Mariah Carey's 'Music Box' at 20: Classic Track-By-Track Review

80 Billboard Rating

As far as Mariah Carey albums go, 1993's "Music Box" is awfully front-loaded. From the opening notes of "Dreamlover," which feature Mariah trilling in her signature whistle octave, straight into mega-ballad "Hero" and the take-it-to-church "Anytime You Need A Friend," the album wastes no time in letting Carey do what she does best. And considering it was her fourth album in just three years, "Music Box" is all the more impressive in its workman-like ability to churn out so many hits.

Celebrating its 20th anniversary August 31, "Music Box" saw nearly half of its 10 songs crack the top 10 on the Hot 100, including two No. 1s for "Dreamlover" and "Hero." It also became Mariah's first to be diamond-certified by the RIAA with shipments of 10 million ("Daydream" was her second.) Paring Carey with writer-composer Walter Afanasieff (Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On") for eight of the 10 tracks, "Music Box"  is equal parts contemporary R&B-tinged pop, with dabbles in dance ("I've Been Thinking About You," "Now That I Know") and gospel ("Anytime You Need A Friend," a reverent take on Badfinger's "Without You") to boot.

"It's gotten progressively to be more of me," Mariah told MTV News in an interview during the time of "Music Box"'s release. "When I made my first album it was like, I got my record deal at 18 years old and I worked with these really big producers who had their own sound. And that kind of definitely rubbed off on me. But now I've gone through the process of getting more control, producing my own stuff, and now it's more me coming across. It's not somebody else's perception of me."

Indeed, Carey co-penned all of "Music Box"'s tracks outside of the "Without You" cover, and marked the first time she showed signs on record of her uncomfortable marriage to label boss Tommy Mottola. After all, what happily married woman would kick off her album with the plea "Dreamlover, come rescue me"? The project also saw her taking the reins of her remixes, kicking off the now common-for-Carey process of cutting all-new vocals for dance and, later, hip-hop remixes of her singles like "Dreamlover" and "Anytime You Need A Friend," the latter of which was remixed by C&C Music Factory's David Cole and Rovert Clivilles, who also co-penned the album's two dance tracks.

Ultimately a product of 1993, "Music Box" does have a few ballads that sound dated and soggy, and Carey's first teaming with Babyface ("Never Forget You") is a bit, well, forgettable. Still, it's one of the strongest albums in her catalog and has arguably the best hits-to-filler ratio of any other pop album released at the time this side of "The Sign." Which "Music Box" tracks are the best? Read on for our classic track-by-track review.

1. "Dreamlover"
Mariah cuts straight to the chase, sticking her trademark upper-octave vocals at the beginning of this uptempo R&B jam from producer Dave Hall, who lent a similar touch to 90s classics like Mary J. Blige's "Real Love" and Brownstone's "If You Love Me." Even if the wistful lyrics are a bit sad when considered in context of Mariah's relationship with Tommy Mottola, the song is stuffed with too many perfect-pop ingredients (a live, insistent beat, a catchy "doo doo doo doo" hook, an indelible chorus) to be a downer.


2. "Hero"
The lyrics may be mired in easy, rhyming clichés ("when you feel your hope is gone / look inside you and be strong"), but the song's powerful message and inspirational chorus are both testaments to its staying power two decades later. It's still a staples of Carey's live shows, and oft-performed by her and others at tributes and disaster-relief telethons such as the 9/11 benefit "America: A Tribute to Heroes."


3. "Anytime You Need A Friend"
Mariah had long incorporated gospel influences into her music, most notably on 1991's thank you note to Jesus, "Make It Happen." "Anytime You Need A Friend" is one of several instances on the album that sees her incorporating a gospel choir to maximize dramatic effect, along with R&B singers like Melonie Daniels and current R&B diva, Kelly Price. But amid all the voices, Mariah makes it clear who's taking lead – adding some grit to her melismas as she riffs toward song's climax, "Don't you ever be looonely." A standout song in a career marked by powerhouse performances.


4. "Music Box" 
Mariah has noted that "Music Box"'s title track was the most difficult to sing, largely for its use of "legato," an Italian method of singing in full voice at a hushed volume. Though the lyrics can verge on the trite ("When you tell me the I'm only one you need / sweet and tenderly"), Mariah's performance is anything but, rising in controlled intensity with each verse before letting it rip on the final chorus. An overlooked gem.


5. "Now That I Know"
"Music Box" saw Mariah fully embracing the clubs and her dance following, pairing with C&C Music Factor's David Cole and Robert Clivilles for two uptempo jams. Though Mariah manages to inject some authentic soul into the overly programmed production, "Now That I Know" otherwise comes off as a "Gonna Make You Sweat" B-side.


6. "Never Forget You"
There are many great Mariah Carey and Babyface pairings, from the Whitney Houston duet "When You Believe" to her backing vocals on the singer-producer's "Everytime I Close My Eyes." "Never Forget You" is not one of those, and the single's lack of a music video shows what a low priority it was even for Mariah and her label Columbia at the time. Still, it's nice to hear Mariah and Babyface's voices gel on the chorus, even if it takes a few listens to stick in the memory.


7. "Without You"
Mariah has long embraced a love for cheesy 80s rock ballads, covering the likes of Journey's "Open Arms," Phil Collins' "Against All Odds," Def Leppard's "Bringing On The Heartbreak" and, most recently, Foreigner's "I Want To Know What Love Is." This Badfinger-by-way-of-Harry Nilsson cover kicked off that cycle, and is still perhaps the best of the bunch (though it is amusing to hear her go-for-broke vocals at the end of Collins' "Against All Odds.")


8. "Just To Hold You Once Again"
Much like "Music Box" the song, "Just To Hold You Once Again" finds Mariah cranking up the drama ever so slowly on this otherwise languid ballad. And, wouldn't you know, with the help of a gospel choir. An enjoyable listen within the context of the album, and like many of the other ballads on "Music Box," worth sticking around for the not-so-surprise ending (spoiler alert: there's a multi-octave key change!)


9. "I've Been Thinking About You"
Mariah, Cole and Clivilles bring the 90s dance heat again on this second pairing, which brings some much-appreciated beat drops to the otherwise by-the-books melody and lyrics.

10. "All I've Ever Wanted"
Ending things on a goopy note, "All I've Ever Wanted" is perhaps the album's weakest moment. Thematically, however, it bears a resemblance to album opener "Dreamlover," finding Mariah pining after an unrequited romance. Though co-writer Walter Afanasieff is responsible for many of the album's most winning moments, his penchant for treacle gets the best of both artists here. The international bonus track "Everything Fades Away" would have been a more welcome finale.