Mariah Carey's 30 greatest singles – ranked!

Alexis Petridis
·10 min read
<span>Photograph: AP</span>
Photograph: AP

30. Save the Day (2020)

Written and recorded in 2011, but – in Carey’s own words – “left in a holding pattern for a special reason”, this eventually came out this summer, by which time its lyrics, not least the line “we’re all in this together”, sounded weirdly appropriate. Lauryn Hill’s guest appearance turned out to be in sampled form, but never mind: the real power is in Carey’s heartfelt vocal.

29. I’ll Be There (1992)

Carey’s appearance on MTV Unplugged was a big deal: she had previously avoided live performances, which led to questions about how well her voice might hold up on stage. The live version of I’ll Be There – a highlight of the MTV performance that became a US No 1 – answered them with considerable aplomb.

28. I Still Believe (1999)

There is a neat circularity about Carey’s cover of the ballad I Still Believe: it was originally recorded in 1987 by Brenda K Starr, for whom a pre-fame Carey sang backing and who pressed Carey’s demo tape on CBS executive Tommy Mottola, helping to secure her a record deal. Perhaps understandably, she sings the hell out of it.

27. Touch My Body (2008)

It is a shame that the E=MC2 album’s opening track, the Danja-produced, T-Pain-featuring Migrate, was never released as a single, but the record’s big hit was charming nonetheless. A more lubricious slow jam than Carey would have countenanced a decade before, it was also witty: “If there’s a camera up in here then I’d best not catch this flick on YouTube.”

26. You Don’t Know What to Do (2014)

There’s something of the spirit of Donna Summer’s Last Dance about the final single taken from the amazingly named mixed bag that was Me, I Am Mariah … the Elusive Chanteuse: yearning piano and vocal intro giving way to glorious disco, complete with swirling string arrangement and a kinetic guest spot from the rapper Wale.

25. Butterfly (1997)

The title track of the album that announced Carey’s hip-hop-influenced reboot was, ironically, a classic Carey ballad that might have been released in the early 90s. While overlooked commercially, it offers vocal proof that Carey was a cut above the melismatic over-singers that followed in her wake.

24. Don’t Forget About Us (2005)

A single subsequently tacked on to the “Ultra Platinum edition” of The Emancipation of Mimi, Don’t Forget About Us fruitfully revisits the emotional terrain of Always Be My Baby: lyrical heartbreak set to music that feels sunlit. The old trick still worked a treat: it became her 17th US No 1.

Mariah Carey
Vision of you … Carey, pictured in Amsterdam, 1996. Photograph: Rob Verhorst/Redferns

23. Hero (1993)

According to Spotify, Hero is one of Carey’s most popular songs. It is also the kind of big ballad that divides opinion: either you find it moving and inspirational, or overblown and icky. That said, it gained serious emotional heft when performed at the Tribute to Heroes 9/11 charity show and President Obama’s inauguration gala.

22. Thank God I Found You (2000)

The Jam & Lewis-produced closer from Rainbow is fine in an adult contemporary power ballad-y way, but the DJ Clue Make It Last remix is the version to hear: an inspired overhaul that transforms the track into a homage to Keith Sweat’s new jack swing slow jam Make It Last Forever.

21. Loverboy (2001)

The first single from the maligned Glitter was overshadowed by Carey’s subsequent breakdown and reports that her ex-husband Mottola scuppered its release by using the same sample – from the Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Firecracker – on I’m Real by Jennifer Lopez. Carey’s song eventually went with a sample from Cameo’s Candy; it’s funky and chaotically fun, but the original, released recently on her Rarities compilation, is amazing.

20. Up Out My Face (2009)

The friendship between Carey and Nicki Minaj went a little awry during their stint on American Idol – “I am not fucking putting up with her fucking highness,” as the rapper put it during one heated moment – but long before that, they collaborated to fantastic effect on this impressively upbeat screw-you to a cheating lover.

19. Make It Happen (1992)

The backing, courtesy of C&C Music Factory, leans towards disco and house – Chic-ish guitar, hands-in-the-air piano – but the lyric finds Carey at her most gospel-infused: “If you get down on your knees at night and pray to the Lord, he’s gonna make it happen.” The groove, meanwhile, is infectious enough to get Richard Dawkins nodding along.

18. Obsessed (2009)

Presumably Eminem thought he was picking on a soft target when he took aim at Carey on 2002’s The Eminem Show. He was wrong: the feud between them escalated until Carey released Obsessed. If the rapper’s response, The Warning, is more vicious, Obsessed wins points for how coolly unbothered and dismissive “the real MC” sounds throughout, and for its longevity: 10 years later, it inspired a TikTok meme.

17. Heartbreaker (1999)

In a sense, Heartbreaker repeats the formula of 1995’s Fantasy: early 80s sample – in this case from teen singer Stacy Lattisaw’s minor pop-rap hit Attack of the Name Game – and guest appearance from rapper. But it never feels like a pallid copy: Jay-Z’s verse is great and the chorus lodges in your brain from the first time you hear it.

16. Say Somethin’ (2006)

The Neptunes’ production on Say Somethin’ is brilliant: minimal 80s synths, machine-gun drum rolls, a roughness to its assembly that’s completely at odds with the ultra-slickness that made Carey famous in the first place. She responds with a relatively understated vocal and Snoop Dogg turns in a neat cameo.

