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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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Chocolate Genius, “My Mom”

Hard-hitting dandy’s blues from the dapper Marc Antony Thompson, a long-time NYC soul auteur and film composer who has made a few albums as Chocolate Genius, singing gruff piano ballads with jazz luminaries backing him up. “My Mom” is truly devastating, as he sings about a damaged man paying a visit to his aging parents: “This house smells just the same/And my mom, she don’t remember my name.” His mother is too sick to get up, his dad tries to slip him a 10, and all Thompson can do is watch helplessly. By the end, you’re reaching for the industrial-strength Kleenex. Not many songs face this topic; twenty years later, there still hasn’t been a better one. His daughter is the actress Tessa Thompson, who stole Thor: Ragnarok as Valkyrie, also starring in Westworld and Janelle Monae’s new “Pink” video.

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Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach, “Toledo”

Two giants get together for an autumnal ballad of a middle-aged cad’s regret – “Toledo” stands as a career peak for both Elvis and Burt. On their duet album Painted From Memory, they go together like Martini and Rossi on the rocks. Elvis and Burt consummated their partnership with a cameo in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, playing “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” while Heather Graham shimmies.

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Juvenile, “Ha”

The rawest of the raw. “Ha” came as a
shock in the bling-intensive hit parade of 1998, with Juvenile reporting live
from New Orleans’ Magnolia Housing Projects. It established the local Cash
Money label as a national presence. Over that stark Mannie Fresh production,
Juvenile hit a nerve from coast to coast with his uncut Southern street flow,
punctuating each line with a “ha” as he shades a small-time paper
chaser: “You don’t go in the projects when it’s dark/You claim you a
thug and you ain’t got no heart.”

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The Dixie Chicks, “There’s Your Trouble”

The Dixie Chicks introduced themselves in “There’s
Your Trouble,” the first hit from their classic Wide Open Spaces,
coming on like the TLC of country radio with their crazy-sexy-cool style. The
Dallas trio had their own sound from the start: Martie Siedel on fiddle, Emily
Erwin on banjo and dobro, Natalie Maines talking trash. You can already hear in
“There’s Your Trouble” these are GRITS (girls raised in the South)
with a lifetime supply of salt, and they’ve never faltered in that department,
getting banned for everything from “mattress dancin'” to first-degree
murder to overthrowing the government. The Dixie Chicks rocked “Daddy
Lessons” with their fellow class-of-’98 star Beyonce at the 2016 CMA

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Fatboy Slim, “The Rockafeller Skank”

A true only-in-1998 hit, from the moment when electronica went populist, MTV’s Amp brought avant-techno to the airwaves, and U.K. beat-bloke Fatboy Slim became the amiably goofy face of DJ culture. “The Rockafeller Skank” was the “Uptown Funk” of its day, banging out of weddings and bar mitzvahs everywhere with that sampled Lord Finesse party chant, “Right about now, the funk soul brother!” It summed up the genre briefly dubbed “big beat,” one of the most useless names any genre has ever had. Fatboy Slim, a.k.a. Norman Cook, scored other memorable hits – “Praise You,” “Weapon of Choice” (with its Spike Jonze–directed Christopher Walken dance video) – and co-wrote a musical with David Byrne. “The Rockafeller Skank” got immortalized in the teen flick She’s All That, where Usher is the prom DJ who uses this song to incite a climactic dance-off.

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Cher, “Believe”

“Do you believe in life after love?” is a question we all must ask sometime – but only Cher could answer. (Spoiler: Yes, dummy.) The best part is when her voice blends into the synthesizer – you can hear how excited the synthesizer is, like it’s spent its whole life waiting for a chance to duet with Cher. “Believe” came out at the very end of 1998 and you could argue it really belongs to 1999, so it might be cheating to include it in this list at all. But Cher always gets the benefit of the doubt when it comes to turning back time. When her musical The Cher Show opens on Broadway later this year, count on “Believe” to bring down the house.

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