Plenty of bad, but more good than I’d remembered. The ’90s didn’t take long to start, did they? Hair metal’s already nearly defunct as a chart force! Even without appearing in this chart, New Kids on the Block can be felt all over it. And it’s peak Diane Warren. Oh, and there are several truly iconic, never-going-away singles here.
1 2 VOGUE –•– Madonna – 6 (1) — Starting with this one, of course. Shep Pettibone is an unimpeachable genius.
2 1 NOTHING COMPARES 2 U –•– Sinead O’Connor – 10 (1) — Oh, and this one too. We all know that Prince is a genius, of course. But occasionally forgotten in the discussion of the transcendence of O’Connor’s version of “Nothing Compares” is her co-producer, Nellee Hooper; the song’s simple, but not simplistic, production, largely consisting of strings, occasional backing vox, and that drum beat, is absolute perfection. And let’s also not forget what a sensational singer O’Connor is; you don’t need to see that tear running down her face in the song’s video to have your heart ripped out. Just listen to that vocal.
3 4 ALL I WANNA DO IS MAKE LOVE TO YOU –•– Heart – 8 (3) — But not this one. Heart recorded a lot of gunning-for-sales crap in the ’80s and ’90s, but none worse than this.
4 6 HOLD ON –•– Wilson Phillips – 10 (4) — Nor this. Horrible in every way.
5 7 SENDING ALL MY LOVE –•– Linear – 14 (5) — Alfred and I have discussed at length the semi-weird fact that most freestyle artists had to go the ballad route to notch their biggest Billboard hits: Exposé, Stevie B, and Sweet Sensation each hit #1 by slowing down the tempo. But there were exceptions, fortunately; Seduction were one (see #37, below), and Miami-based flash-in-the-pan male trio Linear (pronounced “lih-NEAR,” not “LIH-nee-ur”) were another. They also broke the usual freestyle hit pattern by knocking it out on their first try, as this was their first and biggest (and for all practical purposes, only, apart from the #30 single “T.L.C.” two years later) hit. This is a smidgen more pop than a lot of freestyle of the era, but it’s still got those beautifully swirling keyboard lines and a rhythmic bumpin’. (Also, I find it hilarious that in the video for this, someone at their label said “Hey guys, pretend you can play these instruments so you look like real musicians.” I don’t doubt that their proficiency was somewhere in the neighborhood of the women in “Addicted to Love.”)
6 8 ALRIGHT –•– Janet Jackson – 7 (6) — Just watch its glorious, 7:28, Julien Temple-directed video. Such was the power of Janet in 1990 that MTV didn’t dare trim it down; no, when you saw this video, you saw all 7:28, which is as it should be.
7 3 I WANNA BE RICH –•– Calloway – 15 (2) — The Calloway brothers were in the super fun early ’80s funk band Midnight Star. They wrote Klymaxx’s “Meeting in the Ladies Room,” which is classic. They also wrote “Joy” for Teddy P, “Love Overboard” for Gladys Knight, and “Casanova” for Levert. So why’d they give away all their good songs, then? Cuz this one’s garbage.
8 10 POISON –•– Bell Biv Devoe – 7 (8) — “In a 2015 interview with Chris Williams for the Red Bull Music Academy, [writer/producer Elliot] Straite says, “When I made “Poison,” I was studying Kraftwerk. When I heard Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express album and their “Numbers” record, it made me want to change my whole style and approach to music. It gave me the musical inspiration to do “Poison.” I’m also mixed with Black and Puerto Rican. I had uncles that played with big Latin bands like Tito Puente and Mongo Santamaria. You could hear the Latin elements in “Poison.” I wanted to bring the Latin element into that record by using timbales. When you hear them say “poison” at the end of the record? That came from Kraftwerk. It brought a futuristic element to the track as well. I didn’t want it to be a regular R&B record.”
9 16 IT MUST HAVE BEEN LOVE –•– Roxette – 7 (9) — BUT IT’S OVER NOW. (I hate Roxette, always have. I especially hate this.)
10 9 WHAT IT TAKES –•– Aerosmith – 10 (9) — This made the top 10?!
11 13 THIS OLD HEART OF MINE –•– Rod Stewart & Ronald Isley – 9 (11) — If you think about it, this is almost the predecessor to Rod’s series of awful “American songbook” albums. I don’t begrudge Isley, though — he probably needed the cash at the time.
12 5 HOW CAN WE BE LOVERS –•– Michael Bolton – 12 (3) — Diane Warren and Desmond Child, together at last! Listen to this again (no, really): it’s an outlier in Bolton’s catalog of hits, a slight return to his more hair metal-ish roots (pun kind of intended). I mean, I can easily hear just about any A-minus-to-C-list hair band performing this. Which is not necessarily a bad thing; I find uptempo Bolton much more tolerable than Bolton, the Ballad King. And this one’s so ridiculously bombastic that I kind of secretly love it.
