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 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
30. THE PRETENDERS, “I’LL STAND BY YOU”
Co-written with Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg (who’d penned hits like “Like a Virgin” for Madonna” and “True Colors” for Cyndi Lauper), “I’ll Stand By You” horrified Chrissie Hynde at first. She wrote the song with the intention of getting back on the radio, but she was unprepared for how soft and commercial the final result would be. So the subsequent success of “I’ll Stand By You,” including a Grammy nomination, was bittersweet for the rocker, especially when the power ballad took on a life of its own.
Covered to great success by artists ranging from Carrie Underwood to Girls Aloud, “I’ll Stand By You” paved the way for other rock acts who found chart success with gooier-than-usual ballads. (Think Aerosmith notching their first Billboard Hot 100 #1 with “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.) Regardless of how representative of Hynde’s oeuvre with The Pretenders it really was, “I’ll Stand By You” continues to resonate decades later. Most recently, Amber Riley sang it on “The Quarterback,” the 2013 Glee episode that paid tribute to the late Corey Monteith. — JONATHAN RIGGS
29. COUNTING CROWS, “MR. JONES”
Misery-pop was a huge thing in 1994. The more miserable someone sounded, the more likely they would be embraced by the era’s decidedly-disaffected youth. And no one, perhaps in the history of pop, has sounded more mournful that Adam Duritz — even when he was singing something as hopeful as “Mr. Jones.” It’s hard to pinpoint why the enduring bro-pop anthem struck such a chord, but in many ways it can be viewed as an early predecessor to emo.
Counting Crows were deep in their feelings, singing about wanting to be good-looking, famous and loved. I’m not sure about the former but “Mr. Jones” certainly helped the band achieve the latter goals. It’s seemingly non-stop airplay on college radio gave their debut LP August And Everything After enough momentum to go seven-times Platinum. Interestingly, Duritz rarely plays it live these days, and when he does he switches up the lyrics. Could it be a case of be careful of what you wish for? — MIKE WASS
28. SNOOP DOGG, “GIN & JUICE”
By the time Snoop Dogg released “Gin & Juice,” he was already “that guy” in rap. His breakout cameo on Dr. Dre’s “Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang” had hip hop heads salivating for the Doggy Dogg and what was to come from his career. His debut album Doggystyle delivered this gem, teaching us that it was perfectly acceptable to smoke weed and drink in public with your mind on your money and your money on your mind.
It was clear that Snoop dropped anthems — with “Gin & Juice” breaking the Top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 and reaching the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot Rap Songs chart. And why not? The track was on fire just like your throat after attempting to smoke a blunt and chase it with some Seagram’s and Ocean Spray. It’s a lethal combination (at best), but after watching the video where Snoop flips a Macaulay Culkin moment (“Homeboy Alone”) into a kickass house party, you start to question whether or not your lungs and liver are really all that necessary. — KATHY IANDOLI
27. BECK, “LOSER”
Beck has had a long — an astonishingly long — career as a purveyor of pastiche to the masses, taking a page from hip hop’s sampling culture and mixing exotic beats with bizarre rhymes and alt-rock instrumentation. He’s gone from folk-rap to tropicalia to soul to surf rock and back, but it all started here, with 1994’s homage to slackerdom, “Loser.” Even after all these years, there’s still a fresh, pubescent energy to it that schwings out of your headphones and sets your toes tapping. He was such a loser, in fact, that he had to communicate it bilingually. As legend has it, influential Los Angeles radio station KCRW immediately gave him his first live radio show after hearing “Loser” for the first time, igniting a music industry buzz and spawning a 23-year-old “it” boy — someone who, it turns out, was worth his weight in Mellow Gold.
Suddenly, self-deprecating white boys in the ’burbs had an anthem all their own, and the song took off; it was a Top 10 hit and the album went Platinum. But don’t let the everyboy act fool you — Beck, even though he dropped out of school and lived penniless for years before hitting it big, isn’t from run-of-the-mill stock. Born to avant-garde art world royalty (his mom is Warhol star Bibbe Hanson, her father a famous artist), he also has the dubious honor of being raised as a Church Of Scientology kid. — ALEXANDER CHO
26. M PEOPLE, “MOVING ON UP”
M People had everything: great tunes, great remixes of said tunes, sophisticated styling (Heather Small’s afro-poof is nothing short of iconic) and very classy single art. What more could audiences want in 1994? This trio were like the second coming of an already forgotten Deee-Lite, which maybe explains why they only had one stateside hit. Oh, but what a hit it is! “Moving On Up,” their US debut single, was a confident pop-soul kiss-off that had already blown up in their native England a year earlier. Its funky sax and Small’s pissed-off vocals combined to create nothing short of a club classic, one that provided ample opportunity for gay and straight clubbers alike to bust a move on dancefloors across the nation.
Although M People never managed a second foray into the Hot 100’s Top 40, they enjoyed many successful singles and albums back over the UK. Eventually — and too soon — they called it quits, with Small trying out a solo career and recording the timeless anthem “Proud,” which you’ve probably heard at a Pride festival or two. — JOHN HAMILTON
25. CORONA, “THE RHYTHM OF THE NIGHT”
Italian Euro-dance troupe Corona really only struck mainstream gold once, but it was enough to award the act with a true staple of early ’90s club anthems: “The Rhythm Of The Night.” As soon as that almighty call to arms rings out (“This is the rhythm of the night!”), 20 years later, there’s still no choice but to become a slave to the rhythm all over again. The spacey synth-pop jam experienced an incredibly slow burn toward success: Originally released in Europe in November of ’93, the song climbed its way up the charts throughout 1994, eventually peaking at #11 in the States.
