Pop music tends to evolve slowly, gradually swaying from one trend to the next without sharp turns or dramatic spikes. Some years, though, you can listen to the radio and really feel the ground shifting, if not outright quaking, beneath your feet. 1997 was one of those years.
The first half of the ’90s was largely defined by the fallout from the grunge explosion of Nirvana and Pearl Jam and the rise of West Coast hip-hop, as shepherded by Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg. As late as ’96, alt-rock and G-funk still held serve as the dominant sounds of the moment. But by ’97, most of the leading lights for both genres had either faded, gone on hiatus or left the game altogether, creating a void at the mainstream’s center that badly needed filling.
What came along to fill it was the return of mega-pop: Massive, barnstorming, top 40-geared breakouts from groups like Spice Girls, Hanson and Backstreet Boys — artists that bore some of the sonic signifiers of decade’s beginning, but lacked any connection to the angst of grunge or the edge of G-funk. In hip-hop, the Bad Boy empire was springboarded to the top of the food chain, as label head Sean “Puffy” Combs was reborn as Puff Daddy, and quickly became the best-selling rapper in the universe thanks to a series of gigantic, top 40-recycling pop-rap smashes for himself and his labelmates.
Within a year or two, post-grunge had been replaced by nu-metal and pop-punk on alternative radio, West Coast had almost totally given way to East Coast in the hip-hop mainstream, and pop’s center was dictated daily by teen-pop soothsayer Carson Daly on Total Request Live. But while the core of top 40 was fundamentally evolving in ’97, a lot of other weird stuff was going on, from the rise of nu-soul and crossover country to the last gasps of trip-hop and hi-NRG dance. And of course, there were one-hit wonders: plenty of dance-pop novelty smashes, international flukes and alt-rock parting shots to give the year character.
Here are Billboard‘s 100 favorite pop songs — capping it at one song per lead artist, and broadly defining “pop” as music that either was played on top 40 at the time or could conceivably have been — from one of the most pivotal years in the genre’s history.
(Word of warning: To make our list more authentic to the experience of living through 1997 pop, we counted songs as eligible if they peaked on the Billboard Hot 100 — or if they were disqualified from the Hot 100, but peaked on our Radio Songs chart — within the 1997 calendar year. That means that some songs that came out earlier but crested in ’97 are here, but many songs that came out in ’97 but hit their mass-culture moment later on aren’t. So apologies, “My Heart Will Go On,” “Torn,” “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” “Make ‘Em Say Ugh” and many more — see you all in ’98.)
100. Will Smith, “Men in Black” (No. 1, Radio Songs)
In its own way, this song was as responsible as Puff Daddy’s string of MTV-slayers for proving hip-hop’s blockbuster potential at the turn of the millennium; “Men in Black” even came packaged along with its own actual blockbuster film. The Patrice Rushen sample has aged a lot better than the in-character lyrics and alien square-dance breakdown, but every generation gets the “On Our Own” it deserves, and no one was better equipped to deliver this one to future millennials than the former Fresh Prince.
99. Sheryl Crow, “Everyday Is a Winding Road” (No. 12, Hot 100)
A “Life Is a Highway” for folks who occasionally like to get high on in-tel-lect-u-al-ism, with a surprisingly funky intro that smooths out into VH1 crossroads serenity in time for the big chorus. “I get a little bit closer to feeling fine” is an admirable and identifiable aspiration; perhaps the least contentious sentiment ever expressed by a hit single off an album banned from Wal-Mart.
98. LL Cool J, “Phenomenon” (No. 55, Hot 100)
Rare was the 1997 rap single that didn’t try to ride at least one well-trodden pop/funk lift to radio omnipresence; the title track off LL Cool J’s ’97 album hedged its bets with two. The Melle Mel vs. Bill Withers (via Creative Source) throwdown of “Phenomenon” didn’t match the pop success of LL’s Mr. Smith singles, but today the thing sounds fantastic: a slithering groover of on-the-prowl malevolence, which sounds 100x sexier as delivered by James Todd Smith’s sociopathic whisper than it ever could via Abel Tesfaye’s pained falsetto.
97. Jon Bon Jovi, “Midnight in Chelsea” (No. 57, Radio Songs)
A whole lot changed in the rock world in the seven years between the Hot 100-topping “Blaze of Glory” and “Midnight in Chelsea,” but Jon Bon Jovi hoped to make the seamless transition from stadium power-balladry to coffee-house singer-songwriterdom with his sophomore LP’s lead single, without Triple A noticing. Valiant effort, and “Chelsea” is convincing enough in its stroll through Ethan Hawke faux-bohemia that it could’ve worked — but the song tanked at radio, and Jon Bon wisely rejoined his namesake band just in time to take over TRL with their “Livin’ on a Prayer” sequel.
96. Los Umbrellos, “No Tengo Dinero” (No. 42, Hot 100)
About a year and change before Ricky Martin took over in earnest, Danish trio Los Umbrellos delivered a Latin Pop explosion as imagined by McG; all beach bunnies, gaudy primary colors and kitschy Spanglish cheese. Probably for the best that America held out for the real(er) thing, though the list of songs with choruses in any language catchier than “No Tengo Dinero” is muy bajo.
95. Madonna, “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” (Miami Mix) (No. 8, Hot 100)
Madonna’s breakout film role as Eva Peron in Evita didn’t get her the Oscar nomination she sought, but it did land her yet another Hot 100 top 10 hit via her show-stopping torch song. Pablo Flores and Javier Garza’s Miami Mix of “Argentina” is just as responsible for the song’s chart success as Madonna’s Celine Dion ambitions, taking her soaring vocals from the balcony to the dance floor and giving the song back to the people.
94. Donna Lewis, “Without Love” (No. 41, Hot 100)
If you had no idea Donna Lewis literally wrote a single other song besides 1996’s inescapable “I Love You Always Forever,” you’d certainly be forgiven, but follow-up “Without Love” was just as breathy, billowing and endearing, fitting around your heart as snugly as a perfectly taut bedsheet. Lewis’ entire Now In a Minute album is actually sort of a marvel; Cocteau Twins-like dreampop with enough of an adult-alternative backbone to get played at Lilith Fair.
93. Somethin’ for the People, “My Love Is the Shhh!” (No. 4, Hot 100)
Before Mya’s love was like wo, Somethin’ for the People was there to provide non-verbal teases of just how much their love was the bomb, baby. Mya’s music video was certainly better — even with S4TP’s ultra-’90s Girl 6 framing — and possibly her song too, but the glitchy sultriness of “My Love Is the Shhh!” forecasted just how much better the world would be once absolutely everyone in hip-hop was trying to be Timbaland and/or Aaliyah.
92. Monica, “For You I Will” (No. 4, Hot 100)
Somehow, the cartoonish broad strokes of the multi-platinum Space Jam soundtrack found room for a perfectly nice Monica ballad, pledging the kind of unconditional devotion that Michael Jordan displayed to his alternate-dimension Tune Squad teammates. An ideal middle-school dance slow jam, if you could properly dissociate it from the sound of Danny DeVito’s voice and a forever-farting Newman.
91. Phil Collins, “It’s In Your Eyes” (No. 77, Hot 100)
Cling to your Tarzan nostalgia if you must, but know that Phil Collins’ final truly great single of the 20th century resides in the British Invasion-worthy jangle-pop here. In an era about to be overrun with Swedish dance-pop, “It’s In Your Eyes” was lucky to squeak onto the Hot 100 at all, but with its sighing melodies, gorgeous harmonies and sweetly chiming guitars, Phil Collins could’ve probably found a second life as a touring member of The Wonders.
