Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
1998 somehow brought us boy bands, nü-metal, and Neutral Milk Hotel

1998 somehow brought us boy bands, nü-metal, and Neutral Milk Hotel

Illustration for article titled 1998 somehow brought us boy bands, nü-metal, and Neutral Milk Hotel
Off The ChartsTo commemorate 60 years of the Billboard Hot 100, Off The Charts revisits each year since it was established to spotlight songs and artists that didn’t make the cut, yet still made a significant impact.

The Year: 1998

Billboard Hot 100’s Top 20 Songs Of 1998

1. Next, “Too Close”
2. Brandy and Monica, “The Boy Is Mine”
3. Shania Twain, “You’re Still The One”
4. Savage Garden, “Truly Madly Deeply”
5. LeAnn Rimes, “How Do I Live”
6. Janet Jackson, “Together Again”
7. K-Ci & JoJo, “All My Life”
8. Elton John, “Candle In The Wind 1997”
9. Usher, “Nice & Slow”
10. Paula Cole, “I Don’t Want To Wait”
11. Third Eye Blind, “How’s It Going To Be”
12. Destiny’s Child, “No, No, No”
13. Celine Dion, “My Heart Will Go On”
14. Will Smith, “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It”
15. Usher, “You Make Me Wanna...”
16. Usher, “My Way”
17. Mariah Carey, “My All”
18. Monica, “The First Night”
19. Puff Daddy, “Been Around The World”
20. Sarah McLachlan, “Adia”

Here is a list of things that occurred in 1998, in no particular order: The venerable alt-rock instutition Lollapalooza hung up its hat, unable to find a headlining act. Total Request Live debuted on MTV, becoming home to a new breed of squeaky clean hits by Backstreet Boys, N’Sync, and Britney Spears. Will Smith was the best-selling rapper on the planet, and Korn’s Follow The Leader entered the charts at number one. But the best-selling album of the year, by a billion miles, was the Titanic soundtrack. The second best-selling album of the year was Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love, because people wanted the Titanic song again, apparently. The pop-country hit machine scored three number-one albums by Garth Brooks in the same year. The Brian Setzer Orchestra and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy netted massive successes for the short-lived swing revival, serving to briefly interrupt a string of modern-rock howlers by Creed, Third Eye Blind, and Matchbox 20.

Pretty much all of the things we like to think of as “bad” about turn-of-the-millennium music occurred in 1998, which might lead you to think of it as a “bad” year in music. But, of course, things don’t work that way—certainly not in popular music, where any massive zeitgeisty movement is always met by an equal and opposite reaction. And so just as grunge dissolved into millennial groan rock and neolithic nü-metal, an embarrassment of riches emerged from the independent underground, setting the stage for the indie-rock boom of the early 2000s. The Titanic soundtrack was a quarter-way through its 16-week reign atop the charts when Neutral Milk Hotel quietly released its second LP, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. Early efforts by Death Cab For Cutie, Bright Eyes, and Sunny Day Real Estate charted a post-Pinkerton third wave for heart-on-sleeve punks, while writerly music by Sparklehorse, Mercury Rev, and The Silver Jews carried the torch of indie rock through a brief trying time.

Mainstream hip-hop’s shiny suit era was cratering, but a rough new breed was setting up shop amid the rubble. Master P’s No Limit Records was big enough to snag Snoop from Death Row, landing yet another number-one record for the upstart label, while Yonkers barker DMX released not one but two records in 1998, both of which debuted at the top spot. In a strange twist of fate, three of the year’s most indelible hip-hop records were released on the same day: Jay-Z’s Vol. 2: Hard Knock Life, Black Star’s self-titled debut, and OutKast’s Aquemini all dropped on September 29, all bridging, in their own way, the genre’s early-decade golden era and the searching, evolutionary period that would follow.

