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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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77

Sarah McLachlan, “Sweet Surrender”

The Canadian patchouli priestess sings the living shit out of a melody that soars like disco and whispers like folk, getting down on her knees to testify about a mighty love. McLachlan founded the Lilith Fair tour, yet these days she’s probably best known for her ballad “Angel,” even if everybody thinks it’s called “In the Arms of the Angels” – Cardi B and Eve sang it to each other on the Grammys red carpet in January, a true index of fame. But believe it, “Sweet Surrender” is absolutely the one. Topic for further discussion: Is this the best Madonna song from the era between Like a Prayer and Ray of Light?

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76

Master P, “Make ‘Em Say Uhh!”

Master P and his No Limit empire blew up in the
late Nineties, selling gazillions of records to the shock of practically
everyone outside New Orleans. Master P let out his trademark groan of pain –
uuunnngh!” – on his own albums, while cranking out the
hits from No Limit soldiers like Mystikal, Mo B. Dick, Fiend, Mia X (the
self-proclaimed “Ghetto Sara Lee”) and Silkk the Shocker. He wrote,
produced and directed straight-to-video flicks like I’m Bout It,
starring himself; in his spare time he played pro ball, signing with the
Charlotte Hornets. Master P made New Orleans impossible to ignore, at a time
when the industry didn’t want to know.
A key part of the No Limit legacy: those fabulously lurid Pen & Pixel 3D
album covers, with their Photoshop collages of diamond-studded logos, cars,
crucifixes, cigars and dogs with glowing eyeballs.

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75

Everclear, “I Will Buy You a New Life”

Art Alexakis was a guy who wouldn’t have been a rock star in any other era, but in the wide-open late Nineties, he hit a nerve with his bullshit-free take on dysfunctional family life. (Deep cuts like “Sunflowers,” the song of a bereaved parent losing a kid to addiction, remain all too timely.) In “I Will Buy You a New Life,” he’s a divorced dad who shows up on his ex’s doorstep, eager not just to apologize but to make it all up to her until he erases all their horrible memories. And while he’s here, maybe spend the night.

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74

Kahimi Karie, “Watashi No Jinsei, Jinsei No Natsu”

Oh, how the Nineties heads adored the whole pervy Sixties lounge-music aesthetic – there was even a special “La Decadanse” section in fabled NYC record shop Other Music, dedicated to the spawn of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin. That’s where you could find this lavishly sentimental Tokyo fantasy of mod ye-ye pop, written by Pizzicato Five and vocalized by Kahimi Karie, the whispery Elastic Girl.

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73

PJ Harvey, “Is This Desire?”

Polly Jean Harvey, the devil must have spent a little more time on you. The goth-punk blues siren was in a transitional mode in the late Nineties, marking time after her world-beating run of Dry, Rid of Me and To Bring You My Love. Harvey finds her groove in the stripped-down “Is This Desire?,” about an all-consuming love jones. (Considering Nick Cave’s Harvey tributes like “West Country Girl” on The Boatman’s Call, this could be her answer.) The song leans on her underrated guitar – it has the raw power of 4-Track Demos, which might hold up as her greatest album. Her voice lives up to the title – yes, it’s Desire, and sometimes it’s even Blood on the Tracks. Harvey’s next album was one of her most acclaimed, the urban romance Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea.

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72

Deborah Cox, “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here”

People were just starting to say “empowerment” as the Nineties began and sick of it by Y2K, but the concept was pretty much defined by Nineties R&B radio. Case in point: Deborah Cox’s “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here,” a rainy-day jam about a woman who’s gotten burned too many times but dares to try again. (“How … did … you … GET here?” Damn.) First it was a blockbuster ballad, then got remixed into a disco hit – both versions killed. When Angela Bassett directed her Lifetime biopic about Whitney Houston, she got Ms. Cox to sing Nippy’s vocals – she was the highlight of the movie.

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71

Quickspace, “Hadid”

You remember the “rock is dead” controversy of 1998, don’t you? Not to be confused with the “rock is dead” controversy of 1990, or the “rock is dead” controversy of 1995, 1986, 2005, 1963, 1981, 1974, 1959, 1968, 2012 or 1971? (Wherever indie kids are turning 25, there will be “rock is dead” controversies.) In 1998, the conventional wisdom was that rock had been replaced by “loops.” Hence all the bands trying to bury nice little songs inside earnestly clunky loops, until they began to notice they weren’t so hot at loops. Quickspace, a great U.K. psych-drone outfit that rose from the ashes of th’ Faith Healers, were the rare band that knew how to rock a loop and vice versa, though they enjoyed writing the occasional song as well. “Hadid” is five minutes of fuzz guitar, distorted snares, cut-up vocal babble (“maraschino, man!”), all bleeding into the red with a suspiciously song-like tension and release.

