We came away from our musical journey through the #1 Pop Singles of the 1980s loving many of the biggest hits of the decade. Good job, 80s!
The 90s? Well, that’s another story.
We’ve already discussed some of the decade’s biggest breakouts on the podcast, including No Doubt, Alanis Morissette, Spice Girls, and Nirvana, all of whom got to #1 on our own personal charts at one point in time. But the #1 Pop Singles of the 1990s are a much more scattered affair, veering from upbeat pop cheese to gangsta rap to disco-dance throwbacks, with a whole lot of “adult contemporary” in the mix.
As it turns out, the Billboard charts of the 90s watched America go through a diverse range of musical moods, from mourning the death of British royals to celebrating barely-contained boners on the dancefloor — plus a lot more Costner worship than should be permitted in one decade. Of course, the mid 90s also saw a Latin-flavored dance craze that’s not just a #1 Pop Single, but also the #1 Most Cringeworthy Aspect of the whole decade! (Maybe even the entire 20th century.)
So which songs do we want to “Hold On” to, and which have reached the “End of the Road”? Be forewarned — just because these songs were #1 does not mean we will always love them.
The 90s are where this whole Billboard thing really falls apart.
The #1 singles of the 80s didn’t quite seem to encapsulate the entire decade in music, but perhaps no ten songs ever could. By and large, though, those songs are still widely known and very listenable. It’s hard to argue with a playlist that includes Prince, Blondie, The Police, Olivia Newton-John, and George Michael (twice) as a fair representation of the 80s.
The same can’t really be said for the 90s roster, though. Like the 80s playlist, it somewhat moves through the evolution of music as pop culture experienced it — kicking off with Wilson Phillips’ feel-good cheeseball pop anthem “Hold On,” which sounds both like an 80s hangover as well as very, very early 90s. From there, we get some power ballads and R&B, a brief appearance from hip-hop, a cameo from Latin music, and it sends out the 90s with a dance track. From a macro view, that does sort of sound like the evolution of what was popular in the 90s.
But it’s also filled with anomalies and throwbacks, with a roster of talent that doesn’t feel at all representative of the decade. Ace of Base may have had several hits (as Becky was quick to remind me when I tried to write them off as one-hit wonders), but they’re far from a legendary pop act. Besides “The Sign,” they’re largely forgotten. Ditto Next, who also charted a few times but didn’t leave a lasting cultural impact, either. Bryan Adams’ “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You” may have made a splash in 1991 — I don’t really know, I can’t remember — but as an artist? I barely knew who he was. They had big songs, but they weren’t culture-defining superstars like Blondie, Prince, and George Michael.
Superstar Whitney Houston is here with a bona fide smash in “I Will Always Love You,” which is probably the biggest no-brainer on this list. Both she and the song are iconic. The song is, of course, the perfect showcase for her peerless voice — but personally, I’d much rather celebrate her for her 80s hits than the soundtrack to a mediocre Kevin Costner movie. Nineties Whitney just didn’t seem to be having as much fun.
There are a couple of real throwbacks topping the charts in the late 90s, too, with Elton John’s tribute to Princess Di, “Candle In The Wind ’97,” and Cher’s disco revival “Believe,” both more appropriate chart-toppers for the 70s than the 90s. Increasingly over the 90s, these Billboard charts seem to be less about what everyone is choosing to listen to, and more about what the most innocuous, radio-friendly singles are. I’d argue that hip-hop/rap and alternative were the two genres that really defined the decade, but those wouldn’t have played well with the Boomers. My theory is, teenagers turned to MTV and listened to full albums on Walkmans, leaving musty old Top 40 radio play to the grownups. And that’s why, by and large, this playlist is a snooze.
(I actually appreciated “Macarena” for injecting some upbeat energy into this collection! When “Macarena” is one of the edgiest #1 singles of the 90s, you know something is amiss.)
Boyz II Men is one of the few artists here that actually feels both culturally and musically representative of a part of this decade. (Too bad the song is so earnest and drippy. Whatever — it’s not my thing.) Meanwhile, Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” sticks out like a sore thumb in terms of subject matter — a stirring counterpoint to the banality of most pop music lyrics. (Some pop music is well-written — like Prince’s “When Doves Cry” — but none of these other 90s tracks are very impressive on that level.) So yeah, Coolio and Boyz II Men belong here, and probably Whitney, and (sure, why not?) Ace of Base — but I’m not sure the rest of these artists do, especially when there’s nothing from No Doubt, Alanis Morissette, Green Day, Nirvana — or anything that even sounds remotely like their genre of music. (Arguably, grunge and alternative music was the most definitive aspect of the entire decade.)
Am I just biased because I was a teen in the late 90s, and therefore have my own definition of what people were actually listening to then? Or were the #1 pop singles of the 90s just, somehow… not very 90s? Around this time, Billboard had to amend their rules to include songs that didn’t release physical CD singles. But during these years, these charts ignored artists whose singles primarily drove album sales, as is the case with Jagged Little Pill and Tragic Kingdom. So the charts, at this time, skewed older — more toward “easy listening,” “adult contemporary,” what I like to call “dentist chair” music.
Despite my indifference to a lot of these songs, I still loved listening to and talking about this playlist as an experiment of whether or not the #1 songs of each year can really represent an entire decade of music. The verdict? In the 80s, kinda, yeah! In the 90s? Nope.
So thanks for the memories, 90s… and now, back to Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” on repeat.
|#1 Pop Single||Artist|
|1990||“Hold On”||Wilson Phillips|
|1991||“(Everything I Do) I Do It for You”||Bryan Adams|
|1992||“End of the Road”||Boyz II Men|
|1993||“I Will Always Love You”||Whitney Houston|
|1994||“The Sign”||Ace of Base|
|1995||“Gangsta’s Paradise”||Coolio featuring L.V.|
|1996||“Macarena” (Bayside Boys Mix)||Los del Río|
|1997||“Candle in the Wind 1997 / Something About the Way You Look Tonight”||Elton John|