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Counting Down Mariah’s 48 Best Songs In Honor of Her Anniversary

If you wish Mariah Carey a “Happy Birthday,” she will tell you that she doesn’t have birthdays. Instead, she has anniversaries. If you inquire about her age she will coyly tell you she is “eternally 12.” It is precisely that coquettish nature that belies the fact that she is one of the most talented singer-songwriters of her time.

Mariah Carey on her two biggest nights at the Grammys — 1991 and 2006 (Copyright NARAS)

Author’s Note: For an updated ranking in honor of her 50th anniversary on 3/27/20, click here.

Although many heap praise on Mariah’s famous five-octave vocal range, fewer realize that unlike her undeniably extraordinary contemporaries Whitney Houston and Celine Dion, she actually is heavily involved in the writing and producing of all of her own music and has been since she recorded her first demo. It is in large part this creative control that was responsible for keeping her at the top for so long — and bringing her back after a few notable downturns in success that threatened her reputation at various points throughout her storied career.

But despite what the tabloids and haters might say, her high points are astonishing and far, far outweigh any low points. She has hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 with 18 different songs (17 of which she co-wrote). That’s more than any other solo artist (male or female) and second only to The Beatles. She had a #1 hit every year from 1990–2000, an unparalleled streak. According to Billboard’s decade-end charts, she has the most successful song of the 1990s (her 1995 duet with Boyz II Men One Sweet Day) and the 2000s (her 2005 comeback single We Belong Together). She has has sold over 200 million records worldwide. She has been nominated for 34 Grammys (winning 5), 48 American Music Awards (winning 21), and 96 Billboard Music Awards (winning 32).

She has also made a mark outside of music. In 1999, she was given the Horizon Award from Congress for her charity work. She has also received honors from the Do Something organization, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). She also more than redeemed herself on the acting front after her much-maligned debut in Glitter with well-reviewed turns in indie films like WiseGirls and Tennessee as well as her roles in the SAG Award-nominated ensembles of critically acclaimed hits Precious and The Butler.

So without further ado, I present my list of the 48 best Mariah Carey songs in honor of her … um … anniversary of her 12th birthday.

48. Don’t Forget About Us (2005, The Emancipation of Mimi). Some complained that this single (which went on to be her 17th #1) tried a bit too hard to emulate the recent success of We Belong Together. Nevertheless, it’s a catchy ballad with a gorgeous vocal performance — and a bridge that is unparalleled in sass.

47. Slipping Away (1996, B-side to Always Be My Baby). This soulful slow jam about a great love that is slowly dying is one of the finest songs of what is arguably Mariah’s creative peak. It presumably didn’t make the cut of Daydream and was relegated to the B-side of one of its singles because it was either “too R&B” or because her then-husband/manager objected to how sharply the lyrics pointed to their disintegrating marriage.

46. Anytime You Need a Friend (C+C Remix) (1993, Music Box). The gospel-fueled album version is exceedingly earnest, but the club remix is urgent and revelatory. It rivets for nearly 11 minutes and features some of the greatest vocal improvisations of her career.

45. For the Record (2008, E=MC²). This lean, yearning ballad finds Mariah refusing to take no for an answer when it comes to getting a second chance at a romance gone wrong. It’s an emotional powerhouse and it has the benefit of a classic bridge that references over a half dozen of her earlier hits.

44. Oh Santa! (2010, Merry Christmas II You). Her second Christmas album may not have had the commercial success of the first, but it nevertheless contained a host of beautiful covers and high quality originals. Paramount among them was this infectious ditty, that updates the lyrical themes of her Christmas classic All I Want for Christmas Is You with humor and sass.

43. Subtle Invitation (2002, Charmbracelet). For the first time since 1991’s The Wind, Mariah went full jazz and the results are good enough to make you wish she would release a whole jazz album. Tender vocals deliver hopeful lyrics over ebullient horns.

