It's more than a 'sweet, sweet fantasy, baby'
Written by: Kyle Anderson; Isabella Biedenharn; Leah Greenblatt; Chris Rackliffe; Jason Sheeler; and Madison Vain. A version of this story previously appeared in the May 15, 2015 issue of Entertainment Weekly.
Mariah Carey turns 48 years old on Tuesday, marking yet another milestone in a life largely spent churning out No. 1s. At 20, Carey scored her first chart-topping hit when “Vision of Love,” her debut single, dominated Billboard’s Hot 100 in August 1990. She’s had 17 more No. 1s — the most of any solo artist in pop music history — in the decades since. To celebrate the icon’s birthday, we’re putting each infectious smash in our own (highly subjective) order.
1. “Fantasy” (1995, 8 weeks)
“Fantasy” isn’t just the platonic ideal of a Mariah Carey single — it’s an all-around perfect song. Built on a squiggling sample borrowed from Tom Tom Club’s 1981 hit “Genius of Love,” the track (co-produced by Carey, Sean “Diddy” Combs, and Dave Hall) hit just hard enough to cement Carey’s hip-hop bona fides but was still bubbly enough for suburban middle-school dances. Combs enlisted Wu-Tang Clan ringleader Ol’ Dirty Bastard to add some New York City grit to the remix; as a result, even listeners habitually allergic to rap music know that “Me and Mariah/Go back like babies with pacifiyahs” line by heart. And of course, there’s Carey’s sugar-smacked vocal floating above it all, as fizzy, rich, and satisfying as an ice cream soda on a hot summer boardwalk.
2. “Always Be My Baby” (1996, 2 weeks)
She had us at the first “doo-doo-doo dow.” Add a few more taffy-sticky coos, and no, there’s no way we would ever try to shake her — even if we didn’t know yet that “always” really would last this long.
3. “Vision of Love” (1990, 4 weeks)
Carey didn’t so much debut with her very first single as descend fully formed, like a Lycra-clad Venus on the half shell. Who had heard high notes like those outside of an opera house? When had we ever even been to the opera? It didn’t matter; by the time she hit that epic final vocal run, Our Lady of Infinite Melismata was consecrated.
4. “Emotions” (1991, 3 weeks)
As if to prove her first album wasn’t a fluke, Carey went ahead and sang the hell out of the first single on her second full-length, too. Sure, it’s got one of the most cartoonishly nonspecific choruses ever written (“You’ve got me feeling emotions!”), but the way she double-jumps her own range into Virgin Galactic territory? Legendary.
5. “Honey” (1997, 3 weeks)
Mimi made her declaration of independence with a staccato piano line, a classic rap sample, and an exhalation of nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nahs: “Honey” was the first single to follow her split from husband/Svengali Tommy Mottola, and the symbolism of the track’s James Bond-ian video, which showcased Carey slipping out of handcuffs and speeding off on a Jet Ski, was not lost on listeners. Neither was its sinuous hook; the song became her third to debut at No. 1.
6 “Someday” (1991, 2 weeks)
Carey has always been the mistress of pretty pining, but she knew how to flip the script when her Mimi-ness went unappreciated. Here, she lets an ex foolish enough to walk away know just what he’ll be missing. You think you’ll find better, boy? No such thing.
7. “One Sweet Day” (1995, 16 weeks)
Goosebumps, every time. Carey’s heavenly vocals, combined with the song’s universal message and the sweet harmonies of Boyz II Men, undoubtedly helped it become the longest-running No. 1 in Billboard chart history at the time, spending a staggering four straight months at the top. It took 21 years for a song to do the same: In August 2017, Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito,” featuring Justin Bieber, tied with “One Sweet Day.”
8. “We Belong Together” (2005, 14 weeks)
While this later gem may lack the effortless octave-sweeping of her earlier hits, Carey’s syncopated ode to destiny is still one of her most enduring portraits of heartbreak and all its frustrations. (When love has left you, not even the airwaves are safe: “So I turn the dial/Trying to catch a break/And then I hear Babyface.”)
