Ice Cube's "It Was a Good Day," a remarkably tender work by one of the architects of the notorious gangsta style of rap, was the year's most memorable and revolutionary single.
Part of hard-core rap's continuing creative and commercial invasion of the pop mainstream, the song was a daydream about 24 hours in the 'hood where everything goes right.
Cube, whose raps with N.W.A. in the '80s and on his own explosive solo albums have focused on anger and alienation, expresses early in the song the underlying tension of most days:
Hooked it up (with my girl) for later
As I hit the door, thinking
"Will I live another 24?"
As he proceeds through the fantasy, however, he notices everything is falling into place--he scores a prized triple double on the basketball court and rolls only winning sevens and 11s in a dice game.
But real blessing, he realizes, is the absence of violence:
Nobody I know got killed in South-Central L.A.
Today was a good day.
The fact that teens responded to the record strongly enough to make it a national Top 20 hit should send a welcome signal to hard-core rappers that they can step away from the relentless confrontation and macho bravado on occasion without losing street credibility.
It was, in fact, a defining moment in pop last April when "It Was a Good Day" and Dr. Dre's "Nuthin' But a 'G' Thang" both entered the national Top 20--the coronation of Los Angeles-based gangsta rap as the new sound for millions of young Americans.
While Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg, whose "What's My Name" is another mainstream smash, haven't shown the thematic urgency or depth of Ice Cube, they are masters of pop dynamics and their hits join "It Was a Good Day" on today's list of the most noteworthy singles of 1993.
Pop vitality during the past 12 months, however, wasn't limited to rap. Today's list also includes everything from the graceful rock of R.E.M. to the melodic hard-rock of Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins to the country daring of Emmylou Harris.
The annual countdown begins with honorable mentions--singles or album tracks that also touched in various ways on some of the year's most important or affecting moments:
* Moby's "Move" (Elektra). The sly charm of this techno gem rests in producer Moby's unapologetic embrace of '70s disco, injecting the music's old spirit-lifting pulse with a fresh, liberating edge.
* Emmylou Harris' "Jerusalem Tomorrow" (Asylum). Despite all the talk about a new era in country music, it's hard to describe as healthy a scene that fails to celebrate one of its most exquisite talents. Why is it easier for Garth Brooks to get country airplay singing a Billy Joel song than for Harris, whose soulful vocals and instincts for daring material still set a standard of excellence? This narrative about sinners and saviors is the latest dividend.
* Linda Ronstadt's "A River for Him" (Elektra). In "Winter Light," her first album in four years, Ronstadt reminds us (and hopefully Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey) of the importance of vocal restraint and quality material in mainstream pop. Those qualities are both showcased in this country-flavored tale of longing and loss, written by Emmylou Harris.
* Me'Shell NdegeOcello's "I'm Diggin' You (Like an Old Soul Record)" (Maverick). Here's proof an artist's own label can be more than an ego massage. A tip of the hat to Madonna for finding this 25-year-old New Yorker who, in this deftly crafted jazz 'n' funk piece, celebrates '60s Afro-American solidarity in the context of a sexy love song.
* The Cranberries' "Dreams" (Island). "Linger" was the hit single, but this album track showcases even more fully the enticing range of this Irish band's alluring style. Pop romanticism at its best.
* US 3's "Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)" (Blue Note). A further, more sophisticated and witty step into the world of jazz-flavored hip-hop that was popularized this year by Digable Planets.
Now, the year's 10 most memorable singles:
10. Belly's "Feed the Tree" (Sire/Reprise). Combining the tuneful vitality of R.E.M. with the mystic charm of 10,000 Maniacs, this invigorating single is better than a cup of coffee for getting you started in the morning.
9. Dr. Dre's "Nuthin' But a 'G' Thang" (Death Row/Interscope). It's like that and like this and like that, and huh. The pop hook of the year.
8. Janet Jackson's "That's the Way Love Goes" (A&M;). You might have to go all the way back to Smokey Robinson and the Miracles or, even, the Drifters to find summer pop as silky and as inviting as this.
7. Snoop Doggy Dogg's "What's My Name" (Death Row/Interscope). The chest-thumping bravado is annoying, but Snoop sings-raps with the fluidity of Sam Cooke and Dre's production is at its most seductive.
6. R.E.M.'s "Everybody Hurts" (Warner Bros.). There's a sense of comfort and community in the single that is reminiscent of simplicity and warmth of John Lennon's "Imagine."
5. Nirvana's "Heart-Shaped Box" (DGC). This didn't duplicate the radio breakthrough of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," but the naked emotion of the song--inspired by a TV documentary about a child's terminal illness--connected on an even deeper, more personal level.
4. Digable Planets' "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)" (Pendulum). A cultural celebration whose jazz and funk licks are smart, sassy and fun.
3. Smashing Pumpkins' "Cherub Rock" (Virgin). Even if you've never sat on a motorcycle, there's something about the best rock singles--from Springsteen's "Born to Run" to Jesus & Mary Chain's "Head On"--that makes you understand the freedom and adrenaline rush of a high-speed run. From the opening guitar riff, "Cherub Rock" takes you on that ride.
2. R.E.M.'s "Man on the Moon" (Warner Bros.) Sometimes pop or rock can be so disarming that you don't even need to feel that wind in your hair. There is such a magical quality to this toast to the innocence and wonder of life that you can't help but feel uplifted.
1. Ice Cube's "It Was a Good Day" (Priority). Note: there are two versions of the song. The original, R-rated rendition, with its graphic sexual fantasy, is on Cube's "The Predator" album. The more polite, radio-friendly version is available as a cassette single. While the latter is certainly more suitable for radio and young ears, the contrast between the raw language and the peaceful longing on the original makes it a more powerful and convincing commentary.
Another '93 Countdown: "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)" by Digable Planets was nominated by colleague Dennis Hunt as the year's top single. The rest of his Top 10, in order: Snoop Doggy Dogg's "What's My Name," Salt-n-Pepa's "Shoop," Dr. Dre's "Nuthin' But a 'G' Thang," 4 Non Blondes' "What's Up," Ice Cube's "It Was a Good Day," Arrested Development's "Mr. Wendal," the Clint Black-Wynonna Judd duet on "A Bad Goodbye," US 3's "Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)" and the Cranberries' "Linger."
Rating 1993's best albums and rounding up the year in pop. In Sunday's Calendar.