The 30 Best Albums of 1998

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The 30 Best Albums of 1998

If you tuned into almost any rock or pop radio station in 1998, you might have lost hope in music. Maybe you’d be lucky enough to catch the tail end of the ‘90s Britpop invasion, Elliott Smith’s out-of-nowhere hit “Miss Misery” or something off the ubiquitous Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. You were much more likely to find Celine Dion, 98 Degrees, Matchbox Twenty, Will Smith, Limp Bizkit, way-past-their-prime Aerosmith, or some other flaccid replica of better music that had been made a few years earlier. But there was so much great music bubbling beneath the behemoth Titanic soundtrack (which was the top selling album of the year). The end of the 20th century saw the debut albums by Bright Eyes, Jurassic 5, Rufus Wainwright, Death Cab for Cutie, Air, Gomez and Dropkick Murphys, and solo debuts from RZA and Lauryn Hill. Techno was invading the pop sphere overseas and indie labels were blooming at home. That’s a big reason we launched Paste in December of that year—as a curated music store, writing about and selling albums by our favorite bands. There were new worlds of music just waiting to be discovered, including some of the albums we’re celebrating here.

It’s hard to believe these records are now 20 years old, but of course the industry has evolved so much faster in those two decades than we could have imagined. In 1998 the first portable mp3 player was born, freaking out major labels just as grassroots music communities and blogs were starting to rattle the cage. Now downloads are bowing to dominant streaming services, and artists can deliver their own music direct to the consumer. But something tells us that if you loved music in 1998, you probably had at least a handful of these 30 great albums on CD.

Read: The 15 Best Albums of 1968

Read: The 30 Best Albums of 1978

Read: The 30 Best Albums of 1988

Here are the 30 best albums of 1998:

rufus-wainwright-st.jpg 30. Rufus Wainwright: Rufus Wainwright
Elvis Costello collaborated with Burt Bacharach on the album Painted from Memory in 1998, but the year’s best example of the sort of extravagantly ornate pop music that Bacharach and Hal David used to write for Dionne Warwick was Rufus Wainwright’s debut album, which boasted the kind of expertly crafted, deceptively conversational, vividly dramatic and understated lyrics that David used to write for Bacharach’s melodies. Wainwright may have grown up in Montreal with his mom and aunt, Kate & Anna McGarrigle; he may be the son of folk satirist Loudon Wainwright, but here he sounds more like an eccentric piano man in the Southern California tradition of Brian Wilson, Jimmy Webb, Randy Newman and Van Dyke Parks. Parks arranged three of the songs, fleshing out Wainwright’s melodic hooks and unpredictable chord changes. The listener is kept off-balance by the unexpected harmonic detours but is rewarded with choruses of strange beauty and heartfelt conviction. —Geoffrey Himes

spoon-sneaks.jpg 29. Spoon: A Series of Sneaks
Spoon’s short dalliance with major labels was a disaster, but at least it lead to their first great album. A Series of Sneaks has a big, shiny, alternative radio-friendly sound, but it didn’t stand a chance in 1998: commercial radio wouldn’t touch something this nervy, and the college radio was suspicious of anything this slick. It’s their loss—this is an album packed full of great riffs and better songs, with a focus on sonic space that foreshadows the Merge albums that would make these Texans huge over the next few years. “Metal Detektor,” “Metal School” and “Advance Cassette” rank with anything in the band’s repertoire, and “30 Gallon Tank” is an early example of the kind of studio experiment they would come to regularly indulge in. if this came out on a big indie like Merge or Matador instead of Elektra in 1998, it’d probably be considered a college-radio classic today. Instead it went straight to the cut-out bins and they were dropped by Elektra within months of its release. —Garrett Martin

aceyalone-human.jpg 28. Aceyalone: A Book of Human Language
A Book of Human Language remains one of the greatest displays of lyrical mastery ever made and far and away the best solo record from a member of the talented West Coast Freestyle Fellowship crew. Aceyalone (born Edwin Hayes Jr.) teamed up with producer Mumbles for this haunting, oft-overlooked collection of 20 tracks with titles like “The Balance,” “The Energy,” “The Hurt” and “The Hold.” From the timeless “Guidelines” to the cryptic “Jabberwocky,” it’s a concept album that explores the composition of language through hip-hop, with a certain depth and darkness that gives you insight into the complexity of Ace-1’s mind. —Adrian Spinelli

bob-mould-last-dog.jpg 27. Bob Mould: The Last Dog and Pony Show
When Bob Mould released this album, he announced that the supporting tour would be his last with a loud, electric band, a decision reflected in the record’s title. It was a fitting farewell from the man who not only invented grunge with Husker Du and Sugar, but gave it its most powerful expression. If his final album with Sugar, File Under: Easy Listening, proved that Mould’s galloping rhythms and swarms of guitar noise could support pop love songs, this solo effort proves his signature sound can also accommodate pop heartbreak songs. The songs are about trying to stave off a break-up and trying to survive its aftermath—songs that often begin with an attempt to be reasonable and soon escalate into an honesty that’s as ruthless with Mould himself as with the ex-lover. The guitar riffs are as instantly recognizable and influential as Chuck Berry’s, Roger McGuinn’s or Lou Reed’s. —Geoffrey Himes

