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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.

Best songs of 1998 watch read listen

Neutral Milk Hotel, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”

Jeff Mangum’s opus was divisive at the time – people loved to argue whether it was pure poetic folk beauty or a gratingly precious outburst of quavery goat-croak. (And that was before anybody suspected it was meant as a concept album about the Holocaust.) Yet its legend has just grown over the years, as it’s become one of the Nineties’ most-loved albums. Especially the title track, a waltz for two lovers in no hurry for the world to
end: “But for now we are young, let us lie in the sun and count every beautiful thing we can see.”

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Pras Michel feat. Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Mya, “Ghetto Supastar”

The third-famous-est Fugee finally breaks out on his own with a freaking Kenny Rogers/Dolly Parton tribute – Mya sings “Ghetto supastar, that is what you are” to the tune of “Islands in the Stream.” Mya makes a damn fine Dolly (“And then we lie on each other, aah-haaaa”), before the track shuts down to make room for a deranged rant from the Big Baby Jesus of Cool himself, Osiris a.k.a. Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Just a few months after his legendary stage invasion at the Grammys, ODB declares, “I’m hanging out, partying with girls that never die.” The Bee Gees, who wrote “Islands in the Stream,” showed they were good sports about the whole thing by doing a 2001 trip-hop remake where they sing “Ghetto Supastar” – it turned out to be their final recording session. Taylor Swift, a big Mya fan, covered it in 2011 as a tribute. R.I.P. ODB – now more than
ever, Wu-Tang is for the children.

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Imperial Teen, “Yoo Hoo”

Queer punk rebel pioneers from the Bay Area, at a time when mainstream rock was doing a laughably bad job of hiding its queer punk heart. Imperial Teen rode proud with cheeky guitars, boy-girl vocals and Will Schwartz’s ear for heavy-breathing hooks like “Lipstick” and “Butch.” “Yoo Hoo,” from their flawless What Is Not to Love, wound up in Jawbreaker, one of the great teen soundtracks of the post-Clueless era; it’s the riff playing when Rose McGowan snarls, “You are gonna walk into that school and strut your shit down the hallway like everything is peachy fucking keen. Get it?” Imperial Teen kept up the fight, sounding fly as ever on their 2012 Feel the Sound. Ever since the days when the average person’s sex life was totally dependent on answering machines, there’s been something chillingly relatable about the way Schwartz moans, “Come on, pick it up, I know you’re there!”

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Destiny’s Child, “No, No, No (Pt. 2)”

Imagine – the first time the world ever got to hear the magic voices of LeToya and LeTavia! OK, so even at the start, one member of this girl group was slightly more equal than the others. “No, No, No” was the first Destiny’s Child hit, breaking at Top 40 radio when they were still packaged as Wyclef’s latest protegées. In the immortal words of Ed McMahon on Star Search, “Your challengers are a young group from Houston.” Hearing it now means going back in time to a moment when this was the only Beyoncé song any of us had heard – but it was already obvious she had hot sauce in her bag, and “No, No, No” hit Number Three on the pop charts. She woke up like this.

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Boards of Canada, “An Eagle in Your Mind”

The Scottish electronic duo of Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin arrived out of the blue – two rural brothers graduating from homemade tapes to their hugely influential debut album Music Has the Right to Children, on the U.K.’s Warp label. It’s a post-Aphex ambient swirl of distressed digital and analog sound-smudges – “dirty music,” they called it. “An Eagle in Your Mind” unfolds over intricately textured percussion – Sandison’s girlfriend’s voice, mutated in the studio – and a voice-over from a documentary about the family life of otters.

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Sparklehorse, “Sunshine”

Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous hailed from the pastoral hills of Bremo Bluff, Virginia, where he had the elbow room to let his imagination ramble, writing and producing home-studio reveries full of ornate psychedelic-folk splendor. His voice and guitar were full of Appalachian coal-miner country, as you can hear all over gems like 1995’s Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot and 1998’s Good Morning Spider. In “Sunshine,” his greatest song, there’s a weird gentleness in his voice as he whispers, “When the moon explodes or floats away/I’ll lose the souvenirs I’ve made.” Songs like “Sunshine” were those souvenirs, marking a tragically brief life that nonetheless made the world a more beautiful place.

