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I listen to a ton of music. With the pandemic, I’ve been listening to even more. I decided to go to my music library and start to work my way through the top pop songs of the 90s – I have all 1,000 of them – the Billboard Hot 100 year end top 100 songs of the 90s.
After listening to about 25 of them, I’ve come to realize that pop music in the 90s was simply awful!
Before I go on – let me say that there is some excellent music from the 90s. Some of my favorite rock music is from the 90s. Nirvana. Foo Fighters. U2. The Cranberries. Alanis Morissette. Prince. Goo Goo Dolls. Madonna. And lots of others – all brilliant, innovative, simply great.
But this great rock music didn’t necessarily make it big in the world of pop music. Instead, what charted on the Hot 100 generally was formulaic crap that was over-produced and was performed by underwelming talent.
Particularly bad was the R&B music. The evolution started in the mid-80s. Janet Jackson became a huge success, thanks in part to the talent of producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. They created a sound that soon became a formula for disastrous knock-off music, as others tried to copy the sound. These songs all seem to have a drum machine. They use computer-generated bass lines. They have this “echo-thing” that makes the songs sound like they are recorded in a cave. The vocals have crazy harmonies combined with moans and groans. And so on…
Let me give you a few examples, as we go down 90s memory lane….
1990 – The #1 song of the year was Hold On by Wilson Phillips. Borderline terrible, it definitely fit the formula I’m talking about. Drum machine, lots of special effects/computer sounds, obligatory cute guitar solo, contrived harmonies. It got worse – other “songs” on the list include Bell Biv Devoe’s Poison and Do Me, the Vanilla Ice classic Ice Ice Baby, a couple of Milli Vanilli and MC Hammer songs, many more. Ugh.
1991 – #1 was Bryan Adams’ (Everything I Do) I Do It For You. A rocker who for some reason decided he had to sell records and do a power ballad. #2 – I Want to Sex You Up by Color Me Badd. #3 – Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now) by C&C Music Factory. Need I say more?
1992 – Boyz II Men was #1 with End of the Road. These guys really are talented, I even have their debut album that includes this song. But the vocals on this song were typical of the 90s formula that I seem to despise. And, their later hits during the decade fell deeper and deeper into the abyss. #2 in 1992 was the classically terrible Baby Got Back by Sir Mix A Lot. Another hit that year – I’m Too Sexy by Right Said Fred – you can’t make this stuff up.
1993 – OK, the #1 song was an all time great – Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You. Brilliant in every way, perhaps the greatest vocal of all time. How about #2? Well, it was Whoomp! There It Is by Tag Team. A couple more doozies – #5 was Freak Me (Let Me Lick U Up & Down) by Silk, and #9 was Rump Shaker by Wreckx-N-Effect. So much for great songs in 1993…
1994 – Ace of Base had the #1 song, The Sign. Pretty good, catchy, kinda like it. The next 2 are carbon copy formula love songs – I Swear by All-4-One (with the required tired sax solo) and I’ll Make Love To You by Boyz II Men. But, some good songs start to show up, like Shine (Collective Soul), All I Wanna Do (Sheryl Crow), MMM MMM MMM MMM (Crash Test Dummies), Because the Night (10,000 Maniacs), Linger (The Cranberries) and Loser (Beck). Somehow, alt rock was popular that year.
1995 – Rap rules. #1 was Gangsta’s Paradise by Coolio. Actually, a very good song. But then, the maddening formula kicks in with songs by TLC, Boyz II Men, Mariah Carey, many other copy cats. I ran across a song that I had never heard of – #76 was Short Dick Man by 20 Fingers. I truly hope I never hear it again.
1996 – Remember doing the Macerena? The song Macerena by Los del Rio was #1 in 1996. Terrible song, though I have too many good memories of doing the Macerena with my kids at Pokegama Lake to pan it. #2 that year had 2 artists famous for 90s formula music teaming up for a collaboration – Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s One Sweet Day. Some decent rock songs managed to sneak onto the list in 1996 – Tracy Chapman’s Give Me One Reason and Alanis Morissette’s Ironic are particularly great. But…still too much bad R&B and rap here.
1997 – The death of Princess Diana changed the world that year, and Elton John’s remake of Candle In the Wind 1997 topped the chart. The song is the best selling single in the history of Billboard, and it is the second best selling physical single of all time (behind White Christmas by Bing Crosby). John performed it publicly only once, at Diana’s funeral. #2 that year also is very good – Jewel’s You Were Meant For Me. #3 and #4 are fine – I’ll Be Missing You, Puff Daddy’s memorial to the murdered Notorious B.I.G. and Un-Break My Heart, Toni Braxton’s beautiful ballad. But after that, the formula starts to dominate again with throw-away tunes by Puff Daddy, R. Kelly, En Vogue, Spice Girls, Backstreet Boys, Hanson, etc, etc.
1998 – The #1 song was a song I never heard before until this week – Too Close by Next. While I claim to have never heard it before, it sounds much like a hundred other R&B formula songs from the 90s. But there were signs that a new decade was coming, with refreshing changes in how the songs sounded. Country crossover became big in 1998 – Shania Twain’s You’re Still the One was #3 and LeAnn Rimes’ How Do I Live was #5. As I go through the top 100, I’d say that the majority were substantially different than those formula songs that I disliked so much. My goodness – even a Celtic new age song made the list at #83 – The Mummers’ Dance by Loreena McKennitt (a truly beautiful song).
1999 – Honestly, there are mostly good songs this year. Or, if they were not so good, they were just so much better than the songs from earlier in the decade. #1 was Cher’s Believe – kind a formulaic, but Cher’s great vocals overcome the irritation.
So much for my 90s rant. Nice that things got better. For my video, I’ll show the best song of the 90s – here’s Whitney Houston’s amazing performance of I Will Always Love You. Really – this is my all time #1 vocal performance. Stunning!