If you only looked at the album charts, the Nineties were defined by the mainstream breakthroughs of alternative rock and gangsta rap: angry men selling millions of records to each other. But the Hot 100 retained a youthful glow, particularly in the summer, with smash singles by teenage R&B heroes like Monica and Destiny’s Child, as well as pop prodigies like Hanson and Christina Aguilera. From New Jack Swing to New Kids on the Block, here are the biggest Nineties hits that dominated the charts between June and September, dictated by peak chart positions and total length of run on the Hot 100. We’ve also ignored all the unseasonal ballads – so our apologies to Elton John, Bryan Adams and more.
Eighties hitmaker Billy Idol got off to a rough start in the next decade, seriously injuring his legs in a February 1990 motorcycle accident. But he (and future Social Network director David Fincher) managed to shoot a wildly popular video – appearing only from the waist up – for “Cradle of Love.” It wound up being one of his biggest hits, as well as his dance entry in the Top 40.
Before R. Kelly and Chris Brown fully blurred the lines between singers and rappers, Bobby Brown was the first R&B superstar to swagger like an MC. The New Jack Swing-flavored “She Ain’t Worth It,” the biggest hit by Hawaiian-born singer Glenn Medeiros, was the only time that Brown appeared on a track purely as a rapper, kicking an eight-bar verse with some additional rhymes on the song’s intro.
When Meredith Brooks rocketed up the charts in 1998 with “Bitch,” she caught the attention of another act that had once released a hit song by the same title: the Rolling Stones. But Stones fans, who are famously inhospitable to the band’s opening acts, threw bottles at Brooks and booed her off the stage in Argentina after only two songs.
The only song on 1992’s Ooooooohhh… On the TLC Tip not to feature a rap by Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, “Baby-Baby-Baby” proved that TLC was capable of smooth slow jams in addition to the album’s sassy uptempo material. A young Jermaine Dupri made a cameo in the video, and 17 years later he sampled the track for the Bow Wow single “You Can Get It All.”
Dianne Warren may be one of the most successful songwriters for hire in pop history, but for nearly a decade, “Don’t Turn Around” was the hit that got away. First written for Tina Turner in 1986, the song was covered with moderate success by everyone from Luther Ingram to Neil Diamond before Swedish pop group Ace of Base made it a worldwide smash in 1994.
The biggest hit from Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die was, in the typical fashion of Nineties rap remixes, not actually on the album at all. In 1995, long after the album’s 1994 release, the track was dramatically revamped for the third single, with Biggie spitting new verses over a slower beat, featuring a DeBarge sample and a vocal cameo by his new bride, Faith Evans.
Driven by a hooky harpsichord riff and producer She’kspere’s twitchy post-Timbaland funk, “Bills, Bills, Bills” rescued the four girls in Destiny’s Child from the one-hit-wonder status that’d been presumed for them after 1997’s “No, No, No.” Of course, the original quartet would only release one more single and video before the personnel shakeups began.
The R&B trio Next’s second single and biggest hit is pop’s greatest ode to dry-humping on the dance floor. And while the song’s verses dance around the risqué subject matter just enough to make it safe for radio, the single edit leaves out a spoken intro (“I wonder if she could tell I’m hard right now”) that makes things a little more explicit.
In 1990, Andrew Dice Clay released his most successful comedy album, The Day the Laughter Died, which peaked at Number 39 on the Billboard 200. A year later, the Diceman stumbled into his greatest chart success as a sample in this international chart-topper. Oh!
Teen pop sensations have a habit of flaming out in three years or so – and 1990 was year three for New Kids on the Block. The album, Step by Step, and its title track both topped the charts that summer, but it only spun off one more top 10 single before the group’s quick slide from prominence.
Perhaps the only Hot 100 chart-topper written by a couple of teens (and a tween) in a garage. A slower early recording of “MMMBop” first appeared on one of the Hanson brothers’ independent albums in 1996. A year later, Mercury Records put the boys in the studio with the Dust Brothers, then hot off of producing Beck’s Odelay, and wound up with the funkier uptempo track that took over the world.
Monica was introduced to the airwaves as a sassy, short-haired 14-year-old in 1995. But the attitude she displayed on “Don’t Take It Personal (Just One Of Dem Days)” was helped in no small part by the hard-hitting LL Cool J and Public Enemy samples mixed into the track by producer Dallas Austin.
Toni Braxton topped the Hot 100 in 1996 with a double A side of the lead single from her second album Secrets along with her Waiting to Exhale soundtrack hit “Let It Flow.” But it was “You’re Makin’ Me High,” and Braxton’s iconic catsuit in the song’s promo clip, that steamed up video channels all summer long.
Jennifer Lopez’s film career exploded in 1997 when she played the titular Latin pop superstar in Selena, and two years later she expanded her own media empire with her first smash single. But “If You Had My Love” was the subject of some controversy when it turned out that producer Rodney Jerkins had written a nearly identical song, “If I Gave Love,” that had already been released by R&B singer Chanté Moore.
In one of the strangest arms races in pop history, Tag Team’s “Whoomp! (There It Is)” and 95 South’s “Whoot, There It Is” battled it out for chart supremacy throughout the summer of 1993. But in September, Tag Team arose victorious, peaking at Number Two while 95 South topped out at Number 11, with the winner claiming the dubious prize of an Addams Family-themed movie soundtrack single.
In the early Nineties, the Disney Channel assembled an array of young talent for The New Mickey Mouse Club that served as a sleeper cell for the chart comeback of teen pop at the end of the decade. Justin Timberlake and JC Chasez were first out of the gate in 1998 with ‘N Sync’s initial U.S. hits, followed by Britney Spears in early ’99. Christina Aguilera completed the Mouseketeer takeover with her first Number One that summer.
When Rick Rubin encouraged one of his American Records artists, Sir Mix-A-Lot, to release his uptempo ode to backsides as a single, he also handpicked the video’s director, Adam Bernstein, who had helmed quirky clips for They Might Be Giants and the B-52’s. “[Mix-A-Lot] really wanted a giant ass in the video, and he wanted to be coming out of it,” Bernstein recalled in Vulture‘s recent oral history of the song. “I suggested that maybe wasn’t a great idea.”
The Spanish pop duo Los Del Rio had been together for three decades by the time they wrote their biggest hit, “Macarena,” in 1992. But it took four years and several different versions before a remix with English language verses became the worldwide dance phenomenon with the longest climb to Number One in Hot 100 history, peaking after 46 weeks(!) on the chart.
TLC’s signature song, a socially conscious ballad touching on drug addiction and the HIV epidemic, was produced by Organized Noize, then best known for their work with Atlanta rap groups Outkast and Goodie Mob. Cee-Lo Green of Goodie Mob sang backup on the track, a decade before he’d make blockbuster pop hits of his own.
Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney launched Thriller‘s singles campaign with “The Girl Is Mine,” playfully quarreling over a love triangle. Fifteen years later, two rising R&B stars created a more dramatic answer song, bigger than its inspiration, topping the charts for a whopping 15 weeks in the summer of 1998.