5. Mariah Carey (1990)
#1 Billboard Hot 100 Singles: 4
Sales: 9x Platinum (US); 15 million (WW)
Essential Tracks: Vision of Love, Love Takes Time, Someday, I Don’t Wanna Cry, You Need Me, Sent from Up Above, Vanishing
Score: 22 out of 25 lambs
Can you even imagine what it was like to hear Mariah for the first time? This voice? And on Vision of Love? Like you’re just walking down the street and BAM “TREATED ME KINNNNNND” is in your ears? I can’t believe that was once the world. What a time to be alive! The album has a few clunkers, sure, but it’s such an arrival of an artist who will dominate pop music for decades you can’t help but stan.
Mariah comes out of the gate with Vision of Love, one of my favorite songs of all-time, and then follows it up with the vocal Ark of the Covenant that is Love Takes Time. The audacity. Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to fully get behind Someday, maybe because of the overalls and the running man in the video. I Don’t Wanna Cry is a much better song. There’s Got to Be a Way was the enthusiasm of the studio run amok because it is a song that, while well-meaning, is pretty trite.
She raps on Prisoner, and I think it’s important we address that so we can move on. But otherwise, many of these tracks hold up pretty well, albeit they are mostly ballads meant to showcase her vocals: Vanishing and You Need Me are all stand-outs, while Sent from Up Above is a forgotten capital-J Jam.
There was a time when most of the world had never heard Mariah Carey sing, and then this album came out, and literally, the musical landscape was never the same. That’s a pretty solid legacy.
The Moment (Unranked)
In 1990, Mariah was all over town singing. She was on Arsenio, she was on Good Morning America, she was on Oprah. I might prefer her vocal on Saturday Night Live, but The Moment was at the 33rd Annual Grammy Awards. The Grammys have famously been a little cold towards Mariah, considering what a prolific hitmaker she has been for the last 30 years. She’s been nominated 34 times, only winning 5 times and never for Album, Record, or song of the year (for comparison, recent collaborator Lauryn Hill won 5 Grammys in one year for The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill). Back in 1991, she was nominated for the big ones: Album of the Year, Best New Artist (which she won), Record and Song of the Year for Vision of Love. It’s strange now to see her nervous on stage, but that baby-faced Mariah closed out that song like the arrival of a new superstar.
4. Merry Christmas (1994)
#1 Billboard Hot 100 Singles: 1 (15 years later)
Sales: 6x Platinum (US); 15 million (WW)
Essential Tracks: All I Want for Christmas is You, O Holy Night, Christmas (Baby Please Come Home), Silent Night, Miss You Most (At Christmas Time)
Score: 22 out of 25 lambs
Shocking to imagine a time before Christmas was co-opted by Mariah Carey’s sheer enthusiasm for the holiday. Let’s get it out of the way: All I Want for Christmas Is You, is that bitch. People are going to want to seem cool by saying it’s overplayed or overhyped or just bad. They are wrong. Those people don’t love you. All I want for Christmas Is You rules.
But what of the other Christmas classics on this album. Yes, I’ll readily admit that Mariah’s other originals maybe don’t hold up as much – Miss You Most (At Christmas) is fine! – but her enthusiasm for the holiday is absolutely infectious. Plus, there are the Standards. Sure, no one will top Darlene Love on Christmas (Baby Please Come Home), but Mariah comes closest (sorry, Bruce). And what can I say about her rendition of O Holy Night? It’s like Santa and Jesus had a baby, and that baby had a voice that could make a hardened criminal cry. It’s absolutely perfect. It’s just not Christmas until Mariah.
The Moment (Unranked)
15 years after its release, the world finally came together on an important topic: Getting All I Want for Christmas Is You to number one on the Billboard Hot 100. It spent three weeks on the top perch in 2019-2020, making Mariah the artist to spend the most time at #1 (82 weeks total). Basically, if you have a one-year-old, Mariah Carey has been at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 longer than your child has been alive.
3. Daydream (1995)
#1 Singles: 3
Sales: Diamond Certified (US); 20 million (WW)
Essential Tracks: Fantasy, One Sweet Day, Always Be My Baby, Underneath the Stars, Daydream Interlude, Open Arms, Forever, Melt Away
Score: 23 out of 25 lambs
Some of Mariah’s early albums can feel overstuffed, but this one is more killer less filler than any previous records. We start with a perfect selection of singles. Fantasy is a tremendously infectious song, even if it does fall into the category of songs that now feel strange to hear without the rap break (Real Love, Foolish, et al.). One Sweet Day is, yes, a little eye-rolly, but effective. Like the corner of a table when no bottle opener is available: It gets the job done. Even I am immune to its sentimentality. And while many readers may be shocked to find this out, Always Be My Baby was, in fact, a Mariah Carey song before David Cook covered it on American Idol, changing the entire time and space continuum.
