Despite having her critics, Mariah Carey is the best-selling female artist of all time. Her voice — spanning five octaves, almost an entire piano — has sold more than 160 million records in two decades. Along the way, she’s been through the highs and lows of the music business; in 2001 alone, she signed a record deal worth $80 mill and then suffered an infamous public meltdown when her first feature film (Glitter) failed to bring in a twentieth of that in the box office. Her album of the same name was the worst of her career.
Now, seven short years later, Mariah is about to return with E=MC2 — her eleventh full-length release and the sequel to The Emancipation of Mimi, 2005’s best-selling album. But in a career so bogged down by giant numbers, Carey is currently chasing perhaps the smallest figure of her career: one.
As of now, Mariah has seventeen Billboard #1s to her name, just one shy of Elvis and three shy of the Beatles. The lead single from E=MC2 — “Touch My Body” — is holding strong atop iTunes, almost guaranteeing a rise from #15 on the Billboard Hot 100. And with a team of producers almost identical to the staff from her first Mimi album, we must just see history made before the year’s end. So I’ve decided to take a run through Mariah’s historic career, profiling each of her #1s since “Vision of Love” topped the charts in 1990. And while this column could quickly turn into a diatribe disparaging Carey for lacking the talent of Elvis or the Fab Four, let’s not forget that’s she’s cowritten 16 of these 17 singles.
1. “Vision of Love” (1990, from Mariah Carey)
Outside of being her first number one, there’s not much to say about this single. It’s more a feat of packaging than anything else; Carey, a 17 year-old wide-eyed hopeful, was plucked out of a club by Sony head Tommy Mottola and told to sing some sappy lyrics over an even sappier beat. Perhaps it’s fitting that the song is a ballad — Mariah’s clear strong suit, which she returned to in 2005 (“We Belong Together”) after a half-decade drought of attempting club hits and coming up short. “Vision” also won Mariah her first Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance; and for what it’s worth, it’s the only Carey track on VH1’s Top 100 Songs of the ’90s.
2. “Love Takes Time” (1990, Mariah Carey)
“Love Takes Time” was the first single to prominently feature the vocal whistling we’ve all come to expect from Mariah. Cynics would point to the song’s lyrics when Mariah married the aforementioned Tommy Mottola in 1993 — they would go on to divorce in 1997. But lyrically relevant or not, “Love Takes Time” remains the choice cut from Mariah’s first album.
3. “Someday” (1991, Mariah Carey)
Mariah’s early albums were overrun with ballads, making singles like “Someday” almost impossible to come by. The song is four minutes of dance-tempo flair, almost devoid of melody and vocal gymnastics when compared with Mariah’s slower jams. But the fact that the song was the third single from Mariah Carey marks an interesting shift in the music industry since the early nineties, when record execs could lead off major albums with ballads and release the club songs later. Nowadays, ballads come third or even fourth as singles; even Mariah released “It’s Like That” before “We Belong Together” in 2005, although the latter was a much bigger hit. So “Someday” might have played the part of lead single if Mariah debuted post-millenium.
4. “I Don’t Wanna Cry” (1991, Mariah Carey)
The fourth and final chart-topper from Mariah’s first disc, “I Don’t Wanna Cry” tied her with Whitney Houston for the most #1s from a single album by a female artist. That invited comparisons between the two, which seemed more than welcome as both went on to massive success in the early nineties. Since then, Carey has gone on to outsell Houston by more than a few records, but don’t think that Whitney didn’t provide the exact framework for a career like Mariah’s: good-looking girl with a great voice who sings love songs and thinks she should star in movies. So for what it’s worth, “I Don’t Wanna Cry” morphed Mariah from flash-in-the-pan to powerhouse performer with historic potential.
5. “Emotions” (1991, Emotions)
As an album, Emotions tried to establish Mariah as a diva; that is, a strong female vocalist with staying power. As a single, “Emotions” put sex and sass ahead of sentiment, and the move worked on the Billboard chart — at the time, “Emotions” was the biggest hit of Carey’s career. But it also came from an album that did far less business than her first, which put record execs in a tough position: either continue to market the uptempo, sexy Mariah and settle for success on the singles charts; or put more money into the ballads and seek success across an entire album. Truth be told, it’s not a terrible decision to have to make — but the clear shift in direction on Mariah’s next album showed that her producers were at very least thinking about it.
