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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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48

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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47

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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46

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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45

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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44

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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43

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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42

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.

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41

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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40

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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39

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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38

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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37

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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36

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.

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35

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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34

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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33

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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32

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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31

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.