Monday, January 31, 2011

Music of 1991: January

Madonna's 1990 compilation, The Immaculate Collection, officially closed the book on her '80s songs, a decade-defining body of work that gave the singer seven #1 hits (the set also contained her first '90s #1, "Vogue"). It also pointed to way to her '90s future, with two new distinctly different tracks that basically served as a preview of Erotica. First up was the Lenny Kravitz-produced "Justify My Love," a rather gutsy move from a pop singer to release an almost solely spoken-word track. Despite its oversexualized tone, radio embraced it anyway, sales were strong, and the fact that MTV banned its even racier video, meant that Madonna was able to successfully market the first music video single for commercial purchase. The song was the first Hot 100 #1 hit of 1991 and Madonna's ninth.

"Love Will Never Do (Without You)" was the seventh and final single released from Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814. Like the previous six, it reached the top 5, and also hit #1, becoming the album's fourth #1 hit and Jackson's fifth overall. As a run of hits, the album's singles reached 1-2-1-4-2-1-1, making it arguably the most successful pop album of all time in terms of generating hits. I've always thought the song sounded like it should be a duet based on its arrangement and theme, a fact I've later confirmed that the producers toyed with. Thus Jackson sings the first verse in a lower octave, like it's the "guy" part, and the second one higher, as the "girl" part. Even without some hot male singer in tow, the song works great. It also had a notable video, shot by famed photographer Herb Ritts, that showcased Jackson's recently toned physique.

R&B group Surface had their biggest hit in January 1991. They'd reached the top 5 in 1989 with "Shower Me with Your Love," but "The First Time" became their first and only #1 hit. It's a mellow R&B love song typical of the time. I remember I used to really like this song, but hearing it now, I don't find it particularly exceptional. The group would have one more top 40 hit later in the year with "Never Gonna Let You Down" (#17).

Damn Yankees was a hard rock supergroup formed in 1990 that had a decent run of hits on the rock mainstream chart. On the Hot 100, "High Enough" was far and away their most successful single, reaching #3 in January 1991. The song features a robust guitar and strings melody. Listening to it now, it's surprising they never had another big hit, as they continued releasing singles into 1993 (they came close with "Where You Goin' Now" in 1992, which reached #20).

In the late '80s and '90s, New Edition spawned a whole family tree of musical acts, as the group's demise led its members to either go solo (Bobby Brown, Johnny Gill) or form a new group (1990's hit act Bell Biv Devoe), and even nurture new acts Boyz II Men and Another Bad Creation. Among the soloists, Ralph Tresvant had the least successful chart run, but did manage to score one big hit, "Sensitivity," which hit #4. It was produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who would bring Tresvant on for their 1992 soundtrack to the movie Mo' Money.

In the late '90s, it was common for labels to promote albums with songs not released as singles, so much so that Billboard re-engineered the Hot 100 in 1998 to account for this. Back in 1991 though, it was a novel concept, and in fact the practice can probably be traced to early 1991, during which there were two songs that became major hits without a accompanying physical single. The first was The Simpsons' "Do the Bartman," a promotional tie-in to the popular Fox comedy, which at the time was in its second season (it is now in its 23rd year, making it the longest running American sitcom in television history). "Do the Bartman" was not released as a single in the U.S., but despite that, hit #9 on the pop airplay chart, and its video was a major hit on MTV. The song was written and produced by Michael Jackson, a fan of the show, and it sounds like he's doing the chorus backup vocals too. In countries like Britain, Australia and Ireland where the song was released as a single, it became a #1 hit.

Teen pop sensation Debbie Gibson was 21 years old at the start of 1991. As a full-fledged adult then, she released her third album, Anything Is Possible, still pop but featuring a more mature sound than her previous efforts. As satisfying as the title track was, it was the album's only top 40 hit, and not a major one at that, peaking at #26. This was Gibson's ninth and final top 40 hit. I think this is a cool song and wish it had been a bigger hit for her.

Cher had a movie-music crossover hit with her remake of the '60s song "The Shoop Shoop Song (It's in His Kiss)" from her film Mermaids. Although the song performed poorly in the U.S., peaking at #33; however, it was a major hit internationally, including a #1 hit in Britain and other European countries.

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