Watching music videos you loved as a child decades later as an adult gives you a new lens. Janet Jackson won a Grammy for this excellent visual ode to Black beauty long before it was mainstream and popular to do so and I didn’t realize that until this week.
Janet went introspective (and a little dark) for The Velvet Rope and she gave a lot of interviews in the run-up to the release. One was about “Got ’til It’s Gone” where she said she knew she wanted a rapper somewhere on the album, and when “GTIG” came together, Q-Tip’s voice fit perfectly. In the same interview she talked about being a fan of Joni Mitchell and how rap and folk were both poetry set to music, and that’s how two very disparate artists ended up on the same Janet Jackson song. (Janet actually called Joni Mitchell personally and sent a copy of the song to get permission for the sample, after being told Mitchell would never approve it.)
For the music video, Janet went with Mark Romanek (who has more Grammys for Short Form Music Video than anybody else), and she portrays a lounge singer in South Africa during Apartheid. Joni Mitchell — on a television screen — is the only white face in this video. Whiteness only exists in this space as a target of Black revolution, as the last scene ends with bottles being thrown at a Europeans Only sign. With Beyonce set to release Black Is King in a couple of days and all of the press and petulant backlash from Saltine America taking offense at her pro-Blackness, one can only imagine how “GTIG” would be received in this political climate.
Twenty years after The Velvet Rope, people (including me) made note of Janet Jackson’s love letter to the African diaspora with “Made For Now” through the sound and the fashion and the dance sprinkled throughout the video. But really, Janet has always been that girl. We just pay more attention these days.
Ultimate Christmas Party
Bops ONLY! No ballads!
I love Christmas music!
No sarcasm either. I worked retail for the better part of a decade and it didn’t make me hate holiday season at all — but it gave me a lot of Christmas Bops! The thing that I don’t like about most Christmas playlists is when you’re at a party and you have a good vibe going and then somebody’s overly ad-libbed version of “Silent Night” or “O Come Emmanuel” comes on and drags the mood down.
So this is a Christmas Party Playlist — bops only, no ballads. I tried to group the songs together by genre so you could skip a section if that’s not your sound, but it roughly goes from Gospel to R&B to Pop to Rock to Country and I feel like you should just put it on shuffle for your Ugly Christmas Party and have a ball.
And! For the heathens who like some secular music sprinkled in, there’s a Deluxe version that has a non-holiday bop for every Christmas song.
(For those who are asking, I didn’t make a Christmas Wishlist this year because I’ll be moving in a few months and I don’t need anything until we see what our space is like. Send good vibes and do something nice for somebody!)
The Best R&B Girl Group Ballads
I would love to be the Kelly in someone’s Destiny’s Child, so if you know anybody who’s looking…
Y’all know music is my happy place, especially a good vocal harmony, and nobody gives harmony like an R&B girl group.
I was listening to The Three Degrees the other day, and for some reason I had never listened to any of their albums straight through. If you’re the mood for an intense shot of Philly Soul from the 70s, go put on The Three Degrees immediately.
Anyway, I was on that kick because there was a clip making the rounds on Twitter from their live Scandinavian concert and the DRAMA they put into their delivery on “If & When” sent me into a spiral of girl group ballads.
Full Disclosure: my first professional calling was to be a pastor and my second was to be a paleontologist, but my third was to be The Second Lead Singer of a Girl Group. I would still love to be the Kelly in someone’s Destiny’s Child, so if you know anybody who’s looking…
I say that to let you know I am very passionate and specific about girl group categories, so some of your favorites are not gonna make this list of R&B ballads. If there’s not a Black woman singing lead, it’s probably not making the cut. If the song is outstanding but it’s too fast and I can do a two-step to it, it’s probably not making the cut. If a group has a whole mess of excellent ballads, I’m only picking the one I like the best. And because I’m a child of the 90s, it’s very heavy on that decade, but I’m open to suggestions.
So here we go!