In a testament to the true greatness of the Clinton-era dance classic, the song was later covered by German Kween Of Clubs Cascada in 2012. And just last year, Bastille mashed up the song with Snap!‘s “Rhythm Is A Dancer” for their slightly creepy “Of The Night.” — BRADLEY STERN
24. BEASTIE BOYS, “SABOTAGE”
The ’90s in hip hop were all about evolution, as rap music was really breaking off and compartmentalizing. In the midst of that categorical madness, the Beastie Boys released Ill Communication, armed with the single “Sabotage.” There were a few things that made the track so damn cool: for one, the Beasties weren’t at all concerned about what was happening in rap sonically. They didn’t care about gangster rap, “alternative” hip hop, yadda yadda. They stuck to their formula, which was infiltrating the game with solid bars and injections of their punk roots. “Sabotage” reminded us of where the Beasties came from.
And the Spike Jonze-directed video was shot like an action-packed movie, full of pornstaches and high-speed chases. What’s not to love about either of those things? “Sabotage” reached the Top 20 on Billboard’s Modern Rock chart, but “rock” is the keyword. The song was easily classified as both rock and rap — still a relatively new concept to hip hop, considering previous multi-classifications only happened as mash-ups (Aerosmith/Run-DMC, Anthrax/Public Enemy). So in essence, the Beastie Boys had it all. — KATHY IANDOLI
23. THE NOTORIOUS B.I.G., “JUICY”
Biggie Smalls was taken from the music industry way too soon, but his succinct discography is filled with gems that people are still playing 20 years later. One of his most loved (and most popular) songs is actually his very first single, “Juicy.” Off B.I.G.’s debut album Ready To Die, the feel-good tune samples Mtume‘s 1983 song “Juicy Fruit.” This funk snippet is completely unexpected, especially in a joint by a hardcore rapper. But co-producer Sean “Puffy” Combs knew what he was doing, as “Juicy” was able to catapult Biggie into music’s mainstream arena. The Brooklyn MC’s out-of-the-gate hit peaked at #27 on the Billboard Hot 100, is certified Gold and is considered by some to be one of the greatest rap songs of all time.
What makes “Juicy” so special is that everyone could relate to it on different levels. Notorious B.I.G. maps out his “rags-to-riches” story here, as he goes from speaking about eating sardines for dinner to finally being able to afford diamond earrings for his daughter. Play “Juicy” at any barbecue or basement party, and I can bet you everyone from all races and backgrounds will join in to sing it word for word. — BIANCA GRACIE
22. CELINE DION, “THE POWER OF LOVE”
While “The Power Of Love” is considered by many to be Celine Dion’s signature song, it had already been a (minor) hit for three other artists by the time she got her air-grabbing hands on it. Jennifer Rush scored a global smash with the power ballad a decade earlier, but only reached #57 on the Billboard Hot 100. Air Supply couldn’t even match that peak — they stalled at #68 — but Laura Branigan had more success, reaching the Top 30 in 1987.
Why did Canadian diva Celine’s interpretation perform so much better? No doubt her flawless vocal played a role, as did David Foster’s classy arrangement. It also had a lot to do with timing; Celine was the poster child for the anti-grunge movement, the warm and fluffy equivalent for people who didn’t like flannel or depressing rock. Feel free to dismiss “The Power Of Love” as artful elevator music, but it propelled Celine Dion to superstar status by becoming her first chart-topping single in the United States, and helped her sell millions of albums. — MIKE WASS
21. KYLIE MINOGUE, “CONFIDE IN ME”
The initial reaction to Kylie Minogue’s “Confide In Me” can be compared to the general shock and disbelief Miley Cyrus evoked when she relaunched last year as a molly-poppin’ urban-pop diva with “We Can’t Stop.” People just couldn’t get their heads around the reigning queen of bubblegum pop (in England and Australia, at least) turning her back on the cheerful Hi-NRG fare that made her a superstar, in favor of a menacing indie-pop soundscape. It’s one thing to try something new for the hell of it, but at the time, with “Confide In Me,” it felt like Kylie’s whole career was riding on the song. And against all odds, it became a huge critical and commercial success.
The Brothers In Rhythm-produced gem was the stepping stone that took her from the glorious pop of “Better The Devil You Know” to collaborating with Nick Cave on “Where The Wild Roses Grow.” It gave what her six years at PWL couldn’t: credibility, and a vehicle to showcase a then-hugely-underrated voice. — MIKE WASS
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
10. SHERYL CROW, “ALL I WANNA DO”
Sheryl Crow’s proverbial ship didn’t come in until she was in her early 30s. After a decade of backing vocalist gigs and false starts (she recorded an album that was ultimately scrapped in 1992), the plucky singer/songwriter finally struck gold with “All I Wanna Do.” The defiantly West Coast anthem was warmly received by the then-all-important radio programmers — it was just edgy enough to be credible while still being accessible — and went on to become one of the defining songs of the year.