Copyright: Dreamworks/Arista/Columbia

42. When You Believe (1999, #1s). Perhaps the only song in Mariah’s catalogue that she did not write or cover, this song was written by Stephen Schwartz for the animated film The Prince of Egypt. Schwartz won the Oscar for the song (as that goes to the songwriters), but arguably the most notable contributions come from the three people who didn’t — R&B super-producer Babyface, who skillfully adapted the film version to have a more mainstream sound, and its performers Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. Some criticized it as a shameless promotional stunt to promote their albums and quash their supposed beef. Even if it was, the experience of these two extraordinary vocalists uniting is something truly astounding.

41. Clown (2002, Charmbracelet). This brutal takedown of Eminem, who crassly alleged a sexual liaison between the two, this is a restrained, guitar-driven, tell-off that contains countless lyrical allusions and a sucker punch of a chorus (“Nobody cares when the tears of a clown fall down.”)

40. One and Only (2005, The Emancipation of Mimi). Another rap-sung collaboration made in heaven, motor-mouthed rapper Twista forces the songstress to up her game and the result is a dizzying R&B gem about the search for a man that’s worth her time. (Favorite lyric: “See I’m looking for a man that’ll rub me slow/ Make me sing real high when he goes down low”).

39. I’ll Be There (1992, MTV Unplugged). After the astonishing vocals of her first two albums were accompanied by extremely few live performances, some suspected that Mariah was a mere studio creation. Then she did a flawless 7-song set on the legendary MTV live music series and she put an end to those rumors. The highlight was this soulful cover of the Jackson 5 classic, also featuring wonderful vocals from her longtime backup singer Trey Lorenz.

38. Without You (1993, Music Box). Mariah’s cover of Harry Nillson’s 1971 cover of Badfinger’s 1970 hit ballad is somewhat repetitive and undeniably melodramatic (think Celine Dion’s cover of All By Myself), but it is one of her finest vocal performances and is notable for being her most successful song across Europe.

37. Stay the Night (2005, The Emancipation of Mimi). Co-written with and co-produced by Kanye West, this stunner combines modern hip hop beats with a remarkably tricky vocal performance.

36. You’re So Cold (1991, Emotions). The masterful minute-long slow burn intro to this song features a frenetic piano and arguably the best use of her lower register ever. At the minute mark it turns into a top notch dance song about the coldness of an ex-lover, but that opening minute is red hot.

35. Fly Like a Bird (2005, The Emancipation of Mimi). Even on her non-Christmas albums, Mariah usually taps into her spiritual side and assembles a choir for a Gospel-fueled track. She never did it better than on this song, which is about being delivered from suicidal desperation by faith in a higher power.

Copyright Columbia Records

34. Someday (1990, Mariah Carey). Mariah has admitted to hating this song and only when she started her residency in Las Vegas that included all 18 of her #1s was she willing to put it on a setlist. It’s easy to see why she dislikes it. It sounds particularly dated compared to her other ’90s hits. But nevertheless, it is pure pop perfection and everything about it (particularly the high school-set music video) instantly transports you to 1990.

33. Joy to the World (1994, Merry Christmas). 375 years after it was written, Mariah put an unforgettable spin on the perennial Christmas carol. Her voice has rarely sounded better than on the slow build introduction and she has rarely produced anything as joyful as what occurs when it kicks into full gear. (Bonus points for mashing up a traditional carol with Three Dog Night’s decidedly less religious song of the same name.)

32. Touch My Body (2008, E=MC²). Her most recent #1, this song shows her at her most playful, with its tongue-in-cheek lyrics, light melody, and terrific hook — not to mention its riotously self-aware music video.

31. Make It Happen (1991, Emotions). This bold anthem about perseverance marries personal lyrics about her impoverished upbringing with a masterful production that blends numerous musical genres. Her vocal performance here is as commanding as anything she has ever done.

