‘Tis the season of Mariah Carey!
The Elusive Chanteuse. Songbird. The Voice. Mimi – one of the best-selling music artists of all time with over 200 million albums sold worldwide. Carey’s career spans over 27 years and 14 studio albums between 1990 and 2015. A heavenly mastery of melisma (the vocal technique of packing different notes into a single syllable) and a 5-octave voice have entrenched Carey in the vein of pop culture for years and years to come.
The singer is also the unequivocal queen of Christmas, known for the transcendent song “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” but we know that there’s always the slim chance someone in your life may have an “I don’t know her” moment. Although it’s hard to imagine such blasphemy, here’s a quick-and-dirty cheat sheet to Mimi’s larger-than-life career.
Where to start: Butterfly
With five albums under her belt, 11 record breaking No. 1 singles, and an iconic Christmas song that basically invented holiday music, Carey had become the voice and shining star of the 90’s. To be fair, any of her previous four LPs would be a great Mariah Carey intro course, but if you’re looking to capture Mimi’s talent, versatility, and magic in one go, 1997’s Butterfly is the album to listen to.
Mimi’s sixth album spawned five singles, some of which became iconic hits (like “Honey,” “Breakdown,” and “My All”), but most importantly the album introduced a new image, sound, and direction for Carey’s career. Save for a few haters, the vast majority of critics agreed that the new sound worked and marked a turn in the elusive chanteuse’s career, solidifying her as a viable hip-hop collaborator — which was seemingly unexplored territory for pop singers in the ’90s. Carey worked with rap and hip-hop heavyweights of the time like Missy Elliot, Sean “Diddy” Combs, and Q-Tip (A Tribe Called Quest) to produce the album, basically paving the way for every modern day collaboration featuring rap contemporaries. Butterfly sold 10 million copies worldwide and spent 21 weeks atop the Billboard 200 charts. Although not a commercial success, by Mariah standards, the album is Carey at her best – it is her magnum opus.
The must-hit singles
It’s a hard day at work when you’re trying to categorize Carey’s ample array of music. Over the course of almost 30 years in the spotlight, she’s officially released 63 singles, 27 of which have appeared on the US top-ten chart. Like Midas, everything that Carey touches, or sings in this case, turns to gold (except for Glitter, but we’ve forgiven her and culture has moved on). Therefore, narrowing down her must-listen singles is a huge responsibility and a complicated one — but here are a handful of her hit singles that showcase Mimi’s star power and evolution through the years.
“Vision of Love” (1990)
Carey’s debut single and first hit is a slow-dancing love song that introduced her now-signature whistle tones to the world. The song is a true ’90s jam that allows the singer’s powerful voice to shine from wall-to-wall — not to mention the big hair.
Iconic. That’s the only way to describe the opening track from Carey’s second album Emotions. The ultimate ‘I’m catching feelings’ anthem put the singer in the history books forever. “Emotions” was her fifth (!!) consecutive number one hit on the Billboard 100 chart, the only act to ever do so, beating out The Jackson 5. Plus, the song shows off her vocal range, hitting some whistling runs that only Mariah Carey could achieve.
Everyone knows what’s about to happen when the first few piano notes from “Hero” start to play. This song is the trademark Mariah Carey ballad. The lyrics — uplifting and emotional — have certainly helped the song remain her most-performed single to this day. MC ended up recording the song by chance, having initially written it for Gloria Estefan. Carey didn’t think the song was on brand for her at the time, but its lyrical content — “And then a hero comes along / With the strength to carry on / And you cast your fears aside” — combined with the singer’s delivery resulted in fans across the world connecting with the personal message behind it. “Hero” is a single from Carey’s highest-selling record Music Box (28 million copies) and it continues to be one of her signature performances.
“Always Be My Baby” (1996)
Just another hit from Mimi. Well into her successful career, the singer started to play with her sound and, with the help of Jermaine Dupree, the queen of vocals entered a new era in her career, one in which R&B and pop became one. The result? Urban-dipped pop that has since become Carey’s specialty.
“Heartbreaker” (1999 )
Carey’s flirty song about the perils of dating a bad boy (featuring Jay-Z) earned her yet another spot in history. With this hip-hop-infused bubble-gum-pop single, Mimi became the first and only artist in present day to have No. 1 songs in every single year of the decade (1990-99). Also, it’s important to note, this is the song that gave us Carey’s iconic brunette alter-ego, Bianca, and that album cover.
