All that talk we sometimes hear about how ‘the ’90s was the last decade of real music, well that phenomenon had ended by 1998; if one were to turn the radio on, what you would have heard was Limp Bizkit, Matchbox 20, or Celine Dion among other curiously dissatisfying music. Titanic was the top-selling album of 1998, to give you some perspective.
Teen idols were about to spring to life in a brand new way, and Napster and Limewire were just around the corner. CD’s were still the main way of listening to music, and even tape cassettes were still around as people traded their mixed tapes. The further explosion of digital music was about to further take hold and change the entire landscape of the music industry.
Independent record labels were still around in large numbers as the first half of the decade did phenomenally well, especially for alternative indie music. However, this was going to change very soon, and megawatt record labels were about to go on the charge.
In our list of best albums of 1998, we decided to include some indie gems that gained legendary cult status and stood the test of time and only got better with age.
Best albums released in 1998
Lauryn Hill – The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
It is not often that a single artist breaks as many records and gains as many accolades as former Fugees member Lauryn Hill did with her debut and only solo record, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. The 1998 album saw Hill receive 10 nominations at the Grammys and win 5 of them, making her the first female artist to win that many nominations and awards.
In addition to it being highly praised by virtually everyone in the industry, from fellow musicians and the press, it also pushed hip hop, R&B and soul to the forefront of an otherwise deteriorating musical landscape during this time.
The album was also certified diamond selling 10 million copies, making her the first female hip hop artist to do so. When Lauryn Hill left The Fugees due to tension, she married Bob Marley’s son, gave birth to a child, and started a charity. It is fair to say that Hill got touched with inspiration and decided that she needed to make an album, that from a unique perspective as a woman in the cutthroat music business, she had an artistic desire to touch on themes of her struggles, personal relationships, and themes of love and god.
“I always wanted to be a motivator of positive change. It’s in all of my lyrics, that desire to see my community get out of its own way, identify and confront internal and external obstacles, and experience the heights of Love and self-Love that provoke transformation,” Hill said in an interview with Rolling Stone.
Silver Jews – American Water
“Slanted but enchanted” David Berman of the Silver Jews once wrote as lyrics. He was supposedly inspired by the poet, Emily Dickinson who once stated, “Tell the truth, but tell it slanted.” Lyrics are definitely David Berman and his band Silver Jews’ source of strength. I would go as far as to say that he is the rightful heir to Lou Reed. American Water didn’t do that well commercially speaking, but it has since gone down in indie rock as legendary indie lore.
Penning lines such as “On the last day of your life, don’t forget to die,” and “In 1984, I was hospitalized for approaching perfection/Slowly screwing my way across Europe, they had to make a correction,” Berman had a real sense of using the ethereal to trap poignancy in a cage and force it to tell its darkest secrets.
Berman would eventually quit music for a while to become a professor of poetry. Later he would return to music and start another project called Purple Mountains. Upon first hearing American Water, you might be inclined to think that the music is lazy and one-dimensional until you realise that there is magic in his simplicity; exactly what Lou Reed would appreciate in music.
Cat Power – Moon Pix
Chan Marshall, or better known as Cat Power, was in a farmhouse in South Carolina when a hallucinatory nightmare violently awoke her. In an interview with Pitchfork, she recalled that she heard slamming and saw dark figures against the outside of her windows. Terrified, she got her tape recorder and played for 30 minutes straight, transitioning from one musical phrase into the next with no breaks. This maddened state of escapism resulted in her brilliant Moon Pix album.
Marshall came of age in the Atlanta, Georgia music scene, where she was surrounded by all her friends and music colleagues dying of either heroin overdoses or AIDS. Her music has always been haunted by alcoholism and authenticity. She learned to play the guitar from one of her friends; “just making rhythms, but my best friend Shaun, who passed away, showed me where to put my finger on one chord. That minor sound – sad – is the representation of most of my songs.”
Moon Pix is a collection of sad indie-folk songs and verges on the edge of alternative rock. Cat Power has a beautiful sense of dynamics — she knows when to be quiet and when to get loudly passionate. From one song into the next, there is a sense that ghosts from her past forever follow her.
Neutral Milk Hotel – Aeroplane Over the Sea
This list of best albums is inundated with indie cult classics that possess that powerful but cursed blessing that grows in popularity from posterity over an elongated period. Aeroplane over the Sea is probably the king of this phenomenon, although that delayed growth of stardom came about in only a couple of years; as the internet began to enter a new chapter of obsessive fawning over artists, so did Jeff Mangum’s need for isolation and escaped from the public eye.
If one ever wants to create a good lo-fi album — mastering this oxymoron is an artform all of its own — then look no further; one should become very familiar with Aeroplane Over the Sea. If you want to be adored as an indie-folk hero, then all you need is a guitar, cryptic lyrics, random instruments and a lot of compression and space in the music. Then be prepared to grow a beard and move somewhere isolated in the woods, where you will wonder why you bothered in the first place.
It’s best described as a lo-fi indie Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Elliot Smith – XO
One of the most brilliant aspects of Elliot Smith’s songwriting is that upon multiple listens of the record, it never gets dull. Elliot Smith wrote catchy songs but extremely well-crafted songs with more than just 4/4 time signatures and pop influence.
Elliot Smith was catapulted to prominence when his song ‘Miss Misery’ when it was recognised at the Oscars for it being featured in the Gus Van Sant directed film Good Will Hunting. Van Sant came across fellow Portland struggling artist when he heard Smith’s ’97 album, Either/Or. He asked Smith to use a few songs off that record as well as ‘Miss Misery’.
PJ Harvey – Is This Desire?
PJ Harvey said at the time that she thinks this was the best record she ever made as she put her whole being into the making of it. “Again working with Flood, again trying to find new ground, but a particularly difficult time in my life. So, it was a very, very difficult, difficult record to make and still one I find very difficult to listen to, but probably my favourite record that I’ve made because it had a lot of guts. I mean, I was making extremely difficult music, experimenting with techniques I hadn’t used before and not really caring what other people thought about it. I’m quite proud of that one,” Harvey said.
While this record didn’t sell as well as her 1995 To Bring You My Love, the record did spawn a hit with ‘A Perfect Day Elise’. Harvey, particularly during the earlier years of her career, was often pigeonholed as a sexually charged young angry woman. “I was very young and confused, so yes, those early albums are very angry. I was exploring that and finding a way to express it, and thought there is joy and vibrant energy there, too. But you get categorized and it becomes rigid, and it doesn’t allow you space to develop and grow,” she said about those years.