Let us harken back 20 years, to the year 1995. It was a simpler time. Gas cost $1.09 a gallon, we were all marveling over Windows 95, the DVD was born, and O.J. Simpson was found not guilty (okay, not everything was simpler).
The year also saw 12 different singles reach the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, but which of those hits rules above the rest? Here’s the hierarchy:
12. Bryan Adams, “Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman?”
It makes sense why “Summer of ‘69” was popular because it tapped into easy nostalgia. One can wrap their head around the popularity of “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You” because it’s so mawkishly sentimental that it tracks as a song to be played at weddings or other emotionally saturated situations. What does not make sense is how anybody got into this, which masquerades as a sort of flamenco song. This was the No. 1 song for all of June and part of July. Worst. Song. Of. The. Summer. Ever.
11. Michael Jackson, “You Are Not Alone”
Take a listen to Thriller, or Off the Wall, or a bunch of other Jackson albums, and there’s no doubt of his ability to generate excellent pop music. On the other hand, it’s hard to feel “You Are Not Alone” was No. 1 for any other reason than it being a song from the King of Pop.
10. Whitney Houston, “Exhale (Shoop Shoop)”
This song is silky and ethereal in interesting ways. However, there isn’t a whole lot to it. It’s not “I Will Always Love You.” It’s not even close. It was only No. 1 for a week, which feels fair.
9. Boyz II Men, “On Bended Knee”
1994 was the year of Boyz II Men. This song was a holdover from the prior year’s charts, but it stayed there for three weeks into 1995. There really isn’t much to say about “On Bended Knee.” It’s milquetoast and inoffensive; something better for a playlist you’d make to fall asleep than one for a wedding or whatever.
8. Madonna, “Take a Bow”
The things that were written about Jackson could also apply to this Madonna song. “Like a Prayer” is so good. Madonna has made some great music, but she just does poppy stuff better than ballads, and this is as ballad as it gets.
7. Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men, “One Sweet Day”
Boyz II Men already appeared on this list, and Carey will appear again later, so both artists will avoid in-depth critical thought here. Let it just be said that “One Sweet Day” is basically a series of vocal runs smashed together into a song. That’s not bad, necessarily, but it’s a bit busy, and that overshadows the fact that the song is about dead loved ones.
6. Seal, “Kiss From a Rose”
If the Grammys had their say, this would be the No. 1 song on this list, because it won Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best Male Vocal Performance. It also was on the Batman Forever soundtrack, and had a Batman-focused music video, which is arguably a greater honor. The chorus, where Seal digs deep, really works. You stick around through the lyrics about “when it snows” for the big moments, and it’s worthwhile.
5. TLC, “Creep”
TLC really broke through in 1995, on the strength of the 1994 release CrazySexyCool, with two of the album’s three No. 1 singles. The other one, the one you are thinking of, will come up later, but let’s not overlook “Creep.” It’s a solid song in its own right. It’s got a nice idiosyncratic streak running through it, and it’s plenty catchy in its own right. Don’t sleep on “Creep,” which was actually the first song from the album to reach No. 1, staying there for four weeks.
4. Montell Jordan, “This Is How We Do It”
For a song we all remember for its good-time party vibes, there’s a real streak of West Coast gangsta rap coursing through “This Is How We Do It.” There’s a lot of repping for the West Side and South Central. Still, it’s a real party song with an iconic hook. Maybe this song feels more “trapped in the ’90s” than some of the other songs on this list, in part because Montell Jordan didn’t really stay relevant for long, but don’t let that detract from the quality of this song.
3. TLC, “Waterfalls”
“Waterfalls” reeks of ’90s message rap, and can feel awkward in retrospect. That being said, it still sounds so good. “Don’t go chasing waterfalls” has lost all meaning, to the degree it ever had meaning, but that doesn’t make it any less pleasant to hear.
2. Coolio ft. L.V., “Gangsta’s Paradise”
By this point, Coolio had seen his biggest hit, and the biggest hit of 1995 by Billboard’s measurements, overshadowed by Weird Al Yankovic’s “Amish Paradise.” This is probably because “Amish Paradise” is one of Weird Al’s best songs, and also because “Gangsta’s Paradise” was pegged to the movie Dangerous Minds, wherein Michelle Pfeiffer sat backwards in a chair and taught troubled inner-city kids that poetry is a lot like rap. At least, that’s what we all assume the movie is about; nobody has bothered to check on that fact, and wisely so. Some things are better left for dead.
Anyway, let us not lose sight of “Gangsta’s Paradise.” Admittedly, much of the song’s strength is built from Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise” sample, and L.V.’s vocals on the hook. Coolio is the least important part of his most famous song. However, that chorus is still so good, and those strings work perfectly as the foundation of a hip-hop beat.
1. Mariah Carey, “Fantasy”
Much like “Gangsta’s Paradise,” “Fantasy” owes a lot of its quality to somebody else’s work, in this case Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love.” That was a great choice to make for a sample, though, because that song is top-notch, and so is this one. Carey has come a long way since 1995, through Glitter and American Idol and Nick Cannon, and she’s now at the stage of her career where she’s taking up residency at a Las Vegas casino like some sort of Celine Dion. She got to this point, though, because her voice was so amazing. Carey’s vocals on this track are excellent. This is more than the best No. 1 hit of 1995; it’s the epitome of a pop song. Mariah Carey can call herself the elusive chanteuse all she wants. “Fantasy” gives her the right to call herself whatever she pleases.