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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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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.

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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.”

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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).”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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