The 50 Best Pop Singles Of 1995 (Featuring New Interviews With Alanis Morissette, Garbage, Kylie Minogue, Monica, Ace Of Base & More!)
Ah, 1995. It was a year that saw pop music posing just as many questions — What if God was one of us? Is she perverted like me? Does she speak eloquently? Am I a dreamer? Don’t it make you wanna scream? Are you strong enough to be my man? Have you ever really loved a woman? — as it did giving us advice. Just a few tips we picked up that year from the radio: It’s a beautiful life! Don’t take it personal! All the roads we have to walk are winding! Run away and save your life! Don’t go chasing waterfalls! The world is a vampire!
In November 2014, around the time that we began our annual coverage of the best and, in some cases, the worst the year had to offer, we here at Idolator also hopped into our time machine and rounded up the 50 best pop singles released in what is arguably one of the greatest years for music in recent memory, 1994, complete with a handful of artist interviews.
This time around, Idolator gathered up 12 writers to do a deep dive into 1995. Oh, and we also ramped up the input and reflections from the artists who were churning our collective life soundtrack to those 12 months. In addition to mini-essays on each and every song we deemed to be the best ’95 had to offer, you’ll also find interviews with acts like Alanis Morissette, TLC, Garbage, Seal, Kylie Minogue, Monica, Saint Etienne, Joan Osborne, Aimee Mann, Ace Of Base, Real McCoy, Alex Party, Livin’ Joy and Nicki French, plus producers Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis and Todd Terry.
So let’s get to it. Ready to step back in time to the very middle of the mid-’90s?
HONORARY MENTION: BILLIE RAY MARTIN, “YOUR LOVING ARMS”
[Editor’s note: Though technically given a European release in 1994, this single found its stateside success the following year — and, well, we missed covering it in last year’s big ’94 roundup, so here you go!] If there were any pop iconoclasts who stood out in 1995, if only for a brief, shining moment atop the dance chart, prime among them was Billie Ray Martin. Even before you heard her debut single, the fiery “Your Loving Arms,” there was a Cindy Sherman-esque single cover with scattered roses and a distressed Martin giving us “I will NOT be ignored!” face. Then there was the video, all Joan Crawford glares and Sunset Boulevard tantrums. As for the song itself, “Your Loving Arms” was a predestined club classic, a pulsating techno torch song in which Martin sasses, vamps, and pleads over ominous rising chords and a frantic tambourine-inflected beat.
“Arms” was a mid-career triumph for Martin, a veteran of the biz who had previously found a glimmer of fame and acclaim with her own band Electribe 101 and their late-’80s house hit “Talking With Myself.” By the time she released her debut solo album, Deadline For My Memories, the world was almost ready for her eccentric brand of electrified soul… but not quite. Although “Your Loving Arms” did eventually chart on the Hot 100 at #46 with a Miami Bass Mix (courtesy of Todd Terry), subsequent singles made little impact outside the dance sphere. No matter for Martin: disillusioned with the industry, she returned to her club roots and still performs, records and DJs today under her own independent umbrella. — JOHN HAMILTON
50. PLANET SOUL, “SET U FREE”
Spacey and sorta-scary, “Set U Free” lulls you into a trance before late singer/songwriter Nadine “Harmony” Renee starts chanting, Janet Jackson-style. Hard to characterize, this dark-glamour techno jam almost cracked the Top 20 on the Hot 100 and stayed on the charts into 1996.
Don’t let anyone tell you that the once-startling “Set U Free” now sounds like the musical equivalent of a middle-school goth makeover (“Black fingernail polish?! IN CHURCH?!?!?) — it still has a very real and eerie power. Plus, how in the Sonya Blade was this not on the same year’s Mortal Kombat movie soundtrack? — JONATHAN RIGGS
49. THE REMBRANDTS, “I’LL BE THERE FOR YOU”
This was the inescapable song of 1995 through 1996. Whether you loved it or loathed it, the ubiquitous ditty was all over the airwaves, on both radio and television. Most, of course, will recall this tune as the theme song for those six Manhattanites with apartments as big as parking lots on the mega-successful sitcom Friends. With a massive TV hit on their hands, someone saw dollar signs, and decided to pad the song for radio airplay (since it was originally less than a minute long) just in case you missed hearing “so no one told you life was gonna be this way…” ad nauseum. One of the verses added to stretch the song to radio-friendly-lengths seemed to contradict the number’s very first line: “Your mama told you there’d be days like these…” Huh? We thought nobody told us life would be this way? Seems the attraction of the almighty dollar trumps all logic.
