22 incredible albums turning 20 in 2018
There were plenty of albums released in 1998 that are still beloved today. From the astonishing Music has the Right to Children to the still-acclaimed Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, here are some of the best releases from that year celebrating big anniversaries in 2018.
1998 was one hell of a year. Titanic continued to pack movie theaters and cleaned up at the Oscars, taking 11 awards. US President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky rocked American politics. Nintendo released The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Oh, and a small company named Google was founded in Menlo Park, California.
Musically, releases came thick and fast as access to computer technology became more widespread and young producers began to experiment with an array of pirated, cracked software available online. Warp Records’ slippery electronica flourished as drum ‘n’ bass got progressively more aggressive and trip hop, previously a space rife with innovation, became the soundtrack to aspirational lifestyle ads and fancy dinner parties. Over in the US, the rap landscape was changing as the golden era disappeared and New York’s Rawkus imprint was quickly gaining traction. Meanwhile in Detroit, Theo Parrish was prepping his game-changing debut album and just over the bridge in Windsor, Richie Hawtin was preparing to kill off Plastikman with Consumed. Are you feeling old yet?
Time hasn’t been kind to Moon Safari. In the years following its release, Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel’s debut album found itself soundtracking adverts, used as sonic wallpaper for TV shows and licensed out to an increasingly bland series of ‘chillout’ compilations peddled by Ministry of Sound, resulting in the duo being lumped in with the likes of Zero 7, Morcheeba and Lemon Jelly. It’s easy to understand why: Godin and Dunckel’s update of vintage lounge music and easy-listening pop is, at times, a little too on the nose.
However, it’s hard to deny that Godin and Dunckel’s songwriting and arrangement elevates Moon Safari far above most of the Ibiza comedown dross that followed it. The whole album sounds like it was recorded in the 1960s and then sent to the 22nd century for polish and mastering, and the album is as much a retro-futurist electronic classic than it is a collection of music for wishing you were lying on a beach. Reaching 20 hasn’t brought Moon Safari back from chillout hell, but it still exudes an effortless cool. SW
Packaged in a rough grey CD case with “autechre” embossed into it and a sticker on the front (which inevitably fell off after a few months), LP5 was steeped in mystery. Sean Booth and Rob Brown were practically household names at this stage, riding high on the success of 1997’s hip-hop influenced Chiastic Slide, so the confounding and deliciously complex LP5 was a kick in the teeth to fans unwilling to join the duo in their relentless pursuit of progression.
The battle lines had been drawn and you either got on board with Autechre’s crystalline, almost impossible to plagiarize rhythms or you went back to Amber and spent the next two decades reminding people about the good old days. JT
For the late Big Pun, every single breath was an opportunity. He may have been most famous for ‘Still Not a Player’, a pop remix of his debut single ‘I’m Not a Player (I Just Crush a Lot)’ and R&B singer Joe’s ‘Don’t Wanna Be a Player’ that is still played on the radio today, but he was infamous for fitting polysyllabic punchlines into the standard sixteen bars. His debut Capital Punishment proved he was more than a king-sized loverman, tapping into the same visionary wells as two other late, great NYC Bigs: The Notorious B.I.G and the hedonistic Harlem hellion Big L.