6. “I’ll Be There” (1992, MTV Unplugged)
“I’ll Be There” is the lone single on this list that Mariah did not cowrite, and that’s because it’s a cover. The song was originally written by Berry Gordy for the Jackson 5, who took it to the top of the charts in the ’60s. Mariah added it at the last minute to her MTV Unplugged set, and it quickly became her biggest international hit — not to mention a sixth Billboard #1. And though I’ve already mentioned how Mariah took a page out of Whitney Houston’s book early in her career, note that Houston mimicked this move — re-recording a classic ballad for radio play — just months later with “I Will Always Love You,” a cover version of a Dolly Parton song. “I Will Always Love You” went on to become the best-selling single by a female artist in history.
7. “Dreamlover” (1993, Music Box)
This was the lead single from Music Box, the landmark CD that remains Mariah’s best-selling to date. Music Box attempted to separate Carey from the vocal showmanship she’d become known for; runs and high notes were pushed away from the forefront in favor of softer, more subtle melodies. The irony, then, is that the two biggest singles from the album were the songs that did not compromise Mariah’s vocal talent — the first of which was “Dreamlover,” a mid-tempo track whose lyrical content was copied almost exactly for 1995’s “Fantasy.” Another irony is that Sony pushed Mariah into a U.S. tour following Music Box, meaning she’d promote her least melodic songs during her first-ever national concert series. Critics panned the tour despite loving the CD.
8. “Hero” (1993, Music Box)
“Hero” is undoubtedly well-written and instantly memorable, but it might just be the most sappy song of Mariah Carey’s career. Given an already saccharine beat, Carey decided to pen a set of absolutely Disney-worthy lyrics — perhaps to add to the decades-old gamut of “hero” songs in pop music. Tina Turner started the trend in the 1980s, when “We Don’t Need Another Hero” became one of her biggest solo hits; and if Mariah’s “Hero” takes the cake for the 1990s, then Enrique Iglesias’ ballad of the same name becomes the template for the 2000s. It’s also worth note that “Hero” was Mariah’s first #1 over Christmas weekend, a feat she unsuccessfully tried to reproduce with 1994’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You.”
9. “Fantasy” (1995, Daydream)
The two-year interim between Music Box and Daydream — by far the longest gap between Mariah albums at that point in her career — was a period of musical genius for Carey and her producers, who cooked up a set of brilliant singles to market the Daydream album. The first was “Fantasy,” which became the only song by a female artist in history to debut at the #1 spot on the Billboard chart. The single also sampled an obscure hit by an obscure band: the Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love.” This trick — reworking an old hit for renewed chart success — would later be aped by solo starlets like Jessica Simpson (“I Think I’m in Love With You” using “Jack & Diane”) and Rihanna (“S.O.S.” using “Tainted Love”).
10. “One Sweet Day” (1995, Daydream)
“One Sweet Day” — a duet between Mariah and Boyz II Men — spent 16 weeks in pole position on the Billboard Hot 100. That was a record then and remains unbroken today. Aside from the history, however, “One Sweet Day” is one of the least-known ballads of Carey’s career — an interesting fact considering it’s her biggest hit by statistical standards. The song’s video, however, became a ’90s favorite.
11. “Always Be My Baby” (1996, Daydream)
If there are two big surprises about the Daydream album, the first is that it didn’t outsell Music Box. (To be fair, Music Box sold 30 mill international.) The second surprise is that Daydream‘s best song — the impressively catchy “Always Be My Baby,” maybe the best of Carey’s career — was the album’s least successful single. That said, it still hit number one, and remains a quizzical chart-topper given that Mariah wrote it in the midst of her abysmal relationship with Tommy Mottola. (Since their divorce, she’s referred to their marriage as a sort of prison in the press.) It also marked the end of Mariah’s unfaltering reign over the pop charts; or, perhaps better put, it was her last single before the start of the teeny-bopper movement that overshadowed her throne atop the music world.
