This week, Billboard is celebrating the music of 20 years ago with a week of content about the most interesting artists, albums, songs and stories from 1998. Here, our staff goes beyond the hits of ’98 to look at the deeper cuts that also helped define the year in music: The album tracks off the year’s best LPs, which still prove just as essential as the singles they surrounded 20 years later. Below is a list of our 50 favorites.
50. Busta Rhymes, “Everybody Rise” (E.L.E. (Extinction Level Event): The Final World Front)
“I’m afraid the end time is near,” a mechanically monotone father tells his daughter in the opening seconds of Busta Rhymes’ Extinction Level Event: The Final World Front. Dad then cites “the oppressive weight of parasitic political conspiracies, which remove all hope and optimism” as one component of disaster smorgasbord. Which is to say, yes, the third album from one of the most underrated rappers ever has aged pretty well. After the intro, “Everybody Rise” invites hardcore rebellion across the cities of America over cinematic piano plinks lifted from “If Tomorrow Never Comes” by the Controllers. Busta’s wisdom is simple and bears repeating: “Get what’s yours from out this fucker before your time run out.” From 1998 to 2018, it’s still in effect. — ROSS SCARANO
49. Placebo, “Summer’s Gone” (Without You I’m Nothing)
With the opening shoegazing strums, Placebo taps into late summer anxieties by relating the changing of seasons to the inescapable crush of time. Far more subdued than the abrasive goth-grunge that characterized Without You I’m Nothing singles like “You Don’t Care About Us” and “Every You Every Me,” “Summer’s Gone” offers a twisted reprieve with lyrics rapt in melancholic acceptance (“You try to break the mold/before you get too old”), suggesting that even the search for personal discovery has a limited run. — BRYAN KRESS
48. eels, “My Descent Into Madness” (Electro-Shock Blues)
The line between dark and grim in pop can be razor thin. This lullaby-like track from Mark Everett’s band skips along merrily on pleasing cardboard box beats, sleigh bells, soothing violins, and warm keyboards. Deceptively bright, it’s actually a heartbreaking response to his sister’s suicide, wrapped in musical cotton candy. Lyrics about turning 18 in a straight jacket behind mental institution walls (“Voices tell me I’m the shit”) make it clear why this one didn’t get sent to alternative radio. But the melodic touch that cushions the blow is proof of E’s masterful dark art. — GIL KAUFMAN
47. Mya feat. Missy Elliott, “Bye Bye” (Mya)
Mya was still finding her footing when she released her self-titled debut in 1998, led by the singles “It’s All About Me” and “Movin’ On” (featuring Sisqo and Silkk the Shocker, respectively) as well as the ballad “My First Night with You.” “Bye Bye” was passed over, despite the fact that guest Missy Elliott was edging closer to mainstream ubiquity, yet it stands as one of the funkiest, head-nodding of the bunch — featuring a giggle-worthy opening line from Elliott where she raps, “What’s the issue? All up in that booty like tissue.” — STEVEN J. HOROWITZ
46. Jennifer Paige, “Questions” (Jennifer Paige)
Jennifer Paige was always a far more talented singer-songwriter than her one-hit wonder reputation would suggest — evidenced as early as “Questions” from her self-titled debut. One of regrettably few co-writes from Paige herself on the set, “Questions” deals with levels of internal strife and frustration (“I’m the dead ringer/ There goes the chick singer”) far beyond what you’d expect from a TRL fixture, with the biggest queries of the song (“Who, what, where and why?”) being posed to her in gorgeous harmony by a sea of her own backing vocals, with no words of her own to offer in response. All that, plus a perfectly executed late-song key change — the surest sign of a true pro at work. — ANDREW UNTERBERGER
45. Trisha Yearwood, “That Ain’t the Way I Heard It” (Where Your Road Leads)
Over a sweet mid-tempo groove reminiscent of solo Gregg Allman, one of the great country stars of the ’90s confronts her lying and late-arriving man — but rather than meet him with fire and brimstone, she rolls her eyes and asks that he at least do her the favor of coming up with a better excuse. “Throw me out a lifeline baby, offer me a grain of truth/ Treat me with a little bit of dignity/ I think I deserve that much from you.” But naturally, he’s unable to meet even these reasonable demands, leading Yearwood to casually toss out the titular rejoinder once more: not angry, really, just underwhelmed one final time. — A.U.
