The Best Records of 1998

When you look at big records from 1998, there’s something you immediately notice among their ranks: Soundtracks were huge. Whether you’re talking about blockbuster stinkers with horrible soundtracks (like Armageddon, Godzilla, and City of Angels) or more under-the-radar joints with banging collections (The Big Lebowski, Bulworth, and He Got Game come to mind), they captured the pop culture zeitgeist. Even the Titanic score, which was from the prior year, spent months atop the charts. Thankfully, not every album was a movie comp though! Standout records came from all over the spectrum, from pop icons to smalltown no-names. Following the 1968, 1978, and 1988 entries in our Best of the Decades series, here are the best records of 1998 according to these collectors:

This Is HardcorePulp
Pulp - This Is Hardcore for sale

While it isn’t remembered as fondly as 1995’s Different Class, This Is Hardcore is still one of my favourite albums of the ’90s. I love the way, like The Rolling Stones’ dark masterpiece Let It Bleed, it soundtracked the gathering sense of unease as the end of the decade – and Britpop – neared. The harsh reality dawning as the sun rises the morning after the party.

Pulp were never really a Britpop band as such, and yet for me they emerged from that period with the most credit of all the acts shoved into that pigeonhole. The title track here is a seedy, brooding epic, and songs such as A Little Soul, Sylvia, and Glory Days are underrated gems. I remember, as a fresh-faced 17-year-old, watching Pulp headline the Sunday night at Glastonbury 1998, one of the apocalyptically muddy years. I was soaked to the skin and freezing cold, and they played most of this album – one of the truly great headline sets.

— Gary Walker, Long Live Vinyl

Moon SafariAir
Air - Moon Safari for sale

As mushy as freshly sautéed escargot, intoxicating as fine Champagne, dreamy as a moonlit stroll along the Champs-Élysées, screwball as a Jerry Lewis comedy, and cheesy as aged brie, the robot romance of Parisian artronica duo Air’s Moon Safari is equal parts chic and geek, rich and kitsch, high class and high camp. From the slow-building sensuality of seven-minute opener La Femme d’Argent, to the vocoder pop of Kelly Watch the Stars (which brilliantly evokes those sassy androids who bleep and bloop a disco version of the BeatlesShe’s Leaving Home in the Sgt. Pepper cult movie), to the urbane wedding ballads All I Need and You Make It Easy featuring chanteuse Beth Hirsch, sexy boys Jean-Benoit Dunckel and Nicholas Godin crafted the most c’est-magnifique chillout/makeout soundtrack of the ’90s — and possibly the most romantic thing to come out of France since, well, French kissing.

— Lyndsey Parker, Yahoo! Music

In The Aeroplane Over The SeaNeutral Milk Hotel
Neutral Milk Hotel - In The Aeroplane Over The Sea for sale

I tried my damnedest to go against type for this, but I just couldn’t. Outkast probably deserves the nod for best of 1998 with Aquemini, but there’s still a quirky-indie-sadboy card wedged firmly my wallet. This album was too formative for me to choose anything else. Growing up in a rural area, the idea that a bunch of weirdo friends in a small town could make music like this was revelatory.

In The Aeroplane Over The Sea was idyllic, melancholy, joyful, obtuse, welcoming, eccentric, endearing, and downright bizarre all at once. From the almost unintelligible hum of guitar on Holland, 1945 to the somber brass on the title track to the bagpipes on Untitled — not to mention the singing saw, zanzithophone, and a shortwave radio! — the album cobbles together castaway sounds to create its own language. In the ensuing decades, many have borrowed bits and piece of Neutral Milk Hotel’s musical DNA, but no one has duplicated it.

While some fans have earned unofficial doctorates (and probably some official doctorates) trying to decipher the meaning of frontman Jeff Mangum’s lyrics over the last two decades, I don’t really care so much. Yes, that’s blasphemy. I get it. But the evocative nature of the lyrics and the joy that’s hidden within what seems like sadness is enough to hook me, regardless of why Mangum’s giving Jesus a shout out.