90. Roger Bart, “Go the Distance” (Did not chart)
Speaking of not-quite-classic late-’90s Disney, 1997’s lukewarmly received Hercules failed to produce a hit on the future level of “You’ll Be in My Heart,” but the rousing I-can ambitions of film highlight “Go the Distance” makes it worthy of the Disney canon of great Go Outside and Do S–t ballads. And in the same grand tradition — most recently continued by Moana‘s “How Far I’ll Go” — the original film version here easily outstrips the re-recorded pop version, laid down by an already-outdated Michael Bolton.
89. Bruce Springsteen, “Secret Garden” (No. 19, Hot 100)
Not exactly one the real Bruuuuce-heads are gonna be calling out for 20 years later when it comes time for the third encore, but maaaaan does that moaning synth riff get in there. If you can resist that voice over those chords, then you probably could’ve resisted Renee Zellweger being had at hello, too — not impossible, but $273 million worldwide says you’re likely in the minority.
88. Richie Rich, “Do G’s Get to Go to Heaven?” (No. 57, Hot 100)
The best of a couple of odes to the fallen Tupac Shakur to scrape the Hot 100 in 1997, Richie Rich’s impressively understated, contemplative tribute to his late West Coast comrade was moving without being melodramatic; fearful not only of the real-world implications of 2Pac’s slaying, but of the even graver consequences that may meet him on the other side. It didn’t have the chart success of “I’ll Be Missing You,” but it may be the more satisfying listen today.
87. Lee Ann Womack, “The Fool” (No. 2, Country Songs)
Plenty of Other Woman ballads to go around in country history, but “The Fool” belongs to that rare “Jolene” class of woman-to-woman songs sung to rivals who aren’t necessarily even trying to be competition: “I’m the fool in love with the fool/ Who’s still in love with you.” Lee Ann Womack sells the desperation and hopelessness of the situation with heartbreaking self-awareness, and the song’s gentle backing trod comforts like a sympathetic hand on her shoulder.
86. R. Kelly, “Gotham City” (No. 9, Hot 100)
If R. Kelly could be inspired by Space Jam to write a power ballad sweeping enough to make Biggie cry, surely he could take the source material of Batman & Robin and come up with something similarly classic, right? Maybe not, but the straight-faced gospel-pop of the patently ridiculous “Gotham City” comes closer to the mark than you might remember — and in fact, at this point in our country’s history, you might end up a little disconcerted with just how relatable you find the song’s holding-out-for-a-hero sentiments to be.
85. Sister Hazel, “All for You” (No. 11, Hot 100)
Sister Hazel may have primarily been frat rock for college kids who found the Gin Blossoms to be too edgy, but damn if they didn’t squeeze out one irresistible guitar-pop nugget in “All for You.” The song’s ultra-repetitive chorus would grate after the 1000th listen — songs like this were just unkillable on radio back in the late ’90s — but the traded-off harmonies on the bridge never stopped putting the universe in slow motion.
84. Dru Hill, “In My Bed” (No. 4, Hot 100)
The skyscraper-sized ballad that introduced Dru Hill and their inimitable, blond-dyed frontman to the world, Sisqo raising the dramatic stakes throughout the song until he really sounds like he’s gonna pull a muscle (“Now if you truly loved me!/ THEN THIS WOULD NOT BE HAPPENING!!”). Not as much fun as “The Thong Song,” perhaps, but just as stunning in the singer’s always-unwavering commitment to playing the part.
83. Leschea, “Fulton Street” (No. 90, Hot 100)
A thoroughly regional hip-hop hit that only grazed the Hot 100 for two weeks, but remains one of the more indelible East Coast singles of the period; Leschea recounting her super-localized romance with R&B grace and hip-hop swagger, while a ceaseless minor synth bass line provides the song’s hypnotic undertow. If you split the difference between Meth and Mary’s parts on “I’ll Be There For You/You’re All I Need to Get By,” it’d probably sound something like this.
82. Whitney Houston, “Step By Step” (No. 15, Hot 100)
The Preacher’s Wife wasn’t The Bodyguard, and “Step By Step” wasn’t “I’m Every Woman,” but this Annie Lennox cover nevertheless proved easily the most buoyant of the three Whitney singles pulled from the soundtrack to her ’96 rom-com. Teddy Riley and Junior Vasquez both wound the song’s groove up even tighter for well-circulated dance remixes of the song, but honestly, the original didn’t need the help; its throbbing synths and weightless chorus already give the song all the dance-floor release it’d ever require.
81. Babyface, “Every Time I Close My Eyes” (No. 6, Hot 100)
One of the greatest pop songwriters of the late 20th century took a big cut for himself on The Day‘s lead single “Every Time I Close My Eyes,” a romantic ode that was probably accompanying first dances at weddings the week it came out. The Kenny G portions of the song haven’t held up so well — and were thankfully cut out of the single version — but Mariah Carey’s uncredited backing vocals take it to the next level like only she could, saving the song from totally floating away into smooth-jazz ambience.
80. Tonic, “If You Could Only See” (No. 11, Radio Songs)
A song that seemed to stick around just long enough to wear down top 40’s defenses, “If You Could Only See” hit at nearly the exact final moment when a post-grunge single with a slightly above-average chorus, a roaring guitar riff and a decently heartfelt delivery could live on Top 40 next to Mariah Carey. The passionate vocal is legit, by the way — frontman Emerson Hart told Radio.com in 2014 that the song’s refrain (“If you could only see the way she loved me/ Then maybe you would understand…”) was inspired by his a relationship that got him disowned by his parents for three years.
79. JAY-Z, “Who You Wit” (No. 84, Hot 100)
Not much to say about this one, except that yes, there was a time when JAY-Z made Bad Boy-sounding radio jams with Players Ball-themed music videos, just because the producers of the Sprung soundtrack asked him to. And yes, it was decently jiggy.
78. Ultra Nate, “Free” (No. 75, Hot 100)
Ebullient enough of a disco jam to get 1997 confused for 1979 — though the loping, moody guitar riff is a little of a Clinton-era giveaway — and satisfying enough for its Mood II Swing-remixed 12″ version to last for Donna Summer lengths without getting annoying. For further ’97 dance-floor liberation, by the way, check out Gala’s “Freed From Desire,” an epochal club hit just about everywhere in Europe, but maybe 20% too vocally enigmatic to find success in the States.
77. Changing Faces, “G.H.E.T.T.O.U.T.” (No. 8, Hot 100)
Written and produced by R. Kelly, girl group Changing Faces’ “G.H.E.T.T.O.U.T.” was a breakup ballad almost entirely lacking in fire or indignation, more resigned than resolved in its molasses-slow crawl. In that way, the mournful piano-led anthem was truer to most real-life splits than your average pop dismissal — there’s no triumph or vindication in it, there’s just survival, and that’s good enough.
76. Kylie Minogue, “Some Kind of Bliss” (Did not chart)
One of the more curious LPs of 1997 was certainly Kylie Minogue’s Impossible Princess, which saw the Aussie pop legend assuming newfound creative control in her career and making what essentially amounted to her Britpop album, down to Manic Street Preachers singer James Dean Bradfield co-writing lead single “Some Kind of Bliss.” America, already engaged in a period of Kylie ignorance, was unimpressed — and few other countries were considerably more responsive — but the song’s string-soaked guitar-pop remains surprisingly alluring, a fascinating glimpse at an alternate reality in which the disco diva is better remembered for ripped jeans than golden hot pants, and sounds no less like herself for it.