But, ultimately, just look at that top 20: It was a golden era for R&B, with Next’s boner-at-the-dance anthem “Too Close” dominating the singles charts, and no fewer than three tracks off Usher’s velvety smooth My Way making appearances. Destiny’s Child released its debut single, the massive “No, No, No,” and genre heavyweights Mariah Carey and Janet Jackson proved their resilience with a string of successful tracks. (It’s only fitting that the year’s most enduring album, The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill, would also come out of this fertile period for the genre, bridging its glossy chart-topping branch with the burbling neo-soul movement.) Within a few years, the sparkly Orlando pop stars would start to cop their moves from the R&B stars, ditching Max Martin for the Neptunes, but in 1998, at least, the radio was dominated by slinky, creative production and atomized break-up jams like Brandy and Monica’s tag-team “The Boy Is Mine.”

Lurking outside of the chart’s reach, then, is music from this transformative era: plenty of all-time-great indie rock, but also smart, headphone-centric electronic music, brainy metal and post-hardcore, and proudly under-the-radar hip-hop. They’re all records a few years ahead of their time and a few years behind it, proving, as always, that there’s no such thing as a bad year in music.

Air, “Kelly Watch The Stars” (January)

A group composed of an architect and a mathematics student may not be the single least likely combination to end up crafting the most appealing electronic dream-pop album of 1998, but it’s damn close. Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel’s debut release, Moon Safari, was an international success, a heady mélange of Kraftwerk, Bowie, Brian Eno, and a dose of trippy, ELO-style psychedelia. While “Sexy Boy” was the track that achieved the most renown, “Kelly Watch The Stars” might be the track that best captures the pop sensibilities running through the record, a more spacey version of the electronic groove sound that vaulted Daft Punk to superstardom. With little more than the title repeated ad nauseam throughout, Air makes a virtue of minimalism, and a relentlessly catchy pop song. [Alex McLevy]

Mark Hollis, “The Watershed” (January)

Mark Hollis was always on his own path. As the leader of Talk Talk, he gradually transformed a successful synth-pop outfit into a prayerful group of experimental visionaries, whose final pair of LPs fused rock with jazz and classical, and happened to invent post-rock in the process. They tanked commercially, in part because Hollis completely shunned the press and receded from society, so when he quietly released his self-titled debut some seven years later it was received with confused but appreciative notices. But in many ways the record completes the journey begun with Talk Talk, somehow finding new ways to sculpt monuments of sound largely out of silence. Many tracks on the record feature just patient, watery pianos, but “The Watershed” is one of the exceptions, with brushed cymbals and breathy harmoniums creating an organic musical texture. The majestic intimacy of Hollis’ vocal performance turns lyrics like “a song a sale, sold heart” into emotional revelations at an almost collective-unconscious level. It’s a perfect capstone for his iconoclastic career, though he did reemerge unexpectedly in 2012 to write a piece of music for, um, the season finale of Boss. Nobody tells Mark Hollis what to do. [Clayton Purdom]

Unwound, “Laugh Track” (January)

The ’90s was the time of alternative rock’s rise and fall, but it was equally the decade of Unwound—albeit in a much smaller orbit of indie music culture. The group released eight studio albums over the course of its decade-long existence (1991-2001), and nearly every one of them is spectacular. The band’s jagged, angular stew of post-punk, hardcore, noise, and Sonic Youth-influenced guitar explorations slowly expanded over the course of its lifespan, continually growing more complex, adding instruments, and pushing the boundaries of its sound. Challenge For A Civilized Society, Unwound’s second-to-last album and fifth for Kill Rock Stars, was an evolution from the previous records, yet maintains a ferocious urgency and tightness in song structure. “Laugh Track” is a perfect exemplar, with squalling back-and-forth guitars and a stutter-stop rhythm. It’s a classic kiss-off tune, and of the group’s great songs in an essential discography jam-packed with them. [Alex McLevy]

Boards Of Canada, “Aquarius” (April)

The pioneering plunderphonics of brothers Mike Sandison and Marcus Eoin in a nutshell: new-age symbolism, a bassline sourced from the Hair cut of the same name, a vaguely sinister Sesame Street sample, a numerical sequence that erodes on itself, the funkiest cut on Music Has The Right To Children is greater than the sum of these sun-faded parts, Boards Of Canada’s compositional skills in effect as Sandison and Eoin ride the groove, spin it around, then let it soar when “Aquarius” goes all numbers station. Let the obsessives strain to crack its codes; the rest of us will just be here, nodding our heads until the dawning of the next age of “Aquarius.” [Erik Adams]

