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:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20. Alejandro Escovedo: More Miles Than Love: Live

Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and Lou Reed’s Street Hassle were brilliant examples of how chamber-music strings could be incorporated into a nerve-jangling rock ‘n’ roll band, and Alejandro Escovedo used their examples to create the best chamber-rock album of all, this compilation of live performances, a miracle of personal catharsis and harmonic grandeur. Escovedo’s spectral tenor and the great Joe Eddy Hines’s barbed guitar establish the agitated dissatisfaction behind each song, but Brian Standefer’s cello and David Perales’s violin supply the legato notes that offer some hope—just out of reach but there nonetheless. The 12-minute, album-closing medley of Escovedo’s vertigo-inducing “Gravity” and Reed’s “Street Hassle” may well be the decade’s high point. —Geoffrey Himes

19. Mercury Rev: Deserter’s Songs

Mercury Rev’s fourth album was the great turning point for an already great band. After three albums of gloriously unhinged psychedelia, founding members Jonathan Donahue and Sean “Grasshopper” Mackowiak upended their sound, aiming for songs that were deceptively simple but contained depths of feeling inside lush sonic backdrops. The psych elements remained, they were just tempered by an interested in rustic folk-rock (Garth Hudson and Levon Helm of The Band both make notable appearances) and a glassy-eyed pop sensibility. Add to the mix the sharp production of Dave Fridmann, who also contributed instrumentally to the project, and Mercury Rev came away with a sweeping yet intimate work that inspired a new generation of songwriters with an eye toward slow-burning beauty. —Robert Ham

18. Silver Jews: American Water

When you’re debating which Silver Jews album is the best, there’s a great argument for pretty much all of them. It’s really hard to vote against American Water, though. David Berman’s songwriting is as strong as it ever got on songs like “Random Rules,” “People” and “Blue Arrangements,” which are full of his inspired wordplay and swaddled in his melancholy mien without ever getting too precious or cloying about either. Original member Stephen Malkmus returned to sing on a few songs with Berman, and their voices complement each other as well as they did on 1994’s Starlite Walker. American Water is where Berman truly came into his own as a bandleader. —Garrett Martin

17. Sparklehorse: Good Morning Spider

It’s hard to imagine that Sparklehorse would have ended up on a major label at any other time than in the ’90s, when the majors were engaged in what was essentially an indie-rock scavenger hunt inspired by the success of grunge. Sparklehorse’s second album was a reflection of mastermind Mark Linkous’s recovery from a near-fatal overdose in 1996 that left his legs temporarily paralyzed. Good Morning Spider is at once harrowing and beautiful on songs that are alternately quiet and sad, and gleefully abrasive. Linkous subverted the upbeat, poppy feel of “Chaos of the Galaxy/Happy Man” with long bursts of radio static, and veered throughout the album from noisy, chaotic guitars to whispery vocals and spare, mournful accompaniment. Cathartic though it must have been to make, Good Morning Spider was the work of a man unable to escape his pain. Linkous, who suffered from depression, managed two more albums as Sparklehorse before committing suicide in 2010. —Eric R. Danton

16. Air: Moon Safari

The first album from Jean-Benoît Dunckel and Nicolas Godin, the two French record collectors and synth nerds at the core of Air, felt like the soundtrack to hushed moments acted out in a wood-paneled basement—the billowing analog melodies and cooing vocals serving as supple flesh to be stroked and marveled at, the unhurried pace of the rhythms like lingering glances. In other words: it’s a damn sexy album. While firmly planted in the modern electronic era, Moon Safari was born from the pioneering work of experimentalists like Mort Garson, Suzanne Ciani and Jean-Jacques Perrey (with whom Air co-wrote the song “Remember”). In that way, the album had the warm, welcoming embrace of vintage European pop but of a stripe that tried to imagine the future that Air was now in. Retro-retro pop for the discerning musical aesthete. —Robert Ham

