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The 98 Best Songs of 1998: Pop’s Weirdest Year

In 1998, boundaries blew open and new genres were invented each week. We look back at the best, brightest and weirdest from a pivotal year in pop

The Top 98 Songs Of 1998: The Weirdest Pop Year Ever

Rob Sheffield counts down the greatest songs of 1998, pop's weirdest year – from Foo Fighters to Fatboy Slim.

The year 1998 had some great ideas our culture gave up on too soon: Internet cafes, travel agencies, Jennifer Love Hewitt’s singing career. Plus questionable ideas, like Canadians rapping about Chickity China the Chinese Chicken. But most of all, it was a year full of music. Every genre was booming – rap, modern rock, electronica, R&B divas, Britpop poseurs, indie slop, trip-hop, coffee-house techno, wherever the hell you’d file “The Rockafeller Skank.” The music world kept changing so fast, songs could explode out of nowhere to become huge hits, in a way that was unthinkable just a couple of years later. Fans bought CDs (with money!) at a record-breaking rate. One-hit wonders flourished. Legendary veterans changed their games. Beyoncé was just the second girl from the left in a new group called Destiny’s Child. The sky was the limit, right before Napster arrived and the boom went bust.

So let’s break it down: the 98 greatest songs of 1998, 20 years later. The hits, the flops, the total obscurities, the cult classics. The guitar monsters, the rap bangers, the rump shakers, the soul jams. A personal, opinionated, subjective, irresponsible and indefensible celebration of the weirdest pop year ever. Some of these songs came from all-time classic artists, others from brazen one-shots; some were so bizarre or obscure that airplay was out of the question. But they all sum up the anything-goes spirit of 1998, a moment when stylistic boundaries blew wide open. These songs helped invent the future we’re living in today.

It was a time of historic transformations. Nobody knew teen-pop and nu-metal and MP3s and Google were right around the corner. Sinatra and Seinfeld signed off the same night. MTV debuted Total Request Live. George Michael came out. Kurt, Biggie and Tupac were dead, yet their legacies helped inspire a creative boom for both rappers and rockers. The New Radicals showed up sounding just like Hall & Oates. Hall & Oates came back sounding just like Hall & Oates. (And damn straight, both made this list.) New genres got invented every week, which was how long most of them lasted. But these faves are just the tip of the iceberg – the full list could stretch into quadruple digits easily. As for what counts as a 1998 song, there’s a lot of grey area – if a song made its impact in 1998, it’s fair game even if it had an official 1997 release date. On the other hand, many greats technically came out in late 1998, but didn’t made their real impact until later. (Just to pick the most obvious example, Britney’s “Baby One More Time” appeared at the end of the year, but it spiritually belongs to 1999, when it changed the world.)

Stakes were high, for the simple reason that we all loved music so fiercely. Fans went to the record store, chose CDs off the racks, took them home, cranked them all night. We had no trouble finding songs to love, to argue about, to put on mixtapes and pass around. You can hear that excitement right in the music, which is why all 98 of these songs still sound so brilliant today. So let’s celebrate the best of 1998. As Garbage sang that summer: Push it. Make the beats go harder.

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98

The Foo Fighters, “Walking After You”

A lost Dave Grohl classic – “Walking After You” should not be confused with “Walk,” not to be confused with “Run,” not to be confused with “Learn to Fly.” After an early attempt on the second Foo Fighters album, Grohl revived this acoustic ballad with the full-band treatment it deserved, making it a hit on the soundtrack of the movie version of The X-Files. That guitar lick hung around the radio all summer long, paranoid enough to spook the Cigarette Smoking Man. “Walking After You” could be his tortured farewell to grunge, to Kurt, maybe to his carefree younger self. Grohl didn’t exactly sound like a model of mental health – but that’s
part of why it feels like a proper place to begin this ride through one crazed
year.

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97

Mase feat. Total, “What You Want”

Nobody was mad at Mase in 1998 – anyone know if he ever got to see his name on a blimp? The Harlem World MC represented Puff Daddy’s Bad Boy empire all over the radio with his proto-mumble flow and tube socks. The R&B girl group Total makes “What You Want” a seductive duet, cooing their promises of infinite mutual satisfaction while Mase plays a surprisingly non-corny love man (“Total it all up and put it on my tab/And then tell your friends all the fun you had”) over that Curtis Mayfield gutbucket guitar sample. Mase soon retired to become a preacher, but returned to rhyme with 50 Cent and Kanye.

