic. — JONATHAN RIGGS
19. WEEZER, “BUDDY HOLLY”
“What’s with these homies dissin’ my girl? Why do they gotta front?” The fact that a band from Kenosha, Wisconsin opened their lead single off their eponymous debut with a line like that made it all the more classic. Weezer dropped “Buddy Holly” on Buddy Holly’s actual birthday in 1994, and the song is equal parts random yet awesome. This second single from the band’s triple-Platinum debut LP features the pre-historic synths that have evolved into our modern pop standard, coupled with the signature sound of the ’90s alternative rock era.
And the video — green-screened to take place in Arnold’s Drive-In from Happy Days —actually featured Al Molinaro, who played Al Delvecchio on the hit TV show. The Spike Jonze-directed visual is reminiscent of Nirvana’s “In Bloom” video, both made to replicate the ‘50s – ‘60s era of music. It made total sense if you think about it, considering the ‘50s and the ‘90s both brought forth a slew of new talent like some well-constructed assembly line. Weezer scored a hit with “Buddy Holly,” as it reached #2 on Billboard’s Modern Rock chart. It didn’t reach Gold status though until 2006, probably because the video was the biggest draw, and we didn’t have YouTube back then in the Dark Ages. — KATHY IANDOLI
18. PORTISHEAD, “SOUR TIMES”
What if James Bond had been played by Ewan McGregor in his Trainspotting costume? Then you’d have “Sour Times” as his theme song. The tune’s clanging guitar and hip hop beat were balanced by lead singer Beth Gibbons‘ Billie Holiday-like performance. She didn’t fight the music, she blended into it, moody and unlikely to show her face in the daylight.
Despite defining a whole movement called trip hop, Bristol, England quartet Portishead never matched this early success. What leaps out today is the hook-iness of “Sour Times” and its follow-up, “Glorybox.” The sound that ruled London in 1994 has influenced everything from Emeli Sande‘s “Heaven” to the recent debut by FKA Twigs. — STEPHEN SEARS
17. BLUR, “GIRLS & BOYS”
Fizzy, grammatically-challenged and drenched in sexual ambiguity, “Girls & Boys” would sound today like an ’80s electro-pop hit were it not for those grimy guitars that scream early nineties London. In fact, the Pet Shop Boys remixed it into a dance floor stomper by removing the guitars. Either way, Damon Albarn‘s thick accent — is it genuine? meh — and blase attitude made this single a worldwide hit.
For the record, the chorus lyric is “girls who are boys / who like boys to be girls / who do boys like they’re girls / who do girls like they’re boys,” but it doesn’t matter. Flip it around and switch out any words you choose (“Cats & Dogs”?). There’s a cheery, if scuzzy, inclusiveness to the song. Oasis would, a year later, try to claim the crown of Britpop with (What’s The Story) Morning Glory, but Blur had already shut those whining Gallagher brothers down. — STEPHEN SEARS
16. ACE OF BASE, “DON’T TURN AROUND”
Read our recent interview with Paloma Faith and you’ll learn just how tenacious songwriter extraordinaire Diane Warren can be. The genius behind classics like “If I Could Turn Back Time” and “Because You Loved Me” does not give up on a song easily — or take “no hit” for an answer. “Don’t Turn Around” is one such example. Before Swedish pop darlings Ace Of Base rode it to the upper reaches of the charts with their pop-ragga beat, Warren tried it out with about a thousand other artists, including luminaries no less than Tina Turner, Neil Diamond and the kids from Fame. Really!
Warren finally saw it hit #1 in the UK with reggae trio Aswad in March 1988, but Ace of Base’s version sealed 1994’s fate as Best Pop Year Ever. From its spoken-word intro to its insanely catchy pan flute hook, the song encapsulates everything perfect about pop of that era. I can’t be the only one who thinks Lady Gaga was inspired by this immortal classic for her own single, “Alejandro,” can I? — JOHN HAMILTON
15. VERUCA SALT, “SEETHER”
“Seether” is the musical equivalent of vagina dentata, and that’s fine by us. Nina Gordon and Louise Post, two otherwise plain Janes from Chicago, proved that, given a pair of electric Gibsons, girls can rock out just as hard, and with bite. Rung in by a rat-a-tat power chord and a high-pitched squeal, the lead single off Veruca Salt’s debut album American Thighs features Gordon’s silky sprechgesang alongside guitars that alternate between a rollercoaster chorus of a riff and muted staccato strums. It’s an ode to the sulking menace of girlhood tinged with the realization that its end might be just around the corner — that soon, “seether” might have to be bottled up against her will.
