If I was excited to cover 1997, I feel the opposite talking about 1998. Not that the music is bad, it’s actually better, but I feel immense grief discussing this year. A few days before the start of it, I was given what amounted to a death sentence. Being diagnosed as autistic meant no family awaited me and no independent life. Of course, that was untrue. But I didn’t know that. I lived in isolation in 1998 and only barely got out at the end. So great as these songs are, and they are I stress, grief taints this discussion.
Which is something I’m putting aside because the music was so good this year. If you love 90s r&b it’s solid as hell. Usher. Janet. Monica. Mariah Carey. Boyz II Men. There was good stuff on the pop side from Robyn, Sarah McLachlan, great boy band stuff, Hanson, and a number of songs I will get to. Honestly even the stuff I’m not that high on this year, I won’t turn it off if I hear it. I needed music in 1998 and damn was it here. My top 10 honestly has the thinnest quality margins. Every song is that good.
Natalie Imbruglia- Wishing I Was There. I hate Torn but her followup was so fricken good. A funny, playful song about a bad relationship. Not as big a hit but so much better. Imbruglia had some great songs in the next decade too, especially Smoke.
Alanis Morissette- Uninvited. This is such a great spooky song. Probably my narrowest cut. Seriously love this song and everything about it. When you see what made the list, judge me because this wasn’t there.
Harvey Danger- Flagpole Sitta. Overplay also pins this here vs the main list. There’s only so often you can hear it. But it is awesome. Very good weird rock.
Placebo- Pure Morning. This is such a dark unpleasant but perfectly of the moment song. It sounds wrong and I love it.
The Flys- Got You Where I Want You. Disturbing Behavior was very good to my honorable mentions. I honestly prefer their much less known second song but this rules too.
I’m allowed one indefensible pick I feel. Except I can defend it. Don’t we need novelty songs? Aren’t they great? Also isn’t it possible this was better than credited? I think so. So fine, one of the weirdest novelty tracks of the 90s is on my list.
10 Jimmy Ray- Are You Jimmy Ray. I honestly think we deserved more of Jimmy Ray. I’ve only heard this and his failed followup but he had a great sound. This is rockabilly meets britpop with the rock side winning. This is unlike anything on the radio in a moment where nothing sounded like anything else. That hook is just eternal. Is this a guilty pleasure? No. It’s why those don’t exist. It’s too good not to love.
Bitter Sweet Symphony is sort of an all consuming song for The Verve. I get why it is. It’s one of those marvels that would be hard to overcome. But Urban Hymns was one hell of a disc. And I truly don’t get why their follow up song wasn’t bigger.
9 The Verve- Lucky Man. This honestly should have been a huge song and I can’t explain why it wasn’t. It’s not a tonal shift. It’s still an upbeat anthem of the downtrodden. Maybe we had too many of those. It lacks the sample of the hit but I honestly think it sounds almost as good. This is an earthy, honest meditation on being happy with the life you have. It builds too from a small song to something soaring. It’s not a forgotten song now as when I mention it on Twitter it gets response. It just deserves classic status.
So looking back at my 90s lists, it’s a lot of all time greats on the list. There’s not much obscure work so far. And that’s about to change. In 1998 I started to listen to pop on 105.9 from Hot Springs, AR. You’ll read more about that in 2000-2003. But this is a first taste.
8 Anggun- Snow On The Sahara/La Neige Au Sahara. I listed the French title of the song because that’s the version I prefer. The English translation is ok but that’s the great version. This song is so wonderfully seductive and beautiful. Anggun was an Indonesian singer who didn’t break big here and that’s a loss because this is something we needed. There was a lot of bad adult contemporary in this moment and this is the kind I like. More than anything this sounds foreign and strange and I love that. It’s not a complicated song but it’s a soundscape that feels alien. It was an antidote.
I vent this a lot on this project but again we don’t take Madonna seriously at our own peril. Because when she’s good, few artists touch her. My favorite period for her starts here and goes through next year. She was in a groove working with William Orbit. He had a sound that just meshed beautifully with her. I was tempted to put the slinky, appropriately cold Frozen here. But nah. The real winner of this period was the title track of the album.
7 Madonna- Ray of Light. Is it even possible to hate this song? This is such a wonderfully happy song that it’s really appropriately named. It’s so upbeat and energetic. The reason I think it works so much is for the first time this decade, Madonna sounds excited to be in the studio. She came by club music authentically, coming up in that scene, and it shows. She seems like a fish in water in electronic music. The beats here are just killer too. I love 90s techno even if it hasn’t shown up much and this is peak. Just a joyful, energetic return to form.
OK, time to admit the real world back in. In the summer of 1998, my isolation was ending. I went back to school half time. So music about rebirth kinda spoke to me. A song about ending a phase of your life and getting on to a new one? Damn right that was me. Oh and if it was big as this happened? Easy for this list. Yeah a very obvious song is coming.