30. Obsessed (2009, Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel). This Eminem bashing dance hit doesn’t quite reach the lyrical depths of “Clown” or the club banger intensity of “It’s Like That” but it’s a wholly successful mashup of those two songs. It’s hard to choose the more humorous insult: “You’re a mom and pop/ I’m a corporation/ I’m the press conference/ You’re a conversation” or “Got you all fired up/ With your Napoleon Complex/ I can see right through you/ Like you’re bathing in Windex.”

29. Can’t Let Go (1991, Emotions). It may have been her first single not to hit #1 (it settled for several weeks at #2), but this captivating ballad about a wounded lover who just can’t seem to move on is better than many of those that hit the pole position.

28. If It’s Over (1991, Emotions). At the young age of 21, Mariah caught the ear of legendary singer-songwriter Carole King. After Mariah turned down King’s suggestion to cover her classic “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” for her second album (she thought it would be disrespectful to Aretha Franklin), she flew to N.Y. and decided to co-write an original song with her. They got to work and by nightfall they had produced this gem.

27. Love Hangover/Heartbreaker Remix (2000, Live Performance; B-side to Can’t Take That Away). There are at least 3 other great versions of “Heartbreaker” — the original with Jay-Z, the women-centric remix with Missy Elliott and Da Brat, and the club mix that mashes the song up with a cover of the minor Motown hit “If You Should Ever Be Lonely.” But my favorite is this one. She opened up VH1’s live tribute to Diana Ross with this flawless mashup of “Heartbreaker” and Ross’s #1 disco hit “Love Hangover.” The vocals are brilliant and the production is inspired.

26. Hero (1993, Music Box). Although it’s far from her favorite of her songs, she sings this in every live performance she ever gives because it’s that beloved by her fans. Sure it’s shmaltzy, but it really inspires and soars.

Copyright: Columbia Records

25. One Sweet Day (1995, Daydream). Until Despacito tied it last year, this was the sole title holder for longest running #1 song of all time. It’s not hard to see why. It features two musical acts at their commercial peak collaborating on a gorgeous ballad touching on universal themes of loss and grief that was inspired by a mutual friend’s death from AIDS.

24. It’s Like That (2005, The Emancipation of Mimi). “I came to have a party.” That opening line is the perfect introduction to this aggressive club-banger, which itself provided the perfect introduction to the massive comeback that was this song’s parent album.

23. Make It Look Good (2014, Me. I Am Mariah … The Elusive Chanteuse). When you have reached a stage of your career where 25-time Grammy winning music legend Stevie Wonder is willing to play backup to you, you know you’ve reached a special height. He giggles and plays harmonica in the background of this Motown throwback with exceedingly clever lyrics. This may be the most underappreciated song in her catalogue.

22. O Holy Night (1994, Merry Christmas). Her flawless cover of the traditional holiday hymn is perhaps the best showcase for her lower register in her entire catalogue. When she belts “Fall on your knees” at the song’s climax, it’s almost enough to compel you to do so.

21. Crybaby (1999, Rainbow). Snoop Dogg and Mariah are not the most obvious match, but they create a spectacularly soulful duo on this midtempo hip-hop track that details the sleepless nights of a woman unable to shake her yearning for a former lover. (Favorite lyric: “Sipping Bailey’s Cream by the stereo/ Trying to find relief on the radio/ I’m suppressing the tears, but they start to flow/ ’Cause the next song I hear is the song I wrote/ When we first got together early that September/ I can’t bear to listen so I might as well drift/ In the kitchen, pour another glass or two, and try to forget you.”)

20. Love Takes Time (1990, Mariah Carey). When she played a demo of this song for Sony, they literally stopped the presses of her debut album so that it could be included. That was a smart decision. It’s a flawless love song with some of her most emotionally resonant vocals (and it became her second #1).