75. The Beatnuts feat. Big Punisher & Cuban Link, “Off the Books” (No. 86, Hot 100)
In the midst of the Year of the Flute, we should take an extended moment to contribute one of the OGs in the quivering winds of The Beatnuts’ “Off the Books” — sampled from ’70s kids TV show The Electric Company, of all things. Remarkably, it might not even be the most memorable thing about the song: That’s probably either the expertly deployed “Yooooou better watch yo’ step” vocal drop (courtesy of Melvin Van Peebles), or Big Pun’s typically scene-stealing opening verse: “Hey yo it’s all love, but love’s got a thin line/ And Pun’s got a big nine, respect crime but not when it reflect mine.”
74. Camp Lo, “Luchini AKA This Is It” (No. 50, Hot 100)
East Coast rap aficionados almost universally recall Camp Lo’s Uptown Saturday Night as one of the great hip-hop LPs of the late ’90s, but the remainder of the music-listening public likely only remembers the duo for that “This is it, what” song with the horn hook and the Point Break-jacking video. That song would be “Luchini” — so identified by the beginning of its chorus they literally added “AKA This Is It” to the title — and it is indeed a marvel, instantly striking from the opening bars of its Dynasty sample, and lyrically insidious enough to have you murmuring “sippin’ amaret-tuh” to yourself for the rest of the year.
73. Jamiroquai, “Alright” (No. 78, Hot 100)
Sure, “Virtual Insanity” is the Jamiroquai hit people remember, but that’s 80% because of the brilliant domestic suffocation and dope-ass choreography of the music video; real Jay Kay heads know that the disco-funk of follow-up single “Alright” was really where it’s at. Sadly, the song’s popping bass and squelching synths got it stuck somewhere in between Top 40 and alternative radio at the time; a half-decade later, it would prove the falsetto-laden model for any number of watered-down Maroon 5 smashes.
72. Cru feat. Slick Rick, “Just Another Case” (No. 68, Hot 100)
Given how much their voices and intertwined delivery recall Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, it’d be easy to dismiss Chadio and Mighty Ha of Bronx outfit Cru as knock-off NYers taking advantage of an off year for the Tribe — if their chemistry and wordplay wasn’t nearly as on-point as that of the legendary Queens duo. Plus, “Just Another Case” brings along the immortal Slick Rick for a “Children’s Story”-quoting cameo, giving an already weighty jam an extra degree of historical heft.
71. The Blackout All-Stars, “I Like It” (No. 25, Hot 100)
It took the better part of three years for America to really catch on to the Blackout All-Stars’ cover of Pete Rodriguez’s late-’60s boogaloo smash, but it proved well worth the wait, with “I Like It” soundtracking block parties and Bar Mitzvahs alike for the rest of the decade. That group name isn’t just a meaningless honorific, by the way — the All-Stars were a supergroup of hitmakers Sheila E., Tito Puente, Grover Washington Jr. and many more, an assemblage of star power whose combined wattage all but guaranteed that the single would be a one-off.
70. Shawn Colvin, “Sunny Came Home” (No. 7, Hot 100)
The most famous song about domestic arson since “Norwegian Wood” — not counting country songs, anyway — came courtesy of a 39-year-old singer-songwriter veteran enough to have sung backing vocals on Suzanne Vega’s “Luka” a decade earlier, who must have been more surprised at the crossover success of her gently haunting attack-on-memory lullaby than anyone. Good song, certainly, though No Doubt and R. Kelly still got robbed for Song of the Year at the ’98 Grammys.
69. Makaveli, “Hail Mary” (No. 8, Hot Rap Songs)
With chiming church bells and keys that plink like goosebumps popping up your arm, “Hail Mary” was already plenty spooky before the release of its posthumous music video, a mini-horror movie featuring an unseen 2Pac returning from the grave to get the justice on his murderers that real life still has yet to afford him. Today, though, the strongest memories are of its opening lines, a career-definer in a life full of such couplets: “I ain’t a killer but don’t push me/ Revenge is like the sweetest joy, next to gettin’ p—y.”
68. The Firm feat. Dr. Dre, “Phone Tap” (Did not chart)
The Firm was a moment that wasn’t, an East-West meeting of the capos between rappers Nas, AZ and Foxy Brown and producer Dr. Dre that should’ve been a landmark, and instead barely registered as a footnote, a monument to unrealized ambition. But at least one song on The Album was cinematic enough to live up to the LP’s Casino-aping cover art: “Phone Tap,” in which Dr. Dre borrowed the creeping tension of the jazz-pop standard “Petite Fleur” for a hip-hop one-act with all the paranoia of a Mobb Deep single and the drama of a Raekwon deep cut.
67. Peach Union, “On My Own” (No. 39, Hot 100)
A fantastic, totally forgotten one-off that sounded like an Britpop-injected version of St. Etienne’s pop sophistication, “On My Own” was an improbable flop in its home country but somehow snuck onto the U.S. top 40 — before the group waited too long to release their debut album, and became an afterthought by 1998. Producer Pascal Gabriel would stick around in the 21st century via a string of international hits helmed for the likes of Dido, Rachel Stevens and Kylie Minogue; singer/songwriter Lisa Lamb was not so fortunate.
66. Refugee Camp All-Stars feat. Lauryn Hill, “The Sweetest Thing” (Did not chart)
Before she was ready for her proper solo debut, Lauryn Hill tested the waters with a couple ’97 soundtrack cuts on her lonesome, the best of which was this gorgeous acoustic mid-tempo ballad — from Love Jones, if you can remember a single other thing about that movie. “The Sweetest Thing” was sort of a dry run for Miseducation‘s “Ex Factor,” a deeply, painfully felt love song torn between pulling out entirely or giving in for good; considering what we now know about the IRL relationship between the artist and her co-producer, it’s unsurprising it felt this raw and real.
65. Counting Crows, “A Long December” (No. 6, Radio Songs)
Maybe the closest Adam Duritz ever came to writing a true Laurel Canyon ballad, with a piano hook, a sing-along refrain and a general dolorousness, all effective enough to make Jackson Browne hopping mad that it wasn’t the ’70s anymore. Plus, few lyrics have ever conveyed the determined-if-forced optimism of yet another regret-filled New Year’s than “There’s reason to believe/ Maybe this year will be better than the last.”
64. Olive, “You’re Not Alone” (No. 56, Hot 100)
A British chart-topper that was humored with a handful of pity spins in the States, “You’re Not Alone” was one of the year’s most striking pop singles, with club energy and trip-hop atmospherics, based around Olive’s soulful siren call and synths that streak across the production like an electrical storm. It was the natural evolution of Massive Attack’s Protection — or at least, we could be forgiven for thinking it was, until Massive Attack actually released their third album.
63. Luscious Jackson, “Naked Eye” (No. 36, Hot 100)
A delectably dense hybrid of alt-rock and cherry-colored funk that was poppier at heart than it seemed at first blush, and weirder than it seemed every listen after that. Few top 40 hits of any year were this simultaneously accessible and cryptic, but within the Beastie Boys-approved sprawl of late-’90s Alternative Nation, it felt allllllll riiiiiiiiiiight.
62. En Vogue, “Don’t Let Go (Love)” (No. 2, Hot 100)
Not the finest of En Vogue’s No. 2-peaking singles — they had three, remarkably, without a single Hot 100 No. 1 — but still a tower of power from one of the most purely skilled girl groups in history, and one that both helped make Set It Off a cult classic and established Mekhi Phifer as the go-to male cad for ’90s R&B videos. By the time the group is trading solo ad libs at song’s end, it’s like a jam session with a bunch of awesome guitar virtuosos trying to impress one another.
