It’s easy to look back at the 1990s with rose-coloured spectacles. You may assume that the charts were dominated by respected and cutting-edge acts like Nirvana and Nas. But like every decade, plenty of less illustrious artists sold truckloads of records.
This list is dominated by adult-contemporary ballads. Upbeat songs I remembered hating, like Billy Ray Cyrus’ ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ and The Spice Girls’ ‘Wannabe’, held up much better than melodramatic vocal showcases.
This is the list that I’m most qualified to write since my entire teenage years took place during the 1990s.
10 Worst Songs of the 1990s
#10 I’ll Be There For You by The Rembrandts
from LP, 1995
R.E.M. refused permission for their 1991 hit ‘Shiny Happy People’ to be used as the theme tune for the TV show Friends. Instead, the producers turned to power-pop duo The Rembrandts to approximate the same sound. It’s a serviceable tune, but the way that vocalists Danny Wilde and Phil Sōlem draw out the vowels in the chorus is maddening.
#9 My Heart Will Go On by Celine Dion
from Titanic, 1997
Celine Dion’s ‘My Heart Will Go On’ featured over the blockbuster Titanic’s end credits. Director James Cameron was reluctant to include such a commercial song but agreed to appease worried executives. There’s a pretty, folk-derived tune on ‘My Heart Will Go On’, but the arrangement turns it into an adult-contemporary cesspit with recorders, choirs, and a dramatic key change,
#8 Always by Bon Jovi
from Cross Road, 1994
Bon Jovi are aiming for a sweeping ballad like ‘November Rain’ on this track from their 1994 compilation Cross Road. But Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora lack the menace of Axl Rose and Slash, and ‘Always’ ends up as faceless adult contemporary. “I will love you…[’til]…the words don’t rhyme” is a supremely awkward sentiment.
#7 I Swear by All-4-One
from All-4-One, 1994
Not for the last time on this list, a humble country song is transformed into a mainstream blockbuster. California R&B vocal group All-4-One turn John Michael Montgomery’s 1993 country hit into a treacly confection. The Minions’ irreverent cover from Despicable Me 2, where they change the lyrics to ‘Underwear’ is a vast improvement.
#6 How Am I Supposed To Live Without You by Michael Bolton
from Soul Provider, 1990
After abandoning a career in hard rock, poodle-haired and husky-voiced balladeer Michael Bolton enjoyed a flurry of hits in the late 1980s and early 1990s. His first number one was ‘How Am I Supposed To Live With You’; it was released in late 1989. but charting in 1990 qualifies it for this list. I always associate Bolton with another unlikely early-1990s superstar, saxophonist Kenny G, because they had the same haircut and collaborated on the 1991 single ‘Miss You Now’.
#5 I Will Always Love You by Whitney Houston
from The Bodyguard, 1992
Dolly Parton’s ‘I Will Always Love You’ is a great song. Whitney Houston was a great vocalist who brought gospel chops to mainstream pop. But put them together, and it’s an overwrought extravaganza The song was much better served by Dolly Parton’s gentle original version than by Houston’s vocal gymnastics. The world disagrees with me – it’s massively successful; the video still gets 350,000 views a day, while Parton earned $10 million from the song during the 1990s.
#4 Love Is All Around by Wet Wet Wet
from Four Weddings and a Funeral: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, 1994
This smug cover sandblasts off the charm of The Troggs’ 1967 original. It could have been even worse; Wet Wet Wet were presented with three choices of songs to cover for the closing of Four Weddings and a Funeral. The other two choices were Barry Manilow’s ‘Can’t Smile Without You’ and Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’. ‘Love Is All Around’ didn’t crack the US top 40, but enjoyed one of the longest reigns at number one in the UK.
#3 Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman? by Bryan Adams
from Don Juan DeMarco, 1995
Canadian Bryan Adams was a reliable hit machine in the 1980s and early 1990s. When his songwriting muse faltered, he was such a mega-star that radio continued to pound his lesser songs. This flamenco-flavoured acoustic song is particularly clueless lyrically, reaching its nadir with the line “When you can see your unborn children in her eyes/You know you really love a woman.”
#2 Barbie Girl by Aqua
from Aquarium, 1997
‘Barbie Girl’ is a unique song, walking a fine line between a sophisticated critique of gender roles and a kitsch song about a childhood toy. It was intriguing the first time, but on subsequent listens the kitsch elements dominate. The hooks in ‘Barbie Girl’ stick – Lene Nystrøm’s wordless vocals in the chorus are memorable.
#1 No Matter What by Boyzone
from Where We Belong, 1998
Ronan Keating and Boyzone dominated the airwaves in the late 1990s with a succession of toothless adult-contemporary hits. They barely made a dent in the US – ‘No Matter What’ was their only top 40 hit – but they were huge in the UK and here in New Zealand. Before unleashing ‘No Matter What’ Boyzone desecrated classics like Cat Stevens’ ‘Father and Son’ and Tracy Chapman’s ‘Baby, Can I Hold You Tonight?’. This plodding tune was written by Sir Andrew-Lloyd Webber.
What did I forget to include? Am I too harsh on Whitney Houston?