30 years ago, a young woman with a gigantic voice blew through the pop charts like a hurricane, transforming the industry and leaving destroyed records in her wake. 19 number-one singles, five Grammys, and hundreds of millions of units sold later, Mariah Carey is celebrating her reign of diva-dom with the dual release of her autobiography The Meaning of Mariah Carey and The Rarities, an album of rare and unreleased tracks.
I’m celebrating 30 years of Mariah Carey by listing out her greatest pop music moments, in my estimation. Some should come as no surprise (of course “All I Want for Christmas is You” is here), others will, especially the omissions. But for anyone looking for the meaning of Mariah, beyond the book, this should offer as good a crash course as any.
So sit back, get your whistle notes ready, and journey back in time for Mariah’s greatest pop moments.
Vision of Love (1990)
The song that started it all. It’s hard to overstate the impact “Vision of Love” had on the pop music landscape, even more stunning considering that Mariah was barely an adult when she released it. The budding diva’s ode to love (whether romantic or religious is up for interpretation) essentially re-wrote the book for female artists, and inspired a generation of imitators. From its gospel under-pinnings to its intricate vocal works and that whistle, “Vision of Love” was the kind of statement artists don’t make anymore, and deservingly launched Mariah straight to the top of music world.
Fun fact: this is one of my favorite Mariah Carey singles, and reportedly one of her least? Whatever her reasons, “Someday” is jam-packed with the attitude and energy that her early critics claimed she lacked. A brilliant kiss-off record with a killer guitar solo, a healthy mix of breathy and fuller vocals, and, again, that whistle, “Someday” was a well-deserved third number-one single for Mariah.
“Emotions” is basically Mariah showing off. And why shouldn’t she, after four number-one singles, a multiplatinum debut album, and two Grammys? The title track from her sophomore effort has Mariah reveling, in a new lover and, possibly, her newfound success, prancing up and down the musical scales with effortless abandon. Backed by a gospel-tinged piano, she deploys that whistle with delightful verve, as if she’s daring anyone to try her. “Emotions” proved to be worth the confidence, becoming her fifth number-one single in a row.
I’ll Be There (1992)
What do you do when you’re one of the biggest pop singers out there, but critics are out for blood claiming you’re a studio hack who can’t sing live? If you’re Mariah, you sign up for MTV Unplugged (remember when MTV aired music programming) and shut everyone up with a stellar live set, including a cover of the Jackson 5 classic “I’ll Be There.” So adored was her cover (performed with background singer Trey Lorenz) that her label released it and the song became her 6th number-one single, returning her to the top of charts (“Can’t Let Go” and “Make It Happen” peaked at #2 and #5, respectively). It was the first time when Mariah was counted out and she proved the world wrong, a lesson that would be taught several times over.
Without You (1994)
When most people think of 1993’s blockbuster Music Box album, they probably think of number-one singles like “Dreamlover” or “Hero.” What comes to mind for me, and probably the whole of the European continent, is her cover of Badfinger’s ballad “Without You.” Mariah’s version finds her at her most vocally impressive, restraining some of the trademark tics (notably that whistle) for a powerful and emotive interpretation of the tearjerker. It paid off like gangbusters, with the song topping the charts across Europe (including the notoriously difficult-for-her UK market) and helping push the album to 30 million copies sold worldwide.
All I Want For Christmas is You (1994)
I wonder sometimes if Mariah realized that this song would become the most important of her career. If so, she is more of a genius than anyone ever gave her credit for. Who else who’ve thought to record a festive ditty before turning 25 so timeless-sounding that it would resonate a quarter century after its release? Mariah did, and has laughed all the way to the bank. To anyone who doubted her accidental (or purposeful) stroke of brilliance, consider this: “All I Want for Christmas is You” went to number-one this past Christmas, for the first time ever, 26 years later.
Five years into a record-setting career, “Fantasy” was a jolt that Mariah didn’t necessarily need, but we greatly appreciated it. Built around a a brilliant sample of Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love,” the first number-one single from Daydream was just that, a cotton-candy confection with hints of something riskier underneath, kind of like the rollercoaster she rode in the video. She teased out those underpinnings in the song’s lauded remix, which completely reworked the track into a hip-hop playground for the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard to play in. The song’s impact on music cannot be understated: nearly every hip-hop artist played on pop radio walked a path that Mariah pave.
One Sweet Day (1996)
For 23 years, this song was the longest-running number-one in Hot 100 history. I could end this section there. But Mariah’s team-up with fellow frequent chart-busters Boyz II Men was more than just an impressive statistic. The song, a tribute to lost loved ones on both sides, is a genuinely moving ballad of mourning, resilience, and hope, with one of the most emotionally cathartic finales that pop music has ever delivered. That a song so unabashedly spiritual could top the charts for four months is proof of the artists’ unparalleled pull with audiences, the likes of which we’ll likely never see again.
