20 Tracks That Prove 1998 Was Also The Best Year Ever For House Music
Incredible cuts from an unforgettable era.
Almost a year ago on inthemix, I proved once and for all that 1997 was the best year for house music ever with a list of 20 incredible tracks from that year. And now I’m going to do the exact same thing with the music of 1998.
Okay, okay. Before you get on my case, hear me out. As I was making my list for ’97, when I was going through and culling tracks that happened to come out a little bit later than I remembered, it struck again me how unbelievably good and essential the house music of ’98 was too. Especially as some of the crucial styles of the year before expanded and so many great young producers matured and unleashed even greater work. So it got me to thinking and taking notes for a sequel.
The larger point is that whole era was amazing and unforgettable, and any given year is part of the tapestry of the whole. Comparing the great records of one year with that of the next lets you see the evolution of the music. Also, going through old records and making lists is fun as hell, and I don’t really need much of an excuse to do the exercise all over again. So here we are.
What was going on in 1998? The New York sound represented by artists like Masters at Work and Kerri Chandler was still the epitome. The French house explosion was at its height and dominated dancefloors worldwide. Chicago and the UK were big as ever. But the global sounds of broken beat, Latin jazz, Afro-house were beginning to transform the music, as was the rapidly consolidating sound of tech and minimal house. In Detroit, Moodymann and Theo Parrish were kicking off their own revolution of raw, uncompromising soulful house.
As was the case last year, when I went through scores of tracks from this time, it was a bit overwhelming to remember how expansive and diverse and creative the music was, how endless it all seemed as the records hit the shops every week, and how broke I was trying to keep up.
This is nothing against the current generation of house — I love new house and play more new records than I do old. But there’s undeniably something that sets this era apart, a unique atmosphere and flavour that becomes very apparent (and warmly nostalgic for those of us who were there) when you delve into it 20 tracks at a time.
20 Tracks That Prove 1998 Was The Best Year Ever For House Music
#20. Karen Ramirez — ‘Looking for Love’ (Kevin Yost Mix)
Londonder Karen Ramirez’s luscious cover of a deep cut from Everything But the Girl’s hit album Worldwide from the year before dominated dancefloors on both sides of the Atlantic in ‘98 (and was an even bigger hit when it was rereleased three years later).
The original is, appropriately enough, reminiscent of EBTG’s Missing; but the remix by Kevin Yost, the new-school house hero improbably hailing from small-town Pennsylvania, beautifully epitomises the jazzy, organic sound of late-’90s American house.
#19. Round Four featuring Tikiman — ‘Find A Way’
Berlin dub-techno demigods Mauritz von Oswald and Mark Ernestus, AKA Basic Channel, AKA Maurizio, found considerable crossover appeal on house dancefloors in the mid-’90s with their melodic and deep work on their Main Street sublabel.
This darkly shimmering track features haunting vocals from Tikiman (Dominican vocalist Paul St. Hilaire), twisting dub techno back to its reggae roots. It was a harbinger of the team’s massive success as the dub/tech/reggae hybrid outfit Rhythm & Sound in years to come.
#18. African Blues — ‘Word Sound Power’
In 1998, second-generation Chicago house innovator Ron Trent had just called it quits with his partner Chez Damier and their legendary label Prescription Underground, a blow that househeads worldwide still haven’t recovered from.
But if anything Trent’s production went to new levels in the aftermath. This gem on New York label Clairaudience is one of the best of the era, Trent’s richly layered and melodic Afro-futurist track a beautiful canvas for Tina Howell’s hypnotic spoken word.
#17. 16B — ‘It Doesn’t Have To End’
Tehran-born Londoner Omid Nourizadeh was in later years better known for his progressive hits under the expanded moniker Omid 16B. Before that he rose to prominence in the mid-’90s perfecting a style of deep and jazzy house tinged by acid and broken-beat, and with more than a hint of the sensual progressive that was to come.
That’s especially true on this wicked cut from his 1998 album Sounds From Another Room, its dramatically emotive, floaty synths anchored by a seriously fat bassline and stinging percussion.
#16. Dubtribe Sound System — ‘El Regalo De Amor’
Dubtribe were one of the most unusual and distinctive entities on the US scene of the ’90s. Hailing from the fabled ‘San Fran Disco’ underground, the party collective were unabashed hippies led by a duo literally named Sunshine and Moonbeam Jones. Yet they were also responsible for some seriously soulful and funky house productions that got respect from coast to coast.
