The Top 10 Best Hit Songs of 1990

First, a reminder that, as always when we jump into a new decade, a new best-of playlist is up and running for anyone who wants to listen along!

The 90s was really stuck between a rock and a hard place, eh? The decade was kicked off by the complete creative implosion of the late 80s pop charts, and in 1996, the Clinton administration’s landmark telecommunications act practically ripped the spine out of the American radio ecosystem, leaving vampiric conglomerates like Clear Channel to scavenge the corpse for carrion. That leaves the musicians of the decade in the unenviable position of having to both claw their way out of a practical artistic wasteland and weather the single most destructive piece of legislation regarding mass media in living memory. And you know what? With all that in mind, they really did a bang-up job! While the 70s is indisputably my favorite decade for pop music, the 90s is a very strong contender for my favorite decade of music overall. Indie rock, hardcore punk, boom bap, neo-psychedelia, trip hop, trance, sludge metal, drone, grindcore, holy MOLY there is so much to love about this decade as a music nerd… and though the scars of its circumstances are evident, the pop music of the day can often count itself among those ranks. From a pure numbers standpoint I liked the 80s more overall, but I’d call the 90s the more interesting decade by far, and I’ve found many of these best-list entrants to be much more near and dear to my heart than the everyone-loves-it fare I enjoyed throughout most of the 80s charts. 1990 finds the pop world very much still in the rut of the late 80s, but compared to ’89 you can already hear things starting to liven up a little. Sure, this was still not a great or even good year for pop, but between hip-hop starting to pick up more steam, R&B finding some footing outside easy-listening ballads, and rock poking at interesting styles new and old as hair metal and new wave cracked up around it, there were flickers of hope on the horizon, and after the grueling ordeal that was 1989, I’ll gladly take flickers. On with the show!

#10: Biz Markie- Just a Friend

Passing allusion, meet follow-through: starting in 1990, hip-hop was a force to be reckoned with in the pop sphere. After spending the 80s (most of the 70s, too) developing an intricate subculture and dialect of slang, sampling, insults, in-jokes and general one-upmanship, the genre was establishing viable consumer bases and commercially flourishing as young genres are wont to do, its cultural threads multiplying and entangling in the process. From a semiotics perspective, hip-hop as a whole is some PhD-level shit. It’s a wordy genre and an appropriately easy one to spill aimless ink over, dense with things that might need explaining to the uninitiated. You can easily fill five paragraphs picking apart a single rap verse. I don’t relish the thought of analyzing rap songs for PGTY in that way, not least because I spent years near-exclusively listening to rock before so much as a Wu-Tang verse crossed my mp3 player.

When I enjoy a rap hit, I usually enjoy it for simple, aesthetic reasons, and despite surface appearances, Biz Markie’s “Just A Friend” succeeds, I think, in the same ways a lot of my favorite popular rap does: the beat sounds nice and Biz is hugely entertaining on the mic. Note that’s “entertaining”, not “impressive”; Markie’s chunky, simplistic flows and boyish lisp make him sound like a drunk at karaoke, but he throws himself into his performance with a Chris Farley-esque slapstick abandon that lends the song, which isn’t sonically much to write home about, tons of personality and charisma. Like, the way he keeps calling the girl “blahblahblah” in increasingly erratic meter is such an inspired bit of musical comedy (even follows the rule of threes!) that it barely even scans as intentional, just making the Biz seem like that much more the hapless goober he unabashedly paints himself as elsewhere. “Just A Friend” set few trends and spawned few imitators, but as its genre solidified a reputation of toughness and all-around prowess, it’s only gotten more winning in its earnest clumsiness, the rare rap track about getting no play that finds a lane outside petulant entitlement.

