Monday, September 3, 2018

the top ten best hit songs of 1993

So I'll freely admit of the Patreon-requested years for which I cover the year-end Hot 100, we haven't really encountered a 'bad' year for the charts, the sort of years that even with the benefit of hindsight and nostalgia cause us to wince in the face of the memories. The closest that I've covered in this territory throughout the five years I've been on YouTube have been 2016 and maybe either 2010 or 2014, and even then, both of the latter have strong enough redeeming moments to knock them into quality.

1993 is not one of those years - perhaps not the worst the Hot 100 has had to offer, but definitely the sort of transitional early 90s year where the best stuff wasn't charting, most of the good stuff was starting to get overexposed, music legends were falling apart in slow motion, and the rest was a wasteland of formless mush. Thank god R&B and new jack swing were mostly holding up and that g-funk was cutting a swathe across hip-hop, because rock had lapsed into parody, the pop-rap of the early 90s was trying and failing to keep up, and punk and country were nowhere to be seen, despite the advent of riot grrl and the neotraditional country revival in full swing. Even grunge, widely hailed as the breakthrough sound by music critics of the early 90s, had little to no traction in 1993 - and before hip-hop can raise a triumphant flag here, there was no way in hell that the best of that genre was getting to pop radio in the face of an avalanche of easy listening pablum left over from the 80s and artists who should really know better! No In Utero, no 36 Chambers or Ain't No Other or Buhloone Mindstate, but hey, you got Kenny G!

Now what that means is that the best of 1993... look, it's all over the place, especially as some of the chart oddities have aged better than what was big at the time, and while there are a few classic cuts from this era, in comparison to stronger years this particular top ten is substantially shakier - and as always, the songs have to have debuted on the year-end Hot 100 in 1993... which actually didn't result in any cuts from this list, and thank god for that, as it's pretty thin. But hey, let's start off with...

10. So as I said, despite what was happening off the charts, rock in 1993 on the Hot 100 was bad. If it wasn't tumbling towards trends that would make adult alternative such a frustrating genre it was falling into self-parody. Yes, grunge was a cultural force but it hadn't really gained a foothold yet and that meant desperate radio consumers were trying to convince themselves the Gin Blossoms were good! Okay, bad joke cribbed from Steven Hyden aside - and the Gin Blossoms were more average than bad - there were two exceptions that made this list, one that actually leaned into the trends of the time to spectacular results, while the other transcended it to be come an alternative staple. And here it is.

It's hard to talk about 4 Non Blondes with the benefit of hindsight - the band put out one record that got middling reviews before frontwoman Linda Perry went solo and became the reason you remember a fair few pop artists from the mid-2000s, especially P!nk and Christina Aguilera. But 'What's Going On' has endured and I freely admit some of my fondness for it likely comes from karaoke bar overexposure / Stockholm Syndrome. But even beyond that - and all the hacky, 'worst songs ever' lists that this wound up on, there's a certain adolescent appeal to a track like this - the jangly, college rock acoustics, the grunge sizzle, Linda Perry's throaty delivery, and the fact that the lyrics... alright, you could make the argument they almost read like a parody of 90s alternative 'message' songs, but I'm not going to deny that there's something kind of cathartic in its stoned out confusion and hope for something better, whatever that means. But again, this was the 90s, that sort of attitude flew far with a certain demographic, and when we consider the sorry state of rock... look, I'll take what I can get.

9. Look, you all know the hip-hop I like - if this wasn't going to make my list, there'd be a problem!

To see Digible Planets on the Hot 100 kind of blows my mind, because this is the sort of effortlessly textured, forward-thinking, and jazz-inflected hip-hop you'd hear nowadays from a label like Mello Music Group, not as a charting hit! And while Digible Planets didn't last long as a group out of the mid-90s, 'Rebirth Of Slick (Cool Like Dat)' is the sort of song that has just enough of a pop focus to sneak onto the charts as their biggest and only hit. The killer bassline, the echoing snap, the horn sample that screams New York alternative hip-hop and shows the DJ Premier influence even then, and the effortless cool that coasts through all three MCs' delivery that almost keeps you from noticing how many rhymes Butterfly is flubbing on the first verse. Thankfully Ladybug and Doodlebug bring back slightly sharper flows but never to the point of being showy or oversold... and thus despite a well-deserved Grammy win that year, Digible Planets would not survive much longer as gangsta rap overran the Hot 100, confining their brand of jazzy experimentation to the underground and critical acclaim and leaving their more ambitious followup Blowout Comb, full of live instrumentation and social commentary to flounder without label support. All of this leaves a cut like 'Rebirth Of Slick (Cool Like Dat)' to serve as an open question of what might have been, but as someone who loves this timbre of hip-hop, I'm incredibly grateful for it.