This one, on Chicago’s epochal Guidance Recordings, is just quietly one of the loveliest and most unforgettable tracks of that era, with its insistent Latin percussion, sublime analogue synth action and Moonbeam’s sultry Spanish vocal.
#15. Norma Jean Bell — ‘I’m The Only Queen’
Detroit’s Norma Jean Bell, a frequent collaborator with Moodymann and very much of the same fiercely independent and anticommercial school of funky and soulful house, was singular among women artists in the ’90s in combining the roles of diva and producer (she’s a wicked sax player to boot). Her best-known anthem is 1996’s ‘I’m The Baddest Bitch’, but if you think this one is a mere follow-up, you haven’t played it loud.
This track is so unique and genius with its massive kick and bassline bouncing off Bell’s sassy vocal, both eventually giving way to moody keyboards that add terrific depth and soul.
#14. The Songstress — ‘See Line Woman’
The influx of jazz onto house dancefloors in the late ’90s reached a wonderful high point with this Nina Simone rework by New York maestros Kerri Chandler and Jerome Sydenham.
The great singer’s definitive 1964 version of the Southern folk tune about sailors and prostitutes was transformed by the duo into a smouldering Afro-tinged deep-house number with driving percussion and lush flute accompanying Simone’s alternately growling and soaring vocals. It gave many an early-morning gathering an evocative and melancholy atmosphere.
#13. Scott Grooves ft. Parliament/Funkadelic — ‘Mothership Reconnection’
In ’98, Detroit producer Scott Grooves scored a couple of big house hits featuring guest performances from funk legends — one with Roy Ayers, and this one co-starring fellow Motor City brethren George Clinton and co. Released on Scottish techno label Soma, Mothership Reconnection is a stomping disco-tech number that leaves most others in the dust even without the heavyweight talent; the P-Funk mojo just sends it into outer space.
Of course I can’t go without also mentioning the electro-powered Daft Punk remix on the other side, a reminder of how ace their remixes were and how huge they were on house dancefloors before they blew up the mainstream.
#12. Pépé Bradock — ‘Vermeille’
This outrageously good cut from Bradock’s 1998 album Synthèse proves the French producer’s early mastery of his distinctive brand of edgy, dramatic deep house, an effective counterpoint to the excesses of the French Touch explosion then sweeping the world.
Like all of his classic tracks, Vermeille is marked by Bradock’s tweaked perfectionism and sheer delight in sound, its constantly shifting layers packed with fascinating detail and melody.
#11. Paperclip People — ‘4 My Peeps’
Paperclip People is the alias Carl Craig reserves for his most epic and deep dancefloor workouts. This single on his own Planet E label added to the Paperclip legend with a dark and spooky disco-tech anthem that’s hugely underrated in C2’s discography.
With the two sides labelled ‘4 My Peeps (Shot)’ and ‘4 My Peeps (Stabbed)’, Craig seemed to be reminding us of the harsh reality of life in Detroit away from the hype and mystique. That lends an unusually serious narrative quality to the relentlessly building track, with its sinuous rhythm, entrancing dubby bassline and hair-raising synth stabs.
#10. Presence ft. Shara Nelson — ‘Sense Of Danger’
UK deep house master Charles Webster had one of his finest moments with this stunner in collaboration with singer/songwriter Shara Nelson, known for her classic work with Massive Attack. Webster’s typically impeccable production, with its crisp techno-ish drum programming, spacious depth and swooning melodies, warmly envelops Nelson’s melancholy vocal.
This is a particular kind of progressive-deep house at its finest.
#9. Theo Parrish — ‘Sweet Sticky’
Detroit hero Theo Parrish’s debut album First Floor (yet another brilliant release from an American underground producer on UK powerhouse Peacefrog Records) is wall-to-wall brilliance with its superdeep sound that mines minimal house for maximum soul.
But the most unforgettable track on the collection is this one, certainly of the weirdest but most irresistibly funky jams ever put to wax. With its bizarre synth stabs that seem to come from outer space punctuating a grimy but hypnotic groove that keeps building in melody and intensity, it’ll make all your other disco-house tracks sound weak and boring by comparison.
#8. Danny Tenaglia + Celeda — ‘Music Is the Answer (Dancin’ And Prancin’)’
A true New York icon, Danny Tenaglia has been responsible for his share of anthems over the years, but Music Is the Answer is one of the best and most enduring.