#9: Soul II Soul- Back to Life (However Do You Want Me) (feat. Caron Wheeler)

Soul II Soul crafted one of the year’s best exhibits of negative sonic space with their first and only American top-tenner, “Back to Life”. Starting around this time, dance tracks and electronic-leaning dance tracks especially can be a bit tricky to meaningfully discuss, since by traditional pop standards a considerable chunk of ‘em are abject failures, revealing little across their runtimes and iterating endless minor variations of a small handful of lyrics and motifs. Don’t get all huffy just ‘cause they’re one-note and repetitive, though: the trick to a great dance hit is finding a one note that’s good enough to rock with for a full three minutes, and that’s exactly what this eclectic British collective does here, focusing in on the lively boom-bap drums and guest singer Caron Wheeler’s pliant croon and letting them marinate until they practically melt in your metaphorical mouth. By the time a jaunty piano vamp and terse violin exclamations enter the wonderfully spacious mix, Wheeler has so effectively made a case for the track’s initially-minimalist sensibility that they feel more like lucky bonuses than the final pieces of an incomplete puzzle.

#8: Johnny Gill- Rub You the Right Way

We’re rapidly running out of time to enjoy the New Jack Moment, so I felt a small degree of obligation to include a quality example of the style, and despite The Time’s best efforts (“Jerk Out” was in this spot until approximately two hours before this is stated to go live), Johnny Gill, of New Edition renown, stepped to it harder with “Rub You the Right Way”, a sex jam that bullishly refuses to skimp the slightest bit on the “jam” half of that descriptor. Mostly I’m just so damn thrilled to hear R&B with a bit of real fire in its belly again, enough so that I’m willing to forgive the track’s relative lack of dynamics— as many sex songs do, this one has a total one-track mind. But the forceful production gets the head a-bobbing quicksharp, Gill delivers a fantastically unctuous growl of a vocal performance, and the lyrics (seemingly from the perspective of a gigolo) plead and cajole in just the right way to soften the aggression of the rest of the track. It’s a shame that much of the verve and spunk of New Jack Swing would soon migrate back towards the hip-hop that allowed it to exist in the first place; “Rub You the Right Way” shows that rocking as hard as an actual rock song never stopped being a good look for R&B.

#7: Roxette- Dangerous

Where “The Look” costumed Roxette’s gleaming earworms in driving rock energy, “Dangerous” finds just as much joy in ditching any pretensions of an edge for a pure pop delight. I hear a ton of Abba here, even moreso than on their previous hits, between the gleaming keyboards and bubbly chorus. That kind of earnest, hyperfocused crowd-pleasery makes for a wonderful pairing with the track’s choogling (and, let’s be honest, dangerously passe) synth-rock; I may even go so far as to call it the last truly great pop song of the 80s. I will say that Marie Fredriksson is starting to rather handily outshine Per Gessle as a vocalist— Gessle’s Westerbergian rasp holds its own, no doubt, but each time Fredriksson enters the fray, there’s an unmistakable sense that the track is revving into a higher gear. Don’t fret, though, for both gears manage to delight and entertain in their own right, and Jarl Lorensson and Jonas Isacsson’s one-two harmonica and guitar solos make for a brilliant third-act stakes-raising and proves the duo willing to take things further once the song has established itself. Boy that was a lot of Swedish names! Great stuff though, a winning sendoff to a decade I wasn’t sure I had it in me to still fully appreciate.

#6: Mariah Carey- Vision of Love

The word “boring” has an understandably negative connotation when applied to art, but when I say Mariah Carey is a boring artist that’s not meant to be a value judgment. Mariah Carey is a better singer than your favorite singer. Mariah Carey does not make mistakes and she does not have jagged edges or wild tormented depths (at least on record; her real-life struggles with bipolar disorder are nowhere to be heard here). Sony Music CEO Tommy Mottola was so blown away by her 1988 demo that he not only signed but eventually married her. She did everything right. Straight A student, that Mariah Carey.

Perhaps that’s an unconvincing case for “Vision of Love”’s quality, so let’s cut to the chase: the big thing setting Carey’s good-boring vocal workouts head and shoulders above bad-boring yawn factories like Barbra Streisand is that Carey had a major hand in writing (and producing!) damn near all her hits. “Vision of Love” doesn’t settle for slapping a particularly good singer over some generic pop tune, it’s built from the ground up to put Carey’s best asset on full display. Her voice takes up a major chunk of the uber-polished mix, allowing the slick acoustic guitars and snapping walz-time beat to play support as she works her way up to her full power, establishing a simple-yet effective melody to later be embellished liberally with Carey’s trademark melismas. The verse-chorus structure obscures what’s basically one big build, from the hushed first verse to the first big belted note of the second verse to finally cracking the lid on that whistle register for the final chorus, all performed with not just assuredness but genuine enthusiasm; you can practically hear her smiling. “Vision of Love” is unimpeachable in a way that feels analogous to a Beethoven sonata or a Steve Vai guitar solo, brought to warm, vibrant life by Carey’s sheer infectious love for the craft she’s so totally mastered.

