The hit soundtrack to the year 1998 — which we’re celebrating all this week — is filled with stalwarts: Janet Jackson, Aerosmith, Mariah Carey, Will Smith, and Celine Dion (the Titanic soundtrack was the best-selling album of the year) all had huge singles. It was also a year that introduced a rash of new acts who would go on to dominate the charts for years to come, like boy bands Backstreet Boys and ’N Sync, as well as Britney Spears, Destiny’s Child, and Usher. But a more entertaining measure of the musical landscape of a particular year can be found by revisiting its one-hit wonders. Who gave us the “Macarena” of 1998? Here are 15 artists responsible for ear worms we couldn’t shake, the songs with the nonsense lyrics that always seemed to be playing whenever we went to the drugstore or drove to the mall. (Preemptive note to protective dedicated fans of these bands: Yes, some of them had one or two subsequent small or niche hits, but none with the ubiquity of their signature smash.)
Shawn Mullins, “Lullaby”
Take some insanely earnest spoken-word verses about L.A. heartache and add in an adult-top-40-friendly groove bordering on late-stage U2, and you’ve got the No. 7 song on 1998’s Billboard Hot 100. No idea what a grown man with a goatee knew about the angsty world of a teenage girl (played in the video by Dominique Swain, fresh off Lolita) on the Hollywood party circuit, but even in the age right before Paris and Lindsay, it resonated.
Key lyric: “Her parents threw big parties / Everyone was there / They hung out with folks like Dennis Hopper, Bob Seger, Sonny and Cher.”
Jimmy Ray, “Are You Jimmy Ray?”
No, seriously, who wants to know? Somehow the scraggly British rocker with the “dangerous” vintage fifties style (more Christian from Clueless than Elvis, though he cited the latter as a musical influence) had us asking all sorts of questions. Maybe it had something to do with the accompanying video, because at least his backup dancers were cool.
Key lyric: “Are you Johnny Ray? / Are you Slim Ray? / Are you Paid Ray? Who wants to know? Who wants to know?”
Here’s the punk-pop song that made every drunk at your local watering hole want to dance — or fight the evil patron who unleashed this insidious ear worm on the jukebox. (And get a load of that quaint late-nineties TV set in the video!) We sincerely apologize in advance for getting this stuck in your head again. You’ll forgive us eventually, but probably not until 2028, because you’ll have this song stuck in your head for another fifteen years now.
Key lyric: “Pissing the night away / Pissing the night away.”
Billie Myers, “Kiss the Rain”
It’s still unclear whether the title of singer-songwriter Billie Myers’s biggest single was meant to be a literal or metaphorical directive, but whatever it was, it sure was passion-fueled in a generic, soft-rock way. The accompanying video, featuring Billie destroying the crap out of her bedroom, only added to the drama.
Key lyric: “If your lips feel lonely and thirsty / Kiss the rain and wait for the dawn.”
Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz, “Deja Vu (Uptown, Baby)”
A filthy yet earnest love song to the Bronx, “Deja Vu (Uptown, Baby)” is the best known (only) hit from rap duo Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz. With shout-outs to each of New York’s five boroughs but with the most love for Yankee Stadium territory, the video in particular feels inextricably tied to a specific time and place, complete with opening shots of the Twin Towers.
Key lyrics: “But if it wasn’t for the Bronx / This rap shit probably never would be going on / So tell me where you from / Uptown baby, uptown baby.”
Jennifer Paige, “Crush”
The following year, Britney and Christina and Beyoncé would blow her off the charts forever. But in 1998, Jennifer Paige had the pop love song of the moment. It was as cute and sweet and forgettable as that guy you used to like who sat behind you in math class.
Key lyric: “I see ya blowin’ me a kiss / It doesn’t take a scientist / To understand what’s going on baby.”