Boredoms, “Super Shine” (May)

By 1998, the experimental Japanese band Boredoms had been teetering on a line between abrasive, outsider noise and exuberant, wild harmony for more than a decade. This is the year that line got obliterated. The band’s evolved sound—still with a penchant for hypnotic, pounding rhythms and lots of screaming—started coming through on the Super Roots 7 EP, but later in 1998, it emerged on the LP Super æ, beautifully kaleidoscopic and fully grown. Nowhere is it more resplendent than “Super Shine.” The song’s intro gives you a sadistically short taste of its full form, with a grating electronic drone underlining a cacophony of jaunty bass and tribal drums and shouting. It disappears just as quickly as it came together, and the band holds that tease over your head, as elements fade in and out and come oh-so-close to that glorious coalescence. It takes nine minutes of delirious chanting for that to happen, but thanks to all that joyful noise, the journey in between feels like it goes by in seconds. [Matt Gerardi]

Plastikman, “Consume” (May)

As Plastikman, DJ and producer Richie Hawtin spent the ’90s on the cutting edge of minimalist techno. When contemporaries like Aphex Twin started moving toward glitched-out beats and breakneck tempos, Hawtin wandered further into electronic desolation. In 1998, he arrived at Consumed, a career highlight that stripped techno to a glacial pulse and the barren sounds of a boundless alien wasteland. Built from little more than a squelching acid synth, the gentlest pattering drum hits, and a never-ending two-tone bassline, “Consume” is the aural equivalent of spending 11 minutes staring into some supernatural bottomless pit. It’s unfathomable and infinite and terrifying, but you can’t pull yourself away—or shake the subconscious desire to crawl inside. [Matt Gerardi]

Gorguts, “Obscura” (June)

Dropped by their label, Roadrunner, in 1993, when death metal was experiencing a rapid commercial decline, the Canadian tech freaks of Gorguts sat on a collection of compositionally sophisticated ragers for half a decade. When the delayed record, Obscura, was finally released in the summer of 1998, it was as if the band had cut a hole in the space-time continuum, picking up the cyborg anthems of the future. In other words, the album—and its dizzyingly, deliriously atonal title track—sounded plenty forward-thinking in 1998; its mechanical, stop-start, finger-tapping frenzy went on to influence a new generation of progressive metalheads, bringing their own controlled chaos to the pit. But how quickly and how differently could heavy metal have evolved if Obscura and “Obscura” arrived five years earlier, when Gorguts wrote both? Could this kill-bot sound have terminated nü-metal before it happened—or at least given the boys of, say, Mudvayne a more dissonant, complex fury to emulate? [A.A. Dowd]

Wilco and Billy Bragg, “California Stars” (June)

Mermaid Avenue sounds like one of those projects that might have been great on paper, but not so much in execution: Billy Bragg and Wilco take unpublished Woody Guthrie poems and put them to music. Instead, the album was an unlikely folk smash, a lovely, lyrical collection of transcendent poetry and the upper echelon of twangy music. While Bragg brought his signature thick-as-clotted-cream English accent to cuts praising everything from the union to Ingrid Bergman, it may be Jeff Tweedy’s sweet lead on “California Stars” that makes for the album’s most inspired creation. It sounds as casual as a Sunday afternoon, with haunting steel guitar steering the song into Guthrie’s sleepy imagery. There isn’t even a chorus, just cozy stanzas that roll out like hilltop blankets, until the song fades away at the end like stars at daybreak. Mermaid Avenue was so successful that it spawned several follow-up projects featuring lost Guthrie lyrics; “California Stars” remains the perfect place to start. [Gwen Ihnat]

Miss Kittin & The Hacker, “1982” (July)

