The Top 10 Worst Hit Songs of 1991

Mea culpa, the framing I often employ in these intros of “the bad trends” versus “the good trends” is highly reductive and, worse yet, not nearly the kind of broadly-graspable categorization that would actually warrant such casual bandying about. It’s a bad habit left over from the early days of PGTY, where it dovetailed nicely with the revivifying force of the british invasion and the birth of rock and soul exploding against a backdrop of staid vocal jazz and toothless diner fluff. The same dynamic tempts me here, at the dawn of the 90s: A lot of the really bad music of 1990-1993 felt like 80s shit that just would. Not. Go. AWAY. Even so, the new stuff was often a mixed bag too— This was, after all, to be a decade defined by more and more perspectives joining the chorus of pop to confront a world of increasing complexity, and by the industry itself reaching its objective peak of power and avarice, something artists both on and off the charts would react both with and against until the whole thing collapsed with the dawn of the internet. Anyway, weird year, lots to talk about, let’s get right down to it— On with the show! 

#10: Madonna- Justify My Love

In the 90s, the world was not enough for Madonna. She wanted to be all things to all people, the First and Only Main Pop Girl to rule them all and a box-office dynamo to boot. Results were… mixed. “Justify My Love” is the sound of an auteur totally high on her own supply, money-sodden laziness masquerading as hubristic overreach. The childishly simple looped beat struggles so badly under the burden of Madonna’s stilted attempts at audio erotica that it can only be read as a “Lift Yourself”-style shitpost. You know, after marinating on it for a while, I think my big problem with sex noises in pop is that, kind of by design, they always feel held back from being as weird or singular or just flat embarrassing in a way that sparks some actual imagined sexual chemistry- generic moaning and groaning and ooh yes right there’s just have so little personality to them that they fail to convey an appropriate intimacy or expressiveness as it clearly wants to, and the appeal nearly always comes off desperate and cheap. Or, worse yet, as on “Justify My Love”, the affect is suffocatingly tasteful and heatless, such a concentrated and over-serious effort to make porn Real Art that even Madonna’s wooden performance (say it with me now; acting was never in her wheelhouse) fails to lend it much personability. Points for getting in early on trip-hop, but the low-effort construction leaves this song feeling inert, vain and little else.

#9: Color Me Badd- I Wanna Sex You Up

If “I Wanna Sex You Up” was nothing but that backing-vocal hook, I might actually kinda like it. You’ll never convince me its success is attributable to literally anything else— it’s the part I have stuck in my head right now as I type this. Color Me Badd were four kids from Oklahoma who wanted to channel their love for old-school vocal groups like the Temptations into a fat slice of the increasingly-lucrative NKOTB/Boyz II Men pie, but none of them were especially impressive belters (least of all lead “guy who Andy Samberg probably partially stole his ‘Dick in a Box’ getup from” Bryan Abrams) and their good looks and harmonizing ability were only enough to get them an album cycle’s worth of hits before the charts moved on to brighter stars. This song’s title, I suppose, does something or another to indicate the more explicit direction r&b (and to a lesser extent pop as a whole) would move in over the course of the 90s, but the actual lyricism at hand is ridiculous and hamfisted enough that I’d feel awfully foolish trying to pin it to such a broad overarching trend. Stop trying to make “sex you up” happen, it’s never going to happen. And more pressingly, how in the hell is “do it ‘till we both wake up” supposed to work, hmm?

#8: Damn Yankees- High Enough

Even post-poptimism, stadium rock (AKA glam metal AKA hair metal AKA whatever you want to call that whole region of strident-and-macho-and-major-key guitar pop) has a contentious place in rock culture. The mass appeal? Undeniable. The craftsmanship? Unambitious, perhaps, but still sound, and on occasion even invigorating. But what did it all mean? Where was the heart? Us rock fans can’t let the 80s go because yes-we’re-doing-this it was in a very measurable sense the last time that the guitar was truly part and parcel of the pop world, and yet the things that have become aesthetic signifiers of that relevance are more often than not stained by their originators spending the genre’s twilight years sinking to truly indefensible depths of empty corniness. “High Enough” completely wastes Ted Nugent’s formidable reserves of he-man idiot rock on a wimpy gutless sugar rush of a ballad, the original vapid supergroup circle-jerk with nothing at all to say except “look at us, aren’t we loud and guitar-driven”. It’s a love song because the band loves themselves; the chorus directly questions the utility of the object of our narrator’s affections. Just complete, absolute whack shit sonically and spiritually, An even more pure embodiment than “Forever” of the screaming need for a new generation of rock.

