Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Ten On Tuesdays: Ten Best Mary J. Blige singles

In honor of knocking off Josh Groban and claiming the top spot on this week's Top 200 chart, I've decided to make this edition of Ten on Tuesdays all about Mary J. Blige and what I feel are her ten best singles. So why Mary J. Blige? Well, why not? She is one of the most consistent artists that this generation has ever seen. She and Diddy revolutionized the R&B genre in 1992 with the gritty hip hop inflected What's The 411?,and she's still managed to stay relevant since then. Her career is the standard that most R&B stars, male and female, are held up to today. Plus, she's released a lot of good stuff.

10. "Be Without You" (2005)
Album: The Breakthrough
Peak chart positions: Hot 100 (3), R&B (1)

One of Mary's biggest hits to date finds her showcasing her vulnerability as well as anyone in the business. Blige's content rarely varies, so it is a testament to her beat selection and her skills as a song interpreter that she still sounds fresh after a decade-plus of recording. "Be Without You" also boasts one of the best choruses of her career. Most of her hits have been groove-oriented, but you can tell that special attention was paid to that part.

9. "Everything" (1997)
Album: Share My World
Songs sampled: The Stylistics - "You Are Everything", James Brown - "The Big Payback", A Taste of Honey - "Sukiyaki"

Peak chart positions: Hot 100 (24), R&B (5)

Share My World saw Mary J. Blige move further from the hip hop/R&B hybrid of her first two albums and focus on a more contemporary R&B sound. She made the transition with ease and "Everything" is one of the best examples. I don't think that melody ever played as strong a role in a Blige song up until this point. The entire atmosphere of the song is relaxed and mature, but still very much soulful.

8. "Give Me You" (2000)
Album: Mary
Peak chart positions: Hot 100 (68), R&B (21)

It's a shame that this song is the least popular on this list. It definitely deserves a much better fate, even if it was written by Diane Warren. Mary was another step closer to the contemporary R&B sound that Blige specializes in now and "Give Me You" was one of the highlights. It was the most soulful original song she had done up until that point and "Give Me You" also gives us what I think is Mary's most underrated vocal performance. We all know that Mary is a master emoter, but when you have the queen of ballads writing your song, your game has to step up.

7. "Seven Days" (1998)
Album: Share My World
Peak chart position: did not chart in U.S.

I think that this is one of Blige's most subtle vocal performances. Throughout, she's very cool and controlled, matching the uncertainty of the speaker of the song. There's no need to let it rip and caterwaul here, but then again that's never been Mary's style. She knows the right time to turn it on and the right time to be restrained, always serving the song in the process. Also, I couldn't find a video on YouTube that would let me embed it, but at least with the boring blank screen, you get to hear all of George Benson's guitar solo.

6. "You Bring Me Joy" (1995)
Album: My Life
Song sampled: Barry White - "It's Ecstasy When You Lay Down Next to Me"
Peak chart positions: Hot 100 (57), R&B (29)

If you want to get an idea of the Mary J. Blige/Puff Daddy sound of the early 90's, look no further than "You Bring Me Joy." It's cheerful with a bit of a rough edge and manages to sound completely modern even though the Barry White sample stays mainly intact. Mary J. Blige is known for dealing mostly with pain or some sort of unhappiness in her songs, but I don't think she gets enough credit for her, um, joyful side.

5. "Not Gon' Cry" (1996)
Album: Waiting To Exhale Soundtrack
Peak chart positions: Hot 100 (2), R&B (1)

When I think of Mary J. Blige in pain, I think of "Not Gon' Cry". Just the way that she stretches out the words "Eleven years" will make you wish you were there to give her a hug. "Not Gon' Cry", written by Babyface, is also one of the best songs she's ever sang. Never before has Blige dealt with such a strong narrative and attention to detail. Mary could probably sing the phonebook and stir a person's soul, but when the words are this loaded, it's a powerful combination.

4. "Love No Limit" (1993)
Album: What's The 411?
Song sampled: Changes - "Risin' To The Top"
Peak chart positions: Hot 100 (44), R&B (5)

Direct link to video

Another good example of Happy Mary excelling. The song has a lot more swing than the average MJB track, but there's no mistaking that it's still a product of Uptown Records. Another old school track is revived and modernized for urban radio, but with less grit this time around. "Love No Limit's" laidback vibe was a peek into the future of the more mature and relaxed Mary that we've come to know.

3. "Family Affair" (2001)
Album: No More Drama
Peak chart positions: Hot 100 (1), R&B (1)

Mary had been happy before, but never did she do anything as lively as "Family Affair". Singing over a thumping Dr. Dre production, Blige's troubles evaporate and the realization comes that there is no time to mope when there's a track this hot. The words "Family Affair" appear no where in the song, but there could not have been a more apt title to fit the congregational mood of the song.

2. "Real Love" (1992)
Album: What's The 411?
Song sampled: Audio Two - "Top Billin'"
Peak chart positions: Hot 100 (7), R&B (1)

This is the song that has probably defined Mary J. Blige's career the most. Even if My Life turned out to be a flop and she disappeared shortly after that, "Real Love" would be the song that she would be remembered for. It is a staple of 90's R&B for a reason. "Real Love" captures the sound of the era with its use of the hard hitting "Top Billin'" drum sample and the urban appeal of Mary's soulful voice. It was like nothing that had ever been heard on the radio before.

1. "All That I Can Say" (1999)
Album: Mary
Peak chart positions: Hot 100 (44), R&B (6)

This isn't the typical Mary J. Blige song, but it's still her best. Lauryn Hill's fingerprints are all over the song with everything from the major chord progression on the bridge, the lower vocal register and the aabccb rhyme scheme, but I wouldn't want to hear anyone else but Mary on lead vocals. As much as Blige sounds like Lauryn on the song, only Mary could have made it soar as much without being too overbearing. "All That I Can Say" was the perfect song for Blige to sing at that point in her career. Mary would solidify her status as an elder stateswoman in the modern R&B world and this Hill-penned tune was the perfect statement for an artist as experienced as Blige.

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