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Wyclef Jean, “Gone Til November”

The Fugees’ mastermind does a Caribbean hip-hop folk ballad, strung out on guitar and fiddle. Clef ponders the eternal divide between love and money, singing in the voice of an outlaw who leaves his girl stranded when he doesn’t make it back alive: “If my corpse could talk then I would tell you I was sorry.” “Gone Til November” seemed like an instant standard at the time, so it’s surprising how it’s turned into a relatively deep cut, but it still stings the heart. Best moment in the video: Wyclef strums his guitar at the airport, singing, “I’m knocking on heaven’s door like I’m Bob Dylan.” The camera pulls back: Dylan is right there next to him, nodding along sadly at the song of a kindred spirit. Then he’s gone.

Best songs of 1998 watch read listen

Robert Pollard, “Subspace Biographies”

The Guided by Voices jester remains maddeningly prolific – he recently released his hundredth album – but “Subspace Biographies” has to be one of his top tunes ever. It’s the centerpiece of his solo album Waved Out: three boozy minutes of fractured classicist U.K. mod pop, via the bars and bowling alleys of Dayton, Ohio. It explodes into a frantic Ramones-worthy guitar rave with the chant, “I am quail and quasar/I pick you up on radar.”

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The Verve, “Bitter Sweet Symphony”

The Verve’s Richard Ashcroft was born to be a rock star: 40 percent lips, 40 percent cheekbones, 20 percent shades, until he opened his mouth and became 100 per cent poetic pretensions. In the great tradition of English bands, the Verve hated each other so much they broke up every time they made an album. “Bitter Sweet Symphony” is Mad Richard at his most shamanic, a six-minute rant where he warns, “I’m a million different people from one day to the next,” plus a video where he struts down the street knocking everyone else aside. “Bitter Sweet Symphony” sampled an orchestral remake of the Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time,”
a song the Stones signed over to infamous ex-manager Allen Klein when they were under his thumb. To nobody’s surprise except the Verve’s, Klein sued; they lost the rights to their biggest hit. (That’s why it’s officially credited to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, even though it sounds nothing like the Stones’ version of a gospel standard they had no business claiming as an original in the first place.) “Bitter Sweet Symphony” was the Verve’s triumph, making them international stars. Needless to say, they immediately broke up.

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R.E.M., “At My Most Beautiful”

R.E.M. pay their respects to Brian Wilson in this Pet Sounds–style piano ballad, the most unironic, untortured, unashamed love song they’d ever done. Michael Stipe lingers awake at night to count his sleeping bedmate’s eyelashes, reading bad poetry into his lover’s answering machine (a very 1998 thing to do), while Mike Mills holds court at the piano. It was a highlight of Up, R.E.M.’s fifth straight masterwork of the Nineties – one of the greatest decades any band’s ever had. (Their next one, 2001’s Reveal, was on the same level.) “At My Most Beautiful” also sounded great on the soundtrack of the Drew Barrymore flick Never Been Kissed.

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Placebo, “Pure Morning”

Pansexual Britpop goth-glam pin-up boy Brian Molko shares his wish list for his social life: “A friend in need’s a friend indeed/A friend with weed is better/A friend with breasts and all the rest/A friend who’s dressed in leather.” Molko chews through his rhyming dictionary over that mind-numbingly heavy one-chord guitar drone, evoking the kind of “Pure Morning” where two lovers rub their eyes after emerging from a week-long sex coma. He even tempted David Bowie to come out and play – he joined them onstage to sing T. Rex’s “20th Century Boy” at the Brit Awards, recognizing Placebo as queen bitches after his own heart.

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Divine, “Lately”

In a fantastic year for R&B slow jams, this girl-group heartbreak ballad really stood out. (The trio Divine was no relation to the one who starred in all those John Waters movies.) A staple of BET’s Midnight Love, “Lately” breezed in out of nowhere, but muscled its way to Number One on the pop charts just because there was no denying these pleading voices, especially at the Toni Braxton–esque payoff line: “I drown myself with tears, sitting here, singing ‘Another Sad Love Song.'” This song is inexplicably underrated these days, but that just means it’s ripe for rediscovery. Divine’s only other hit was a cover of George Michael’s “One More Try.”

