- Dr. Dre – Fuck Wit Dre Day (And Everybody’s Celebrating)/Nuthin’ But a G Thang
In 1991, Dr. Dre split with NWA, and he left no doubts about who had caused the rift. His solo debut, The Chronic might as well have been called “Fuck Wit Eazy-E Day,” (or as he’s called in the groaner of a video, “Sleazy-E”) and rest assured everybody was celebrating. As a solo record, The Chronic featured Dr. Dre as both DJ and MC, but he took the latter title more in the old-fashioned sense as a master of ceremonies, providing a framework for a variety of other talents. On these cuts, that talent was Snoop Dogg, who would ride his success trading rhymes with Dre here to his own solo debut in ’93. If he manages to upstage Dre on vocals, the former Andre Young still earns his top billing for his instrumentals. The beats matter more than the rhymes here (which is probably for the best when the rhymes include such gems as “if I slip then I’m slippin’”) and Dr. Dre provides some all-time greats from his turntable. “Dre Day” underlines the track’s venom with a buzzing, booming beat sampled from Funkadelic’s “(Not Just) Knee Deep,” while “Nuthin’ But a G Thang” adapts to the more laid back material with the hookah haze of Leon Haywood’s “I Want’a Do Something Freaky to You.” While the new wave of gangsta rap that Dre’s old crew had begun relied on angry, minimalist noise, his “G-Funk” style provided a lusher and more individualized alternative.
- Prince – 7
And speaking of creative instrumentation, even Dr. Dre could learn a thing or two from Prince. Combining postproduction effects that turn Prince into his own backup choir, jingling bells, haunted-house laughter, and booming bass, “7” sounds like nothing else on the chart, which is a good thing since everything else on the chart sounds more or less like, well, everything else on the chart. The lyrics are equally psychedelic, framing its message of hope and defiance against the background of the apocalypse. They frequently go beyond psychedelia into outright synesthesia, measuring time in “twelve souls from now” and describing a “voice of many colors.” Even without all these adornments, much of the song’s power comes from the simplicity and universality of that message. It doesn’t deny the presence and power of those forces that “stand in the way of love,” but still offers joyful affirmation that the endurance of ordinary people will be enough to overcome it, that “one day, all seven will die.” It evokes the language of the Civil RIghts movement, like the refrain “we shall overcome someday” or Dr. King’s “arc of the moral universe” that is “long, but bends toward justice.”
- The Proclaimers – I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)
But for simplicity, universality and sheer unbridled joy, even Prince can’t compete with the Proclaimers. Another odd outlier, two unphotogenic dorks singing in a style that had been current for hundreds of years, strip away the artifice of pop music to an extent that even the current grunge movement would have been jealous of. That unselfconscious dorkiness is the key to the song’s appeal; no one who cared about looking cool could have been willing to scream out “da da da!” with the baldfaced joy the Reid brothers send screaming over the airwaves. It’s a song out of time for reasons over and above its folksy style; it’s like a dispatch from another universe where the detached irony that defined the decade simply did not exist. So perhaps it’s not surprising that it took half a decade to claw its way to the mainstream, finally receiving its boost into ubiquity from the Johnny Depp vehicle Benny and Joon. But perhaps it’s fitting that something so timeless remains a classic long after the coattails it rode in on was forgotten.
- Ice Cube – It Was a Good Day
Contrasting the violent euphoria of the Proclaimers, Ice Cube (with producer DJ Pooh) draws out the laidback groove of the Isleys’ “Footsteps in the Dark” for one of music’s greatest expressions of peaceful contentment. In some ways, it’s almost a fantasy of an impossible number of planets coming into alignment, getting with “A girl I been tryin’ to fuck since the twelfth grade” and his name literally up in lights on the Goodyear blimp (which is even nice enough to let everyone know what a pimp he is) on the same day “the Lakers beat the Supersonics.” But there’s darker undercurrents running through the song too. He sounds almost surprised things are working out for him (“Gotta thank God/l don’t know, but today seems kinda odd”) and in between the increasingly improbable good things he raps about, he describes his day in terms of negatives that make it clear just how awful every other day is. Just not getting harassed by cops and carjackers or learning his friends have been shot dead is cause for celebration, and even in his happiest moments, he only dreams of living past fifty. THe chilling final verse shows that the most exciting thing about the day is the kind of safety most of his middle class listeners would take for granted: “Today I didn’t even have to use my AK.” But rather than undercutting the song’s mood, these gritty details heighten it; aren’t our best days the ones that come surrounded by bad ones that force us to appreciate them? I didn’t have any deeper motive to rank these two songs so close together, but “500 Miles” and “It Was a Good Day,” almost by accident, make a useful study in contrasts. Chilled-out where the Proclaimers are exuberant, layered where they’re simple, “It Was a Good Day” is every bit as evocative, and every bit as much of a classic. (And yes, I am fully aware comparing the Proclaimers positively to Ice Cube is the whitest thing I’ve ever done. Especially now that I’ve used the phrase “fully aware” to do it.)