15. Beck: Mutations

After the breakout success of Odelay in 1996, Beck’s label Geffen decided to release the follow-up, Mutations, rather quietly since he had completely changed his sound between records, the first of many attempts to subvert expectations. Mutations sounds dusty and lo-fi in places, wild and reckless in others, In particular, the bossa nova of “Tropicalia” and the hypnotizing sitar of “Nobody’s Fault But My Own” mix up the sounds and emotions of this mostly acoustic affair, peeling back early-career layers of bravado and insouciance with a startling range of songcraft. If it all seemed a little off-the-cuff, the presence of producer Nigel Godrich, who had just helmed Radiohead’s OK Computer, ensured a clean, lush finished product. Godrich’s mellow production style set up listeners for Sea Change three years later. —Ross Bonaime

14. Patty Griffin: Flaming Red

Patty Griffin’s 1996 debut, Living With Ghosts, announced the arrival of a new talent on the folk scene, but Flaming Red, with it’s frenetic opening title track, let us all know that she could rock too. With a little help from friends Emmylou Harris and Buddy and Julie Miller, the album was a departure from her quiet debut, but the songwriting chops were still there on songs like “Tony,” about a gay high-schooler who took his life, and “One Big Love,” a soaring ode to taking chances and living life to the fullest. The ballads were there too, lifted by Griffin’s peerless voice. No singer is better at conveying the urgency of her emotions, especially as she remembers a departed friend on “Goodbye”: “And I wonder where you are/ And if the pain ends when you die/ And I wonder if there was/ Some better way to say goodbye.” —Josh Jackson

13. Goodie Mob: Still Standing

As they exploded from the gates full of angst and urgency, the four-man group of CeeLo, Khujo, T-Mo and Big Gipp coined the phrase “The Dirty South,” rapping about brutal and beautiful truths of ’hood life in southwest Atlanta. Along with friends and collaborators OutKast (who guest on the track “Black Ice”), the Dungeon Family and producers Organized Noize, Goodie Mob started a bona-fide ATL-based musical revolution. The music was live and organic, and the lyrics were angsty, anti-authoritarian diatribes speaking truth to power in the most poetic way. Still Standing captured the frustration, alienation and desperation of black youth at that particular time and place in America. —Steve LaBate

12. Cat Power: Moon Pix

Not many albums are best known for their origin story, but when Chan Marshall had a hallucinatory nightmare while sleeping in a farmhouse and then wrote most of Moon Pix to distract herself that night and the next day, well, that kind of creative whirlwind has staying power. Recorded in Melbourne with two-thirds of Australian band Dirty Three (whose own 1998 album Ocean Songs almost made this list), Moon Pix was a breakthrough for Cat Power. These tracks are eerie, gorgeous and raw. On album opener “American Flag,” she sings, “My new friend / plays drums all the time / Her magic heart / feels everything.” That phrase—”her magic heart feels everything”—is a better descriptor of Chan Marshall on this album than anything I can think of. It’s an emotional tidal wave disguised in quiet strums of electric guitar. —Josh Jackson

11. Billy Bragg and Wilco: Mermaid Avenue

The combination of Woody Guthrie’s calls for social justice, Billy Bragg’s snarling vocals and Wilco’s folk-indebted roots rock complement each other beautifully on this tribute to the folk legend. The British singer/songwriter and the American band had access to thousands of sets of complete lyrics that the troubadour had written between 1939 and 1967, thanks to Guthrie’s daughter, Nora. And on songs like the stand-out “California Stars,” they seamlessly infuse Woody’s words with modern music, a seemingly insurmountable feat that ended up earning them a Grammy nod and led to a follow-up album. —Hilary Saunders

10. Belle and Sebastian: The Boy with the Arab Strap

“It could have been a brilliant career,” Stuart Murdoch shrugs in the opening line of The Boy with the Arab Strap. Belle and Sebastian began as Murdoch’s personal songwriting project, but by their third LP, they’d transformed into a full-fledged band, complete with Isobel Campbell, who sings lead vocals on “Is It Wicked Not to Care?,” and Stevie Jackson, who takes the reigns on both “Seymour Stein” and “Chickfactor.” Still, Arab Strap reflects Murdoch’s inner angst—for most of his 20s, he suffered with chronic fatigue syndrome, and much of the band’s early output examines his feelings of isolation and regret. In signature Belle and Sebastian style, the album presents charming, homespun pop songs set across sparkling backdrops, but there’s darkness lurking beneath. “Ease Your Feet in the Sea” finds Murdoch ruminating on the suicide of a friend, while the aforementioned opening title track ponders the life of a young man who never fulfilled his promise. Thankfully, that was never the case for Murdoch, who’s still going more than 20 years later. —Loren DiBlasi

