TLC’s 20 greatest songs - ranked!

Confident, unpredictable and irresistible, TLC set a benchmark in a golden age for R&B. Thirty years since the release of their debut album, we count down T-Boz, Chilli and the late Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes’s best tracks

20. Somethin’ You Wanna Know (1992)

Far sassier than your standard early 90s slow jam, blessed with a laconic Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes rap: let rumour-mongers and spreaders of “crap street yap” beware! Somethin’ You Wanna Know is the sound of a band already far more sophisticated than their cartoonish early image suggested.

19. Get It Up (1993)

A track that’s aged noticeably better than Poetic Justice, the Tupac/Janet Jackson movie it soundtracked, Get It Up brilliantly slows down the synth riff from the Time’s 1981 Prince-produced version, turning it into a sleazy electronic buzz. TLC, meanwhile, sound as if they’re having a hoot with its party-starting lyrics.

18. This Is How It Works (1995)

Also from a movie soundtrack – this time Waiting to Exhale – This Is How It Works is TLC at their most lubricious: a demand for men to “take time out your fantasies” and consider instead what the lady might enjoy that ends with Left Eye giving detailed instructions on the matter. Distinct hint of G-funk about Babyface’s production.

17. Silly Ho (1999)

TLC, pictured in 1999. Photograph: Ron Davis/Getty Images

A perfect example of late 90s R&B pushing at sonic boundaries, with producer Dallas Austin possibly operating under the influence of Timbaland. The beat stammers, the backing track is made out of buzzes, metallic clanks and whoops, and the hook hammers itself into your brain while the lyrics preach total female independence.

16. Dirty Dirty (2002)

Patched together from unreleased Left Eye solo tracks after her death, 2002’s 3D was – by TLC’s standards – a relative flop. That doesn’t mean there’s not great stuff there: the frantic Dirty Dirty’s Timbaland-produced, Missy Elliot-featuring, Kool and the Gang-quoting mayhem being an utterly thrilling case in point.

15. Switch (1994)

Switch demonstrates what a leap forward CrazySexyCool was from TLC’s debut. From its buoyant-but-subtle use of a guitar sample from Jean Knight’s Mr Big Stuff to the understated vocals, to the chunk of Rapper’s Delight Left Eye coolly swipes during her verse, it just sounds supremely confident: a band who know they’re hitting their stride.

14. Hat 2 Da Back (1992)

Videos saturated in neon and primary colours; the gimmick of attaching condoms to your sunglasses: you can see why people thought TLC initially dealt in “kiddie-cute hip-hop”. But that undersells how good their debut album frequently was: the single remix of Hat 2 Da Back is raw and writhingly funky.

13. Sumthin’ Wicked This Way Comes (1994)

Produced by Organized Noize – and featuring a fantastic guest appearance from OutKast’s André 3000 – CrazySexyCool’s darkest moment broods both on the state of the world and personal issues: having pleaded guilty to arson, Left Eye was in rehab for most of the album sessions. Grinding distorted guitar deep in the mix underscores the mood.

12. Girl Talk (2003)

Girl Talk features the most arresting opening line in TLC’s catalogue – “You see, I had this brother who was mad at me / Cos I told my homegirl that he wasn’t packin’” – as well as the equally great diss “thinkin’ you got powers like Austin but you’re more like Mini-Me”. If the sound is indebted to Destiny’s Child, the insistent catchy chorus makes up for it.

11. What About Your Friends (1992)

What About Your Friends is the early TLC at their most poppy: it’s just a great song, powered by an immense breakbeat (made by combining samples from James Brown and Sly & the Family Stone’s Sing a Simple Song). Its remix, meanwhile, introduced the world to TLC’s fellow Atlanta natives OutKast.

10. Red Light Special (1994)

“It’s kinda rock’n’roll,” offered T-Boz about Red Light Special, which perhaps tells you more about the preponderance of guitar solos on it – and the raunchiness of the accompanying video – than the song itself: an ultra-classy, beautifully written slow jam that very nearly topped the US chart.

9. Damaged (2003)

The killer track from the uneven post-Left Eye album 3D reunited T-Boz and Chilli with Austin, the producer they worked with on their debut album. An acoustic guitar driven ballad that prickles with distrust and paranoia, plus a hint of the Stylistics in its flickers of electric sitar, it should have been a huge hit.

8. Baby-Baby-Baby (1992)

Kept off the top of the US charts by Boyz II Men’s End of the Road – ironically the handiwork of the same producers Babyface, LA Reid and Daryll Simmons – Baby-Baby-Baby is quintessential early 90s pop-R&B. If you’re in search of something tougher, the beat-heavy Left Eye-featuring Remix Rap version is for you.

7. Diggin’ on You (1994)

A perfect pop ballad and a perfect lazy summer anthem, Diggin’ on You hits a perfect sweet spot between smoothness – the melody is beautifully turned, T-Boz and Chilli’s vocals creamy – and something tougher, provided by the snapping rhythm track, punchily loud in the mix.

6. I’m Good at Being Bad (1999)

Apparently inspired by Nirvana’s use of dynamics (T-Boz was a fan), I’m Good at Being Bad keeps wrongfooting the listener, slipping from a radio friendly MOR ballad to tough hip-hop and back again, throwing in snatches of Donna Summer’s Love to Love You Baby and what sounds like a melodic echo of TLC’s own Waterfalls along the way.

5. Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg (1992)

Improbably, the influence of production team the Bomb Squad lurks around TLC’s debut single. The verses and intro are tricked out with bursts of atonal noise that could have stepped off a Public Enemy album, before the whole thing resolves into a sweet pop chorus: an arresting way to introduce yourself.

4. No Scrubs (1999)

Whether you take the lyrics as a sisterly broadside against deadbeat men or – less loveably – a latterday show-me-the-money equivalent of Gwen Guthrie’s Ain’t Nothin’ Goin’ on But the Rent, No Scrubs is a completely undeniable single: every melody feels like a hook, the whole thing works to perfection.

3. Creep (1994)

Left Eye apparently didn’t want Creep released, feeling its lyrics about countering a boyfriend’s cheating with some of your own were too passive: “[Creeping] is ripping families apart / The leading cause of a broken heart,” she snaps on the remix, at odds with the song’s message. Luckily, she relented: a fabulous song, beautifully produced and sung, Creep is one of 90s R&B’s crowning glories.

2. Unpretty (1999)

For a 23-year-old song, Unpretty feels weirdly current: its messages about beauty standards, self-image and mental health – inspired by T-Boz’s brush with sickle-cell anaemia – are far more common in pop today than they were in 1999. Moreover, it coats them in the loveliest tune that TLC ever recorded.

1. Waterfalls (1994)

To be honest, there is barely a cigarette paper between the top four songs on this list in terms of quality, but let’s plump for Waterfalls, not merely because it’s a brilliant song, or because Organized Noize’s production doesn’t feel like it’s dated at all in the decades since it was released, but because it was a genuinely bold single to release. Behind the nailed-on chorus lurk stark lyrics about murder and Aids that effectively make Waterfalls a protest song, including a bleak, personal rap by Left Eye about missed chances: “Dreams are hopeless aspirations in hopes of coming true.”


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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