In celebration of Mariah Carey's multiple Grammy nominations, here are our picks for her all-time essential tracks. Think we missed some? Then post your own list
The 10 best Mariah Carey songs… Agree?
Who’s your favorite: Disco Mariah, Hip-Hop Mariah, or Ballad Mariah? It’s debatable which version of the diva reigns supreme, but one thing is without question: In the 14 years since she released her self-titled debut, Mariah Carey has been one of pop music’s most prolific hitmakers. In celebration of her recent eight Grammy nominations, and the continuing sales success of her latest disc, The Emancipation of Mimi (now past 5 million and counting), EW.com attempts to whittle down her huge catalog to a few choice gems. (Be sure to post your own picks below.)
”Vision of Love” (Mariah Carey, 1990)
From those opening sci-fi-esque synths to that signature dog-whistle high note, Mariah’s very first single is inspired: Even folks who object to her trademark vocal excesses are hard-pressed to fault this rousing, gospel-tinged song about finding ”the one that I needed.” Though it’s not clear if she’s celebrating a secular love or her relationship with a higher power, this exuberant ballad is a near-religious listening experience.
”You’re So Cold” (Emotions, 1991)
”Someday,” ”Make It Happen,” and ”Emotions” are the best-known uptempo tracks from early in Carey’s ballad-heavy career, but the overlooked ”You’re So Cold” has a cheesy charm that still delights more than a decade after it was recorded. Yes, the lyrics are simplistic (”Your kiss is like fire/ But deep down inside/ You’re so cold”) as is the producer-pressing-a-Casio beat. But this tune fits nicely alongside other diva-done-wrong guilty pleasures, such as Paula Abdul’s ”Cold Hearted” and Britney Spears’ ”Toxic.” Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that.
”Always Be My Baby” (Daydream, 1995)
Mariah and co-producer Jermaine Dupri cooked up one of her loveliest melodies to tell a story of enduring love. Delivered over a breezy, midtempo beat and swaying ”doo-doo-doo” background vocals, ”Always Be My Baby” goes down like a glass of lemonade on a summer day. Is it any surprise, then, that the singer set the song’s video in the scenic confines of Camp Mariah, her country getaway for underprivileged city kids?
”Butterfly” (Butterfly, 1997)
The video for ”Honey,” the jaunty hit single off Butterfly, may have poked fun at Carey’s split with record exec husband Tommy Mottola, but it’s the melismatic title track (and its pretty pony video) that flogs a thousand clichés about moving on after a bad relationship. Somehow, though, the end result is greater than the sum of its saccharine parts; who knew lyrics about being kept ”under glass” and spreading one’s wings could make for such a, er, soaring anthem? Not only that, Mariah introduces the word abandonedly into the vernacular.
”The Beautiful Ones” (Butterfly, 1997)
Carey’s had hit collaborations with everyone from 98 Degrees to Boyz II Men, but her duet with Dru Hill on this Prince-penned ballad (co-produced by Carey and Cory Rooney) is the one that got away from radio. Unlike, for example, the histrionic ”Thank God I Found You,” the vocals here are nicely restrained. Meanwhile, the lyrics allow Carey to explore a relatively complex scenario, the way lovers can be pulled apart by the lure of ”beautiful ones” who ”hurt you every time.” The icing on the cake is a dissonant synth line floating over the strangely hypnotic melody — adding a touch of musical menace to the melodrama.
”Fantasy” (featuring O.D.B.) (#1s, 1998)
Mariah’s never been afraid to pass the mic to rappers to create hip-hop reinventions of her singles. In one of her most unlikely — and most successful — collaborations (initially released as a single in 1995), Ol’ Dirty Bastard adds some hilariously funky rhymes to her already tricked-out chart-topper. All together now: ”Me and Mariah/ Go back like babies with pacifiers/ Ol’ dirty dog no liar/ Keep the fantasy hot like fire.”
”I Still Believe” (#1s, 1998)
Carey’s renditions of other artists’ songs never fail to paint her as a desperate woman clinging to love even when the glass is well past half-empty — Harry Nilsson’s ”Without You,” Phil Collins’ ”Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now),” even Def Leppard’s ”Bringin’ on the Heartbreak.” But it’s her version of Brenda K. Starr’s ”I Still Believe” that brings Mariah back to basics (which is appropriate, considering that she began her career as a backup singer for Starr). Shunning the irksome baby-girl whispers that have plagued her later work, Mariah instead delivers a strong, clear melody with a well-harnessed growl.
”Heartbreaker” (Rainbow, 1999)
Sure, it’s a dime-store knockoff of ”Fantasy,” but the partially animated good Mariah/bad Mariah video clip (featuring Jerry O’Connell) elevates this soufflé to instant-classic status. And hey, Mariah nabbed a Jay-Z cameo some four years before ”Crazy in Love.” Take that, Beyoncé!
”Last Night a DJ Saved My Life” (Glitter, 2001)
Carey would probably prefer to forget everything associated with the critical and commercial disaster of her big-screen starring debut, but on closer examination, Glitter‘s soundtrack contains a few overlooked gems. Chief among them is a rap-flavored reinvention of Indeep’s disco classic, which finds Carey, Busta Rhymes, and Fabolous cutting loose over a sinister bassline. If you can erase painful memories of the film’s wooden performances, preposterous dialogue, and slipshod direction, then you can count this track among Carey’s career highlights.
”Fantasy (Def Club Mix)” (The Remixes, 2003)
Carey’s long been a club-crowd favorite for going back into the studio to re-record vocals for her dance mixes, but the results were never more stunning than on this epic, 11-minute-plus 1995 recording. Producer David Morales piles on enough thudding drums, frantic sirens, and groovy organs that even the most jaded clubgoer would be hard-pressed to stay seated. Carey’s loose, effortless vocal keeps the song’s core melody and lyrics intact — right down to the syrupy-good Tom Tom Club sample that slows the track to a trippy halt at the five-minute mark. As Mariah herself howls, ”It’s just sooooo sweet!”
”We Belong Together” (The Emancipation of Mimi, 2005)
The hook is irrepressible, the lyrics are simple and filled with regret, and Carey’s vocal is so devastating you get the urge to create turmoil in your own relationship just to have an excuse to play this track. What’s more, at a commendably tight 3 minutes and 21 seconds, ”We Belong Together” always leaves you wanting more.
”Shake It Off” (The Emancipation of Mimi, 2005)
Serving up what’s arguably the most dexterous performance of her career, Carey plays fast and loose — and wins — on this cleverly written tongue-twister about kicking a cheating lover to the curb. Bonus points for making blatant product placement for Louis Vuitton and Calgon (!) sound cheeky, rather than cheesy.
”Your Girl” (The Emancipation of Mimi, 2005)
It says something about the depth of Carey’s latest disc that this lovely little ditty hasn’t yet made it to radio, but hopefully that’ll be remedied in the not-too-distant future. After all, diehard Mariah fans shouldn’t be the only ones walking around with the song’s breezy, gospel-tinged chorus stuck in their brains.