The song’s appeal has a lot to do with the quirky lyrics, which tapped into the slacker movement and general restlessness of Generation X. There she was, having beer at noon on Tuesday when the worker bees went about their day around her. “All I Wanna Do” eventually climbed all the way to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and helped establish Sheryl’s niche as the Queen Of Top 40 Pop/Rock. It also earned her three Grammy awards (including one for Record Of The Year) and has become an enduring karaoke classic. — MIKE WASS
9. HOLE, “DOLL PARTS”
“I want to be the girl with the most cake” is the takeaway line from this surprisingly vulnerable ballad, which stands as Hole’s most successful single. It’s hard to separate the song from the iconic image of Courtney Love playing guitar in her babydoll dress, leg hoisted up on a monitor like a rock God. Love, who’s never seemed terribly self aware, was just that on “Doll Parts,” acknowledging her pain and desire. Her grating attention-seeking played out here as a need to be understood.
Live Through This, the album from which it’s taken, was released just four days after Love’s husband, Kurt Cobain, was found dead. “Someday you will ache like I ache, ” she sings over and over on “Doll Parts,” the album’s second single, building to a scream. Stints in mental hospitals, sporadic new music and endless legal brawling have dulled the collective memory of just how utterly perfect Love was as a front-woman for a rock band. She laid herself bare on this fine record. — STEPHEN SEARS
8. ENIGMA, “RETURN TO INNOCENCE”
If all of human existence across time were a movie, “Return to Innocence” is the song that should play over the end credits. Its legacy can be seen in several unusual ways — for example, the German act Enigma was a musical project where the composer/producer of the songs, Michael Cretu, was not the main performer. Today on the charts, there are countless songs credited to both a non-singing producer as well as the vocalist, like “We Found Love” by Rihanna featuring Calvin Harris, “Titanium” by David Guetta featuring Sia or even the Cedric Gervais remix of Lana Del Rey’s “Summertime Sadness.” (In this case, it was Andreas Harde, aka Angel, lending his dreamlike pipes to Cretu’s song.)
After its Billboard Hot 100 success (Enigma’s second US hit reached #4), “Return to Innocence” achieved further ubiquity by enticing 1990s late night TV-watchers to pick up the phone and order the New Age music collection Pure Moods. (Unicorns and forest-twirling maidens are standing by!) Maybe it’s because it’s built around a non-English, practically preverbal hook — the indigenous Taiwanese “Jubilant Drinking Song,” performed by Kuo Ying-nan and Kuo Hsiu-chu (who later successfully sued for credit) —“Return to Innocence” was then and remains now universally epic, instantly recognizable, largely incomprehensible and endlessly moving. Like us. Like life. — JONATHAN RIGGS
7. BJORK, “BIG TIME SENSUALITY”
Those who were around to witness the inception of Björk‘s solo career may be scratching their heads and wondering where, exactly, the last two decades have gone. Has it really been so long since the manic Icelandic pixie popped out of a volcano and impressed us with her Debut? (Technically this was her second solo album, if you count the obscure jazz LP she made at age 11.)
With critics wowed and pop audiences intrigued by the singer’s first LP, Björk kicked things into high gear with fourth single “Big Time Sensuality.” This dancefloor monster resembles the soulful American house sounds of Crystal Waters and Ultra Nate in its original album mix, but for the single, it was revamped into a storming trance jam by remix duo Fluke. “Big Time Sensuality” became Björk’s biggest single yet, garnering copious club play, radio time and worldwide recognition via MTV. At the peak of its success, the Stéphane Sednaoui-directed video would be spoofed by British comedy duo Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, and critiqued by no less than Beavis & Butt-head. Was it any wonder Madonna would go on to hire the song’s producer Nellee Hooper and commission a song from Björk herself for her 1994 Bedtime Stories album? — JOHN HAMILTON
6. MADONNA, “SECRET”
Madonna’s Bedtime Stories — which just turned 20 this year — will likely go down as the most under-appreciated album in her prolific career. That being said, the LP did produce two Hot 100 Top 10 hits, including the album’s incredible lead single, “Secret.”
Written with Dallas Austin (and Shep Pettibone…maybe?), “Secret” successfully shifted the Queen Of Pop out of the smutty S&M dungeons and dingy NYC night clubs of Erotica into a smoother, more seductive R&B arena. Armed with a light guitar melody and a contemplative chorus hum (which sounds like a precursor to her spiritual Ray Of Light anthem “Frozen”), the song saw Madge growing a bit more thoughtful with her lyricism — but still keeping it thoroughly Madge. There’s that one line: “Happiness lies in your own hand,” which is either a cheeky sexual reference (so Madonna) or a statement of self-empowerment (so Madonna). And the secret itself remains just as much a mystery now as it did then: “Mmmm…my baby’s got a secret,” she teases. The black-and-white clip, peppered with baptism imagery, suggested that the song’s subject may be a lover’s secret child, but who really knows? These days, Madonna is still pretty into secrets. #SecretProjectRevolution, anyone? — BRADLEY STERN
5. HADDAWAY, “WHAT IS LOVE”
You can see the heads bobbing now, can’t you? Club-goers took over dancefloors en masse to this ditty, and even electro-music novices could keep up with the song’s catchy, repetitive “what is love, baby don’t hurt me” refrain.
Yes, it permeated our collective consciousness given the heavily-repeated airplay, but “What Is Love” also took on a life of its own thanks, in no small part, to the recurring mid-’90s Saturday Night Live skit with Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan that embraced the anthem’s big Eurodance beats while simultaneously poking fun at them.
Haddaway wasn’t particularly surprised by how massive “What Is Love” became, not only in Germany 1993, where he began his musical career in earnest, but across Europe and eventually in the States, in 1994. With the song placing so high on our roundup of 1994’s best pop singles, Idolator decided to reach out to Nestor Alexander Haddaway to assess his thoughts on the song’s success and the lasting effects of his trend-setting tune.