61. Better Than Ezra, “Desperately Wanting” (No. 48, Hot 100)
Do Better Than Ezra remember running through the wet grass, falling a step behind? You better believe Better Than Ezra remember running through the wet grass, falling a step behind.
60. U2, “Discotheque” (No. 10, Hot 100)
Believe it or not, U2 has only ever had a half-dozen Hot 100 top 10 hits over their nearly four-decade career, and one of those will always be “Discotheque,” the band’s surreal leadoff to the Popmart experience, which saw them diving so deep into pop irony and kitsch it seemed they might never find their way back out. Today, the song sounds much less ostentatious and much more natural that you might remember — and despite its title (and Village People-aping, Bono-crotch-thrusting video), actually a much less-craven, more creative example of a displaced rock band trying to find refuge in disco and Europop than that of any number of popular bands right now.
59. KRS-One, “Step Into a World (Rapture’s Delight)” (No. 70, Hot 100)
“I’m not sayin’ I’m number one/ Uhh, I’m sorry, I lied/ I’m number one, two, three, four and five.” Not like KRS-One has exactly backed off from making claims to such a degree in the 20 years since, but “Step Into a World” was one of the last times that The Teacha would actually have the heat to back it up; a Blondie-quoting ass-stomper that brought East Coast hip-hop back to its concrete-jungle roots at a time when the genre was taking off into the stratosphere — a reality check ultimately ignored, but much needed anyway.
58. The Sundays, “Summertime” (No. 50, Radio Airplay)
English indie rockers The Sundays’ defining statement will forever be their melancholic 1990 masterpiece “Here’s Where the Story Ends,” but 1997’s “Summertime” would have to reign as their crowning pop achievement. It’s an idyllic warm-weather love song with a wavy soul flair simultaneously worthy of Stax and 4AD — but one nonetheless beset with the forever-lingering doubt and insecurity of a band who named one of their biggest hits “Can’t Be Sure”; as joyous as summer’s beginning, and as terrifying as summer’s end.
57. Boyz II Men, “4 Seasons of Loneliness” (No. 1, Hot 100)
Boyz II Men’s final Hot 100-topper might not rank as one of their ten best-remembered songs in 2017, largely because its power is so much subtler than the show-stopping ballads and new-jack-swinging dance songs the group is most recalled for. Nonetheless, the song is a triumph, both for the soft heartbreak of the group’s extended seasonal metaphor and the gorgeous space-age production of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis — it might not have sounded like a particularly logical No. 1 single on the Hot 100 in ’97, but it could’ve been an awesome deep cut on Bjork’s Homogenic.
56. Funky Green Dogs, “Fired Up!” (No. 80, Hot 100)
As remorseless as ’90s crossover dance would get: thumping, circular, endlessly fist-pumping techno-pop that sounds like it was recorded at a club at the center of the earth, at an hour so nocturnal that it doesn’t even exist on the Earth’s surface. No surprise they named a turn-of-the-millennium, late-night-advertised dance comp after this one — few songs have ever been so accurately titled, right down to the exclamation mark.
55. Imani Coppola, “Legend of a Cowgirl” (No. 36, Hot 100)
A Levi’s commercial come to musical life, the Donovan-sampling, genre-splicing “Legend of a Cowgirl” was destined to be popular for almost exactly the length it was: Not very, but long enough to make a permanent impression on anyone who temporarily fell for its unpredictable alt-pop charms. Imani Coppola — no relation to any of the famous ones — proved at true one-hit wonder in the U.S., never even hitting a single Billboard U.S. chart with any of her other songs, though she did have a nice moment of international OHW solidarity with the Baha Men duet “You All Dat.”
54. Bob Dylan, “Make You Feel My Love” (Did not chart)
This cut off Dylan’s acclaimed 1997 comeback Time Out of Mind was hardly inescapable back in ’97, but has since gone on to be something like his “Hallelujah” — a subtly impactful late-period ballad, so frequently covered and reinterpreted that it is one of the storied singer-songwriter’s most famous compositions. In Dylan’s case, his version is actually still best: The sentiment of “Make You Feel My Love” has simply proven more effective as delivered through the ex-folkie’s frayed croon than by more obviously powerful singers like Billy Joel and Adele, almost given credibility by his transparent fragility.
53. Foxy Brown feat. JAY-Z, “I’ll Be” (No. 7, Hot 100)
Let the record show that for all the Jiggaman’s eternal GOATness — and for however fondly we remember his 1996 debut Reasonable Doubt today — his first true crossover hit came as a songwriter and featured sparring partner on Foxy Brown’s “I’ll Be.” Not like Jay even steals the show either; he takes the hook, but gives Foxy all the best lines, including the immortal “My sex drive all night like a trucker,” her swaggering delivery reminding of the tremendous potential she had before her career was derailed by feuds and legal issues.
52. Depeche Mode, “It’s No Good” (No. 38, Hot 100)
The sixth and to date final top 40 hit for U.K. synth-rock greats Depeche Mode was a sleek sleaze-pop banger, delightfully cheesy enough that singer Dave Gahan pretty much had to play a lounge singer in the video. Still, the thing works because of the bass tremors unsettling the crooning underneath, and the zooming synths that crest and crash like ocean waves around Gahan, giving “It’s No Good” just enough edge to keep Depeche Mode relevant amidst the rise of electronica.
51. OutKast, “ATLiens” (No. 35, Hot 100)
OutKast wasn’t quite weaponized yet for their total mainstream takeover by the time of 1996 sophomore album ATLiens, but they did make some big inroads with singles like the title track, whose ecstatically moaning beat and irresistible sing-along chorus had new scores of fans saying oh-yay-er. Still, then as always, it’s the chemistry between the duo that remains at the center of their appeal; Big Boi’s cooler-than-a-polar-bear’s-toenails cockiness tag-teaming with Andre 3000’s piano-in-the-dark prancing for one of the most potent one-two punches the genre had ever seen.
50. Meredith Brooks, “Bitch” (No. 2, Hot 100)
You undoubtedly remember the thing for its cathartic chorus, in which Meredith Brooks declares herself to be the spectrum of all things feminine and human — though only one of them was memorable to enough to risk getting censored on top 40 radio. Still, when you listen next, pay attention to the underrated verses; Brooks grinning and teasing her way through a relationship that attempts in vain to pigeonhole her personality (“Yesterday I cried/ You must’ve been relieved to see the softer side”). Sadly, radio would attempt the same with the singer, with a similar lack of success.
49. Big Punisher, “I’m Not a Player” (No. 57, Hot 100)
The smoothness of the brilliantly lifted O’Jays sample should be unparalleled, yet it’s still no match for the smooth-talking of the rapper born Christopher Lee Rios, who spits with the verbal dexterity of an absurdly horny high school debate champ: “Some chick in back of me/ Bought me a daiquiri, told me meet her in back of Zachary’s/ ‘Cause she heard I was packin’ meat.” The next year, he’d cross-pollinate this one with a ’97 R&B hit from mononymous singer Joe with even greater success, the rare hip-hop example of both an original and its sequel being classics.
48. Sneaker Pimps, “6 Underground” (Nelle Hooper Mix) (No. 45, Hot 100)
Thank god for Nelle Hooper, the script doctor of ’90s U.K. electronic pop, who stepped in to take the Sneaker Pimps’ signature single to the next level — without him, there’s no sticky “Uh, one, two” hook making an already captivating trip-hop ballad absolutely unshakeable. With that final bit in place, “6 Underground” was a deserved crossover hit — the radio breakout Portishead never quite got to enjoy — and still delicious and mysterious enough 18 months later to soundtrack the Cruel Intentions trailer.