8. It's funny in a twisted way that we go from Digible Planets to the wave of hip-hop that would overrun them, from New York to L.A., from jazz rap to gangsta rap, and this up-and-coming legend's first ever crossover hit...

I'm not going to front: while nobody could question Biggie was the more complex lyricist, I've always preferred Tupac as an artist. The natural charisma and charm that drips through every line as he plays the guy taking your girlfriend but can't be tied down, the sort of material that'd normally drive me off the wall! But what Tupac and Digital Underground understood even then is framing - unlike so many of the modern 'take your girl' bars he's not playing this as a story of alpha dominance over the other guy but as the chill, self-deprecating casanova who can lean into the swagger driven off the scratchy samples and richly textured but wiry groove - hell, he even gives respects to the guys trying to hold onto their girls who are running after him! Also, he actually sounds like he's having fun playing off the faint touches of piano, which feeds nicely into Shock G's Snoop Dogg impression he's working on the hook - it's chill, not quite g-funk but playing into the same vibes that would come to infuse Tupac's later work. Again, the potential seemed endless, and in the influence... hell, it's undeniable.

7. There's a complicated conversation surrounding the legacy of Janet Jackson that I don't think has received the fair consideration it deserved, especially when you consider how hard she was pushing R&B in the late 80s and early 90s where her brother was starting to flounder. And while Rhythm Nation 1814 is probably still my favourite of her records, the self-titled follow-up landed in 1993 and produced a wealth of hits over the next few years. And while we'll be talking about one of her other big hits later on, this was one of two #1s and one that might ring as a bit more divisive, especially among critics. And yet...

Yeah, if you think this is the only sappy love ballad that's making this list, you'd be wrong - come on, it's me. And I get the criticisms - in comparison with the more experimental R&B that Janet was making at the time, this is a step towards the sort of treacly, sanitized, easy-listening that swallowed up peers like Whitney Houston. But there are three keys to 'Again' working as well as it does, the first coming in the production and melodic foundation in the pianos - once again working Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jack, they give the song the soft focus and maddeningly catchy central melody to support Janet's hushed but heartfelt delivery. The second comes in the lyrics: Janet doesn't want to fall back for this guy, as plenty of overheated memories linger and it's not until we get the final lines that we realize that she's going to bare it all on the line... and then possibly lose it all over. And the third key is Janet's delivery: yeah, it's emotive and vulnerable, but it feels real, and it never feels oversold, a moment where her characteristic tightness and restraint shows a real crack, which adds to its reality. So yeah, terrific ballad, absolutely deserves to be remembered better.

6. So the next two songs... look, I feel like with all of my top ten lists, there are the tracks with which I agree with critics, and then there are the songs that would likely get my critic card taken away, and this is the first big one. And to explain why it happened, you need to realize that in 1993, the show Beverley Hills, 90210 was a pop culture phenomenon. The show would go on to run ten seasons and help define the teen soap opera genre we know and love today, but in late 1992 they released a soundtrack... and it had multiple hits that made the year-end list in 1993. By all accounts the soundtrack has aged pretty badly and unless you're very familiar with early 90s pop, you won't want to revisit much here. But there was one exception, and... well...

Okay, you have to follow me on this one. The woman singing is Vanessa Williams, model and actress who had suffered a pretty nasty scandal in the 80s but was rebounding in the Paula Abdul wave in the early 90s. The guy is Brian McKnight, an exceptionally talented R&B singer and multi-instrumentalilst who was riding a wave of hype off a critically adored self-titled debut in 92. Vanessa Williams had contributed backing vocals to that album so they teamed up for this song, which turned into his first big hit (Williams had gone to #1 with 'Save The Best For Last' months earlier). And this is the sort of song that would be so easy to brand as soundtrack fodder and move on, and thus I was a little astounded how much I really liked it - Williams and McKnight have real chemistry, the foundational piano melody plays off the incredibly rich swell of arranged strings that transitions with a tone of elegance into a more textured acoustic groove, and it even has a guitar solo! Yeah, the lyrics are abstract to nearly the point of meaninglessness, but the song goes for broke selling those platitudes - especially with the shifts in the low end that put this song absolutely over the top in the final hook, and it makes whatever love is feel so much bigger! This is the definition of a power ballad, and so there's only one place to go if you're going to top it...