13 15 LOVE CHILD –•– Sweet Sensation – 10 (13) — Yeah, no one needed to cover this.
14 18 THE HUMPTY DANCE –•– Digital Underground – 10 (14) — Bassline!
15 19 U CAN’T TOUCH THIS –•– M.C. Hammer – 4 (15) — Bassline!
16 23 OOH LA LA (I CAN’T GET OVER YOU) –•– Perfect Gentlemen – 6 (16) — No, you don’t remember them; I didn’t, either. That’s because they were one-hit wonders, a Maurice Starr-created black trio who he clearly hoped would be the new New Edition. It should not shock you to learn that they opened for New Kids on tour. It should shock you to learn that, even though Starr was generally a pretty good talent scout (see: Edition, New, and Kids on the Block, New), none of these three kids could really sing or rap. This made it to #10 pop, and I don’t know why.
17 17 ROOM AT THE TOP –•– Adam Ant – 11 (17) — Jam & Lewis made over the Human League. Prince worked with Sheena Easton. So why shouldn’t André Cymone have produced Ant’s Manners & Physique? Sure, it’s ridiculous, but when wasn’t Adam Ant ridiculous? And frankly, as a stupid 1990 pop single, this works.
18 21 YOUR BABY NEVER LOOKED GOOD IN BLUE –•– Exposé – 8 (18) — No, my dear Exposé, apart from perhaps “Seasons Change,” we don’t want to hear you sing ballads, especially one as drippy as this Diane Warren composition.
19 12 DON’T WANNA FALL IN LOVE –•– Jane Child – 15 (2) — One of the greatest one-hit wonders of all time, full stop. She played everything on her self-titled debut album (on the synthesizer), except a bit of guitar. She wrote and self-produced the whole thing. And after this glorious one-off, she graced the Hot 100 exactly once more, hitting #49. But that shouldn’t take anything away from her talent (the Jane Child album is actually better than you suspect, I swear), or this wonder of a single, or her ultra-awesome chain connecting her nose ring and earrings (which, in 1990, was rather forward-thinking). Dear Jane, I miss you. Love, Thomas. ♥
20 24 READY OR NOT –•– After 7 – 8 (20) — The first of a pair of R&B #1s for the trio which was 2/3 “brothers of Babyface,” both of which also made the pop top 10, because in 1990, L.A. Reid and Babyface were fucking golden. It didn’t hurt that ‘Face’s brothers basically sounded just like him. Also, if you’re unfamiliar with Jazmine Sullivan’s 2015 single “Let It Burn,” which heavily samples “Ready Or Not,” watch it immediately, because it’s even better than its source material, which is pretty goddamn magical to begin with.
21 11 WHIP APPEAL –•– Babyface – 13 (6) — My “fucking golden” assessment applies even more for this. The man’s hand with ballads may well be unsurpassed. And if you need one, here’s a longer assessment from me. And here’s another from Alfred.
22 30 TURTLE POWER –•– Partners In Kryme – 5 (22) — Uh.
23 14 ALL AROUND THE WORLD –•– Lisa Stansfield – 16 (3) — Smooth, perfectly chilled Brit R&B from a woman who knew how to fucking sing it.
24 32 HOLD ON –•– En Vogue – 3 (24) — Smooth, totally unchill US R&B from four women who knew how to fucking sing it. For the first half of the ’90s, they ruled, and for damned good reason.
25 36 DO YOU REMEMBER? –•– Phil Collins – 4 (25) — Fortunately, I’ve forgotten.
26 27 EXPRESSION –•– Salt-N-Pepa – 11 (26) — Both written and produced by Cheryl “Salt” James, it’s worth noting; I think that SNP have never received their proper due. Being stuck on “I love the ’90s” tours seems a rather ignominious fate. This is a dandy little single.
27 33 BABY, IT’S TONIGHT –•– Jude Cole – 6 (27) — Mealy-mouthed sub-Hornsby.
28 28 HOUSE OF PAIN –•– Faster Pussycat – 13 (28) — Look, I like a lot of hair metal, but the selections in this countdown, as it was on its way out — even though its practitioners didn’t know it at the time — are uniformly substandard. And the last thing people wanted from this bunch of jackoffs was a ballad.
29 38 CHILDREN OF THE NIGHT –•– Richard Marx – 4 (29) — The fifth and final single from Marx’s sole #1 album Repeat Offender, on its way to a peak of #13, was Marx’s second consecutive top 15 hit after seven consecutive top 5s to open his career — still a record for a male solo artist. The man’s a pro; he’d been writing for folks like Kenny Rogers for years before making his debut as an artist, and has continued to do so for years after his own records stopping selling. (Remember Luther Vandross’s “Dance With My Father”? He co-wrote it with Marx, and it won the Grammy for Song of the Year. Marx has also co-penned a number of country hits with Keith Urban.) So say what you will about Richard Marx’s catalog — and his utterly resplendent, era-appropriate mullet — but the man knows how to construct well-written songs. “Children of the Night” is one of my faves of his, because I think he tends to excel at midtempos (he’s not always convincing as a rocker, and his straight ballads tend towards the mawkish). This one, concerning itself with the plight of runaway kids living on the streets, feels and sounds sincere. Plus I love the production touches on this, especially the Chicago-esque horns at the end, which give it an almost post-yacht feel (but only there), the sax and guitar solos on the bridge, and the key change at the end of each chorus. I’m hesitant to use this descriptor, but “Children of the Night” is actually kind of inspirational. Sorry.