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70

All Saints, “Never Ever”

If you like your Britpop girl groups utterly ridiculous – and how else would you want them? – All Saints managed to top even the Spice Girls with their smash hit “Never Ever,” moping over boy problems in a bubble-gospel hymn based on “Amazing Grace.” The opening minute has Nicole Appleton doing a spoken-word poetry recital, in her decidedly non-virtuoso voice: “Did I never treat you right? Did I always start the fight? Either way I’m going out of my mind. All the answers to my questions…I have to find!” (She later starred in one of Liam Gallagher’s longer marriages.) Nicole, twin sister Natalia, Shaznay and Melanie ruled the U.K. tabloids for a minute. Sadly, All Saints broke up in 2001 in a fight at a photoshoot, when two of the girls wanted to wear the same jacket.

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69

Liz Phair, “Johnny Feelgood”

La Liz graduates from Exile in Guyville to Grande Dame of Fuckboy Nation. Each of her albums has its own distinct personality, and Whitechocolatespaceegg is the one she made right after getting married and becoming a mom, full of doubts about her new domestic life as well as the single whirl she left behind. “Johnny Feelgood” eviscerates yet another pretty dude without much going on upstairs, her voice and guitar bristling with wit.

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68

Third Eye Blind, “Losing a Whole Year”

As modern rock radio recovered from its Her Placenta Falls to the Floor phase, Third Eye Blind’s hits always stood out because of Stephan Jenkins’ sore thumb of a voice – sharp, pushy, adenoidal, so bitchy you wondered if he was kidding, except he never was. Nobody else sounded like him – you can hear that in the bitter way he yells, “You and me used to spend the whole goddamn day in bed!” In “Losing a Whole Year,” he bemoans his semi-charmed hard-knock life, and all the time he wasted on a rich girl who just uses him for his body (a frequent Stephan Jenkins dilemma, at least in his songs) and leaves him doing the dishes. “Convinced you found your place/With the pierced queer teens in cyberspace” – timely burn, bro!

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67

Brandy, “Almost Doesn’t Count”

A doleful weeper where Ms. Norwood comes close to true love – but alas, not close enough – over a flourish of Latin acoustic guitar. “Almost Doesn’t Count” became a highlight of the made-for-TV flick Double Platinum, where Brandy plays an aspiring teen diva who meets her secret birth mother, who turns out to be (spoiler) Diana Ross! They bond. They argue. They cry. Greatest movie ever, obviously, at least as far as the Brandy filmography is concerned.

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66

The Gerbils, “Crayon Box”

“Look what you’ve done! How could you go out and watch the show without me? You know that Portastatic is still my favorite band!” These kids from Athens G-A, loosely affiliated with Neutral Milk Hotel and the Elephant 6 collective, crunch out a tragically relatable late-Nineties indie romance, getting all the details right. But there’s a happy ending in the last verse, when the girl finds the inner strength to go see the Sebadoh show without him.

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65

Mogwai, “Small Children in the Background”

The Glasgow noise lads raise a cathedral-sized instrumental racket of savagely mournful guitar feedback, seven minutes of amps seething with rage. They recorded it in the Scottish town of Hamilton, where the police had just imposed a youth curfew banning anyone under 16 from the streets at night; in a typically subtle punk gesture, Mogwai titled this record No Education = No Future (Fuck the Curfew).

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64

Backstreet Boys, “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)”

You know the Tom Petty song that goes “she was an American girl, raised on promises?” These were the promises the 1998-model girl was raised on: Brian, Nick, Howie, Kevin and A.J., but especially Nick. (Nobody thought N’Sync were in their league yet. Not even close.) “I’ll Never Break Your Heart” was the promise these Boys have been breaking ever since, like all other Boys in history. But “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” was their coronation theme, with a list of questions: Are they original? Are they the only one? Are they sexual?