44. Black Eyed Peas, “Be Free” (Behind the Front)
Built around a sample of Danish duo Laid Back’s 1983 hit “White Horse,” “Be Free” was a total outlier on the Peas’ debut album, Behind the Front, and yet an oddly prescient sign of things to come. The song’s electro-funk groove wouldn’t have been out of place had it been snuck onto the back half of later-era Peas albums like The E.N.D., and vocals from pre-Fergie group member Kim Hill hinted at just how much potential the group had when they paired their alternative hip-hop sound with accessible hooks. — NOLAN FEENEY
43. Pearl Jam, “MFC” (Yield)
“MFC” — which allegedly stands for ‘Mini Fast Car’ — is to Yield as “Rearviewmirror” was to 1993’s Vs: a rubber-burning, guitar-heavy getaway song that pairs well with a speeding vehicle and an open road. “Obviously [you’re] in a car and you’re getting the fuck out of a problem, or a bad situation,” explained frontman Eddie Vedder of the song in the documentary Single Video Theory. Along with the off-kilter, obtrusive rave-up “Do the Evolution,” it serves as a welcome pick-me-up towards the end of an otherwise restrained Pearl Jam album. — JAYME KLOCK
42. Cam’ron faet. Noreaga, “Glory” (Confessions of Fire)
“I’m here now!” shouts a triumphant, cackling Killa Cam on “Glory,” the proper intro to his debut album Confessions of Fire. “They should have never let me in the muthafuckin’ game!” Arguable, but Cam’Ron certainly sounded like he was here to stay, spitting over a righteous early Swizz Beatz production about his crew sprinkling coke on their corn flakes and canceling you like your name was Martin Lawrence. We’d meet the rest of them soon enough, but for now, Cam brought his NY compatriot N.O.R.E. along for the hook, giving Big Apple ‘heads a little preview of the one-word refrain that’d shoot him to stardom a couple months later. — A.U.
41. Elliott Smith, “Independence Day” (XO)
Calling someone a sellout feels very ’90s. Singer-songwriter Elliott Smith didn’t sign to a major label until his fourth solo studio album, XO, released on the now-defunct DreamWorks, and you know what terrible thing happened once he sold out to a major? He made a more fleshed-out record that kept his lyrical intimacy intact. “You only live a day/ But it’s brilliant anyway,” he sings to a “future butterfly” on “Independence Day,” picking at his acoustic guitar, his own layered vocals providing backing harmonies. There’s a sadness to all of Smith’s music, but the insistent tambourine makes this song about transition sound improbably jaunty. “So go to sleep, make the change/ I’ll meet you here tomorrow,” he promises, soothing any fears of the unknown. — CHRISTINE WERTHMAN
40. Liz Phair, “Big Tall Man” (whitechocolatespaceegg)
Liz Phair has forever suffered from incredible-first-album syndrome. While everyone was looking for a reprise of 1993’s lacerating Exile in Guyville, the Chicago singer’s third LP, whitechocolatespaceegg, was merely a buzzbomb of shiny pop-rock songcraft, spiked with Phair’s signature laconic vocals, strummy guitar, and biting wit. “Tall Man’ is a clever gender flip about how being a dude would be so much easier (“I’m a big, tall man/ I cut the grass/ My left eye hurts/ I am waiting and reading parts/ I can be a complicated communicator”) from the same woman who became a sensation for skewering male privilege five years earlier. Too smart by half for radio in 1998, “Big Tall Man” is the sly #MeToo anthem whose time might be right now. — G.K.
39. Madonna, “Swim” (Ray of Light)
Madonna’s Ray of Light album was about her spiritual awakening, and “Swim” reflected the emotional weight that often came with seeing that journey through. The song’s ethereal production bellows and crashes like the ocean’s waves as she tries to search for a safe space in a chaotic world. The melancholy of “Swim” is a result of its tragic backstory: Madonna received a phone call that her close friend Gianni Versace had been murdered on the same day she recorded the track. The sorrow heard through Madonna’s deep vocals is unmistakable. — BIANCA GRACIE
38. Dave Matthews Band, “The Stone” (Before These Crowded Streets)
Thank the Kronos Quartet, a four-decade-old venerable presence on Billboard’s classical charts, for the rich supplementary instrumentation underlying one of DMB’s longest, proggiest songs. There’s barely a hook here, if you’re wondering why it didn’t at least get cut down to some sort of radio edit-length morsel, but it remains one of the band’s top greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts performances. Oh, and stay for the special Bela Fleck cameo in the last 20 seconds. — KEVIN RUTHERFORD
37. LeAnn Rimes “Sittin’ on Top of the World” (Sittin’ on Top of the World)
Between the Con Air vocal showcase “How Do I Live” and the Coyote Ugly dance-pop banger “Can’t Fight the Moonlight,” LeAnn Rimes declared she was “Sittin’ on Top of the World” with the winning title track from her third studio album. The song’s gentle saunter captures the 15-year-old singer straddling the line between country and mainstream pop, her vocals shifting between Nashville twang and diva-styled vocal runs. The delicate balancing act wouldn’t last, but for a minute there it really did seem like the world was hers for the taking. — JOE LYNCH
36. Massive Attack, “Dissolved Girl” (Mezzanine)
One of Massive Attack’s best in-song tricks, particularly with its ‘90s output, came when the trio veered from its ruminating, pulsating trip-hop mid-song and unleashed a torrent of crunching electric guitar onto unsuspecting listeners – and then eased back into its original pacing like nothing ever happened. Exhibit A: The six-minute Mezzanine Side B odyssey “Dissolved Girl.” Yes, you heard this in The Matrix. — K.R.