Like Biggie, Pun was an unsuspecting heartthrob with as many axes to grind. And he brought along an impressive ring of friends to tell his tale: Punishment featured guest verses from a slew of varied artists such as Prodigy, Inspectah Deck, Black Thought and Busta Rhymes. But the most memorable of Pun’s creative contributions came via a remake of Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre’s ‘Deep Cover’, a Fat Joe collab called ‘Twinz’ where Pun spits: “dead in the middle of Little Italy / Little did we know that we riddled some middle man who didn’t do diddly”. 20 years later, and you still can’t say it five times fast. CL
Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star
“We feel that we have a responsibility to… shine the light… into the darkness,” began Mos Def and Talib Kweli’s sole studio album together, and shine a light they did, on black excellence and defiance in the face of insitutional racism in late ’90s America on this cult classic. “Still more blacks is dying, cause they live and they trying / ‘How to Make a Slave’ by Willie Lynch is still applying,” Talib raps on ‘Redefinition’, before Common collab ‘Respiration’, on which the pair show off their unique alchemy over lazy guitar. “Stay alive, you play or die, no options / No Batman and Robin,” complains Mos Def about law and order in Brooklyn. That may be so, but 20 years on, Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star still sounds like the work of a very dynamic duo. AH
In an Expression of the Inexpressible
(Touch and Go)
Blonde Redhead had already proved their art-rock bona fides status by the time they released their fourth album In an Expression of the Inexpressible. With two albums on Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley’s label Smells Like Records under their belt and a Touch & Go debut featuring Unwound’s Vern Rumsey on bass put out in 1997, the NYC-via-Italy and Japan trio had been cultivating an immersive sound that was both noisy and romantic for most of the ‘90s. In an Expression was their first with Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto on production and it was the first evidence that polish wouldn’t tarnish their chaotic sound.
Here, they played with the way their brand of urgency can manifest, whether through the breathless vocals and tumbling percussion on opener ‘Luv Machine’, disjointed howls on its title track or fine-tuned math rock on the refined ‘Futurism vs. Passéism Pt. 2’, which features Picciotto in a pitch-perfect French monologue: “Le temps le plus important c’est la première fois / Le temps le plus important c’est la deuxième fois / Et après ça la troisième fois / Et on recommence”.
In English, that translates to: “The first time is the most important time / The second time is the most important time / And after that, the third time is the most important time / And then you start again.” It was a perfect mantra for their fourth album because after In an Expression, the group released their most divergent album, Melody of Certain Lemons and, then finally, their masterpiece Misery is a Butterfly. CL
Boards of Canada
Music has the Right to Children
Despite its litany of accolades, Music has the Right to Children wasn’t an immediate success. Over time though, widespread acclaim and word of mouth helped push the album far beyond the usual Warp remit. Boards of Canada had put out similar records before – the equally brilliant Hi Scores was already popular amongst keen diggers – but Music has the Right to Children imagined their woozy, nostalgic sound in widescreen, filling the gaps between memorable tracks like ‘Turquoise Hexagon Sun’, ‘Roygbiv’ and ‘Aquarius’ with field recordings, eerily familiar samples and crumbling white noise.
It was an album that felt like a distillation of a great deal of contemporaneous ideas: the neck-snapping MPC rhythms of golden era hip-hop, the acid-blurred bounce of rave, the haunting textures of ambient techno and the vaporous rush of Warp-patented idm. As trip-hop became relegated to the coffee table and drum ‘n’ bass slowly lost its luster, Music has the Right to Children filled a gap, preying on our THC-damaged memories and offering a full dose of musical Xanax. It’s never been repeated, either – countless artists have attempted to replicate Sandison and Eoin’s formula and none have succeeded; like the titular Pete, Music has the Right to Children stands alone. JT
Never Say Never
Brandy’s self-titled debut was sweet and flirty. Its follow-up, Never Say Never, however separated her from being just a pop singer with an accelerating star to one with something to say. The album was released after numerous advances in her career both professionally (the sitcom Moesha she starred in for five years launched in 1996) and as subject of gossip columns (at 17, she took budding NBA star Kobe Bryant, who was 18 at the time to prom). Never Say Never explores themes of fame, like the Mase-featuring single ‘Sittin’ on Top of the World’, as well as love, such as on the Diane Warren-penned ballad ‘Have You Ever?’. No discussion of Never Say Never, of course, is complete without mention of Monica duet ‘The Boy is Mine’ – a playful chart smash which also featured on Monica’s 1998 LP, named after the track, and boasting a similarly maturity to Brandy’s album. CL
For anyone who’s ever doubted Beyoncé’s dedication to the rap roots of her hometown Houston, revisit Destiny’s Child’s self-titled debut. While the album is jam-packed with radio-friendly hits, like their debut singles ‘No, No, No Pt. 2’ (US) and ‘With Me’ (UK), it also features Bey’s first musical dalliance with Geto Boys – the ‘Mind’s Playin’ Tricks on Me’-sampling ‘Illusion’. (She and DC groupmate LaTavia Roberson, of course, appeared in the video for ‘Gangsta Put Me Down’ a couple of years before.)
