Spice topped the U.K. charts in November 1996, shortly after its Nov. 4, 1996 release (which was a few months after its release date in Japan). Spice didn’t officially hit America until Feb. 4, 1997, but when it did, it received a similarly warm reception, topping the Billboard 200 on the May 24, 1997-dated chart. By the end of 1997, the debut album from Posh, Ginger, Scary, Baby and Sporty had moved 5.3 million copies in the U.S., per MRC Data (then SoundScan), making it the top selling album of the year in America. It was the first album by an all-female group to reach No. 1 on the Billboard 200 since 1982, when the Go-Go’s’ Beauty and the Beat spent six weeks at No. 1. Who knew five hugely marketable individuals delivering perfectly crafted pop could be so appealing?
Twenty-five years after making short-sighted industry executives eat their words, we’re ranking the 10 tracks that put girl power on the map in the ’90s.
10. “Last Time Lover”
Although Spice was often dismissed as pure bubblegum pop, it did occasionally flirt with the kind of crazysexycool R&B that TLC had perfected two years previously – hear the New Jack Swing beats, seductive bass lines and G-funk synths of “Last Time Lover.” There are definite shades of T-Boz’s signature huskiness in Mel B’s come-ons, most of which no doubt sailed over the heads of the group’s tween listeners (“Like the dirty bass in the music/I got my major chords strummin'”), although the clumsy rap meant few were going to mistake Geri for Left Eye. Interestingly, this is the only track from Spice Girls’ first two albums that’s never been performed live.
The album’s dominant producers Absolute, aka Paul Wilson and Andy Watkins, also brought the sultry vibes on what must surely be the band’s most un-Googleable song. “Naked” is also one of their most intriguing, with the opening line (“Naivety and childhood left behind, deprived of the goodness of mankind”) hinting at a darkness from the past, while its subsequent words of empowerment – including a scathing voicemail message which proves no one puts Baby in the corner – delivered via spoken word. However, it still gives Mel C a chance to stake her claim as the true voice of the group with an assertive middle-eight.
Perhaps a controversial placing considering it was 50% responsible for the Spices’ fourth consecutive U.K. number one (it didn’t get a single release in America), but “Mama” is the only time that Spice veers perilously close to pure schmaltz. To be fair, the no-brainer Mother’s Day present of 1997 isn’t the cloying power ballad you might have expected from its simplistic Hallmark card sentiment: its shuffling mid-tempo beat and vinyl scratches adding a bit of groove to the usual acoustic guitars and sweeping strings. And who doesn’t love a shoehorned-in gospel choir?
7. “Love Thing”
In another example of record company cluelessness, Virgin initially wanted to launch Spice Girls with “Love Thing” rather than the most obvious debut single choice of all time. That’s no disrespect to the track itself, a feisty pure pop earworm which boasts a similar gang mentality (“God help the mister/That comes between me and my sisters”). Indeed, most girl bands from the same era would have killed to come straight out of the gate with such an ‘us against the world’ banger. But it’s unlikely Spicemania would have taken hold had this been our first introduction.
6. “Something Kinda Funny”
“Something Kinda Funny” apparently has a more pivotal role in the Spice Girls story than you might think. Simon Fuller was reportedly inspired to sign the band to his 19 Management company after hearing the track in its demo form. While perhaps not as instant as the tracks he’d later help guide, it’s still easy to hear why the pop Svengali was so enamored. There are the group’s cooing harmonies, that deliciously funky bass and the slinky guitar lick, a riff that sent you scouring the liner notes to check which Chic classic it sampled, only to discover that it’s entirely original.
5. “If U Can’t Dance”
However, as you can probably tell from the lengthier list of songwriter credits, there was a sample on Spice‘s closing number. And not an obvious one, either. Indeed, few would have expected a manufactured all-singing, all-dancing girl band to borrow from alternative hip-hop outfit Digital Underground’s sex machine anthem “The Humpty Dance.” But the quintet make their own mark on the emphatic drum track thanks to the addition of some squawking horns, Spanish rhymes and brutal kiss-offs to those who can’t bust a move (“There never is a Keanu but the dweeb lookin’ at me”).
4. “Who Do You Think You Are?”
Released as a double A-side with “Mama” for Comic Relief, “Who Do You Think You Are” was accompanied by a parody video featuring the likes of Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French and Kathy Burke impersonating their favorite members alongside said favorite members. But this ’70s disco throwback remains just as entertaining without the copycats dubbed the Sugar Lumps. Mel C’s ad-libs are perhaps the most uplifting in the Spice canon, the horn-based production nails the Studio 54 vibe and its ripostes to those showbiz types who’ve let fame go to their heads proved that the Spices could get real when needed. That iconic BRITs performance further ensured its pop legacy.
Some might consider it sacrilege not to place the song which essentially revolutionized the pop landscape in the pole position. Make no mistake, “Wannabe” is still a solid 10, albeit one so ubiquitous in 1996/97 (it topped the Billboard Hot 100 in Feb. 1997) that you probably know it by heart. From that iconic opening cackle and addictive riff (inspired by Grease‘s “Summer Nights”) to the creation of ‘zig-a-zig-ah,’ producers Matt Rowe and Richard Stannard helped deliver hook after hook on a track which perfectly encapsulated everything Spice Girls stood for in less than three minutes. It’s up there with “…Baby One More Time” as the decade’s most impactful debut single.
2. “Say You’ll Be There”
Spice Girls could quite easily have been consigned to one-hit wonder status had they not followed up their world-conquering debut with a song that showed a different side to their distinct personalities. While “Wannabe” was unapologetically brash pop, “Say You’ll Be There” (a No. 3 Hot 100 hit) was a far more sophisticated R&B-tinged affair complete with impressive harmonies, a Stevie Wonder-esque harmonica solo and, slightly randomly, a nod to After 7‘s “What U R 2 Me”! Complemented by a glorious Russ Meyer-inspired video in which each member took on ass-kicking alter-egos, this pitch-perfect second single still exuded the same sense of joy.
1. “2 Become 1”
Just when you thought Spice Girls couldn’t hit it out of the park again, along came this sumptuous wintry ballad, their first of three consecutive U.K. Christmas chart-toppers and a top 5 on the Hot 100. The group were often pilloried for their lack of vocal prowess but “2 Become 1” proved you don’t always need Mariah-style acrobatics to sell a love song. Emma’s sweetly sung tones and Mel B’s contrastingly low timbre particularly shine on a track which subversively sneaks a safe-sex message in among all the more romantic declarations. Boasting sweeping strings arranged by Grammy-winning composer Craig Armstrong, its gorgeous outro is the pinnacle of a mostly-killer, little-filler album which showed pop needn’t be a dirty word.