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Robbie Williams, “Strong”

English pop smoothie Robbie Williams escapes the boy band Take That, parties hard in posh hotels, hangs out with Oasis, strums his guitar and croons about the high price of his misspent youth: “Early morning when I wake up/I look like Kiss but without the makeup.” The U.K. smash “Strong” was a highlight of his American debut The Ego Has Landed. After I raved about the album in Rolling Stone, I awoke one morning to find a bouquet on my doorstep, with a note from the artist: “Thank you for knowing.” To this day, Robbie Williams remains the only pop star who’s ever sent me flowers.

Best songs of 1998 watch read listen

Black Star, “Definition”

The Rawkus Records crew founded a new school of underground Brooklyn hip-hop, living up to Black Star’s promise to “keep it blacker than the back of your neck.” They picked up where the Native Tongues posse left off – De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Jungle Brothers – a Rolie-free zone of tribe vibes and consciously militant politics. Mos Def and Talib Kweli formed the duo Black Star, denouncing the violence and materialism in hip-hop, taking their name from Marcus Garvey, dismissing playas like Puffy as “Spice Girl MCs.” In “Definition,” they react to the murders of Biggie and Tupac, but set their sights higher – as Mos says, they specialize in “accurate assassin shit/Me and Kweli close like Bethlehem and Nazareth.” Their oft-promised second album remains one of rap’s most long-awaited sequels ever.

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Ivy, “I’ve Got a Feeling”

L’amour, c’est bleu. A bittersweet guitar-chime gem from one of the decade’s great lost pop records, Ivy’s Apartment Life, whose mood is captured by the cover photo of a mod French girl putting on her makeup – glossy yet introspective. The dream-team trio features Adam Schlesinger (moonlighting from Fountains of Wayne), Andy Chase and chanteuse Dominique Durand, whose Parisienne accent adds that touch of tres tragique to their young-adult romantic malaise. “I’ve Got a Feeling” made a memorable appearance in the first episode of Felicity, but a melody this great would make an impression anywhere. If you’re living your life without this song, you’re blowing it big-time.

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Pulp, “Help the Aged”

Brit sex god Jarvis Cocker turns 33, and no, he doesn’t handle it well. Nor is it his style to suffer in dignified silence. “Help the Aged,” the long-awaited comeback single from Pulp after they went supernova with Different Class, was the last thing fans expected – a sparkly little panic attack of a ballad. It’s the badly disguised confession of a poseur who achieved his lifelong dream of stardom, but still lives in terror of facing up to adulthood. Jarvis sings every line in a voice dripping with erotically charged ennui. Despite his fears, maturity didn’t destroy him; in fact, he turned out to be an impeccable model of how a rock star can age gracefully, which makes “Help the Aged” even more touching in retrospect, not to mention funnier. Stay handsome, Jarvis.

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Monica, “The First Night”

Although dueling teen divas Monica and Brandy spent the summer at Number One with their claws-out duet “The Boy Is Mine,” they scored much livelier hits on their own. In “The First Night,” Atlanta girl Monica dishes about her sexual prerogatives – “I wanna get down, but not the first night” – over a filthy disco bass thump sampled from Diana Ross’ “Love Hangover,” via her producer Jermaine Dupri. It wasn’t the easiest year to be a one-named celebrity called “Monica” – the headlines were full of a certain stained blue dress – but she rode “The First Night” to Number One for five weeks. Monica went on to star in the BET reality show Monica: Still Standing and married NBA star Shannon Brown.

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Silver Jews, “The Wild Kindness”

“I’m perfect in an empty room,” indeed. Even longtime Silver Jews fans got our juleps spilled by the greatness of American Water – David Berman’s ultimate testament as a poet, crooner and prankster, the kind of genius that could only flourish in bourbon-drenched slack-ass Southern boho towns. Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus plays the madcap sidekick on guitar and back-up vocals, the Ghostface to Berman’s Raekwon. It’s torture to pick just one highlight from such a flawless album – the universally beloved saloon ballad “Random Rules?” The ramshackle Al Green/Willie Mitchell jam “Blue Arrangements”? The stupidly titled “Like like the the the
Death”? But “The Wild Kindness” makes a fittingly ceremonious finale, as Berman gets somber in his Leonard Cohen mode (“It is autumn and my camouflage is dying”) and Malkmus plays that bottomlessly sad guitar solo.