Destiny’s Child doesn’t have the same panache as their starmaking second album The Writing’s On the Wall, but the singles are fun to revisit, as are their counterparts – the ‘No, No, No’ slow jam and a version of ‘With Me’ featuring Master P. CL
Before the rap mixtape was a ubiquitous entity, DJ Clue’s The Professional (alongside three volumes of Funkmaster Flex label-released mixtapes) brought the concept, legally, into CD stores. It featured the remix of DMX’s ‘Ruff Ryders Anthem’ and appearances from Cam’ron, Big Pun, Fabolous, Canibus, Noreaga, Missy Elliott, Jermaine Dupri, Jay-Z, Ja Rule, Foxy Brown, and, among plenty more, a new version of EMPD’s ‘It’s My Thang’ featuring Keith Murray and Redman. This compilation made it feel like New York was an unstoppable force, especially potent with all of its powers combined. The late ‘90s turned out to be the beginning of the end, but this was a hell of a way to start the bon voyage party. CL
It’s Dark and Hell is Hot
It may be hard for some to imagine it now, but there was a time when X was incredibly fit and famous, bridging divides between rap fans, hard rock fans and casual music listeners who liked whatever was on the radio. (Seriously, check out his Woodstock ’99 crowd.) His debut album It’s Dark and Hell is Hot wasn’t just a collection of major hits, like the endlessly quotable ‘Ruff Ryders Anthem’ or his summer love song ‘How’s It Goin’ Down?’, but a spread of genre that ranged from some of the most silly but lovable horrorcore (‘X is Coming’, ‘Damien’) to some of the most sinister, detailed gangster rap of the late ’90s.
Lead single ‘Get at Me Dog’ is unhinged, and not just because X punctuates the Sheek Louch chorus by emitting literal dog barks. In the third verse, which is rumored to have originally been about 2Pac, he raps, “Blood stains and chalk means your man couldn’t walk / After the talk, about him not being 11:33 to New York… And it’s gon’ take all these n***as in the rap game to barely move me / Cos when I blow shit up, I have n****s falling like white bitches in a scary movie.” There is a physicality to the music on It’s Dark that is displayed best there, but you can still feel his kinetic movements in every rhyme throughout the album. CL
When Fugazi’s fifth album End Hits dropped in April 1998, everyone thought they were on the verge of splitting up. “It’s more about the end of the century and the slow-moving apocalypse, so it was sort of like, ‘Here are some last words from the world,’” explained Ian MacKaye at the time, offering an alternative interpretation of the LP’s title that turned out to be a private joke among band members anyway.
End Hits didn’t sound the death knell for the post-hardcore legends, who went on to release The Argument in 2001, but it was instrumental in helping to close the book on their early sound. An audacious trip from a fearless band, picking up where 1995’s experimental-leaning adventure Red Machine left off, the album further embraced that deep, meandering, jazzy spirit, while having barely anything to do with the three-chord structure of classic punk rock. It was also a record that distilled the DC band’s anti-commercial, anti-corporate politics into a single song, ‘Five Corporations’, with lines like: “Check the math here / Check in ten years / Clusterfuck theory / Buy them up and shut them down / Then repeat in every town / Every town will be the same.” A classic in the canon of an impossibly important band, End Hits is such monumental album, we even named our new weekly playlist feature after it. ACW
From the perspective of a New Yorker whose only idea of regional rap was hearing artists from different boroughs and, maybe, New Jersey on the radio every day, Juvenile was a lightning rod. On Rap City – pre-Tha Basement days – you could get a taste of how the rap landscape was unfolding in the rest of the United States, particularly the South, whether it was Ghetto Mafia’s ‘In Decatur’ or JT Money’s ‘Who Dat?’. Those songs sounded like nothing I had ever heard before, but Juvenile’s ‘Ha’ was the most transportive.