“I really believed that I had a special song with a special message,” Haddaway tells us, “and ‘what is love’ is a worldwide theme. You can see that today it still has value and it proves [itself] to be one of the best records from that time period.”
There were many German dance acts making strides in charts across the world in the 1990s — including Snap (“Rhythm Is A Dancer”), Real McCoy (“Another Night,” “Runaway”), Culture Beat (“Mr. Vain”) and Captain Hollywood Project (“More And More”) — not to mention artists from other corners of Europe.
Haddaway says, “I had great relationships with a lot of them, and I still do concerts with some of them — my friend Dr. Alban, or Turbo B, Right Said Fred, Lionel Richie, Ace of Base…and on and on.”
Here in the America, “What Is Love” peaked at #11 on the Billboard Hot 100. It’s huge impact wasn’t limited to the States, though; Haddaway’s massive hit clocked in at #1 in France, Italy, Norway, Finland and Spain, and peaked at #2 in Canada, the UK, Germany and Sweden.
“It just came so fast and keeps me going until this day,” Haddaway, 49, recalls, when asked about his initial success. “I remember the crazy travel that happened from one day to the next, [as well as] the fans all over the world. I have good memories.”
SNL‘s dance club-obsessed Butabi brothers may have been mocking the pseudo-suave, pimped-out club gigolos of the era, but when the skit spawned 1998 full-length film A Night At The Roxbury, the one-note joke kept “What Is Love” on the radar well into the end of the decade. As for the original the Eurodance craze of the early-’90s, it may be over, but that sound’s influence can easily be heard today. In particular, the synthesized riffs of “What Is Love” are detectable in Katy Perry‘s Prism track “Walking On Air.” Haddaway, who was touring in Europe when we contacted him, thinks his song has had such a lasting impact for so many people, and has endured through the years, because of its message.
“I believe that the ‘what is love’ subject will always be around as a human quest,” he tells us. “I would love to do an updated version for Saturday Night Live, maybe with even Jimmy Fallon. My song has been covered by everyone from Eminem to Lil Wayne. I even did a rock version with the German hard rock band Emergency Gate, and and I am just in process of doing a collaboration with Jason DeRulo. The song just has a message for lovers all over the world.”
As for how he personally remembers the year 1994, Haddaway affirms, “It was a hell of a ride — and I am a Harley rider!” — MIKE WOOD
4. REAL MCCOY, “ANOTHER NIGHT”
Today we take for granted the marriage of memorable pop choruses sung by a charismatic female and gruff rhymes delivered by a tough-guy rapper, all laid over a thumping beat. It’s what makes a “feature” a feature, really. But jump back a few decades to the early 1990s, and this concept was just beginning to surface. A collection of European dance acts were making Americans sweat under the strobe light and slowly infiltrating the Billboard charts with melodic trakcs featuring slightly sinister-sounding rappers. You had your Captain Hollywood Project (“More And More”) and your Culture Beat (“Mr. Vain”), and let’s of course not forget Snap (“Rhythm Is A Dancer”).
The problem was getting stateside music buyers to invest their attention spans in said artists past one single. Without these groups being based within our borders and, thus, constantly popping up on our television screens and on local stages, most of offerings from the Eurodance crowd were considered to by anonymous blips on pop’s radar before disappearing into the ether…that is, until Real McCoy came along.
“You had your favorites,” Olaf “O-Jay” Jeglitza says over the phone from Berlin while reminiscing about his fellow Eurodance rappers in the ’90s. “Mine were Toni Cottura from Fun Factory, [Captain] Hollywood and [DJ] Bobo. It was a good time. We had a lot of parties. Of course, everybody thinks you’re better than the other one. For me, it was easy — I was the only one who had that much success in the States. I didn’t have to brag with them.”
O-Jay was a founding member of M.C. Sar & The Real McCoy, a German band that achieved minor success in their home country in 1990 with their On The Move! album. They busted wide open by the time 1994’s Space Invaders (retitled Another Night in the United States) arrived. In the four years between the two records, there were several lineup changes in the group, and Arista asked Real McCoy to nix the “M.C. Sar” part of their name. But O-Jay remained the one constant. By the time “Another Night,” the dance-pop track the broke the outfit, began to zip up charts in the US, it was O-Jay, Patricia Petersen and Vanessa Mason fronting Real McCoy.
“The thing is, Patricia, or Patsy, didn’t sing and Vanessa didn’t sing on the record,” O-Jay explains. “It was Karin Kasar.”
Kasar was a vocalist who had been doing session work at Boogie Park Studios in Berlin with the Berman Brothers, a sibling duo Real McCoy’s German label Hansa employed to do some additional production on “Another Night.”
“Since Patsy was not able to deliver the vocals for ‘Another Night,’ [the Berman Brothers] looked through the studio for other demo singers,” says O-Jay. “Karin was there and she was given a demo with that song, ‘Another Night,’ and she is still pissed about that — she could have sung it much, much better, but they actually used the original demo.”
Originally released in Germany in 1993, “Another Night” peaked at #18 on the country’s Media Control chart. It would go on to far greater success throughout Europe, as well as Canada, where it hit #1. Despite this success up north, O-Jay recalls the reluctance of Arista Records chief Clive Davis to release “Another Night.”