- Digable Planets – Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)
For chilled-out vibes, though, not even Ice Cube can beat the Digable Planets’ Art Blakey-sampling groove. The title gives a hint of the song’s appeal: just as the songs collected on Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool introduced cool jazz to the listeners of the late forties, “Rebirth of Slick” brings that unflappable cool into the nineties. In a year when hip hop was loud and angry and pop was relaxed to the point of unconsciousness, Digable Planets found the happy medium that gave the world a new definition of hip. Butterfly and Doodlebug deliver their beat-poetry rhymes with the smoothness and playfulness of their namesakes, and Ladybug cuts into it with an attitude somewhere between Dinah Washington and Missy Elliott. ” The music video only adds more layers of style taken directly from their forebears. Black and white like the photos of their jazz ancestors, the video shows Digable Planets performing in a club where Davis would have been right at home, intercut with shots of snapping fingers and antique instruments as quick as the freeform-inspired films of the New Wave, the clip makes a new kind of cool out of the ingredients of the old. At the end, they let us know “I groove like dat/I’m smooth like dat/I jive like dat/I’m black like dat/I funk like dat/I’m black like dat/I swing like dat/We jazz like dat/We freak like dat/We zoom like dat,” and everything up to that point proves every one of those statements true.
Also, they named the album they took this cut from after an essay by Jorge Luis Borges, which automatically makes them the greatest artists in music history.
5. Wreckx-N-Effect – Rump Shaker
Wreckx-N-Effect, meanwhile, named their album Hard or Smooth, and “Rump Shaker” more than provides the hard to “Rebirth of Slick”’s smooth. The beat here is far simpler than the ones that back up Digable Planets, Ice Cube, or Dr. Dre, but in spite (or more likely, because) of that, it has incredible power to do exactly what it says on the tin. Even sitting here at my desk writing this article, it’s impossible not to dance along with this song. The lyrics are equally minimalist, with a refrain “All I wanna do is zooma-zoom-zoom-zoom and a boom boom!” as nonsensical as it is addictive. With a haunting horn riff from the Lafayette Afro Band’s appropriately-named “Darkest Light” (previously sampled by Public Enemy on their legendary Nation of Millions record) to keep things from getting too poppy, what Wreckx-N-Effect have created here is a groove for the ages. While it can be a canvas for works of incredible ambition and experimentation, pop music is, above all else, about the simple pleasures. And you rarely find a song more simple or more pleasing than this one.
- Janet Jackson – if.
The ee cummings-esque capitalization and punctuation of the title is just the first hint that Jackson’s take on the standard “If I was your girl” song is going to be anything but standard issue, even if those exact words make it into the chorus. Instead, from the very first note, she, with co-producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, forces the listener to strap in for a one-of-a-kind ride. The song opens with an ear-shatteringly shredding guitar riff that evolves first into a Danny Elfman dark carnival groove and then into a earth-shaking hip hop beat. That’s not the end of the hip hop influence as Janet’s vocals kicks in and she proves herself an unexpectedly credible MC. She spits rhymes so fast it would make Eminem’s head spin, all in that same twisty merry-go-round time signature – “Sittinoverherestarininyourfacewithlustinmyeyessuredon’tgiveadamn…” At the same time she’s breaking boundaries, she continues to provides the polished pop-star vocals she made her name on. In the bridge, the drums kick in even louder and the guitars shred even harder, creating a dance break that’s downright primal in its power. And then at the end, the instruments all fade away down to a single acoustic guitar before cutting out altogether to make the final, teasing, “But I’m not” reverberate with shocking effect.
- Cypress Hill – Insane in the Brain
It was the screech heard ‘round the world – that weird, unearthly sound (actually a whinnying horse looped from Mel & Tim’s “Good Guys Only Win in the Movies”) that underlines the thrumming bass beat of this hip hop icon. The song has far more than a horse going for it, though, with MCs B-Real, Sen Dog, and Eric Bobo taking the swaggering, threatening badass posturing that was already becoming a cliche in hip hop and injecting it with a heavy strain of stoner humor. They mix metaphors in ways that might never occur to a less addled mind, like “pigs trying to blow my house down.” Sometimes their dizzying wordplay moves into full-on stream-of-consciousness, starting a verse with standard material about doing “my shit undercover” before going on a free-associative rhyme trip through “blubber,” “blabber,” and bellies getting fatter before arriving at a “fat boy on a diet” and course-correcting to “I’ll check your ass like a looter in a riot.” And then there’s that chorus, making a rhyme so perfect it doesn’t even matter that it’s hard to be quite sure what it means – “Insane in the membrane,” backed up by the more-understable “insane in the brain,” delivered in a wheezy old-man voice that must have been a laugh riot when the quartet was rehearsing over blunts. Either way, that drug-influenced exuberance carries through over the airwaves, and it’s infectious no matter how sober you may be.