The Shirelles “Soldier Boy” (1962)
Signing to Decca Records in 1958, The Shirelles are credited with launching the girl group boom of the 1960s. Primarily a doo-wop group at the start, “Soldier Boy” was their second number one and fifth top ten single. They were later overshadowed by Motown acts, but these ladies set down the first planks of that bridge between pop doo-wop and Black soul.
The Marvelettes “Forever” (1962)
The Marvelettes continued to hit it big for Black girl groups and were the first act on Motown with a #1 single (“Please Mr. Postman” in 1961). They eventually took a backseat to the Supremes and Motown stopped promoting them, so the group fizzled and broke up, but their legacy still holds.
Patti LaBelle and the Blue Belles “Who Can I Turn To” (1966)
Patricia Holt has been hollering at us for 60 years y’all and nobody can milk a slow jam like Patti. That’s all there is to say about that.
The Three Degrees “If And When” (1973)
This is one of my all-time favorite ballads of any genre. The Three Degrees gets lost in the shuffle of great soul acts of yesteryear, probably because they’ve had like 17 members over the years, but this lineup of Fayette, Sheila, and Valerie is the most iconic. Watch how much drama they sing with! Sheila is just so emotive and they had their own particular vibe of sensual elegance that was all their own. If you want a special treat, watch this full concert (complete with an interview where all three of them sound like Tina Turner when they speak!).
The Emotions “Don’t Ask My Neighbors” (1977)
Originally a family of gospel singers, the Hutchinson sisters transitioned to an R&B group and brought those church harmonies with them. “Best of My Love” is their most widely known single, but this ballad is the superior track.
The Jones Girls “Who Can I Run To” (1979)
The Jones sisters got their start singing backup for Teddy Pendergrass, Aretha Franklin, and Diana Ross among others. Their only big hit was “You’re Gonna Make Me Love Somebody Else” (#38 Hot 100) and this ballad was the B-side. Two decades later, Xscape decided to cover it and it became a top 10 smash, giving The Jones Girls a minor resurgence of interest in the 90s.
A Taste of Honey “Sukiyaki” (1980)
With Janice on bass and Perry on keyboards, A Taste of Honey was one of those unique girl groups where the members were singers as well as instrumentalists. They’re best known for the disco classic “Boogie Oogie” but everyone has actually heard “Sukiyaki” in some form or another. Originally a hit in 1963, this Japanese classic is one of the most successful songs of all time (and most sampled), and Janice learned the song phonetically when she was 9, even though she knew not one word of Japanese. She and her sister used to sing it at talent competitions, and this English cover reached #3 on the charts.
Mary Jane Girls “On The Inside” (1983)
Rick James wanted his backup singer JoJo McDuffie signed to Motown as a solo artist, but some wires got crossed and Motown signed an all-female group…that didn’t exist yet. Rick filled the rest of the spaces with pretty background imagery, but JoJo did most of the heavy lifting alongside James’ other background singers who weren’t even in the Mary Jane Girls. So, in the traditional sense, this isn’t an act where the group sings harmony — it’s a solo artist singing with someone else’s background singers, but still. The songs hold up.
Klymaxx “I Miss You” (1985)
Look y’all! We’re hitting the Music Video Era!
Is it just me, or is “Meeting in the Ladies Room” the song most associated with Klymaxx these days? I can’t tell you the last time I heard “I Miss You” somewhere, but that was actually a monster hit while “Meeting” never even cracked the top 50. Klymaxx is another girl group where the ladies all play instruments and “I Miss You” was one of the first songs my sister taught me to play on piano. And it very much sounds like a ballad from 1985.
Skyy “Real Love” (1989)
Okay…I know…Skyy isn’t actually a girl group. In the 1970s, funk bands were common. You’d have a wall of men playing instruments with one or a few female vocalists up front singing the lyrics. They fell out of popularity toward the end of disco, and women who previously would’ve been in a band like that were just solo artists or groups who recorded albums with session musicians and then had a backing or touring band for live performances. The Dunning sisters and Skyy stayed together and made an unlikely comeback in the late 1980s with this quiet storm classic that should be on everyone’s R&B playlist.
