The definition of “essential” is interpreted in several different ways, one being “necessary” or “very important.” In 1991, Legacy Recordings, in conjunction with the Sony Records family of labels, began a series capturing artists that have made an important impact to the music industry. Now joining this distinguished list that includes modern jazz pioneer Miles Davis and gospel giant Mahalia Jackson is pop music phenomenon Mariah Carey. Her domination of the R&B and pop charts throughout the ‘90s, backed by an astounding five-octave range and unique vocal flips, set many sales records for the Columbia Records catalog. Mariah’s much anticipated self-titled debut did not immediately register highly on the charts. Yet, once her debut single, “Vision of Love,” was released, the future pop superstar was on her way to an “essential” journey filled with enormous highs and emotional lows.
After Mariah released four singles off her debut, her follow-up, Emotions, followed suit with three more top five singles. Despite her positive track record to this point, there were many detractors. For one whose voice won over the hearts of pop fans on the charts, Mariah was actually stage-shy, leading to speculation in the media that maybe the studio enhanced her astounding vocals. Some of the skeptics were silenced after her appearance on MTV Unplugged, Mariah’s 1992 release. Her soulful and mesmerizing version of the Jackson Five smash, “I’ll Be There,” is now one of her trademark concert pieces. With all the accolades, including a Grammy for Best New Artist in 1990, her subsequent albums were critically met with average ratings in most cases with the exception of the 1995 disc, Daydream, deemed as her most personal work, and her multi-award winning Butterfly in 1997. It seemed Mariah could almost do no wrong, from duets with superstars like Luther Vandross, Whitney Houston and Boyz II Men to sold-out international tours and establishing a firm hit-making machine. As Mariah was solidifying more of her diva status, she understandably wanted more control in her artistry as she started peppering more R&B and hip-hop into her adult contemporary pop sound starting with the remix of “Fantasy” featuring rapper O.D.B. in 1995 and several tracks from Butterfly.
Yet, just like numerous pop princess tales, Mariah proceeded to unravel big-time when she left Columbia in 2000. With a failed record deal (a history-making contract with Virgin), the dissolution of her marriage to her former label boss, Tommy Mottola in 1998, and a much publicized meltdown following her 2001 movie flop, Glitter, Mariah seemed destined for a career breakdown. However, the diva in Mariah picked herself up by signing with Island Records in 2002, even though the hit domination significantly slowed down compared to the previous decade, when Mariah was officially the best-selling artist of the 1990s.
The latest in a series of greatest hit packages from Columbia (#1’s, Remixes and The Ballads), the 28-track The Essential Mariah Carey, spotlights the songstress in her gold and platinum hit-generating heyday. One of the most popular house music producers in the ‘90s, C&C Music Factory, is responsible for both Mariah’s dance remixes (“Make it Happen” and “Anytime You Need a Friend”). Sorely missing is the slow burning remix of “Fantasy,” driven by the Tom Tom Club’s hook from “Genius of Love.” From the superstar duets, the best belongs to the cover of “Endless Love” with Luther, and Mariah’s signature collaboration with Boyz II Men, the stirring ballad “One Sweet Day.” There is laid-back pop mixed with hip-hop bounce (“Honey” sans the P. Diddy rap and the Mobb Deep mix of “The Roof”) and retro-soul sweetness (“Dreamlover” and “Always Be My Baby” highlighted by an infectious doo-wop chorus). Yet, the many striking ballads on The Essential Mariah Carey by far are where her roller coaster-like voice fully rules. From the covers “I’ll Be There” and Nielsen’s “Without You,” the self-declaring “Can’t Take That Away (Mariah’s Theme),” the emotional “I Don’t Wanna Cry,” “Can’t Let Go” and “Vision of Love,” and the inspirational “Hero,” these are the moments where one can experience the full spectrum of Mariah’s vocal arsenal.
The Essential Mariah Carey primary concentrates on the hits that shaped the singer/songwriter’s career with Columbia. Though this is pretty much a greatest hits package, Essential is still an important retrospective of Mariah’s meteoric climb to pop music superstardom. Highly Recommended.
By Peggy Oliver