35. OutKast, “Aquemini” (Aquemini)
Aquemini is, among many deserving accolades, the standard for affirming brothership and solidarity during a trying time. The rumormongers and haters who looked askance at Outkast and, in particular, Andre 3000’s vibe going into this album were silenced by the opener and had to have been stunned by the title track. “Until they close they close the curtain, it’s him and I: Aquemini,” a helium-voiced Andre (the Gemini) explains on the hook, over guitar that sounds like neon in a foggy swamp, before he and Big Boi (the Aquarian) deliver verses that rank among their best. In particular, Andre’s verses brim over with aphoristic sagacity and imagery that time-travels you back to his youth in Atlanta, delivered in distinct flows that drift and, later, snaps from bar to bar like hopscotch. When people describe OutKast as the greatest hip-hop group, they’re hearing songs like this. — R.S.
34. Monica, “Ring da Bell” (The Boy Is Mine)
A ballad soulful enough to earn the affected vinyl scratchiness of its production, the Dallas Austin-helmed “Ring da Bell” finds Monica bemoaning her no-good man for not only cheating on her, but also knocking up the woman he’s creeping with. (“Confessions 0.5”?) The waltzing beat threatens to overwhelm the singer with sentimentality, but there’s that titular bell showing up every fourth measure to snap her back to reality, reminding her it’s to carry on and move along. — A.U.
33. Brooks and Dunn, “Born and Raised in Black and White” (If You See Her)
Despite the name perhaps suggesting otherwise, it was rare to hear both Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn alternating lead vocals on the same song – in fact, “Born and Raised,” from fifth studio album If You See Her, was the first time it ever happened. That’s not the lone detail making the song worth your while, though; it’s got a smart, anthemic, and constantly evolving chorus that actually would have been right at home on country radio in ’98, had there not already been five stellar singles on the record. — K.R.
32. Fatboy Slim, “In Heaven” (You’ve Come a Long Way Baby)
How many times can you hear the phrase “Fatboy Slim is fucking in heaven” repeated on loop before it seems like you’re actually in hell? Depending on your take, this You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby deep cut — perversely situated immediately after “The Rockafeller Skank,” the album’s most unavoidable hit — is either a four-minute prank (big beat meets the Jerky Boys?) or an impossibly buoyant funk jam. But why can’t it be both? — J.L.
31. Smashing Pumpkins, “For Martha” (Adore)
Although Adore, Smashing Pumpkins’ understated turn away from the stadium-geared alt-rock of their Diamond-selling Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness double-album, has divided critics for years, most agree that Corgan’s touching tribute to his mother Martha (who passed in 1996) is a highlight of the set. “For Martha” is Adore’s requisite epic ballad: Clocking in at 8:16, its ominous piano opening crescendos to searing guitars that complement Corgan’s poetic lyrics surprisingly well, thus making it one of the LP’s few tracks that sounds like an accidental Mellon Collie sequel. — J.K.
30. Big Punisher, “Beware” (Capital Punishment)
The men whose voices anchor “Beware” have both passed. Excluding Fat Joe’s bombastic outro, the song is now the province of the dead: There’s Prodigy, already removed from himself as a sample manipulated by producer Juju, of the Beatnuts, and Big Pun, delivering two claustrophobic verses of Bronx boom-bap. The first solo Latino rapper to earn a Platinum plaque died in 2000, at the age of 28, but “Beware” exemplifies what made him astounding, with deftly delivered yet cramped lines, packed with words. As listeners wrestle with what ethical musical consumption in 2018 looks like, and who can and should be canceled, there’s no ignoring the accounts of partner abuse from Pun’s family. Liza Rios, Pun’s wife and mother of their three children, recalled in an interview with Combat Jack that “ [when] we went to get a marriage license, I had a black eye.” And yet the song is a blistering document of New York hip-hop in the late ‘90s. If you want, treat the song’s title literally, as a warning: There’s no such thing as listening in peace. — R.S.