Like a lot of musical movements, the retro-obsessed synth pop known as electroclash developed as a defensive reaction to a different scene. It was a counterpoint to ’90s techno, which by the time of electroclash’s beginnings in 1997, had grown virtuosic, self-serious, and formless. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) It was shirking conventions and looking to the future, while electroclash revisited and reveled in the past. “1982,” a single from the pioneering duo Caroline “Miss Kittin” Hervé and Michel “The Hacker” Amato, became one of the movement’s early anthems. The song itself is deeply indebted to early electronic artists and the 1980s electro tunes that riffed on their icy soundscapes, going so far as to drop nods to Kraftwerk and Telex’s “Moskow Diskow.” When combined with the music video, though, you get a full ’90s-as-hell statement of intent for what electroclash would become in its short life: gaudy, self-aware, and knowingly, gloriously up its own ass. [Matt Gerardi]

Death Cab For Cutie, “Bend To Squares” (August)

Twenty years in and there isn’t a single Death Cab For Cutie album that begins on a bum note. The band’s knack for putting its best foot forward started with the woozy opener from Something About Airplanes, a debut that works in the shadows of fellow Pacific Northwest heavyweights Modest Mouse and Built To Spill, all while confidently introducing listeners to the emotionally precise songwriting of Ben Gibbard and the infinite, stormy production style of Chris Walla. In hindsight, Gibbard’s not so sure he was being all that clear-cut—“I’ll play a song like ‘Bend To Squares’ and it’s like, ‘What the fuck am I talking about here? This song makes absolutely no sense,” he told Paste this May—but the obliqueness of words like “Pinch to snub that restless nerve / And knock the wind from one last urge” doesn’t dampen their impact, or that of the song’s firecracker chorus. And whatever “weights down so that you can move forwards” means, there’s a little bit of that sentiment in every great Death Cab track that came after this one. [Erik Adams]

Placebo, “Pure Morning” (August)

Placebo hates “Pure Morning.” Thrown together toward the end of recording its sophomore LP, Without You I’m Nothing, the track went on to become one of the group’s biggest hits, one which it steadfastly refused to play live for almost a decade. Singer Brian Molko has said the lyrics make him “nauseous”; the band calls it “Pure Boring.” Unfortunately, it’s a great song, despite (or perhaps because of) its snotty, heart-on-sleeve carnality. Molko’s quivering, androgynous voice etches out an early-morning hook-up in sing-song cadences, finding a moment of hard-earned connection after a long night out. But it’s that monstrous beat that makes it indelible. The band had always had an interesting take on post-punk, but here it’s shattered its buzzy guitars into spidery fragments and reassembled them as ornamentation around a massive, mechanical drum loop, gaining momentum and urgency as the song chugs forward, one measure after another. And, at the end of the day, who can argue with the message? A friend with weed is better. [Clayton Purdom]

At The Drive-In, “Napoleon Solo” (August)

1998’s In/Casino/Out often sits in the shadow of At The Drive-In’s 2000 album Relationship Of Command, but as “Napoleon Solo” succinctly displays, the El Paso band was already hitting its stride before “One Armed Scissor” poked its head into the mainstream. A brooding post-hardcore track, “Napoleon Solo” is built on lopping leads pinged back and forth between guitarists Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Jim Ward, while the rhythm section stalks out a midtempo groove and rarely deviates. One of the chief complaints people like to leverage against At The Drive-In, and specifically vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala, is that its songs were never really about anything. But with “Napoleon Solo,” he’s as transparent as he ever got, detailing the story of learning that two of his friends, and former bandmates, were killed in a car crash moments before he played a disastrous show in New Orleans. Bixler-Zavala turns in a career-best performance, and the song’s subtle, moving hook of “This is forever” has yet to lose its power. [David Anthony]

Eels, “Cancer For The Cure” (September)

Eels’ debut, Beautiful Freak, made it clear Mark Oliver Everett (a.k.a. E, a.k.a. the singer, songwriter, and only constant among Eels’ rotating roster) has a knack for marrying introspective, occasionally dark subject matter to vibrant, eclectic pop rock. But that talent was pushed to its limit on the band’s second album, Electro-Shock Blues. Many of its lyrics and themes are responses to the personal tragedies Everett suffered in the time following Freak, including the deaths of his sister and mother, by suicide and lung cancer, respectively. As you might expect, the album is full of painfully personal ruminations on death, illness, and loss, but the trauma is cut with Everett’s expert hooks. With its discordant industrial opening, standout single “Cancer For The Cure” begins brimming with the rage from all that loss, but Everett soon hides it below the surface of the song’s stringy Midnite Vultures-esque funk. [Matt Gerardi]