47. Roy Davis Jr. feat. Peven Everett, “Gabriel” (Did not chart)
An impeccable, two-stepping duet between a man and a pair of muted trumpets, a love song to the archangel of love and to dance music in general, beautiful enough to make the heavens weep. Unsurprisingly, it was far too British to go anywhere in the U.S., but in the U.K. it went top 40 and became something of a house music standard, even getting covered this year by underground soul phenom Sampha at the BBC Live Lounge.
46. Shania Twain, “Love Gets Me Every Time” (No. 25, Hot 100)
Maybe not since a different Mutt Lange-produced Diamond-seller from a decade earlier had such a blockbuster LP been led by such an unassuming lead single — ask an average fan to name five songs from Shania Twain’s Come on Over, and they’d get at least four deep before they’d even consider mentioning “Love Gets Me Every Time.” Still, this one’s a much bigger winner than “Women” was back in ’87, with an amiable saunter, John Cougar-worthy riffing and handclaps, and a smiling, what-me-worry? chorus that thankfully always leads back to the gleeful self-admonition: “Gone and dun it!”
45. Sarah McLachlan, “Building a Mystery” (No. 3, Hot 100)
Sarah McLachlan’s ethereal alt-pop went mainstream in a big way in ’97, not just with the iconic all-female Lilith Fair tour that she co-founded, but with her multi-platinum Surfacing LP, which buffed over her more abstract edges and made her one of the decade’s defining singer/songwriters. “Building a Mystery” was first and likely best off the album, a song with the lyrical layering and production depth to maintain the intrigue promised by its title, but still fundamentally basic enough to be a plausible karaoke choice for Marnie from Girls a decade and a half later.
44. Various Artists, “ESPN Presents the Jock Jam” (No. 31, Hot 100)
If this seems too high to you for a novelty single, then it’s probably been too long since you actually listened to the damn thing. The ’90s were the golden age for the Jock Jam (this megamix came courtesy of the third volume of the ESPN and Tommy Boy Records-collected titular comps), and “Jock Jam” gives you the entire history of the medium, from Gary Glitter and Queen to Real 2 Reel and Buckethead, in one exhilarating proto-mashup — with Chris Berman and Dan Patrick of course serving as the song’s Greek chorus for the full Rock N’ Jock head rush.
43. Erykah Badu, “On & On” (No. 12, Hot 100)
The tranquil stillness and shrugging lyrics of “On & On” aren’t usually the stuff that top 20 crossover hits and MTV buzz clips are made of, but Erykah Badu wrapped a tablecloth around her head and pulled the mainstream towards her. Despite being her debut single, Erykah’s Baduizm lead-off swayed with the confidence of a seen-it-all vet, the singer having been around long enough to know how to laugh off what a day it’s been, acknowledge that the world still keeps turning, and demand that someone get her a cup of tea already.
42. Garbage, “#1 Crush” (No. 29, Radio Songs)
Even on the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack, the romantic fatalism of Garbage’s “#1 Crush” was overpowering, frontwoman Shirley Manson putting her goth-pop all into lyrics like “I would burn for you/ Beg and steal for you/ I would twist the knife and bleed my aching heart.” The fact that the song got onto radio at all at the very beginning of ’97 was telling of just what a heater the band was on at the time, Manson’s undeniable magnetism and Butch Vig’s pristine soundscapes having combined to make Garbage the most irresistible new band in the world for almost exactly 12 months.
41. Duncan Sheik, “Barely Breathing” (No. 16, Hot 100)
Overplayed to hell at the time, but actually kind of a perfect pop song in retrospect: attention-grabbing opening lines, immaculate chorus (with a very effective verse lead-in), stakes-raising bridge, tricky false ending, and final lines that smartly close the song where it began. 1997 was chock full of obvious-in-the-moment one-hit wonders, but Duncan Sheik always deserved better — and eventually got it, winning a couple Tonys for his smash Spring Awakening musical.
40. B-Rock & the Bizz, “My Baby Daddy” (No. 10, Hot 100)
An Emotions-sampling, Miami Bass-derived one-off that amounted to a significantly less emotionally overwrought “Just a Friend” — replacing “You got what I need” with “You ’bout to get fired, girl!” — and maybe the most winning male/female pop-rap tete-a-tete since Positive K’s “I Got a Man.” Kudos to Anquette for attempting an answer song, but unsurprisingly, turns out the general concept could be stretched for the duration of one 3:37 single and not a second longer.
39. Amber, “This Is Your Night” (No. 24, Hot 100)
A dance-floor clarion call from its opening seconds, “This Is Your Night” was as undeniable as hi-NRG dance-pop got in ’97, seemingly one long continuous chorus serving as a baton relay between mega-hooks. It was Amber’s only top 40 hit — though she got close with the similarly potent “Sexual (Li Da Di)” in 2000 — and perhaps for that reason, it’s hard to stress just what an instant time portal this song is back to the years of Tamagotchis and N64s.
38. Chumbawamba, “Tubthumping” (No. 6, Hot 100)
Once you got sick of “Tumbthumping,” it was a little hard to get well to it again, because its chorus was so inescapable and oppressive — it’s almost impossible to remember what it was like to hear this song even for the 20th time, let alone the first time. But objectively speaking, it’s a pretty clever alt-pop anthem, with its fake-out intro, straight-faced “pissing the niiiiight awayyyy” verses, and bar-room refrain, which turned a sentiment rebellious enough to lead one of the band’s anarcho-punk screeds a decade earlier into something better equipped to cheer on soccer comebacks.
37. Michael Jackson, “Stranger in Moscow” (No. 91, Hot 100)
A rare near-forgotten hit for Michael Jackson — the song’s paltry chart placement remains his lowest peak on the Hot 100 — “Stranger in Moscow” is actually one of the singer’s all-time most affecting ballads, a lonely-in-a-crowd lament that unnerves with desolate, rainy production and one of Jackson’s most personal vocals. The real-life controversy in MJ’s life surrounding the song largely explains both why the song tanked on the charts and why it felt so authentic; even its more enigmatic lyrics (“Stalin’s tomb won’t let me be,” “Armageddon of the brain”) bear the wounds of a man besieged by people who asking him questions, and badly lacking in anyone to really listen to his answers.
36. The Verve Pipe, “The Freshmen” (No. 5, Hot 100)
Maybe the guiltiest power ballad in rock history, singer Brian Vander Ark’s self-torture crescendoing through every syllable as he speaks of some unnamed tragedy of youth: a girlfriend’s suicide, or a girlfriend’s abortion, or both, or neither. Doesn’t matter, really: What matters are the brilliant mini-snapshots of innocence lost — from the “When I was young I knew everything” opening line to the increasingly despairing “Can’t be held responsible / Won’t be held responsible” cries of the pre-chorus — and that piercing, finger-picked guitar line unwinding delicately in the background, refusing to pass judgment.
35. Gina G, “Ooh Aah… Just a Little Bit” (No. 12, Hot 100)
Bubblegum pop at punk rock speeds, Gina G’s lone brush with the mainstream was a B-12 shot that verged on happy hardcore, but whose bpm managed to stay just on the right side of cartoonish. And wow, that synth riff, a live wire running throughout the song, punishing in its uncontrolled effervescence. When Gina G continues her breathy call outs for a little bit more near song’s end, you can’t help but start to worry about the girl’s safety a little.