“Touch My Body” (2008)
The pressure was on when Carey released this instant classic back in ’08. After the success of 2005’s The Emancipation of Mimi, critics and fans had high hopes — and a lot of doubt. MC delivered what her public wanted and so much more with “Touch My Body,” from E= MC2, dubbed one of the most anticipated albums from that year. Although some critics thought the song hid the singer’s voice, the single quickly became a fan favorite and led to Carey’s 18th Billboard Hot 100 topper, breaking a record previously held by Elvis Presley. The song (and hilarious video) helped Mimi reclaim her throne atop the charts – as if anyone could ever take it from her.
“We Belong Together” (2005)
Fame is frugal but talent is forever and that’s exactly the point Carey made with “We Belong Together.” The lead single from 2005’s The Emancipation of Mimi came after a few tough years for the singer, including fatigue breakdowns, a very public commercial decline, Glitter, and the tragedy that was Charmbracelet (2002). Many critics, fans, and the music industry wondered if the Mariah Carey was over. The success of Carey’s ‘comeback’, as many critics hailed it, quickly reminded the world of Mimi’s star power and most importantly her voice — all while looking and obviously feeling better than ever.
“One Sweet Day” (1995)
There are many reasons why MC, the songbird, has achieved pop music legend status and the astonishing success of “One Sweet Day” is just one, if not the reason. The massive hit released in ’95 featuring Boyz II Men is a cut from Carey’s Daydream album. For over 20 years, the song has held the record for the longest-leading Hot 100 No. 1 — a 16-week reign between 1995-96. The superstar ballad was penned by the elusive chanteuse and Boyz II Men in honor of people in their lives who’d lost the battle against AIDS.
The must-see music video
“I was like, why you so obsessed with me?” The opening lines to the music video that saved lives, careers, and snatched wigs. Pulling references from Mean Girls and The Devil Wears Prada, Carey delivered an iconic visual for what was rumored to be a diss song aimed at Eminem. Carey, dressed as a man, plays the role of a stalker who is “Obsessed” with her. The diva attitude, the unashamed pettiness of the lyrics, and all the quintessential Mimi looks make this one of the most era-defining videos the singer has delivered.
The holiday masterpiece
Christmas hasn’t been the same since 1994. Riding off the success of one of the best-selling album of all time (Music Box), Carey was savoring fame when she followed up with a monster single: A love song about Christmas. The holiday song, from her album Merry Christmas, has been critically acclaimed and dubbed a modern-day classic. Every year around the holiday season, right after Thanksgiving, the song re-enters the cultural membrane and Mariah Carey, like the ultimate Christmas supreme, gains all her powers back. The home video footage, the red Santa suit, and her joyful performance have made “All I Want For Christmas Is You” the standard for holiday songs and a timeless Carey classic.
The 2000s: a time when Juicy Couture track suits were hot, Jennifer Lopez was still from the block, and Mimi invented shade. You might recognize the “I don’t know her” GIF from the day-to-day debacle that is Twitter, but do you know its origins? Allow me. During a German TV interview, Carey was being questioned about which fellow artists she liked and disliked. First came Beyoncé, for whom Mimi had nothing but praise. Then the reporter asked her about J. Lo, and meme history was made. No other response has infiltrated the pop culture lexicon deeper than this bobble-headed, crushing “I don’t know her.” The best part is that, to this day, Carey remains forgetful – and still doesn’t know J.Lo.
Carey remains on top, as she holds the honor of having the longest-leading Hot 100 No. 1 song in Billboard’s 56-year chart history. She is largely credited for introducing R&B to mainstream with her surprising 1995 duet with Wu-Tang’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard on “Fantasy (Remix).” The song basically set the standard for modern-day pop stars. With a well-earned reality show on her resume and a successful Las Vegas residency, too, the elusive chanteuse’s legacy is set. MiMi’s talent, penchant for over-the-top glamour, and unapologetic royal attitude have cemented her as one of the greatest and most influential pop culture icons of our time, inspiring singers for generations to come. The crown of a pop diva is heavy, darling, so leave it where it belongs.