- Tony! Toni! Toné! – If I Had No Loot
What does this song have that places it above the rest of the list? The answer is, to quote the lyrics, “THE NEW JACK SWIIIIIIIING!” The sadly short-lived fusion of hip hop and R&B gives “If I Had No Loot” an infectious rhythm, and that shouted refrain (turning Ice Cube’s slam on the genre into a joyful affirmation) only makes it more inescapable. Combining classically smooth and soulful vocals and rockabilly guitar from John “Jubu” Smith with up-to-the-minute elements like beatboxes, record scratches, and the hip slang of the title, “If I Had No Loot” is the perfect example of what you might call fusion dance. The Urkel-voiced “A-da-da-dee/a-da-da-da-da-dee-ay!” refrain (another sample, this time from Boogie Down Productions) is just as ridiculous as the ones to “500 Miles” and “Rump Shaker,” and every bit as brilliant as digging right into the pleasure centers of the brain. Lyrically, the song deals with fair-weather friends, and if the idea that “Everybody seems to disappear on me/can’t trust no one as far as I can see,” threatens to get dark, the melody keeps things light and happy, emphasizing the real, indomitable message of the lyrics: “I’ll just keep bouncin’ like a bouncin’ ball.” As the album title said, Tony! Toni! Toné! Were “Sons of Soul,” a new generation building on the style of the old with their own innovations.
- Meat Loaf – I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)
I said before that “500 Miles” seemed to come from a parallel universe where nineties hipster irony never existed. Well, Meat Loaf seems to live in that universe permanently, one where a tubby little over-the-hill rocker playing the great lover is no laughing matter, and ours is a richer place for it. At first glance, the title almost seems like a joke. But once you put the song on, the overwhelming power of its total, unashamed sincerity wipes all snark out of your soul. What seemed like an oxymoron turns out to be a heartrendingly poignant statement of longing: the one thing he won’t do for love is give up love itself. The original Bat Out of Hell was a classic of the rock opera genre, and this cut from the sequel belongs to an operatic world where everything is bigger and more important, where every emotions means more and hurts more. The only way to accurately describe them is in terms of cosmic phenomena: “As long as the planets are turning/As long as the stars are burning/As long as dreams are coming true,” and you’d better believe dreams have no less cosmic significance than the other two. It’s all about grand gestures: when asked what he can do, he promises he can “hose me down with holy water, if I get too hot” and on the album version, “build an Emerald city with these grains of sand.” Meat Loaf’s vocals are every bit as grand as his lyrics, ranging all the way from planet-shaking wails to intimate whispers. It’s a fairy tale fantasy of love, and the last verses force him to confront the harsh reality: “I know the territory – I’ve been around/It’ll all turn to dust and we’ll all fall down/Sooner or later you’ll be screwing around.” But while he can do the impossible, that’s the one thing he can’t do. The song stands as a statement of hope and belief that we can use our fantasies of idealized love to reshape reality in ways that cynical pragmatism can’t. Yes, it’s all very silly. If it weren’t, we couldn’t take it half as seriously.
- Shanice – Saving Forever For You
The nineties: the decade that looked at eighties soft rock and thought, “You know what, we can make that even duller!” 1993’s Hot 100 is full from top to bottom with synthesizers that can be either tinkly or overpowering and vocals that can be either polished and personality-free or defined by show-offy exercises or earsplitting squeals. I could not for the life of me tell this artist from the thousands of others that the music industry chewed up and spit out before record buyers could realize they didn’t care about the last one. The lyrics here are every bit as overdramatic as Meat Loaf’s, but there’s several failures in the execution that make the “over” more important than the “dramatic.” Electronic music has developed a reputation, sometimes fair, sometimes unfair, for soullessness. The synthesizer can be a powerful tool for expressing emotion, but those emotions tend to be loneliness and emptiness. When it comes to grand gestures like this, the difference between electronic and traditional music is kind of like the difference between the declamations of a great Shakespearean actor and being yelled at by a member of the community theater. Something similar is going on with the vocals – when an older artist like The Loaf paints emotions in excess and hyperbole, we’re likely to recognize his idealism as hard-won and his pain as deep – coming from an ingenue like Shanice, it’s easier to dismiss as immaturity and adolescent melodrama. But what really reduces this material to the level of sappiness is it’s unafraid to be sappy enough, sitting instead in an easy-listening no man’s land between the opposite extreme of subtlety and bluntness that make for great pop.