The three-minute version of “I’ll Be There For You” was released as the first single from the Rembrandt’s third studio album, and the duo have never again gained that kind of love-them-or- hate-them popularity. But don’t feel bad — those residual checks from still omnipresent Friends reruns can do more than just wipe away teardrops. — MIKE WOOD
48. SELENA, “DREAMING OF YOU”
Selena had already won the hearts of the Hispanic community years prior to the 1995 release of her fifth album Dreaming Of You. But it was then when the Tejano singer posthumously gained mainstream success, thanks to crossover singles like the album’s title track and “I Could Fall In Love.” It embodied every part of her personality that she was loved for, from the singer’s sweetly blissful vocal tone to her emotionally vulnerable lyrics and delicate melodies.
Selena met her untimely death on March 31, 1995 — just four months before she would be able to see her already-blossoming career skyrocket to international heights. Yet “Dreaming Of You” (which peaked at #22 on the Billboard Hot 100) and its parent album will always live on as a reminder of a brilliant star who continues to be an influence for a current generation of artists like Selena Gomez and Fifth Harmony. — BIANCA GRACIE
47. COOLIO, “GANGSTA’S PARADISE”
Sure, Michelle Pfeiffer was the star of late summer 1995 box office hit Dangerous Minds, so you might be hard pressed to conjure up the film itself without seeing her face. But it’s Coolio’s rap rhapsody on the soundtrack that captures the very essence of the movie, and he deserves his cred. Many have argued that despite its title this is far from gangsta rap, and while Coolio didn’t make gangstas all cuddly-cute, he did change the game for the genre for years to come.
An entire generation of misunderstood teens and young adults had an emotional response to the then-32 year-old Los Angeleno’s hit single, a Stevie Wonder-sampling smash that played more like the musings from the “cool” kid in school speaking to a wider audience that might traditionally scoff at rap’s harder edges. (Not a single swear word is uttered in “Gangsta’s Paradise” — moms liked that in 1995). R&B singer L.V. collaborated with Coolio on the track, which held its #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for three consecutive weeks and topped charts the world over. — MIKE WOOD
46. DIANA KING, “SHY GUY”
The ’90s typically get picked on for having a vast amount of one-hit wonders, but the truth is that a great majority of them were pretty damn good! Case in point: Diana King’s underrated and uber-confident “Shy Guy.” The reggae fusion sub-genre began to bubble over in the early ’90s with acts like Inner Circle, Snow and Sublime. But native Jamaican songstress King brought an authentic wave of fresh air and a needed female perspective that placed her right next to her North American counterparts.
“Shy Guy,” the lead single off King’s debut album Tougher Than Love, peaked at #13 on the Billboard Hot 100, was certified Gold in the US and became an instant highlight on the Bad Boys film soundtrack. The breezy mid-tempo dance tune features sassy lyrics that are peppered with patois inflections that urge women everywhere to realize they deserve more than what these f*ck boys are offering. What other one-hit wonder can do that? — BIANCA GRACIE
45. WHITNEY HOUSTON, “EXHALE (SHOOP SHOOP)”
With an abundance of hits to her credit, many tend to forget this slow-jamming gem from 1995’s Waiting To Exhale soundtrack. That may be mostly because of Whitney Houston’s restraint in her singing, the ballad’s simplistic beat or maybe those indefinable “shoops.” (Writer/producer Babyface admitted he couldn’t come up with lyrics, and thus, the “shoop” was born.)
Whitney had to be persuaded to contribute to the soundtrack because she mainly wanted to concentrate on her acting (she was Waiting‘s top-billed lead). Music critics widely praised Houston for her understated performance on “Exhale” — for a diva with pipes like Whitney?—which suited the soothing lyrics about learning how to let go and move on: “Sometimes you laugh, sometimes you cry / Life never tells us the whens or whys.” If only we all could keep that calm in light of life’s calamities. (Right, Bernadine? Shoop.)
The entire Waiting To Exhale soundtrack was a huge hit, with musical greats like Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan and Mary J. Blige all taking part. But it was Whitney’s “Exhale (Shoop Shoop)” that got the most traction: it debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart and it was Whitney’s eleventh — and last—chart-topping single. It also won that year’s Grammy for Best R&B Song. — MIKE WOOD
44. NICKI FRENCH, “TOTAL ECLIPSE OF THE HEART” (Interview)
One of the biggest singles of 1995 happened to be a cover version of a song released only a decade prior — albeit a cover that completely upped the tempo of the original. British singer Nicki French first recorded her simmering dance rendition of Bonnie Tyler‘s dramatic, chart-topping ballad “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” in 1994 with producer John Springate. A mutual contact within the office of production team Mike Stock and Matt Aitken (Kylie Minogue, Rick Astley, Donna Summer) passed the recording along to the pair, who decided to take a crack at giving French’s “Total Eclipse” a Hi-NRG/pop-house overhaul.
