1998 is the end of a rich few years of Popular number ones for yours truly, and the beginning of a far less familiar time: for some years that lie ahead I know maybe a dozen of the UK number ones, for others four or five, and for a few of them only one. And that’s just whether I’ve heard them, not whether I like them. I’ll have to find some creative ways to preface every comment there with “I’ve never heard this before”. Here are some on the songs leading up to the edge of that veil of ignorance.

Oasis, “All Around the World”, 24 January 1998

Possibly because “Hey Jude” was one of my first musical memories, I’ve never minded long songs per se, and find the full version of this listenable enough in an album context. Taken out of that context, it’s too much, but the 7”/cassingle edit seems to me as legitimate a contender for “proper” single status as the 9:38 12”/CD single version, so has to be factored into any overall rating. Unfortunately, all that edit does is fade the track at 4:51, just before the most engaging part of the song—the tail end of the video, with the best guitar section and Liam Gallagher’s megaphoned “I don’t know what I know”. I would rather have seen an edit of four or five minutes that kept the best moments of the full version, not just its first half.

So: the edit is a better length, but misses some of the best bits. The full version outstays its welcome, but has some better highlights. The lyrics are rubbish, but I don’t listen to Noel Gallagher songs for their lyrics. Not very successful overall, but I still like it well enough. There isn’t much Oasis I go back to nowadays, and certainly not Be Here Now, but I’d give it a 4 or 5, which would have been 6 or 7 if they’d got the 7” edit right.

Usher, “You Make Me Wanna...”, 31 January 1998

I was visiting London when this hit number one (and while “All Around the World” was), showing J. the city I had loved in 1985-86 and 1991-92. We both felt rather ambivalent about it, coming off the back of a few weeks in Germany (and before that, Sweden, Canada, the US, and New Zealand). The grime and noise of the underground—before some of its millennial facelifts—were pretty dismal after Germany’s U-bahns, and the cost of living in London relative to New Zealand and Australia—or anywhere else we had visited that trip—left us breathless, especially as the Australian dollar had collapsed at the start of our round-the-world adventure and we were eking out our savings whichever way we could.

Even though we were in the UK when Usher hit the top, we were in a bubble of friends, extended family, and sightseeing, oblivious to whatever was happening in any charts anywhere, so I listened to this the other day with virgin ears. It’s a pleasant enough sound, nothing I’d switch off if it came on the radio, but I can’t find a hook that lifts it above the average for me. My ears aren’t particularly attuned to R&B in any case, which promises either enlightening or awkward times ahead. In this early encounter it probably knocks off a point or two. 5.

Celine Dion, “My Heart Will Go On”, 21 February 1998

This puffed-up song sank the reputation of Titanic as surely as that iceberg sank its subject. Many of us who saw it on release—when it was the new movie from the director of The Terminator, T2 and Aliens, which was one hell of a track record—thought it was a good movie, not the turkey it has since been made out to be. It was an incredible spectacle, something you had to see on the big screen, and the romantic storyline and the two leads were sufficient to justify it as a movie rather than as a glorifed special effects reel. The contemporary reviews were good (here’s Roger Ebert’s). I’m convinced it would have been remembered more fondly across the board (rather than just by incurable romantics) if it hadn’t had this song at the end of it. “My Heart Will Go On” retrospectively schmaltzified the whole movie, just a little when you first heard it at the end of that first viewing, but more and more as you heard it again and again on the radio and TV, until the whole thing was tainted. Tainted love.

So forget the song—put it out of your mind—and if you have a home TV screen big enough to do it justice, put it on and give it a chance. The movie is bigger and better than this song. (Also, if you’re ever in Northern Ireland, give Titanic Belfast a chance. Don’t let “My Heart Will Go On” put you off.)

As you might be able to guess, I don’t like the song much. I first heard it—the once—at the end of the movie, which I saw with J. in Vancouver while we were travelling in late 1997. We were then blissfully Celine-free for a couple of months, but when we got back to Australia this was everywhere, spending four weeks at the top of the Australian charts in February-March 1998. I was glad we’d already seen the movie, because if this had been the first we’d heard of it I doubt we would have gone.

On its own merits, I’d give this a 3 (with a point docked for the tin whistles), but for what it’s done to the movie’s reputation, it has to be 2.

Cornershop, “Brimful of Asha (Norman Cook Remix)”, 28 February 1998

The extended version of the Norman Cook remix of “Brimful of Asha” is on the Australian compilation Meaty, Beaty, Big & Bouncy!, which I enjoyed at the time. In fact it’s the only CD I own with the song in any form. I was never moved to investigate the parent album, nor anything else by Cornershop, and for the life of me can’t now think why. I later got into Black Star Liner, who were associated with them, but even that didn’t trigger a revisiting of Cornershop. I guess for a Britpop and big beat fan there was so much other good stuff to explore that I never got round to it.