— Sean Cannon, Discogs

The Miseducation of Lauryn HillLauryn Hill
Lauryn Hill - The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill for sale

1998 gave us The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, an album which, over time, has continued to gather mystique and illustrate its uniqueness. Miseducation is a masterful musical statement, in the league of Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, which showcases her tremendous vocal and lyrical range, alongside the vulnerable wisdom of Ms. Hill. The LP is laden with harmonically sweetened melodies and a rhyming flow that earns her respect from even the most discerning rap critics.

Miseducation was a leap forward for soul, R&B and hip hop as it showed how these styles and more could be blended, with the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Today these blends are exceedingly common — even expected — but often through a combination of talents rather than a single voice. This centralisation of perspective is the secret ingredient to Lauryn Hill’s alchemy. Thankfully she was recognised for it and rewarded with nearly 20 million records sold and oodles of industry recognition, including five Grammys. A rare moment when mass public taste and stunningly good music intersect.

— Nate Goyer, The Vinyl Guide

Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed TooNew Radicals
New Radicals - Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too for sale

I was obsessed with the New RadicalsMaybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too when it came out. It kills me that they’ve been pigeonholed in retrospect to a “one-hit wonder” band off the success of the single You Get What You Give, which, though being a catchy  — and even more haunting song 20 years later with its celebrity name checking and shallow value questioning — is but just one song on this eclectic album. From the singer-songwriter lushness of Someday We’ll Know to the pulsating drums of the title track, to the pure pop loveliness of Flowers, this record showcases a timeless variety of songs which sound even more relevant today than they did when I first fell in love with them.

— Dr. Jennifer Otter Bickerdike, Why Vinyl Matters

White LadderDavid Gray
David Gray - White Ladder for sale

Back in the late ’90s while Liam Gallagher was proclaiming “London Swings Again” from the cover of Vanity Fair, David Gray was also there and down on his luck. Having been dropped first by Hut Recordings and then EMI, he decided to have one last roll of the musical dice. His fourth album, White Ladder, was thus cobbled together on a shoestring and an erratic Mac in his North London flat and released on his own label, IHT Records, in November 1998.

The album was a departure from his usual more paired back folksy style, combining Gray’s haunting vocal and acoustic guitar with synths, samples and a drum machine. This electro folk style was well received by Irish ears reaching the top 30 in the Emerald Isle, but it only achieved lacklustre success in England.

But it wasn’t his fate to just “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye.” He was soon picked up as the first signing on Dave Matthews’ new label, ATO Records and with a cash backed re-release in 2000, the album caught the zeitgeist of a new millennium. White Ladder went on to become one of the most important albums of the noughties and remains top of the crop in Ireland, where it’s the biggest album ever sold. “This Year’s Love,” it seems, has definitely lasted.

— Alison Zak-Collins, The Vinyl District

Let’s Shake HandsThe White Stripes
The White Stripes - Let's Shake Hands for sale

Call me a homer, I don’t care…this record is as close to a “before” and “after” designation in my life as may ever exist. Sorry to my wife and kids, but to be fair, this came first. Not only the first release from my favorite band ever, not only the first release I ever worked on, or the first item I ever sold at a merch table…but as perfect a two-song distillation one will ever get from the White Stripes.

Did you know about the limited version with different colored inserts? No? Maybe I’ll have to update the Discogs listing someday.

When manning the mail order for Italy Records back in the day, sitting with HUNDREDS of copies of this record in front of me, I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that people would pay a buttload of money for these one day. We were so gobsmacked when a copy sold on eBay in 2001 for $100! It felt like the apocalypse.

So happy to have this one still in print via Third Man, utilizing the original ’98 vinyl cut by Detroit vinyl legend Ron Murphy (RIP). Just writing all this puts a huge smile on my face, and I can’t think of any 20-year-old record that could do the same. Respect.

— Ben Blackwell, Third Man Records

Something About AirplanesDeath Cab For Cutie
Death Cab For Cutie ‎– Something About Airplanes for sale

Napster, iTunes, and YouTube didn’t exist in 1998, and Amazon was an online bookstore. Vinyl sales were approaching an all-time low, accounting for less than one-half of 1 percent of recorded music sales, while the cassette accounted for 10 percent. The Titanic soundtrack lorded over a Billboard Top 10 that included CDs by Celine Dion, Garth Brooks, Backstreet Boys and the Spice Girls.