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96

Semisonic, “Closing Time”

Because closing time isn’t already depressing enough, Semisonic came up with a last-call ballad for the ages. Dan Wilson sings “You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here” for tipsy twentysomething barflies overfeeling the concept of leaving alone. Drummer Jacob Slichter wrote a very funny memoir (So You Wanna Be A Rock & Roll Star) about what it’s like to be in one-hit band like Semisonic; in the first scene, he gets mobbed by fans asking if he’s the drummer for Everclear. “Closing Time” took on a whole new life as a rom-com soundtrack staple – best of all in Friends With Benefits, where Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis argue in bed about whether it’s by Third Eye Blind.

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95

Iggy Pop and Françoise Hardy, “I’ll Be Seeing You”

This 1930s café ballad became a theme for lovers separated by WWII, and it has inspired countless renditions, from Frank Sinatra to Rod Stewart to Queen Latifah. But nobody brought out the flint-hearted regret in “I’ll Be Seeing You” like this groovy couple: Punk madman Iggy teams up with French chanteuse Françoise Hardy, from the excellent compilation Jazz A Saint Germain. His voice is charcoal-filtered bourbon in a dirty glass; hers is Veuve Cliquot. Together they turn “I’ll Be Seeing You” into a farewell air-kiss between two reprobates, especially when Iggy goes into bel canto mode to croon, “I’ll be looking at the moon, but I’ll be seeing you.”

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94

Foxy Brown, “Hot Spot”

“Everybody has their gimmick,” Foxy explained to Rolling Stone in 1998. “Lauryn is very positive. Missy and Da Brat are sorta fun and hardcore. Then you have Foxy, who is, like, sex.” The Brooklyn rapper stays very on brand in “Hot Spot,” balling at the club with her girls – like she said, “Every woman has a Foxy Brown in her.” Best line: “MCs wanna eat me but it’s Ramadan.”

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93

The Donnas, “Rock & Roll Machine”

In Rock & Roll High School, P.J. Soles yearns to be the sister in the Ramones family. The Donnas clearly shared the same fantasy – Donna A., Donna C., Donna R. and Donna F. were a garage band of four California mallrat commandos out for blood and danger, with each song a chapter in the blitzkrieg-bopping life of an American teenage rock & roll machine. The Donnas played the prom in the classic high-school sex-and-murder flick Jawbreaker with Rose McGowan, bashing this out as their bad-girl manifesto.

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92

Spoon, “Metal Detektor”

Britt Daniel was just getting started, yet already an out-of-place rock auteur for his times: cool-headed, confident, almost offensively angst-free, industrious, crafting tunes with a minimum of pomp or neurosis, just getting shit done and doing it clean. No wonder Nineties listeners had a tough time appreciating this guy. (He didn’t even have the decency to look like he just rolled out of bed.) A Series of Sneaks should have been Spoon’s big coming-out party, after some promising indie juvenilia; instead it got squashed in the major-label machine and went unheard. Everything that would make Spoon essential was already there in the jittery guitars of “Metal Detektor.” It just took the world a minute to catch up.

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91

The Spice Girls, “Stop”

Sporty (a.k.a. The One Who Could Actually Kinda Hella Sing Spice) carries a fab blast of London faux-Motown in the tradition of Culture Club, Wham! or Bananarama. “Stop” comes from their 1998 cinematic epic Spice World, the ultimate fin de siecle time capsule – especially the scene where Ginger Spice demonstrates she’s a master of disguise by ducking into a phone booth, then emerging as Bob Hoskins to say, “Girl power! Equalization between the sexes!” Make it last forever: Friendship never ends.

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90

Korea Girl, “Under the Sun”

The year’s best Pavement song, even if Pavement didn’t write it and probably never heard it. Every town in America had bands like this in those days – kids who heard a piece of their soul in the summer-dazed guitars of Pavement (or Velocity Girl or Bettie Serveert or the Spinanes or countless other semi-famous bands) and hollered back, not to get rich or popular or even heard, just to get their feelings down on aluminum for a few minutes. Korea Girl’s Elizabeth Yi was reporting from San Jose, though nobody listening then would have known the details because the Internet barely existed – just fragile little discs and tapes that maybe somehow found their way to your ears and told you a story worth remembering.

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89

Willie Nelson, “Darkness on the Face of the Earth”

A step ahead of the pack as always, Willie celebrated his 65th birthday by going somewhere new – Teatro was his collabo with Daniel Lanois, recorded in an old movie theater refurbished with booths from the Mexican cafe across the street for that border cantina feel. It’s his answer to Dylan’s Time Out of Mind. “Darkness on the Face of the Earth” is an apocalyptic lament he first recorded back in 1962 – Willie sings it here with an ancient outlaw’s stoic calm, as Emmylou Harris chimes in over the doomy drums.