Copyright Columbia Records

19. Honey (1997, Butterfly). This co-production with Sean Combs (then Puff Daddy) was more notable for announcing her transformation from scrupulously managed pop star to sexy and free-spirited R&B songstress than it was for its production. But nevertheless it’s a late ’90s R&B classic that was elevated by its memorable music video.

18. Shake It Off (2005, The Emancipation of Mimi). This midtempo jam about moving on from a relationship that wasn’t worth her time is one of the hippest, sassiest, cleverest, and most unique sounding songs in her catalogue. (Fun Fact: It was a mega-hit, but had to settle for #2 because her prior single We Belong Together didn’t leave the #1 position for nearly four months).

17. Close My Eyes (1997, Butterfly). “Still I feel like a child as I look at the moon/ Maybe I grew up a little too soon.” This heartbreaking ode to lost innocence features some of her most sophisticated and introspective lyrics as well as one of her subtlest vocal performances.

16. Looking In (1995, Daydream). The first time she truly showed us the depth of her pain, this ballad hauntingly closes what is arguably her most romantic and upbeat album. (Favorite Lyric: “She smiles through a thousand tears/ And harbors adolescent fears/ She dreams of all that she can never be/ She wades in insecurity/ And hides herself inside of me.”)

Copyright: Columbia Records

15. Dreamlover (1993, Music Box). This infectious midtempo number is one of her catchiest songs. It perfectly evokes a summer daydream about being rescued from your humdrum existence by “the one.” It is pure, flawless pop.

14. H.A.T.E.U. (2009, Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel). Like countless artists before her, Mariah frequently delves into painful breakups for lyrical inspiration. But here she achieves what few artists have ever done — perfectly evoking that complicated emotional state of utter confusion and desperation that exists between the realization that a relationship is over and the anger that later sets in. It is one of her most vocally restrained and lyrically impressive songs. (Fun Fact: The title is stylized that way because she jokingly referred to the dramatic and emotional nature of the song by saying that she was “Having A Typical Emotional Upset.”)

13. My All/Stay Awhile (So So Def Remix) (1997, Butterfly). The original version of My All is a smoldering Latin-influenced ballad that represents one of her most mature compositions. But this hip hop remix elevates the song to another level. By flawlessly weaving the ballad with a cover of ’80s R&B hit “Stay a Little While, Child” she honors both songs while creating something wholly original.

12. Side Effects (2008, E=MC²). Typically, Mariah’s dance floor tracks are filled with innocuous lyrics about romance and partying and you have to go to her ballads for the deeper, darker material. Here, she breaks the mold by delivering piercing and nuanced lyrics about the mental health consequences of a former abusive relationship (presumably her marriage to record executive Tommy Mottola) over an infectious beat and a rap verse by Young Jeezy.

11. Vanishing (1990, Mariah Carey). This track from her debut album was never released as a single, but it is adored by her fans more fervently than many that were. With only a piano and a flawless voice, Mariah delivers a total knockout with this song about a love that she can’t save.

Copyright: Island Def Jam

10. #Beautiful (2013, Me. I Am Mariah … The Elusive Chanteuse). This duet with honey-voiced up-and-comer Miguel was not the comeback hit it deserved to be, but it nevertheless received a great deal of critical acclaim. The stripped down, mid tempo R&B song represents a fresh sound from Mariah and lyrically and musically captures the infatuation of new love in an utterly captivating and lean 3 minutes.

9. The Roof (1999, Butterfly). The sexiest song in Mariah’s catalogue, this stunner may be built around a sample from Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones (Part Two)” but it never for a moment feels anything less than fresh. The memorable lyrics recount a rooftop romantic encounter that the protagonist can’t get out of her mind. (Favorite lyric: “I was twisted in the web of my desire for you/ My apprehension blew away/ I only wanted you/ To taste my sadness/ As you kissed me in the dark.”)