Whatever your experience with 400 Degreez when it was released, whether it was a triumph for you and your home or a portal to something completely new, or you know, maybe you weren’t even born yet, the album still transports people today. Ever seen the change on a dancefloor when the first few notes of ‘Back That Azz Up’ start? Juvie led the charge on the south’s hip-hop takeover and even the most indignant on either coast have to admit it when this song comes on. CL
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
Forget everything that happened next: the lawsuits, the exile, her tax troubles, imprisonment, the endless concert no-shows, the $2.5m spent on a second album that never came and so on. Miseducation was and remains a neo-soul masterpiece. Packing a spiritual calm and intimate power at once crushing and revitalizing, the album was a smash, propelling Hill to even taller heights of fame than she’d reached with the Fugees. 20m copies were sold worldwide, prompting Hollywood to come calling as the star’s celebrity grew and grew: Hill turned down roles in The Matrix and Bourne franchises as the spotlight on her intensified.
The glare of that spotlight ultimately became too bright for Hill, who disappeared and never really returned after the release of an MTV Unplugged album three years later, some sporadic tour dates and the odd new track aside. At least we’re left with an album that, 20 years on, as women continue to strive to be heard in a world dominated by men and misogynists, continues to be relevant in its celestial magic and inspiring tales of female perseverance. AH
After touring with Björk, keyboardist and sound engineer Leila Arab retreated to her studio and penned Like Weather, one of the Rephlex label’s most singular releases. Arab harnessed a wide variety of influences, from Aphex Twin’s squiggly bedroom electronica to the dusty bump of trip hop, assembling an album that sounds like a forgotten tape of Prince demos played backwards. Her inventive production sits at the center and is embellished with a cast of vocalists – most prominently Stubborn Heat’s Luca Santucci – who lift off her sound into a parallel (purple) universe. The result is a suite of effervescent, sub-aquatic soul pop that still sounds completely out of time. JT
The Mercury-nominated Mezzanine saw Bristol’s finest reach the peak of their cross-pollinating powers to perfect the spiky downtempo stew they had begun cultivating some seven years earlier. Featuring guest spots from Studio One legend Horace Andy and Cocteau Twins’ Liz Fraser – whose ethereal vocal is the jewel in the crown of an album that brought us one of the most memory-jogging songs of the ‘90s, ‘Teardrop’ – we named Massive Attack’s third LP one our favorite albums of the decade in 2012, and quite rightly so. ACW
After the intergalactic ATLiens, Aquemini saw Andre 3000 and Big Boi not quite return to Earth, but certainly position their wild funk-rap space craft a little closer to our stratosphere. Sure, the pair’s third studio album together was threaded with the spacey textures, futurism and out-of-this-world ambition as the 2m-selling ATLiens, but this was a different, more human-sounding release, full of live instrumentation and lyrics confronting mortality. Maybe this was down to the birth of Andre’s first child a year earlier, a milestone in the rapper’s life that could be linked to more reflective, real contemplations on tracks like ‘Da Art of Storytellin’ (Part 1)’, which eulogizes a childhood friend named Sasha Thumper who died of a drug overdose. From single ‘Rosa Parks’ to the George Clinton-featuring ‘Synthesizer’, it hasn’t aged a second. How can it? OutKast, even then, were living in the future. AH
Compared with 1993’s stark, acidic Sheet One and 1994’s undulating Muzik, Consumed borders on silent. Richie Hawtin’s wobbling TB-303 lines are still present, almost, but gone is the rhythmic clatter of ‘Gak’ or ‘Spastik’, replaced by cavernous reverb and spine-chilling minimalist drones. Make no mistake, Consumed is barely dance music, it’s a hypnotic, progressive inversion of acid house tropes, spiked with Artificial Intelligence-era ambience and sci-fi paranoia. If its predecessors embraced the party, Consumed exemplified the comedown. JT
Armed with a faulty Waldorf 4-Pole filter unit, Stefan Betke took Mark Ernestus and Moritz Von Oswald’s Berlin dub blueprint and subdued it, discarding techno’s uniformity and highlighting the beauty of his failing production process. A few years earlier, German trio Oval had pioneered glitch music, mutilating compact discs to create digital belches and hiccups that were subsequently manipulated into rhythms and drones; Betke harnessed a cotierie of similar sounds, but underpinned them with the bass weight of a Jamaican soundsystem.