5. I think there's a larger conversation and critical re-examination of Whitney Houston's work that does need to happen at some point, especially given how much discourse has shifted to give pop and R&B more of a shot than they typically got in the late 80s and early 90s. That said, it's not an easy conversation, half because the production drama is surprisingly messy and half because for as talented as Whitney Houston was as a singer, she didn't always get the best material. And in 1992, she needed a boost - weird thing to say about one of the best selling artists of the era, but 1990's I'm Your Baby Tonight did not come close to hitting sales expectations... mostly because it sucked. So in 1992 she became the executive producer and curator of the soundtrack of The Bodyguard, which she also starred in opposite Kevin Costner... which would go on to become the fifth best selling album of all time, mostly linked to its lead-off cover of 'I Will Always Love You' from Dolly Parton. And even at the time, that song had eclipsed the soundtrack and even the film itself - it was the biggest hit song of 1993, it won a bunch of Grammys, and if it hadn't been a cover, it probably could have cleaned up at the Oscars. So let's talk about what was put forward instead.

So I'll be blunt and say it: I'm not the biggest fan of Whitney Houston's cover of 'I Will Always Love You' - I prefer Dolly Parton's original and decades and thousands of karaoke and American Idol covers later, the luster has faded a bit. No, the song I loved from The Bodyguard soundtrack was 'I Have Nothing'... which plays in a ton of the same territory as the big hit but has always felt like a more dynamic song. Whitney handles the balance between raw force and cooing sensuality more effectively against the gleaming keys and flashes of brassy synth and the choppy electric guitar I'm always a little surprised to hear within the mix. And there's something about the track that feels more desperate and urgent - the language is broader, the prechorus build is more impressive and I absolutely love how well it transitions into a very different melodic progression on the hook... and of course, the key change. Yes, they were gratuitous in the 90s mostly thanks to artists like Whitney Houston and her descendants, but there's a reason why the songs of that era hold so much punch nowadays - most modern pop doesn't even try to get that dynamic, and Whitney knocks it out of the park. So yeah, this is probably the other song for which critics would give me the side-eye... but hey, I still love it - it's worth that reexamination.

4. Okay, so one trend that became endemic on the Hot 100 in 1993 was the sudden charting return of a lot of stars from previous decades... and let's be honest, most of them didn't turn out all that well. Yes, I've got a soft spot for Billy Joel's 'River Of Dreams', but the big returns for Sting, Tears For Fears, Tina Turner, and a fair few more just didn't resonate with me - hell, even Michael Jackson and Prince were sounding left behind in 93, and the only reason Madonna wasn't was because she transitioned into making adult contemporary mush. Of course there were exceptions, both of which made this list and were both considered has-beens by industry insiders, while the management company handling both of them struggled to get their records to market. As it happened, when the music is good enough the consumer doesn't give a shit, and thus...

I have a complicated relationship with Duran Duran, mostly because the synthpop they popularized was not the stuff I gravitated towards going back to the 80s - I liked the weirder, more gothic stuff and whenever Duran Duran tried that it didn't hit great results - they were no Depeche Mode in that lane. Keep in mind Duran Duran had hit a serious slump in the late 80s, and their album Liberty before this had been savaged by critics as an incoherent disaster. But taking a hiatus allowed them to refine their self-titled record and its tremendous lead-off single 'Ordinary World'. And what I love about the song is how unlike it is to so many of Duran Duran's biggest hits - it's introspective, it's a little more serious, instead of the hyper-stylized veneer of their 80s coolness it's a bit more grounded with its prominent ascending acoustic melody, arranged swells, spacious vocal mixing, and perfectly placed solos. It was the sort of transitional pop rock cut that showed for a fleeting moment how Duran Duran could have lasted into the coming decade... which they promptly squandered. Go figure...

3. So I can imagine some of you are wondering why a certain g-funk record that dominated '92 and '93 hasn't been mentioned all that much yet. There's a reason for that and if you've been following me since 2015 you might know why, so here it goes: Dr. Dre's The Chronic, while widely considered as one of the most sonically important records in hip-hop, has not aged as well as you remember. Yes, I love g-funk production, I love those smooth grooves and Dre's authoritative bars - even if he didn't write them he sounded great on them. But what most people tend to forget about that era was N.W.A.'s public implosion and the beefs definitely spread on to the albums... almost to a distracting degree. And while 2015's Straight Outta Compton would tell you otherwise, Dre got involved just about as much on The Chronic, and a lot of it comes across as really pissy and really homophobic, which is the big reason 'Dre Day' is not on this list - same deal with Ice Cube's 'Check Yo Self', for the record. And yes, I get it was a different time, but the AIDS crisis was still happening, and it wasn't like most of the actual content on The Chronic was much better. That said, there's one big exception.