Despite major label chart dominance, one year earlier Sleater-Kinney and Modest Mouse had released career defining, independent albums, paving a path for an abundance of bands to follow.

In 1998, all 3 west coast states quietly produced excellent debut albums by young bands on tiny labels: San Francisco’s Creeper Lagoon released I Become Small And Go, Portland’s Sunset Valley released The Blue Speed and Bellingham, Wash.’s Death Cab For Cutie released Something About Airplanes.

Two decades later, it’s evident that these artists shared a common thread: They utilized limited resources to create guitar-driven, boundary shifting debut albums.

Production duo The Dust Brothers helped Creeper Lagoon realize a melodic album whose programmed beats never obscured the fact that Creeper was a rock band. Sunset Valley made a tight, quirky album with mid-song tempo shifts and buzzsaw guitars. Death Cab’s album was the most ambitious. A self-made album that at times sounds like it was tracked in a tin can, Something About Airplanes remains the band’s most anxious and hungry recording, and it helped launch a career that includes GRAMMY nominations and platinum sales.

— Nabil Ayers, 4AD

MadonnaRay Of Light
Madonna - Ray Of Light for sale

The word influential is thrown around a lot in music criticism, but rarely is there a full-length that deserves that title more than Madonna’s Ray of Light, easily one of the most influential pop records of all time.

By 1998, Madonna was already an icon, and it was time for her to do something fresh and new, to do what she does best: reinvent herself. She found inspiration in her faith, in her new role as a mother, and perhaps most importantly, in electronica, which at that time still had not been properly introduced to the masses.

The album’s title track, produced by William Orbit, was a shocking revelation to millions, and it electrified the world, eventually becoming a certified smash that still feels new and exciting 20 years later. Electro-pop officially entered the mainstream with Ray of Light, and the genre still holds firm two decades later.

— Hugh McIntyre, Forbes

How Does Your Garden Grow?Better Than Ezra
Better Than Ezra - How Does Your Garden Grow? for sale

Records are all about memories, right?

I knew it was coming but found myself a little off guard on the Sunday evening when Anne, my girlfriend of 6 months or so, asked if she could “come over to talk.” It was over apparently yet here she was, dressed to the nines for the occasion to collect her toothbrush and with an odd request — that we make a mixtape from my records of our time together. From the couch I watched as she rifled through my collection, her black dress and heels funerial, befitting my mood.

Typically we were into Brit rock then — Supergrass, Suede, Silver Sun, Radiohead, Longpigs, and The Posies’ 1998 release Success, which this entry could easily be on about. An odd outlier was Better Than Ezra’s How Does Your Garden Grow? College rock for certain, but the Louisiana trio went glitchy and electronic and noisy on their fourth release which kept itself in regular rotation given its gumbo of earworms.

Fast forward a year, and I’m in New Orleans for Jazz Fest at the Fairgrounds. Seizing the moment before the day wound into gear, what better time to check in with the answering machine at home (total stone age so one would need a payphone, of course). And I knew this was coming, too. After numerous attempts, Anne found success with taking her own life, resorting to a handgun when dammit, all those overdoses just didn’t work through for her.

Ostensibly I was in New Orleans to, you know, have fun — however, curling up in a ball in the hotel room seemed most befitting. Despite myself, I was coaxed out that evening where, in an odd twist, Better Than Ezra was playing in a small, almost intimate setting. (The venue escapes me.) After a handful of shots at the bar, me and my sad, blue plastic cup made it up real close to the band. And wouldn’t you know, they opened quietly with a slow, dirge-like version of How Does Your Garden Grow?‘s Live Again. All funeral-like.

— Jon Meyers, The Vinyl District

Freak•On•Ica
Girls Against Boys
Girls Against Boys ‎– Freak*on*ica for sale

Having honed their urbane cool on a series of records for the mighty Touch And Go label, Girls Against Boys were the epitome of forward-thinking underground rock, having a great knowledge of post-punk history, a wealth of experience trading in DIY-driven sweat equity, and the great foresight of what was coming next (read: the myriad subgenres of electronica encroaching on the underground).

