The 50 Best Pop Singles Of 1994 (Featuring New Interviews With Ace Of Base, TLC, Lisa Loeb, Real McCoy & Haddaway)
40. ELTON JOHN, “CAN YOU FEEL THE LOVE TONIGHT”
Take a moment to let this sink in to your noggin: Elton John placed at least one song in the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100 chart every single year from 1971 to 1999. More mind-blowing pop nerd trivia: For the backing vocals on “Can You Feel The Love Tonight,” his second-biggest hit of the ’90s, Sir Elt enlisted the help of friends like his onetime “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” duet partner Kiki Dee, Take That frontman Gary Barlow and ’80s pop crooner/New Millennium meme favorite Rick Astley. A lot was riding on “Can You Feel The Love Tonight,” as the love theme kicked off the campaign for Disney’s 1994 silver screen blockbuster The Lion King.
The film’s producers needn’t have worried, though: While the single returned Elton to the Top 5 for the first time in six years (it peaked at #4), the animated movie’s full soundtrack sold seven million copies by December, and tied with Ace Of Base‘s The Sign as 1994’s top-selling album. Elton and co-writer Tim Rice went on to win both the Golden Globe and the Academy Award for Best Original Song, plus John nabbed a Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. Cut to a few years later, when Elton, Disney and all involved spun the movie off into a mega-hit Broadway musical, and, well — they’re not only still feeling the love tonight, they’re also feeling the cha-ching! — ROBBIE DAW
39. BOY II MEN, “ON BENDED KNEE”
Between “I’ll Make Love To You” and “On Bended Knee,” Boyz II Men spent a staggering 25 weeks at the top of the Hot 100. (If that didn’t quite sink in, we’re talking one week shy of half an entire year.) “On Bended Knee” also had the distinction of replacing “I’ll Make Love To You” at #1, making the Philadelphia vocal group the first act to have back-to-back chart-topping singles since The Beatles, in 1964. Needless to say, there was literally no escaping these guys for a good two years after their sophomore album II was released.
“On Bended Knee,” like most of Boyz II Men’s hits, is a ballad, but this one found production duo Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis pulling a notably emotional performance out of Nathan, Shawn, Wanya and Michael, particularly in the track’s final two minutes. If that “I’m gonna swallow my pride, say I’m sorry, stop pointing fingers, the blame is on me” bit doesn’t hit you straight in the gut, you might not really have a pulse. — ROBBIE DAW
38. NINE INCH NAILS, “CLOSER”
There are a million ways to have sex. We know this. However, Trent Reznor made it a million and one by adding “like an animal” to the end. “Closer” is one of those songs that has women clutching their pearls while they rip their shirts off. Reznor held no punches in his words, using phrases like “violate you, desecrate you, penetrate you” in the song. Sure, that’s offensive as all hell, but the more he kept going, the more you stopped caring about your personal inhibitions. Then the hook comes, “I wanna fuck you like an animal. I wanna feel you from the inside.” Oh.
The song didn’t do incredibly well, chart-wise – only breaking the Top 50 of the Billboard Hot 100 — but you can bet your ass in chaps that this is the song most people reference when they think of Nine Inch Nails. Then the Mark Romanek-directed video had mannequins, doll parts and some sex laboratory thing going on as Reznor sang into a microphone shaped like a breast. It was violently erotic, just like the song, making Reznor a low-key sexual dynamo. He could have never released a song like this in 2014 without a Think Piece from Jezebel immediately following. — KATHY IANDOLI
37. INI KAMOZE, “HERE COMES THE HOTSTEPPER”
Before Sean Paul, reggae artists rarely experienced pop-crossover success. To this day, the legendary Jimmy Cliff is still best known to US audiences for starring in Cool Runnings. In the ’80s, Cliff sent Jamaican-born newcomer Ini Kamoze to work with dub masters Sly and Robbie on a hit single and two albums — given the genre, a respectable match-up. In the ’90s, though, Kamoze overstepped reggae’s boundaries by teaming up with Salaam Remi, a New York DJ then known for his hip hop remixes. The end result was Kamoze’s debut #1 hit, “Here Comes The Hotstepper.”
Kamoze sang reggae’s sing-along murderer chant like a call for rebellion, though he also made sure to break some rules himself. That na-nana-na-na hook? Borrowed, from 1963’s “Land of a Thousand Dances,” as made famous by the ever-wicked Wilson Pickett. That rhythm? Sampled, from disco star Taana Gardner‘s “Heartbeat.” This song breezed in (thanks to its inclusion on the soundtrack for Robert Altman‘s Pret-A-Porter) when hits by All-4-One, Boyz II Men and Lisa Loeb were dominating radio – effortless cool at a time of total earnestness. Beyonce remembers this, as heard in 2004’s Sean Paul-featuring “Baby Boy”: “I’m stepping it hotter this year, so don’t you fight it.” — CHRISTINA LEE
36. MADONNA, “I’LL REMEMBER”
It’s no secret that Madonna’s had a career of cinematic misfires. Swept Away, Shanghai Surprise, Body Of Evidence, The Next Best Thing — she’s had more than a few flops, is my point. That said, her soundtrack contributions have always made up for her filmic failures, and then some. This pulsating ballad, the theme to With Honors, a long-forgotten coming of age drama starring Joe Pesci as a feisty hobo and Brendan Fraser as the undergrad who loves him, is another example of La Grande M getting her serious movie diva on.
