The 88 Best Alternative Rock Songs of 1998

10. Garbage – “I Think I’m Paranoid”

Electro-gothpoppers Garbage were a well-oiled machine by the time their second album rolled around. The punchy, peppy “I Think I’m Paranoid” was an example of the band in its prime, using Silly Putty vocal effects and other sound-warping touches to enhance the contrast between its world-closing-in lyrics and giddy melodies. Garbage was not shy about interpolating hits of the past on tracks like “Push It” and “Stupid Girl,” and the authors of the ‘60s hit “Bend Me, Shape Me” claimed that “Paranoid” also belonged on that list. They believed that Shirley Manson’s cooed “bend me, break me, any way you need me” resembled their own chorus a bit too closely, and sued everyone involved with the track for copyright infringement in 2001. The suit was dismissed the next year; both songs are still pretty tight. —MJ

9. Fatboy Slim – “The Rockafeller Skank”

Big beat, the chunky and euphoric British dance genre, was by no means an underground secret in America by the time 1998 rolled around. The Prodigy had scored a U.S. pop hit with “Firestarter” in 1997, and in July of that year they topped Billboard’s album chart with The Fat of the Land. In September, they appeared on the cover of Spin under the headline “Prodigy Invade America.” Nonetheless, in April of 1998, Spin published a long feature on big beat that called it the “Next Big Thing.” Little did we know. The story focused on Fatboy Slim—the alias of Norman Cook, previously the bassist for the accomplished English indie rock band the Housemartins—calling him the genre’s “cool ruler.” Cook is quoted in the story saying that he tries “to make underground music, but it always comes out as pop,” and there was no better evidence of that than “The Rockafeller Skank,” the lead single from his sophomore album You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby. Released months after the Spin story, the song is constructed entirely out of samples from decades-old soul and rock songs, plus a vocal snippet of Lord Finesse. It was a cratedigger’s delight, specifically in the way it made its own seams visible, with its nicked guitar and drum parts introduced methodically, as if you were watching it being stitched together in real time. But “Rockafeller Skank” is also undeniably massive, a stadium anthem where the surf guitar riffs sweep you away with ease. —JS

8. Third Eye Blind – “Jumper”

You could do worse to sum up ‘90s alt-rock than the first and last singles from Third Eye Blind’s self-titled 1997 album. “Semi-Charmed Life” is the all-timer, but it’s “Jumper” that travels the more interesting and instructive path in its four-and-a-half-minute run time. At the time, 3EB were considered more more pop than rock—a review of a live show (played with Smash Mouth) in the May 1998 issue of Spin describes them as “preppy popsters”—and “Jumper” encompasses an entire canon of music that blurred whatever borders existed between the two realms at the time. Opening with big, sweeping acoustic guitar chords backing Stephan Jenkins’s affected whine, “Jumper” could initially pass for an Oasis song. Soon, those strums turn into scratchy rakes across the strings, while the snares morph into dull thumps. The song is a journey, melodramatic and a little silly but still heartfelt, exploring the very human emotion of empathy. —JS

7. Fastball – “The Way”

At first, it resonates like it’s being played through a tinny radio on the windowsill of a desert gas station. It might make you think of bowling, or buying a bucket hat at a beach gift shop to shield your bald spot from the afternoon’s punishing rays. Its vague crooner affect and rolling guitar arpeggiations conjure Del Shannon and Roy Orbison, if those icons of the ‘50s and ‘60s had come to prominence in the age of Billabong. It is “The Way,” the Austin band Fastball’s freak No. 1 alternative rock hit—a dusty, ubiquitous gem of turn-of-the-aughts radio. Its central animating forces: the shift from dark to light between the verse and chorus, the vague silhouettes of its outcast protagonists bound to their quixotic quest, and the tangled phrasing of the titular line—with an “ever” clumsily added to fill the necessary syllable count. —WCW

6. Goo Goo Dolls – “Slide”

Around the time he started to sound like Jon Bon Jovi with frosted tips, Johnny Rzeznik squandered whatever credibility he had left from the days when Goo Goo Dolls were on Metal Blade and doing a pretty good Replacements pastiche. Dizzy Up the Girl had songs about heroin (“Black Balloon”), the futility of nostalgia (“Broadway”) and…giving up immortality to have sex with Meg Ryan (“Iris”). Meanwhile, “Slide” I’ll always associate with the night I worked up the nerve to talk to a girl I had a crush on a college first-year. But here’s why Reznik is playing NFL halftime shows at Thanksgiving and Paul Westerberg is not: I still think about “Slide,” in those terms, even though it’s clearly about abortion. The girl ended up living in Dubai. —IC