Zhané “La, La, La” (1994)
Renee Neufville and Jean Norris were students at Temple University collaborating with each other on songs when they met DJ Jazzy Jeff and sang on his and the Fresh Prince’s “Ring My Bell” (the followup single to “Summertime”). Benny Medina suggested they link up as a group, and “Hey Mr. DJ” became a surprise smash in 1993. The duo hastily recorded their debut album, commuting on the weekends to NYC to finish it up, and it’s still one of the best R&B debuts of all time. They split after two albums, but both members are still active in music (Jean was even nominated for two Grammys with her husband in 2017 under The Baylor Project).
TLC “Red Light Special” (1995)
TLC aren’t known as balladeers because, even though T-Boz and Chilli definitely have a vibe, they’re not the most gifted vocalists. Y’all know they used that vibe to the fullest on this grown-ass song from back in middle school though. As with most of TLC’s ballads, Left Eye isn’t on the track, but the B-side “My Secret Enemy” is a slow jam about her relationship with Andre Rison.
Pure Soul “We Must Be In Love” (1995)
Let me tell you all the things I want to do with this song:
–I want to sing it on the subway with three guys who know what they’re doing.
–I want a girl group to perform it when I walk down the aisle at my wedding.
–I want it to be my song for Waltz Week when I’m a D-List celebrity on Dancing With The Stars.
It’s a perfect song with excellent harmonies and a powerful lead vocal by four women from DC who disappeared after one album. I don’t know anything about them and they’re not even on Spotify (so this song isn’t on the playlist) but they really gave me one of my favorite ballads of all time.
Brownstone “Half of You” (1995)
It was really hard to choose between this song and “Grapevyne” but I do like to give a little shine to lesser-known album cuts of excellence. Nicci Gilbert rubs a lot of people the wrong way, but she is one of the most underrated vocalists in the girl group pantheon, and she sang the stuffing out of this damn song. She cowrote it with Gordon Chambers (singing with her) and the group recorded it in one take with just a piano. This is real musicality.
MoKenStef “He’s Mine” (1995)
Monica, Kenya, and Stefanie blessed us with the ultimate girl group jam to bust out on your man’s side hoe and we are still thankful for it. And that’s all they blessed us with. The 90s was truly a decade of girl groups with one iconic moment. It was also a decade of excellent remixes and honestly, the remix of “He’s Mine” might be a smidge better than the original.
Kut Klose “I Like” (1995)
Keith Sweat discovered Kut Klose in Atlanta and produced their first album. They had one big hit (“Twisted”) with Keith, and that’s all I know about them.
The Braxtons “Never Say Goodbye” (1996)
This is the rare track where you get to hear Towanda solo (she opens the song and trades off with Tamar) because she’s more comfortable in the background. Yay Wumba!! I love her.
Anyway. Some of y’all already know Braxton Family Christmas is one of my favorite girl group albums for the simple fact that the five Braxton sisters together are my favorite vocal harmony group, but they’ve just never done a full album with all of them — the Xmas album is the closest we’re going to get. When Toni was pulled from the group by LA Reid and Babyface as a solo artist (because they had just signed TLC and didn’t want another girl group), The Braxtons became a foursome. When Traci got pregnant just before recording their first album, they became a threesome. It’s a solid album with some definite highlights, but I think “Never Say Goodbye” is a well-crafted song that not enough people have heard, so here it is.
En Vogue “Don’t Let Go” (1996)
Y’all know this song and En Vogue, on their last single as the original four, sang it to smithereens. Dawn left the group during the recording of their third album (so her voice is on some of the EV3 tracks) and she really went out on a high. I personally like the current lineup of Cindy, Terri, and Rhona and I think some of their recent singles are excellent (check out “Rocket”) but the magic of the original four just can’t be recaptured.