Best songs of 1998 watch read listen

Massive Attack, “Angel”

The Bristol crew that invented trip-hop – Daddy 3, Mushroom and 3-D – got even heavier on Mezzanine. While everybody else was still racing to catch up with what Massive Attack were doing in 1994 on Protection, these guys swerved into the unknown – anyone who could turn the Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser into a soul singer (as in “Teardrop”) was definitely on some new shit. “Angel” remains their most enormous track ever, a six-minute descent into the abyss, with reggae stalwart Horace Andy pleading for mercy over ominous bass, an “Apache” beat that rumbles like John Bonham getting crushed under broken levees, cinematic strings and blasts of Hendrix-gone-Kingston guitar.

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Prince and the New Power Generation, “Mad Sex”

Prince was in semi-retreat in the late 1990s, hiding behind the identity of his back-up band, the New Power Generation – yet still sounding unmistakably like himself. “Mad Sex” is a hidden jewel from the totally slept-on NPG album Newpower Soul; Prince vamps with jazz piano and trumpet while he chases a wet-lipped London party girl, as they dirty up another room. “Mad Sex” comes on like an updated “Lady Cab Driver” with the Purple One’s take on Nineties fashion: “Do it till your tattoo’s dizzy/And the stud in your mouth turns gold/Till the animal prints you flaunt so lovely/Is full of little bloody holes.”

Best songs of 1998 watch read listen

Air, “Sexy Boy”

Nobody captured the sound of posh melancholy quite like the two sad-eyed Versailles gentlemen who called themselves Air. “Sexy Boy,” from their debut Moon Safari, mixes up louche French techno, Sixties easy-listening fromage, Fender Rhodes solos, gurgling girlie vocals – “oooh, sexy booooy” is pretty much all the lyrics anyone could need – with a morose ache in the melody. Makeout music for vinyl collectors, and the 1998 song you were absolutely guaranteed to hear if you went shopping for shoes.

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Lucinda Williams, “Metal Firecracker”

Car Wheels on a Gravel Road was one of the decade’s most acclaimed singer-songwriter statements, with Lucinda Williams stretching out for country-rock tales that brought out all the despondent twang in her Arkansas-traveler voice. “Metal Firecracker” is a farewell to a lover, remembering how they used to drive around and dream, with the chorus, “Don’t tell anybody the secrets I told you.” No other singer on earth could make the line “We’d put on ZZ Top and play ’em real loud” hurt so bad.

Best songs of 1998 watch read listen

Elliott Smith, “Bled White”

Smith never sounded so beautifully fragile as on “Bled White,” overdubbing his breathy harmonies over the urgent acoustic guitar, turning himself into a full-blown rock & roll band. He sings about sinking deeper into addiction, yet you can hear him fighting to escape the downward pull, even if the closest he comes is “I’m not fucked/Not quite.” “Bled White” seemed to promise that Smith was going to stick around and remain part of our lives for years to come – although thanks to songs like this, he always will.

Best songs of 1998 watch read listen

Jermaine Dupri feat. Jay-Z, “Money Ain’t a Thang”

Slacking on your pimping? Turn it up! Atlanta kingpin Jermaine Dupri went for producer-as-auteur status, six years after giving the world Kris Kross, with his debut solo album Life in 1472. “Money Ain’t a Thing” jumps with Seventies trumpet fanfares and Jay-Z in the double-R to boast, “I been spending hundreds since they had small faces.” (Applause for the timely 1990s currency gag – Ben Franklin’s face was a lot tinier on the bills circa Reasonable Doubt.) When Dupri says, “I don’t like it if it don’t gleam-gleam,” he could be describing his production style. The peak moment is also the corniest pun, when Jay-Z meets a new acquaintance: “She said she loved my necklace, started relaxing/Now that’s what the fuck I call a chain reaction.”

Best songs of 1998 watch read listen

Garbage, “Push It”

Shirley Manson, avenging glam-punk queen with mane of crimson and shiny boots of leather, gives the command: “Push it! Make the beats go harder!” The boys in the band oblige, with Butch Vig at the controls. “Push It” perfected the Garbage school of sleek screech, fusing guitars and electronics for pop kicks while everybody else was trying to make it sound like earnest work. Like the rest of Version 2.0, it’s Shirley on fire with empathy for her fellow troubled girls – like she says, this is the noise that keeps her awake.

