Jesus of Cool: We Wuz Robbed! Great #2 Hits of the ’90s

Written by Jesus of Cool, Music

Welcome back to another edition of Jon Cummings’ award-winning look at great #2 singles of the pop era! This week: hits from Sheryl Crow, Jewel, and God.

Casual observers of this series have probably wondered, more than once, why I’m bothering to track those rock-era singles that, like a dolphin rejected from Sea World, couldn’t quite jump through the brass ring. After all, who really cares about chart placements? And isn’t Number Two practically as good as Number One, particularly when everybody’s making so much money? But if there’s one decade that proves why this stuff is vitally important … to somebody, at least … it’s the ’90s.

To put it simply, the Billboard Hot 100 charts of that decade were messed up. (I put it somewhat less than simply in a long-winded column last year.) The pop radio format split in two, resulting in charts that rarely reflected anybody’s actual listening experience. Major labels stopped manufacturing singles for many artists (mostly white ones) in an effort to sell more albums, which resulted in huge radio hits that never qualified for the Hot 100. The advent of precise technology for measuring retail sales and radio airplay resulted in singles topping the charts and staying … and staying … and staying. And as I discussed last week, superstars like Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston and Boyz II Men were so desperate to top the charts, and keep up with the competition, that they conspired with their labels to withhold the retail releases of their new singles until the songs peaked at radio, then flooded the marketplace with discounted product to ensure #1 chart debuts.

As a result of these and other, more random developments, the #2 singles of the ’90s were a fascinating bunch. There were huge hits that were simply blocked by huger ones, and great songs that stalled behind ones whose popularity now leaves us scratching our heads. There were oldies that re-emerged after decades, and the two longest-running chart hits of all time (for the moment). So away we go – and, as always, at the end of the column I’ll list some additional singles that were stranded at third base so we can argue which ones most deserved to score.

11. (tie) “Right Here, Right Now,” Jesus Jones; “P.A.S.S.I.O.N.,” Rhythm Syndicate; “Every Heartbeat,” Amy Grant; “It Ain’t Over Til It’s Over,” Lenny Kravitz; and “Fading Like a Flower (Every Time You Leave),” Roxette. What do these wildly disparate singles have in common? They all were blocked from the top spot during the summer of ’91 by the same song, Bryan Adams’ treacly Robin Hood anthem “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You.” (It was the first of three Adams soundtrack singles – all of them god-awful, in my opinion – to top the charts during the ’90s.) Adams spent seven weeks at #1 while holding off five different competitors – the highest number of second-place finishers thwarted by the same single since Percy Faith’s “Theme from A Summer Place” was #1 in 1960. The only one of the five to earn a second week at #2 was – surprise – “P.A.S.S.I.O.N.” In honor of that fact – and because its video is the only one of the five to feature fire (fire! fire!), scantily clad dancers and an atrocious white-boy rap — I’m happy to showcase it here.

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10. “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Queen. What on earth is this doing here? Well, they know all about it in Aurora, Illinois.

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That scene from Wayne’s World – combined with strong recurrent play following Freddie Mercury’s death in November ’91 – sent “Bohemian Rhapsody” rocketing back up the charts the following spring. It zipped past its initial chart peak (#9 in the spring of 1976) and eventually achieved the highest placement for a re-release of a true “oldie” (i.e., a song more than a decade old) in Hot 100 history. Nowadays, thanks to a revision of Billboard’s chart rules, such a feat isn’t even possible; if it were, then early last month the entire Top 10 might have consisted of Michael Jackson songs.

9. (tie) “Lovefool,” the Cardigans; “I Believe I Can Fly,” R. Kelly; “Don’t Let Go (Love),” En Vogue; “One Headlight,” the Wallflowers. Toni Braxton’s “Unbreak My Heart” didn’t achieve quite the same feat (for the purposes of this list) that Bryan Adams had, but it did fend off these four challengers during its 11-week reign in the winter of ’96-’97. And all four were pretty great; any one of them could have earned a place on this list on its own. Here’s the thing, though – only two of them actually reached #2 on the Hot 100. The other two, “Lovefool” and “One Headlight,” were never released as singles; each ascended to the #2 position on the Hot 100 Airplay chart (the former for eight weeks, the latter for five) but never qualified for inclusion on the big chart because Billboard’s rules at the time didn’t allow it. And here’s the other thing: The biggest hit of the winter of 1997 wasn’t really “Unbreak My Heart,” whose 11 weeks atop the Hot 100 were built on only two weeks atop the airplay chart, and one atop the sales chart. No, the most-heard song of the season was No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak,” which spent 16 weeks atop the airplay chart and became the second-biggest radio hit of all time. But “Don’t Speak” never appeared on the Hot 100, either, because a physical single was never released. (See my aforementioned column from last year for details of another, even bigger hit that suffered a similar fate.) If all this is so confusing that you’ve skipped to the bottom of the paragraph … well, that’s how screwed up the Billboard charts became during the ’90s.

