Why 1998 Was the Best Musical Year of the '90s

Lauryn Hill, 1998.
Anthony Barboza/Getty Images

Lauryn Hill in 1998.

After focusing on 1994 last week, now, we're wondering what the best year for music was of the '90s. We've already made a case for 1990199119921993199419951996 and 1997. Now here are the final two years of the decade -- 1998 and 1999.

If there's a theme to the music landscape in 1998, it's "pure chaos." Too late to be defined by the alt-rock MTV boom, too early to be saturated in teen-pop gloss, '98 is the decade's black sheep year — full of crossover curios and blossoming genre revivals. Glancing through the year's list of Number One singles is more than a tad disorienting.


First off, it was one hell of a year for distinctive one-hit-wonders — from Eagle-Eye Cherry (the ubiquitous folk-pop jam "Save Tonight") to Semisonic (the distorted bar-stool anthem "Closing Time") to Marcy Playground (the mumbly alt-rock staple "Sex and Candy"). In '98, American radio couldn't rake in these one-offs fast enough, and compile them on the now-booming Now! compilation series.

But the sonic free-for-all also extended to established artists. Innovative rap acts were implanting their hooks into the mainstream—take DMX's "Ruff Ryders' Anthem," with a vocal style as piercing as a gunshot, or Big Pun's ultra-smooth "Still Not a Player," which beat Ariana Grande to the Latin-piano punch with its Brenda Russell-sampled groove.

Elsewhere, Britney Spears ("...Baby One More Time") and *N SYNC ("I Want You Back") fanned the flames of the teen-pop revival; the Dixie Chicks brought a polished brand of country to the pop arena, pairing Texas twang with breezy production; and the Artist Formerly Known as the Fresh Prince became a family-friendly rap-pop titan, convincing millions of the record-buyers to avoid their better judgment and "get jiggy wit it." It was also a tough year to make an Year-End albums list — just look at all the classic LPs on that Pazz & Jop poll: Outkast's stank-tastic Dirty South epic Aquemini, Lauryn Hill's Grammy-decorated neo-soul landmark The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Neutral Milk Hotel's indie-rock watermark In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.

In 2014, our dividing genre lines have become fainter — these days, pop stars often sound like rock stars who sound like country stars (pretty sure Taylor Swift is all of those at once). This can lead to innovative cross-pollination — but it can also foster lukewarm homogeny, exemplifying our shuffle-driven culture's desire to be everywhere at once.

Back in '98, however, the airwaves — and the TRLcountdowns — were confusingly eclectic. And much more fascinating because of it.