34. The Wu-Tang Clan, “It’s Yourz” (No. 75, R&B)
Lead Wu-Tang Forever single “Triumph” owned MTV for a couple months and stands as one of the year’s most important rap songs, but at five-and-a-half minutes with no real hook or chorus, it’s probably a stretch for pop music. Instead, let’s go with “It’s Yourz,” a jam with throwback minimalist energy — just a rattling beat and a groaning organ hook, inspiring both some of the best ruckus-bringing on the peerless crew’s sophomore album, and 15 years later, one of the least-likely hooks and titles yet for a Drake slow jam.
33. Aaliyah, “One in a Million” (No. 25, Radio Songs)
Aaliyah blasted R&B into the new millennium with her sophomore album, One in a Million, and the set’s title track was likely the most forward-looking of all — a twitchy, booming slow jam that sounded both lush and minimal, expansive and intimate, alien and sexy. The co-writing and producing efforts of Missy and Timbaland made the song’s futurism possible, but it’s still Babygirl at the center who makes the song as special as its title suggests, quivering with humanity as she offers “I’ll give you anything you want from me,” inspiring a generation of acolytes from all genres to form a line in front.
32. Robyn, “Show Me Love” (No. 7, Hot 100)
Expanding on the potential of breakout hit “Do You Know (What It Takes),” second Robyn Is Here single “Show Me Love” was a transitional gem — still largely in the TLC-established R&B mold of most of her debut, but already starting to blossom into anthemic Europop, and still naive in its fundamental sweetness, but already unequivocal in the “Show me love/ Show me life” insistences of its chorus. Robyn’s short-term longevity may have suffered to have her best early smash overshadowed by an identically named classic from a similarly named artist, but luckily, the Fembot had a couple tricks still up her sleeve in the decades to come.
31. White Town, “Your Woman” (No. 23, Hot 100)
If not the most left-field top 40 hit of 1997, then certainly the most inimitable — an alt-pop banger based on a 65-year-old trumpet sample, a funky synth break and a gender-flipped lyric that few artists in history outside of Prince would be so audacious as to attempt, let alone succeed at. Even White Town (a.k.a. Jyoti Mishra) himself didn’t dare try to repeat it: parent album Women in Technology is actually pretty killer, but don’t expect anything else on it to be even vaguely reminiscent of the one-man band’s lone mainstream dalliance.
30. Freak Nasty, “Da Dip” (No. 15, Hot 100)
Poor was the ’90s year that couldn’t produce at least one quality short-lived hip-hop dance craze, and following “Tootsee Roll” and “C’mon Ride It (The Train)” in that proud legacy was 1997’s “Da Dip,” an absurdly catchy (and just kinda absurd) Miami bass rave-up with instructions simple enough for even the poorly animated VR simulation in the video to pull it off. Stick around for the song’s too-perfect spoken-word breakdown: “If you ain’t dippin’/ You GOTS to be trippin’!”
29. Janet Jackson feat. Q-Tip & Joni Mitchell, “Got Til It’s Gone” (No. 36, Radio Songs)
A startling choice of comeback single for Janet — sparse, wispy nu-soul flirting with old-school vinyl ambiance, mostly memorable for its borrowed Joni Mitchell hook, brain-burrowing Q-Tip ad libs and chillest-party atmosphere. But Janet does save the finest moment for herself near song’s end, when she tilts her head back and delivers that laugh — easily the best laugh in pop, since it debuted on “When I Think of You” a decade earlier — and the beat rocks itself to conclusion.
28. Savage Garden, “I Want You” (No. 4, Hot 100)
One of the year’s most promising top 40 debuts came from this duo down under, a percolating stream-of-consciousness fizzer that finds a way to turn U2’s borderline-prank Zooropa single “Numb” into something unmistakably pop, leaving you with a bad craving for cherry cola. A couple years earlier, the music industry would’ve boxed Savage Garden in as alternative, by ’97, they were free to fly to the top of the pop charts within a couple singles’ time.
27. Wyclef Jean feat. The Refugee All-Stars, “We Trying to Stay Alive” (No. 45, Hot 100)
Not the chart triumph expected from the Fugees director’s solo debut single — maybe the public was already too burned out on Bad Boy hits resurrecting pop classics from past decades to make room for this Bee Gees reboot — but still a jam and a half: Wyclef hits the ground strutting like Tony Manero, and his Refugee Camp All-Star cohorts actually match him step-for-step, earning the obviousness of the sample. Jean would quickly be eclipsed by fellow Fugee Lauryn Hill in solo success, but enough fans followed the maestro’s directions to cop his CD from Sam Goody to make The Carnival go double-platinum.
26. LeAnn Rimes, “How Do I Live” (No. 2, Hot 100)
The teen country sensation proved she was worthy of grown-woman power ballads — Diane Warren-written, grown-woman power ballads — for this so-much-better-than-it-had-to-be love theme to the trash-action classic Con Air. Rimes had to compete for airtime and awards with a rival version from established country vet Trisha Yearwood, but while Trisha won the Grammy, LeAnn won the war, as her “How Did I Live” set a Hot 100 record by staying on the chart for 69 weeks, and it remains the song people hear in their heads today when they flash back to Nicolas Cage with that ridiculous long hair.
25. The Prodigy, “Firestarter” (No. 30, Hot 100)
The amazing thing about “Firestarter” in 1997 was that it counted as pop music at all; a strange confluence of historical circumstances that resulted in this incendiary (pun semi-intended) cyberpunk thrasher crossing over to top 40 and dominating MTV for a brief spell with its subterranean black-and-white visual. But big beat flukiness aside, “Firestarter” earned its place on the airwaves with its skull-pulverizing beat, the psychotic charisma of band mouthpiece Keith Flint, and a riff so futuristic it sounded devised by a half-robot Eddie Van Halen.
24. Mase, “Feel So Good” (No. 5, Hot 100)
Nobody took to rap’s shiny suit era quite the way Mase did, grinning through Hype Williams-helmed videos of gaudy opulence like it had never been any other way in hip-hop; “I don’t understand language of people with short money,” he boasted, and you had no reason not to believe him. The most telling part of solo breakout “Feel So Good” came courtesy of Bad Boy mentor Puff Daddy, though, summing up his label’s business model on the song’s bridge: “Do Mase got the ladies?/ Do Puff drive Mercedes?/ Take hits from the ’80s?/ But do it sound so crazy?” (“Hollywood Swinging” was from 1974, #actually, but whatever, this wasn’t Social Studies class.)
23. The Wallflowers, “One Headlight” (No. 2, Radio Songs)
“There’s got to be something better than in the middle,” Bob Dylan’s son belted on the chorus to his biggest hit, but that’s exactly where young Jakob & Co. were aiming; at a time when things were getting fundamentally fringe-y in alternative, The Wallflowers were a much-appreciated straight shot down guitar-rock’s center. Consequently, “One Headlight” isn’t a threat to displace any of dad’s songs in the classic rock canon, but for at least one year, it felt major enough that no less an authority than Bruce Springsteen showed up to help out on the chorus at the ’97 VMAs.
22. Busta Rhymes, “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See” (No. 37, Radio Songs)
Without a doubt the funkiest thing that Seals & Crofts have ever been involved with, Busta’s When Disaster Strikes lead single was a little too abstract (and obscurely titled) to take over radio, but cemented the rapper as one of MTV’s brightest stars and biggest personalities with its Coming to America-quoting video. The song had just as much flair and dynamism as its visual, though; within a year Janet was dancing to it on her Velvet Rope tour, and even Martha Stewart was saying “What the dilly, yo?”