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8. “All I Wanna Do,” Sheryl Crow. Back in the days when we still published a “Chartburn” column around these parts, that panel of “experts” had a knock-down-drag-out over the merits of “All I Wanna Do.” I’m still a fan of it, I must say – its lyric, a poem by Wyn Cooper that Crow found in a used-book shop, is still a breath of fresh air after all these years. It went on to win the Record of the Year Grammy and launch Crow’s superstar career – even though the second-biggest Hot 100 hit of all time, Boyz II Men’s blecchy “I’ll Make Love to You” (14 weeks at #1), kept the sun from ever coming up over Santa Monica Boulevard during the fall of ’94. Sheryl and Eric — take us to the bridge!

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7. “Tears in Heaven,” Eric Clapton. I’m not going to repeat the oft-told tale of 4-year-old Conor Clapton’s death, and the massive outpouring of sympathy that drove daddy Eric’s single up the charts during the spring of ’92 — and then, the following winter, steered Clapton onstage for approximately 87 Grammy-award acceptance speeches. By which point, after we’d all watched Clapton push his glasses up his nose a million times while he played “Tears in Heaven” and “Layla” on MTV Unplugged, we were all ready for Slowhand to pick up his electric guitar again. “Tears in Heaven” is still a great, heartbreaking song, of course. By the way, it was blocked from the top by Vanessa Williams’ “Save the Best for Last.” She has her own tales of heartbreak to tell, I’m sure. I’d like to hear them — the more detail the better, please.

6. “My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It),” En Vogue. It was during my treatise on the #2s of the ’70s that I lamented the inability of a mature, brilliantly performed soul classic (“You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine”) to surpass a substance-free turd like “Shake Your Booty” on the pop charts. Well, here we have a stone-cold brilliant single from the finest girl group of the ’90s (suck it, TLC and SWV and all other three-lettered wannabes) … and, wouldn’t you know, it was stomped by Kris Kross’s utterly inane “Jump” during the spring of 1992. Well, it’s nice to know that En Vogue got the last laugh – when was the last time you heard “Jump,” anyway? – because “My Lovin’” really had it goin’ on: fab vocals (of course), a happenin’ guitar riff lifted from James Brown’s “The Payback,” and a hot-hot-smokin’-hot video. Some people think the group’s follow-up clip, for “Giving Him Something He Can Feel,” is even hotter … but as far as I’m concerned the latter clip gives entirely too much camera time to the gawking dudes, rather than letting the rest of us gawk ourselves.

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5. “You Were Meant for Me,” Jewel. Ms. Kilcher earns her lofty position on this list not because her song, released in November 1996, is a pop classic – in fact, every time I hear it I can’t believe it wasn’t laughed off the radio, with lyrics like “I got my eggs and my pancakes too / I got my maple syrup, everything but you.” No, Jewel is here because, by the time “You Were Meant for Me” finally dropped off the Hot 100 in April 1998, it ranked as the longest-running single in the chart’s history at 65 weeks. It was helped along by its B-side, “Foolish Games,” which became a Top 10 hit on its own and kept the single’s sales figures aloft for six additional months. To get an idea how bifurcated pop radio had become by the late ’90s, consider that “You Were Meant for Me” stalled at #2 behind Puff Daddy’s “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down,” and later moved back to that position for an additional week behind Notorious B.I.G.’s posthumous “Hypnotize.” How many radio stations do you think were playing all three of those songs at the time?

4. “How Do I Live,” LeAnn Rimes. By the time Jewel finished her 15-month run on the Hot 100, the single that would break her longevity record was already on its own downward trajectory. Teen country chanteuse LeAnn Rimes, who at the time was hyped as the second coming of Patsy Cline, was commissioned to record Diane Warren’s sad-but-syrupy confection “How Do I Live” for producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s film Con Air. But once it was finished Bruckheimer rejected Rimes’ version as too immature and poppy, and not at all Cline-ish. He gave the job to Trisha Yearwood instead, and she turned in a far more nuanced rendition that would earn her a #1 country hit and a slew of awards. Rimes, however, was not to be denied, and so Curb Records released her version in direct competition with Yearwood’s – an occurrence that was common until the ’50s (five versions of “Melody of Love” charted simultaneously in 1955), but rarely seen since. Yearwood won the battle on the country charts, but Rimes swamped her on the Hot 100, spending four weeks at number two and dominating “mainstream” pop radio for nearly six months. Her failure to ascend to #1 can be laid, along with a bazillion bouquets of flowers, on the gravesite of Princess Diana; her death inspired Elton John to release the biggest-selling single in history, “Candle in the Wind 1997,” and that single’s performance at retail made Rimes’ chart-topping mission impossible. Still, “How Do I Live” remained on the Hot 100 for 69 weeks, smashing Jewel’s record by a full month. It finally dropped off the chart in October ’98, almost exactly 10 years before Jason Mraz’ single “I’m Yours” peaked at #6. The significance of that fact is that “I’m Yours” remains on the Hot 100 right now at #35, in its 68th week. If it lasts two more – and there’s no reason to doubt it will – it will render “How Do I Live” a historical footnote, chartwise. (Perhaps its chart run eventually will last as long as the live video below.) Oh, well, LeAnn – at least you’ve still got Eddie Cibrian (if US magazine is to be believed).