“Mike was happy to keep the backing vocals, but wanted a new lead vocal recorded, so that was fine,” French explains to Idolator. “Going into the studio to record for Mike and Matt for the very first time was more than a little daunting, to be honest! But they seemed very happy with what I did — and in a short time, too. I just told myself right at the start, ‘Hey, they have faith in you – just do what you do best.’ And from then on I really enjoyed myself!”
When Nicki French’s rendition of “Total Eclipse” was re-released, this time with production by Stock and Aitken, it not only landed in the Top 5 in the singer’s home country of the UK, but also soared to #2 in the United States — where it was held off the top by the reign of Bryan Adams‘ “Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman?” — and hit #1 on the charts in Canada, Australia, Ireland and Norway.
“I discovered that once you are in the charts, the gigs change substantially — and I don’t just mean financially,” says French. “I went from doing shows that lasted up to an hour to gigs where I was only required to do a maximum of three songs, which took a bit of getting used to. Yet I was being paid 10 times the amount!”
Once Nicki’s version of “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” crossed over to the States and began to climb the Billboard Hot 100, a full album, Secrets, quickly went into production with Stock and Aitken. It was released in June 1995. Twenty years later, French and Stock reunited to record “This Love,” a brand new single.
“The pressure was huge for me,” she says of working with Mike Stock again, “but once I was in the studio, and started singing, it just felt so good. The standard of the studio, the engineers, the song – you just know you’re working with quality, and it was lovely.” — ROBBIE DAW
43. SOPHIE B. HAWKINS, “AS I LAY ME DOWN”
Sophie B. Hawkins’ “As I Lay Me Down” was a massive adult contemporary/pop crossover hit, but it didn’t start out that way. After her 1992 breakthrough with “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover,” record execs were hoping for repeated success. When the lead single off of her second album stalled at #56 on the Billboard Hot 100, Sony scaled back promotion. Hawkins trudged on and toured the country with only a piano, and also played promotional gigs extensively for radio shows to gain support.
Though it was slow to make its way onto the Hot 100 (where it eventually peaked at #6), “As I Lay Me Down” stayed there for a long, long, loooooooong time — 44 weeks to be exact — and fared even better on the Adult Contemporary chart, where it spent 6 weeks at #1. The secret to why the sweet lullaby clicked so well? It was the perfect musical backdrop for proms, weddings and, of course, movie and television soundtracks. — TYLER STEELE
42. MONTELL JORDAN, “THIS IS HOW WE DO IT”
Before 1995, South Central Los Angeles was often portrayed in the media as a war zone. R&B singer Montell Jordan grew up there, so he saw firsthand how local gang activity — the drug-dealing, the violence — can enforce a new breed of slavery. Yet, like with Ice Cube‘s stoner comedy classic Friday, the point of his debut single “This Is How We Do It” was to show that South Central can party, too. “It’s not all peaches and cream, but it’s not all drive-bys, either,” Jordan said to VIBE at the time.
The only threat that he posed was to R&B, at least according to critics. The New Jack Swing party anthem sampled hip-hop storyteller Slick Rick and had Montell rapping about stacking paper, a faux pas that, sadly, informed the rest of his career. (“I’m an artist who is helping to uplift soul and R&B music rather than contributing to its demise,” he said three years later.) The only song that topped the Hot 100 for longer in 1995 was Mariah Carey‘s “Fantasy.” — CHRISTINA LEE
41. DES’REE, “YOU GOTTA BE”
While Des’ree is probably best remembered for committing career suicide by suing Beyonce (she clocked Queen Bey for making unauthorized changes to her 1997 hit “I’m Kissing You” on B’Day), the Brit delivered a string of breezy, folk-tinged pop hits in the early ’90s, starting with debut single “Feel So High.”
The now-elusive diva reached her commercial zenith in early 1995 when “You Gotta Be” made the Top 5 on the Billboard Hot 100. A relentlessly upbeat self-help anthem with a mantra-like chorus, the track was a much-needed ray of light at the height of grunge, and can still be heard in lifts and doctor’s waiting rooms today. — MIKE WASS