#7: UB40- Here I Am (Come and Take Me)

More so than usual, I’m willing to call it a “me problem”: I just cannot fuckin’ stand UB40, man. I hate their fakey plastic production sound, I hate their sluggish reggae grooves, and I especially hate every word Ali Campbell squeezes out the back of his nose. “Here I Am” is probably one of their lesser offenders, where the things that annoy me about this band in specific start to blur a little into the things I often struggle with across most reggae. I think the use of a clicky 80s drum machine is a face-level awful creative choice in a genre centered around looseness and relaxation, sure, but I also just don’t like the drum pattern all that much to begin with, and while the guitar and horns generally do sound better, the song never really hooks me in with any kind of striking crossover move or, damn, any moves at all really, just puttering along for its entire runtime with sleeves bereft of tricks. Outside the confines of their genre, I cannot figure out for the life of me what this band’s angle was supposed to be, what they brought to the table besides some store-brand, radio-friendly version of reggae. It’s no slight against the band’s bonafides (they made their name, by all accounts, honestly and over the course of many years), nor, God forbid, the intrinsic fact of a white man singing the music of Jamaica (though, y’know, the optics there could maybe be better). At the end of the day, UB40 is the weakest pitch I’ve yet heard for a style of music I’ve long struggles to see the magic in, playing the part of the flattened pop doofuses, however unwittingly.

#6: Another Bad Creation- Iesha

It always feels mean to beat up on kids, so I’m gonna go quick and simple on this one. Another Bad Creation was pitched as the Jackson Five of New Jack Swing; I normally like to let these kinds of things go without saying but a lot of very powerful people were really betting big on that genre, and the result was a whole lot of low-talent wannabes who got a foot in the door by vaguely approximating some fondly-remembered act. That’s A.B.C. (see what they did there?), and “Iesha” proves that even a genre as retrospectively carefree and fun as new jack still has too much of an edge to make the group’s kiddyish bleating anything but a completely unwelcome intrusion on a beat that’s at least competent, even if it is a little shrill and overbearing at points. The tykes actually put on a darn charming performance in the music video, throwing in lots of actorly little bits of business, but in the recording booth they’re every bit the amateurs their age implies, barely even on-key and consistently sounding like it’s take 4 and they’re starting to get a little cranky. At best, it’s just cloying and clumsy; at worst, it’s an outright waste of time and talent better served elsewhere.

#5: Timmy T- One More Try

I’m starting to weary of looking up paste-bland pop mannequins and reading that they’re “Latin freestyle” which, if Timmy T and Lisa Lisa are any indication, means nothing more than “pop music performed by a person of Latin descent between 1987 and 1993”. Apart from its performer (the “T” is short for Torres!), there isn’t so much as one hispanic-sounding note on “One More Try”, a turgid little ballad that marries Lionel Richie’s oops-all-vaguery lyricism, Air Supply’s whiny overblown songwriting, and Dan Hill’s charmless, over-pronounced delivery. For a song so slavishly devoted to building and releasing the way a song like this is supposed to, it’s gallingly forgettable, feeling more like an exercise in pop mechanistics than anything else. That last line of the chorus— my god, you can palpably feel the “and here’s where the melody resolves”, the vocal line slinking back to the tonic as artless and obedient as can be. Mr. Torres happily quit showbiz to be a family man after his second album fizzled, and I kind of hear that lack of ambition on “One More Try”, that contentment with not being a big deal to everyone. Rather than everymannish, he just ends up sounding generic.