- Kenny G – Forever in Love
And just like Beetlejuice comes when you call his name, mentioning the words “easy listening” has cursed me with Kenny G. Though his instrument of choice was a saxophone, Kenny G’s music is defined by his overbearing, unlistenable synthesizer backing. The instrumentation isn’t so different from much of the vocal pop on the charts, but without a human voice to distract us, it becomes painfully obvious how horribly hard it’s trying and failing to create some mechanized, mass-produced approximation of prettiness, lathering on thick layers of it until any kind of real beauty is lost. And when I say painful, I do mean almost physically painful. While the pop charts have always thrived on inoffensiveness over originality, it’s still hard to imagine enough people listening to this song – on purpose, mind – to put it among the hundred most profitable songs of the year. Great music doesn’t have to be loud, of course. Some of the most beautiful songs ever recorded could be accurately described as “soothing.” But there’s a line between soothing and soporific, and Kenny G has made his name camping out on the wrong side of it.
- Exposé – I’ll Never Get Over You Getting Over Me
I probably could have flipped this song’s placement with “Saving Forever For You” – like I said, all these adult contemporary ballads tend to run together. But this one might still edge it out for just how oppressive its atmosphere is. Musicians have spent decades trying to match Phil Spector’s famous “wall of sound”; listening to “Getting Over Me” is like being trapped under the rubble of that wall. I’ll admit to some biases, since there are certain sounds in music that get right under my skin as a child of this decade, and this song has a lot of them: the tinkling sound at the beginning that always sounds to me like glitter or pixie dust; the muffled- sounding synths adults of the quiet storm genre that adult contemporary took and made even worse; and the music swelling to histrionic heights in the bridge as if it was trying desperately to get you to feel something before it’s over. There’s having your heartstrings tugged on, which is good, one of the best things a song can do, in fact. And then there’s having your heartstrings yanked on like a tow-line attached to a speeding tank, which is what songs like this do.
- Tony! Toni! Toné! – Anniversary
I’ll admit, I liked the idea of the same artist ranking second in both the “best” and “worst” lists. But rest assured, “Anniversary” ranks this high one hundred percent on its own demerits. Tony! Toni! Toné! managed to produce both the most energetic and energizing song of the year and the sleepiest – and need I remind you, this was a year when Kenny G – Kenny G! – was competing for that title. And while repetition was a major part of what made “If I Had No Loot” so irresistible, here it’s as sleep-inducing as counting sheep and as irritating as a bus full of kids singing “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall”. It doesn’t help that “Anniversary” is over twice as long as “Loot,” and yet somehow has fewer words in it. 1993 was a great year, for soft, quiet storm-style synths. Unfortunately, it’s a bad year for me, because I hate soft, quiet storm-style synths. (Being the year I was born helps, but only a little bit.) And these are some of the softest, synthiest synths you’re ever going to hear this or any other year. The only thing that could be worse than this would be something even softer right? Where’s something with more of a kick to it? Something loud and jamming? Well…
- Duice – Dazzey Duks
How bad of a song is “Dazzey Duks”? It’s so bad, I’m not even sure it technically counts as a song. Oh, it has most of the basic elements – it has a melody, of a sort, it has verses, of a sort, it has a beat, of a sort. But that stuff’s all pushed off to the side in favor of some asshole screaming “LOOK AT THEM GIRLS WITH THE DAISY DUKES ON!” at you, as much or more than Toni! Tony! Toné! Reminded you it’s our anniversary. In fact, we’re getting to Sam-I-Am asking for your opinion on breakfast foods levels here. People of a certain age like to insist hip hop isn’t music because rapping isn’t singing. If you’re like me, that’s about when you stop listening but in this case, they have a point. But then, what Creo-D does here isn’t really rapping either. It’s just hollering, and off-key and raspy hollering at that. I haven’t mentioned his partner LA Sno’s verses, but honestly, what’s the point? The chorus is so overwhelmingly terrible that everything else is irrelevant. It follows the format of a dance track, but songs like “Cha Cha Slide” and “Jump Around” shouted out actual moves – even Souljah Boy got that right. All Duice wants you to do is “LOOK AT THEM GIRLS WITH THE DAISY DUKES ON!” As far as they’re concerned you could just be standing around in the middle of the dance floor like an idiot as long as you “LOOK AT THEM GIRLS WITH THE DAISY DUKES ON!” I can’t even imagine how you’re supposed to listen to this track.
“LOOK AT THEM GIRLS WITH THE DAISY DUKES ON!”
Alright, I’m looking.
“LOOK AT THEM GIRLS WITH THE DAISY DUKES ON!”
Yeah, I see them.
“LOOK AT THEM GIRLS WITH THE DAISY DUKES ON!”
Honestly, they’ look pretty creeped out. I would be too.
“LOOK AT THEM GIRLS WITH THE DAISY DUKES ON!”
Screw this, somebody tell the DJ to put some Cypress Hill on.