12. “Honey” (1997, Butterfly)
An excellent single in and of itself, “Honey” allowed two new influences into Mariah Carey’s career: hip-hop and acting. As for the former, “Honey” was produced by Sean “Puffy” Combs, leading Carey through years of collaborating with rappers that wouldn’t really resonate with a popular audience until she hooked up with Jermaine Dupri for 2005’s The Emancipation of Mimi. And as for acting? Mariah’s brief interlude at the top of the “Honey” video might have convinced her that the silver screen could be her second home. Glitter, which came a few years later, proved her so, so wrong.
13. “My All” (1998, Butterfly)
With Butterfly, Mariah tried extremely hard to separate herself from the Mariah Carey that Tommy Mottola had created, mostly because she recorded the album directly after divorcing the record mogul. In so doing, she attempted a diverse array of styles — from the aforementioned hip-hop single (“Honey”) to a Spanish-tinged ballad, which shows up in second single “My All.” The song is one of her sexier ballads, sung almost entirely in a breathy falsetto and accompanied by a stylized, black-and-white video in the vain of Shania Twain’s “You’re Still the One.”
14. “Heartbreaker” (1999, Rainbow)
“Heartbreaker” is my personal favorite single on this list, if only for its video that stars Jerry O’Connell alongside multiple incarnations of Mariah that end up beating the shit out of each other in a Cineplex bathroom. (Umm, talk about multiple personalities.) The song also features a guest verse from Jay-Z, finalizing an interesting trend in Mariah’s career: whereas she started out dueting with other singers like Whitney Houston and Boyz II Men, she eventually gave up those guest spots for rap verses in the middle of her songs. The single also sold a quarter-million copies in its first week — the highest sales mark of Carey’s career to that point.
15. “Thank God I Found You” (1999, Rainbow)
This song, on the contrary, is my least favorite song on this list. It showed that Mariah’s up-tempo songs were getting better as her ballads were getting worse — and if we’ve learned anything from the beginning of her career, it’s that her ballads are more reliable than anything else she does. Unfortunately, Mariah wouldn’t realize this until six years after “Thank God” topped the charts, meaning that she’d put out two more albums in her four-disc streak of teenie titles (Glitter and Charmbracelet would follow Rainbow and Butterfly) before hitting #1 again. That may seem like a short wait for a typical band, but it’s an incredible drought for the only female artist to hit #1 in each year of the ’90s decade.
16. “We Belong Together” (2005, The Emancipation of Mimi)
Even through her high and low points, Mariah Carey remained one of the more productive artists of all-time; she’s averaged one album per two years in an industry that’s comfortable with staggering twice that in between consecutive releases. That said, the three-year break before The Emancipation of Mimi was the longest of her career, and the most-needed at that: after the abomination that was 2001’s Glitter, Carey was dropped by Virgin Records and tried a quick rebound with 2002’s Charmbracelet to little avail. She then took a breath and found Jermaine Dupri, the uber-successful music mogul who had churned out hits for Janet Jackson years before. Their pairing proved a success, most notably on “We Belong Together” — which won Carey her second Female Vocal Grammy more than 15 years after her first. Clive Davis has called the track one of the hardest to sing live, a claim made more impressive by the fact that Carey recorded it in one live take.
17. “Don’t Forget About Us” (2005, The Emancipation of Mimi)
Another ballad, another number one. Of the four singles to be released from The Emancipation of Mimi, only “We Belong Together” and “Don’t Forget” topped the charts; “Shake It Off” barely missed (#2) and “It’s Like That” didn’t even crack the Top 10. The lesson for Mariah is once again that ballads are her best chance at pole position, and that’s most likely why she’s leading off E=MC2 with the slow jam “Touch My Body.” I expect “Touch” to hit #1 this week, giving Mariah that elusive tie with Elvis for the second-most #1 singles in history. And if not, you can’t deny that she’s had one of the more legendary careers in our lifetimes as music consumers. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is left up to you to decide.