8. Petals (1999, Rainbow). The most personal and heartbreaking song she ever wrote, this piano-driven ballad makes complex and haunting allusions to her biography, particularly her abusive relationship with her ex-husband and her complicated relationship with her drug addicted sister. She breaks down before your eyes (or ears, rather), before somehow ending on an ultimately hopeful note.

7. Vision of Love (1990, Mariah Carey). Her first single remains one of her best and most iconic songs. The subject matter of the lyrics is continuously debated — is it about romantic love, her relationship with God, or a general sense of gratitude for life? Who knows. What matters is that this soaring ballad is one of her finest hours and one of the best showcases for that five-octave vocal range imaginable.

6. Emotions (1991, Emotions). The song is most famous for the series of superhuman whistle registers that cap the song, but what comes before those notes is a classic disco anthem that features Mariah at her most soulful and euphoric.

5. Always Be My Baby (1995, Daydream). Despite becoming her 11th #1, it was overshadowed in its original release by the two mega hits that preceded it (Fantasy and One Sweet Day). Over time, it has come to be considered by many to be one of the finest pop songs of the 1990s. With a hypnotic “do-do-doop” looping in the background, this insanely catchy song finds Mariah certain that even though she may not be with her man at this moment in time, their love is timeless and they are destined to reunite.

4. Breakdown (1997, Butterfly). This slow jam collaboration with hip-hop group Bone Thugs-N-Harmony is not only one of her most musically creative endeavors but also features some of her most soul crushing lyrics. For example: “So what do you do when somebody said you’re so devoted to/
Suddenly just stops loving you/ And it seems they haven’t got a clue/ Of the pain that rejection is putting you through?/ Do you cling to your pride and sing I Will Survive?/ Do you lash out and say, ‘How dare you leave this way’?/ Or do you hold on in vain as they as they just slip away?” I don’t know, Mariah. I just don’t know.

3. Fantasy (Bad Boy Remix) (1995, Daydream). The album version of this uptempo dance song is one of her finest hours. It is pure pop perfection, with a nice dash of R&B and a perfectly positioned sample of Tom Tom Club’s 1981 hit “Genius of Love.” But the Puff Daddy-assisted remix, which blends the best parts of the original with a gritty verse from Ol’ Dirty Bastard and an enhanced bassline, is even better and is widely credited with being the moment hip hop when mainstream and the now ubiquitous rap-sung collaboration was born.

Copyright: Island Def Jam

2. We Belong Together (2005, The Emancipation of Mimi). She had not had an unqualified smash hit in nearly 6 years when this flawless union of heartbreaking lyrics, emotionally raw vocals, and understated arrangement shot to the top of the charts. It spent 14 weeks at #1, won a pair of Grammys, and revitalized her career. It’s one of the all-time great R&B ballads and to this day, hearing her perform the climactic octave raise in the final chorus gives me chills.

1. All I Want for Christmas Is You (1994, Merry Christmas). Precious few songs are remembered two decades after their release. Virtually no songs steadily grow in popularity every year for over two decades. But that’s what this song has done and continues to do. It is arguably the only song of the modern era to become a perennial Christmas standard and it has spun off an entire franchise of its own, including a children’s book and an animated film. But as we all know wild success doesn’t always equal artistic perfection. Here it does. There is no need to elaborate any further as droves of articles have been written about its profoundly challenging vocal arrangement, how it pays homage to the standards of the 40s and the Motown hits of the 60s with its production, and its unparalleled endurance in popular culture.

Read more articles this author has written about Mariah Carey:

The Mariahssance

A Celebration of Pop Divas

Mariah’s Mental Health Admissions Matters

The Butterfly Returns

Read more articles this author has written about other music superstars:

Madonna

Lady Gaga

Elton John

Florence Welch

Taylor Swift

Aretha Franklin

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The night my husband and I met Mariah backstage at Caesar’s Palace (6.25.16)

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Richard

Richard

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Passionate cinephile. Music lover. Classic TV junkie. Awards season blogger. History buff. Avid traveler. Mental health and social justice advocate.