Best songs of 1998 watch read listen

Beastie Boys, “Intergalactic”

Ad-Rock, Mike D and the late great Adam Yauch at their Hello Nasty peak, with a planet-rocking vocoder that hits like a pinch on the neck from Mr. Spock. The Beasties were on a roll with their label and zine Grand Royal, the Tibetan Freedom Festival and Hello Nasty, their biggest album since Licensed to Ill (and best since Paul’s Boutique). After all those years growing up together, the Beasties had matured into three very different weirdos who still lit each other up. That’s why they represented the Nineties’ worthiest ideals – creative independence, musical curiosity, feminism, activism, checking your head, doing the wop. In “Intergalactic,” they beam in from another dimension to commune with the spiritual party people, from Miami to Xenon to 14th Street.

Best songs of 1998 watch read listen

Catatonia, “Road Rage”

The Britpop craze of the Nineties kept turning up weird little delights like Catatonia, a Welsh guitar band that stumbled into the limelight and charmed the pants off the English-speaking world for a couple
of years. (Except, of course, the U.S.A.) Cerys Matthews was a local Cardiff lass with her own Jarvis-style swagger, scandalizing the tabloids with her mad-for-it bawdy wit, hard-partying ways and salty mouth. She throws it all into “Road Rage,” where she rolls the R’s in her thick Welsh accent for a chorus as big as all outdoors (“We all live in the space age/You give me rrroad rrrage”), while zooming past the useless men in her path.

Best songs of 1998 watch read listen

DMX, “Get at Me Dog”

Enter the dog: DMX blew up worldwide with his debut single, showing off his hardcore Ruff Ryder bravado and canine barks. DMX gets into some heavy criminal-minded nihilism (“I got a lot of dreams but I ain’t really chasing mine”) as he threatens anyone who dares to step in his way, all because it’s dark and hell is hot.

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Alanis Morrissette, “Thank U”

Tough call between “Thank U” and her City of Angels soundtrack theme “Uninvited” – but there’s no beating the anthemic greatness of “Thank U,” where Alanis gives thanks to India, Providence, frailty, disillusionment, etc. while learning a bunch of lessons about how to quit being a supposed former infatuation junkie. The line everybody had a blast over-interpreting: “How about them transparent dangling carrots?” Thank U, Alanis.

Best songs of 1998 watch read listen

Mya, “It’s All About Me”

A psychedelic R&B slow jam from Mya, the D.C. ingenue who spent her 19th summer in the Top Ten with her very first single, “It’s All About Me.” Mya sings uncannily like Prince’s feminine alter ego Camille, her voice lost in dubbed-out reverb, with help from Dru Hill’s Sisqo (pre–”Thong Song”) and producer Darryl Pearson, as
she kicks her groovy sexual politics: “Tonight it’s about me, me, me, me, me/Forget about you, you, you, you, you.”

Best songs of 1998 watch read listen

Gang Starr feat. Inspectah Deck, “Above the Clouds”

“Heed the words, it’s like ghetto-style proverbs.” Guru and the Wu-Tang Clan’s Inspectah Deck go off on true mathematics, over DJ Premier’s trippiest production. Guru and Deck roll through Biblical times, ancient Rome, the Crusades, five percenters, spiritual warriors, prophets, reaching through triple darkness to reach their moment of truth in the sky. When Guru says “infinite skills create miracles,” it sounds like he’s describing Premier’s beat. R.I.P., Guru.

Best songs of 1998 watch read listen

Sonic Youth, “Hoarfrost”

Sonic Youth’s best Nineties album, A Thousand Leaves, got totally ignored – partly because they’d outlived the grunge hype cycle, partly because the album was clogged with spoken-word filler. But the six great tracks add up to 46 minutes as powerful as Sister or Daydream Nation, with Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore stretching out on guitar – “Sunday,” “Wildflower Soul,” “Karen Koltrane.” The highlight is Ranaldo’s “Hoarfrost,” a mesmerizingly eerie ballad about a couple walking through the woods, lost in the snow (which is how a sizable percentage of any long-term relationship feels). Where are they heading? She keeps telling him, “We’ll know where when we get there.” The song ends with them still lost, wandering together, but from the sounds of Ranaldo’s guitar, that might be just where “there” is.

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Madonna, “Ray of Light”

Disco transcendence celebrating a gal who saves the world by shaking her hips – maybe a daughter, maybe a mother, maybe herself. “Ray of Light” was Madonna in her new hippie-mom incarnation, letting her hair down with Euro electro-beats and rock guitar – the loosest, warmest, friendliest Madonna yet. It opened the door to future glories like “Beautiful Stranger,” Music and Confessions on a Dance Floor. And she feels, and she feels, and she feels some more.