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88

Next, “Too Close”

Boners! They happen! “Too Close” is an R&B grind about a couple sharing a romantic slow dance, until a moment of indiscreet tumescence gets in the way. The boys sing, “Us dancing so close ain’t a good idea.” The girls sing, “Step back, you’re dancing kinda close/I feel a little poke coming through on you.” It all sounded so innocent on the surface that most listeners never noticed – “Too Close” became the year’s biggest radio hit despite the boner content. The most explicit testicular realness on the radio until Lil Jon came along to rap about ball sweat in “Get Low.”

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87

The Drive-By Truckers, “The Living Bubba”

“I can dance on my own grave, thank you” – words to live by. The Truckers were still figuring it out on their debut Gangstabilly, scuffing up a post-Skynyrd Southern-rock style so out of fashion it initially got them mistaken for a comedy band. Yet “The Living Bubba” is dead serious, with Patterson Hood singing the bar-band blues in his raw Alabama yowl: “I keep living just to bend that note in two/And I can’t die now because I got another show to do.”

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86

Saint Etienne, “Lose That Girl”

The cerebral U.K. boy/girl/boy trio dropped their strongest album in 1998, Good Humor, mixing slinky Europop and Steely Dan–like smoothitude with Sarah Cracknell’s chirp. In “Lose That Girl,” which should have been a hit everywhere (but wasn’t anywhere), Cracknell urges you to ditch a possessive groupie who turns down the disco on your radio. Among her other crimes: “She thought she’d look good in purple jeans.” Neat harpsichord-and-cowbell hook, too. Saint Etienne remain on top of their game, as in their 2017 album Home Counties.

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85

True Love Always, “Spring Collection”

Left-field indie-pop feelings-core from Virginia, with the guitar jangle chasing down some elusive chords in search of romance – there’s a bit of João Gilberto’s bossa nova, a bit of Burt Bacharach, a bit of Smokey Robinson. Plus the hook “I want to write a cookbook about you.” The essence of springtime crushdom.

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84

Maxwell, “Everwanting: To Want You to Want”

Only a sex mystic like Maxwell could do a seven-minute slo-mo funk jam based on the premise that Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” and Soul II Soul’s “Back To Life” were secretly the same song. (Maxwell did an acoustic “Closer” on his MTV Unplugged special – “I wanna love you like an animal” – so don’t put anything past him.) His definitive second album Embrya is full of inviting titles like “Submerge: Til We Become the Sun,” “Drowndeep: Hula” and “Gestation: Mythos.” In “Everwanting: To Want You to Want,” he builds an arty trance Marvin Gaye could have called his own. Maxwell has kept this spirit alive ever since – as in his great 2016 single “1990x.”

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83

Mono, “Life in Mono”

A doomy torch song cascading on harpsichords and weepy strings, as Siobhan De Mare confesses her erotic despair, whispering, “I just don’t know what to do, ingenue.” “Life in Mono” was a very 1998 hit in that nobody could really figure out where to file it: Was this a pop tune? Trip-hop? Modern rock? Adult contemporary? But “Life in Mono” took off when it found the right home on the soundtrack of Alfonso Cuarón’s Great Expectations, as Ethan Hawke made lovesick eyes at Gwyneth Paltrow. Mono gave a memorable performance of it on VH1’s The RuPaul Show, because every era gets the RuPaul it deserves.

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82

Black Box Recorder, “It’s Only the End of the World”

A mega-creepy Britpop ballad for the imminent Y2K crisis that people were dreading in a half-ironic way – “pre-millennial tension,” as Tricky called it. Sarah Nixey croons over a lush backdrop that could be a vintage James Bond theme, with the Auteurs’ none-more-sarcastic Luke Haines behind her. Except she’s kissing off her latest flame along with the planet: “The ground is still spinning, but it’s slowing down/It’s only the end of the world.”

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81

The Rondelles, “Safety in Numbers”

What a golden age for screamy grrrl-punk – in this case, from a band of young bad-ass Albuquerque-via-D.C. femmes (and their token boy drummer). Their “Safety in Numbers” seven-inch is a hilarious blast of manic guitar and handclaps and jump-rope chants, as the Rondelles froth at the mouth about rage, jealousy, shameless rock & roll misandry and wiping out your enemies.