The 88 Best Alternative Rock Songs of 1998

The year 1998 began with the revelation of the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal in January, and ended with impeachment proceedings against the president in December. It was the year of Jesse Ventura’s election as governor of Minnesota, and at the time, the ascent of a flashy media personality with membership in the WWE Hall of Fame but no political experience seemed more like an aberration than a sign of things to come. More foreshadowing: The U.S. threatened military action against Iraq over the latter nation’s ongoing disarmament crisis, and a Taliban-controlled court in Afghanistan declared a religious fanatic named Osama bin Laden a “man without sin” after his bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa. Despite all the weirdness, there were some reasons to be optimistic: the economy continued its decade-long surge, and, uh, Viagra was approved to hit the market for the first time.

The era’s rock music reflected this ping-ponging temperament. For one, the year produced at least two transcendent one-hit-wonders: on one side, the New Radicals spun their disaffection with society into visions of utopia; on the other, Harvey Danger assessed the same ills and found only “rottenness and evil in me.” Courtney Love emerged with the catchiest and most successful music of her career, four years after the death of her husband Kurt Cobain. David Bowie hooked up with Trent Reznor, and the son of an avant-garde jazz legend made a silly party singalong for the ages. Everclear turned startlingly bleak tales of childhood trauma into radio gold, and the Beastie Boys cemented themselves as the sort of act that’s still scorchingly relevant over a decade after their debut. In October, yet another specter that would plague America for years to come reared its ugly head for the first time: a scourge called Bizkit.

We revisited 88 of our favorite songs from the ’98 alt-rock charts and found that all of them still move us two decades later. (Note: Some of the songs were released in 1997, but made their biggest impact the next year on the radio and Billboard’s Alternative Charts.) Find them below.

88. Stabbing Westward – “Save Yourself”

Stabbing Westward were generally pegged as a charmless and sterile Nine Inch Nails replica, with all of the fancy drum machines but none of the genuine danger or ties to the industrial underground. They did little to save themselves from that damning appraisal on the first single from their third album Darkest Days. “Save Yourself” is glum, bludgeoning, and aggressively unlikable. “I am not your savior, I am just as fucked as you,” sings frontman Christopher Hall, who was not an angsty teen but a man in his early 30s when he recorded it. (In case you had a hard time believing how edgy that line was the first time, he repeats it immediately in an unmistakably Reznor-ish stage whisper.) The lone redeeming quality of “Save Yourself” is it slick electronic production, and in that sense, it may have even been a couple years ahead of its time. Get a better melody, find a singer with stronger pipes, and slap a rapper on there somewhere—you’d essentially have an early attempt at Linkin Park. —ANDY CUSH

87. Shawn Mullins – “Lullaby”

For most of its runtime, “Lullaby” is an utterly ridiculous song. Shawn Mullins strums a couple chords on his acoustic guitar and gravely talk-sings about a miserable woman struggling to get by in Los Angeles. He says things like “she’s seen her share of devils, in this angel town,” presumably with a straight face. Then the chorus arrives, and Mullins actually tries out a melody. His voice sounds lovely: “Everything’s gonna be alright, rockabye.” That line’s simple concision pulls the whole thing together. It’s an earworm of a chorus that’s still hard to get out of your head 20 years later. —ISRAEL DARAMOLA

86. Catatonia – “Mulder and Scully”

An entry in the surprisingly existent micro-genre of pop songs that reference the X-Files (see also: Bree Sharp’s “David Duchovny”), as well as the very existent, and very great, genre of songs about being thoroughly dismantled by a crush. Cerys Matthews, who’s never met a lyric she doesn’t gleefully attack, is perfectly suited to this happy-furious mode, rasping and seething and so discombobulated she can’t finish sentences: stop! Doing what you—keep! Doing it to! KATHERINE  ST. ASAPH 