Best songs of 1998 watch read listen

Cadallaca, “Pocket Games”

Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker slays this riot-grrrl power ballad about an emotional meltdown at the airport, facing up to a goodbye she wasn’t ready to say, with her fellow Portland punk luminary Sarah Dougher on the Farfisa organ. Their album Introducing Cadallaca was a one-off project, yet it sounds like a greatest-hits record. While everybody was still reeling from Sleater-Kinney’s breakthrough albums – Call the Doctor in 1996, Dig Me Out in 1997 – Tucker took her words-and-guitar mojo to a new level wailing, “I feel like I’m a runway on the ground/Like a bird that goes up but won’t be coming down.” What a massive song.

Best songs of 1998 watch read listen

Noreaga, “Superthug”

Is you knowing what you facing? “Superthug” was one of the first Neptunes productions anyone heard, as Pharrell and Chad clobbered unsuspecting audiences over the head with that blinged-out Virginia beat and Kelis’ seductive background coos. Noreaga fires off his “what what what what” chants and boasts about all the messages on his Skytel pager. Best line: “All our whips got navigation/While your whips is just garbation.”

Best songs of 1998 watch read listen

Hole, “Celebrity Skin”

“A walking study in demonology” – well, you can’t say she didn’t warn you. Courtney Love’s comeback was widely expected to flop; as the cover of Rolling Stone warned, “She’s Baaack!” But “Celebrity Skin” was beautiful garbage, a true Hollywood story in the spirit of Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister, David Bowie’s “Cracked Actor” or Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. She and Billy Corgan tussled over who deserved credit for this song, yet it doesn’t sound at all like anything else either one did that year – it goes right for the throat, speeding to the bang-up climax in under three minutes. Courtney yowls about waking up in her make-up just in time for the L.A. nightlife, swinging on the flippity-flop through every party in town, posing with her girlfriends Might Have Been, Never Was and Forgotten.

Best songs of 1998 watch read listen

Lifter Puller, “Nassau Coliseum”

These hard-luck art-punk punters were virtually unknown outside the Twin Cities, leaving great songs like this stranded for future generations to discover. After Lifter Puller broke up in 2000, Craig Finn and Tad Kubler went on to start a far better-known bar band, the Hold Steady. “Nassau Coliseum” is the saga of a run-of-the-mill indie douchebag caught in a Grateful Dead show on Long Island that turns into a cop riot (“They were wasting those longhairs/I just happened to be there”). Finn sounds dazed, drunk, bitter, doomed – but mostly pissed that his girlfriend ran off with some hippie. By the end of the song, you feel like you just watched your whole twenties wash down the drain in six minutes, and what could be more 1998 than that?

Best songs of 1998 watch read listen

Big Pun feat. Joe, “Still Not a Player”

Uptown, baby. The late great Big Punisher drops a utopian celebration of hip-hop’s cross-cultural diversity circa 1998 – hardcore and pop, reggae and quiet storm, Nuyorican and Dirty South, butter pecan and blackberry molasses. The South Bronx’s biggest man teams up with Georgia-born R&B heart-throb crooner Joe to serenade “highly intelligent bachelorettes.” The bittersweet piano hook and the “boricua, morena” sing-along chant have echoed on ever since. Big Pun’s uptown ends up sounding a lot like Prince’s – a place where it’s all about being free.

Best songs of 1998 watch read listen

The New Radicals, “You Get What You Give”

God’s gift to karaoke bars, at least if you’ve got the dreamer’s disease. The New Radicals’ Gregg Alexander clearly revered the noble tradition of one-hit wonders – he even made the rest of his debut album extra terrible, as if to ensure none of the songs could accidentally turn into hits and spoil the pristine “give it to me nooooow!” integrity of this glorious teenage-riot one-shot. Trashing a shopping mall, wearing a bucket hat, talking like Fugazi when you sound like Hall & Oates circa Big Bam Boom, threatening to kick Hanson’s ass, starting your first and last and forever-only hit with the most awesomely pompous “1! 2! 1-2-3-4!” intro in history – that’s how you roll when you’ve got the music in you. Alexander resurfaced as a pro songwriter – he was nominated for an Oscar in 2015 for Begin Again – but there’s no topping “You Get What You Give.”

