The world knew what Mariah Carey was capable of from the very first vocal run, during her national television debut on the Arsenio Hall Show back in 1990.
Once the 20-year-old vocalist came out the gate with the words “Treated me kind…” and enough hand-waving to make a traffic director retire on the spot, her sucker-punch of a debut single “Vision of Love” had cemented her place in history.
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It was a ballad which, very soon, cemented its place atop the Billboard Hot 100, as three more singles from the same debut album followed suit: “I Don’t Wanna Cry,” “Love Takes Time” and “Someday.” Carey’s self-titled debut, released on this day 30 years ago, was only the first domino in a career of history-making vocal prowess that completely changed the course of pop by the mid ’90s. Since then, Carey has managed to place 19 total songs in the most coveted spot in all of music, earning more chart-toppers than any solo artist in music history, a feat only the Beatles have bested by just one. She’s conquered the early ‘90s, tapped Diddy for some late ‘90s classics, “I don’t know her’d” her way toward ’00s success and become the queen of Christmas for three-straight decades. So, in honor of 30 years of one of the greatest debuts in pop history and an unmatched record of hits, we’ve ranked Carey’s 19 No. 1 singles, in order from “really great” to “she-did-not-just-bless-us-like-that phenomenal.”
19. “I’ll Be There” feat. Trey Lorenz (MTV Unplugged, 1992)
Throwback to when you could cover a track and watch it absolutely soar up the charts. “I’ll Be There” not only made for a lovely MTV Unplugged record, but established an impeccable ear for collaborators; she’d invite Trey Lorenz to reprise his role on this song when the two performed it at Michael Jackson’s 2009 funeral. But their hit rendition doesn’t add much new to the Jackson 5’s 1970 original, or stray very far, so it’s got to come in last. Imagine what she could’ve done to “Rockin’ Robin” instead.
18. “Don’t Forget About Us” (The Emancipation of Mimi, 2005)
“Don’t Forget About Us” helped seal Mariah’s ‘05 comeback as destiny rather than luck, as The Emancipation of Mimi’s fifth and most head-bop-provoking single. And while those raspy vocals throughout just give us another reason to not forget about Carey’s ability to dish out hits, it’s still one of her least-memorable chart toppers. It’s not necessarily fair to the song that had to follow the astounding run of “Shake It Off” and “We Belong Together,” but production touches like those circa-2o05 pre-chorus drums haven’t aged as well as its predecessors.
17. I Don’t Wanna Cry” (Mariah Carey, 1990)
In what can be viewed as a precursor to 1997’s charming chart-topper “My All,” thanks to its immersive acoustic guitar licks and the unwavering sadness you feel the second you hit play, this track gets the waterworks flowing like Niagara Falls beneath a disappearing ozone layer. “I Don’t Wanna Cry,” one of Mimi’s debut singles, definitely shows its age as a ballad, but ugly-crying is timeless.
16. “Thank God I Found You” feat. Joe and 98 Degrees (Rainbow, 2000)
As much as we love our ‘90s boy bands, this one would work a bit better if it were 98 degrees cooler. “Thank God I Found You” is still early ‘00s pop in a nutshell, though, helmed by new jack swing pioneers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. But while the melody is compelling, this particular tag-team feels a bit bizarre — our lord and savior need not share space with mere mortals like Nick Lachey.
15. “Love Takes Time” (Mariah Carey, 1990)
Post-1980s big-hair Mariah had a voice sent from even further high up than her climactic notes, and the pop charts clearly needed to let a few tears loose. “Love Takes Time” is another reminder of Carey’s impact on adult-contemporary listeners’ heartstrings, with a whistle register we never, ever forgot. When that bassline slaps you in the face with a minute left and Mariah hits you with “But I know that you do and I feel that you do, inside,” it’s like she’s challenging your tear ducts to a duel.
14. “Someday” (Mariah Carey, 1990)
Carey may hate the track’s music video, but “Someday” was our first glimpse of Mimi trying something that wasn’t a mega-ballad. And it’s the perfect ‘90s breakup song with enough “You’re gonna be wishing for me” to let the whole world know this diva’s heart is now open for vacancy. Someone, somewhere, is still listening back 30 years later and regretting leaving Mariah in the dust. But even DJing their own pity party they’d have to admit this slaps.
“13. “One Sweet Day” with Boyz II Men (Daydream, 1995)
If it wasn’t for “Old Town Road,” Carey and Boyz II Men’s unforgettable ballad “One Sweet Day” would still be the most successful song to ever touch the Hot 100, holding the record for most consequent weeks at No. 1 with 16. And though they ultimately suffered defeat as a casualty of the yeehaw agenda, “One Sweet Day” can still carry listeners through any emotional hardship, even if the track isn’t for every mood. Back when Lil Nas X was Nonexistent Nas X, Carey kept the charts for herself, and this town wasn’t big enough for the both of them.
12. “Hero” (Music Box, 1993)
In 30 years of redefining the love ballad as we know it, “Hero” could well be Mariah’s most recognizable. By relaying a message of finding any accomplishment within yourself through virtuosic singing that literally nobody else on this planet can emulate, “Hero” is a bit of a contradiction. But it’s the perfect contradiction. Because perfection is Mariah’s superpower.
11. “Emotions” (Emotions, 1991)
After your first record is responsible for four No. 1 singles, there’s only one right way to follow up: by hitting a note that few of our species have ever hit before (2:48, I’m looking at you, honey). It’s almost scary how nonchalantly she just ascends to uncharted heights like it’s NBD, but it makes for an unforgettable moment in pop history. And the rest of the song is a trip to the candy store in its right. But there’s no way the car she’s riding in when she belts this out in the music video made it through production with its windows intact.