“The interesting part, why everyone was a little scared, was Hansa was also the same [German] label [that previously had] Milli Vanilli. That’s why we needed to do a test with Clive,” O-Jay says. “Well, we had our own Milli Vanilli there. We had the singer in the studio somewhere. We had Patsy looking good, but couldn’t sing.”
A North American deal with Arista was eventually struck, and “Another Night” finally began to take off in the States — first on the Billboard dance chart, where it hit the top, and finally on the main singles chart. The bouncy track’s charm lies in the house piano hook, which is not unlike the early ‘90s “Always Coca Cola” jingle, and the smooth warmth of Kasar’s vocals coupled with O-Jay’s deep “I talk, talk, I talk to you” rap.
“Interestingly enough, there’s an original tape, which I don’t have in my possession — we have a third rap [on ‘Another Night],” O-Jay points out. “I can’t even remember what I was writing then, but we never put it on the track. “
One thing he does recall: “I worked concrete for, I think, two weeks on the lyrics. For a guy like you, okay, five minutes [you] have the lyrics finished. But me not being a native… And I also have this one big mistake in it. It’s the word ‘difference.’ I said [in the song], ‘It’s the different between lovers and fakes,’ but it [should be] ‘the difference between lovers and fakes’.”
Relative semantics aside, “Another Night” blew up on the Hot 100 and ultimately reached #3, where it was blocked from the top of the chart in winter ‘94/’95 only by Boyz II Men’s “On Bended Knee” and Ini Kamoze’s “Here Comes The Hotstepper” — “Both very cool tracks,” O-Jay says modestly. “Personally, I think they’re much cooler than ‘Another Night’.”
When all was said and done, “Another Night” became the biggest hit by a German artist in America after spending over 52 weeks on the main singles chart. Later, when the 1995 American Music Awards rolled around, “Another Night” and follow-up single “Run Away” (also a Top 5 hit) secured Real McCoy a Best New Artist statue. Three more singles from the band charted in the States, and follow-up album One More Time was released in 1997. But a year later, Real McCoy split and O-Jay eventually moved into the production side of the music business in Berlin.
There is, however, a bit of closure on the story of “Another Night”: Over a decade after Real McCoy first enjoyed their wave of success thanks, in part, to Karin Kasar’s uncredited voice, O-Jay finally met the singer in person for the first time.
Karin Kasar singing Bruno Mars’ “Treasure” in 2013
“We talk once in awhile. We have a good relationship now,” O-Jay explains. “First time I met her, I was in Hamburg and she played me material, six songs, that she created at a time when she realized, okay, they used my voice but they won’t have me as an artist — and the reason is she was very, very large, and now she’s not large anymore. [We were told] no, she can’t be on stage; she’s not sexy; we can’t sell that product this way, blah blah blah.”
He continues, “She played me the songs, and if you would hear them now, you would definitely think, okay, this was the follow-up album of Another Night. This is the moment where you actually realize how important her voice was to all the songs.”
As we wrap up our conversation, O-Jay says that many of his contemporaries tasted a bit of success in the ‘90s, only to mistakenly believe they’d go on to become as big as Michael Jackson. That said, he maintains a rather realistic viewpoint of his own achievements.
“It was great times, super, but nothing for the history books of music,” he says, matter of fact. He then concedes, “But — and this is surprising for me; of course, I really appreciate it — ‘Another Night’ is still something kind of like a classic.” — ROBBIE DAW
3. LISA LOEB & NINE STORIES, “STAY (I MISSED YOU)”
The glasses. Everybody remembers the glasses. But it’s also that fragile, tentative guitar. And Lisa Loeb alone in a loft, singing directly to you. Smart, sincere, sensitive — too much so for its own good — “Stay (I Missed You)” is the quivering, questioning heart of Generation X…and of anyone else who hears it.
No one is immune to the evergreen charm of “Stay (I Missed You).” Not then, not now, not even the inmates of Orange Is The New Black, whose impromptu sing-a-long of her song last season delighted Loeb to no end.
“When you see these prisoners singing this love song, or the fact that so many different women from all walks of life knew all the words, there was a humor in that,” she says. “But at the same time it was very earnest and touching. It captured the magic of what it feels like to have a hit song: seeing people connected by music.”
In 1994, Lisa Loeb was an Ivy League grad who temped by day. At night, she played the NYC club and coffeehouse circuit, armed with a purple cassette’s worth of self-penned material, a backup band named after a J.D. Salinger collection and her soon-to-be-iconic cat’s-eye glasses (which you can now buy, via her own line!). As part of a collective of young up-and-coming artists, she would also perform songs — including “Stay (I Missed You)” — during set changes of her friend Ethan Hawke’s theatrical shows.
He returned the favor by recommending her to Ben Stiller, which helped Loeb and “Stay (I Missed You)” grab a slot on the soundtrack to the film Reality Bites. Hawke went one step further, coming up with a revolutionary music video concept. His plan? To direct a one-take clip featuring Loeb singing alone. (With a cameo from his cat Mardot.)
“For me, as somebody who loves games and puzzles, it was a good challenge,” Loeb remembers. “Ethan told me about the idea in his kitchen, and he paced out the choreography, or what the loose story of what it was, because there’s a relationship between me and the camera.”
Although performance scenes with Nine Stories were filmed, the one-take, one-performer concept proved too powerful to pass up, despite Loeb’s initial misgivings of appearing without her guitar or band.
