25 years ago this week. A great summer for R&B, as “MTV Jams” proved on a daily basis. Here’s the playlist, only missing two selections (whose videos are linked below).
1 1 I SWEAR –•– All-4-One – 13 (1) — All-4-One’s spiritual predecessors Color Me Badd were better than you likely recall; All-4-One themselves, would-be masters of the goopy ballad, were not.
2 2 REGULATE –•– Warren G & Nate Dogg – 13 (2) — Talk about a classic: you know how perfect this is, how smoooooth, how Warren & Nate make it look so easy. It’s not though: if it were, both would’ve had more hits. Simply, though, neither ever sounded better than they do here. Of course, don’t underestimate the (pre-“Yacht Rock”!) power of the McDonald.
3 3 ANY TIME, ANY PLACE / AND ON AND ON –•– Janet Jackson – 8 (2) — Quite possibly Miss Jackson’s sexiest ballad ever, “skirt around my waist” and all.
4 5 STAY –•– Lisa Loeb & Nine Stories – 11 (4) — Twee but effective.
5 4 DON’T TURN AROUND –•– Ace Of Base – 11 (4) — Tina Turner first cut this Diane Warren co-write, in 1986 (it was the b-side of the far superior “Typical Male”). Soul singer Luther Ingram (“If Loving You Is Wrong, I Don’t Want to Be Right”) did a sadly overproduced version the following year, which led to British reggae group Aswad putting their spin on it in ’88 and getting a surprise UK #1. Ace of Base released their take as the third US single from The Sign for summer ’94, what with its faux-reggae rhythm and all. And if you think that white Swedes with thin voices doing faux-reggae sounds pretty awful, well: you’re right.
6 6 BACK & FORTH –•– Aaliyah – 12 (5) — Aaliyah’s voice so feathery and light but also just tuff enuff, R. Kelly’s song/production so R&Bouncy and perfectly suited for her. I know, we know all about their history nowadays, but that doesn’t change the fact that the music they made together was fairly magical.
7 11 FANTASTIC VOYAGE –•– Coolio – 7 (7) — He’s no great rapper, and I never liked the Lakeside original much in the first place, either.
8 9 CAN YOU FEEL THE LOVE TONIGHT –•– Elton John – 9 (8) — Didn’t care to hear Elton sing this bowl of “inspirational” oatmeal, and I’m not looking forward to the Beyoncé/Childish Gambino duet version, either.
9 13 FUNKDAFIED –•– Da Brat – 7 (9) — Riding a sample of “Between the Sheets” is always a good idea, and for the most part, so is Jermaine Dupri’s production; he’s entirely underrated as a record-maker. And Da Brat never made a great album but made plenty of great singles, including this debut.
10 10 IF YOU GO –•– Jon Secada – 11 (10) — Boy, he sang with passion, didn’t he? A great, forgotten uptempo number from the Estefan family’s protegé. And were all of his hits sad songs?
11 7 I’LL REMEMBER –•– Madonna – 16 (2) — She’s had seven top 2 singles just from films — and that number doesn’t even include “Into the Groove” (not an official single), Bond theme “Die Another Day” (#8), “Beautiful Stranger” (#18!), or any of her Evita singles (“Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” the biggest, making #8). This is fairly MOR Madonna, especially for the time, but was nonetheless one of a trio of top 3 hits she had in ’94, including her all-time biggest, “Take A Bow.”
12 8 YOU MEAN THE WORLD TO ME –•– Toni Braxton – 16 (7) — The third and final top 10 pop hit from her astoundingly successful, eponymous debut album, is stately, perfectly paced pop-soul, helmed of course by L.A. and Babyface. Braxton doesn’t get enough credit these days for what a great singer she is.
13 16 WILD NIGHT –•– John Mellencamp & Me’Shell Ndegeocello – 8 (13) — Mellencamp’s final top 10 pop single, and first in seven years (!), was kinda of a fluke: a Van Morrison cover done as a near-duet with the R&B critical sensation Ndegeocello. In 1994, nobody expected a Mellencamp single to breach the top 10, let alone, as it did, make it all the way to #3. Anchored by Ndegeocello’s bass and Kenny Aronoff’s snare tattoo, this is instantly memorable and totally fun.