21. Lil Kim feat. Lil Cease, “Crush on You” (Remix) (No. 52, Radio Songs)
One of the most fun, frisky rap songs of the late ’90s — one that perversely excludes Kim herself on her own album version, but rightly adds her see-through-bra boasts and Christian LaCroix namedrops to the remix, making it such a party that everyone from Aaliyah to Luther Campbell had to stop by the video to raise a glass. Possibly the only rap song in history whose chorus finds a dude getting slut-shamed, which maybe makes it a weird kind of socially progressive.
20. Faithless, “Insomnia” (No. 62, Hot 100)
A towering house opus wrapped around a late night’s restlessness, turning the attempt to shed consciousness into an epic struggle, with as much internal conflict as the withdrawal scenes from Trainspotting. It works brilliantly because the manic synth riff — the missing link between Orbital’s “Chime” and Darude’s “Sandstorm” — feels like thoughts racing a mile a minute, and because the central poem recited by Maxi Jazz is a too-familiar vignette for anyone used to seeing fourth-meal hour turn into fifth- and sixth-meal o’clock: “Make my way to the refrigerator / One dry potato, no lie, not even bread, jam/ When the light above my head went bammmm…”
19. OMC, “How Bizarre” (No. 4, Radio Songs)
What to make of the Otara Millionaires Club, a New Zealand duo who made unexpected worldwide waves with a fantastical Latin-tinged story song bearing a handful of absolutely dynamite hooks? We may never know for sure, and the group didn’t stick around long enough to explain further, but OMC’s oddball crossover hit remains as refreshingly quirky now as it was when it captured the globe’s imagination 20 years ago — and if you wanna know the rest, hey, the story’s rights may still be available for purchase.
18. Mariah Carey feat. Puff Daddy & Mase, “Honey” (No. 1, Hot 100)
Mariah took a big leap with Butterfly lead single “Honey,” shedding her good-girl image (and her shackling at the hands of music mogul husband Tommy Mottola) along with her dress in the song’s video. Needles to say, she stuck the landing: The Bad Boy-blessed “Honey” debuted at No. 1 on the Hot 100, and built on the promise of her “Fantasy” remix by proving that the pop megastar could excel within a hip-hop framework, setting her up to stay radio-relevant well into the 21st century.
17. Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott, “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” (No. 51, Radio Songs)
Considering all the rappers that broke into the mainstream in ’97, it would’ve no doubt surprised many at the time that the most enduring would be the woman in the garbage bag. Of course, Missy was always much more than that, and although “The Rain” adhered to the ’97 hip-hop formula in many ways — big ’70s pop lift, Hype-helmed MTV buzz clip — the song’s conversational delivery, clever wordplay and unparalleled unpredictability made her transfixing from the jump, and it was perhaps inevitable that she’d be vrrrrrrrrrrrroooommmmming her way to superstardom soon enough.
16. 112, “Cupid” (No. 13, Hot 100)
When Boyz II Men slumped (relatively speaking) on third album Evolution, it seemed possible that 112 would pick up the mantle as the country’s leading R&B quartet, having produced a trio of stellar top 40 hits from their self-titled debut, including the superlative third single “Cupid.” Never quite happened — the boy band explosion kinda made any such competition a moot point anyway — but “Cupid” stands as one of the era’s best, with an addictively squelching beat and exquisite backing harmonies supporting a career vocal from frontman Marvin “Slim” Scandrick, an iconic voice who never got the credit he deserved.
15. Fiona Apple, “Criminal” (No. 21, Hot 100)
Perhaps even more self-excoriating than “The Freshmen,” with a still-teenage Fiona Apple demanding reprimanding for having been “careless with a delicate man” — hoping for a good defense, but knowing it shouldn’t do her much good. The song attracted most headlines for its borderline-exploitative, Mark Romanek-directed video, but the music is plenty stunning without it: Over sinister pianos and sneaky-funky drums, Fiona asks not for absolution but for acknowledgment, finding strength in addressing her own wrongdoing: “Help me, but don’t tell me to deny it.”
14. Usher, “You Make Me Wanna…” (No. 2, Hot 100)
One of the great pop careers of the last two decades kicked off in earnest with “You Make Me Wanna…,” a relatively unassuming mid-tempo acoustic jam that Usher owns with burgeoning vocal mastery: Notice how no two lines in the verses follow the same melody, rhythm or tempo, the singer allowing each lyric to take its own appropriate shape. Those lyrics are similarly inspired; pop’s first great ode to coming to like the girl you talk to more than the girl you talk about, with Usher and producer JD frequently pausing their internal dialogue to shake their head and proclaim with a smile: “This is what you do!“
13. Sugar Ray feat. Super Cat, “Fly” (No. 1, Radio Songs)
The most unavoidable sound on alternative radio in early ’97 was Mark McGrath proclaiming “I just wanna fly” ad infinitum — a strong signifier that ’90s rock angst had run its course. It was about time to put the flannel away anyway, and Sugar Ray’s breakout hit was so blissfully SoCal in its hip-hop- and dancehall-tinged frat rock that lyrics like “All around the world, statues crumble for me/ Who knows who long I’ve loved you?” never sounded like anything less than pure poetry.
12. Puff Daddy feat. Mase, “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” (No. 1, Hot 100)
Released as a single on Jan. 7, 1997, the gleaming “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” established pretty early on that ’97 was gonna be Puffy’s year, as he and sidekick Mase took a Grandmaster Flash beat, a Matthew Wilder hook and a whole lot of quickly validated hubris to the top of the Hot 100. Of course, just weeks before it hit No. 1, Combs’ ascent was interrupted by his best friend’s tragic murder, but even that failed to halt Bad Boy’s momentum, as Puffy’s Biggie tribute “I’ll Be Missing You” shortly followed “Hold Me Down” to the chart’s apex, proving the song’s title to be downright prophetic.
11. Jewel, “You Were Meant For Me” (No. 2, Hot 100)
Jewel didn’t exactly play the part of a blockbuster pop artist — yodeling singer-songwriters from Alaska traditionally hit a hard ceiling at Gold status — but goddamn, she had the songs, particularly the devastating acoustic ache of second single “You Were Meant for Me.” Not all of the lyrics should’ve made it past poetry scribbles (“Picked up the paper, it was more bad news/ More hearts being broken, more people being used” — good luck getting through your Twitter timeline in 2017), but those that should have are post-breakup gut-punches (“I saw a movie, it just wasn’t the same/ ‘Coz it was happy, or I was sad”), and the riff sounds on the verge of weeping throughout, understandably.
10. DJ Kool, “Let Me Clear My Throat” (No. 30, Hot 100)
All the shoutouts in the world to Bahama Bay in Philadelphia for hosting the iconic live performance that would be released as DJ Kool’s “Let Me Clear My Throat” single, one of the last great popular examples of a rapper believing in Rakim’s maxim that “MC means Move the Crowd.” Kool engaged his Philly audience in call-and-response hooks, gave love to the independent women AND the independent fellas, and he repeatedly asked for noise, dammit, while he enthralled his charges with brilliantly curated Kool & the Gang and The 45 King samples. And when it was all done, Kool came away with a song that can still take any wedding from a 7 to a 10 by the time it’s done hitting ’em with the horns.