“I didn’t want to be misperceived as a pop singer. I wanted people to know that I actually played the guitar and that, when they hear the song, it’s a full band. But in the end, the concept of the video was too good not to do,” Loeb says. “Back then, highly produced, highly glamorous videos were so popular. And this was so different, which was great because it showcased how the music was different.”
Without a record label, Loeb didn’t expect for her song to become the major single off the Reality Bites soundtrack, but a radio station in Houston liked it so much they began playing it, which led to other stations across the country picking it up. To everyone’s surprise, “Stay (I Missed You)” topped the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks, making Loeb the first unsigned artist to hit #1 — a feat not duplicated until Macklemore & Ryan Lewis took “Thrift Shop” to the top in 2013.
“I think part of the reason that the song gained popularity was the contrast to what else was on the radio at the time. It has such an intimacy,” Loeb says. “That’s always a reminder to me when I’m writing and recording music now. The songs that connect best are the ones that just come through you: the ones you craft but don’t overdo.”
Grammy-nominated, “Stay (I Missed You)” landed Loeb a million-dollar record deal and helped usher in the late 1990s era of Lilith Fair, where instrument-playing women were celebrated for their songcraft more than for their sex appeal. In the years since, Loeb has branched out into acting and voiceover work, but she never stopped adding to her musical success. Not only is her ninth studio album, 2013’s No Fairy Tale, a must-listen — the cut “The 90s” references her “Stay (I Missed You)” experience — but she’s putting the finishing touches on songs for a musical, Camp Kappewanna, that will be produced by New York City’s Atlantic Theater Company in Spring 2015.
Although Loebian lyric-and-guitar-driven vulnerability is in short supply on today’s increasingly glossy, overproduced charts, her influence can be felt everywhere from Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable” to Ingrid Michaelson’s bespectacled sleeper success. Without a doubt, however, her greatest disciple is Taylor Swift, who covered “Stay (I Missed You)” during her 2011 Speak Now Tour and continues to champion the Lisa Loeb school of self-composed, quietly courageous singer/songwriters.
As magical as Swift can be, however, time will tell if she can capture a moment of her own that is as instantly and effortlessly evocative and timeless as Loeb did with “Stay (I Missed You).” What is it about that song that makes it immortal: as young and fresh forever as if it’s still 1994? Whether you’re hearing it for the first time or the five-hundredth, how is it still able to make even the most jaded among us remember our very best and most beautiful selves, even for just a second?
Maybe it’s Lisa Loeb alone in a loft, singing directly to you. Or that fragile, tentative guitar. Or the glasses. Everybody remembers the glasses. — JONATHAN RIGGS
2. TLC, “CREEP”
A large part of the ’90s was all about the girl groups — from the En Vogue to the Spice Girls to Destiny’s Child. But there was a trio of young ladies who carved out their own place in the industry, and they go by the name of TLC. Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas, Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins and Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes arrived onto the scene in 1992 with their debut album, Oooooooh…On The TLC Tip, which portrayed them as goofy, fun-loving teenagers. But it was their 1994 sophomore effort that signaled the group was the one to watch, as they unveiled a sexier, more mature side. CrazySexyCool, arguably the most solid album from their discography, is filled with tracks that have stood the test of time. Yet there’s one anthem in particular that stands out among the rest: “Creep.”
The song, written and produced by Dallas Austin, was released as the lead single from CrazySexyCool on October 31, 1994. And the topic behind “Creep” proved to be quite controversial: they’re basically giving female listeners the impression that, if their man cheats, then they can cheat right back.
In the tune, T-Boz uses her sultry lower register to nonchalantly reveal: “I’ll never leave him down, though I might mess around. It’s only ‘cause I need some affection.” But according to band member Chilli, the theme didn’t come as much of a shock for them.
“I think when we first came out, it was very bold of us to have a song called ‘Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg’ with [the lyrics] ‘Two inches or a yard, rock hard or if it’s sagging’,” Chilli says while laughing. “People totally understood what type of group we were. To sing a song like ‘Creep’ wouldn’t be surprising from us.”
TLC as a group have always portrayed themselves as feminists, and this song goes along with that mentality.
“A lot of our songs are definitely from a woman’s perspective. Guys cheat all the time — and we weren’t trying to promote infidelity — but I’ll cheat because I’m not getting the attention that I need,” Chilli explains. “I’m sure a lot of guys were like, ‘Dang!’ But I think the track was so cool, and with the routine from the video, you almost forget about what we were saying and just sing along.”
Sure, the catchy hook in “Creep” made the song a total jam, but we can’t forget to discuss the iconic video! From the funky dance moves to the sexy silk pajamas, the Matthew Rolston-directed visual finds the ladies comfortable with their own sexuality. What girl in the mid-‘90s did not want to emulate that?
It turns out the video many people are familiar with was actually the director’s second version.
Chilli reveals, “We shot another one before and it was too grimy, and we agreed with [LaFace label chief] L.A. [Reid] that we shouldn’t come out with that video. It’s funny because we were all together in Los Angeles talking about it, and Salt N Pepa featuring En Vogue‘s ‘Whatta Man’ video came out. We were looking at it and said, ‘Whoever did this video has to do the ‘Creep’ video.’ We fell in love with the way it was shot. That director was Matthew Rolston, so we reached out to him and set it up.”
Aside from prancing around in their barely-buttoned pajamas, many people remember the genuine chemistry between the ladies. Chilli spoke about her best memory of being on set: “The most fun part of doing the video for me was when Lisa [Lopes] and I were acting crazy and breakdancing while she was walking on her hands. It’s a classic TLC moment!”
