This week in ‘99: Rating the top 10 singles
Billboard’s Top 10 for the week ending Dec. 4, 1999:
10. ”Unpretty,” TLC
The group I once referred to as ”The Nirvana of R&B” rings in with the second single off FanMail, their last album as a [non-reality-show-based] group [that featured no posthumous work by anyone]. It’s okay. I’m prepared to forgive the fact that they’re using a major-chord version of the exact same guitar arpeggio from ''No Scrubs,'' but I’m not prepared to forgive the weird, white-noise electric guitar backdrop. Starting around the 3:50 mark, it really gets annoying, like they recorded the song in a studio with insufficient soundproofing, and a Pink Floyd cover band was rehearsing next door. It’s also sad that there’s very little Left-Eye on this track. Finally, Christina Aguilera did a much better job of writing a hey-girls-you-should-love-yourselves track with ”Beautiful” — and she didn’t need a Mac shout-out to do it, either. B
9. ”U Know What’s Up,” Donell Jones
Another entrant into the ever-expanding category of ”Songs Whitney Literally Did Not Know Existed Until They Showed Up on the Chart.” Its chorus appears to consist solely of ”Oooh / say what say what say what / Oooh / Girl, you know what’s up.” Then he tells the girl that he is ”feelin’ her,” and asks her not to ”front,” because he wants to have sex with her immediately; in fact, he can feel his ”bone” comin’ on right now. I am not sure why more people have not figured out that by simply placing lascivious lyrics on top of a generic lounge beat, they, too, could have an international megahit. Anyway, here’s a tip for prospective buyers: Make sure to download the version with Left-Eye on it. Not only does her presence make up for ”Unpretty,” it is also possible to imagine that Donell’s ”bone” went down a little while he was trying to parse her lightning-fast rhyme and decide whether she was going to do him or set his house on fire. C+
8. ”Waiting for Tonight,” Jennifer Lopez
What happens if I say that, with the exception of Out of Sight, this is the best thing J.Lo’s ever done. Is that okay, if I say that? Am I thinking of the dance remix? B+
7. ”I Knew I Loved You,” Savage Garden
Yeah, no, don’t get excited. This is the other Savage Garden song. The sort of less-interesting one. Still, there is something hypnotic about it, no? Is it because Savage Garden always sounds like a boy band, while actually only containing two members? Is it because they can sing higher than I can? Or is it — as this chart is rapidly proving — just that Americans would listen to anything with sappy, pedestrian, fifth-grade-reading-level love lyrics in the late ’90s? I vote for the latter, but then, in the late ’90s, I think I was listening to a lot of Rage Against the Machine, so clearly I had other problems. B-
6. ”My Love Is Your Love,” Whitney Houston
Okay. She’s, like, hardly singing here, people. You can hear that, right? That this is absolutely the smallest amount of energy Whitney Houston has ever expended on a song? Her nice pack of background-singing boys is doing all the heavy lifting until right before the last chorus, where she finally sucks it up and tries a vocal run — but afterwards, Whit-Whit’s so durn tuckered out that it’s all she can do to choke out a couple more murmurs between there and the end. Speaking of the dance remix, someone order one up, stat; this thing is like death on a stick without that nn-chk, nn-chk behind it. B
5. ”I Wanna Love You Forever,” Jessica Simpson
Attend the tale of Blondy Blond, for she is here to get in on the predictably worded love song parade! But hello, what’s this? Going back and listening to Simpson’s debut single today — even knowing all that has transpired since — what strikes me is the fact that, holy tuna, this chick could actually sing! I’ve always been distracted by that weird thing she does with her jaw (oh, and by her rampant stupidity, of course), but with the exception of a little screeching in the bridge, this is a really well-sung track; in fact, I would like her nice pack of background-singing boys to chill out a little and let more of her pipes shine through. Weird. B+
4. ”Mambo No. 5 (A Little Bit Of…),” Lou Bega
Because I have nothing but scorn to heap upon this song, I now present EW senior writer Dan Snierson: ”The first four Mambos were snappier.” Thanks, Dan! D
3. ”I Need to Know,” Marc Anthony
OMG like looking back how could we have known that someday, not only would Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez be vying for space on the charts, but within each other’s hearts! Sniff. Anyway. I’ve always respected the way Marc Anthony stays true to his Latino heritage when working outside the salsa genre, but that doesn’t mean the songs are necessarily all that good. In fact, I think he’s trying too hard almost all the time (and for some reason, in my mind, he is always wearing a turtleneck, although I couldn’t tell you why). This track — backed by a sassy string section — is maybe the least cheesy thing he’s ever come up with. Bonus points for using the phrase ”baby girl” with the smallest amount of condescension permitted by law. B
2. ”Back at One,” Brian McKnight
Is this my favorite R&B song of the last 10 years? Could be. Is that because it sounds like it could have been an excellent country song in another life? There’s a good chance — in fact, Mark Wills did a cover of it in 2000 that’s worth a listen, if you can stomach the down-home stuff. So what appeals to me about this song (as opposed to, oh, I don’t know, Donell Jones’ ”bone”)? Take notes, aspiring songsters:
1. He is speaking in actual English, as opposed to a series of grunts and fake words.
2. The conceit of the chorus — that there really are only three important steps here, and that they should be repeated forever — is complex, yet inherently simple. Compare that lyricism to the rest of the love songs on this chart and tell me which you think is more interesting.
3. The piano intro — a thick, nightclubby setup — is drop dead gorgeous, like the perfect intersection of Harry Connick Jr.’s best work… and Rowlf the Dog, who happens to be a hero of mine, don’t mock. And the outro reminds me of old movie soundtracks, especially with that lift at the end.
4. I have heard this butchered 7,958 times at karaoke, and I’m still not sick of it.
5. McKnight’s vocal is straightforward, a little hoarse (to better convey pain), and he doesn’t try and gussy it up with a whole lot of calisthenics. There’s just that one awesome falsetto note in the bridge, right before the key change, and that’s all you need. See, Brian could open up a can of whoop-ass on you kids, but he doesn’t have to. And that’s a pro, right there. A-
1. ”Smooth,” Santana feat. Rob Thomas
So, it’s hard to find a decent Top 10 in the ’90s, Flashbackers. It really is. I look every single week for a list that contains at least two songs that don’t make me want to put chopsticks in my ears, and I am generally unsuccessful. (Not to mention how hard it is to find a chart without Mariah Carey or Puff Daddy on it; good grief, am I ever sick of those two.) I’m not totally thrilled with how this week turned out — when I don’t have a strong opinion about the songs, it seems I struggle to find even marginally compelling things to say — but as I’m now listening to Rob Thomas’s voice and Santana’s cherry red guitar on repeat, I no longer care. I could listen to this song forever, folks. And ever. As Americans, we once tried to make that utopian dream a reality — it spent 12 weeks at No. 1, perched up there from before Halloween until after January. I can remember very clearly sitting up late, late at night, in my moldy old basement apartment, watching VH1’s ”Insomniac Music Theater” on my stolen cable, and hoping to catch the video…and then waiting around for an hour for them to play it again, and again, and again. That was, of course, back in the pre-YouTube days, and it scares me how much time I wasted just lying around waiting for videos to come on the TV back then. Other things that scare me: The realization that, as much as I like to make fun of Matchbox 20, I don’t hate that band as much as I pretend to mostly because I really like Rob Thomas’s voice; the knowledge that no matter how hard I work, I will never look as sexy as Carlos Santana’s guitar sounds; and the fact that, had you asked me prior to today when this song was on the radio, I would have said summertime. A