Best songs of 1998 watch read listen

Jay-Z feat. Amil and Ja Rule, “Can I Get A…”

“Bounce with me, bounce with me,” Jay chants in his glossiest club track, an electro-disco gold-digger symposium with Amil speaking up for the ladies. (Fair question: “You ain’t gotta be rich but fuck that / How we gonna get around on your bus pass?”) “Can I Get A…” was one of those hits that improves in its censored-for-radio edit: the clean version asks “Can I get a whaaa-whaaa” and “Can I get a hoo-hoo,” yet somehow that slams even harder. The Irv Gotti-produced Hard Knock Life highlight introduced Ja Rule and Amil, who made her own kick-ass album with the excellent title All Money Is Legal. (And if you’ve ever wanted to see a young Anne Hathaway thug out, I’m afraid this happened.) Of all the hits from his takeover phase, this was the one that proclaimed Jigga was on top of the world – to stay.

Best songs of 1998 watch read listen

Lauryn Hill, “Lost Ones”

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was one of those albums where the street date turned into a nationwide block party – the week it dropped, wherever you went, L-Boogie was all you heard. (The summer’s other hit in this category: Hello Nasty.) The Fugees star began her solo career with a one-two punch: her fiercest hip-hop battle rhyme in “Lost Ones” and her most soulful balladry in “Ex-Factor.” (Miseducation has to be one of the most front-loaded albums ever.) Part Al Capone, part Nina Simone, Ms. Hill seizes her solo voice, taunting her old bandmates: “You might win some but you just lost one.”

Best songs of 1998 watch read listen

Marilyn Manson, “The Dope Show”

Lucifer’s Teletubby had a breakthrough year: he wrote The Long Hard Road Out of Hell, a classic of rock-star egomania at its funniest, and made the scene with indie-film moll Rose McGowan, who earned a place in red-carpet history with her classic non-outfit at the MTV Video Music Awards. He also came up with his most spectacular hit, “The Dope Show” – it’s basically Bowie fan-fiction, as he blows out the morbid doom-generation stomp of “Fashion” and “Nightclubbing.” Manson zooms into a sex/drugs/celebrity vortex (especially drugs) without pretending he feels guilty about cheapening the integrity he never had. “All the pretty, pretty ones will leave you low and blow your mind” sums up the rock star’s job description if anything does. His next hit: “I Don’t Like The Drugs (But The Drugs Like Me).”

Best songs of 1998 watch read listen

Cat Power, “Metal Heart”

A quiet song that can chill your bones even at low volume. Chan Marshall chronicles a long bleak night of fear, with her doomy Georgia whisper and her spidery guitar. “Metal Heart” is the centerpiece of her fourth and finest album Moon Pix, with the Dirty Three’s rhythm section providing the pulse. She’d always come on as a fragile spirit, in harrowing moments like “Nude as the News” on What Would The Community Think? But in “Metal Heart,” she spends the night scaring her demons away, wailing, “How selfish of you to believe in the meaning of all the bad dreaming.” It’s all in the details – the way she sighs “and you will be chaaanged,” the way she reaches for a gospel hymn and then lets go, the way her guitar locks into those resolute chords at the end, in her hour of darkness.

Best songs of 1998 watch read listen

Aaliyah, “Are You That Somebody?”

Timbaland never could stop showing off – couldn’t resist flaunting the mastery of the man from the big V-A – but he really got out of hand here. “Are You That Somebody?” is a mind-warp of a beat, taking the Southern route to the world’s pleasure zones. And only Aaliyah could be serene enough to make it float – a more nervous singer would have busied it up, but nothing ever stressed Ms. Haughton. She gets both goody-goody and naughty-naughty; in the video, she revives the medieval art of falconry. Everything about “Are You That Somebody?” feels deeply chill, from the delirious Prince gurgles to the finger-snaps to the answer to Gwen Stefani. (“Don’t speak! you know that would be weak!”) Aaliyah will always be that somebody and this will always be her song.

