Trying to stack up another artist’s career against Mariah Carey is laughable. The queen of excess — from her mountain-sized anthems to her general absurdity (think exercising in stilettos on Cribs, riding the subway in a ballgown, and stripping down during that Glitter meltdown on TRL in 2001), has consistently defined how music should sound throughout the decades. From her 1990 self-titled debut through her Butterfly era up until just three years ago — when she released one of her best and most underrated albums to date, Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse, the crystallization of a singer who no longer had to adhere to contemporary convention as she stepped into the next stratum of aging pop star. Her persona is so rigidly specific that she has her own vocabulary.
But beyond the insanity of Mariah the Diva is the music that’s always been at the forefront — even when she took the biggest chances. (Even Glitter’s lead single “Loverboy (Remix)” reached number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100.) She’s tied with Elvis Presley for the most number-1 Hot 100 singles in history just behind The Beatles with 18 chart-toppers—her biggest being “We Belong Together,” which maintained the top spot for 14 weeks. Her accolades and accomplishments are so extensive that it’s already a given how successful and important a visionary she’s been (and continues to be).
With her singles, she’s struck consistent gold. And she’s almost always chosen correctly on what should and shouldn’t represent her bodies of work. But there are numerous songs that didn’t get the single treatment. We take a look back at those that were never released as proper singles — not counting her remixes, which totaled 185 at the time of her last album, or her non-album singles — and explain why they stand among her best work.
When Mariah started out, her talent was the selling point. Not that it isn’t now, but back then there were no bells or whistles or — as painful as it is to say — AutoTune. “Vanishing,” one of the few songs on her eponymous debut that didn’t make the singles cut, was pure: piano, a backing gospel choir and fortified, front-and-center vocals that stretched across multiple octaves. Mariah Carey had plenty of jams, most famously “Vision of Love” and “Love Takes Time,” but the ending of “Vanishing,” where Mariah goes full church, is a slept-on highlight.
“Music Box” (1993)
Mariah is a ballad queen, and Music Box, her third album, was intentionally rife with them. Her voice is in pristine condition, distracting from the fact that many of these songs now sound extremely dated. At the time, that wasn’t an issue, and half of the 10 tracks on the LP were released as singles (“Hero” and “Dreamlover” have been since canonized as two of the greatest songs from the 1990s). It was impossible to avoid this album — it’s sold 32 million copies, making it her highest-selling album ever — so it must come as a surprise to those familiar with it that the title track never received a promotional push. And yet, it somehow feels fresher than the rest: The twinkles, the overblown chorus and the lack of percussion make this a supple treat.
“Now That I Know” (1993)
One thing that Mariah has always done perfectly is sending up her singles for the dance remix treatment. But she used to go for it on the first try, particularly on Music Box with “Anytime I Need a Friend” (which had several ebullient remixes) and “Now That I Know,” which stayed in purgatory as an album cut. Ripping a page out of the C&C Dance Factory and CeCe Peniston playbook, it aimed straight for the club with a cascade of vocal runs and a robust backing chorus. The stock horn synths don’t hold up, but the groove sure does.
“When I Saw You” (1995)
Yes, high priestess of ballads! This inclusion on Daydream so closely resembles the melodic progression of “One Sweet Day” that it should disqualify it — and yet, it’s so good that it’s forgivable as a repeat. “When I Saw You” is all classic early ‘90s schlock, a ballad that gets lost in the eyes of the man it’s about. And its in its simplicity that it soars: “When I saw you, I could not breathe / I fell so deep,” she sings on the chorus. As it stands, the tune serves more as a playground for Mariah to exercise her falsetto and bring attention to the lyrics, perhaps basking in the afterglow of marrying record executive Tommy Mottola two years earlier.