For Real “Love Will Be Waiting At Home” (1997)
For Real should’ve been much bigger. They got signed by accident because they were greeting their manager at the gate with a little acapella number and someone from A&M Records happened to hear them sing. Brian McKnight produced their first album, Rolling Stone gave it a rare 4 stars, they performed with Stevie Wonder, appeared in Italian Vogue, and did a couple of movies. Their music just never took off so we’re left with a handful of jams like this ballad from the Waiting to Exhale soundtrack.
Shades “Eventually” (1997)
Shades was the original Destiny’s Child. No really — watch the video for “Tell Me” and see if you don’t get Beyonce & Kelly & Nem vibes. They formed in Boston at Northeastern University and really never made much of an impact on the charts, but this album has sentimental value to me because it’s the first one I ever bought at a gas station with my own money.
702 “Get It Together” (1997)
Upon further reflection (and watching her on R&B Divas), I’ve decided Kameelah is a much more gifted singer than I gave her credit for back in the day. 702 never impressed me much in the vocal department, but they have bops upon bops (both their first and third albums are No Skips!) and I think they made music for all the girls to sing along to, not just the ones who audition for the Apollo in their car. Donnell Jones wrote this excellent slow jam for them and it went all the way to #10 in the spring of 97.
Xscape “The Arms Of The One Who Loves You” (1998)
Some songs are immediately identifiable as Diane Warren Tracks even if you didn’t know she wrote it, and this is one of those. This is such a pop song, brought to life by four girls who grew up singing in the hood, and I have always loved it.
Xscape were tomboys on their first album with a very urban sound. For their second album, they sexed it up a little bit and put away the baggy jeans, leaning further from hip-hop. This song was the lead single for their third album and they went full Pop Songstress with shiny gowns and everything. It went to #7 and the quartet had yet another successful album cycle on their hands.
Short story: Travis (my roommate) and I went on a road trip to North Carolina to get out of the city and we had this tiny little cabin outside of Asheville. We got drunk one night and the next day I woke up on top of him with my fist balled up in front of my face. Why? Because I was dreaming that I was in Xscape singing this song into my imaginary microphone, and I woke my ownself up in my head when Tamika started going “never never never never…” My poor roommate got shaken awake by me giving The Apollo the performance of my life.
Allure “When the Shades Go Down” (1999)
Allure (who is still together and trying to make a comeback) formed at the LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts in NYC and Mariah Carey signed them to her record label a few years later. After a few minor hits (and Carey’s label collapsing) the girls struggled to find a footing and we haven’t heard much from them since their debut album.
This is a little-known track from The Best Man soundtrack and I’m sure most of y’all wanted “All Cried Out” from this group instead — but there is just way too much going on in that song for me with all those people! I prefer the original Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam version. Besides, if you’ve never heard this song, add it to your Late Night rotation because it’s excellent.
Destiny’s Child “Stay” (1999)
At the risk of invoking the wrath of the Beyhive, I was not a huge fan of Beyonce’s voice until 4 (and truly became a stan on Beyonce) once her voice matured and she started using more of her lower register. So, there aren’t a ton of Destiny’s child ballads that I love because it’s a lot of Beyonce doing technically impressive ad libs with a timbre I didn’t love, but I have been singing this song with my whole chest since I was in middle school like my man was literally walking out on me every day.
Blaque “Mind of a King” (1999)
Blaque was the Baby TLC nurtured by Left Eye, but they never reached the same level of success. Still there are some hidden gems there, like this one, and sometimes a slow jam is so good it doesn’t even need an impressive vocal. This song is a complete vibe that is mostly sung/spoken by Natina who also wrote the lyrics.
(And now that gives The Real Housewives of Atlanta two appearances on this list, with Kandi from Xscape and Shamari from Blaque.)
Cherish “Moment in Time” (2006)
The King sisters grew up singing together and Cherish made a huge splash with “Do It To It” which didn’t really show off all those years of training. “Moment in Time” is basically an acapella track with some instrumental flourishes and they have that blend that only sisters achieve. Listening to them sing it in the video above is actually better than the album version, because they sound better live than in the studio.
