In the early summer of 1990, a new voice hit the airwaves. It all started with the words “treated me kind” and led to a string of number one hits that defined a decade. It wasn’t long after “Vision of Love” topped the charts that Mariah Carey developed a reputation for vocal dynamics and a near-flawless mix of powerful ballads and catchy pop tunes. As her career advanced, Carey expanded her sound to include elements of hip-hop, occurring coincidentally (or not so coincidentally) with her divorce from music executive Tommy Mottola.
Recently the singer released Infinity, an album containing an impressive collection of 18 No. 1 hits (plus a new post-Nick Cannon divorce song) celebrating a career virtually unmatched by all but a handful of artists. It’s hard to argue with the fact that Carey has amassed a remarkable collection of hits still appealing to audiences today — with the 10 best (meaning the best out of the singer’s chart-topping tunes) listed below.
- Emotions (3 weeks at No. 1 in October 1991)
Delightfully retro, this hit written by David Cole and Robert Clivilles (of C+C Music Factory fame) breezes along as Carey effortlessly hits note after note. Carey herself has said that the song was inspired by the girl group sound of the ’60s. It was also a refreshing contrast to the pop-rap of Marky Mark and Naughty By Nature that dominated the airwaves when the song debuted.
- Someday (2 weeks at No. 1 in March 1991)
After scoring two No. 1 ballads in a row (“Vision of Love” and “Love Takes Time”), Carey proved that she was just as capable of belting out an uptempo hit, with this particular tune being in the popular “new jack swing” style of the day. While there are much more potent ’90s kiss-off songs (hello Alanis), the sing-song “light rap” and the garage door-activating high notes (it was rumored, at the time, that the high notes on the song affected some garage door remotes) make this song one that still sticks in your head after a single listen.
- Vision of Love (4 weeks at No. 1 in August 1990)
This slow-burning ballad about the realization that love can be a beautiful reality was a breath of fresh air when it first introduced fans to the singer’s brand of escalating power pop. A quarter-century later, the song is still as enchanting as ever as Carey brings it home by hitting all the right notes — and holding those same notes just long enough to ring out every last drop of emotion the song has to offer.
- Honey (3 weeks at No. 1 in September 1997)
From her first post-breakup album Butterfly, “Honey” marked the beginning of Carey’s full embrace of the hip hop sound in many of her more uptempo hits from the late ’90s onward. It’s also the most sensual of the singer’s big hits (excluding the unedited version of “Sweetheart” from her 1998 #1’s album), yet it somehow works with lyrics that include sultry references to “honey washing over me” in comparison to her feelings of totally being consumed by desire — and possibly love.
- Hero (4 weeks at No. 1 from December 1993 through January 1994)
In stark contrast to “Honey,” there’s “Hero,” a song that celebrates the unsung hero inside of all of us. While it may be a song that drips of sentiment, there’s something timeless about its inspirational lyrics. It’s actually the restraint in Carey’s vocals — meaning no super-high notes or breathlessly held syllables — combined with the universal theme of looking for hope when things aren’t going so well, that make the song just as relevant today.
- Always Be My Baby (2 weeks at No. 1 in May 1996)
In addition to conjuring up images of lazy summer day lounging on a tire swing gently swaying above a crystal clear lake, “Always Be My Baby” serves as a more upbeat take on the theme of fondly remembering a special someone who has decided to bring the relationship to an end. Carey remains resolved to letting her man go, while thoughtfully declaring that she knows that he’ll be back when his days and nights get a little bit colder. With the authority in which she declares that “you’re never ever gonna shake me,” there’s no doubt that her one true love will be heading back her way soon, at least in the fictional universe of this particular song.
- I‘ll Be There (2 weeks at No. 1 in June and July 1992)
In between the albums Emotions and Music Box, Carey went acoustic and ushered in the initial unplugged craze that dominated much of the early to mid-90s. A still relatively fresh and innocent Mariah charmed the masses with her take on the classic Jackson 5 song “I’ll Be There.” Granted, she had great material to work with, yet Carey does bring a certain unique quality to the song, as does a brief solo by then-newcomer Trey Lorenz. The simplistic arrangement also serves as an excellent showcase for Carey’s flawless vocals.
- One Sweet Day (a record-setting 16 weeks at No. 1 from December 1995 through March 1996)
Recorded during a chance meeting with Boyz II Men, who were in the adjoining studio working on new music, “One Sweet Day” remains a powerful tribute to the loss of a special loved one or friend. The perfect blend of vocal harmonies among Carey and Boyz II Men further adds to the sheer power of the song. As with “Hero,” Carey purposely restrains her vocals to a level that’s appropriate for the subject matter of the song.
- Fantasy (8 weeks at No. 1 from September through November 1995)
Bouncy pop meets a touch of funky R&B on this particular song, serving as an ode to the initial infatuation stage of love. The sample of the Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love” chorus only adds to the inherent charm of the song as Carey breathlessly coos “I’m in heaven with my boyfriend, my laughing boyfriend” during the halfway point of the song. By the time “Fantasy” ends, you feel like you’ve been on an exhilarating roller-coaster ride right along with her. A sweet, sweet fantasy, indeed!
- Dreamlover (8 weeks at No. 1 in September and October 1993)
Carey earnestly begs for her as-yet-be-discovered lover to come and take her away as she spells out what she expects in the perfect mate as this bubbly tune progresses. While the song may seem a bit idealistic by today’s standards, odds are you’ll soon find yourself joining in on the chorus by the time Carey exhales her last note as the song that once set a record for receiving over 10,000 plays on radio stations in a single week during its reign at the top of the chart wraps up.
While Carey originally drew comparisons to Whitney Houston, another diva dominating the charts during Carey’s initial reign on radio, the singer quickly established her own unique style by embracing multiple genres and captivating fans around the world with many tunes that she either wrote or co-wrote. Just going by this selection of hits alone, it’s clear that Mariah Carey has established a legacy that will undoubtedly place her among the ranks of the great artists of all time. Granted, some of her career choices have been “iffy” at best (anyone remember Glitter?), but that’s to be expected for any artist that’s been able to remain relevant from one generation to another. Besides, there’s not one artist among today’s chart-toppers who wouldn’t be happy to have a collection of hits half as diverse and timeless as the tunes Carey has belted out over the years.
By: J.J. Collins