14 12 ANYTIME YOU NEED A FRIEND –•– Mariah Carey – 8 (12) — I know, I’m quoting a fuck-ton of chart stats, but there’s a bunch of chart-interesting songs all lined up in a row! And as for this one, well: this is the song that broke Carey’s career-opening string of 11 consecutive top 10 — and top 5! — pop singles. And I have no clue why, because it’s one of her best, a legitimately inspirational, inspirational ballad, one where the gospel choir is not only appropriate but earned. I also particularly love the famed C&C Club Mix, where they really take the song not only to the club but also back to church.
15 17 SHINE –•– Collective Soul – 11 (15) — Collective Soul are hot trash, but at least this resulted in Dolly Parton’s glorious version.
16 15 YOUR BODY’S CALLIN’ –•– R. Kelly – 10 (13) — Again: I know. But goddamn if the asshole didn’t have an incredible way around an R&B slow jam.
17 20 I MISS YOU –•– Aaron Hall – 10 (17) — Wish I knew why the vocal heir to Charlie Wilson’s legacy, formerly of R&B titans Guy, didn’t have more of a career. Because he certainly had the talent for it. This song, fairly summed up by its title, is a bit rote, but he sings the everloving fuck out of it.
18 14 BABY I LOVE YOUR WAY –•– Big Mountain – 21 (6) — An awful song made worse by this cod-reggae treatment.
19 18 THE SIGN –•– Ace Of Base – 29 (1) — I wish I hadn’t seen it.
20 23 CRAZY –•– Aerosmith – 9 (20) — In 1994, Aerosmith were still riding their MTV comeback wave, so much so that a lesbionic video starring Alicia Silverstone and Steven Tyler’s daughter (ick) could get their bluesiest single in years into the pop top 20. It was a weird time.
21 19 THE MOST BEAUTIFUL GIRL IN THE WORLD –•– Prince – 20 (3) — Thanks to label limbo, I think this is about the last Prince record missing from Spotify. Which is such a damned crime, because this is one of his loveliest, most effortless-sounding ballads. And somehow, it simultaneously sounds triumphant.
22 25 ALWAYS –•– Erasure – 12 (22) — I dunno how, six years after The Innocents, Erasure got into the US top 20 with this, which to my ears sounds like just about any other Erasure single. I admit I’ve always been immune to any of their purported charms, to the point where I actually actively dislike them, outside of perhaps the Abbaesque EP, which has a certain cheeky charm. Your mileage, inevitably, may vary.
23 21 RETURN TO INNOCENCE –•– Enigma – 20 (4) — I think every sexually active 20-something in the ’90s had sex to Enigma at some point; theirs were those CDs. Ridiculous but inoffensive.
24 22 DON’T TAKE THE GIRL –•– Tim McGraw – 9 (17) — Not only does this story song sound like something John Anderson would’ve sung in the ’80s, McGraw’s delivery sounds almost note-precisely like Anderson’s. Which is to its great benefit, because Anderson is a master. The only country record on this chart, and only here due to its impressive CD single sales, because heaven knows top 40 radio wasn’t playing it. Their loss.
25 24 BEAUTIFUL IN MY EYES –•– Joshua Kadison – 14 (19) — Every generation gets the male troubadours it deserves, from James Taylor to (gah) Ed Fucking Sheeran. Kadison had a rich voice and no sense of irony, both of which I find to be assets on “Beautiful,” a record that sounds wonderful on AC radio to this day.
26 33 WILLING TO FORGIVE –•– Aretha Franklin – 10 (26) — 1989’s duets album Through the Storm gave the Queen what would be her final top 40 pop hit (the Elton duet) and final top 10 R&B hit (the Whitney duet) — until five years later, when for an add-on track for her first Arista hits album Clive Davis paired her up with, who else? Reigning soul king Babyface and Daryl Simmons, who crafted this marvel of a ballad, on which Aretha, in her brilliance, reigns it in, to its profound benefit. An absolutely perfect four minutes of a single.