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3. “Whoomp! There It Is,” Tag Team. Depending on where you lived and which subset of Top 40 radio you listened to, this was the song of the summer of 1993 … or, at least, its title was the phrase you couldn’t get out of your head. The story of “Whoomp!” is perhaps unparalleled in pop history. During the spring of 1993, two songs emerged from the deep South that were different in nearly every way, except for their shared chorus. The first one to chart, by the Miami-based crew 95 South, was titled “Whoot, There It Is” and eventually climbed to #11 on the Hot 100. A month after that song’s chart debut, along came the Atlanta-based Tag Team with “Whoomp! There It Is,” and “Whoomp!” really took off. It sold more than 4 million copies and topped Billboard’s singles sales chart for a whopping 16 weeks. Its failure to reach #1 on the Hot 100 is, again, indicative of the split at Top 40 radio by that time; “Whoomp!” never climbed higher than #9 on the airplay chart because many “Top 40 Mainstream” stations weren’t spinning it at all. As it was, “Whoomp!” cooled its heels for seven weeks at #2 on the big chart, stuck behind UB40’s abysmal reggaefication of Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” These days – apart from their continued prominence at sports arenas nationwide — both “Whoomp!” and “Whoot” are perhaps best remembered by pop linguists tracking the origins of the enduring catchphrase “Woot!” If you must, you can explore the bickering over the etymology of “Woot!” here.

2. “Missing,” Everything But the Girl. Who’da thunk, during all those years when Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt were playing navel-gazing ballads and smooth bossa nova without really denting the American consciousness, that all they needed to scale the heights of pop radio was one good dance mix? (Or, seemingly, twenty of them.) “Missing” started as a nice, midtempo track off the duo’s eighth studio album, Amplified Heart, during the fall of 1994. (Thorn later admitted that they had intended “Missing” to be a dance track in the first place, but wimped out and removed the house-music elements they’d recorded.) It wasn’t until nearly a year after the album’s release that Todd Terry’s remix broke out of dance clubs and onto pop radio – and it was seven months after that before “Missing” climbed to #2, where it was vanquished by the biggest hit in Hot 100 history. (That would be Mariah Carey & Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day,” which I honored last summer in this space with the title “Worst #1 Song of the ’90s.”) I never thought I’d see Tracey and a bevy of go-go dancers on the same stage, but I guess there’s a first time for everything.

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Apologies to my colleague Jason Hare, and to fans everywhere of Popdose patron saint Michael McDonald, for my failure to include Warren G. and Nate Dogg’s “Regulate” on this list. I know I’m supposed to pay McD his props whenever possible, but what can I say? I keep forgettin’. Anyway, here are some of the decade’s other #2 hits, along with the songs that kept them from climbing One Step Closer to immortality. (sorry)

“Pump Up the Jam,” Technotronic (Michael Bolton’s “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You”); “Cradle of Love,” Billy Idol, and “Power,” Snap! (Mariah Carey’s “Vision of Love”); “I Wanna Sex You Up,” Color Me Badd (Extreme’s “More than Words”); “I Love Your Smile,” Shanice (Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy”); “Under the Bridge,” Red Hot Chili Peppers (Kris Kross’s “Jump”); “If I Ever Fall in Love,” Shai, and “Rumpshaker,” Wreckx n Effect (Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”); “Nothin’ But a G Thang,” Dr. Dre (Snow’s “Informer”); “All That She Wants,” Ace of Base (Meat Loaf’s “I Would Do Anything for Love”).

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Also, “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” Nicki French (Bryan Adams’ “Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman”); “Not Gon’ Cry,” Mary J. Blige, and “Sittin’ Up in My Room,” Brandy (Carey & Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day”); “Nobody Knows,” Tony Rich Project (Celine Dion’s “Because You Loved Me”); “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now,” Ms. Dion, and “I Love You Always Forever,” Donna Lewis (Los Del Rio’s “Macarena”); “Bitch,” Meredith Brooks (Puff Daddy & Faith Evans’s “I’ll Be Missing You”); “Walking on the Sun,” Smash Mouth (Notorious B.I.G.’s “Mo Money Mo Problems”); “Frozen,” Madonna (K-Ci & JoJo’s “All My Life”); “You’re Still the One,” Shania Twain (Next’s “Too Close”); “Kiss Me,” Sixpence None the Richer (TLC’s “No Scrubs”); “Last Kiss,” Pearl Jam (Jennifer Lopez’s “If You Had My Love”); and “Back at One,” Brian McKnight (Santana’s “Smooth”).

I’ll be back soon to wrap up this series with a look at the Aughts – and to question how in the world classics like “Since U Been Gone,” “Crazy,” and … um … “Fergalicious” failed to reach the top.