As you may have heard, “...Baby One More Time” turned 20 last week.
Truly the “Like a Rolling Stone” of the belly-baring knotted button-down set, Britney’s debut was the single that Changed Everything. It takes some effort even to recall what pop music was like when before she emerged.
Not that much effort though—we do have the internet. So I looked up the 16 songs that made it to #1 in those ancient (mostly) pre- TRL days. Then, as professional obligation dictates, I ranked ’em, with #1 being the best, and #16 being Barenaked Ladies.
16. Barenaked Ladies – “One Week”
In under three minutes, a total justification for the existence of nu metal.
15. R. Kelly and Celine Dion – “I’m Your Angel”
At the time, U.S. critics who treated Dion as a tasteless foreign menace found her excesses chastened by this encounter with Kelly, who was on his way to being anointed an R&B genius. In the decades since, she’s been critically redeemed, while he’s been belatedly shunned as a serial abuser. Times and tastes change, yet the suckiness of this song remains a constant.
14. Elton John – "Something About the Way You Look Tonight" / "Candle in the Wind 1997"
Imagine being important enough for Elton John to record a record-setting tribute after your death, yet not being important enough apparently for him to write a whole new song. At least the Princess Di elegy has some kitsch historic significance; the a-side is a forgettable first wedding dance.
13. Celine Dion – “My Heart Will Go On”
And on. And on and on and on. Someone stop that damn heart before it destroys us all.
12. Savage Garden – “Truly Madly Deeply”
What’s remarkable about “I want to stand with you on a mountain/I want to bathe with you in the sea” is that even though no one had ever sung those lines before they immediately sounded like clichés. Bad pop is magical that way.
11. Mariah Carey – “My All”
I’ll be honest—I didn’t even remember this one, and I was a dedicated K-Dweeb radio listener in’98. I’ll be even more honest—I don’t remember much about it now either, and I just listened to it.
10. Aerosmith – “Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”
Sometimes I think capitalism was put on earth just so Aerosmith could sell out. The greatest thing about Steven Tyler’s ripe-verging-on-rotten over-singing is that the more earnest he strains to be the more ironic he comes across, and the more he strives for camp the more authentic he sounds. Here, he thumps on the corpse of a flatlined Diane Warren melody like a determined paramedic, demanding that the song live, dammit, live. And eventually the poor victim even lets out a miraculous gasp or two.
9. K-Ci & Jojo – “All My Life”
I always though Jodeci were kinda gross. And I thought Jo and Ci on their own were kinda sickly sweet. But this chorus remains eminently belt-out-able. Which is something.
8. Divine – “Lately”
The late ’90s weren’t just fertile with boy bands—it was also a golden (ok, tarnished silver) age of African-American girl groups. Destiny’s Child and TLC you remember, but what about Total, 3LW, Blaque... or these three gospelish ladies. Title might not look familiar, but three notes in, you’ll remember the hell out of it.
7. Monica – “The First Night”
“Will you still love me tomorrow?” Monica knows better than to even wonder. Savvy rather than prudish, she insists on remaining vertical no matter how well the first date’s going. R&B was rife with this sort of clear-eyed romantic negotiation in ’98, and not gonna lie, I miss it.
6. Usher – “Nice and Slow”
So many heavy-breathing clowns wail, whine, and wheedle just to get a little play. Not Usher. A sexy sigh leads to a sexier whisper, a few blush-summoning come-ons (“I got plans/To put my hands/In places I never seen”) are prelude to a sly little rap, then he works up on an “I’ll freak you right I will” that’s one of the great hey-how’d-we-get-naked? moments in modern R&B seduction.
5. Will Smith – “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It”
Sticklers for “artistic originality” said sampling would allow any chump to steal a beat and score a hit. Rap fans warned that draconian copyright law enforcement would make sampling so prohibitively expensive that only the ultra-rich would be able to indulge in that luxury. For both camps, “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” seemed like the worst case scenario, saddling the instrumental part of Sister Sledge’s “He’s the Greatest Dancer” to a phrase so cornball parents couldn’t wait to mortify their teens wit it. But Will Smith didn’t become a movie star because he’s not charming, you know. And he is a rapper—said so right in the title of his first LP. Now, “Wild Wild West”? That was the worst case scenario.
4. Janet – “Together Again”
Few pop stars exude joy as effortlessly as Janet Jackson, who glides over an unfussy Jam and Lewis house beat here with such frictionless fizz you can almost forget the track is dedicated to a late friend. Even if you don’t believe in an afterlife, Janet gives you a taste of what it could be.
3. Lauryn Hill – "Doo Wop (That Thing)"
Her sisterly concern was already edging into the stern moralism that would soon overtake her outlook, but the unique sound of this this thi-i-i-ing is undiminished. Just as the harmonies are steeped in the stoop-singing of girl-group yore yet idiosyncratically induplicable, the insistent piano and intermittent horns are unmistakable R&B but untraceable to a specific trend or time. Still, just imagine all the thinkpieces “fake nails done by Koreans” would have spawned today. (For the record, it rankled plenty of us at the time.)
2. Brandy and Monica – “The Boy Is Mine”
The titular boy being tugged-of-war for ain’t worth either diva’s time, but like Rodney Jerkins’ inexorable conveyor-belt of a beat, he’s a serviceable excuse for the era’s two reigning R&Bs princesses to flex their assertive chops at one another. In real life, of course, they should have both dumped his ass and just gone to a Fleetwood Mac show together.
1. Next – “Too Close”
Hey, it happens.