1 is the first of a trilogy of numbered full-lengths from Pole and introduced many listeners to Betke’s sound, channeling his dubby sketches through a wall of surprisingly graceful interference. It isn’t the best example of his sound (that would be 2) but it helped shift electronic music forward and its ripples are still being felt. JT
Brummie techno producer Anthony Child managed to achieve the impossible back in the 1990s when he successfully transported Detroit techno’s heady futurism to the UK, augmenting its downtrodden grit with grim, post-industrial cynicism. Balance was one of a sequence of classic Surgeon albums (along with 1997’s Basictonalvocabulary and 1999’s Force + Form) and highlights Child’s unique skill in long-form. The album is, basically, a series of eardrum rupturing warehouse techno bangers, but unlike so many others (back then and now) is, for want of a better word, balanced. JT
Comprised of the two EPs Parrish created for Peacefrog in 1998, the Detroit legend’s essential collection of fizzy, feel-good “sound sculptures” is a sample house classic that will never grow old. An eccentric LP that holds a mirror up to the DC-born producer’s freewheeling DJ sets, First Floor is an electronic album with a deep soul, one where the looped jazz, funk and disco samples of Parrish’s Chicago upbringing peek through distorted drums, with a groove running through that will take you by the hand and lead you straight to the dancefloor. ACW
Chicago’s Tortoise were notable for their unusual take on post-rock; they were less indebted to hardcore than many of their peers, exploring Krautrock rhythms, dubwise low end and infusing their compositions with electronics. But TNT was different from their acclaimed self-titled debut and its inventive followup, Millions Now Living Will Never Die. Now, instead of motorik drums and pulsing bass, light, jazzy guitar riffs and Rob Mazurek’s trumpet filled tracks that owed more to progressive rock than they did Can. Critics were impressed at the time, but fans were divided by the new direction, which at times skated a precarious line between innovation and regression. But Tortoise flirted successfully with jazzy, easy listening tropes on TNT and two decades later, the album sounds markedly more impressive than the quiet-loud dirges of much of the rest of the post-rock canon. JT
Kima, Keisha, and Pam
History could be kinder to R&B trio Total and, perhaps, now that their modernist album Kima, Keisha, and Pam is turning 20, they’ll get their due. Signed to Puffy’s Bad Boy label at its peak, the group were known for their many collaborations with Missy Elliott and The Notorious B.I.G. – that’s Pam singing, “Biggie, Biggie, Biggie, can’t you see…” on ‘Hypnotize’.
On the album, tracks like ‘Trippin’, ‘If You Want Me’ and ‘I Don’t Wanna’ sound like they could be released right now and still sound just as fresh, if not like they’re pointed toward the future. Some of that is, of course, Elliott’s deft hand – she wrote nearly all of the songs on the album – but it’s also in the performances from and the attitude of the group. They had a certain cool-girl persona that hadn’t really materialized yet, but can be found in artists like Kehlani and Tinashe today. CL
Coil/Time Machines – Time Machines (Eskaton)
Two Lone Swordsmen – Stay Down (Warp)
Various – Lyricist Lounge Vol.1 (Rawkus)
Windy And Carl – Depths (Kranky)
Ed Rush & Optical – Wormhole (Virus)
Herbert – Around the House (Phonography)