Much like for rock music, the 90’s were one of the last great decades for the genre of R&B. With rap, nu-metal, pop-punk,boy bands, and pop princesses dominating the airwaves at the end of the last century, the early to mid 90’s released some great acts and songs in the last era of strong R&B. While there have been a few popular acts since in the genre, few have had the output or quality of the groups throughout the 90’s. Here is a playlist of 25 songs that I think should be on any playlist of the era.
As always the playlist is available on Spotify here.
Motown Philly- Boyz II Men
One of the most popular acts throughout the 90’s Boyz II Men released some of the most enduring hits of the genre in the 90’s. Motown Philly was their first major hit and became a radio staple throughout the early 90’s. Combining slick production with the acapella singing talent and Doo-wop chops of the group is on of the things that established this group from a solo artist dominated genre.
Candy Rain- Soul for Real
While only producing a few popular songs Soul For Real brought about a younger Jackson 5-ish take on the group dynamic that Boyz II Men made popular in the 90’s. Even though this song is widely forgotten, I cannot think of a 90’s R&B playlist without this tune.
No Diggity- Black Street
Black Street’s “No Diggity” is essential to any 90’s R&B playlist. The song was a smash in 1996. Funky with a steady back beat this track allows the group to rap and sing over a great club ready beat. The chorus is simple but memorable and the verses allow the individual members to swap the main vocal with ease.
You Make Me Wanna- Usher
Usher is one of the solo male artists that carried the torch for R&B in the mid to late 90’s when it was starting to fall out of favor. Smooth vocals and musically sparse this song is good to chill to with a steady beat as well as get out on the dance floor with. Usher had a few popular hits throughout the era but “You Make Me Wanna” is probably my favorite of his.
Breathe Again-Toni Braxton
One of the three most soulful women’s voices of the time, Toni Braxton managed to endure throughout the entire decade and after releasing great albums. “Breathe Again” is required listening. Great vocals and pop production made this song a radio hit in the 90’s and helped push Toni Braxton into the public consciousness.
Giving Him Something He Can Feel- En Vogue
Ev Vougue was the powerhouse female group of 90’s R&B. Releasing a number of hits in the 90’s, they helped to re-establish female R&B groups as a viable and powerful force in the music industry. I chose this song over a few other great ones because it showcases the group’s singing ability and groove.
This is How We Do It- Montell Jordan
The essential weekend party song of the decade. This song was the only big hit I remember from Montell Jordan but it has stuck with me over the decades and is still one that I will turn up if it comes across a playlist because it is fun to listen to. The repeated refrain of the song title in the chorus was genius for ear worm status because you will find yourself singing it out of the blue and for no particular reason.
Would I Lie to You- Charles & Eddie
I’m sure that anybody reading this that also lived through this era of music had forgotten about this song. An early 90’s hit it is often lost in the din of other songs throughout the era. The only to 20 hit and the group’s only charting song in the US is soulful and memorable. A certified “One hit Wonder” this song has a classic Motown sound and production level and the high vocal lines of the singing doesn’t grate on the hearing but instead is well performed.
All My Life- KC and Jo Jo
The ‘Wedding Song’ of 1999. I couldn’t escape this song my senior year of high school as it was a popular school dance song as well. This is the only hit I remember from the group but it has endured as a musical expression of love that people still go back to.
Killing Me Softly- Fugees
This cover song pushed the Fugees into a public consciousness through the MTv Video. The group did not last long before pursuing solo projects. Lauryn Hill’s The Miss-education of Lauryn Hill still stands as one of the best albums released in 1999. The song was originally a hit for Roberta Flack in the early 70’s proved to be a hit once again in 1996 when the Fugees released an updated version with a more hip of feel. The song immediately grabs you with the layered acapella vocals from Lauryn Hill. The song consists mostly of the beat with and Hill’s singing which shows the vocal ability of the artist.
Sittin’ Up In My Room-Brandy
While Brandy is more known for her acting career she did also produce some good music. “Sittin’ Up In My Room” was one of the few radio hits that she released. The song has a smooth funky sound that serves as the backdrop for Brandy’s soulful singing what serves as being understated in the verse and slowly raises going into the chorus.
Along with En Vogue, SWV were one of the most accomplished female vocal R&B groups of the 90’s. “Weak” was the third single of their debut album and one of the best female R&B songs of the early 90’s. While the instrumentation does date the song a little it does not detract from the listenability of the song. This was the most popular song from the group and was a #1 hit for the group on multiple charts in the US in 1993.
I Swear- All for One
This song was released by two different artists from two different genre’s within a year of each other. While originally the country version did not have much traction after the success of All for One’s R&B take on the song, the country song gained traction as well. All for One’s version is a soulful R&B/Doo-wop hit. The group did manage to release a few other memorable singles but “I Swear” stands as their most memorable due to it being their first singe as well as their highest charging single.
Always and Forever- Luther Vandross
No R&B playlist from the 80’s or 90’s would be complete without THE Luther Vandross. He is as essential to the era and genre as Barry White or Marvin Gaye are to the 70’s era of R&B. Originally released in the 70’s by the group Heatwave, the song had proven it’s success with as a top 20 hit. Luther Vandross’ soulful vocals and laid back mix made the song a top 20 hit again two decades later. Luther’s voice is one that defines an era of R&B and he was one of the greatest soul singers of the late 20th century.