Cat Power, “American Flag” (September)

Chan Marshall, a.k.a. Cat Power, was the queen of the tortured indie singer-songwriters in 1998, famous for her emotionally masochistic live shows, where she would burst into tears mid-song, hit herself in the head repeatedly with the microphone, or just not take the stage at all. Dubbed “sadcore” or “slowcore” (the terms can be used somewhat interchangeably), Cat Power’s late ’90s output is dominated by minimalist, amelodic, electro-tinged dirges like “American Flag,” the opening track on Marshall’s 1998 album Moon Pix. The album was inspired by a terrifying, hallucinatory nightmare Marshall had one night in a period of deep professional and personal isolation; as she later recalled it in a 2013 interview, “They came, thousands of them, all up against the kitchen window. They were clear, black as night, trying to get into my soul. That’s when I grabbed my acoustic guitar. I thought that if people found my body, I needed to leave a tape. So I just played the songs that became Moon Pix.” Combine that psychotic Pentecostal vision with a slowed-down, backwards drum sample from a Beastie Boys song, and voilà!—you’ve got “American Flag.” [Katie Rife]

Neutral Milk Hotel, “Holland 1945” (October)

Neutral Milk Hotel is the Vincent van Gogh of indie-rock bands, obscure during its lifetime and iconic after the fact. (Unlike van Gogh, Neutral Milk Hotel actually got to enjoy its posthumous success with a 2013 reunion tour, but that’s another story.) Thirteen years before frontman Jeff Mangum got a shoutout on an episode of Parks And Recreation, “Holland 1945,” the lone single from Mangum’s masterpiece In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, was released as a 7-inch, after which point the band went on hiatus for more than a decade. It’s one of the more upbeat tracks on the album—opening with the sound of clacking drumsticks and propelled along at a breathless pace with crashing guitars, swishing cymbals, and a mariachi-style horn section—and one of the poppiest and most produced songs in Mangum’s entire catalog. (That’s a relative distinction, of course; it’s still pretty darn lo-fi.) The wild rumpus of the music contrasts with the death and decay in the lyrics, as Magnum declares his love for famous diarist and Holocaust victim Anne Frank, who’s now “a little boy in Spain / Playing pianos filled with flames,” and laments “Indentations in the sheets / Where their bodies once moved but don’t move anymore.” That inspired contrast is a big part of what makes In The Aeroplane Over The Sea one of the most poignant—and now, one of the most celebrated—albums of its era. [Katie Rife]

Silver Jews, “Random Rules” (October)

It’s a song for people who’ve given up, and they know it, the sounds of someone settling into a bender, except the bender is their whole life, not just a lost weekend. The opening track on Silver Jews’ American Water, the band’s third and arguably best album, is a country-twinged gut punch, a lilting eulogy to one’s own life. The story is nothing new—a man reflecting on all the ways he and his old lover went wrong—but its particular execution makes “Random Rules,” like an ex’s name tattooed across your chest, bleakly indelible. With frontman David Berman handling the vocals by himself, there’s none of intermittent bandmate Stephen Malkmus’ smartass irony to take the edge off. The past is behind you, Berman says, and sometimes you can fuck up irrevocably, no matter how many lives you claim to have. The song’s lo-fi video was partly filmed in Chicago’s Rainbo Club—an old haunt of Nelson Algren, chronicler of addicts and outcasts, and a great place to raise a glass to making the same mistake over and over again. [Laura Adamczyk]

Refused, “New Noise” (October)