29. *NSYNC, “I Just Wanna Be With You” (*NSYNC)
In the midst of Euro-dance jams like “Tearin’ Up My Heart” and “Here We Go,” *NSYNC’s self-titled debut had pockets of soul that transcended typical teen fare. “I Just Wanna Be With You” was one of the strongest of them all, fusing the guys’ love for R&B-tinged rhythms and slick harmonies. JC Chasez and Justin Timberlake take turns wooing their respective lovers with lyrics that boldly drip with sensuality. One of the highlights? “I wanna drown in your love, lead me to your water/ Let it flow, just let it flow, baby.” — B.G.
28. Cat Power, “Metal Heart” (Moon Pix)
Chan Marshall, a.k.a. Cat Power, wrote half of her acclaimed album Moon Pix while she was having a vision of being attacked by evil spirits. One of the songs she penned in the midst of that frantic state was “Metal Heart,” a slow, self-reflective burn that remains among her most enduring works. The winding electric guitars and Jim White’s loose drumming make the track seem practically free of structure, the music gently unraveling and tightening as if the band were tuning up rather than playing an actual tune. These sounds curl around Marshall like smoke, and her dusty voice drifts through them, asking “Oh, hidy, hidy, hiding, whatcha tryna prove?/ By hidy, hidy, hiding, you’re not worth a thing.” The song may sound dreamy, but there’s nothing soft about Marshall’s demands for her heart to open itself up to the elements. Call this a ballad of tough self-love. — C.W.
27. System of a Down, “Know” (System of a Down)
System of a Down didn’t break through to the mainstream until their second album, 2001’s blockbuster Toxicity, but the Armenian-American metal outfit was a fully formed weapon of mass destruction on their self-titled 1998 debut. Cuts like “Know” demonstrated their knack for stereo-stuffing riffs that clobber you over the head and leave you begging for additional punishment. — J.L.
26. Foo Fighters, “A320” (Gozilla Soundtrack)
The soundtrack to 1998’s unseemly Godzilla remake was full of oversized and under-developed concoctions like Puff Daddy and Jimmy Page’s Zeppelin-sampling “Come With Me” collab and a redo of Green Day’s “Brain Stew” that mostly just slapped extra wails from the title character over the original chugger. Somehow, sandwiched between these monstrosities was Foo Fighters’ lovely, unassuming “A320,” a string-soaked semi-ballad about in-air queasiness that not only served as one of the group’s most graceful deep cuts — sort of their cross between between Pink Floyd’s “Fearless” and Radiohead’s “Airbag” — but also pointed the way lyrically (“Dream about the day I learned to fly”) to one of their signature hits to come a year later. — A.U.
25. Maxwell, “Everwanting: To Want You to Want” (Embrya)
Maxwell’s ’96 downtempo masterpiece of a debut album, Urban Hang Suite, could hardly be faulted for being too urgent or too busy, so it was a little surprising when two years later, he decided to make his sophomore LP even more meditative and chill. Embrya produced no hits, but it had grooves to spare: thick, luxurious soul workouts that could make you sweat without ever risking any of their own perspiration. The seven-minute second track, “Everwanting,” was perhaps the set’s highlight, all submerged bass, gentle waves of percussion, strings floating by like clouds above, and Maxwell adrift in the middle of it all, happily drowning in the sea of love. — A.U.
24. Whitney Houston, “If I Told You That” (My Love Is Your Love)
After an eight-year break following the release of 1990’s I’m Your Baby Tonight, Whitney Houston made her bold return in ’98 with My Love Is Your Love. The album traded in her signature pop flair for experimentation with hip-hop, reggae ,and classic R&B. Despite not being a single at the time, “If I Told You That” became an immediate highlight, partly due to Rodney Jerkins’ club-ready production. Houston’s vocals were as crisp as ever, and they matched the song’s punchy beats. The song was too damn good to stay buried, and was later re-recorded — with additional vocals from pop-star peer George Michael — and released as a single in 2000. — B.G.
23. Marilyn Manson, “Mechanical Animals” (Mechanical Animals)
Despite having yet to score a conventional radio hit, Marilyn Manson had improbably grown into one of the country’s biggest rock stars by 1998 — and on his third album, Mechanical Animals, he finally decided to start sounding like it. The album was Manson’s most accessible and expansive to date, updating his industrial-tinged shock rock with glammish sleaze and stadium-rock largesse, and on the set’s massive title track, he sounds like David Bowie for the end of the millennium, and perhaps the world along with it. “I’m never gonna be the one for you,” he moans on the chorus — true, as Manson turned out to be poorly cast as rock’s savior, rather than its villain. But for at least a couple songs there, he was convincing enough to have us wondering. — A.U.