Nobody Knows- Tony Rich Project
Another one hit wonder of the 90’s, the Tony Rich Project’s “Nobody Knows” was a soulful hit for the group and its highest charting hit. The music is good mix of both various percussion instruments with a guitar and a synth piano. Rich’s soulful and smooth vocals make this song memorable for its emotionality and feel.
Back at One- Brian McKnight
One of the later releases on this list Brian McKnight’s “Back at One” is a great song of the decade. From the piano intro to the soulful chorus it manages to encompass everything the genre was known for. Smooth vocals and great production keeps the song from being dated almost 20 years later. While alphabet and number songs are often somewhat annoying this song manages to not be. The lyrical scheme was used again not too long after by Craig David on his “7 Days” song which is also a good song. Brian McKnight is one of the most underrated male vocalists of this era.
TLC had a great debut album in 1992 but it wasn’t until 1994 that they hit their high point in popularity. A lot of that had to do with their CrazySexyCool album that produced some of their most memorable hits. The funky guitar and bass on this song provide a great groove to serve as the foundation of the vocals. T-Boz’s smoky vocals are accompanied well by the other two members throughout the verse and lend soul to the chorus. Lisa “Left Eye” Lopez’s mid song rap is one of the highlights and memorable parts of the song. While they have fallen out of the public consciousness after the death of Left Eye, the group managed to produce enduring hits throughout the 90’s.
Not Gon’ Cry- Mary J. Blige
Another great female voice in the genre, Mary J. Blige has forged a career with soulful vocals and great R&B hits. This song has a great vocal narrative that speaks to female empowerment and moving on after heartbreak. The song was a #1 single on the R&B charts in 1996 and is still a great song to throw on anytime.
Twisted- Keith Sweat
Keith Sweat is one of those artists in the 90’s that occupied areas of both the R&B and hip hop. “Twisted” was a #1 hit in 1996 and it is a relaxed jam composed of mostly piano and bass with a steady beat. The interplay between Sweat’s vocals with the female vocals provide a great ‘call and answer’ feel throughout the song. The vocals are soulful on both sides and this song is a great song to turn on on date night.
I’m Every Woman- Whitney Houston
No female vocalist in the 90’s is as well known or renown as Whitney Houston. She managed to have hits across pop, R&B, and Soul during the 90’s and this funky dance song is a great one. Containing elements of disco, funk and pop the music underscores Houston’s vocal ability and range. Sweet, sultry, and smooth; Whitney managed to convey all of these with her voice over the course of the song. She was a great artist and is missed in the music world.
I Believe I Can Fly- R. Kelly
R. Kelly has had some rather racy songs throughout his career (“Bump and Grind”, “Trapped in a Closet”) but “I Believe I Can Fly” shows his songwriting ability along with his vocal chops. Probably best known for its association with the Space Jam soundtrack the song is one that stands up after all these years. Inspirational and soulful, few songs are better than this.
Save the Best for Last- Vanessa Williams
Few of the artists (with the exception of Whitney Houston) has managed to spread between so many different aspects of pop culture as Vanessa Williams. Singer, Actress, Former Miss America, she has done it all. Including having a #1 hit with this song in 1992. Another song that is only dated by it’s production, it has managed to still be a decent song and a good R&B song for over 25 years.
At Your Best (You are my love)- Aaliyah
Unfortunately Aaliyah was taken too soon. A promising film career ahead and a great voice was lost in 2001 with her death. This song is a great showcase of her lyrical ability and her soulful sound. Silky smooth vocals over a slow funky musical track gives perspective to the talent that was lost and the talent that is lacking these days in music. Even though this song is a cover of an Isley Brothers tune, Aaliyah managed to make it her own and brought her great ability vocally to the song.
When Can I See You- Babyface
Known more as a songwriter and producer, Babyface has managed to step out from the shadows occasionally to put his own voice and musical ability to his music. “When Can I See You Again” is a great song that shows what he is capable as an artist himself. Another song you might recognize him from is Eric Clapton’s “Change the World” although he has written a few hits from artists that also populate this list. The simpleness of the music which is comprised mostly of an acoustic guitar and drums lets the vocals shine through on this track.
I Gotta Be- Jagged Edge
Although this song did not crack the top 10 it is a good slow jam to end on. Jagged Edge is one of those groups that you have to have on a 90’s R&B playlist because they were one of the great if not underrated groups of the era. While Boyz II Men dominated the landscape for the majority of the decade, Jagged Edge managed to keep pace without as much recognition due to the quality of their songs.
Poison- Bell Biv Devoe
I bet most of you thought I would forget to include this song but I put it on here as the bonus song for this post. One of the essential songs of the era BBD’s “Poison” is upbeat, and flows. The vocal trade offs with each new verse coupled with the collective chorus proves that the formula for R&B hits was steadily in place in 1990 when the song was released. While still continuing some of the elements of last 80’s hip hop, the song manages to pushes into the new decade with a fresh sound that would set the tone for a lot of acts that followed.