With “Creep,” TLC gave their fans the message that they don’t have to settle for being walked over in a relationship — and the result proved to be a major success. The Platinum single went on to become the ladies’ first chart-topping hit on the Billboard Hot 100, and even snagged them a Grammy in 1995 for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group.
“We were in shock! We just put out music so that people could find a connection with what were saying, so we didn’t know exactly how people would feel about anything,” Chilli says as she recalls TLC’s winning moment. “So when you get that kind of recognition, it says so much. The Grammys is like the Oscars of music, so we were just beyond happy to get one.”
“Creep” was just one of several iconic singles released off CrazySexyCool that impacted listeners in the mid-’90s. Chilli comments on the staying power of the songs, “Last year when our [VH1] movie came out, it grabbed a whole ‘nother generation. They are now holding on to those songs because it speaks to them and what they are going through. It’s crazy that we have these 10-year-olds who are just loving TLC.”
She adds, “It says a lot about us, because we did things that were relevant. It wasn’t just about a beat and that’s it. It was a whole movement with our group and just how did everything — from the way we dressed to the things we said and what we stood up for.”
CrazySexyCool and the hits it produced have avoided the curse of sounding dated all these years later. And now musicians such as Kiesza, Tinashe and Disclosure are channeling the feel-good R&B-pop sound represented during the early-to-mid-‘90s.
“I think it’s because for a long time music had changed — it wasn’t touching anybody’s soul,” Chilli says of this current trend. “You fell in love with the track, but lyrically it was just not good. I’m glad that people are going back to the basics. That’s how R&B used to be, and hopefully it will go back to that. Even back then when R&B groups would have love songs, they still talked about sex and those kinds of things — but it’s the way they did it.”
She continues, “It wasn’t like ‘Yea, imma smash and beat it up!’ They can actually say that in a song [now] and it’s actually being played on radio! It’s shocking to hear because when we first came out we did push the envelope, but some of these artists don’t care and just say whatever.”
Perhaps the staying power of “Creep” is owed to the fact that it was a provocative song that dared to expose the taboo, down-low aspects of a relationship…and it boasts one of the most iconic music videos of the 1990s.
“People don’t realize that for video shoots you have to wake up at like 5 in the morning for your call time,” Chilli offers as a final thought. ” So when we did that part at the very end of the video where we’re talking to the camera and looking all silly, we were so tired. But sometimes that ends up being your best shots.” — BIANCA GRACIE
1. ACE OF BASE, “THE SIGN”
There are several given facts when it comes to popular music in the modern era, and they go like this: America is tops at turning out R&B; nobody can throw together a kickass girl group quite like the UK; and Sweden is untouchable when it comes to pure pop. So just how did this Scandinavian country come to be the epicenter of cool? Well, it didn’t just start with Robyn and Avicii and Tove Lo.
The OGs of Swedepop were ABBA, the quartet who gave the world “Dancing Queen” and “Take A Chance On Me” in the 1970s, not to mention the Polar Music Prize (so named after their own Polar Studios in Stockholm). Pop-rock duo Roxette were the next big export to hail from Sweden, just as the ’80s were coming to a close. By the early ’90s, grunge and alternative music took hold in America, born as a reaction to the so-perceived plastic pop of the previous decade.
Between the summer and fall of 1993, reigning US bands Smashing Pumpkins, Peal Jam and Nirvana released albums that were easy to categorize at the time as “grunge.” (They were, respectively, Siamese Dream, Vs. and In Utero.) But upon closer, repeated listens, each respective band’s desire to grow beyond the trendy grunge-rock genre was detectable. The then-dominant scene’s crunchy-guitar heyday was coming to a close, and in its wake, new sounds were taking hold.
Hip hop had been steadily growing since the Reagan era and experienced a major boom once the 1990s rolled around. In England, Britpop sprung up as a reaction to America embracing the distorted alt-rock coming out of Seattle. Meanwhile, Germany was exporting Eurodance acts that had a knack for blending Hi NRG beats with rapped verses and catchy choruses. A shift in music was happening, and, dammit, Americans were tired of moping around and wanted to have some fun.
Enter siblings Jonas “Joker” Bergrren, Jenny Berggren and Malin “Linn” Berggren, along with their childhood friend Ulf “Buddha” Ekberg, who made up Ace Of Base, a band out of the Swedish city of Gothenburg. Their name suggested possible rap inclinations, but Ace Of Base were dealing in pop, albeit with a reggae twist. To produce what would become their debut US single, “All That She Wants,” Jonas and Ulf hooked up with fellow countryman Dag Volle, also known as Denniz Pop, a former DJ who founded Cheiron Studios in Stockholm.
“After [‘All That She Wants’] was recorded Ulf, Linn and I borrowed Denniz’s own car and went out to a deserted car park outside and just pumped up the volume and listened to the track many times that night,” Jonas says. “We knew we had done something special.”
Released stateside by Arista in 1993, “All That She Wants” was a reggae-pop oddity (compared to everything else on the radio at the time) about a woman on the prowl (“She’s going to get you!”) for “another baby.” The single reached #2 on the Hot 100, and while it would have been easy at this point for Ace Of Base to slip into the annals of one-hit wonderdom, Arista had bigger plans, and the band had an even better song waiting in the wings.