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63

Silkk the Shocker, “It Ain’t My Fault”

“Don’t make me peel your potatoes! Don’t make the devil your neighbor! I might not be nothing to you but I’m the shit on this label!” Down in New Orleans, Master P’s brother Silkk keeps it jumping like a second line, while Mystikal lives up to his “500 words a minute” boast. “It Ain’t My Fault” has the WTF factor of all the finest No Limit records, with that brilliantly tone-deaf holleration over off-kilter congas.

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62

The Boredoms, “Super Shine”

The Osaka noise tribe take the world in a love embrace, for a 13-minute orgy of destruction-as-celebration, from their sun-worship masterwork Super Ae. “Super Shine” comes on like Steve Reich’s Four Organs played on a hillside by a hippie mob of crusty skinheads whose gear keeps breaking down and whose organic bread is growing some intriguing molds. Yamantaka Eye leads the group in chanting variations on the word “shine,” over tantric drum-circle pounding and mega-reverb “Sister Ray” drone – it adds up to an ear-bleeding yet uplifting noise.

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61

Hanson, “Weird”

The three Oklahoma brothers who melted the world’s barrettes with “MMMBop” get serious with a ballad about modern alienation – the kind of song that pointed to their future jam-band collabo with Bob Weir. “Weird” comes from a year when it was cool for pop stars to endorse waffles. But instead of letting themselves get turned into a cookie-cutter boy band, Taylor, Zac and Isaac kept going their own way, with successes like their 2010 fan fave Shout It Out. They showed up on the latest Blues Traveler album, alongside guests like Jewel and JC Chasez. They also released their own brand of craft beer, Mmmmhops.

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60

Julie Ruin, “Radical or Pro-Parental”

In between setting the world on fire with Bikini Kill and putting the ram in the rama-lama-ding-dong with Le Tigre, riot grrrl O.G. Kathleen Hanna adopted the alter ego of Julie Ruin, going for high-concept synth-pop rooted in French feminist lit-crit and a B-52s–style guitar hook.

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59

Buffalo Daughter, “Socks, Drugs and Rock & Roll”

Left-field funk for the Space Age spinster pad, courtesy of three Japanese madwomen making gearhead moves on the Beasties’ Grand Royal label, in a mix of vintage analog synths and turntables. Buffalo Daughter rose out of the Shibuya-Kei scene that also spawned brilliant electronic artists like Takako Minekawa and Cornelius. “Socks, Drugs & Rock & Roll” rocks the house with a tantric mantra that invades your skull without making a damn bit of sense.

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58

Lord Tariq & Peter Gunz, “Deja Vu (Uptown Baby)”

A Bronx anthem for a very Brooklyn year, with Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz reminding everyone that “If it wasn’t for the Bronx, this rap shit probably never would be going on.” (Something so gangsta about that “probably.”) The duo rhyme over the bass line from Steely Dan’s superthug classic “Black Cow.” An expensive sampling choice, since Donald Fagen and Walter Becker ended up owning the whole copyright, but a brilliant one, as Tariq and Gunz do the boogie-down proud with a hip-hop royal scam.

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57

Belle & Sebastian, “This Is Just a Modern Rock Song”

A victory lap for the Glasgow cardigan kids, a 12-inch single that served as a companion piece to their superb second album The Boy With the Arab Strap. These bookish Scots get grandiose enough to write themselves a seven-minute theme song: “This is just a modern rock song/This is just a sorry lament/We’re four boys in our corduroys/We’re not terrific but we’re competent.”

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56

Sheryl Crow, “My Favorite Mistake”

Sheryl dropped one of her toughest albums, The Globe Sessions – like a Prada version of Side Two of Exile on Main Street. “My Favorite Mistake” grooves on blues guitar and Memphis-style keyboards as she drawls, “When you go it’s the perfect ending/To the bad day I was just beginning.” Crow remains a boss – still writing great songs (her 2017 Be Myself rips, especially “Heartbeat Away”), still on her winding road, still not the kind of girl you take home.

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55

Stardust, “Music Sounds Better With You”

A landmark of French filter-house, not to mention a prime Nile Rodgers rip from an era full of them. Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter (he’s the robot on the left, or maybe the one on the right, who knows) did this one-off collabo with a couple of club confreres, bouncing the simple refrain off an energy-flash guitar lick (sampled from a Chaka Khan record) to the break of dawn.

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54

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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53

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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52

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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51

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
awards.

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50

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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49

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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