9. Pedro the Lion: It’s Hard to Find a Friend

David Bazan was just 22 when the Seattle singer/songwriter released his first full-length album on Jade Tree Records, writing, producing and playing everything but bass. He’d released an EP on Christian label Tooth & Nail that had every indie-rock church kid declaring Pedro the Lion his or her new favorite band. But It’s Hard to Find a Friend was full of songs that questioned faith and expanded world views more than it proclaimed anything. “Of Minor Prophets and Their Prostitute Wives” might be a retelling of the Old Testament book of Hosea, but songs like “When They Really Get to Know You They Will Run” and “Big Trucks” are as universal and humanist in their appeal as they are insightful and original. And “Secret of the Easy Yoke” gave an early glimpse of Bazan’s breaking-up-with-God album Curse Your Branches. It remains a beautiful, generous, lyrical delight no matter what your beliefs. —Josh Jackson

8. Boards of Canada: Music Has the Right to Children

No other album goes better with a cup of hot chocolate, Snuggie and the feeling of total desolation that winter brings than Boards of Canada’s opus, Music Has the Right to Children. The record blends disorienting interludes like “The Color of the Fire” and “One Very Important Thought” with gorgeous, lengthy compositions such as “Turquoise Hexagon Sun” and “Pete Standing Alone,” which turn from ambient washes of sound to splintered rhythms at the drop of a hat. Ultimately, the album’s greatest strength is the fluidity with which it manages the shading of these different textural identities. Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin seem to be almost unaware that what they’re making is music rather than aural representations of colors shifting on a canvas. The overall effect is ethereal and moody, given the largely downtempo rhythms and soft-spoken instrumentals, making it a fitting accompaniment to the natural feeling winter can bring. —Jeff Pearson

7. The Beta Band: The Three EPs

“I will now sell five copies of The Three EPs by The Beta Band.” Any self-respecting music snob can recall the scene in High Fidelity when our hero Rob Gordon—just a year after its 1999 American release—pressed play and made an entire record store full of people bob their heads to “Dry The Rain.” But it doesn’t matter if you have John Cusack to thank for this one or if you were hip enough to pick it up on your own accord—it’s essential listening. The fact that it’s the group’s first three EPs compiled into one LP adds a lovely sense of variety to the record. There are elements of electronica, folk, Britpop, funk and trip-hop all jam-packed into the 12 tracks, and perhaps there’s no better way to sum it up than to quote our favorite record-store flick: “It’s The Beta Band.” “It’s good.” “I know.” —Bonnie Stiernberg

6. Elliott Smith: XO

The things you never want to experience—crippling heartbreak, aching despair, existential dread—are turned into songs that you constantly want to listen to. A year after his breakthrough with Either/Or on Kill Rock Stars and an Oscar nomination for “Miss Misery,” from Good Will Hunting, Elliott Smith moved to Dreamworks and dramatically expanded his lo-fi sound. Lush strings and horns were added to the mix, but Smith’s unshakable melancholy still pervaded everything he did. His intensely introspective songs soundtrack the stuff panic attacks are made of. Songs like “Waltz #2,” with its unforgettable melody, are imbued with the kind of loneliness that helps you not feel quite so alone. “I’m never going to know you now/ But I’m going to love you anyhow.” Everybody doesn’t care. Everybody doesn’t understand. But XO sure does. —Jessica Gentile

