How do 15-year-old hits by Nirvana, Prince, and Right Said Fred(?!) hold up today? Let's give 'em another listen

By Whitney Pastorek
Updated February 07, 2007 at 05:00 AM EST
Mike Hashimoto/LFI

This week in ’92: Rating the top ten hits

Greetings, Flashbackers! I know you are all disappointed with me because I haven’t written one of these in a while, and I’m really sorry about that. Hell, I’m disappointed in myself. But we soldier on, you know? We put the past behind us, and we move forward, into the future. Or, technically, I guess we put the past ahead of us, as — at least where this column is concerned — it is the future. And then we move forward toward that. The past, in the future. Or something. Dang it, now I’m confused.

Billboard‘s Top 10 songs for the week ending Feb. 8, 1992

10. ”Tell Me What You Want Me to Do,” Tevin Campbell
Ooh, baby. This is a song by a young man who at some point decided his first name was an acronym, although it’s still unclear what T.E.V.I.N. stands for, so let’s make it up: Teenaged Emotions Varying In Necessity? Typically Easy Vibes Irresistibly Nattered? Too (much) Emoting (is) Very (obnoxious, even) In (small doses, especially) Now (that American Idol is back and I can hear the way this guy would probably have made it to the Hollywood round but not much further before Simon booted him for not being unique)? Okay, I was pushing it with that last one, but you get my point. Clearly, Campbell can sing, and if Quincy Jones put faith in the kid, he must be above average on the charisma scale, but they could not have packed more nonsense into this song if they’d used a stick. Strings! Snaps! Ding-y bell things! Falsetto! Key change! Magical backup singers! Melisma! Chest-pounding desperation! And to finish it all off: Faux-seductive whispering! It’s the perfect recipe for a generic R&B hit, which, of course, it was… but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. Ah, the ’90s. How I’ve (not) missed you (at all). C+

9. ”Finally,” Ce Ce Peniston
Okay, wait, I take that back. Here’s something I miss from the ’90s: The female-empowerment dance anthem. Nowadays we’ve got the Pussycat Dolls boobing about in short skirts and rubbing up on whatever stands still long enough, but back then, women like Ms. Peniston (and acts like En Vogue) were combining affirmational lyrics with house tracks and coming up with songs that said, ”Hey, you are a hot man, and I wish to rub up on you, but I am in control of this situation, and you are only getting some because I have chosen you specifically.” (Note the way that song’s message also works well for the gay community.) My new roommate and I were just talking about this the other night: the way we spent our club years feeling strong and protected by some sort of unspoken sisterhood emanating from the speakers, like we could wield the music as a weapon against anyone who wanted to objectify us…or at least keep dancing in a circle with our girlfriends until the offending stranger went away. So yeah, I like this song. It brings back memories of my youth and the occasional misguided evening at [insert now-defunct New York City nightclub here]. I wouldn’t really recommend trying to focus on the lyrics or the song structure or anything, but if you feel like dancing, go on, girl. B

8. ”To Be With You,” Mr. Big
Fun game: Go to a party. Find a guitar. Regale the partygoers with silly ’80s songs and summer-camp favorites until the vibe starts to slow down and becomes pensive/drunk. Let the inevitable pretentious dweeb borrow the guitar for a second to play the pretentious, dweeby song he wrote. Then pass the guitar to the dreamy, artsy boy and listen to his soulful rendition of something soulful. Reclaim the guitar. Capture the room’s attention, take a deep breath and a pensive drink, and then say this: ”Do you guys mind if I share something with you? I mean, I don’t usually do this, but I just feel like I really want to play this song, because, I don’t know, I just feel really safe right now. Is that okay? Okay. Well, so this is a song — I guess I should explain. I mean, I don’t know how many of you know this, but I was going through this really hard time a while ago. I don’t really like to talk about it — it’s no big deal — but I guess, you know, it was dark. And, I mean, I don’t know if this ever happens to you — I’m so sorry if I’m being boring, I know this is a party, I’ll be done in a second, I swear, thank you so much for listening — so I don’t know if there’s ever been, like, a song that saved your life? Yeah, I don’t know. Sometimes that happens to me. And so, yeah, when I was going through that dark time… Sometimes I would just take out my guitar and play this song, and it was like everything was gonna be okay, you know? And so, I dunno, I really, just — do you mind if I play it right now? Real quick? Really? Okay.” And then take another deep breath, and another pensive drink, and then pause ever so slightly…and then, at the top of your lungs, sing this song.