The deep cuts here are interesting, as I believe they illuminate some of the seeds of dissension from Mariah, her label, and, of course, her husband, Tommy Mottola. Mariah has gone on record as saying Underneath the Stars and Forever are two of her favorite songs – rightfully so – because they are both wonderful, mid-tempo Jamz with a Z. Yet, they either were unreleased as singles or released lazily. It’s easy to think that at least Underneath the Stars could’ve been a Top 5 single with a little marketing push behind it. I’m very deeply in the bag for an 80’s power ballad cover by Mariah Carey, so Open Arms is wildly p my alley (that 10 seconds a capella opener could cure alopecia). And just like she’ll repeat in Butterfly, the dance track on this album is sort of a throwaway: Daydream Interlude (Fantasy Sweet Dub Mix).
“When you walk by every night / talking sweet and looking fine / I get kinda hectic inside.” Is her best album opener. Fight me.
2. Emancipation of Mimi
#1 Singles: 2
Sales: 6 x Platinum (US); 10 million (WW)
Key Tracks: It’s Like That, We Belong Together, Shake It Off, Don’t Forget About Us, Fly Like a Bird, Say Somethin’, Mine Again, Stay the Night, To the Floor
Score: 24.5 out of 25 lambs
If Butterfly (coming up so shortly, bbs!) was Mariah’s expression of freedom and rebirth after her divorce from Tommy Voldemortolla, TEOM, is her fully embracing her powers as an artist. It’s an absolutely essential, defining text and one of the best R&B albums of the millennium. The Emancipation of Mimi is, quite simply, one of the greatest comeback albums of all-time. We can debate all day whether Mariah needed a comeback, but this was coming off the back of the disastrous (but actually pretty good) Glitter and the underwhelming Charmbracelet. For a career built on the back of #1 singles, things were starting to look shaky, just like the rumors of her voice not being up to snuff. So the narrative of TEOM isn’t just that it was the best album of her career and one of her biggest hits, but also proved that she is – not was – one of our greatest living vocalists.
The only thing keeping this from a perfect score? It’s Like That is a weird lead single for what would become one of the definitive albums of the aughts. It feels like the single selection is all over the place, trying to get every single quadrant interested. If they could’ve put a five-gallon hat on Mimi and had her riding a mechanical bull, she’d have been covering The Nights the Light Went Out in Georgia for single number eight (actually, please God, let that happen).
That said, every song is a banger, right? To The Floor is the best uptempo track on the album and should’ve been prioritized as a single, while Mine Again and Stay the Night are Mariah at her most demandingly pleading. We Belong Together? Believe the hype. It’s one of the best songs of all-time.
The Moment (Unranked)
When I say I’m religious, I’m talking about listening to Pastor Clarence Keaton reassuring me that “Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning. Her performative of We Belong Together/Fly Like a Bird at the 48th Annual Grammys (an awards body that has famously been stingy with Mimi) is, actually, The Moment and does make me cry.
1. Butterfly (1997)
#1 Singles: 2
Sales: 5 x Platinum (US); 10 million (WW)
Key Tracks: Honey, Butterfly, Breakdown, My All, The Roof, Fourth of July, Baby Doll, Close My Eyes, Fly Away (Butterfly Reprise), Beautiful Ones
Score: 25 out of 25 lambs
It’s perfect. Every song is a classic. The choreo in the Honey video is all shoulders, which I can support, as a very shoulders-forward dancer. Mostly, this album has only grown in estimation as I’ve grown up a little and understood the subtext of what it means to a person finally releasing themself from a situation they thought might one day kill them. It’s pure elation you hear in every track.
Breakdown is maybe still her best R&B song and My All? Possibly her best song. Periodt. But Honey? Oh honey! If we’re talking bops, if we’re talking shedding old oppressors, if we’re talking about jet-skis, Honey is a classic, up and down. (Yes, I’m still reeling from the revelation by Bowen Yang that Honey may be about cum. Brings it to a whole new level.)
A more in-depth, scientific analysis reveals: Every song is good. Not a surprise as Ms. Carey is one of the greatest, most underappreciated songwriters of our time. From sexy times, The Roof, a song rumored to be about her tryst with Derek Jeter, to bops Fly Away (Butterfly Reprise), the best dance track on the album. There’s even a goddamn Prince cover. Just perfection.
I mean, I don’t have much to add to this conversation, but The Moment is definitely the Honey video, specifically the Jetski and even more specifically her emerging from the water in her bikini. Not only did it very specifically confirm my personal bisexuality, but this was a Madonna-esque reinvention of Mariah Carey. From the performative, mini-movie plotline to the complete shift into a new “Mariah” character to the symbolic burning of the jean shorts and crop tops that plagued her career prior, this is the emergence of a freer, lighter, more independent, and more artistically empowered Mariah Carey. The video is also bat-shit crazy. Also, the introduction to Queen of Shade Mariah, as the mob boss villain, is an obvious analog for Mottola. Occasionally, down, but never out, that Mimi.