It’s all here on their major-label salvo for Geffen: Producer Nick Launay melted new chrome all over the band’s cosmopolitan vibes, using electronics and noise as atmospheric textures and not as pop rivets. Guitarist frontman Scott McCloud’s crafting of non sequiturs both social (“Disneyland, NYC” on the pointed One Firecracker) and sexy (“Give me what you give to no one” on the perfect Exile) was at its peak. Alexis Fleisig’s drumming was always in the pocket and the dual-bass grooves of Johnny Temple and Eli Janney made everything feel sinister, making the album’s 12 cuts the perfect soundtrack for participating in contract killings or fleeing from city-block arson.

When Freak•On•Ica came out, fans and critics decried the electronics as sellout maneuvers (the hypo-pricks later waxing eloquently about discs released on the Warp label the following year), and GvsB weren’t given the next-gen post-punk accolades they so obviously deserved. Straight up, Freak•On•Ica was the kind of record boring indie loyalists and the cult of Kurt needed — but they simply didn’t realize it. And that is why it’s the best record Of 1998.

— Jason Pettigrew, Alternative Press

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8 Comments
  • Nov 29,2018 at 2:05 am

    Silver Jews – American Water

    Nothing else really matters from ’98.

  • Oct 29,2018 at 2:23 pm

    In addition to NMH, my list would include:
    Lucinda Williams–Car Wheels on a Gravel Road
    Gillian Welch–Hell among the yearlings
    The McGarrigle Hour
    Elliot Smith–X/O
    Joni Mitchell–Taming the tiger
    Mercury Rev–Deserter’s Songs
    Tim Berne/Michael Formanek–Ornery People
    Loren Mazzacane-Connors/Alan Licht–Hoffman Estates
    Duster–Stratosphere

  • Oct 26,2018 at 1:34 pm

    Ayreon – Into the Electric Castle. This is a masterpiece, should be in everyone’s collection…
    Also a heads up to:
    Queens of the Stone Age – Queens of The Stone Age
    Gov’t Mule – Dose
    Rush – Different Stages
    Dream Theater – Falling into Infinity

  • Oct 26,2018 at 1:19 am

    My List:

    It’s Hard to Find a Friend – Pedro the Lion

    Phantom Power – The Tragically Hip

    Jesus Hits Like the Atom Bomb – Tripping Daisy

    Sold For A Smile – The Gandharvas

    How It Feels To Be Something On – Sunny Day Real Estate

    Head Trip In Every Key – Superdrag

    Good Morning Spider – Sparklehorse

    Blueblood – Silkworm

    S/T – Queens of the Stone Age

    Feverish – Pure

    Pack Up The Cats – Local H

    Four Great Points – June of 44

    End Hits – Fugazi

    This Conversation Is Ending Starting Right Now – Knapsack

    The Answers – Blue October

    Frame & Canvas – Braid

    Transaction de Novo – Bedhead

    White Trash Heroes – Archers of Loaf

    Too many? :P The ’90s is my favorite decade by a wide margin.

  • Oct 25,2018 at 12:30 pm

    Am I assuming right that you’re pulling this data from your very own sales figures from back then? (Was Discogs around in ’98??)

    Anyway – I ask because it’d be SUPER amazing if we were able to filter the best sellers from this year by genre. I’m currently buying up loads of old dance music, and 98 was a key year for the stuff I’m buying. If I could filter that genre by its best sellers, I’d have a whale of a time :)

  • Oct 25,2018 at 2:07 am

    Missing possibles from this list (for me) are:

    Boards of Canada – Music Has the Right to Children
    Massive Attack – Mezzanine
    Beastie Boys – Hello Nasty
    Lucinda Williams – Car Wheels on a Gravel Road
    Beck – Mutations
    Mos Def & Talib Kweli – Black Star

    :)

  • Sep 30,2018 at 8:30 pm

    What about Manics “This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours”

  • Sep 28,2018 at 6:34 am

    Wow! Lauryn Hill compared to Stevie Wonder’s Song in the Key of life. That’s just too much, Nate!

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