The lead-off single that put The Chronic on the map and introduced much of the world to an up-and-coming superstar by the name Snoop Doggy Dogg - yes, I know 'Deep Cover' was first but this was the smash, less than a year before Doggystyle would blow up in its own right, he shows up with Dre to deliver some of the most effortless cool ever put to wax with 'Nuthin' But A G Thang'. And in comparison to so much of the rest of The Chronic, it's aged amazingly well, all straightforward flexing that's endlessly quotable. And as much as I love Dre's phenomenal bass grooves, whirring accents and scratches, swampy funk guitar, and keening synths, this is Snoop Dogg's track, showing the effort and force of personality that made Snoop such a powerhouse before he settled into his groove as hip-hop's perpetually stoned uncle and made a career of not trying ever again. Almost a shame, really, because when Snoop Dogg tries he's got the raw charisma and impeccable command of groove and flow to put a song over the top - one big reason why I loved 'One Shot, One Kill' when he showed up to return the favour for Dre on Compton decades later! But look, you don't need anyone else to tell you this is a hip-hop classic, and I wouldn't disagree.

2. And here comes the song that's a surprise to precisely nobody who knows me and what I guess anybody familiar with the '93 Hot 100 would assume would be my top pick. And really, it was close - the other big rock song, the #1 hit that this artist had never received before, even in his heyday, a song that might have seemed like over-the-top camp and parody even before they got Michael Bay to direct the music video... and you all know what it is.

(not on YouTube for some strange reason, but here's the DailyMotion link I found:

I've said this before, but the original Bat Out Of Hell album is a 10/10 classic, and while the follow-up in 1993 is not quite there, it's damn close, a reunion of vision and execution between Meat Loaf and producer-songwriter Jim Steinman to take over-the-top teenage melodrama to its grandest height yet again. Sure, it's campy, it's borderline musical theater at point, but the operatic scope and utter commitment from everyone involved allowed them to sell it in ways that were shamelessly uncool but emotionally gripping all the same. And the lead-off single 'I'd Do Anything For Love (But I Won't Do That)' is a masterstoke - the roaring guitars meant to sound like a motorcycle, the stunning piano work, the huge solos, and Meat Loaf bringing his titanic presence to bear on a song that's all whirling angst and earnest passion. And what I've always found amusing is how so many people questioned what 'that' is, mostly because Steinman was canny enough to leave it ambiguous and deepen the song's memetic appeal, but the meaning is plain sight: as the uncredited Lorraine Crosby delivers her duet coda and asks the questions of what Meat Loaf can really deliver, she turns away to know that in the end, he'll be back screwing around, and the mature weariness in her delivery is a perfect contrast to Meat Loaf's protests that he won't... and there's a wistful part of you and her that so desperately wants to believe it. It's a rock opera in microcosm and one of my all-time favourites... but it's not my top pick... and before we get to that, some Honourable Mentions!

It's funny how often P.M. Dawn kind of falls out of R&B conversations in the early-to-mid 90s, mostly because they were so restrained and chill, almost music that slides into the background so effortlessly you forget about them. And while I'd argue their music that charted in 92 was a bit better, 'Looking Through Patient Eyes' is a beautiful little tune - great harmonies, phenomenal blissed out vibe, the muted rap verses, some stunning melodic touches in the background, and the sort of song that can be meditative but also have some pop crossover. Solid song.

I bet there are some of you who are surprised this isn't on the list proper from the polar opposite side of the spectrum. And yeah, while I do genuinely love The Proclaimers for their terrific melodies, defiantly Scottish delivery, and lyrics that often punched way harder than anyone would expect - a lot of people forget how political The Proclaimers often got - 'I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)' is more meme than song at this point, and even if it wasn't, it is a lesser cut from the band in my view. Still great, though.

I was debating whether to put this or Ace Of Base's 'All That She Wants' in this slot... but at the end of the day, even if I do think Janet's voice is mixed a little low against the more aggressive, driving grooves, 'If' is a far more dynamic and potent song, showing an artist continuing to push the boundaries of R&B into noisier, rougher territory with the heavily distorted guitar, what sounds like a cello sawing into the melody, slamming percussion, and convincing steps into industrial and even trip hop sounds. When you combine it with Janet's increased comfort with open sensuality, this is open proof that she was pushing the sound of R&B and dragging the mainstream kicking and screaming with her.