5. Eagle-Eye Cherry – “Save Tonight”

Though it was released in 1997, Eagle-Eye Cherry’s first-ever single “Save Tonight’ spent much of the following year becoming an inescapable hit on both pop and alternative radio. The song is narrated from the perspective of a man encouraging his partner to savor their final night together before he has to leave for an unspecified period of time, maybe forever. It’s fitting that Cherry’s only hit was about making the most of a given moment before its inevitable end, because his career never again approached the same heights. But don’t feel too bad for him: In a 2017 interview, the Swedish singer (and son of the great free jazz trumpeter Don Cherry) said he still gets recognized on the streets of New York because of the song’s memorable video. He compared the royalties he receives from “Save Tonight” to “having a great piece of real estate.” —TB

4. Beastie Boys – “Intergalactic”

I was banned from watching MTV as a grade-schooler in the mid-to-late ‘90s, so naturally I spent as much time as possible with it when my mom and dad weren’t around. My fondest memory of stealthily tuning in has nothing to do with the teen skin they were hoping to keep me from seeing on Undressed and the Spring Break specials, but instead three goofy white guys in their 30s wearing hazmat suits, and a giant cardboard robot. To sneak back downstairs after bedtime and watch the “Intergalactic” video with your babysitter was to enter an uncharted region of outer space, one where funky drums coexisted peacefully with nerdy laser beam sound effects and Uranus jokes, where a line about consuming lots of of sugar could scan unironically as a cool boast. Fast approaching middle age, a decade after railing against the parents who threw away their best porno mags, the Beastie Boys still weren’t done making music for the kids. —AC

3. Harvey Danger – “Flagpole Sitta”                                                           

The title is partly a nod to “Fame Throwa,” but Pavement was never this persistently furious. An omnidirectional blast of bile featuring a bravura vocal performance from Sean Nelson, “Flagpole Sitta” tears out like a scrambling jet and keeps gaining altitude. Over a ping-pong backbeat, Harvey Danger lob grenades at everyone from their neighbors to Rage Against the Machine, while still giving ‘em a sing-song melody to take to karaoke. But for all its merit as a fist-pumping, self-flagellating rock anthem, “Flagpole Sitta” is perhaps most notable as surely the only hit song in which the singer fantasizes about publishing a zine. —BS

2. Hole – “Celebrity Skin”

In the four years after Kurt Cobain died and Live Through This went platinum, Courtney Love seemed desperate to become a different person. She went to Hollywood, draped herself in couture, and cited Fleetwood Mac as an inspiration for Hole’s first album since 1994, Celebrity Skin. Thankfully, the lead single wasn’t exactly “Dreams.” With crisp Californian production cushioning Love’s singular ferocity, “Celebrity Skin” was self-aware power pop, each line surfing to the shore on a wave of pure melody. Billy Corgan may have written the whip-crack riff. But it was lyrics like “It’s all so sugarless, hooker-waitress/Model-actress, oh just go nameless,” delivered with a snarl, that marked the return of the smart, blunt, cynical old Courtney, lurking just below Love’s glossy new surface. —JB

1.New Radicals – “You Get What You Give”

“You Get What You Give” is many things: an uplifting feel-good anthem, an eat-the-rich battle cry, a personal invitation to Marilyn Manson to come get his ass kicked. The New Radicals—essentially the solo project of frontman and songwriter Gregg Alexander—only lasted long enough for one album, and though they’ll only be remembered for a single song, it’s a song hasn’t become any less resonant in the two decades since its release. With an irrepressible chorus that hints at the crack pro songwriter Alexander would later become and lyrics that wrap disaffection about Benz-driving bankers and lying health insurance providers in a package of vibrant idealism, he could have been writing theme music for the Bernie Sanders campaign. The final verse gathers a motley crew of Gregg’s would-be peers, surely chosen in part for their names’ rhymability with the mansions he accuses them of living in (Beck, Hanson, Courtney Love, Manson) and literally challenges them to a fight. According to Beck, Alexander has since apologized, when the pair ran into each other in a supermarket—a distant cousin of the shopping mall that Alexander and his army of teens ransacked in the iconic “You Get What You Give” video. This, perhaps, is the song’s ultimate message: Even in the gilded palaces of our debased consumer culture, there’s always room for a little human-to-human compassion. —AC


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