“You Got Me” featuring Jay Z and Freeway (2002)
Dipping one toe into hip-hop has been a Carey constant — the remix to “Fantasy” that features Ol’ Dirty Bastard is probably her best song, objectively, but collabs with Busta Rhymes, Nas and Mobb Deep are all standouts. Charmbracelet, which came on the heels of the disastrously received Glitter (album and film) one year prior, was her most “urban” album yet, led by a candy-sweet remake of Cam’Ron’s “Oh Boy” retitled “Boy (I Need You),” with the beat smartly reworked. “You Got Me,” which was also included on Freeway’s career-defining debut Philadelphia Freeway in 2003, was Mariah meets chipmunk soul, a popular sound gaining footing at the time thanks to the growing ubiquity of Kanye West and Just Blaze. Even now, nothing is more specifically early aughts than Free growling “Yeah, it’s Mariah and Free, Just Blaze beats, yeah” at the onset, accented by a duetting Mariah line.
“Mine Again” (2005)
The Emancipation of Mimi was a comeback album that both propelled her career beyond the the shame bubble of her public downfall and somehow also set a bar for success she could never again attain. It was her best-selling record in a decade, launching numerous smash singles (“We Belong Together,” “It’s Like That,” “Don’t Forget About Us”). But it’s also perplexing that it was such a unanimous success, given the fact that it lacked a musical theme, existing more as a collection of sharp-edged pop/R&B singles rolled into one monster confection. “Fly Like a Bird” would have been included on this list, had it not been for the fact that it got an eleventh-hour single release — it’s probably her best single to fail on the charts — which leaves the tender “Mine Again,” sung with the same open-throated gospel passion as “Bird” with an overt current of soul.
“Migrate” featuring T-Pain (2008)
One of the most notable things about Mariah’s single choices is that whoever selects them (either her or her label, likely the latter) has impeccable taste, and always skims from the top. E=MC2 wasn’t her best album, yet its three singles were immaculate: “Touch My Body,” “I’ll Be Lovin’ U Long Time” (the version without T.I., who was tacked onto the single for some reason) and “Bye Bye.” “Migrate” set the tone for E=MC2, with its stellar T-Pain feature, opening the album with glossy snaps and a darkly shaded tone that recalled the stormy vibe of “The Roof.”
“I’m That Chick” (2008)
One of the critical appraisals of “I’m That Chick” was that it was effortless, which couldn’t be more apt. Mariah had flirted with disco throughout her career, namely with the underrated Glitter soundtrack (“Don’t Stop (Funkin’ 4 Jamaica)” featuring Mystikal comes to mind). “I’m That Chick” feels like it’s missing something — perhaps an exchange of “chick” for something a bit spicier — but that’s where the shortcomings end. It’s a mid-album inclusion on E=MC2, and where many of her records lose a bit of steam at the halfway mark “I’m That Chick” keeps the power on with its slapping bass and pristine keys.
Mariah frees the writing and production reins to a tight-knit crew, which is what made for one of her most consistent albums to date. That doesn’t equate to being solid, and when she enlisted The-Dream and Tricky Stewart to saddle up in the studio for almost all of Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel, it yielded some of her snooziest songs to date — of course, excluding “Obsessed,” “Up Out My Face” with Nicki Minaj and the “H.A.T.E. U” remix, the latter of which remains as one of her best and underappreciated second attempts. “Ribbon” joins the few teeming with life, a body-roller underscored by a chopped-and-screwed vocal sample that goes to show Mariah sometimes does trends right.
“Make It Look Good” (2013)
From a critical standpoint, it’s safe to consider 2013’s Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse as one of Mariah’s best post-millennium efforts from top to bottom. There’s a nostalgic tint to to the set — not entirely cohesive, yet with few blunders — and something perennial about how it’s aged over the past three years. Perhaps it’s because it largely steps back from the trends at the time (notwithstanding guest appearances from artists du jour including Miguel and Trey Songz) and absorbs touchstones from genres past spanning disco to New York grit rap. Alongside “Dedicated” and “Meteorite,” “Make It Look Good” is swinging, cool and shamelessly throwback. Sure, it’s an album cut that would have probably sunk upon release, but it also sounds the most genuinely Mariah.