tortoise-tnt.jpg 26. Tortoise: TNT
The catch-all term “post-rock” was invented for bands like Tortoise, who don’t quite defy description but who couldn’t really be accurately described without way too many qualifiers, references and footnotes. So “post-rock” became the name for bands that combined rock instruments, jazz structures, ambient textures, and rhythms and melodic motifs from various musical traditions. TNT is a one-band survey of the wide-ranging possibilities of music, from the spaghetti western grandeur of “I Set My Face to the Hillside,” to the breezy combo of polyrhythms and chugging synth on “The Suspension Bridge at Iguazú Falls,” to the interlocking melodies of the Steve Reich-inspired “Ten-Day Interval” and “Four-Day Interval.” Don’t dismiss it as a bunch of eggheaded easy-listening: Tortoise sounds as fresh and exciting today as they did 20 years ago. —Garrett Martin

death-cab-something.jpg 25. Death Cab for Cutie: Something About Aiplanes
Bellingham, Wash.’s Death Cab for Cutie have scaled the indie mountain since their first official full-band LP on Barsuk, but plenty of fans never discovered early gems like the echoing guitar-and-bass groove of album standout “Your Bruise.” Even in those early days, singer Ben Gibbard displayed a brilliant, intuitive sense of cadence and melody that set him apart from the rest of the bespectacled indie-rock pack. There was an emotional drama boiling over the edge of each indelible hook and elongated vowel. The record’s lo-fi edge—it sounds like it was recorded to worn-out cassette on a thrift-store boombox inside a tin-walled warehouse—can’t fully distract from the songwriting, melodic sense and the catalytic urgency of Death Cab’s early live shows captured on Airplanes. —Litsa Dremousis

pj-harvey-desire.jpg 24. PJ Harvey: Is This Desire?
Coming off the exploding theatrics of 1995’s To Bring You My Love, Polly Jean Harvey pocketed her blues-punk howl and retreated into solitude to build an album of simmering, introverted songs that haunted as much as entertained her growing fan base. Moving the from the fearless first-person narratives of her early records to third-person fiction, she told stories of dark-hued heroines like “Angelene” and “Catherine,” smudging their stories with quiet slates of dubby bass and electronic menace. There’s still plenty of forward momentum on Is This Desire?, as on the echoing goth-blues of “A Perfect Day Elise” and the stomping chorus of “The Sky Lit Up,” but this album is more concentrated on the grimy undercurrent of songs like “My Beautiful Leah,” with its crusty synths and Harvey’s ominous narration. The bleak soundscape of “Joy” sounds miles from actual joyfulness, but Harvey’s songcraft here is undeniable as she builds her own folktales from shards of U.K. trip-hop. —Matthew Oshinsky

at-the-drive-in-casino.jpg 23. At the Drive-In: In/Casino/Out
Few punk bands have shown a greater willingness to experiment than At the Drive-In. The band’s second album was transitional, to be sure, as the El Paso crew turned from lo-fi scuzz to a more polished sound, but In/Casino/Out is a showcase for dizzying, off-kilter rhythms, lacerating guitars and Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s redline vocals. An emo touchstone, At the Drive-In are just as much about intellect as wringing emotion, and the songs here are packed with social and political commentary alongside the usual emo angst about infidelity and hopeless longing. The band arguably hit its peak with the next album, Relationship of Command, but In/Casino/Out captured the savage energy At the Drive-In brought to concert stages, and it’s an album that’s impossible to forget. —Eric R. Danton

fatboy-slim-long-way.jpg 22. Fatboy Slim: You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby
Norman Cook, aka Fatboy Slim, along with Moby and the Chemical Brothers, dominated the electronic boom of the late ’90s by throwing his songs into every commercial, TV show and teen rom-com (it’s only fitting that the title of You’ve Come a Long Way Baby was inspired by a Virginia Slims marketing slogan). Even without owning the album, you probably heard every track in some form or another. Recorded complete on an Atari ST computer, Cook turned soul samples and rhythmic repetition into dance-hall hits and gave electronic music just a bit more depth. With four top 10 singles—”The Rockafeller Skank,” “Gangster Tripping,” “Praise You” and “Right Here, Right Now”—Fatboy Slim managed to break through the unimaginative sameness of 1998 radio. —Ross Bonaime

madonna-ray.jpg 21. Madonna: Ray of Light
Madonna  was already a known master of reinvention when she returned with Ray of Light after a four-year break from making albums. She’d been the Material Girl on 1984’s Like a Virgin, a soul diva on 1989’s Like a Prayer, a dominatrix on 1992’s Erotica—she’d even been Eva Peron for a couple years. By 1998, the only thing left for Madonna to be was herself, and Ray of Light served as an introduction of sorts to a 40-year-old new mother who was just discovering her true spiritual self. As usual, her timing was impeccable. Grunge had crumbled beneath the weight of its own self-seriousness and boy bands were ascendent; the world needed a little truth. Embracing the crisp techno overtaking Britain and merging it with an Eastern-flavored psychedelia that recalled the music of her own childhood, Madonna looked inward on opener “Drowned World/Substitute for Love,” singing, “I traded fame for love without a second thought / it all became a silly game, some things cannot be bought.” With some of the strongest songwriting of her career on songs like “The Power of Good-Bye” and the title track, Madonna was ushering pop music into the new millennium. —Matthew Oshinsky

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