The 10 Best Albums of 1998

The 10 Best Albums of 1998

 

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In my introduction to Slant’s list of the 100 Best Albums of the 1990s, I described nostalgia for the decade as “an idealized vision of a time when Bill Clinton was the fresh, young Democrat on the block, beepers were the hottest new tech items, and every major record label and Top 40 radio station was scrambling to discover the next big alternative to run-of-the-mill pop.” I went on to lament: “It’s human nature to look back on things with irrational fondness and nostalgia, overlooking the bad and romanticizing the good. But while the ’90s had its fair share of ’crap,’ it’s hard to deny that the ’good’ was exceptionally good.” So good, in fact, that we decided to dust off our lovingly curated list of over 400 albums to compile individual Top 10s for each year of the ’90s. Many of these titles are already widely—and rightfully—celebrated, but these lists also give us the opportunity to honor some typically overlooked gems. Sal Cinquemani
 

Honorable Mention: Herbert, Around the House; Garbage, Version 2.0; Portishead, Roseland NYC Live; Beastie Boys, Hello Nasty; Alanis Morissette, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie; Black Star, Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star; Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road; Manu Chao, Clandestino; Armand Van Helden, 2 Future 4 U; Elliott Smith, XO
 

The 10 Best Albums of 1998

10

Boards of Canada, Music Has the Right to Children

When an album is described as experimental or difficult, it’s often assumed that it won’t be much fun to listen to, and, at worst, that listening to it will be something of a chore, at least until the listener “gets” the album and can thereby enjoy it as they would with more accessible pop fare. Music Has the Right to Children nearly fits that description, with the crucial difference being that its mystery is its most powerful draw: You almost feel that “getting” the album would allow one to put it away for good, like a piece of homework that’s been completed. But the album is a sonic puzzle without a definite solution, its nostalgic tone poems, found sounds, and cold android pastorals interlocking into a unified work of right-brained electronica that’s as entrancing as it is esoteric. Matthew Cole

The 10 Best Albums of 1998

9

Beck, Mutations

The ’90s was the decade that gave rise to the alt-country movement, which ultimately resulted in a whole mess of sound-alike troubadours and bar bands trying to be Uncle Tupelo, Steve Earle, and Lucinda Williams. Rather than standing as an alternative to anything, alt-country ended up as a woefully homogenous subgenre. Beck’s Mutations, however, stands as a shining exception to that trend. Borrowing heavily from country, blues, and folk, Beck’s highbrow junkyard aesthetic has rarely been put to better, more inspired use, and the mournful “Nobody’s Fault But My Own” and wry “Cancelled Check” are among his most sharply written songs. Mutations could have redefined alt-country for the better, had it not been dismissed as a one-off and ended up as a curiosity. Jonathan Keefe

The 10 Best Albums of 1998

8

Tori Amos, From the Choirgirl Hotel

By the early 1980s, it seemed like almost every pop-rock act had recorded a one-off disco album. In the late ’90s, it was electronica’s turn, with countless artists half-heartedly applying the aesthetic to their respective sounds. Tori Amos’s willingness to push herself crimson-haired headfirst into the genre, however, rendered From the Choirgirl Hotel a surprisingly authentic entry in the canon. The album’s textures and industrial-rock beats are married perfectly to Amos’s tortured, self-lacerating lyrics, which, reflecting on her anguish over a recent miscarriage, are exemplary of the singer-songwriter’s expertise in turning personal tragedy into catharsis for both performer and listener alike. Cinquemani

The 10 Best Albums of 1998

7

PJ Harvey, Is This Desire?

She is woman, hear her growl, shriek, tremble, and weep. The songs of faith and devotion that make up Is This Desire? are haunting elegies to women (whores and Madonnas alike) gripped by loneliness, wanting for rapture, united across time—a singular theme luxuriantly fleshed out. The happiest song queers the story of the Garden of Eden, but even that one ends in trouble. A lover’s kiss, like a trip to the river, brings solace, but doubt always lingers on the horizon. There will be gods, angels, and whales, but the mythic mood is never fatuous. Armed with some disarming melodies, PJ plays the prophet, delivering her gutsiest vocal performances to date, mystifying her characters’ insecurities with dazzling, freakish intensity. She is their Mary, and she weeps blood for them. Ed Gonzalez

The 10 Best Albums of 1998

6

Air, Moon Safari

Reinventing space-age bachelor-pad tunes for the computer generation, Moon Safari is all cheesy excess cut with ambient simplicity, from the sleepy repetition of “Sexy Boy” to the hazy “New Star in the Sky,” where whispered lyrics are delivered as barely discernable Vocoder murmurs. So much influence gets processed here, from vintage Eno ambiance to easy listening piano and found-sound experimentalism, that the uniformity achieved by the final product, where each track feels unique but distinctly marked by a singular hand, is amazing. It may not be one of the first albums to sound entirely produced by machines, but it’s one of the few to retain its insistent humanity while doing so. Jesse Cataldo

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