22. Lauryn Hill feat. D’Angelo, “Nothing Even Matters” (The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill)
It’s no question that The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill has become the standard of excellence among soul-inflected hip-hop albums. Not to be lost in the mix is “Nothing Really Matters,” Hill’s heartfelt six-minute balled with D’Angelo, which details how being in love makes everything else — including Ms. Hill’s “boss calling” to “some natural catastrophe”– seem irrelevant. It’s an extremely romantic turn on an album filled with cautionary tales and upbeat R&B jams, and the pair’s alternating verses complement each other beautifully — leaving you wishing both were even slightly more prolific, so there’d be a chance of them collaborating again. — XANDER ZELLNER
21. Lucinda Williams, “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” (Car Wheels on a Gravel Road)
Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is one of those albums that has the ability to transport you to a time and place that you personally have never existed in. “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” takes us to the American South, specifically to a classic juke joint in Rosedale, Mississippi. If you’ve never gotten past the famous title track on this album, consider listening on to this irresistible alt-folk shuffler, which makes you want to grab a booth seat, crack open a cold one, and chat with the locals. — GAB GINSBERG
20. Garbage, “Medication” (Version 2.0)
Garbage’s Version 2.0 was propped up by its mod-influenced singles “I Think I’m Paranoid,” “When I Grow Up” and “Special,” three frenetic rock bangers with a futuristic bent. But one of the Scottish-American group’s strongest suits was when it harnessed the emotive vocal power of lead singer Shirley Manson, a selling point for “Medication,” a swaggering mid-tempo ballad that played to the softer side — with vocals both alluring and disorienting, preventing the song from ever becoming totally antiseptic. — S.J.H.
19. Dixie Chicks, “Loving Arms” (Wide Open Spaces)
Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge originally recorded “Loving Arms” as a duet, and dozens of other artists have presented their takes over the years, including Elvis Presley, Dobie Gray, and Etta James. But if any version should have returned the Tom Jans-penned tune to national prominence, it’s the Dixie Chicks’ delicate rendition, which reimagines the mid-tempo ballad with all the fixin’s – fiddle, steel guitar, dobro – alongside an effortlessly sweet vocal from Natalie Maines and lush harmonies by Emily Erwin and Martie Seidel. Need a dark-horse pick for a barn dance’s slow-dance segments? You could do a lot worse. — K.R.
18. Boards of Canada, “Turqoise Hexagon Sun” (Music Has the RIght to Children)
Music Has the Right to Children has a mostly deserved reputation for being very “does acid without leaving the dorm room once,” but there’s a reason why so many undertake that journey each generation: It’s rad. If the bright interludes are bubbles of distraction, “Turqoise Hexagon Sun” is one of the lengthier grooves, a place to get lost in. Notice the pattern in the rug there on the floor. See, you can sort of toggle it on and off, the sudden three-dimensional qualities in what was otherwise the dull, flat thing you dropped your feet on each morning, falling from bed. Sound is a thing in the room with you: the boom-bap drums, the hi-hat that seems to zoom-evaporate in your ear, the languid, what is that, electric piano? And underneath it all, the chatter of young people, living all around you, and in your speakers too. — R.S.
17. Destiny’s Child feat. Pras, “Illusion” (Destiny’s Child)
It’s easy to forget that Destiny’s Child broke through not because of Beyonce’s diva-caliber belting skills, but because of her half-rapped, double-time rhymes on “No, No, No Pt. 2.” The Pras collaboration “Illusion,” from the group’s self-titled debut, took that same energy and Beyonce’s motormouth delivery, but it outfitted them with a sweeter, stronger hook melody — borrowed from Isaac Hayes’ “Hung Up On My Baby,” via “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” from fellow H-Towners the Geto Boys — and (surprise!) actual contributions from the other members: that’s Kelly Rowland on the first verse, and LaTavia Roberson coming through with a rapped bridge. — N.F.
16. Semisonic, “Never You Mind” (Feeling Strangely Fine)
If you didn’t look past the group’s canonized karaoke classic “Closing Time,” then it’d be easy to miss that Semisonic’s 1998 breakthrough sophomore album Feeling Strangely Fine is stacked with tracks that still hold up today. (Credit lead singer and main songwriter Dan Wilson, who went on to write for Florence + the Machine and Adele.) Even among a treasure chest of gems, “Never You Mind” stands out, a honky-tonk pop number with an unpredictable melody and a solid sing-a-long chorus with no shortage of falsetto. — S.J.H.