Best songs of 1998 watch read listen

OutKast, “Rosa Parks”

A booty-hop avant-funk chant driven by acoustic guitar and a harmonica solo, played by Andre 3000’s Baptist-pastor stepfather. OutKast didn’t play coy in the lead single from their classic Aquemini – “Rosa Parks” aimed for maximum ATLien shock effect, from the audacious title on down. At a time when the East and West Coasts were still dismissive of Atlanta rap, OutKast came provocative, distorting and parodying notions of how the South was supposed to sound, yet inviting all to bump and slump to the back of the bus. (This was where the rest of the country first heard the past participle “crunk” – it turned out there was a lot more crunkness where that came from.) The boho poet Andre 3000 and the smooth operator Big Boi go together like syrup on yams, just another sign that the Dirty Dirty was way ahead of everywhere else. As they once warned, “It won’t be over till that big girl from Decatur sang,” and “Rosa Parks” is where she sang. After this, there was no stopping OutKast. Rock & roll, indubitably.

Best songs of 1998 watch read listen

Natalie Imbruglia, “Torn”

If you want to complain about how melodramatic this tearjerker is: you’re a little late, pal, we’re already torn. And that’s why this song will always be lying naked on the floor of history. “Torn” is a fluke collision of random pop flotsam: an Australian soap starlet, a producer who used to be in the Cure (Phil Thornally played the famous bass line on “The Love Cats”), back-up vocals from Katrina minus her Waves, that utterly anonymous and therefore perfect four-note schlock guitar solo. Yet somehow all these not-wildly-promising ingredients combine to create a mutant mall-pop monster that will outlive us all, a break-up song where you believe every sigh and whisper. You can even buy the idea of Natalie Imbruglia as a lonely heart, even if IRL she’s been linked with consorts from Lenny Kravitz to Harry Styles. (Her latest album, 2015’s Male, has cover versions of dude songwriters like Neil Young, Tom Petty and Death Cab for Cutie.) Dancing alone in your apartment in a baggy hoodie and a new wave haircut to express your all-out-of-faith status – that’s what’s going on.

Best songs of 1998 watch read listen

Nicole feat. Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott & Mocha: “Make It Hot”

Missy and Timbaland’s ultimate masterpiece. “Make It Hot” was a Top Five hit in the salty summer swelter of 1998 – officially credited to Nicole, yet a Missy jam in all but billing. The Divine Miss E writes a paranoid pop song about hanging on the telephone, plays dress-up with a paper-doll protegee named Nicole Wray, raps, cackles, giggles, reminds us all, “Me with no Timbaland is like Puff with no Mase.” She also invites her girl Aaliyah to sing along and hang out in the video because – well, wouldn’t you? Timbaland lets the funk flow with his swampiest, spaciest beat ever, cheering on the ladies from the control booth – when Nicole asks, “Can I get another shot?” he answers with a “Yes, you can.” It’s a communal celebration of Missy and Tim taking over, from a moment when Dirty South feminist hip-hop was the future and Elliott was our one true queen. “Make It Hot” has gotten absurdly slept on by history, but make no mistake, it still sounds like a cool future.

Best songs of 1998 watch read listen

Harvey Danger, “Flagpole Sitta”

All together now: “I’m not sick, but I’m not well! And I’m so hot! ‘Cause I’m in hellll!” The Seattle punk boys in Harvey Danger came out of nowhere to score a monster hit with “Flagpole Sitta,” an absolutely perfect song that sums up the agony and the irony of 1998. It’s both deeply funny and serious – Sean Nelson skewers all the era’s teen-angst cliches (“I wanna publish zines/And rage against machines”) with a brutal wit that was years ahead of its time. “Flagpole Sitta” was a song everyone loved – it’s the first music you’d play for a visiting Martian who asked what 1998 felt like – but it’s also had a huge afterlife. Somebody in your neighborhood is karaoke-ing it right now.

Every detail in “Flagpole Sitta” is brilliant: Evan Sult’s mammoth drum hook, Jeff Lin’s noise guitar squiggles, the late Aaron Huffman’s bass thud, the jolly “ba ba ba” back-up vocals, even the quizzical title. “I wish I had had the fucking sense to change the name of the song,” Nelson once said. “‘I’m Not Sick but I’m Not Well’ is what everybody else calls it. If I had done that…we’d be having this conversation on my yacht.” Yet that’s part of the song’s legend. You could hear it as satire, doing for grunge miserabilism what LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge” did for DJ culture. But it’s also full of genuine fury, which is why it’s never felt dated. (“If you’re bored then you’re boring” sure predicted the hell out of the social-media era, didn’t it?) “Flagpole Sitta” will always gleam with rock & roll heart – not sick, not well, just loud and alive. Salute!

In This Article: Aaliyah, Beastie Boys, Marilyn Monroe

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