I wonder if Cook’s influence was part of it. There will be a better chance to talk about Fatboy Slim, but I was oddly reluctant to get into his stuff at the time; some sort of misguided reaction to its ubiquity. In hindsight, I really should have, because this remix reminds me a lot of Mint Royale, another of my late-’90s favourites; in fact this track is about the best representation on Popular of a lot of music I loved in 1998-2000.

The original feels a little languid to me after being so used to hearing the remix, but I like the roll-call of record labels (preserved on the extended remix). Apart from the speeding up, my favourite feature of the remix is that Cook’s interpolated Bollywood sounds are cut short every time, leaving the listener to fill in the gaps; it’s a neat trick.

I was going to give this a 7 on the basis that although it’s clearly a superior track it wasn’t part of my core listening then and isn’t now; but I suspect that’s about to change. 8.

Madonna, “Frozen”, 7 March 1998

Back when we were discussing her first run of number ones on Popular I noted that Madonna was one of my blind spots, despite being pretty familiar with her work: I liked “Burning Up” when Australia made it her first top twenty hit anywhere, and had time for “Material Girl” and a few other hits, but with nothing like the fervour that many had for them and her. “Like a Prayer” briefly turned that around, but not enough to carry me through her mid-’90s work.

Then came the delirious ecstasy of “Ray of Light”, which immediately became my favourite Madonna song. I bought the album—the only Madonna studio album I own—and admired it, even if it was a little too long. Beyond the hints of Björk, Orbit’s touch left tracks reminding me of Sunscreem, Curve, or even Garbage, which were all good things in my book. I enjoyed listening to it again this morning, but the patchiness I heard in it fifteen years ago is still noticeable; it would have made a killer 10-track album.

“Frozen” never leapt out at me before, but re-listening to it in isolation and then in album context has really lifted it; the hummed sections give it that ancient, Middle Eastern note that Madonna was going for (she cited The Sheltering Sky as a key influence at the time). But even though the songs on Ray of Light have the mature Madonna voice that I far prefer, I keep hearing hints of older Madonnas, from songs that never quite did it for me. It makes them teeter on the brink of sounding like Madonna-karaoke over somebody else’s songs. Intellectually I know that’s wrong, that these are her songs and that she deserves great credit for her choice of collaborators throughout her career, but instinctively it keeps me from giving “Frozen” more than a 7. “Ray of Light” would have been a 9.

All Saints, “Lady Marmalade”/“Under the Bridge”, 9 May 1998

I’d been reading about the Red Hot Chili Peppers in Rolling Stone since the late 1980s, back when the most notable thing about them was their habit of wearing cock socks in photo shoots (see the cover of The Abbey Road EP), but hadn’t heard much of their music until Blood Sugar Sex Magik was everywhere. “Under the Bridge” never did anything for me back then, so All Saints’ version doesn’t strike me as being disrespectful, it strikes me as being dull. Richard Hawley’s guitar intro piques my interest, but that’s about it. Anthony Kiedis’s original vocals were like nails on a blackboard for me, and this cover has a similar effect, so it must have been the underlying melody all along. 3.

As for “Lady Marmalade”, it’s a great ’70s song, although Labelle’s pronunciation of “marma-laaaahd” sounds so jarring (even if it makes sense in creole) that I’m not bothered that All Saints drop it altogether. The titillant français bit is the hook everyone remembers anyway, and it’s enough to carry All Saints’ version. Turning a hooker’s pitch into party pick-up lines works tolerably well, but it loses the transgressive impact of the original, and keeps this from being more than a 5.

4 overall.

Billie, “Because We Want To”, 11 July 1998

Although I wasn’t paying attention to the charts much in the late ’90s, let alone the charts of the other side of the world from Australia, I sure as hell paid attention when Doctor Who came back, with Billie Piper as its co-lead. So this was a weird video to watch, not least because the aliens and London street setting make it look like a scene from Rose: The Musical. It’s like seeing a photo of a friend or partner from a few years before you met them. Or those “what celebs looked like in high school” features on Buzzfeed.

It’s a useful reminder of the attention bubbles we can find ourselves in, thinking that our concerns are shared by everyone when they aren’t. A bit like tales of mid-1960s adults who’d barely heard of the Beatles. Now that I’m in my distracted mid-40s, I can see why that wasn’t nearly as remarkable as it would have seemed to teenage me. And Billie was no Beatles.

The song itself... sounds okay to me, after a few listens. 5.

4 June 2014 · Music