10. “All I Want for Christmas Is You” (Merry Christmas, 1994, hit No. 1 in 2019)
This is where she became the woman Santa told Mrs. Claus not to worry about. Not only does Mariah own the quintessential Christmas song of our lifetime, but she also made chart history last year when it hit No. 1 a whole 25 years after its release. It may seem hard to tie a holiday track in with Carey’s other pop standards, but this holiday classic is likely playing somewhere today in June, so tell “Jingle Bell Flop” to back off. Mrs. Claus wants a divorce.
9. “Honey” (Butterfly, 1997)
It’s easy to argue that the Bad Boy remix featuring Mase and the Lox is just as great, but the standalone “Honey” is just as sweet as implied. Produced by the then-world-dominating Puff Daddy himself, “Honey” had a sticky enough bassline and signature piano hook to get any R&B listener addicted. And the video, with Carey riding a jetski and inventing boat-bumping choreo, cemented her status as an MTV icon, too.
8. “Dreamlover” (Music Box, 1993)
Ah, yes, the do-do-dos have arrived. “Dreamlover,” which in itself isn’t an actual word, helped spark one of Mimi’s signature moves: Avoiding verbiage altogether for a decent chunk of the track. It reminded us that nobody knows how to harmonize better than Mariah and we deserved nothing less than its video’s frolic through the flowers. The wild organ lick sandwiched into this pop classic only confirmed her believers’ faith. Take us to church, queen.
7. “Touch My Body” (E=MC², 2008)
Carey’s most recent No. 1 sounds like it could dominate R&B airwaves in 2020 as effortlessly as it did in 2008. With good reason. “Touch My Body” is 2008 teamwork at its finest, with both Tricky Stewart and The-Dream updating her production and arsenal of hooks yet again. But 13 years after “Fantasy” it feels both raunchier and more mature. And who would’ve thought 30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer would play the unwitting romantic interest in a Mariah video while she coos “Put me on the floor, wrestle me around, play with me some more?” We truly deserved this one.
6. “Vision of Love” (Mariah Carey, 1990) This is what led to it all, what bent the pop universe to one woman’s will. I, too, “pray through the nights” that a power ballad with the vocals to match can make this much of an impact on airwaves in the future. And while it may never happen like this again, we still have “Vision of Love” — and the first time most of us ever heard a whistle note — to hold onto. And who could forget her 1990 SNL performance and the killer ten seconds of vocal perfection three minutes in? Not me, and I wasn’t even alive yet.
5. “Always Be My Baby” (Daydream, 1995)
The criminally underrated “Underneath the Stars” notwithstanding, this was the monster on Carey’s 1995 LP Daydream. It’s impossible to say that any song is definitively Mariah “in the pocket,” since this 19-song-ass list has about 18 others, but “Baby” is pretty damn close. It’s not quite a ballad and it’s not quite a doo-wop anthem (even though a song littered with the then-recurring do-do-dos may have you convinced), but it did set a whole new standard for what pop was going to be in 1996 with the album’s damn fourth single.
4. “We Belong Together” (The Emancipation of Mimi, 2005) Not only is it the quintessential mid-2000s R&B smash, but “We Belong Together” may be the greatest comeback song in pop-music history. After the punchline-turned-cult-favorite Glitter and hit-free Charmabracelet debuted at No. 7 and No. 3, respectively (yes, these are considered her career lows, eyeroll emoji), things weren’t looking up. But she returned with a rocket more explosive than the one that sent Woody and Buzz back to Andy’s car at the end of Toy Story. With Jermaine Dupri behind the boards at his absolute best, “We Belong Together” is how Carey got her moment back. The crispy runs hit different here with a new maturity and gravitas that led the way for the arguably most respected album of the icon’s career. The emancipation of genius, really.
3. “Heartbreaker” feat. Jay-Z (Rainbow, 1999)
Only Carey can write lyrics about feeling “euphoric and weak” and make us feel exactly that when she sings them back on wax. “Heartbreaker” is such a perfect blend of dreamy vocal layers and bouncy late ‘90s hip-hop bass that you almost forget rap’s greatest success, Jay-Z, had a mischievous verse on it as a younger upstart. No one else would do for one of Mariah’s greatest bops. These two at the top of their game made the heartbreak feel just a little better. Maybe even good.
2. “My All” (Butterfly, 1998)
The flamenco-inspired guitar and the gorgeous raspy singing on “My All” made for Mariah Carey’s most underrated hit. It doesn’t sound like it would be an absolute vocal circus (spoiler: but it is), but there’s nobody on this planet who can make scaling this barbed-wire-fence of a song sound as workaday as Mimi herself. “My All” parallels Mimi’s vocal as the perfect match between Simple and Thesaurus’ Worst Nightmare: “I am thinking of you / In my sleepless solitude tonight / If it’s wrong to love you / Then my heart just won’t let me be right”. If you too were born during the week this masterpiece topped the charts, you can still relate to it whenever heartbreak creeps in. Somebody please show “Happy Birthday” the door.
1. “Fantasy” (Daydream, 1995)
“Fantasy” matches the grandeur of its Oscar-worthy video: It’s a rollerblading roller-coaster summertime psalm stuffed with enough ad-libs to put Migos to shame. Imagine “Always Be My Baby” and “Dreamlover” decided to ring up “Touch My Body” for a sleepover and shared secrets. With a breakdown that legitimately takes you to the heaven Mimi sings of, and the Ol’ Dirty Bastard remix immortalized in our brains (yes, everybody is in the house, ODB, thanks for asking), “Fantasy” was where Mariah turned in pop’s master thesis. Thank the day she heard Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love” on the radio and decided to sample it, and as always we can thank Wu-Tang, for blessing the ’90s’ greatest summit of pop, R&B, and hip-hop. And if she’s only eternally 12 years old, that’s a lot of time left to do it all over again.
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