Refused’s ascent to hardcore royalty came, fittingly, after the band had already imploded. 1998’s The Shape Of Punk To Come (A Chimerical Bombination In 12 Bursts) was just one of many forward-thinking hardcore records released that year but, somehow, “New Noise” took root outside of that scene. Over time, “New Noise” went from being a standout track on a record full of them to a sort of hit single, as it’d get added to the soundtracks of movies and video games, then eventually be covered by everyone from Crazy Town to Anthrax. Although it may not feel as unique as it once did, the rush of the song, from Dennis Lyxzén’s opening line, “Can I scream?” to that thrill ride of a second half ensures that no matter how much time passes, “New Noise” will never lose its charm. [David Anthony]

The Coup, “Me And Jesus The Pimp In A ’79 Granada Last Night” (November)

Boots Riley’s star has risen precipitously in 2018, thanks to his well-received directorial debut, Sorry To Bother You. But he’s been spinning fierce and darkly funny anticapitalist narratives since The Coup’s funk-obsessed 1993 formation. After taking a few years off to work as community activists in Oakland, the crew returned with the sprawling Steal This Album, which showcased Riley’s signature political worldliness alongside a newfound focus on live instrumentation. And while Riley has never shied away from long-form song compositions, the record’s seven-minute second track, “Me And Jesus The Pimp In A ’79 Granada Last Night,” still stands out as a uniquely sprawling work. The beat’s all gliding midnight California soul, but the three-act tale told within is harrowing, a story of a young man growing up in the shadow of his mother’s pimp. It’s still full of sharp turns of phrase—“From the pen he would scribe on how to survive / Don’t be Microsoft, be Macintosh with a hard drive”—and narrative left turns, ultimately calling for nothing less than violent revolution against misogynists everywhere. Riley’s never been a didact, though, and this resolution ultimately feels as painful as the trauma that inspired it. [Clayton Purdom]

Belle & Sebastian, “This Is Just A Modern Rock Song” (December)

In the late-’90s, Belle & Sebastian didn’t always hold its best material for the LP. Just a few months after The Boy With The Arab Strap found the Scottish indie-pop act opening itself up to a wider array of styles and songwriters, “This Is Just A Modern Rock Song” was released in the U.K., seven minutes of self-mythologizing and self-deprecation adding to what was, for a band that’d only been around for two years, a remarkably stacked repertoire of non-album singles. With its Velvet Underground thrum and “My Girl” bassline, the track recombines fundamental strains of Belle & Sebastian’s DNA into a song that uses its length and density to build, build, build—but never break. The first half is one of Stuart Murdoch’s finest lonely-heart’s narratives, but it’s the second half that lingers, a cheeky “Hey, hey we’re The Monkees” act from co-founder Stuart David: “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.” Only the first half is true: “This Is Just A Modern Rock Song” is sublime, and a moving coda for the first phase of a brilliant career. [Erik Adams]

Lootpack, “The Anthem”

With the exception of a few scattered production credits for Tha Alkaholiks, Lootpack’s early work was the first the world ever heard of Madlib, the fantastically prolific and mercurial producer who has since pulled classics out of everyone from MF Doom to Kanye West. His taste in samples always had an almost Pynchonesque depth—his early work was credited to a collective called CDP, for Crate Diggas Palace—but he also worked in a slightly more straightforward, less densely referential style back then, turning out stuff that’d slot in neatly with the rest of Stones Throw’s roster. “The Anthem” finds him in peak premillennial form, with a bouncing, trilling beat that’d sound right at home on that year’s Gang Starr or Black Star efforts, with a sense of underground brio matching the track name. But the real thrill is hearing a pre-Quasimoto Madlib take the mic, still sleepy and unconventional and magnetically high as he calls out the ego trippers and phony rappers clowning on MTV. [Clayton Purdom]


DJ Spooky, “Object Unknown”
Superdrag, “Do The Vampire”
Frank Black & The Catholics, “All My Ghosts” 
Dillinger Four, “O.K. M.F. D.O.A.”
Blonde Redhead, “In An Expression Of The Inexpressible”
Hieroglyphics, “You Never Knew” 
P.M. Dawn, “Misery In Utero”
Rufus Wainwright, “April Fools”
Shellac, “Canada” 
Meshuggah, “New Millennium Cyanide Christ”
Ink & Dagger, “The Fine Art Of Original Sin”