You know what, in October 1998 I was happy. Insanely happy. I was producer and co-host of an enormously successful local radio breakfast show in Bradford, working alongside a former Radio One presenter who essentially dumped everything he ever learned onto me and brought me on in leaps and bounds as a broadcaster. I was driving around on my newly purchased scooter with a new 15-month contract from the radio station in my back pocket, leading a fun lifestyle in my attic room in Shipley and making the most of every minute. True, there were times on freezing cold mornings when I wondered just why I was out of bed and showering at 4.30 am and wondered whether certain bits of life weren’t just passing me by a little, but if I was to look back at my entire on-air radio career and point to the time when everything was going just as planned, this would be it. Hence these songs are those that soundtracked that era of my life. I was being paid to get up in the morning and play them. No wonder many are so incredibly memorable.
Two songs back to back to kick off this second segment, singles from two women who had teamed up a few months earlier to record one of the R&B smashes of the year. The Boy Is Mine was the record in question, a call-and-response duet between Brandy and Monica which was not only arrestingly and inspiringly good but also served as a long-overdue female equivalent to the famous Jackson/McCartney The Girl Is Mine duet. The single was an easy Number 2 in May 1998 and needless to say, had a beneficial effect on the careers of both women.
For Brandy Norwood it was the shot in the arm her international career needed. The mid- to late-90s were an odd time as far as transatlantic music tastes were concerned, with a great many American acts finding that European and British audiences, in particular, were almost completely unreceptive to their charms. There is an endless list of big American R&B hits from this period which simply flopped or were at best only minor hits in the UK, many famous songs only becoming hits here when covered by British pop acts at the start of the 21st century. Hence it wasn’t all that much of a shock to note that before 1998 Brandy’s singles here had failed to set the charts alight. Despite two bites at the cherry I Wanna Be Down had been little more than a minor Top 40 hit and its follow-up Sittin’ Up In My Room limped to Number 30, both in 1996 and a full two years after they had first turned her into a star back home. Post The Boy Is Mine however and it was a very different story. Top Of The World became the second single to be lifted from her second album Never Say Never and immediately duplicated the success of its predecessor, charging to Number 2 in early October. The single was admittedly what we would now call a one week wonder, but then again most were back in those days – this Number 30 placing was its fourth week on the chart. She would never quite scale these kinds of chart heights again, although her last Top 10 hit was as recently as 2004.
As for her co-duettee, it was a similar story. Monica Arnold’s first releases during 1995 and 1996 were only minor hits, her best performance coming in the summer of 1996 when Before You Walk Out Of My Life reached Number 22. Her first post The Boy Is Mine single was this track, released just a week after the Brandy single and which made a comfortable Number 6 to give her the biggest solo hit of her UK career. Although The Boy Is Mine appeared on the albums of both women, it was I guess technically Monica’s record to begin with as she named her album after the song, The First Night thus qualifying as its second single release. As a side note, in a strange reversal of what would become the trend, Monica’s next single in the States was her version of a song that had already been a hit for a British R&B act – Angel Of Mine most familiar to UK audiences thanks to Eternal’s 1997 hit version. Undaunted Monica’s British label attempted to promote her version in this country as well, but despite it being a Hot 100 chart-topper nobody here was interested and when it made Number 55 in September 1999 it became Monica’s final appearance to date on the UK charts.
No, your eyes do not deceive you. The celebrated hip-hop single had already been a sizable UK hit the first time around, hitting Number 3 in February 1996 as a follow-on from its American success. This chart comeback two and a half years later was thanks to a rather clever jungle remix created by Mickey Finn and Aphrodite and which had circulated as a bootleg white label for most of the summer before being finally licensed for release. Oddly for a track that had such a buzz about it underground, commercially it was something of a failure, entering here at Number 28 and vanishing from the chart within a fortnight. For completeness sake I’ve included the most famous hit version on the playlists and in the link above but the “Urban Takeover” remix charting here can be viewed below.
You see this is the problem when you have hits that are so big and with such massive appeal that they wind up being your defining moment – pretty much everything else you do gets rather overlooked and suffers in comparison. The doe-eyed Natalie Imbruglia would theoretically have been just another Australian soap actress aiming for a brief musical career, but for the fact she was served up an absolute belter of a song for her debut single. Having bounded around Scandinavia in a variety of different versions for a couple of years, the new English language rewrite of Torn was handed to the lady formerly known as “Beth from Neighbours” and instantly became one of the bigger smashes of late 1997, impossible to escape on the radio and a single which neatly established her as a bone-fide chart star. That Number 2 single was swiftly followed by another second-place track Big Mistake in early 1998 and then an album which was mined for hits for the rest of the year. Smoke was her fourth single release, a track that returned her to the Top 10 after Wishing I Was There had fallen short, but in the grand scheme of things one of her most forgettable releases – such is the fate of fourth singles from the album I guess. She has made sporadic chart comebacks since, often with singles that are equally as well crafted (2005 release Shiver a particular highlight) but she has to date never quite recaptured quite the impact she made in the 1990s with two early singles. Neither of which was this one.