#5: Snap!- The Power

Something about cheesy early-90s techno is just unkillable, man. The whole decade is full of iconic dance hits, but right when EDM was first going mainstream, before any rules had been established, the genre was going truly berserk blending any and all influences together in search of the most out-there club anthems possible, and if you can mange to even momentarily set aside its ubiquity, Snap!’s “The Power” is easily one of the stranger specimens of its era; there’s kind of a lot going on in this track, and that everything-and-the-kitchen-sink eclecticism may actually be the key to its enduring popularity. For one, frontwoman Penny Ford’s brash delivery of “I GOT THE POWAH!!” is just an instant-classic hook, flat-out. If the song was nothing but that hook and a bunch of fart noises, it would have still hit the top 40 and deserved it, too. As it stands, the stuttering shards of industrial-rock guitar make an admirable attempt to match Ford’s energy, and while rapper Turbo B’s verses aren’t particularly eventful, they do offer the opportunity to savor the jangling, house-y beat underpinning the track. As with so much great techno, it’s not a song you need to think much about to enjoy— just open your mind, start shakin’ that booty, and I’ll bet dollars to donuts you’ll feel like you’ve got THE POWAH too.

#4: Digital Underground- The Humpty Dance

“The Humpty Dance”, on paper at least, had an uncommonly vast potential for insufferability. Though hip-hop’s abiding fondness for off-color humor dates nearly as far back as the genre itself, a whole track dedicated to nothing but nyucks, especially a radio single, could have easily have gotten real old real quick (sup, Lil Dicky). Luckily, Digital Underground were not some despicable gaggle of wannabe comedians, but a legitimate hip-hop group who, inspired by gonzo greats like George Clinton, decided their talent was no reason to take themselves overly seriously. And when I say talent, I mean real-ass Talent: the rhymes may be pure cornball comedy, but the beat on “The Humpty Dance” is as slick as they come, such a cunning fusion of choice vintage funk drumming and oily bass wobble that lifting it for a track of your own has itself become a time-honored tradition amongst beatmakers.

Great as it may be, though, it’s still ultimately a pretty simple little drum loop, a wonderful foundation for a track but hardly a finished product. Well, never fear, for Greg “Shock G” Jacobs (rapping under his Humpty Hump alter ego) is here, wearing a furry snow-white kufi and a big ol’ fake nose, and dropping verses that sound, in the best way possible, as though they’re coming completely off the dome. That might take away from a more heartfelt song, but all the loosy-goosy rhyme schemes and run-on sentences just make it that much more delightful when an off-the-wall one-liner like “I once got busy in a Burger King bathroom” or a charmingly dad-jokey space-filler like “my name’s Humpty / pronounced with a ‘umpty’” catches you unawares. Perhaps most importantly, the sheer amount of lyrical ground Shock G covers, and the easygoing zaniness with which he covers it, ensures that relistens don’t wear out their welcome- he even actually teaches us to do the Humpty dance, a must for any top-drawer dance song! It’s peak battle-rap silliness from top to bottom, introducing the broader pop world to some of rap’s most cherished idioms in the cuddliest form you could hope for.

