Music

The Best/Worst Album Of 1998 Is This Playlist Of The Year’s No. 1 Alternative Hits

Reprise/MCA/Warner Bros

This week Pitchfork posted a list of the best 50 best albums of 1998, sparking a wave of endless debates about whether Aquemini is better than The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill. (It is!) Because I can’t help myself, I posted my own top five list, and to my surprise every single person who responded agreed with my choices! (Just kidding — I have to go into witness relocation now because I left off In The Aeroplane Over The Sea.)

But upon further deliberation, I realized that not one of the many classic albums I love from that year — Moon Safari, How It Feels To Be Something On, Navy Blues, American Water, that first Queens of the Stone Age record with that weird crotch shot on the cover — are burned as deep into my soul as this playlist of all the No. 1 songs on the alternative chart in 1998.

Now, “burned into my soul” shouldn’t be taken purely — or even primarily — as a statement of love. As anyone who has been branded by a flaming hot poker will tell you, it hurts to be burned. It’s something that’s done typically against your will. You might even spend the rest of your life rueing the day that it happened. Nevertheless, it leaves a mark that stays with you forever. That’s how I feel about these songs. I loathe at least half of them, but I know every single one like members of my own family, which means that deep down I also love even the songs that I profess to hate.

Call me a victim of captive radio listening — I worked for a college newspaper in Eau Claire, Wisconsin in 1998, and the only station we could all agree on was “The Zone,” which played alt-leaning pop. As a result, I spent hours upon hours having commercial high-points in the careers of luminaries such as Everlast, Eve 6, Marcy Playground, and Barenaked Ladies drilled permanently into my consciousness. As much as I love Outkast, Air, and Sunny Day Real Estate, that music will never scream “1998!” to me as much as the Goo Goo Dolls’ Dizzy Up The Girl era. To claim otherwise would simply be revisionist history.

While ’98 truly was a year that spawned a number of timeless musical landmarks, it was also a time when annoying and corny but also well-crafted and enduringly catchy corporate alt-rock ruled the airwaves. This playlist is a monument to those bands.

1. Marcy Playground, “Sex And Candy”

Pavement had one hit single and this was it. And if we’re being honest, we’ll agree that this faux-Malkmus dirge is catchier than anything on Terror Twilight. But to this day, I have never heard another Marcy Playground song and neither has anybody else, mama.

2. Fastball, “The Way”

In the realm of late-’90s alt-rock shooting stars, Fastball stands among the few bands that deserved more of a career. “The Way” is probably the weakest of the trio of hits spawned from the pretty good (and platinum-selling!) All The Pain That Money Can Buy. As any true Fastball-head will tell you, “Fire Escape” and “Out Of My Head” (later the basis for Machine Gun Kelly and Camila Cabello’s 2016 hit “Bad Things”) are even better than the band’s highest charting song. But “The Way” is still the finest pop song ever written about an elderly couple that winds up dead at the bottom of a ravine.

3. Semisonic, “Closing Time”

The guy who wrote “Closing Time,” Dan Wilson, is presently an in-demand songwriter who has worked with Adele, Chris Stapleton, and John Legend. Which is to say, he’s a real professional, which is apparent in the obvious craft of a deathless barroom standard like “Closing Time.” And that’s a good summation of what alternative rock had evolved/devolved into at this time — well-made product that was designed to withstand maximum spins on thousands of radio stations. In ’98, the people who had loved Nirvana were a little older and lamer, and ready to leave behind the wildness of adolescence after one last call for alcohol.

4. The Goo Goo Dolls, “Iris”

This was the big romantic ballad in that spring’s “Nicolas Cage is an angel who is in love with Meg Ryan” movie that I inexplicably saw in the theater opening weekend — how’s that for an extremely 1998 sentence? I remember hating “Iris” at the time but now that I’m much, much older and lamer, I don’t mind it. “When everything’s meant to be broken / I just want you to know who I am” — that’s almost terrible enough to be a good Noel Gallagher lyric.

5. Eve 6, “Inside Out”

Eve 6 and Barenaked Ladies duked it out for supremacy at the top of the alternative chart in late summer. Now the question is: Which song would you rather put inside of a rocket ship to be launched directly into the sun? To my surprise, I vote not “Inside Out.” The song improves tenfold if you imagine it was written by Christopher Guest as a parody of alt-rock self-important nonsense. (Granted, this is also my preferred way to listen to Bush’s Razorblade Suitcase, but if Steve Albini is allowed to be flexible with his personal ethos, so am I.)

6. Barenaked Ladies, “One Week”

Music changed at lightning speed back then: The alternative chart started the year with a Pavement rip-off on top and just eight months later the no. 1 song sounded like Richard Simmons doing “Rapper’s Delight.”

7. Hole, “Celebrity Skin”

As a hold-out from the gnarlier days of early ’90s alt-rock, Hole seems woefully out of place in this group. And it’s weird that “Celebrity Skin” topped the alternative chart and the superior single from this album, “Malibu,” didn’t. But from another angle, Courtney Love’s Madonna cos-play about the “nature of fame” does fit the spirit of what alternative music was in 1998 — a faded, wrung-out emblem of “hipness” in the process of being officially folded into the corporate music industry. No matter her “ironic” commentary, Courtney Love was a true movie star in the late ’90s, though she was an unwitting actor in her only film of 1998, Nick Broomfield’s infamous documentary Kurt and Courtney.

8. The Goo Goo Dolls, “Slide”

The late-’90s radio dominance of the Goo Goo Dolls has been forgotten over time. But no history of the alt-rock era can be written without the Goos playing a pivotal role in the third act. They started the ’90s emulating the Replacements, and they ended the ’90s emulating matchbox twenty. And that, my friends, is what you call a “microcosm.”

9. Lenny Kravitz, “Fly Away”

My nutshell critical assessment of Lenny Kravitz’s career is that he has two amazing songs and 98 bad ones. “Fly Away” is one of the 98 bad ones. Lenny wants to get away, he wants to get away, yeah! So why has this song stuck around for so long? To this day, you can’t spend 15 minutes in a Buffalo Wild Wings without hearing it at least once. (Making matters worse is that U2 re-wrote “Fly Away” a few years later for “Elevation,” one of the overplayed post-“Beautiful Day” singles from All That You Can’t Behind.) Go away Lenny! Be a dragonfly!

10. Cake, “Never There”

Cake reminds me of my sophomore-year roommate, an aspiring DJ named Adam, in that I associate both exclusively with late-’90s dorm life. While “Never There” is the band’s biggest alternative hit, “The Distance” remains the defining example of Cake’s white-guy sardonic-nerd funk. But “Never There” is totally fine, though I don’t expect anyone who wasn’t between the ages of 18 and 22 in 1998 to care.

11. Everlast, “What It’s Like”

To this day, whenever I hear “What It’s Like,” I always mistake it for “My Friends,” the first single from the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ sort of underrated Dave Navarro experiment, 1996’s One Hot Minute. And then I’m disappointed to not hear the Chili Peppers. That’s how much I despise this song that has been a part of me for half of my life. Help.

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