15. Pulp, “The Fear” (This Is Hardcore)
Britpop heroes Pulp probably weren’t trying to kill the genre that catapulted them to mid-’90s stardom with the staggering opening track to their This Is Hardcore album — and by ’98, the expiring movement might not have needed the push anyway — but it was pretty unmistakable by song’s end that the good times were no longer rolling. “This is the sound of someone losing the plot/ Making out that they’re OK when they’re not/ You’re gonna like it, but not a lot,” “The Fear” promises in its famous downer of a first verse over blaring air-raid siren chords, just before frontman Jarvis Cocker winds up for the anti-anthemic chorus singalong: “Here comes the fear again/ The end is near again!” The party was definitely over, but what was happening in the next room sounded more interesting anyway. — A.U.
14. Black Star, “Brown Skin Lady” (Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star)
Starting with a sample from the 1989 indie flick Chameleon Street bashfully championing light-complexioned women (“I’m a victim of 400 years of conditioning!”), Mos Def and Talib Kweli go on to refute such colorism on their first and only album together as Black Star, with a gorgeous five-minute shoutout to ladies whose “skin’s the inspiration for cocoa butter.” The song’s starry-eyed groove, borrowed from Gil-Scott Heron and Brian Jackson’s “We Almost Lost Detroit” and sounding like a perpetually dropped jaw, remains its most persuasive argument, and the two rappers fill in around it admirably with informal not-saying-just-saying praise and a brilliant less-is-more chorus: “Brown-skin lady/ Where ya goin’?” — A.U.
13. Beastie Boys, “Super Disco Breakin'” (Hello Nasty)
With a barrage of hissing drums and that indistinguishable bass line — is it a grimy synth? A warehouse alarm going off? A brass instrument from another dimension? — “Super Disco Breakin” was a fitting amuse bouche to the all-you-can-eat buffet of sounds that was the trio’s Hello Nasty LP. Mike D, Ad-Roc, and MCA don’t just trade off lines, at times they trade off every other word, making for a tight, focused two minutes. Perhaps its brevity explains why it never got a single release: “Remote Control” pulls from the same toolbox or distorted riffs, and “Body Movin’” practically has the same cadence in its hook — but neither gets quite as in your face as this one. — N.F.
12. Air, “La femme d’argent” (Moon Safari)
The introduction to the journey that is the French duo’s debut album, Moon Safari, “La femme d’argent” is a considerable voyage, voyage unto itself. A plush, seven-minute instrumental, you can practically see the opening credits roll as the song’s spectral electric piano riffing and trademark soft-porn bass line gently tango — until the sci-fi synths and double-time tambourine propel it to its panoramic climax. You may not be sure exactly where you’re going by the end of it, but you’re safe in the knowledge that it’s a couple of professionals behind the wheel. — A.U.
11. Gang Starr, “Moment of Truth” (Moment of Truth)
Keith Edward Elam wasn’t yet a parent in the ‘90s, but he sometimes rapped like one. The rapper known as Guru calls himself the “king of monotone” on 1998’s “Moment of Truth,” the title track to Gang Starr’s fifth album — but it’s more accurate to think of him as a dad imparting advice in a measured, contemplative tone. Borne high on the stately wings of a Gamble and Huff string sample, Guru acts like a less verbose Polonius dropping wisdom: “Nobody’s invincible, no plan is foolproof/ We all must meet our moment of truth.” There’s equal parts matter and art as he criticizes other MCs for “struggl[ing] to juggle tricky metaphors,” but the song never becomes a full-blown lecture because he doesn’t forget the most crucial subject for judgment: himself. — R.S.
10. Madonna, “Shanti / Ashtangi” (Ray of Light)
No one was asking Madonna for a Hindu Sanskrit prayer set to club music in 1998, but she was so on top of her game with Ray of Light that “Shanti/Ashtangi” makes it sound perfectly reasonable that spiritual enlightenment is best found on a booming dancefloor. With text adapted from Indian philosopher Shankara and pronunciation assists from Sanskrit expert Vagish Shastri, Madge made inner peace and chilly techno seem like the most strangely satisfying odd couple around – at least until Rush Hour opened that fall. — J.L.
9. DMX, “Damien” (It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot)
The stakes in DMX’s music are rarely less than his everlasting soul. When rap fans wax poetic about D they talk about pain and violence and suffering — primordial stuff. But don’t let it be said that the Yonkers MC wasn’t an intentional, conceptual storyteller. “Damien” is perhaps the best example of this side of the rapper. Like Biggie on “Gimme the Loot,” DMX plays two characters on the track, himself and the titular devil offering a Faustian bargain that will only lead to trouble and doom. Dame Grease’s horror-score synths complement the tale with the on-the-nose garishness of B-movie blood as D falls deeper into a trap there’s no turning back from. — R.S.