9. “Love Takes Time” (1990, 3 weeks)
With just the softest synthesizer tinkle, a touch of percussion, and what may well have been a borrowed pair of back-porch wind chimes, she made every last listener feel the utter despair of a breakup: “Losing my mind/From this hollow in my heart/Suddenly I’m so incomplete.” Cry, crawl toward the chardonnay bottle on the kitchen floor, repeat.
10. “Heartbreaker” (1999, 2 weeks)
It’s hard to imagine a world where JAY-Z plays backup for anyone. But in Carey’s lead single off 1999’s Rainbow, Hova does just that and steals the song: As Carey soars/sleepwalks through (by then) trademark Mimi leitmotifs of unavailable men, regret, codependency, and game-playin’, JAY busts on in to pair “Jacuzzi” with “newbie.”
11. “I Don’t Wanna Cry” (1991, 2 weeks)
This weeper from her eponymous debut is a rallying — sorry, we can’t help it — cry for the love-starved and lonely. If the title was a directive, well, mission not accomplished.
12. “Don’t Forget About Us” (2005, 2 weeks)
The lilting chorus, those breathy harmonies, that mammoth note at the end just because she can — “Don’t Forget” hits all of Carey’s strengths in one fell swoop. And don’t forget about the sassy bridge, where Carey spills all the tea: “I bet she can’t do it like me/She’ll never be MC.”
13. “Dreamlover” (1993, 8 weeks)
So fresh and summery and carefree that its video—one of the first ever directed by “Blurred Lines” and “We Can’t Stop” helmer Diane Martel — was just the logical extension of the track’s glorious, frolicking-in-cutoffs groove. Vocally, “Dreamlover” was the moment Carey stopped trying so hard, and her newfound breeziness helped her graduate from superstar to unstoppable cosmic force. (In cutoffs.)
14. “My All” (1998, 1 week)
By 1997’s Butterfly, the collection from which this let-the-candles-burn ballad comes, Carey’s music had officially become a blend of hip-hop-inflected R&B and pop that couldn’t be parsed for parts. Though it could, apparently, be put through a slow-burn flamenco filter and zhuzhed up with some serious sensuality and Spanish guitar.
15. “I’ll Be There” (1992, 2 weeks)
Believe it or not, Carey hadn’t made many live appearances before taking the stage for MTV Unplugged; she thought of herself mostly as a studio artist and a producer. But her raw, soulful deconstruction of key songs from her first two albums was a revelation, as was her cover of the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There.” In recasting one of Michael Jackson’s all-time greatest songs, she made it utterly her own.
16. “Hero” (1993, 4 weeks)
There’s a timelessness to “Hero” that’s almost jarring — it’s such a classic chest-pounder that it’s as if we’ve always had “Hero,” and the imaginary movie scene to go with it (A brave astronaut blasts off to save the planet? A firefighter cradles a puppy rescued from a burning orphanage?). That elusive quality will keep the song and sentiment in rotation forever — which probably makes Carey glad she didn’t give this one away to its intended recipient, Gloria Estefan.
17. “Touch My Body” (2008, 2 weeks)
Five-octave range be damned: Only Carey could spend an entire song essentially sing-talking and still have the pluck to purr, “Come on and give me what I deserve.” Amid sporadic finger snaps and plinking piano keys, she implores her secret lover (memorably portrayed in the song’s video by 30 Rock‘s Jack McBrayer) not to blab, or else: “I will hunt you down.”
18. “Thank God I Found You” (2000, 1 week)
Carey’s first chart-topper of the 21st century isn’t by any means her best: It suffers from cluttered boy-band production, an indistinct chorus, and an insistence that we should take seriously anybody in 98 Degrees not named Lachey. Those weak spots earn it last place on our list, but not necessarily in our hearts — which have always had room for even Mimi’s ugliest platinum ducklings.