#4: Bryan Adams- (Everything I Do) I Do It For You

“I Do It for You” features what I consider to be the all-time worst “extended” “album” version of a hit song, the most blatant padding I’ve had to sit through for this series yet. I was reluctant to properly count it against Bryan Adams for consistency’s sake, but the video version being the longer one seals the deal: dear reader, when I tell you there was real, unvarnished rage in my soul when, at the 4:06 mark, this song reached a natural conclusion before simply starting up again and doing yet another round of that shitty boring chorus… Look: Bryan Adams has only ever wanted to be a rock star. He wants the fireworks and the guitar solos and the big singalongs, but he’s a lazy songwriter and a fundamentally uninteresting person, so when he tries to do an epic seven-minutes-in-heaven power ballad, all he can bother with is a regular four-minute power ballad with an end credits section. And those lyrics, eugh. Trite doesn’t even begin to cover it. “I Do It For You” is a sex doll made of shortcuts, a bowdlerized impression of passion, and the perma-pubescents naive enough to feel it in their heart of hearts deserve a whole lot more.

#3: Gerardo- Rico Suave

“Rico Suave” has gotten so much gas out of the simple fact that no one in their right mind would try to write it a second time that it was, of the 10 songs on this list, easily the most familiar to me prior to listening through the ‘91 year-end hot 100. It’s like a cartoon song about a stereotype! You hear it in some movie or something and it’s shorthand for Spicy Latin Lover! It really is jarring to watch the video for “Rico Suave” by Gerardo like it’s real music that I’m supposed to feel things about, and even more jarring to realize that, good grief, this song absolutely sucks! The beat is annoying and thin, Gerardo’s rapping is borderline incompetent, and even the admittedly-very-memorable hook feels tossed-off and underthought, like it’s a first draft they were planning on adding other things to later. If it weren’t so consistently sexist, it might at least be workable as a mindless lark, but this greasy little rat can hardly go a line without clarifying that he’s a total playboy, loves ‘em and leaves ‘em, can’t be tied down holy cow dude we GET it. Insisting on your casanova reputation so intently is just a weird, unattractive look no matter how you slice it, and by all indications, Rico Suave (both the man and the song) is far from the sharpest tool in the shed. 

#2: Vanilla Ice- Play That Funky Music

I adore the music video for “Play That Funky Music”. Vanilla Ice turns in one of the greatest physical comedy performances of the decade in that there clip, reaching such hysterical heights of ragdoll absurdity that I’m genuinely shocked that sped-up gifs of his omg lol it’s so good dancing haven’t yet become some flavor-of-the-month Reddit meme. The song itself, sadly, is very bad, worse even than “Ice Ice Baby”, which at least eked out a few dribbles of atmosphere from those “Under Pressure” piano plinks. The Wild Cherry hit of the same name can only highlight Ice’s worst attributes: His unpleasantly nasal voice, his lilly-whiteness and his dire lack of any describably funky attributes. The litany of flubbed rhymes and confusing, unfunny punchlines would be bad enough on its own, but when he starts chanting “go white boy, go white boy, go!” towards the end? Just utterly humiliating on every possible level, made even worse when he attempts to sing along with the sample, such a modest try at sonic cohesion that the tuneless faceplant he ends up with inspires more sympathy in me than anything else. After ‘91, the overexposure just got to be too much and a combination of unfavorable business deals and general exhaustion with his persona drove Ice to a decade in the showbiz wilderness. I won’t say it was for the best— the man overdosed on heroin, after all— but I think life did eventually lead him to a place in culture that everyone can make their peace with; superstardom just wasn’t it for this guy.

#1: Bette Midler- From A Distance

I’m not even gonna talk about Bette Midler here- she sounds fine, whatever. The blame for “From A Distance” lies squarely at the feet of Julie Gold, who probably without even intending to stumbled ass-backwards into writing the most infuriatingly passionless and dismissive attempt at emotional uplift I have ever experienced in my life. See, If you look at Earth from far away it looks more tranquil than it really is, sort of like how problems in your life can get you down but looking at the big picture you’re still grateful for what you have and SHUT UP. SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UPPPPPPPPPPPPPPP UGH

Songs are a light in the fucking dark, okay? The right words and the right melody can put hope in a hopeless soul with the simple act of letting their pain be reflected and understood. There are no words in the English language more reassuring than “I understand how you feel”. “From A Distance” is a condescending lecture about how things aren’t really that bad and everything will be fine that doesn’t empathize on any level whatsoever with the emotional impact of shit like, uh, war and famine I guess! “From a distance” hasn’t meant shit since we dropped the atom bomb, Julie Gold. If God can see an eagle taking flight he had better well see the goddamn Amazon getting mowed down. Everything is not fine and anyone who says otherwise is an idiot or a salesperson. “From A Distance” sounds like every smug Francis Fukuyama Bill Clinton dipshit who spent the last decade of the 20th century abstracting raw human misery into lesser-evil thought experiments. It sounds like the algorithm revving to life, already eager to placate. It is the worst hit song of 1991.