Funny this. The singles which made everyone start worshipping every drop of sweat on Robbie Williams’ body were the ones I didn’t particularly care for. I’m sure I am not alone in that view. After a slow start to the promotion of his debut solo album Life Thru A Lens, during which time he released a succession of singles which were well received but little regarded, Robbie exploded into superstardom with Angels, a Number 4 hit at the tail of 1997 and which now is so over-exposed it is now little more than a funeral soundtracking cliche. Inevitably after this breakthrough (and its Top 3 follow-up Let Me Entertain You) the first brand new Robbie material was going to be nothing less than an event. The first single plucked from his sophomore album I’ve Been Expecting You was the sweeping and majestic Millennium, based entirely around the string melody from John Barry’s theme to You Only Live Twice and which cleverly marked Robbie Williams (and his increasingly high profile songwriting collaborator Guy Chambers) as an artist who wasn’t afraid to indulge his experimental side every once in a while. Millennium wasn’t the most immediate pop record he would ever make but it swept to Number One with consummate ease the moment it was released in September 1998. I’ll say this for nothing: I don’t care for it too much. He had made far better records before this one and would go on to write more than his fair share of classics. Nonetheless, Millennium stands tall as his first-ever solo chart-topper, only his second Number One as lead singer (Everything Changes was the only Take That Number One on which he took centre stage) and at the very least unique in being the only Number One ballad to use “come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough” as a bridging lyric.
In compiling these flashbacks it is fun to look up the Wikipedia page for each of the songs, just to see how much attention the internet group mind has deemed them worthy. Extraordinarily No Matter What merits just four lines of explanation [it has expanded since], half of which are taken up with noting a dance remix that was “very popular”. Astonishing really, No Matter What actually ranks as one of the most significant singles of its era, for a whole variety of reasons:
- Lifted from the Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical “Whistle Down The Wind”, the song sailed past Don’t Cry For Argentina in fairly short order to become the biggest selling single ever from a stage musical.
- With a total sale to date of 1,095,000 copies (enough to make it round around the 76th biggest seller of all time, give or take a few places), the track is the biggest selling single ever by an Irish act, the only one by artists from the Emerald Isle to clock up a seven-figure sale.
- Although the track is essentially a two-handed duet with Ronan Keating, No Matter What is held up as the late Stephen Gately’s finest moment on record and the vocal for which it seems he is best remembered.
- With lyrics and production by Jim Steinman, it became the legendary producers fourth and, to date, final Number One production in this country. Oddly it also meant the man credited with inventing the Wagnerian Rock genre had produced just as many singles for boy band pop acts (Boyzone and Take That) as he had rock singers like Meat Loaf and Bonnie Tyler with which he is most frequently associated.
Maybe to modern ears No Matter What sounds a bit weak-kneed, not quite the epic it sounded back in the day, but make no mistake it was one of the biggest hits of the year, the fourth-biggest seller of 1998 and high point of Boyzone’s career that they would never even come close to matching. That’s actually worth more than a very brief paragraph surely.
Perhaps not the easiest of records to listen to, Lauryn Hill’s one and only post-Fugees album is rightly regarded as a soul classic and one which contains more than its fair share of memorable hits. Doo Wop (That Thing) was the first to be lifted, a single which maybe would not have attracted quite as much attention had she been a complete unknown, but which name value aside comfortably made Number 3 in early October 1998 albeit as part of a rather brief chart run. Two more Top 20 hits followed from The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill, after which we all sat around for the next 12 years waiting for her to record another one.
By the middle of the last decade, REM had slipped into a nice comfortable pattern, common to the most well established of rock acts at the time. Appear every couple of years, release a new album, have one contractually obligated Top 10 hit single, go on tour, lather, rinse and repeat. After a while they all merged into one. Daysleeper was their Top 10 single of 1998, the first to be lifted in support of the album Up which was the first they had recorded following Bill Berry’s departure from the group. The epitome of their mid-90s “experimental” period, the album isn’t their most immediate of records, but the fact that it contained this single and also the surprise 1999 hit At My Most Beautiful suggests it wasn’t a total bust.
A few weeks back I suggested that the LZ7 single This Little Light was the first-ever example of God-rap in the charts, but in actual fact it was probably this single. 4 The Cause were a family group from Chicago, originally going by the name of Young Warriors For Christ which I guess was marginally less marketable than the one they eventually settled upon. This happy-clappy remake of the Ben E King soul classic made a smash and grab raid on the Top 20, making a surprisingly healthy Number 20 in early October on the back of being wildly successful on the continent. They have no page on English Wikipedia, but a full write-up in the German version. I think that tells you all that you need to know. [Again a now dated reference as someone has gone to the trouble of writing them one].
The 11th biggest seller of the year, despite ending up stuck at Number 2 for most of the summer. The club track Music Sounds Better With You was the creation of soon to be Daft Punk member Thomas Bangalter, based around a sample from an old Chaka Khan single Fate. With a new vocal supplied by Benjamin Diamond, its creators called themselves Stardust and had a worldwide smash hit with the single, the only one they ever released as a collective.