KING “Red Eye” (2016)
KING (sometimes We Are KING) are a trio based out of LA and I would group them with a subset of current R&B I call “Red Wine & Weed R&B” because it’s all very dreamy and lo-key with whispery vocals. Generally, this isn’t my genre, because I like a stronger vocal, but KING does so much with their harmonies and layering and their production is always so interesting. There’s a reason why their debut album ended up on so many Best Of lists and nabbed a Grammy nomination for Best Urban Contemporary Album — the first independent artists to be nominated in that category.
SWV “When Love Didn’t Hurt” (2016)
We all the way down here and haven’t seen SWV yet! I know some of y’all are hoppin mad because “Weak” isn’t on here, but honest to god, I have heard that song so many times I don’t even have it saved on my phone anymore. I haven’t listened to it in years. That’s one reason I chose this song instead.
The other reason is this is my favorite girl group song of the past ten years. I hesitated to put this one in chronological order because it messes up the flow of the playlist — it sounds like a 60s ballad, but it’s definitely in the post-Whitney vocal style of melisma everywhere, because y’all know Coko does not hold a note without throwing in 17 others. This is a perfect ballad, to me. The harmonies are excellent. The lead vocalists are distinct from one another. And they are putting so much emotion into it. If I was a SINGER singer, this would be my audition song.
Of all the artists who were big in the 90s and attempted a comeback the past few years, SWV is the one who actually put out a consistent album (not one, but two!) and they’re the only one with a Grammy nomination to show for it too. If y’all haven’t listened to their recent music, rectify that ASAP.
Good Girl “Misery” (2019)
Pause: Can we just stop and acknowledge that Good Girl is the sexiest girl group the industry has ever seen? Just effortlessly stunning and fly.
Another group I’ve been waiting to pop off, Good Girl first crossed my radar back in 2015 when they put out an excellent mixtape that isn’t available on streaming or for download anywhere (but I have it!). Two of them are singers who can dance and two of them are dancers who can sing, but they all perform at such a high level. All four of them trade leads and Bunny (my favorite!) is the rapper of the group. (Check out some of their Youtube covers to see what I mean.) They popped up on America’s Got Talent, but didn’t do so well, so I’m honestly a little (pleasantly) surprised they’re still together. They just put out their first album a few weeks ago, and while I’m not sure it’s the best showcase for their vocals, every song is a vibe for the kids, and my oldhead ass almost put “Good To You” on this playlist instead due to its throwback feel, but then decided against it because I certainly have the 90s represented well enough already.
June’s Diary “Way Off” (2020)
I’m still waiting on June’s Diary to actually crack into Hit Song territory because there is so much talent in this group, and the fact that they’re still working at it without much success means they must be getting along and they truly enjoy what they’re doing — since they’re definitely not staying together for the money and fame. They came together in 2016 during Kelly Rowland’s competition show Chasing Destiny which was supposedly finding the next great girl group. They’re a girl group, and they’re great, but I’m still waiting on that knock-out punch. They’re excellent vocalists and this song fits right in with the current vibe of R&B ballads, which means I would smoke weed to it.
Chloe x Halle “Wonder What She Thinks Of Me” (2020)
Chloe x Halle are the best way to close out this playlist for a couple of reasons. One, they’re the most high-profile R&B girl group we have right now. Two, they’re being guided by Beyonce — and who would know more about being in an R&B girl group? Three, listen to Halle open this song — her voice gives such clear, pop timbre, the same way Diana Ross’s did back in the day. I don’t know if the Bailey sisters will ever reach the same commercial heights as some of the other greats on this list because their creativity is just a smidge left of mainstream, but they’ll probably keep giving us this level of excellence for as long as they enjoy it. And they’re having a lot of fun.
So that’s it!…..for now.
There are some notable omissions on this list, The Supremes, The Pointer Sisters, and Sister Sledge among others. This playlist is made up of songs that I know, and I just don’t know any really ballads from any of them. If you have some suggestions (by them or anybody else, especially current R&B) let me know and I’ll give it a listen!
I use Spotify, so here’s the playlist. If you use something else…you’ll have to make that yourself.
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