#3: Faith No More- Epic

Hilariously, Anthony Keidis, who has yet to produce an original musical idea, accused Faith No More frontman Mike Patton of stealing his vocal style on this song, but Patton’s actually a lot less instrumental to “Epic”‘s success than that anecdote might imply. If he does anything really right here, it’s the way his rapping bounces so satisfyingly off of Billy Gould and Mike Bordin’s thuggish caveman bash, which is the true x-factor at play: perfectly-paced for pushing plates and requiring approximately as much intellectualization. The more recognizably “pop” elements— Roddy Bottum’s keys, Patton’s helium yowl on the hook, Jim Martin’s Queen-via-Sunset-Strip guitar heroics— serve primarily as sweetener for scenarios where heavy objects aren’t being lifted and/or punched. It’s an outsized, cartoony THWACK of proto-rap metal that flawlessly shows off the nascent genre’s pop potential, and captures a serendipitous moment where both rap and metal’s centers of gravity were just starting to shift darker and heavier… And it goes harder than any RHCP song, sorry-not-sorry.

#2: Tom Petty- Free Fallin’

Loving pop means a lot of forgiveness. It means forgiving songs for soundtracking umpteen and a half screamingly banal visits to the local Wal-Mart. It means forgiving the world for making the things you enjoy a little bit worse, even when sometimes all that gets you out of bed is the belief that the inverse can happen too. It means you forgive music for being uncool. And make no mistake, “Free Fallin’” is deeply, deeply uncool, even despite being by Tom Petty, a very cool artist. Too well-behaved to catch the ear of kids whose bones it is already inside of, never reviled enough to ride revisionist coattails to a new lease on life, it persists nonetheless, carving out its space in the background radiation of modern life to little protest. Its merits are as obvious-nigh-overbearing as they are uncontroversial: that cloudbusting chorus has the sweep to take even Jeff Lynne’s leaden snares skyward, and the snapshot lyrics welcome the tint of listener bias without being pure Rorschach inkblot. Put out of mind the millions who’ve felt, first and foremost, seen and understood by that first verse, and it arguably functions even better as an aching lamentation of the anodyne lives of suburban teens— the King of Kings himself reduced to a blandly pleasant lifestyle signifier! And it’s those simple things, a hook that enters and exits the stage graceful as a ballerina, a lyric that can catch the light differently and seem entirely new, that make all that forgiveness worth it. If “Free Fallin'” hits me wrong one day (and it has in the past), I’ll forgive it. And when I eventually do need it again, Petty will be waiting, with his sandy mop and crooked grin, to see if I find anything new this time around. I suspect I eventually will.

#1: Depeche Mode- Enjoy the Silence

Like The Cure and R.E.M. before them, Depeche Mode spent the 80s refining their sound and refining it again and then refining it some more before their talents were simply too wholly-developed for the world to ignore them; by 1990 they had, figuratively if not literally, put in their ten thousand hours. “Enjoy The Silence”, great as it is, is actually a TWKD for me— despite being my clear-cut favorite the first time I listened to Violator, both “Policy of Truth” and “Personal Jesus” quickly surpassed it, more rewardingly embodying Martin Gore’s gifts for, respectively, layered atmospheres and irresistible dance grooves (I mean seriously, how many songs have ripped that “Personal Jesus” groove). Hell, both had the moxie to crack the top 40,  but “Enjoy The Silence” took it all the way to the top 10, and though I have cooled on it a bit over the years I can’t say I don’t at all see why.

Fittingly, for a song so dismissive of words (touche), the only real quibbles to be had are with the lyrics- On my first listen post-starting PGTY, I was pretty dismayed to be reminded that this is, in fact, a “little girl” song (“Free Fallin’” came dangerously close to nabbing the top spot for that reason alone), and besides that, a couple lines do roll of the tongue less cleanly than they perhaps could have (pleasures REEmain/So does THUH pain). Otherwise, this song sees a group of seasoned pros doing damn near everything they do best: Dave Gahan is operating at the peak of his vocal powers, sensual and resonant and perfectly-suited to the music he sings over. The production is a marvel, an enchantingly Escheresque maze of rubbery bass, choral pads, neon synth blips, and the most icy-cool lead line of the year; When Alan Wilder’s snare finally ratchets the song into high gear for the first chorus, the mind boggles at how cannily the band has concealed its absence to that point. “Dangerous” may be the last great pop song of the 80s, but “Enjoy the Silence” manages to turn some of the most harshly dated sounds in all of pop music into something that’s genuinely a little timeless, and for that it is my favorite hit song of 1990.

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