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, we revisit some ’98 releases that, while relatively unheralded at the time, kicked off some of the most storied careers in 21st-century rock — and ask the question: Could you already tell that they were the bands we’d come to know and love?
1998 had no shortage of major debuts in music; it’s the year DMX dropped It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot (and Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood!), when Train exploded onto the rock and pop scenes with “Meet Virginia” and its eponymous debut full-length, a time when the era of our lord and savior Beyonce truly began with Destiny’s Child’s first album, which immediately spawned the top five Billboard Hot 100 hit “No, No, No.”
But as with every year, a slew of eventually noteable acts tossed out their own recordings for the first time to more diminished press. From demos or EPs that, pre-YouTube, were tough to get one’s hands on, to full-length debuts that simply missed the mark commercially, some didn’t have the storied arrival others did with their first releases, even though they went on to later stardom. (The inverse, of course, was true as well — New Radicals, anyone? Gomez? Eagle-Eye Cherry? Cleopatra?)
The following eight bands either kicked off their careers with their first full-length, label-backed releases in 1998 or put out their debut EPs or demos preceding full-lengths in coming years. Some are strong first efforts that fans regularly return to 20 years later, some are very much not. One even had its share of minor radio success, though nowhere near its eventual peak.
All of them are bands you know today. You just probably didn’t then.
Bright Eyes, A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997
If you’re looking for Conor Oberst circa the 2000s or even the 2010s, you’re better suited to check out Letting Off the Happiness, his second album as Bright Eyes released in 1998, rather than its predecessor, which arrived in January 1998. Not that Collection isn’t worth your while if you’re an Oberst disciple, but it’s by all accounts an exceptionally raw record, particularly with regards to its production and instrumentation.
Of course, it’s not exactly presented as a polished offering; Collection bands together 20 songs Oberst wrote between the ages of 15 and 17, and it’s quite the lo-fi affair, like a roundup of demos rather than fully formed material. Even his vocal hasn’t quite reached its final form yet, though that now-unmistakable warble surfaces many places in its hour-plus runtime.
The songwriting, though? Yeah, it’s not all perfect, but songs like “A Celebration Upon Completion” and “Exaltation on a Cool Kitchen Floor” suggest what was to come. The kid had talent.
Muse, Muse (EP)
The Muse as many know it – guitar solos, rafters-reaching anthems, frontman Matt Bellamy swaggering across stage, copious amounts of lyrics about oppressive governments and drones – kicks off in the early 2000s with 2001’s Origin of Symmetry. Its predecessors, such as debut full-length Showbiz (1999), were often disregarded as Radiohead copycats, not just due to Bellamy’s falsetto range but the way in which he used it; not to mention guitar work that generally fit into more conventional boxes rather than later Tom Morello-esque solos and heavy riffing.
Muse, the English trio’s extremely limited-release debut EP, is mostly a less-polished rendition of what was to come on Showbiz, with only “Coma” not making the ensuing full-length’s final cut, while the other three received noticeable makeovers. Bellamy’s striking-to-this-day vocal range is already on display on the band’s debut, and bassist Chris Wolstenholme and drummer Dominic Howard are tight as ever as a rhythm section, but what’s mostly missing is Muse’s eventual penchant for spontaneity and experimentation, all three members rarely stretching outside their comfort zones. “Cave” nonetheless remains a jam – that bass line!
Coldplay, Safety (EP)
At three songs long, Coldplay’s first professional release as a band is more of a demo to sate appetites (and give away to record labels) for recorded music from the British quartet rather than show off the songwriting muscle that was evident on the band’s debut full-length, 2000’s Parachutes.
But even though none of the material actually made it to Parachutes (two songs were featured on the band’s pre-Parachutes Parlophone EP The Blue Room, and the third showed up as a B-side to “Yellow”), Safety shows a band already in control of its future. Chris Martin’s voice has the ethereal quality that would highlight Coldplay’s material for years to come–– both in his falsetto and his lower register — and Jonny Buckland’s guitar has a little more ‘90s-flavored reverb, but is otherwise fairly representative of what was to come. (One could argue that Guy Berryman has a little more to do on bass here than in later early releases, however.)
The one thing that’s definitely missing? The piano/keyboards for which Coldplay would become known — which occasionally surfaces, but is generally supplanted by electric guitar (think “Yellow” more than “Trouble”).