At once lilting and powerful, “I’ll Remember” reminded 1994’s Sex-weary audiences why we let her put those nipple clamps on us in the first place. Although it didn’t reach the pole position of her previous tearjerker jams, “Live To Tell” and “Crazy For You,” “I’ll Remember” climbed to the #2 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 and still ranks as one of Madonna’s underrated best. There were even a slew of William Orbit remixes, foreshadowing her future collaboration with the producer on her career apex, Ray Of Light. — JOHN HAMILTON
35. BRANDY, “I WANNA BE DOWN”
“I really want a lot for 15,” Brandy Norwood said at the onset. This Carson, California, teen sang in several area youth groups before she popped up on TV award shows and specials, then starred in the short-lived ABC sitcom Thea. She counted Diana Ross as a mentor. A year later, after she signed to Atlantic, her boyfriend was Wanya Morris of Boyz II Men, the R&B group behind #1 hit “I’ll Make Love To You” (see #50 above). Yet in 1994, when she visited her alma mater Ambler Elementary to address the importance of recycling and energy conservation, Brandy was the girl next door.
Norwood’s debut single, “I Wanna Be Down,” demonstrated that, clearly, this teen star kept up with the times; that hip-hop beat, matched with her tender-tough vocals, sounded inspired by Mary J. Blige‘s What’s the 411? When she lyrically approaches a boy in the song, though (“If all you need is time, that I got plenty of”), there isn’t a trace of hurt in her voice. Brandy came off as confident. Curious, too. More importantly, while some teen pop stars can seem like they are in a rush to grow up, this one acted exactly her age. — CHRISTINA LEE
34. THE CRANBERRIES, “ZOMBIE”
Few may have realized it was a “make love, not war” anthem when it was first released, and fewer still may have been able to decipher what Dolores O’Riordan was actually mumbling on those haunting lyrics upon first listen, but with “Zombie,” The Cranberries had a protest song on their hands that was also a hit. Referencing the ongoing ethnic and political conflict in Ireland at the time, the single was released in the fall of 1994 ahead of the Limerick band’s sophomore album No Need To Argue, written in memory of two boys who were killed in an IRA bombing in England.
Serious, heady stuff that matched its aggressive, grunge-like lyrics. With its rough edges, “Zombie” was far more hardcore than what we’re accustomed to hearing over Top 40 airwaves in 2014. There’s just not much socially-conscious pop coming from the likes of Ariana, Katy and Taylor, unless you count Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” (which espoused a genetic explanation for gayness and became a LGBT rights anthem in 2011). So if you do happen to find some politics in your pop today, you can thank The Cranberries for making it cool. Got that, Gaga? — MIKE WOOD
33. ERASURE, “ALWAYS”
It seems like such a quaint memory now, but I remember coming across this CD single at a record store in the early spring of ‘94 and exclaiming, “I didn’t even know Erasure had anything new coming out!” Such were pre-Internet days, when release schedules were mysterious and secret unless you read Billboard or had a friend at MTV. These were also the days when someone at a music video network could look at an Erasure video, declare it “too gay to play,” and, sadly, no one would bat an eye.
Despite the homophobia of the times, the enduring British synth duo managed to make inroads at US radio with “Always,” scoring their third Top 20 hit and making that summer’s radio playlists quite a bit more interesting. Not bad for a bleep-bloopy disco ballad featuring some of Andy Bell’s most delicate vocals to-date. Bonus memory: my friend Tina chose this song to soundtrack her affair with a Navy sailor that summer, causing me to always think of it as a techno “Up Where We Belong.” — JOHN HAMILTON
32. GIN BLOSSOMS, “FOUND OUT ABOUT YOU”
This inescapable early 1994 radio jam was the fourth single from Gin Blossoms’ second album, New Miserable Experience, but it’s the only song by the Arizona band that reached #1 on Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks chart. (It peaked at #25 on the Hot 100). Written by lead guitarist Doug Hopkins (who was fired shortly after the album’s 1993 release, and who killed himself just as the band was peaking), “Found Out About You” possesses those timeless and now-instantly-recognizable guitar hooks, not to mention an infectious, sing-along melody (despite its somber high-school cheat storyline).
After disbanding in 1997, the group reunited in 2002 and cut two albums after that. Their legacy, it seems, is their own, since Gin Blossoms continue to make music like other pop-rock staples of the period (see: Goo Goo Dolls, Spin Doctors, The Wallflowers) who all continue to put out records, but with much less fanfare than back in those nights at the schoolyard. — MIKE WOOD
31. SMASHING PUMPKINS, “DISARM”
The Pumpkins had already been a staple on college radio stations with their 1991 album Gish, and its plodding lullaby “Rhinoceros.” The quartet then earned Seattle coffee house cred with “Drown,” the standout closer on the soundtrack to director Cameron Crowe’s Gen-X paean Singles. But it was “Disarm,” following the singles “Cherub Rock” and “Today” from sophomore LP Siamese Dream, that cemented the Smashing Pumpkins’ evolution from alt-rock hotshots to mainstream brand name. With timpani, strings and frontman Billy Corgan wailing the controversial lyrics, “The killer in me is the killer in you,” and, “Cut that little child,” “Disarm” was a highly unlikely household hit. Beautifully shrill, it channeled ’90s teen angst — especially for those who were a tad too young to have gotten in on the ground floor of grunge — with a melodic acoustic panache that was a surprise departure from the fuzzed-out rockers that ruled alternative airwaves.
Though Corgan is generally credited with playing most of the instruments on Siamese Dream, it was producer Butch Vig, fresh off of Nirvana’s breakthrough album Nevermind, who made Corgan’s grandiose sonic dreamscape a mainstream reality (before setting out on his own and forming the band Garbage). Corgan desired that mainstream success with as much passion as his compatriot, Kurt Cobain, shied from it; the Pumpkins next album of original material would be the blockbuster Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, singlehandedly carrying the torch of alternative rock into the suddenly-poppy late-’90s. — ALEXANDER CHO