5. Massive Attack: Mezzanine

The reigning kings of a trip-hop scene that was erupting out of southwest England took a sharp turn from their bouncy dance-hall anthems into a claustrophobic cat walk of reverb-drenched fever dreams on their third dizzying album, Mezzanine. Filled with ominous samples and intoxicating beats, this erotic collage features sultry vocals from Cocteau Twin Elizabeth Fraser, Horace Andy and Sara Jay straddled between Robert “3D” Del Naja’s hypnotic whispers and Grant “Daddy G” Marshall’s baritone rumble. “Teardrop,” with its pulsing harpsichord, mournful piano plunks and Fraser’s celestial vocal, is a strong contender for best song of the entire year. Whether it arouses or disturbs you, Mezzanine is a chill-out milestone that will make your temperature rise. —Sean Edgar

4. Outkast: Aquemini

Arguably the finest hip-hop act to emerge from Atlanta, Outkast were an adventuresome, wildly eclectic duo long before they achieved international success with “B.O.B.,” “Hey Ya!” and “The Way You Move.” Delivered at the tail end of hip-hop’s golden age in the mid-’90s, Aquemini showcases André “3000” Benjamin and Antoine “Big Boi” Patton at their artistic zenith. With individual approaches to their craft that were starkly dichotomous yet dovetailed perfectly, the duo crammed Aquemini to the brim with subject matter that rivals the most literate hip-hop, encompassing identity, authenticity, inequality, addiction and the dark side of human nature. With now-classics like “Rosa Parks” and “Spottieottiedopaliscious” and an impressive roster of guests like George Clinton and Raekwon, the album’s music matches its lyrical ambition — it’s versatile and restless, exhibiting a modern, futuristic texture that’s still true to the roots of soul, funk and, most importantly, their native Dirty South. Aquemini may not have catapulted to mainstream success upon release, but it remains an unquestionable cult masterpiece that was years ahead of its time. —John Barrett

3. Lucinda Williams: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road

Up until this album, Lucinda Williams was primarily known for her songwriting, earning a Grammy for Best Country Song with Mary Chapin Carpenter’s crossover hit “Passionate Kisses.” But Car Wheels established Williams as a critically powerful recording artist. In spite of its tumultuous and lengthy history of re-recordings and collaborative changes, every song stands strong. From her steamy, breathy refrain of “Oh, baby” on the opening track “Right In Time” to her emotional tribute to the late Blaze Foley on “Drunken Angel,” the stories in the songs, along with a laconic, Southern drawl of rock guitars, serves as the perfect soundtrack to a backroads drive through the South. —Tim Basham

2. Lauryn Hill: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill

Solo albums can be a tricky business, especially after parting ways with one of hip-hop’s finest acts. That’s exactly what Lauryn Hill did in 1998 when she followed up her stint with The Fugees to release The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, a fusion of R&B, neo-soul, hip hop and reggae. The album, which sold more than 400,000 copies in its first week thanks to singles “Doo Wop (That Thing),” “Ex-Factor” and “Everything Is Everything,” made Hill an international superstar. She became the first ever hip-hop artist to appear on Time‘s cover, who suggested she’d shepherded rap into the mainstream much the way Nirvana did with alternative rock. Her first, and still only, LP backs that claim in every way, shape and form—capturing a generational artist at her creative pinnacle. —Max Blau

1. Neutral Milk Hotel: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

Neutral Milk Hotel made a timeless record by taking a snapshot of a reality that never existed. Lyrically, Jeff Mangum imagines ghosts and circus freaks and Jesus Christ dancing around burning Nazi propaganda, and the damaged sonic treatment furthers the vision; those horns on “Holland, 1945” sound like an imaginary Dr. Seuss-drawn instrument realized. But the most mythical character to develop from In The Aeroplane Over the Sea is Mangum himself, who avoided the limelight for a half-decade following the album’s release. Today, Mangum has risen, and his fans are so obsessive that the man can go out for coffee and the blogosphere blows up with sighting reports. Silly, yes, but when “King Of Carrot Flowers Parts 2 and 3” erupts from an acid-fueled Sunday morning revival into an otherworldly fuzz-punk song (at the 1:35 mark, to be obsessive), who isn’t ready to strap on the Nike Windrunners and follow Mangum to the gates of Heaven? —Ryan Wasoba