I swear to god, it kills. Every. Single. Time. B+

7. ”Can’t Let Go,” Mariah Carey
Which one is this? Is she on a jet ski in the video? No? Meh. Then I have no interest. KIDDING. I am KIDDING, Mariah-fanatic people. Please do not email me. I like this song fine. I mean, it’s a little weird — I keep thinking it’s a different song than it actually is, because something in the structure creates these places where it could jump off and go in a different direction, sprout another tune, but then it zigs where it seems like it should zag, and of course this point would be a lot stronger if I could identify any of those other songs it reminds me of, but I cannot, so now this is just a really long run-on sentence. Although, wait, is it reminding me a little of Al Green’s ”Love Is a Beautiful Thing”? Maybe? A little? Hmm. Anyway, it’s pleasant, the backup singers are nice, the arrangement shows a great deal of restraint, and I like the key change especially, which is always worth bonus points. But now, let me ask you a serious question: Does anyone else find it really weird that every single time I do a ’90s Chart Flashback, there’s a Mariah Carey song on it? B+

6. ”Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Nirvana
No matter what lies I tell about Mr. Big at parties, this is the only song on this chart that actually changed my life In fact, let’s go ahead and say that this song changed the world. Because while there could be worse things on the radio than an endless string of Mariah Carey ballads (as we’ll see when we get to this week’s #1), even honey gets grody if you eat too much of it. This song was the sour milk in the sickening sweetness; it was the nail gun in the pile of Care Bears; it was the real amidst the fake — and because it was pungent and sharp and tangible, it thrived. Take a second and look at this chart, America; look at the mediocrity you wrought. And then take a second and listen to ”Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It never climbed higher than the #6 spot, but no matter. By embracing this song, you made the world a better place. Why, it’s just like the great Julie Andrews once said: Somewhere in your youth (or childhood), you done something good. A+

5. ”All 4 Love,” Color Me Badd
Aaaand, we’re back to Care Bears. Boop boop boop, whee! This is a cloying, repetitive, rinky-dink little song that totally cheats off ”I Wanna Sex You Up” yet somehow manages to be pretty catchy. So we’re going to cut it a break, even sandwiched here as it is between two musical giants. Color Me Badd were not musical giants. They spelled things funny, and sold a lot of records, and somehow managed to not quite ever become Boyz II Men. But hey, this track just wants to be loved. It’s like a pound puppy that way. B

(Seriously, though: You know how there’s that mix of two Nickelback songs layered on top of each other to prove that they’re inherently the same song? Can someone cook that up for me with this and the sexing-up song? There’s swag in it for ya.)

4. ”Diamonds and Pearls,” Prince and the New Power Generation
Wow, that was a great halftime show you played at the Super Bowl, Prince! I really loved the way you tore through all your biggest hits, especially ”Let’s Go Crazy” and ”Purple Rain” and ”Get Off” and ”Cream” and ”Darling Nikki” and…oh, wait. You didn’t do those last three. Because of God, right? Because God doesn’t like the sex? Oh Prince. Prince Prince Prince. So many of us would not even know that sex exists, were it not for you. And you’re still using the slave-symbol guitar, even though you’re no longer owned by a record company and are instead free to burn CDs in your basement and sell them via direct mail. Why can’t that same consistency apply to your sex songs? And truthfully, does this conversation even apply to ”Diamonds and Pearls”? I guess I’m not sure. I just got so used to inferring a filthy double-meaning from everything you wrote that even a sweetly intentioned love song like this one could seem somehow pornographic. There was, seriously, a longstanding rumor at my elementary school that ”Raspberry Beret” was about farts, and/or farting on a girl’s head, which we assumed adults did as part of sexy time. So you see, Prince: The children of this country need you. They need you — and your music — to teach them, so they don’t think farts can be used as foreplay. You can’t let them down, Prince. You can’t let them down. A-

3. ”Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” George Michael/Elton John
What can I say, really? Good song, great singers, two for the price of one, every charity’s wet dream of a fund-raising single. Nothing left to do but go to the videotape, upon which I could compose a short novel of mockery, but I won’t, because, really, good song, great singers, great causes, yadda yadda. Tip your server — and don’t forget to read the comments on that YouTube link, kids. They’re priceless. B+

2. ”I Love Your Smile,” Shanice
Aw, Shanice, that’s sweet. You’re not so bad yourself. Have you met Color Me Badd, Ce Ce Peniston, and T.E.V.I.N.? Somehow, I think you guys would get along. Boop boop boop, whee. B

1. ”I’m Too Sexy,” Right Said Fred
Well, it had to happen eventually. F. F, F, F, F, F, F.

Except in this context, which is awesome.