9. Aqua, “Barbie Girl” (No. 7, Hot 100)
The post-modern irony that affected so many parts of ’90s popular culture largely stayed out of its pop music — at least until Aqua came along. “Barbie Girl” was like the cartoon rendering of Jill Sobule’s more obviously snarky “Supermodel,” so over-the-top in its kitschiness that you could be forgiven for not noticing its impressive self-awareness. More importantly, its absurd male-female vocals and Babelfished-sounding lyrics (“Come jump in, bimbo friend, let us do it again”) made it an absolutely transcendent karaoke song, and its Barbie-Girl-in-a-Barbie-World chorus was practically worthy of You Know Who. “Well, Barbie, we’re just getting started,” faux-Ken assures his Mattel co-star at song’s end; sadly, Aqua had just one more Hot 100 hit Stateside before retreating to the Atlantic.
8. Daft Punk, “Around the World” (No. 61, Hot 100)
The first taste of Daft Punk on the Hot 100 came via this mercilessly catchy Homework classic. “Earworm” doesn’t come close to covering it; “Braintick” would be a more accurate way to describe the way the Vocodered “Arrowwnd the wurrrld, A-rowwnd-the-wurr-ullld” chant gets in there for weeks, months, decades at a time, while the bass line bounces up and down your spine and the liquid synths seep into your bloodstream. It was a hostile but ultimately benevolent takeover — Daft Punk seemed like the future of dance music at the time and that’s exactly what they ended up being, as us humans quickly realized we had little choice but to welcome our new robot overlords.
7. Third Eye Blind, “Semi-Charmed Life” (No. 4, 1997)
A drum fill, three chords and a “doo-doo-doo” chant, and by the time of the first verse, Third Eye Blind had locked up being the biggest new band of 1997. “Semi-Charmed Life” was the whole package: Risque enough that frontman Stephan Jenkins had to literally cover his mouth for certain lyrics in the video, but cuddly enough that it could slot in on radio playlists alongside Sugar Ray and OMC without making waves, and intricate enough that the bridge has three parts and lasts over a minute, but hooky enough that it always feels like pop music. Jenkins has called the song 3EB’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” and while Lou Reed would have chomped on his soul if the frontman had ever said that to his face, he wasn’t totally off; the only things really separating the songs are a sense of empathy and a killer sax solo.
6. Backstreet Boys, “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)” (No. 2, Hot 100)
A relatively modest first hit for the group that would define pop music for the last couple years of the millennium — a shuffling mid-tempo ballad built around an acoustic guitar riff, some airy synths, and one of the sweetest-sounding choruses the pop world had heard in a long time. The thing didn’t have to lead to the Backstreet Boys taking over the globe, but it’s not shocking that it did, either: The song’s mastery of structure and dynamics — stuff like how the chord structure takes an unexpected drop on the last pre-chorus, in order to properly prime that final chorus — shows how good maestro Max Martin already was at this stuff, and in BSB he found the perfect voices and personalities to peddle his immaculate confections.
5. Mark Morrison, “Return of the Mack” (No. 2, Hot 100)
Where memories of other one-hit wonders of 1997 have faded over the years, the love for Mark Morrison’s “Return of the Mack” has intensified to the point that its practically been reduced to a cliche of ’90s nostalgia, even being resurrected by Swedish DJ Nevada (along with Fetty Wap and Morrison himself) for a 2016 trop-house hit. Still nothing like the real thing: From its first seconds, “Return” busts through the wall like the Kool-Aid Man, and just picks up stream from there, more undeniable in its boom-bap strut with each “You liiiiiied to me” braying and “Once again!” ad lib. Between this, Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” and Backstreet Boys’ “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back),” the ’90s proved beyond a doubt that you don’t need to be gone in the first place to have a triumphant banger proclaiming your return.
4. The Cardigans, “Lovefool” (No. 2, Radio Songs)
Simply one of the most irresistible songs in pop history — partly because singer Nina Persson goes so extra in her crying, praying and begging for your affection. Really, she shouldn’t have sweated it: The lovingly rock-edged disco-pop of “Lovefool” was narcotic at the time and even more intoxicating in retrospect; no lesser pop superpowers than Justin Bieber and a young Beyonce have openly succumbed to its undertow. It feels strange to argue in favor of “Lovefool,” because it’s so tough to imagine what the argument could possibly be against it, as the song cuts off all potential complaints at the pass: Its cheesiness is balanced by a winking self-awareness, its bubblegum giddiness belied by an undercurrent of sinister obsessiveness, its simplistic chorus led into by perfectly phrased verses (“I don’t care if you really care as long as you don’t go”). If you don’t like “Lovefool,” man, you must really have it in for Baz Luhrmann.
3. Hanson, “MMMBop” (No. 1, Hot 100)
Despite literally being a band of boys, Hanson weren’t actually a boy band in the traditional sense — musically and structurally, they had more in common with Blues Traveler and the Spin Doctors than New Kids on the Block or Take That — but they did signal to anyone paying attention that the world might be ready for another round of ’em. “MMMBop” was alt-rock in construction but pure pop in impact, with a non-verbal chorus that stands as one of the most iconic of the entire decade, and an irrepressibly positive energy that disguised the fact that the song was three teens singing about the ephemeral nature of life and the inevitability of death. The debut single set the brothers Hanson up for both meteoric success and an extended post-phenom career, and it never stops being a jaw-dropping achievement: a perfect pop song that simultaneously marvels at the world’s wondrousness and sighs about how none of it lasts forever.
2. The Notorious B.I.G., “Hypnotize” (No. 1, Hot 100)
The Notorious B.I.G. had been sicker-than-your-average since he first picked up a microphone as a teenager, but by 1997’s “Hypnotize,” he was one album down and already in strong contention for one of the best to ever do it. His Life After Death lead single was rarely less than virtuosic, so charming in his wordplay and delivery that even when he was rapping about kidnapping the plaintiff’s daughter to skate on his court date, he seemed more cuddly than psychotic. And though sampling Herb Alpert’s Hot 100-topping “Rise” doesn’t exactly count as digging in the crates, the use of the Alpert break as the song’s motor was legitimately inspired, as the Echoplexed guitar that triggers the song quickly became one of the most famous sounds in the history of East Coast rap. “Hypnotize” would always have taken Biggie’s career to that next level regardless of whether he was around to enjoy it; the fact that he wasn’t still hurts like hell 20 years later.
1. The Spice Girls, “Wannabe” (No. 1, Hot 100)
It’s appropriate that “Wannabe” begins practically in medias res, with the sound of Mel B’s shouted “YOOOOO, I’ll tell you what I want…” — that’s how loud an interruption to pop’s prior trajectory the song was upon landing on U.S. shores in early 1997. Before the Spice Girls, top 40 was in a period of relative aimlessness, but after it, pop had found purpose again: Groups were back, personality was back, and stars were back. Sonically, it was almost impossible to follow the model of “Wannabe”: Pop couldn’t be that breathless or frenetic for any sustained period of time without collapsing entirely. But what the world did latch onto was the group’s energy, their style, and their fearlessness: After an extended period of relative humility, pop would pretty much never be afraid to be BIG again.
But beyond the song’s importance, “Wannabe” finishes at No. 1 here because it feels like a generational song — a song you feel lucky to have been impacted by at a formative age. Only a handful of singles in pop history have been this jam-packed with hooks, catchphrases and instantly iconic moments — you’ve barely begun to unpack the implications of the chorus (“If you wanna be my lover/ You gotta get with my friends”) before the group starts doing their member roll call, then it’s time to slam your body down and wind it all around, then what the hell does zig-a-zig-ahhh mean again? It’s overwhelming, but luckily we had plenty of opportunities to digest it in full over the course of 1997. We never said we wanted pop to be too easy, anyway.