Marcy Playground, “Sex and Candy”
So mellow. Alt rockers Marcy Playground sang about all sorts of fun stuff (specifically: sex and candy) on their hit single but they kept it low-key. The video for “Sex and Candy” was sort of hilarious in its attempt to be nightmarish (cue creepy spider!) but the song itself was nothing if not totally chill. And totally 1998.
Key lyric: “And then there she was / Like double cherry pie / Yeah there she was / Like disco superfly.”
Eve 6, “Inside Out”
Another one of those great nineties alternative songs with majestically nonsensical lyrics, all silly similes and mixed metaphors. Wouldn’t an Eve 6 lyric generator be fun, even today?
Key lyric: “Want to put my tender heart in a blender / Watch it spin around to a beautiful oblivion / Rendezvous then I’m through with you.”
Alana Davis, “32 Flavors”
Do kids these days even know that Baskin-Robbins was once known for carrying 31 flavors of ice cream? Alana Davis’s soulful 1997 cover of the Ani DiFranco anthem shot up the charts in 1998, empowering women and making them think of ice cream at the same time. Genius.
Key lyric: “God help you if you are an ugly girl / ‘Course too pretty is also your doom / ‘Cause everyone harbors a secret hatred for the prettiest girl in the room.”
Semisonic, “Closing Time”
It’s become a tradition. After last call and before the ugly lights come on, someone slips “Closing Time” on the jukebox as revelers head out into the night. An exceptionally charming way to kick people out of a bar (or to score the “moving out” scene at the end of a Real World season), “Closing Time” remains a pop-cultural touchstone: see the Friends With Benefits flash mob scene if you don’t believe me.
Key lyric: “Closing time / Turn all of the lights on over every boy and every girl.”
Pras, “Ghetto Supastar (That Is What You Are)”
Pras Michel from the Fugees, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and Mya aren’t even close to being one-hit wonders, but they all came together in 1998 to create a one-off for one of the most important films ever, Bulworth, starring Warren Beatty as a fading politician who becomes inspired by hip-hop culture. Thanks to the coming together of this elite group, there is a whole generation of people who cannot hear Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton sing the chorus to “Islands in the Stream” (co-opted by Mya for the hook in “Ghetto Supastar”) without wishing that ODB would take a verse.
Key lyrics: “Some got hopes and dreams / We got ways and mean / The supreme dream team always up with the scheme.”
Harvey Danger, “Flagpole Sitta”
The Seattle indie-rock outfit had a long and successful career, but only one true chart hit. Equal parts giddiness and rage, and still as catchy as ever, “Flagpole Sitta” had manic energy and some of the most nineties-specific lyrics of all time.
Key lyric: “I wanna publish zines and rage against machines / I wanna pierce my tongue it doesn’t hurt it feels fine.”
New Radicals, “You Get What You Give”
The only song that’s ever proved to be truly uplifting and inspirational while at the same time involving a threat to kick the asses of a handful of late-twentieth-century celebs (Beck and Hanson, Courtney Love and Marilyn Manson). What’s not to love? Even though the video takes place in the most late-ninetiess of shopping malls, the song itself is an enduring classic.
Key lyric: “But when the night is falling / You cannot find a friend, friend / You feel your tree is breaking / Just then …”
Next, “Too Close”
Okay, “Too Close” was R&B group Next’s second single, but it’s their greatest legacy — a never-gets-old hit about what happens when a dude gets a little too excited while grinding with his lady. A glorious celebration of dance-floor boners, “Too Close” remains an amazing male-female duet selection at karaoke.
Key lyric: “Step back you’re dancing kinda close, feel a little poke coming through on you.”
The Verve, “Bittersweet Symphony”
Ugh, can anything beat the sound of those opening strings? One of the best songs of the decade just happened to be the only radio hit for Brit pop gods the Verve. Their body of works goes way deeper than a slot on the Cruel Intentions soundtrack. Check it out.
Key lyric: “And I’m a million different people from one day to the next / I can’t change my mold / No, no, no, no, no.”