Ranking Mariah Carey’s Hits: #10-1

Mariah's fantasy involves roller coasters.

Mariah’s fantasy involves roller coasters.

Welcome to the finale of Ranking Mariah Carey’s Top Ten Hits, which I’m hosting this week because she’s an Idol judge and singing the theme song for Oz The Great and Powerful. If you missed it, you can see the first part of the countdown here and wonder aloud why “Heartbreaker” isn’t higher on the list.

Previously: I ranked Beyonce’s hits! And Pink’s! And Katy Perry’s!

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The Great (continued)

(10) “Love Takes Time”
Hot 100 Peak: #1

(9) “I Don’t Wanna Cry”
Hot 1oo Peak: #1

(8) “Without You”
Hot 100 Peak: #3

I realize I lumped several of Mariah’s mid-career ballads together and said they were boring, forgettable, and essentially indistinguishable. I also realize you could make the same argument about “Without You,” “Love Takes Time,” and “I Don’t Wanna Cry.” All three of these songs are boilerplate adult contemporary slow jams, and just like “Endless Love” and “I Still Believe,” “Without You” is a by-the-book cover of an earlier hit.

So why am putting them in the top ten? And why I am probably going to listen to them several times this week?

For one thing, I happen to prefer the polished production, swooping choruses, and hooky melodies of adult contemporary ballads to the tuneless, sparsely orchestrated, vocally meandering style of urban R&B songs like “My All” and “Thank God I Found You.” I’ve just never connected to that type of music, which to me all sounds like one long, slow handclap with a few vocal riffs thrown in. Where’s the passion? Where’s the heartbeat? WHERE?!?! This is why I’ve never liked “Any Time, Any Place” by Janet Jackson or about half of Mary J. Blige’s slow songs.

In other words, I just prefer pop-fabulous Mariah to urban-temptress Mariah. (And that makes me a lot like Perez Hilton, apparently, who speaks a lot of truth in this interview with Nick Cannon.)

But here’s the other thing: When these songs were released, I was in 6-8 grades. And when you’re 12 or 14, popular music just means something different to you. Instead of saying, “I am this type of person, and therefore I enjoy Tori Amos and Mariah Carey,” you say, “I am this type of person because I enjoy Tori Amos and Mariah Carey.” Or at least, that’s how I used to feel. Back then, I understand myself as being interesting because I liked Little Earthquakes, but I also understood myself as having big, passionate feelings because I loved the sweeping pop bravura of Mariah’s power ballads.

So for better of for worse, these Mariah songs feel like part of my past. In eighth grade, I made a mix tape called More Mariah Than You Can Shake a Stick It, and it was 90 minutes of “Without You” and “Love Takes Time” and “Someday.” And then someone on the school bus stole my Walkman while that tape was in it. And all I had left was the case, with song titles scribbled in Bic pen. It was sad, and when something like that happens, your heart doesn’t let you forget.

And finally, on top of all that, these songs are amazing. “Love Takes Time” (which was the final song at my seventh grade spring dance) is pretty and beautifully sung. “I Don’t Wanna Cry” has really great lyrics that clearly evoke the distance between a collapsing couple. And let’s not front about the vocal in “Without You,” which is absolutely flawless. That’s the kind of singing that made Mariah famous. She may not record a lot of genre-busting, world-changing songs, but sometimes, she perfects the status quo.

(7) “Dreamlover”
Hot 100 Peak: #1

Just like in “Obsessed,” “Dreamlover” uses Mariah’s whistle notes to create a backing track, only this time, the result delivers buoyant joy. The beat bubbles effortlessly along, inviting us to sass it down the street or bop back and forth while we’re reading a People magazine at the dentist’s office. And the more you listen, the more the chorus burrows into your brain. No wonder if was number one for eight weeks. (By the way, there’s also this sickening remix.)