8. Neutral Milk Hotel, “Two-Headed Boy” (In the Aeroplane Over the Sea)
The gushing praise for this Pet Sounds of ’90s indie has grown exponentially over the past 20 years. Jeff Mangum’s lo-fi punk-folk concept album might be a meditation on man’s endless search for unity in love — or it’s about Anne Frank, who knows? — but either way, it reaches a frantic peak on this track about a two-headed circus freak trapped in glass. Subsisting only on Mangum’s perfectly imperfect yelp and double-time acoustic strumming, the abstract lyrics (“Put on Sunday shoes/ And dance ‘round the room to accordion keys/ With the needle that sings in your heart”) remain a mystery that’s still unfolding two decades on. Hundreds of listens leave the answers as elusive as the central image (“We will take off our clothes/ And they’ll be placing fingers through the notches of your spine”), which remains one of the most haunting, erotic couplets in modern rock. There are no answers, only constant discovery. Just about the most you could ever really ask for from a rock song, right? — G.K.
7. Korn, “It’s On!” (Follow the Leader)
If this one feels more familiar to MTV viewers than a usual deep cut, there’s a reason for that: The woozy, chugging intro to “It’s On!” served as the song blaring from the band’s boombox at the beginning of their massively popular “Got the Life” video. But the clip switches over to “Life” before the song really kicks in, leaving it a thrill you had to purchase third album Follow the Leader for — something millions of teens were more than happy to meet Korn halfway on in ’98. They didn’t make you wait too long, either: “It’s On!” serves as the album’s slamming opener, a glorious mosh of chunking bass, seven-string guitar, synth squiggles, and of course the depressive cheerleading of frontman Jonathan Davis. It easily earns its exclamation mark, and could maybe have gotten away with a second. — A.U.
6. Brandy, “Never Say Never” (Never Say Never)
The title track to Brandy’s star-cementing third album, “Never Say Never” was ultimately released as a single in German-speaking Europe(?) in 2000, but never got a push in the U.S. Must’ve just been a question of volume — Never had already spun off five fairly successful singles stateside, though it’s hard to imagine that this wouldn’t have been bigger than at least one or two of ’em — but the Rodney Jerkins-produced jam remains one of the R&B icon’s finest. Leading the song’s arresting mix of dreamy guitar curls, dub-like bass, and softly propulsive drums, Brandy sings in casual disbelief about a relationship improbably thriving despite the haters, while the song’s riff underlines her incredulity with every chorus utterance of the title phrase. It feels like the answer to the anxiety and heartbreak in the central question of the album’s Hot 100-topping “Have You Ever?” Yes, and this is why. — A.U.
5. New Radicals, “Mother We Just Can’t Get Enough” (Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too)
It’s impossible to deny the brilliant pen of New Radicals front man Gregg Alexander. His group, which released sole album Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too in Oct. 1998, became an unlikely TRL staple with its rage-against-the-establishment single “You Get What You Give.” At the height of the band’s popularity, a disillusioned Alexander dissolved the band before it could put out a second single — ditching the spotlight in favor of behind-the-scenes writing for artists like Ronan Keating, Carly Hennessy, and Girls Aloud, even penning Santana and Michelle Branch’s 2002 hit “The Game of Love” and earning an Oscar nomination for 2015’s Begin Again soundtrack. But his songwriting shone from the start. On New Radicals’ debut and finale, “Mother We Just Can’t Get Enough” kicks off the festivities with one of the set’s tightest songs, a bongo-festooned epic that lasts for nearly six minutes and plays like an impossibly joyous celebration of live pop instrumentation. It’s a testament to a moment in time where Alexander sounded uninhibited and carefree about the rocky road he would soon travel. — S.J.H.
4. JAY-Z feat. Beanie Sigel, The LOX & Sauce Money, “Reservoir Dogs” (Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life)
“Reservoir Dogs” off JAY-Z’s Vol.2…Hard Knock Life marks a marquee late-90’s meeting of the minds, with turns from the Brooklyn MC in his breakout moment, Yonkers trio The LOX hot off their Platinum-selling debut Money, Power & Respect, freshly minted Roc-A-Fella signee Beanie Sigel, and frequent Hov collaborator Sauce Money. The tension of the “Theme From Shaft” riff sample only adds to the cinematic, street-wise delivery from the motley crew befitting the song’s namesake, while rising heavyweights like Styles P and Jadakiss give shades of Mr. Pink looking for their due respect. With an ensuing beef between the Roc and Ruff Ryders that took over a decade to squash, “Reservoir Dogs” stands as a truly once-in-a-lifetime all-star collaboration that seems unbelievable in hindsight. — B.K.