Always Be My Baby (1996)
If Mariah had never released “We Belong Together,” or if the world hadn’t re-discovered “All I Want for Christmas is You,” I would argue that “Always Be My Baby” was her signature song. The third single from the game-changing Daydream album wasn’t the biggest, but it was arguably the purest form of her musicality, marrying her R&B, hip-hop and adult contemporary sensibilities into a breezy and soulful mid-tempo that was destined to be sung along to. It’s truly to Mariah’s credit that this song wasn’t the career-definer I thought it would be.
Hero (Live from the Tokyo Dome) 
I almost omitted “Hero” from this list altogether, but then I remembered that Mariah’s all-time best vocal performance was of the song. In 1996, fresh off the gargantuan success of Daydream, Mariah toured Japan and gave what might be the performances of her life at the Tokyo Dome. Of all of the songs she performed that night, “Hero” was spellbinding. Her voice was astonishingly pure, hitting notes that could make your jaw drop while maintaining the genuine empathy that has made the song a long-time favorite. For decades, the performance could only be experienced from YouTube; thankfully, The Rarities comes with the full Tokyo Dome set on a second disc, an incredible gift for Mariah Carey lovers everywhere.
“Honey” busted the doors open on what Mariah Carey could look and sound like. The sound was heavier and a bit grittier (courtesy of Sean “Puffy” Combs), the vocals were breather and huskier, and her midriff was in full control. And yet, this newer Mariah felt less like a complete departure than a realization of the artist underneath the full length gowns and powerhouse vocals, Mariah mega-evolved if you will. And if anyone was worried that this mega evolution would turn listeners off, “Honey” went in at number-one on the charts, to boot.
When You Believe (1998)
I already wrote about this duet for my retrospective on Whitney Houston, but I will just say this: it’s a pop music crime that this monumental ballad wasn’t number-one for several weeks in 1998 and 1999.
Can’t Take That Away (Mariah’s Theme) 
Pop music can be very cynical. For instance, it’s easy to look at a song like “Can’t Take That Away” and think of it as a schlocky take on empowerment that adds nothing of value. However, within the context of Mariah’s personal story, which she’s only just started to reveal in full with her autobiography, the song is one of downright-Herculean perseverance. Within that context, you can understand why she sings it with more passion than her biggest hits, or why she fought (and failed) for Sony to give it a proper single release (another fun fact: I have the original cassette single). More than just another inspirational ballad, “Can’t Take That Away” is essentially Mariah’s life mantra, truly her theme.
Lead the Way/Never Too Far (2001)
Was Glitter a bad movie? Yes (in hindsight, even though I really liked it as a kid). Was Glitter a bad album? Not nearly as bad as critics said (although some of the bad marks are valid, like her heavy reliance on guest performers). However you rank this rare pre-2013 misstep in her career, Glitter at least gave us “Lead the Way” and “Never Too Far,” two stellar ballads that proved that she hadn’t strayed too far from what made her such a force in the first place: that voice.
We Belong Together (2005)
A comeback like the one Mariah engineered in 2005 should’ve been impossible. After the disappointment of Charmbracelet, it seemed it was. Of course, no one but Mariah and Jermaine Dupri knew she had “We Belong Together” waiting in the wings. The rhythmic power ballad was everything everyone thought Mariah wasn’t anymore: hip, relevant, vocally strong. Even though it sounded like a hit upon first listen, there was no knowing it would become the 14-week number-one juggernaut that it ended up being, the biggest hit of her already massive career. So transformative was this song for her that she spent at least three albums remaking it, most successfully with her next chart-topper “Don’t Forget About Us.” Not bad for a woman many people considered “over.”
Fly Like a Bird (Live at the Grammys) 
After a decade, Mariah Carey returned to the Grammys stage to prove that the Recording Academy’s mistreatment of her was one of their greatest shames. Celebrating the massive return to form that was The Emancipation of Mimi, the diva sang a powerhouse mash-up of her Grammy winner “We Belong Together” and the spiritual album track “Fly Like a Bird.” Like a dove released from its cage, Mariah truly came alive with “Fly Like a Bird,” ripping across the stage as her voice reached the rafters in a way that defied logic. Life-affirming, transcendent, and undeniably powerful, this performance, if its her last at the Grammys, was the mother of all mic drops.
Languishing/I Want to Know What Love Is (2009)
I’m a sucker for a good Mariah Carey remake, and “I Want to Know What Love Is” checks all the boxes. What makes it stand out, surprisingly enough, is the interlude that precedes it, the gorgeous “Languishing.” The short tracks finds Mariah at a level of melancholy that she rarely allows herself to reach. “I was wondering/Would you reach for me/If you saw I was languishing” is an absolutely gutting lyric, and makes her soulful take on the Foreigner classic all-the-more powerful.
You Don’t Know What To Do (2014)
I’ll be candid, I wasn’t crazy about the title of Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse. And yet, the album is one of the strongest in Mariah’s post-The Emancipation of Mimi catalog. The best track is “You Don’t What To Do,” a roller rink-ready bop that sounds both modern and adult, without cow-towing to trends that wouldn’t fit her. It’s one of the first times that Mariah sounds truly unbothered, by her lover or the charts. A truly emancipating moment.