Welcome to The 50, a Rhapsody scheme in which we attempt to compile the biggest, best, most historically remarkable songs of every year. Our list of 50 tracks -- presented here in no particular order, ideally flowing like a time-traveling DJ set -- has been argued over and (grudgingly) agreed upon by our full editorial staff. Please enjoy.
For an industry fat and happy from booming compact disc sales and an increasingly global presence, 1998 was the best of times. The rap market recovered from the murder of its two biggest sellers, The Notorious B.I.G. and 2Pac, by minting multiplatinum stars like Jay-Z, Lauryn Hill and DMX (who released two multiplatinum albums that year). The country world basked in the diamond-selling juggernaut that was The Dixie Chicks' world-conquering Wide Open Spaces. Just over the horizon was the teen pop movement that would come to define post-millennial American culture. It was signified by The Backstreet Boys' self-titled debut: Released in Europe in 1996, it caught fire two years later on the strength of the corny-but-admittedly-hooky "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)," and initiated a fresh wave of prefab boy bands that continues to this day. And let's not forget Korn's Follow the Leader, part of a building crescendo of bands that made rap-rock one of the most successful (and most hated) sounds of the turn of the century.
But there were plenty of disrupters to an industry focused on mimicking Hollywood with its big opening-week sales and SoundScan crushing numbers. Deep Dish and Stardust (an alias for Daft Punk's Thomas Bangalter and other French compatriots) ruled nightclubs and outdoor raves (remember those?) with massive house anthems. Beyond the main floor throb, Isolée gave birth to micro-house with the quietly insistent rhythms of "Beau Mot Plage." Master P was forcing us to say "Ughh" and bludgeoning the hip-hop nation into submission with his No Limit Army. But Juvenile's "HA" suggested a better version of New Orleans bounce was soon to come in the form of the Cash Money Millionaires. Critics were dazzled by Boards of Canada, a mysterious Scottish duo who blended Autechre's click-hop experiments with pleasantly surreal ambiance to create Music Has the Right to Children. Underground hip-hop fans waging an unwinnable war against the mainstream coalesced around the true-school blueprint of Black Star, a vital collaboration between Mos Def and Talib Kweli.
Evolutions abounded. Everlast evolved from the dude in House of Pain to "Whitey Ford," a bluesy greaser with a heart on his sleeve. Whitney Houston recaptured R&B fans' hearts after years of mushy ballads with the surprisingly sassy My Love Is Your Love, a final peak before, sadly, she disappeared into a tabloid-chronicled demise. Courtney Love shed the "kinderwhore" grunge image for the camera-ready, mainstream rock gloss of Hole's Celebrity Skin. Marilyn Manson shed their industrial guitars -- or at least some of them, anyway -- for the sleek glam-metal chants of Mechanical Animals. After the ballad-heavy Bedtime Stories, Madonna embraced the new "electronica" with help from William Orbit, resulting in the smash Ray of Light, arguably her last great album.
Speaking of electronica, younger folks might not remember how nutty everyone was for electronic music, whether it was drum-and-bass, downtempo or trance. It was seen as the wave of a future that didn't quite come to fruition … at least until now. To judge from the football-field-sized festivals, chirpy Top 10 singles, and the unofficial designation of Las Vegas as the EDM capital of the world, it appears that electronic pop will be forever entrenched in our playlists. But whatever happened to Fatboy Slim? Be careful, Skrillex: What goes up often comes down.