27 30 ALWAYS IN MY HEART –•– Tevin Campbell – 4 (27) — Oh look, it’s yet another slice of Babyface-made R&B perfection, and actually my single favorite Campbell record — and he made a surprising number of great ones in a relatively short amount of time. Slightly oversung, but when the song and its production are this milk-chocolate-creamy, I’ll forgive a lot.
28 29 BACK IN THE DAY –•– Ahmad! – 8 (28) — Heading for a minor #26 pop peak, this nostalgic slice of west coast hip hop mainly got over on its sample from “Love TKO.” Apart from that, it’s pretty unmemorable.
29 31 PRAYER FOR THE DYING –•– Seal – 6 (29) — I wish that Seal’s second self-titled album had a little more oomph to it, but lots of its instrumentation comes from Wendy and Lisa, and it features some superb Trevor Horn production. (The way the chorus explodes on this!) Additionally, those deep vocals of Seal’s are fittingly front and center, and “Dying” is a wonderful dense, tricky little song. I love this one rather unapologetically.
30 28 COME TO MY WINDOW –•– Melissa Etheridge – 21 (28) — If the Indigo Girls had been a little more rock in their execution or a little more pop in their dreams, they might’ve had Etheridge’s career. But they didn’t, so she did.
31 27 ANYTHING –•– SWV – 15 (18) — Allen “ALLSTAR” Gordon took an album track from SWV’s debut and remixed it for the Above the Rim soundtrack (from whence #2, above, also originates), adding an all-time killer bassline and a crazy-loud drum track. This is devastating, and if it’s not enough for you, might I suggest the “Old Skool Remix,” which features Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Method Man, and U-God from Wu-Tang Clan? Yeah, I thought so.
32 39 WHEN CAN I SEE YOU –•– Babyface – 5 (32) — ‘Face is a genius producer and writer, but I really wish that he was a little more, say, George Clinton and a little less James Taylor on his own records. That said, this acoustic soul is smart, and very well-made, just a little snoozy.
33 26 I’M READY –•– Tevin Campbell – 19 (9) — The fifth Babyface record in this countdown spent four weeks stuck at #2 on the R&B chart, stymied by the then-record-setting 12-week run of #40, below. But that doesn’t seem to have hurt it; this still sounds like a classic, and as opposed to my beloved “Always in My Heart” (#27), Campbell gives this one just the right touch.
34 37 THE PLACE WHERE YOU BELONG –•– Shai – 7 (34) — Fittingly forgotten, much like its source, the Beverly Hills Cop III soundtrack, this is entirely anonymous R&B.
35 36 100% PURE LOVE –•– Crystal Waters – 8 (35) — You know how you feel about this one, and there’s no in betweens. Give her this much: she was fighting the good fight to keep pop-house on the radio into the mid-’90s.
36 32 MISLED –•– Celine Dion – 12 (23) — When she’s “been dissed,” well, I get a thrill every time. Her voice is still a little on the thin side back in this day, and this song is silly as all hell, but I love it dearly. And how did I just find out that my beloved MK remixed it?!?
37 41 FALL DOWN –•– Toad The Wet Sprocket – 7 (37) — Not as far from R.E.M. and their ilk as I thought back in the day. But god, that stupid name helped keep me away.
38 40 I’LL TAKE YOU THERE –•– General Public – 15 (22) — Riding that year’s wave of a “reggae” revival (see also #18), ashamedly, GP made their comeback with a limp Staples Singers cover from the Threesome soundtrack. Gross all around.
39 34 GOT ME WAITING –•– Heavy D & The Boyz – 17 (20) — “Boring” isn’t something Heavy D was known for being, but that’s what this record is.
40 35 BUMP N’ GRIND –•– R. Kelly – 24 (1) — One of the greatest R&B records of the 1990s. And for better and worse, 12 Play may have been the most purely influential R&B album of the decade.