A lot can happen in 20 years. It’s five U.S. presidential terms, five or six World Cups, and as many UK Prime Ministers as is deemed necessary. It’s a time span that can really age an album, or alternatively, leave you thinking “Nah, you’re shitting me – TWENTY years ago???”
The late ’90s were an odd time for music. The last two lists we’ve previously done had something of a theme – punk and post-punk in 1978, alt-rock and early grunge in 1988 – but what was 1998? The arse-end of Britpop? The embryo of the new millennium’s emo and post-hardcore surge?
It’s definitely a bit of a hodgepodge, but ’98, like any other year, served up some spiffing listens.
Neutral Milk Hotel – In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Everybody wishes they were into this album when it came out, but anyone who tells you they were is probably fibbing. It went under the radar at the time, but with its powerful and often sexual imagery, litterings of literary references, and spectacular enjambments from indie-rock into brass sections and back again, you could write a book about this album and still have more to say.
What really adds to its mythical and legendary quality it’s developed since is that it was the last new material the Georgia-based band ever released. At the end of final track ‘Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2’, you can literally hear Jeff Mangum get up and walk out. A truly finite work.
Gomez – Bring It On
Perhaps the band most associated with the “curse” of the Mercury Music Prize. These eclectic lads from Southport unexpected but deservedly took the gong in ’98 with this bluesy, folky debut, and followed it up a year later with the equally impressive Liquid Skin. After that, I doubt they even know themselves what they did.
From the anthemic ‘Whippin’ Piccadilly’, to the hypnotic ’78 Stone Wobble’, to the beautifully sombre ‘Bubble Gum Years’, it’s one to sit and do nothing but listen to. All Scousers still love this album, everyone else has forgotten all about it.
Massive Attack – Mezzanine
Still fresh, challenging and rather unsettling. It’s hard to listen to Mezzanine without feeling like somebody is behind you about to grab you by the shoulders.
Technically, this is dance music, but why is it so eerie, so claustrophobic? The title track and ‘Group Four’ in particular make me physically shudder.
Here’s something else to scare you – if the foetus in the ‘Teardrop’ video were real, it would probably be at university now!
Fugazi – End Hits
Fugazi don’t have a weak album, and while few would rate this as their best, it’s up to their usual high standards. The first few tracks are as caustic and infectious as anything from Ian MacKay and co., while the likes of ‘Closed Captioned’ and ‘Floating Boy’ hint at the more arty and experimental direction that would be taken by The Argument three years later.
At the Drive-In – In/Casino/Out
Something of a bridge between the lo-fi rawness of their Acrobatic Tenement debut and the sleekness of their landmark Relationship of Command release, In/Casino/Out is said to have been recorded live and barely edited in an attempt to capture the band’s energy. ‘Hulahoop Wounds’ and the pounding ‘Devil Among the Tailors’ are among its highlights.
Refused – The Shape of Punk to Come
Using punk rock to criticise punk rock was nothing new – Crass and the Dead Kennedys had already gone there with ‘Punk is Dead’ and ‘Chickenshit Conformist’ respectively. Refused, however, were perhaps the first to base a whole album around challenging the staleness of the genre.
With anthems like ‘New Noise’, ‘Summerholidays Vs Punkroutine’ and ‘Protest Song ’68’, the angry Swedes banged, screamed and even threw in a bit of electronics here and there. Was it the shape of punk to come? Not really, but it still stands out as something invigoratingly different.
Air – Moon Safari
Definitely in the category of “not normally my sort of thing”, but a very difficult one to leave out. At a time when the UK music charts still meant something, it was peculiar hearing breathy, otherworldly dabblings like ‘Sexy Boy’ and ‘Kelly Watch the Stars’ pestering the top 20.
It’s inventive, dreamy, stimulating and still part of every art student’s playlist today.
Far – Water & Solutions
Underappreciated emo from before the term became bastardised. In 1998, there was no such thing as ‘an emo’ – it was a genre of music, not something a person could be called.
Anyway, I digress. This really is a belter. The riffs are often basic and repetitive, with the sonics behind them giving them an industrial bent. Jonah Matranga’s voice is unusually melodic for the genre, and oddly seems louder and angstier for verses than choruses on tracks like ‘Mother Mary’.