Ace Of Base’s debut LP Happy Nation was already out in Europe by the time “All That She Wants” crossed over in the States, but Arista president Clive Davis and A&R head Richard Sweret asked the band to record additional tracks for the North American release — mainly “The Sign” and a cover of “Don’t Turn Around.”
“They wanted something different from the European album, to make it more special,” Jonas recalls. “I had ‘The Sign’ only just in my head. The first time anyone heard it was Denniz Pop, who got a rough demo. It was just instrumental and I remember that he thought the verse was the chorus. Arista loved the song!”
Far more high octane than “All That She Wants” and way meatier as a song in general, “The Sign” was a straight-up smash that was tailor made for radio. It shot to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for four weeks in March 1994, only to be bump-N-grinded off by R. Kelly in April. Then, in a rare move, “The Sign” returned to #1 a month later for two more weeks. Like with “All That She Wants,” Jonas remembers the recording session for “The Sign” fondly.
“We recorded it rather fast,” he explains. “The chorus was hard to sing since it has no time to breathe in it. We solved it by letting Jenny sing the second and fourth part of it. They wanted Linn to sing because Denniz loved her voice, so she did the vital parts. Denniz, [co-producer] Douglas [Carr] and I were happy with the result. An interesting part is that the song was so loud that we had to reduce the volume by three decibels compared to the other tracks when we mastered the album.”
Happy Nation was re-titled The Sign for its US release, and when “Don’t Turn Around” became their third consecutive Top 5 single in the summer of 1994, Ace Of Base were off and running. By the year’s end, the album had sold 7 million copies in the States alone. The band picked up two American Music Awards, three Billboard Music Awards and found themselves nominated for Pop Vocal Group and New Artist Grammys. Needless to say, Jonas, Linn, Jenny and Ulf found that free time was not an option during this period.
“We all had too much to do to enjoy most of it. Such a pity,” says Jonas. “With the first album we did gigs, promoted the album and recorded many videos for 23 month in a row. Then we read somewhere that Metallica had been out [and promoted] for 18 months and that it was some kind of a record in the music business industry. I remember we thought, hey, what about us then? When the record companies asked us to release ‘Young And Proud’ as the eighth single from the album we just refused to do so. It was time to stop working and take some rest.”
In fact, it was during a rare vacation in January 1994, before Ace Of Base completely exploded, that Jonas came up with the concept for another future hit from the band.
He explains, “I was at the Canary Islands in Spain, and the last evening I just heard the song ‘Beautiful Life’ in my head. I have the ability to hear three different melodies in my head at the same time — it’s very helpful while composing songs. Melody, bass and a flute on a chourus for example. It was melancholic to leave the islands and it was a wonderful evening, with the mood and sunset. It was a beautiful life!”
Incidentally, “Beautiful Life” would become the lead American single off Ace Of Base’s sophomore album, The Bridge, in 1995. It’s a song Jonas co-produced with Denniz Pop and a young musician Pop was mentoring at the time at Cheiron Studios by the name of Max Martin.
Following The Sign and The Bridge, Ace Of Base released a third album and a greatest hits collection before their North American deal with Arista was up in 2000. After the European release of 2002 LP Da Capo, Linn left the band, and Jenny followed suit before the recording of 2010’s The Golden Ratio.
With their unique brand of colorful, tight melodies, it’s clear to see that Ace Of Base left an incredible mark on music two decades ago. The group kicked the door open for not only artists like Robyn and A*Teens, but also for producers Denniz Pop and Max Martin, who went on to reshape the sound of pop in the late ’90s by working with Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC. As for the generation after that, one need only listen to Lady Gaga‘s 2010 single “Alejandro” or Katy Perry‘s Teenage Dream and Prism albums to hear Jonas, Linn, Jenny and Ulf’s influence in current music. And let’s of course not forget Swedish Ace Of Base tribute band A*Base, a group of teenagers who released their first single last week, a cover of “Never Gonna Say I’m Sorry.” (Jonas points out that A*Base’s album will contain “only covers of our songs — some never released actually.”)
Looking ahead, Jonas says he’s not opposed to a reunion with his bandmates — “I wouldn’t mind! I am not the one closing any doors. Maybe something for charity?” — but until then, there is the planned re-release of Ace Of Base’s original albums, plus a collection of unreleased material, coming soon: “We are releasing an album called Hidden Gems in 2015. It was first planned to be released this year to highlight [the anniversary of] our #1 album in the USA, but then the record company wanted to release it on vinyl as well, and since the lead time is eight weeks, it would have been too close to Christmas. The album is a mix of unreleased and rare and songs only known to diehard fans. It feels good to compile them on an album finally. The tracks on the album are prior to 2006 by the original lineup and are original recordings, just mastered. The beginning of 2015 is the worldwide release I have been told.”
He continues, “We are also remastering all of the old albums and putting a twist to them by adding an extra song by us from the actual time of the different albums. The Sign album is the first here and will be available on Christmas Eve this year. ‘Mr Ace’, the first version of ‘All That She Wants’, will be the bonus track on that album.”
When I finally tell him that “The Sign” has topped Idolator’s 50 Best Singles Of 1994 list, Jonas seems genuinely surprised (“Oh, it’s #1? How nice!”). He then says something we probably all think when hindsight kicks in while reflecting on the past: “1994 was the most memorable year of my life, but it didn’t sink in until some years later. So much was happening at the same time. Back then I couldn’t see the forest because of all the trees — it is a Swedish expression. It means you are too close to see things as a whole.” — ROBBIE DAW