15. Honey (1997)

A Puff Daddy co-produced hit that acted as a statement of artistic independence following Carey’s split from her controlling husband/svengali, Mottola. Carey had, understandably, been pegged as an MOR artist, but Honey revealed that she could adapt to a tougher, more street-level brand of R&B, tempering her vocal power with a new breathiness.

14. Anytime You Need a Friend (1994)

Another track where the remix trumps the original. This time, it is C&C Music Factory’s 10-minute Club Mix, which not only increases the tempo and adds a house beat and a very early-90s organ sound, but also hones in on the gospel feel of the backing vocals, turning a ballad into a dancefloor anthem.

Mariah Carey
Christmas star … Mariah, pictured during her Daydream TV special. Photograph: KMazur/WireImage

13. It’s Like That (2005)

The first single from The Emancipation of Mimi is a swaggering statement of revitalised intent, its backing – complete with what sound like tabla drums and an oriental flute sample – keying into the Timbaland/Neptunes-led early 2000s vogue for stark, experimental R&B, the hook as naggingly memorable as they come.

12. Vision of Love (1990)

Setting the tone of things to come, Carey made a grand entrance with her debut single, a finger-snapping 60s soul ballad update that offered a first glimpse of the sheer power of her voice – swooping and soaring between registers – and rocketed straight to No 1 in the US.

11. Shake It Off (2005)

Inspired at least in part by Usher’s Confessions, Shake It Off is built around a fantastic Jermaine Dupri beat: other than its bouncy syncopation, the track is sparse, the perfect backing for Carey’s saga of insouciantly leaving a failed relationship behind, complete with lyrical reference to a camp 70s bubblebath ad.

10. #Beautiful (2013)

A killer latter-day Carey single that sounds nothing like her peak-period hits. The production is grungy in a way that 90s Mariah would never have countenanced – all twanging guitar and distorted breakbeats – and the feel owes something to the mid-60s; Miguel’s guest vocal is great, and there’s an infectiously breezy, carefree air to the whole thing.

9. A No-No (2018)

A late-period return to the territory of Fantasy and Heartbreaker in that it repurposes an old pop hit – in this case, Lil’ Kim’s Crush on You – A No No’s greatest strength is the way Carey deploys her sweetest-sounding voice to heap abuse on an errant ex. There is a splendid remix featuring Stefflon Don and much bellowing of “bloodclaart”, too.

8. The Roof (Back in Time) (1998)

If you only ever buy one gangsta-rap assisted song about copping off with a legendary baseball player during a rainstorm, The Roof (Back in Time) should probably be it. Inviting Mobb Deep to guest on a track that samples their classic Shook Ones Part II was a masterstroke, lending some grit to the beguiling romantic atmospherics.

7. Dreamlover (1993)

Carey has always had great remixes. The version of Dreamlover found on her album Music Box is ethereal – twinkling bells and a vocal that swoops so high it’s a miracle anyone other than dogs can hear it – but, for a generation of clubbers, it’s all about David Morales’s tough-but-euphoric Def Club house mix.

6. Always Be My Baby (1995)

Perfectly poised between super-smooth pop, R&B and gospel – the vocal hook – the genius of Always Be My Baby is the way it sets a breakup song to sunlit, uplifting music: it doesn’t wallow in misery, it sounds optimistic for the future, whether the lyrical prediction that the ex will be back comes true or not.

5. All I Want For Christmas Is You (1994)

If it was easy to write a Christmas song that could join Slade and Wham! in the canon of classics, everyone would do it. But it isn’t, as evidenced by the fact that All I Want For Christmas Is You is the most recent addition to the pantheon: a Phil Spector homage that’s now as much part of the season as a family row on Boxing Day.

4. One Sweet Day (1995)

At the time, no single had ever spent longer at the top of the US charts (16 weeks) than this duet with Boyz II Men, Carey’s tribute to her friend and collaborator David Cole of C&C Music Factory, who died of Aids in 1995. The success is testament to the way the song’s heartfelt emotion struck home, via her take-no-prisoners vocal and that immense chorus.

3. We Belong Together (2005)

Never renowned as the queen of understatement, Carey’s mid-00s comeback was on precisely the kind of scale you might expect: Billboard proclaimed We Belong Together the most popular US single of the decade, a restatement of core values – heartbroken ballad, R&B rhythm track – exquisitely delivered, as if her preceding disappointments Glitter and Charmbracelet had never happened.

2. Emotions (1991)

The success of Carey’s 15m-selling debut album should have made her next move daunting. But its follow-up’s title track and lead single sounds effortless: slick disco-infused pop, title cheekily nodding to its inspiration – there’s a distinct hint of the Emotions’ Best of My Love about it – and that astonishing “whistle register” vocal.

1. Fantasy (1995)

The Mariah Carey single that even people who loathe Mariah Carey and all she stands for might be forced to admit is a fantastic piece of pop music. In its original form, Fantasy bounces gleefully along, driven by an immediately recognisable sample from Tom Tom Club’s Genius of Love and borrowing lyrics from the 1981 hit’s chorus for its bridge. The game-changing Bad Boy remix, a blueprint for future pop hip-hop collabs, is even better, opening with a glorious burst of a cappella vocals, upping the Tom Tom Club quotient and allowing an unhinged-sounding Ol’ Dirty Bastard to gatecrash proceedings: “Me and Mariah go back like babies with pacifiers,” he claims, a little improbably.