Look, there was an overabundance of vocal harmony-rich R&B groups to choose from 1993, and I'd be lying if I said that Silk was great even among that era - the production is not great, it's not especially dynamic in comparison with anything Boyz II Men put out that year, and the lyrics are borderline parody in how nakedly sexual they are - and believe me, the R&B trend of spoken word verses was something that kind of had to die coming out of the 90s. But I also can't deny that I really like this song - the hook is great, Keith Sweat's writing shows through for better or worse, and I like that the song leans into the dreamier keys against the deeper, bassy drum patterns. Yes, it's silly, but in a funny way, it still works.

So here's the other big R&B group number that landed a spot here, and arguably the more controversial one. This was Shai's biggest ever hit and while they notched a fair number of singles in '93 on the year-end, this is really the only one that sticks with me, pretty much entirely because of the vocal harmonies. And if I'm being brutally honest it's probably the only song I'd seek out from them - the group had better-than-average production and stunning vocal arrangements, but the songwriting never played to their strengths and even here, there are traces of the smarmy, self-satisfaction that really grated on later singles. Still, I'm a sucker for a stunning vocal harmony, and in 93, this was one of the best.

So I've seen Rae Sremmurd compared to Kriss Kross a number of times, so I wanted to use this opportunity to go back and see if some of that was valid, and my conclusion is as follows: holy shit, Rae Sremmurd wishes they were this good! Yes, the Super Cat sample is doing heavy work on the hook and the diss to Da Youngstas didn't quite hold up as well as when they took on Another Bad Creation, but the bass groove is terrific and while the song is trying to be a little more street to change with the times, it doesn't oversell what Kriss Kross is. Plus both Daddy Mac and Mac Daddy ride this beat really damn well - this song seems to be a fan favourite even after Da Bomb didn't really do as well as pop rap was pushed out, and I see why - solid track.

Look, if I didn't put Mariah here I'd be wind up lynched in an alley, but it's not like I disagree. Music Box was the first Mariah Carey I actually liked, and while both Daydream and Butterfly are better, 'Dreamlover' is a great sensuous cut that's not remotely deep but when you have Mariah Carey cooing with such happy exuberance, it doesn't need to be. Factor in production that hasn't aged at all and a genuinely good groove and... yeah, it's a good song, I'm not complaining.

1. Look, it was either going to be Meat Loaf at the top of the list or this song - it really was no question, the competition for this upper echelon was not there for me. Both songs to me are damn near classics for very different reasons, but ultimately this won out with the fact that 'I'd Do Anything For Love' is not the sort of song I could listen to at any time, anywhere. It absolutely crushes the right time and the right place, but then you have one song that works at any time or any place... well...

The guitar-driven groove vocal sample is impeccable and wonderfully textured, containing an edge but also the sort of relief that comes with a long exhale at the unexpected feeling of things going right when they so rarely do. A meandering song taking through Ice Cube's life where everything that could go wrong... doesn't, and there's a strange sense of bemused confidence that fills the song. He's living as a gangsta and there's definitely illegality going on, but for one day it's all going right, and while the cops and violence are always in view, it almost seems like the day is open and free. And what's astounding is how well the song has aged and feels so relevant today - sure, some of the references might feel dated but the feeling of going on a hot streak where he's killing it on the ball court, the dice are coming up in his favour, and he's always got a girl to see just before he gets a burger. And for once he doesn't have to think about himself or a friend or an enemy getting killed, and the sense of peace in the face of relative normality that I and so many white people take for granted... it makes you cherish what you have, and it makes you seriously question why Ice Cube's good days can't be the norm, even as the end of the song Ice Cube snaps awake to realize so much of this is just a dream, which fits the darker progression in the sample as ever-constant subtext that colours but doesn't overwhelm that sense of relief and peace. But hell, you all know this is a hip-hop classic and touchstone, and I have no problem calling 'It Was A Good Day' the best hit song of 1993 - peace.

1 comment:

  1. Hm, I only know 3 (whats up, id do anything for love and im gonna be) of these songs and I hate them all, thats a bad sign. Most of the time in videos like these, i agree with you for the most part. Oh well, maybe the I can agree with the others, ill try them out. Anyway, I appreciate your
    analysing way of explaining your opinion like always - peace