Best Songs of the 90s: Lonely at the Top

In the process of putting together our list of the best songs of the 90s, certain brave people made certain brave tastes known. These list-makers might not have known they were committing an act of bravery at the time, but no fewer than seven of our 22 participants submitted #1 votes – choices for the single best song of 1990-1999 – that no one else in the poll voted for at all. Some were from artists whose other works were recognized; others were from artists whose works were roundly ignored in any form. I so admire this kind of free-thinking that I asked these people to write a little about their particularly distinct choices. Below are the responses I received. (And for the record, six of my personal 40 received no other votes from anyone else.)

Jen Vega on “Vision of Love” by Mariah Carey:
Man, people loooove to hate on Mariah these days, partly because of her highly publicized mental health issues and erratic behavior in public appearances, partly because of her inconsistent attempts at acting, and partly because her physical appearance is often a caricature of her younger self. Oh, and the fact that although her voice isn’t what it once was, she still acts like a “diva.”

You might forget that in 1990, when “Vision of Love” was released, people didn’t even believe Mariah’s voice was real. Forget about the whistle register notes; no one had ever heard a pop vocalist with that kind of range, power, and sheer control. “Vision of Love” was unabashed bravado and served as a showcase for every feature of her voice as well as for the signature style she would become known for, that blend of radio-perfect pop combined with soulful R&B flavor. The song itself might’ve been a hit no matter who sang it, on the strength of its writing alone. The lyrics are great and its architecture is unassailable, with its slow groove building into a one-woman gospel-choir-worthy release, only to finish with an earthy moan that is prayer-like in its quiet ecstasy. (And who co-wrote it? Oh, only MARIAH HERSELF.)

But no one could sing it like Mariah, and no female pop vocalist since has had a debut single on the same level, though they kept trying all the way through the ’90s and into the present day. Every female pop star who’s come up after her exists in either aspiration or opposition to what Mariah stood for, and this is the song that set the bar. She gave us a vision, and then proved it was all that she turned out to be. If she no longer makes much sense to those with short memories, maybe it’s because she hasn’t got much left to prove.

Alex Templeton on “Cornflake Girl” by Tori Amos:
So you’re going to dismiss Tori as a weirdo faerie queen who seizures on the piano over her emotions? Being able to face and live with such feeling takes a fortitude and general badassness that some critics either can’t fathom or totally misunderstand. You might not quite get what the words rabbit, where’d you put the keys, girl? mean, but you’re going to make the emotions played into that astonishing piano line your own.

Bayard Templeton on “As Cool As I Am” by Dar Williams:
In “As Cool As I Am,” Dar Williams threads together lyrics that are simultaneously self-effacing and empowering. Like any good Williams song, she has several stories about the song that she shares at concerts, shows that can be as memorable for her humorous anecdotes as they are for her poignant songs. My favorite story related to “As Cool As I Am” is about a women’s rugby player who told Williams enthusiastically that her team listened to the song to get pumped for their games, with them all joining in to sing the chorus “I will not be afraid of winning.” When Williams corrected them, pointing out that the lyric, in fact, was “I will not be afraid of WOMEN,” the young woman retorted, “Well, we’re not afraid of them either.”

In the song itself, I have the most love for the moment in the final verse where she can just pause and let the audience sing a lyric with no accompaniment (“I am the others!”). At that moment, I close my eyes and enjoy the thrill of being in a crowd of strangers who are temporarily united by a common love. Though she has a strong following and has made a successful career for herself in the folk scene, I always feel like I have found a hidden treasure in Dar Williams. Sharing that with others creates a special bond that I don’t come close to feeling with any other performer. So much of her soul is present in all of her songs, none of which are more uplifting and fun than “As Cool As I Am.”

Ben Morrison on “Papa Was a Rodeo” by the Magnetic Fields:
The most accessible of the band’s 69 Love Songs, this song brings together the ’90s with alternative and alt-country. The entire album is a masterwork.