(6) “Honey” 
Hot 100 Peak: #1

Ah, the beginning of the ho phase! When Mariah comes up out of that swimming pool, she’s like, “Tommy Mottola who? I’m a secret agent, and my mission is to freak you.” Way back in 1997, when all this was happening, I’ll admit that I didn’t get it. I wanted the old Mariah back, so I didn’t hear the genius of Ho Mariah’s debut. But now? Oh lord yes… I get it now. “Honey” has a nasty beat, and Carey’s vocal is more than just breathy and slinky. She balances that technique with growls from her lower range and powerful notes from her chest voice. Sometimes she only shifts for a word or two, but the effect is so controlled and precise that it’s like she’s teaching a grad school course on funking it up. Oh, and I’m still living for that little piano riff that keeps coming back. And the Bad Boy remix doesn’t hurt either.

The Flawless

(5) “Vision of Love”
Hot 100 Peak: #1

Two and half decades later, Mariah’s first single is still one of her most distinctive. It reaches back to the best torch ballads of the 60s and uses every bit of Carey’s range to prove she can inject that genre with energy. Plus, the concept of the song—that you’re finally getting the love you’ve dreamed about—is perfect for diva hand gestures of gratitude, which what this song clearly requires.

(4) “Fantasy”
Hot 100 Peak: #1

Call me a sinner or a fool, but I prefer the original version of “Fantasy” to the remix with Ol’ Dirty Bastard (R.I.P.) I mean, yes, that remix is hot, and it did remind us that “Mariah” can be rhymed with “pacifiers,” but I love the straight-up pop bounce of the version we heard first. That sample of “Genius of Love” by the Tom Tom Club remains a brilliant idea, and I will never get tired of the line “images of rapture creep into me slowly.” Because… what? Oh, stop worrying about it and just dance until the rapture creeps into you!

(3) “Always Be My Baby”
Hot 100 Peak: #1

Remember when David Cook sang this on American Idol and proved it could be a kick-ass rock anthem? That’s because this song is very well written, y’all. And sure, it joins “Every Breath You Take” and Sarah McLachlan’s “Possession” in the Stalker Anthem Hall of Fame—I’ll always be a part of you? I’ll never shake you? Really, girl?—but what’s a little romantic obsession when you’ve got such an addictive track with so much booty-shaking bass? Seriously, that deep bass sound creates an exciting counterpoint to the sunny-sunny vocals, making this a song you can groove to and smile to at the same time. Not many hits can pull that off.

(2) “We Belong Together”
Hot 100 Peak: #1

“It’s Like That” peaked in the top 20 in 2005, but “We Belong Together” was the song that really pulled Mariah out of her post-Glitter decline. And it damn well should have. For one thing, the lyrics are Mariah’s best, hands down. All those rushed, internal rhymes, spilling out of her like she’s gonna cry at any second so she’s better say this now. Plus, that hilarious reference to listening to the radio and realizing it’s getting “too deep” when Bobby Womack starts singing. I’ve always heard that as a tongue-in-cheek joke. Mariah know that heartache makes you so ridiculous that you feel like the radio itself has turned against you. Toss in the staccato satisfaction of the backing track and the last-minute explosion of power vocals, and you get one of the best records of the 200s.

(1) “Emotions”
Hot 100 Peak: #1

I’m surprised, too! When I started this countdown, I never thought “Emotions” would be number one. But the more i listen to the song, which Carey co-wrote with Cliviles and Cole, the more I think she has never made anything as effortless, joyful, and exciting. That 70s-meets-90s groove, which totally references “Best of My Love” by The Emotions, is just a delight, and the gospel-shout backing vocals add substance to the fun. And Mariah’s vocal is best of all. She’s really in her prime here, jumping to the top notes then sinking to her rich bottom range like it ain’t not thang. It’s like listening to Whitney Houston’s vocal on “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” or Aretha Franklin’s on “Think:” You can just sit back and let a master carry you away.

Mark Blankenship is feeling emotions. Higher than the heavens above. He tweets as @IAmBlankenship.

 



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