Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Music of 1991: November

Prince was a pop icon of the '80s, but managed to keep his career hot through the first half of the '90s too. "Cream" was his fifth and final #1 hit, the quick follow-up to "Gett Off," which peaked at #21 just the month prior. Although I personally like "Gett Off" better, this is an undeniably good Prince song, with a quirky melody. And what's it about really?

The first two singles from Michael Bolton's Time, Love & Tenderness reached the top 10, but he scored the album's biggest hit with its third release, a remake of "When a Man Loves a Woman," which became Bolton's second (and last) #1 hit. The original version by Percy Sledge was also a #1 hit 25 years prior.

Karyn White was never hotter than she was in November 1991, when she scored her biggest hit with #1 single "Romantic." I've always liked this song, and listening to it lately, it's cemented a position as one of my favorite singles of 1991. The song has a vibrant upbeat production courtesy of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the men responsible for Janet Jackson's Control and Rhythm Nations (you can hear definite similarities to Rhythm Nation in the production of White's 1991 album, Ritual of Love). I also like classy luxe video shot by Matthew Rolston, a longtime music video director (Miley Cyrus' "The Climb," Sugababes' "Push the Button," Destiny's Child "Bootylicious," En Vogue "My Lovin'").

November was chalk full of #1 hits--four of them--the last of which came from PM Dawn with their first hit single, "Set Adrift on Memory Bliss," a vibrant piece of hip-hop dance pop. The song liberally sampled Spandau Ballet's "True," which hit #4 in 1983.

Canadian rocker Bryan Adams followed the year's biggest hit, "(Everything I Do) I Do It for You," with this #2 hit, upbeat pop/rock single "Can't Stop This Thing We Started." His 1991 album, Waking Up the Neighbours, would score three more top 40 hits in 1992.

Rap group Naughty by Nature scored one the year's biggest mainstream hip-hop hits with the anatomically minded "O.P.P." (#6). A minor pop culture phenomenon, the song, about cheating, cleverly hints at the female and male sex organs as "another word to call a cat a kitty" and "a five-letter word rhyming with cleanest or meanest," respectively. When compared to Rihanna's "suck my cockiness, lick my persuasion," it seems rather tame, but at the time it had everyone in titters. The group would go on to have a few more top 40 hits, including top 10 hit "Hip Hop Hooray," but nothing was ever as memorable as this.

Amy Grant reached the top 10 for the third time in 1991 with the ballad "That's What Love is For" (#7). Sandwiched between her album's bigger hits--#1 "Baby Baby," #2 "Every Heartbeat" and 1992's bubbly top 10 hit "Good for Me," this one never really struck my fancy.

November 1991 was the last month of musical history where most people hadn't heard of Nirvana, meaning that it was also the last call for hair band rock, that breed of heavy metal rockers that shined so brightly in the '80s but faded in the early '90s as alternative rock and grunge became rock's mainstream sound. Guns N Roses were certainly one of the biggest heavy metal groups, having scored big with their 1987 album Appetite for Destruction and its hit singles like "Paradise City" and "Sweet Child o' Mine." In 1991, GNR delivered the one-two punch of Use Your Illusion volumes 1 and 2, two separate albums released on the same day. Although volume 2 initially took off faster, thanks to its Terminator 2 song "You Could Be Mine," ultimately volume 1 had the bigger hits, including "Don't Cry," the group's fifth top 10 hit (an alternate version of "Don't Cry" appeared on volume 2). The video, directed by Del James, is a moody cinematic affair, the first of several such videos from this era of the band.

For anyone under the age of 20, Paula Abdul is best known as a judge on American Idol and X Factor, but years ago she was a pop star too! She had six #1 hits in the span of two and a half years, which is nothing to sneeze at. Her second album, Spellbound, was as successful as her first, although it did show her softer side. After topping the chart with Forever Your Girl's exclusively dance pop releases, she chose a ballad to launch Spellbound. That song, "Rush Rush," became the singer's biggest hit. After another dance release, "The Promise of a New Day," became her final #1, she once again chose another ballad as album's third single. "Blowing Kisses in the Wind" peaked at #6, becoming Abdul's eighth and final single to reach the top 10. It's a nice song with a beautiful video, although it does tend to emphasize the limits of her vocal prowess. I remember a good friend of mine got to see her concert and was particularly impressed with this song's staging, which recreated the ballet dancing but had them flying through the air.

Hip-hop girl group Salt-n-Pepa scored another major mainstream rap hit with "Let's Talk About Sex," the group's third top 40 hit from their 1990 album Blacks Magic, peaking at #13. Although the song's title was bound to spark controversy, it's a really great message, encouraging people to have an open, frank discussion about sex and HIV/AIDS during a time when the right (and even portions of the left) were all up and arms and ready to censor popular culture.

Male solo pop stars are a rarity today, but in 1991 they were pretty common. In addition to those named above, British pop singer Chesney Hawkes scored his only major hit with "The One and Only" (#10), jazz/pop artist Curtis Stigers had his only major hit with "I Wonder Why" (#9), Washington D.C.-born R&B singer Tony Terry had his only major hits with "With You" (#14) and Luther Vandross scored his third top 10 hit with "Don't Want to Be a Fool" (#9).

Something old and something new teamed up on the love song duet "Set the Night to Music," the kind of pop ballad that used to be so common but it pretty rare today. Roberta Flack was a major pop star in the '70s, during which she had three #1 hits, two of which I'd consider classics ("The First Time Ever I Saw Your face" and "Killing Me Softly with His Song"). Maxi Priest, however, scored his first #1 hit just the year before with "Close to You" (he had a minor top 40 hit in 1989, "Wild World"). A love song between a 54 year-old woman and a 30 year-old man isn't the most believable, but it's a decent enough song. The song, written by Diane Warren, is actually a remake first recorded in the '80s by Starship.

Several acts who scored big summer hits had their only other top 40 singles peak in November. The biggest of which was Jesus Jones, who followed up their summer #2 hit "Right Here, Right Now" with "Real, Real, Real," which hit #4. Rythm Syndicate, who's summer hit "P.A.S.S.I.O.N." also hit #2, reached #13 with "Hey Donna." And EMF, the British indie band who scored a #1 hit with "Unbelievable," reached #18 with their second single, "Lies." In all of these cases, these singles were these groups' last appearances in the top 40.

Also making their last appearance in the top 40 was British pop group Simply Red. The group hit #1 in 1986 with "Holding Back the Years" and topped the chart again 3 years later with "If You Don't Know Me By Now." Although they continued to be quite popular in Britain, scoring top 10 hits as recently as 2003, this was the end of the road for them in the US, as "Something Got Me Started," which peaked at #23, was their final top 40 single. It's follow-up, "Stars," was a great song that just missed the top 40, peaking at #44. "Fairground," their 1995 release that was their only UK #1, never touched the Hot 100.

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