30 37 I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS –•– Giant – 9 (30) — Nightmares, more like. The sound of hair metal dying.
31 25 I’LL BE YOUR EVERYTHING –•– Tommy Page – 14 (1) — This New Kids protege co-wrote his #1 with a pair of the Kids, and it was co-produced by two of ’em as well (with Michael Jonzun?!?); they’re even singing backing vocals on it. And sadly, it’s inferior to every NKOTB ballad. I’d like to be nicer about this song, considering that Page went on to come out, have a long career on the biz side of the industry, and tragically committed suicide earlier this year, but this song is just not good.
32 20 WITHOUT YOU –•– Motley Crue – 13 (8) — Their final top 10 single was such because of one thing and one thing only: Dial MTV. Because this is a slog, through and through.
33 35 SAVE ME –•– Fleetwood Mac – 7 (33) — At its sad peak, the Mac’s last top 40 single in the US came from an album which crept to #18 on the Billboard 200 — but made it to #1 in the UK! This is no embarrassment, however; it’s a classic-sounding-ish Mac tune, with Christine McVie on leads, but here’s the thing: Lindsey Buckingham had left the band at this time, and you can feel his absence.
34 43 I’LL BE YOUR SHELTER –•– Taylor Dayne – 3 (34) — She was, vocally, kinda the white Patti LaBelle, wasn’t she? No points for guessing that the writing credit on this is D. Warren.
35 40 CRUISING FOR BRUISING –•– Basia – 7 (35) — The purest amalgamation of sophistipop and jazz, Polish singer Basia’s catalog is like if you took all the sex appeal and smoldering soul out of Sade’s records, but otherwise went for the exact same audience. As (what we now know as) smooth jazz was on the rise in the late ’80s, Basia became one of the least likely stars in music, notching back-to-back platinum albums with her ’87 and ’89 releases, and a further gold record in ’94. She was also one of the queens of the then-Adult Contemporary video channel VH-1. Most surprisingly, she even made it into the top 40 twice, with the title track from 1987’s Time and Tide (#26/#5 AC), and with this leadoff single from follow-up London Warsaw New York (headed to #29/#5 AC). Being as I am an avowed smooth jazz fan, not to mention a big sophistipop guy, this precisely hits my sweet spot. Norah Jones should’ve sent her more than one “thank you” card.
36 26 HERE AND NOW –•– Luther Vandross – 22 (6) — LV’s top 10 pop breakthrough is also one of his slushiest singles. Anytime a song becomes a “wedding classic,” that’s generally not a good sign.
37 22 HEARTBEAT –•– Seduction – 13 (13) — Long before Michelle Visage made her name as RuPaul’s BFF (and Drag Race judge), she was a member of this Clivillés and Cole-created freestyle trio (though they were branded as freestyle, their sound was really more “downtown NYC club,” which ain’t even close to the same thing), whose biggest smash was previous single “Two To Make It Right.” That’s an absolutely magical club record that sounded just as mighty on the radio as on the dancefloor. This one comes close, largely due to its being a cover of one of the most titanic club records of all time, from Taana Gardner. Seduction were great, and if you disagree, well, you’re wrong.
38 41 GETTING AWAY WITH IT –•– Electronic – 8 (38) — Try to imagine, if you weren’t there at the time, the hysteria the announcement of this record caused: Bernard Sumner from New Order, plus Johnny Marr ex-of the Smiths, and with Pet Shop Boys Neil Tennant on guest vocals. It’s an ’80s new wave/indie dream come true. And fortunately, amazingly, it lives up to its potential in every way. I actually prefer this to the bulk of the New Order catalog, and the three artists come together so smoothly, so seamlessly as to make this record absolute perfection. After “Vogue,” this is my favorite single of 1990.
39 46 ALWAYS AND FOREVER –•– Whistle – 7 (39) — This former hip-hop trio went R&B for their third album in 1990, and made its title track a cover of the Heatwave classic. The thing is, no one needed a cover of “Always and Forever” (at least, not until Luther’s sumptuous take on it in 1994).
40 48 DEADBEAT CLUB –•– The B-52’s – 5 (40) — Not as annoying as “Love Shack” (which I really don’t ever want to hear again) or “Roam.” Of course, both of those singles peaked at #3; this one scraped to #30. There’s a sweetness to this one I respond to — but then Fred Schneider starts barking and takes me right out of it.