3. Lauryn Hill, “To Zion” (The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill)
It’s almost a crime to choose a favorite song from Lauryn Hill’s debut masterpiece, which is filled with 16 self-reflective songs that tackle jealousy, redemption, heartbreak, gender stereotypes, and more. But “To Zion,” the singer’s beautiful ode to her first child, is one of the album’s most gripping tales. Once it was revealed that Hill was pregnant, some people around her encouraged her to get an abortion, as she was in the height of her solo career. But instead of giving into the pressure, she thought with her heart and decided to give her baby life. Laid over tender flicks of Carlos Santana’s guitar, Hill’s vocals travel through emotional hills and valleys as she reflects on new motherhood. By the time Hill’s voice begins to crack while shouting “My joy!” towards the end of the song, you’re probably wiping tears away.
As proven too many times, the darkest parts of the music industry are often directed towards women, where they are instructed to choose between their own happiness and conventional wisdom about success. Hill brought that conversation to the forefront with “To Zion,” and the topic still continues 20 years later with Cardi B — the only female rapper since Ms. Hill to have an unassisted No. 1 atop the Hot 100 — who hid the initial months of her pregnancy because she was fearful of judgment by those who didn’t think she could balance being a parent and artist. But icons like Hill helped lay the foundation for fellow female artists by showing the strength in saying “no.” Now, the significance of “To Zion” has come full circle, with Zion himself welcoming his first child in February 2017. — B.G.
2. Hole, “Heaven Tonight” (Celebrity Skin)
There are essentially two types of Hole fans: ones who prefer 1994’s Live Through This, and others who ride for 1998’s Celebrity Skin. The dichotomy between the two is clear: The former is dressed down and raw, a punk assailment with moments of frail vulnerability, while the latter is a buttoned-up, studio-polished collection of perfect pop-rock songs. It was a notable step up for Courtney Love and the gang, a bid for mainstream stardom that saw them teaming up with Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan for roughly half of the songwriting. The move saw its intended result: Celebrity Skin became the quartet’s highest-selling set in its four-album career, and yielded two of its biggest hits with the title track and “Malibu.”
What made Celebrity Skin such a formidable creative force, though, was the cohesive aesthetic threaded throughout the LP’s 12 tracks. Each song had its own personality — the controversial “Hit So Hard,” the Wall of Sound rush of “Boys on the Radio,” the thrashing “Reasons to Be Beautiful” — but few as forceful as the power-pop banger “Heaven Tonight,” which bursts with arpeggiated electric guitars and an ebullient, hopeful chorus. Love’s serrated vocals offer a counterpoint to the dulcet tone of the song, a contrast that not just worked on the track, but on Celebrity Skin as a whole. It captures a moment in time for Love, as well as all others involved, when they were firing on all cylinders, stars exploding in the night. — S.J.H.
1. OutKast, “SpottieOttieDopaliscious” (Aquemini)
A deep cut now better known than the great majority of ’98 singles, “SpottieOttieDopaliscious” is the magnum opus of Andre 3000 and Big Boi’s prime years: a seven-minute slo-funk meditation on life, love, music, maturity, prejudice, violence, and peak Evander Holyfield. Set up by a scene-setting intro from special guest Sleepy Brown, the duo trade bars for poetry that doesn’t quite slam as much as it finger-rolls, delicately but authoritatively hitting the net’s center. Dre’s verse details a night at the club that starts as a coming-of-age flick and ends as a horror movie, an implicit warning of the dangers of over-romanticizing youth’s folly to the point of sacrificing your future. Big Boi’s narrative follows a similar arc, a love story bursting with humanity that turns into a cautionary tale about starting a family before you’re adult enough to take responsibility for one. Both testify, but neither moralize; they leave any final judgments to the trumpets.
The song’s achievement is stunning for several reasons. First and foremost, they create the funkiest groove of the ’90s that has nothing to do with Dr. Dre or George Clinton out of a goddamn Genesis lift — and we’re talking Peter Gabriel, concept double-album-era Genesis, not even reclaimed mid-’80s, Phil Collins-owning-pop-radio Genesis. The jam lasts for seven minutes, but by the time it’s done, you’re not sure if it’s been playing for three minutes or 30 — it’s engrossing and immersive the way few songs from any genre were in the late-’90s. And finally, what really endures about the song is its overwhelming sense of empathy: the duo passing on their own reads on the sitch-i-a-tion, clearly talking from their own experiences as much as they observe, never failing to understand how good folks in good situations still end up in the eternally echoing trap. No one outside of Sam Elliott was dropping knowledge like this in ’98, and by song’s end, you were just grateful that Andre and Antwan were out there, taking ‘er easy for all us sinners. — A.U.