6 Semisonic- Closing Time. Another song I don’t think anyone hates. Why would you? It’s the ultimate anthem of its breed. A bold declaration that everything is over but ok, everything will move on and be better. It isn’t subtle but it’s also not sappy, It sounds so good. That piano work by Dan Wilson is one of the best in a genre that includes Someone Like You which he also cowrote and played on. There’s also a slightly dark note to it. The guitar work has an edge. Sure it’s a cliche but we need this song. And I agree with Todd in the Shadows that they were a great band. All About Chemistry alone is fantastic.
What is the worst song of the decade? There’s a question I did not want to ask. I’m all about joy and light. But there has to be an answer. My pick? Barbie Girl by Aqua. What a gross, ugly song seemingly designed for nobody. It sounds horrible. The lyrics are offensive. Trophy wives sure show up a lot in music not reality because the industry loves the topic. That song is impossible to like. Anyway, here’s my thoughts on the follow up.
5 Aqua- Turn Back Time. This is on the same album which I can’t understand. This is everything that song isn’t. The lyrics are great and highly relatable. It’s incredibly sensual, like a classic torch song. Sonically it’s nothing but great choices. It’s just a perfect song. And it barely made a dent in America. I have no idea why. The bridge here is the sound of a mind beating itself up and it’s so effective. We’ve all been here. This is a song that makes pathetic regret sound so appealing.
I do research as I’ve noted before. And sometimes I find a truly cool person. That’s the case here. People know Billie Myers as the Kiss the Rain singer if they even remember that. She’s more. She’s a boldly vocal gay rights activist and an openly bisexual woman who has talked about the anxiety she feels as such. In 2009, she spoke out hard against the Obama administration being soft on gay rights, not a light stance. She kicks ass and deserves respect. Also she made this.
4 Billie Meyers- Tell Me. In a just world, this would have been a mega hit but I don’t wonder why it wasn’t. This song is as blunt as possible about sex. It’s not that it’s graphic exactly but it’s very explicit about desire and the female urge. And it sounds sexual. Myers has a tremendous voice and she goes all in on selling the idea. I talk a lot about how the songs sound this year and this is one of the best. There’s a strong Middle Eastern energy with sitars running throughout the song. It’s a song that feels intense in a way nothing did in 1998. Popular music was afraid of getting this honest. But I’m glad at least someone did.
Well it’s 1998 so this had to make the list. This wasn’t the biggest song of the year. It didn’t even make the year end 100. Which is weird because I don’t remember half the songs that made the year end list and I was there. But this is what 1998 felt like. If you were there, this is what you remember. Probably because it’s the weirdest thing in a year I’ve called weird a lot.
3 Fastball- The Way. Only in the late 1990s could a song themed around a horrible tragedy that actually happened become the upbeat bubbly alt rock fluke hit of the year. The band aren’t one hit wonders—Out of My Head actually made the 1999 year end list and Fire Escape was solid—but this feels like their only hit. Because it’s too weird to be from a long continuous act. It’s one of a kind. It has a Jewel sample, alien themes, and again it’s inspired by just the saddest story. It’s too surreal that this actually got released. But I need to stress it’s great. It really could not sound better. The band hails from Austin, Texas and this is that sound all the way. It’s the kind of song that you never forget and never stop playing.
One of the greatest what ifs in pop music in my opinion is this. What if Hootie and the Blowfish didn’t record and release Fairweather Johnson? They could have taken time to knuckle down and really put together a solid set of songs. There wasn’t an urgent need for that album. If the record label had been patient, waited until 1998, and let them put their best material out they could have stayed huge. I believe this because of one fact. I know what they had that year. And if the well hadn’t been poisoned, this would have been an iconic hit.
2 Hootie and the Blowfish- I Will Wait. This is probably my favorite underloved song of the decade. It’s just such a big anthemic song from a band great at them. The concept is nothing new. A forced separation and the pain it causes. Think Hands to Heaven or Last Train To Charleston, an apt comparison because those are great as is this. I didn’t have any of Hootie’s hits on the list and I have to stress this isn’t any giant evolution from those. This is exactly what you expect from the band. But it’s here because it’s just the best version of that. Darius Rucker never sounded quite as powerful as he does here. The whole song is a giant jam from the rest of the band, hitting their country infused rock sound perfectly. This deserves digging up.
So many of my picks are a reflection on who I was at 14. This is the exception. I loved this song at 14 mind you. But it plays different a lifetime later. See I’m not the doomed loner I expected. I married. I have a kid. And the message of this song hits powerfully. And it comes from a band that named their first album after fecal matter. That’s growth.
1 Green Day- Redundant. Green Day made it past their first major album by starting to grow up immediately. This song only hit around four years after Basket Case but it feels already like tremendous maturity has occurred. The song is about the feeling of being in a rut in a relationship but still feeling the love that drove your initial days and wanting to express it. I’ve been with my wife for 11 years and that’s a very real feeling. But this song isn’t just a more mature song in the subject matter. It sounds more grown up. The music is tighter. There’s weight to Billie Joe Armstrong’s vocals. It moves well. This is a grown up song from a band that was already moving on. There aren’t enough anthems about malaise and fighting back. This is the greatest song about rejecting that ever. It makes commitment exciting and appealing. Oh and I’ve got to stress how great Nimrod is. It ensured we would be back with them in two years and four after. Green Day. Worthy of number one.
The light breaks through and the 1000s end next week.