Nathaniel Wharton on “All About the Pentiums” by Weird Al Yankovic
I voted for this one as Best of the ’90s but I could also have just called it Most ’90s (and not because I sent the ’90s out in style singing it at the top of my lungs with Dan Hosey in Ryan Main’s car all year). It’s got Weird Al doing a parody of Puff Daddy (the 90s version of Diddy)’s “All About the Benjamins” (and, as always, he kills it) AND it is stuffed with references to things like Bill Gates and newsgroups, chronicling one of the biggest developments of the ’90s (the rise of personal computing and the internet).

Jeremy Bent on “Justified and Ancient” by the KLF:
I’ll be the first to admit it: I can’t fully explain why I enjoy “Justified & Ancient (Stand By The JAMs)” by the KLF feat. Tammy Wynette enough to rank it #1 of all music released in the nineties. But I assure you I am not being ironic, nor do I count this song as a “guilty pleasure.” I genuinely and wholeheartedly love this song, and I listen to it probably at least once a week at a minimum. And while I think its appeal defies description, there is something about it that is so indelibly nineties that I can touch on. Let’s learn a few important facts about this song.

1) It’s a song by a British house music duo who notoriously hated the music industry.

Also known by their stage names Rockman Rock and King Boy D, Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond were real pop music agitators. Their first hit, “Doctorin’ the Tardis,” is as cynical a cash grab that’s ever been made: it’s Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Pt. 2” cut with a house beat and the Doctor Who theme. It’s incredibly dumb, but it was a #1 hit on the strength of its dumbness (also possibly on the strength of the U.K. being kind of bonkers, charts-wise. – ed.). This, along with the highly worthwhile read The Manual: How To Have A Number One Hit The Easy Way (available online here), made their name as weirdo outsiders of the music industry. They fired guns full of blanks at the audience at a British awards show and had their entire back catalog deleted in 1992, meaning none of their work has been in print since the year after this song came out.

2) It features vocals by country superstar Tammy Wynette.

Why the KLF felt like they needed Tammy Wynette to sing this song is beyond me. Why Tammy agreed to do it is also information outside of my reach. But I will say, Tammy Wynette makes this song incredible. I’m sure she had no idea what they were going for, or why it had to be her, but once she got on board, she doesn’t hesitate to bring her considerable talent to both the song and video. Bless Tammy Wynette for hopping aboard this crazy train.

It’s also worth mentioning that Tammy, veritable royalty in the country music world, had experienced a decline in her music career. Her last album before this song was released, Heart Over Mind, flopped, only reaching #64 on the Country charts. But after the left-field move of singing on an international club dance hit, Tammy’s next album with Dolly Parton & Loretta Lynn, Honky Tonk Angels, reached #6, and a respectable #42 on the Top 100. It’s hard to say whether appearing on this track necessarily caused the increase, but it certainly couldn’t have hurt her profile.

3) It has a breakdown by a British rapper with the stage name Ricardo DaForce.

Ricardo DaForce has a flow similar to a lot of middling late ’80s/early ’90s rappers: not bad, but not interesting in the way that ’90s gangsta rap or other, more lyrical styles would soon catch listeners’ ears. But it’s there, and it says to the audiences of 1991 that rap is here to stay, and it’s going to be part of popular music whether you like it or not.

Furthermore, the KLF was part of the movement that integrated club music with pop music. People forget these worlds used to be separate, but their true union occurred during the ’90s, with the influx of techno and rave sounds into the Top 40. Ace of Base, the Real McCoy, and more – foreign club music became a Top 40 staple in the early-to-mid-90s, and here was the KLF in 1992, doing it first. No big deal.

4) It has an insanely elaborate music video with at least twenty costumed extras.

If there’s a signature element to 90s music videos (other than a Hype Williams fish-eye lens shot), it’s that budgets for music videos exploded and they got really, really big. “Justified & Ancient” is no exception. It’s a gigantic throne/temple in the middle of the ocean (?) with a tribe of multicultural dancers and singers, every single one of whom is committed to standing by the JAMs.

So, what do we have here? A number one dance music hit in eighteen countries (which also charted at #11 in the US) by a pair of volatile British artists, featuring a hip-hop break and a country superstar taking part in a wildly creative music video. Doesn’t this description sound like the perfect fusion of nineties popular music? It’s a glorious fusion of a ton of elements that should not work together, but somehow, they do. God bless the stupid, stupid ’90s.