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#RSFlashback: The Top Hits Of 1996 – Looking Back 25 Years Ago

From Fiona Apple to Busta Rhymes, this was a year of newcomers and (now) classic hits

Amit Vaidya Dec 27, 2021
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25 years ago this week was the first time I ever shared my year-end list with people that didn’t know me. I was a college sophomore and the internet had become more than just a way to stay in touch with my high school friends – it was a way to connect with other music lovers like myself and share our annual lists. It would happen that from the following year, I’d actually get my lists published in magazines, but 1996 was a key step to me getting that opportunity.

As 2021 comes to an end, I thought why not take a look back at 1996 and my top hits of that year. At the time, I used to create two lists, one for the Top 30 Songs and Top 30 Albums each year. I wouldn’t allow more than one song by one artist to feature in the Top 30 and this was at a time when collaborations were just starting to make a dent on the charts, so it was mostly a non-issue. Songs would only appear on the chart if the album or the single was released in that year. As a result, many of my favorite tracks of 1996 actually ended up becoming huge hits in 1997.  

As far as songs, the #1 spot belonged to my favorite new artist of the year Fiona Apple. Apple happened to be one of the first artists I was ever to write about and her full-length Tidal unsurprisingly also ranked as my #1 album of 1996.

While the record is a masterpiece and remains one of the best debut albums by any artist of all time, “Sleep To Dream”, the introductory single from the artist ranked as my #1 song. The single featured Apple’s haunting, well-beyond-her-years soulful voice, lyrics far more mature than her teen self and the first glimpse into her affinity for using the piano as more than just keys.

While I’d like say “Never Is A Promise” is my favorite song from the album today, “Sleep To Dream” was the big hit Apple should have had but didn’t. As we all know, she went on to score that big hit instead with “Criminal.”

Ranking just behind Apple at #2 was a song that even today needs no introduction. He may be considered a one-hit-wonder (though in truth, he actually did have a bunch of hits from his debut album) but boy was it a memorable one! “Return Of The Mack” by Mark Morrison was everything American R&B used to be in the Eighties but was sorely missing by the mid-Nineties. The British soul singer upped the funk factor and with his semi-Jamaican sounding vocals, creating an odd but incredibly infectious single that continues to get love on the dancefloors no matter where in the world (and not to mention way too many covers and interpolations).

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Right behind Morrison at #3 was Italian DJ/producer/composer Robert Miles featuring British Singer Maria Nayler with “One And One.” After achieving massive success with his electronic piano instrumental “Children,” Miles included this single as part of his debut album Dreamland and the single ended up becoming a massive global hit. Much before Kaskade and all the other dreamy DJs to follow, the song offered ethereal vocals over a pulsating beat that made you move but also feel. The song has been remixed hundreds of times over the years, a testament to what Miles created here but still nothing is as mesmerizing as the original version.

Women featured prominently on my chart and in the Top 40 space that year, which should come as no surprise given the rise of Lilith Fair at the time. Many artists with a previously-set roster of hits continued to churn out new hits for the time, including Suzanne Vega at #4 with “Caramel,” Cathy Dennis at #6 with “Stupid Fool” (a track that marked the perfect prelude to the influential pop lyricist and hitmaker she’d later become) and Cyndi Lauper at #8 with “Fall Into Your Dream,” respectively. While Vega’s single became a minor hit thanks to its inclusion in the film The Truth About Cats & Dogs, the other two singles (25 years later today) remain underappreciated gems that any artist could cover and score a big hit with.

Blackstreet, Dr. Dre and Queen Pen scored the #5 song of the year with “No Diggity,” an iconic hip-hop collaboration that has become as iconic as a modern song can get. George Michael came back after nearly a six-year album hiatus with Older and the single “Fastlove” was everything we had missed about the singer and his brilliant inclusion of Patrice Rushen’s classic “Forget Me Nots” was one of the first times we saw pop music – not just hip-hop – begin to sample and interpolate older tracks.

En Vogue scored a massive hit with their single “Don’t Let Go (Love),” ranking at #9 for the year. It was the last single by the R&B group to feature Dawn Robinson, who left and the quartet then became a trio – much like Destiny’s Child would just a few years later. The song, originally featured on the Set It Off movie soundtrack became a signature hit for the girl group and also continues to rank as one of the best pop songs of the recent past.

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Closing out my Top 10 was the first of two covers in my Top 30 for the year. The Fugees scored a massive hit with their remake of Roberta Flack’s classic “Killing Me Softly With His Song.” Lauryn Hill’s vocals are a pure masterclass and the band managed to update the already iconic song from the Seventies without changing the melody, making for an instant classic. For the younger generation, it was the perfect introduction to a song that every parent could also sing along to with their kids.

The rest of the Top 30 features an eclectic group of artists. While Celine Dion, Sheryl Crow, Jamiroquai, Pet Shop Boys and Everything But The Girl had bigger hits that year from their respective albums, I preferred other tracks (ironically enough, all of my picks ended up becoming single releases in 1997 by the artists).

The list also included newcomers like Duncan Sheik, Savage Garden, Donna Lewis and yes, Spice Girls – much before they made their cultural pop dent. The great Busta Rhymes and Outkast made their first appearances ever on my list, while one of my favorite artists of the Nineties — Enigma — continued to feature.

It’s amazing to see how many of the artists included in my year-end list are still going strong. Fiona Apple continues to mesmerize with every release. Spice Girls continue to evoke Girl Power, even two and a half decades later with reunion tours continuing to sell out stadiums. Singer-songwriter Jewel recently won The Masked Singer, Duncan Sheik is a highly celebrated Tony award winner for Spring Awakening, while LL Cool J has been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. Of course, we’ve also lost many artists including George Michael, Robert Miles and Michael Cretu, the man behind Enigma.

It’s amazing to see that good music and talented artists do stand the test of time and now with music libraries available to all of us without much challenge, the legacy of a song and an era seems likely to always be celebrated.

Check out the full list below of my Top 30 of 1996 on Spotify.

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