For this week’s Uncharted Waters, we’ve got two special guests. The first is me, Abe J. Riesman, who will be playing the part of Leon Neyfakh. The second guest is the year 1995 A.D. Well, to be more specific, the week of April 22, 1995. It was a week in which the Oklahoma City bombings shattered the American soul. A grieving nation turned to the radio for solace, and found…Montell Jordan.
Ladies and gentlemen, the Billboard Top 10 Hot Singles chart from ten years ago reveals that we, as a people, were listening to some truly crap music in the mid-’90s. There were a few exceptions, but the airwaves were mostly polluted with the desiccated husks of horrifically un-sexy R&B and dance tracks. Step inside the Way-Back Machine, and I’ll show you what I mean:
10. Dr. Dre—“Keep Their Heads Ringin’ (theme from ‘Friday’)”
I saw “Friday” for the first time last year, and I found out that I hadn’t missed much. The movie is slow, depressing, violent, and about as funny as a gang shooting. Much like the film, this track is a non-starter for me. I mean, I love Dre as much as the next guy, but hip hop has been relying on the “I’m great and here’s why” shtick as an excuse to throw off half-baked one-liners for far too long. The song isn’t about a damn thing! But it does feature some hilariously awful boasts (even the biggest fans of the D-R-E have got to admit that the track’s unprintable analogy comparing his flow to a Sapphic sex act is shamefully ridiculous) so it’s worth a once-over. And the chorus is catchy in a nostalgic, “hey, remember how great synth-based gangsta rap was?” sort of way. Remember how scared your parents were of you getting shot by gangs? I was fat, and couldn’t run fast, so my parents were especially worried.
9. Sheryl Crow—“Strong Enough”
Omg omg omg omg. Remember how I said that there were a few exceptions? This song is, like, a hundred of them. Doing this list led me to rediscover the song, and I’ve set it on constant repeat for the past 24 hours. Unlike almost everything else on this list, it doesn’t sound like it was made by a robot, and in fact sounds like the most truthful thing a woman’s ever said to me: “When I show you that I just don’t care / When I’m throwing punches in the air / When I’m broken down and I can’t stand / Will you be man enough to be my man?” Someday, Sheryl Crow will go down as one of the Great American Pop Songwriters, and I’m as serious as a heart attack when I say that.
8. Dionne Farris—“I Know”
Man, I’d forgotten about this song. It was a big part of all that “1995 is the Year of the Woman!” stuff, as I recall. It’s a jilted-lover ditty, and it’s catchy, and it sounds like real humans played the sampled instruments, but it’s very repetitive and doesn’t quite build up to anything. Enh. Chart filler.
7. Notorious B.I.G.—“Big Poppa”
This is basically the only other exception. I’m no Leon Neyfakh, so I can’t really tell you why Biggie is so gosh-darned charismatic and compelling, but I’ll be a monkey’s uncle if he isn’t. The little harpsichord-type thingy is so eerie and sun-drenched, it’s hard to believe this guy was from NYC and not an island of tribal warriors that worshipped him as a Brando-style god. “I see some laydeez tonight that should be havin’ my baby, baby.” Can I be one of those laydeez, Christopher? Christopher?
6. Madonna—“Take a Bow”
I watched the video for this song a lot in 1995, back when I was morbidly obese and vaguely homosexual. The lyrics have an interesting idea—Madonna using theatrical metaphors to disdain an overblown lover—but it goes on for an obscene five and a half minutes. And I mean, does anyone ever really believe these chanteuses when they complain about having their hearts broken? The show is over, Madonna. Say goodbye. Time to get preggers.
5. Real McCoy—“Run Away”
Horrible. A disaster. This was the stuff that got played at rich fourth-graders’ birthday parties. But it does feature the terrible lead vocalist grunting something about “a generation without soul,” which is surely the generation that ate up this train wreck. Wait…are we that generation?
4. Adina Howard—“Freak Like Me”