Death Cab for Cutie, Something About Airplanes
Here’s the thing about Something About Airplanes, Death Cab for Cutie’s full-length debut: No, it’s not particularly memorable melodically. Yes, there are touchstones of Chris Walla production to come, from guitar tone to the reverb around Ben Gibbard’s vocal, but he’s not quite at Transatlanticism or even We Have the Facts and We’ve Voting Yes levels yet. Sure, the random vocal samples that waft in on songs like “President of What?” and “Amputations” don’t exactly add much to any of the proceedings. And most importantly, there’s little here lyrically – on a full song level or even just little snippets of a track – that really stands out and impacst the listener in a way that might cause said listener to update their AIM away message immediately, a trait for which Gibbard and Co. would eventually be known.
Nonetheless, take a listen and try not to hear the album’s influence on a good chunk of the indie rock bands from your college town in the early- to mid-2000s. They were certainly on to something.
Snow Patrol, Songs for Polarbears
The Snow Patrol you know — “Chasing Cars,” adult alternative-focused radio glory, etc. — has been around for long enough now that there’s a generally agreed-upon concept of who the Garry Lightbody-fronted band is. That’s why, if you haven’t yet, you should absolutely check out the Northern Irish rockers’ 1998 debut, Songs for Polarbears.
There, you’ll get a peek at a band that very much did not know what it wanted to be yet, veering between post-grunge, noisy alt rock, shoegaze and Radiohead’s late-‘90s output with reckless abandon. 1998-era Snow Patrol is a band miles away from “Chasing Cars,” or even 2003 ballad “Run.”
That’s not to say the quality is altogether subpar – “Starfighter Pilot” remains a sublime, peppy slice of late-era grunge – but the band’s better days were very much ahead of it.
System of a Down, System of a Down
The debut album from the Armenian-American alt metal gods hasn’t totally been cast to the wind over the years; in fact, it spawned a pair of top 30 singles on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Songs chart between late 1999 and early 2000. But that’s part of the point here: success wasn’t immediate, and even System’s first full-length LP took a second to catch a major audience.
It’s the strength of these two singles – “Sugar” and “Spiders,” along with a few choice album cuts — that set System of a Down onto the path that culminated with 2001’s Toxicity and its one-two-three punch of “Chop Suey,” the title track and “Aerials,” that still resonates to this day. “Sugar,” for instance, is a less-contained “Chop,” with its ticking-clock bassline and rapped/screamed vocals from Serj Tankian, while “Spiders” showcased the four-piece’s ability to string together a hard-hitting ballad, which would be perfected with “Aerials” on the ensuing release.
What System lacks is abundant melody — but Tankian, Daron Malakian and Co. obviously figured out that part a few years later.
Queens of the Stone Age, Queens of the Stone Age
Of all the acts on this list, none may be less removed from their debut than Queens of the Stone Age. Which is not to say that checking out Queens of the Stone Age and then seguing directly into 2017’s Villains would be a seamless affair — but the seeds of QOTSA albums future were certainly sown in ’98. The band was already toeing the line between melodic alt rock and gritty stoner/desert rock, which continues to permeate each of the Josh Homme-led band’s releases, with an unmistakable swagger that’s only grown with time.
OK, so if that’s the case, why didn’t anything connect at radio? Simple: indie label, and while the melodies are strong, they’re not lodge-in-your-brain catchy yet; leave that to 2000’s Rated R and 2002 follow-up Songs for the Deaf. The vast majority of Queens, however, could be plucked from 1998 and stuck on a QOTSA release two decades later — particularly standouts like “If Only” and “Mexicola” — and no one would bat an eye.
Evanescence, Evanescence (EP)
The gothic, melodic hard rock of Evanescence’s debut full-length Fallen was alive and well five years before its release in Evanescence, the Arkansas band’s first recording (and a rare one at that; reportedly, only 100 copies were ever made). It’s clearly a low-budget recording, from the mixing to singer Amy Lee’s occasional vocal blemishes (she and guitarist/writing partner Ben Moody were still teenagers, after all): Not the type of album one necessarily listens to in heavy rotation among the band’s more polished, label-released fare to come.
But goodness, is it unmistakably Evanescence from the start — likely because, much like Fallen, the majority of the seven-song tracklist is co-written by Lee and Moody. Heck, “Imaginary” ended up re-recorded for Fallen, and mega-hit “My Immortal” nearly made Evanescence’s tracklist in demo form. It’s rough around the edges, but Evanescence is a clear link to Fallen in lyricism and instrumentation, so much so that the band has gone back to multiple tracks for their live shows in later years.