And now, 10 great songs from this year you should listen to instead:

  1. Crowded House- All I Ask
  2. Talk Talk- New Grass
  3. Uncle Tupelo- Gun
  4. Soundgarden- Rusty Cage
  5. Fugazi- Nice New Outfit
  6. Ween- Sorry Charlie
  7. Digital Underground- Same Song
  8. Mercury Rev- Car Wash Hair
  9. The Jesus Lizard- Nub
  10. Dwarves- Three Seconds

4 thoughts on “The Top 10 Worst Hit Songs of 1991

  1. Good list. I agree with all your picks except for I Wanna Sex You Up, which I thought was fine. I might as well go through all the picks, seeing as I have the time.

    Justify My Love sounds less like an actual song and more like the worst porn background music ever.

    I have a soft spot for glam rock but even I’ll admit High Enough is just garbage. Complete generic fluff with no kick.

    Every UB40 song is awful but I think their cover of The Way You Do the Things You Do is worse than their cover of Here I Am.

    Iesha sounds like a Kidz Bop version of Poison. You could tell me it single-handedly killed new jack swing and I’d believe you.

    One More Try is a good representation of the worst of the early 90s. Ugly sounding, horribly dated, and way too much reverb.

    Everything I Do is peak Bryan Adams in that it’s a ridiculously overblown power ballad that sounds miserable and is extremely tedious to get through.

    I can’t believe Rico Suave is a real song. The lines are embarrassingly bad, and it’s aged horribly.

    I can’t decide if Play That Funky Music or From a Distance is worse. They’d both be tied for worst of 1991 for me. Play That Funky Music isn’t even ironically enjoyable. The lines are bad in such a pathetic way and the beat is so barebones it hurts. It has one of the worst and most lazy samples of the entire 90s, which is really saying something. From a Distance sounds like average christian contemporary schlock, and the message, beyond being condescending and awful, implies God is too stupid or ignorant to recognize the world’s problem, a kind of bizarre thing to say for a Christian song like this.

    I don’t really like defining any random year for billboard as “good” or “bad”, especially since year-end charts can miss a lot of well known or popular stuff, but with that being said the early 90s feel particularly awful to go back to. You pretty much said it best, the bad stuff this year feels like late 80s trends that just wouldn’t leave. Like rotten, moldy cheese that’s been left to fester. It’s unpleasant to listen to.

    On the topic of year-ends missing stuff, I’m curious if, when you get to the mid 90s you’ll start including AirPlay only hits as contenders. It’s weird to think that so many big 90s songs never charted at all due to dumb billboard rules, oh well.

    Great post. Looking forward to reading more from you.


    1. Firstly, thanks for reading, and I appreciate the takes! Glad to hear I’m nine-for-one with ya.

      >On the topic of year-ends missing stuff, I’m curious if, when you get to the mid 90s you’ll start including AirPlay only hits as contenders. It’s weird to think that so many big 90s songs never charted at all due to dumb billboard rules

      Unfortunately it’s a “no” on that one, for simplicity’s sake the only chart that PGTY assesses is the Billboard Hot 100, and my pool of non-year-end contenders is drawn from the songs that peaked in the top 40 of said chart during the year in question, i.e. the songs that theoretically would or could have made the year-end hot 100 had [x other big hit song] never been released. I agree though, 100 songs is a sliver of a fraction of the music or even just the pop music produced in any year (hence my non-hit honorable mentions), and once I’ve chewed through my backlog of year-end hot 100s I would NO PROMISES NO PROMISES love to do a series on the alternative airplay charts (only four years old in ’91!) or maybe even the country airplay charts NO PROMISES NO PROMISES


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