’90s No. 1s Revisited: “Unbelievable”

The forty-third No. 1 song of the 1990s was “Unbelievable” by EMF, a pseudo-underground British alt-dance group whose defining characteristics were unintelligible lyrics and the lead singer’s hat. “Unbelievable” was the group’s first hit and a global success, although the U.S. was the only country to send it to No. 1. It was followed by “Lies,” which hit No. 18, and they haven’t been seen on the Billboard Hot 100 since, although they continued to place singles on the U.K. chart into 1995.

The track is a catchy fusion of new wave, hip-hop, rock, pop and dance. At the helm we have James Atkin, whose vocal gifts are meager but whose intonation and attitude somewhat foreshadowed the Gen X direction rock would take in the Real World generation. There’s a snively, grimy flavor to this song, and a grainy video to support it.

Let’s revisit “Unbelievable”:

Even those who weren’t alive or consuming music in 1991 will recognize this song because snippits of it are everlasting in pop culture. You hear parts of “Unbelievable” constantly in commercials, movies and TV shows. But back in 1991, it was just a song on the radio, one that had familiar influences — Billy Idol, The Cure, New Order — but in totality was unique. In our view, the winning element of this song is the chord progression in the chorus, between the exasperated utterances of “you’re unbelievable.” Remove that, and you have a pretty generic track with no payoff.

This was about as edgy as mainstream music got in 1991. It sneaked in for a one-week stay at No. 1 between the two longest-running No. 1 songs of the year, “Rush Rush” (five weeks) and “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You” (seven weeks). Those two tracks were staples at Bar Mitzvahs and junior high dances. “Unbelievable” was like a little middle finger between the two.

Does it hold up? As a nostalgic reference for marketing purposes, it holds up extremely well, apparently. But that doesn’t mean anyone is listening to this track end-to-end.

Dopeness: 3 out of 5 Birkenstocks


1 week at No. 1, starting July 20, 1991
Preceded by: “Rush Rush,” Paula Abdul
Followed by: “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You,” Bryan Adams

’90s No. 1s Revisited is a regular feature on “Was It Dope?” where we walk through every No. 1 song of the 1990s on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in order, give it another listen, and answer two critical questions: Was it dope? And does it hold up?

  • John

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