 85. Ben Folds Five – “Song for the Dumped”

Back in the innocent days of 1998, perhaps it was easy to hear “Song for the Dumped” as a send-up of cheesy love songs. But some of its humor has curdled in the twenty years since its release as a single. The repeated cries of “give me my money back, you bitch” were certainly intended as satire, but the entitlement that flows beneath the that line feel pulled from radicalized male echo chambers like 4chan. Even with this icky undercurrent, “Song For The Dumped” crackles musically, with Ben Folds Five working up a head of steam that recalls prime Joe Jackson. Maybe the song is a little unwieldy, spending as much time lingering on super-charged jams as it does on the melody, but that’s also its appeal. At a time when alt-rock was filled with faux primitives, Ben Folds Five prized musicianship. For all of its flaws, “Song for the Dumped” showcases this inclination well. —STEPHEN THOMAS ERLEWINE

 84. Marcy Playground – “St. Joe on the School Bus”

“Sex and Candy” spent fifteen weeks as the No. 1 modern rock track in the country. It’s probably the only Marcy Playground song that will ever show up in a karaoke bar, but the Summerland Tour doesn’t have room for one-hit wonders, and that’s where “St. Joe on the School Bus” comes in. Whether or not it was an actual hit depends on the level of elasticity you’ll accept for the term: It peaked at No. 8. But considering the bleakness of “St. Joe”’s bullied-child narrative (“They said your dad was gay / They said your mom was a whore”), the fact that it charted at all is almost more impressive than “Sex and Candy”’s record-setting run.  IAN COHEN 

83. Brian Setzer Orchestra – “Jump Jive an’ Wail”

The only thing harder to understand than the swing revival’s mere existence is the fact that some of the hits it produced were actually kind of good, including Brian Setzer Orchestra’s cover of the OG classic “Jump Jive An’ Wail.” The original, performed by Louis Prima, was revived by the Gap in 1998 for an ad in which fresh-faced white people gleefully dance and throw each other in the air while wearing pairs of pristine khakis. Setzer’s subsequent version has a similar antiseptic quality, squeegeeing out any trace of the blues so furiously that you can almost hear the squeaking. But in doing so, Setzer captures the radiant optimism of the decade, evinced most clearly in the guitar solo he defiantly scribbles across the old chestnut, sacrilege be damned. —JORDAN SARGENT

82.  Smash Mouth – “Can’t Get Enough of You Baby”

Ah, the late ‘90s—not a purer time, remotely, but a time when Smash Mouth could cover several known oldies, not obviously as a joke, and seem unremarkable. It helps that they knew to stay away from the untouchable-classic material and stick to relative fluff: a love song by the Monkees, and another previously performed by Frankie Valli on helium and a guy named Question Mark. The band makes a Austin Powers pastiche of the ‘60s organs and horns: not psychedelic exactly, but certainly functional, and not so hubristic as to overstay its three minutes. And compared to the tenor-y tenorness of the past few versions, Steve Harwell’s froggy voice—even when he tries a Steven Tyler screech—has something kind of, maybe, almost approaching rock. —KSA

81. Presidents of the United States – “Video Killed the Radio Star”

The 1998 romantic comedy The Wedding Singer, a sleeper candidate for Adam Sandler’s finest contribution to culture, is about an awkward young man embracing himself and what he loves—that is, performing pop hits at weddings in a floppy tux. The film is a bit of ‘80s nostalgia that came nearly too soon after the fact—a wave anticipating the tsunami of decades to come. The Presidents of the United States of America’s version of The Buggles’ hit “Video Killed the Radio Star”—the opening song on the Sandler film’s hit soundtrack–came roughly 20 years after the original was recorded, and finds the once-futuristic-sounding novelty record easy source material for a ‘90s pop-rock interpretation. In the Presidents’ treatment, the “oh oh”s are detuned whimpers, and Buggles singer Trevor Horn’s scratchy radio announcer voice is updated with chintzy telephone-voice processing. It becomes a song about rooting for the slacker underdog, not just a marginalized industry. —WINSTON COOK-WILSON 

IMPACT

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