Veruca Salt didn’t give a flying eff if they turned off grunge rock’s heavy bro contingent; 1994 was about time for a soaring and unapologetic female antidote to Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots, anyway. In fact, it was a good time for women in indie rock, period: American Thighs shared a producer with Liz Phair’s Whip-Smart, which spawned the hit single “Supernova,” also out in 1994. The “Seether” video, which features sparring kitties, a streetside concert, and lots of jamming and hair-tossing, was a mainstay on MTV. Rock historians may be quick to write them off, but Post and Gordon, who finally reunited earlier this year, have had an enduring legacy. Russian fauxsbian band t.A.T.u. and Sweden’s current ear-piercingly screamy hit-makers Icona Pop are a few that come to mind who took the Veruca Salt duo dynamic and translated it into more mainstream pop. — ALEXANDER CHO
14. MARIAH CAREY, “ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS YOU”
Sure, “Jingle Bells” is cute. “O Holy Night” is fine, and “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” is a bit of a bop. But really, there is only one true modern Christmas pop classic — and that’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” recorded by the Queen Of All Things Festive herself, Mariah Carey. Really though, how did Christmas even exist before this global smash?
Co-crafted alongside constant collaborator and Grammy Award-winning producer Walter Afanasieff, the uptempo rush of lovey-dovey bliss is a quintessential holiday anthem — and at this point, a genuine Christmas classic, from the opening few seconds of those twinkling bells to those signature falsetto runs as only Mimi could truly deliver. The song’s been covered by nearly every rising pop princess ever since, including Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato, and has gone on to break dozens of records, becoming both the 19th best-selling digital single of the 20th century and the #1 best-selling digital single by a woman. And the legacy lives on: Justin Bieber teamed up with Mimi for a “Superfestive!” version of the song in 2011 and, as recently as this month, Carey announced a slew of New York City shows in December to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the genuinely timeless tune. — BRADLEY STERN
13. AALIYAH, “BACK & FORTH”
Aaliyah sauntered onto the music scene in 1994 with a simple yet effective intro taken from her debut single “Back & Forth”: “Move, it’s the L-I-Y-A-H!” Ever since that moment, she has been known as R&B’s “Baby Girl.” The Gold-certified song was released on May 10, 1994 and dominated radio that entire summer. Written and produced by R. Kelly, the tune comes packed with a then-popular new jack swing vibe, yet still manages to sound fresh 20 years later. “Back & Forth” was the first display of Aaliyah’s unique swagger — something that has influenced female artists from Ciara to Rihanna to Tinashe.
Let’s face it, from the dark shades to the baggy sweatpants, Aaliyah was the epitome of cool for not just the R&B set, but all girls. Yet throughout her short-lived career (Aaliyah met her untimely death in 2001), she became sultrier and less tomboyish. That said, we’ll never forget when she threw a super-chill party with her homies in a high school gymnasium, where they all rocked “Back & Forth.” — BIANCA GRACIE
12. MADONNA, “TAKE A BOW”
Madonna has a legendary and insanely extensive discography, but “Take A Bow” will forever land in my Top 10 list of my favorite songs from the artist. It was the second single from her sixth album, Bedtime Stories, and sat pretty at the number one spot on Billboard Hot 100 for seven weeks straight. It has proven to be a timeless ballad (which is why it’s on this list — hello!) and it shows just how versatile she can be.
When the average person thinks of Madonna, their mind goes straight to pop. But “Take A Bow” has influences drawn directly from R&B — mainly thanks to its co-writer and co-producer, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds. The song has warm strings and soaring harmonies with a hint of tragedy from Madonna’s somber vocals, which makes the end result all the more beautiful. The entertainer has been in the studio for months working on her forthcoming 13th album, and hopefully she returns to creating classic songs like “Take A Bow” instead of staying too on trend. We definitely don’t want another MDNA! — BIANCA GRACIE
11. WARREN G FEATURING NATE DOGG, “REGULATE”
Before “Regulate,” Warren G had an uncredited role in ’90s hip-hop. If he hadn’t recorded that demo tape with Snoop Dogg and Nate Dogg as 213, or if he didn’t have that tape handy at a bachelor party DJ-ed by his stepbrother Dr. Dre, then G-Funk wouldn’t exist. Warren then excavated samples, playing director’s assistant as Dre became the face of that era-defining sound – slow grooves, deep bass and wheezy synthesizers backing the hardcore rapping – with his 1992 debut The Chronic. Because Death Row refused to sign Warren, though, he wouldn’t receive any royalties.
With “Regulate,” though, he was in the driver’s seat as he helped to expand gangster rap’s parameters. Friends like Snoop used to laugh at him for singing as he spat, but Warren did exactly that as he tells this story of Nate Dogg wandering Long Beach, California’s Eastside when a dice game goes awry, forcing Warren to intervene. In 1994, “Regulate” played during the closing credits of the Tupac-starring film Above The Rim. It also caught on at Top 40 radio, eventually reaching hit #2 on the Hot 100. You can’t deny the punch that sample of Michael McDonald‘s “I Keep Forgettin'” packs here, though it was Warren himself who brought the most soul to “Regulate.” — CHRISTINA LEE