Bridging the gap between the main-floor hard house that defined New York clubs like the Sound Factory in the mid-’90s and the deep sound of gatherings like Body & Soul, it combines a stellar track featuring an old-school bassline and piano with a powerhouse vocal by diva and drag performer Celeda.
#7. Moloko — ‘Sing It Back’ (Herbert’s Tasteful Dub)
UK duo Moloko, notable as the breakout project for Irish electropop star Roísín Murphy, scored a massive hit with this house anthem. There were endless remixes, but future Murphy collaborator Matthew Herbert’s is the most memorable by far, and it became one of his biggest dancefloor hits in turn.
Herbert flips it in his inimitable loopy fashion, seemingly rewriting the song by chopping up and scattering Murphy’s verses and choruses over a ridiculously infectious stomping dubby track.
#6. Ian Pooley — ‘What’s Your Number’ (Jazzanova Renumber)
Towards the end of the ’90s, house was increasingly mixed with and influenced by the nu-jazz and broken-beat revolution led by DJs like Gilles Peterson and artists like Thievery Corporation and Berlin’s Jazzanova. The latter’s Latin-infused drum & bass and electronica, often filed under ‘lounge’ but far more expansive and ambitious than that implies, made for a spectacular upgrade of German techno producer Ian Pooley’s funky excursion from two years before.
The blizzard of chopped-up beats and vocal snippets, trippy synth stabs and cool jazzy keyboards make it a standard on funky dancefloors to this day.
#5. Crazy Penis — ‘Baby We For Real’
Manchester’s Crazy Penis, nowadays usually more discreetly known as Crazy P, set a new standard for funky house with their audacious sophomore EP on leading UK nu-house imprint Paper Recordings.
With the sophisticated combination of live playing and sampling that became Crazy P’s hallmark, ‘Baby We For Real’ twists and turns through epic changes while hip-shaking broken beats and captivating brass and boogie synths give it a huge, accessible sound. It still feels like the soundtrack to the underground summer block party you’d give anything to be at.
#4. Moodymann — ‘Black Mahogany’
This epic single could well be Kenny Dixon Jr.’s greatest work. It was released on his own KDJ imprint before appearing on his second album Mahogany Brown on legendary UK label Peacefrog the same year (and again on his 2004 LP Black Mahogani, the source of this YouTube clip).
Clocking in at 26 trippy minutes over both sides, and basically impossible to mix, it submerges the listener in a world of feverishly drifting strings, funky broken beats and beautifully soulful keyboards, the whole thing endlessly building up and breaking down in a haze of Blaxploitation movie atmosphere.
#3. Stardust — ‘Music Sounds Better With You’
Ooh baby. Believe it or not a lot of us househeads hated this all-timer, produced by a one-off trio that included Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter, when it was a smash hit in the summer of ’98. The French disco-house sound filtered to its illogical extreme, with a vocal like a Eurotrash lounge lizard doing Neil Diamond karaoke, it just seemed too snarky and OTT to be taken seriously.
It wasn’t until a couple of years later, after it improbably became an even bigger hit and reached the pop charts worldwide, that I had an epiphany watching kids dancing to it between innings at Yankee Stadium. I finally realised how a song can be such a pisstake and so joyous and celebratory at the same time. Not to mention how killer a production it is. Now I love it. It’s the late ’90s at its best and most indulgent.
#2. Black Masses — ‘Wonderful Person’ (MAW Vocal Mix)
The 1997 original mix of this tune, by the recording team of Cleveland Anderson and Curtis Stewart Paul, is as wonderful as its name. But the Masters at Work remix from the following year (included on the rerelease on their own label) is definitive, one of the best house tunes of all time.
The disco groove is worthy of some of the best Paradise Garage classics, with a truly incredible bassline and beautiful intertwining rhythm and lead guitars. The gospelly vocal by Julia Vaneikirk has enough melody for several lesser tracks. You don’t want this tune to ever end.
#1. Isolée — ‘Beau Mot Plage’
German producer Rajko Müller AKA Isolée’s first and biggest hit is one of those miraculous tracks that works with whatever vibe you drop it into.
If you had to file it under something, you’d call it tech house or minimal house, thanks to its brittle drum programming, sparse bottom end and unforgettably flickering synthlines — and indeed it’s one of the most influential early works in those subgenres would become so dominant the following decade.
But Beau Mot Plage has a lot extra going on that made it a huge crossover hit on deep and soulful dancefloors — it was in demand at New York’s Body & Soul for ages. Maybe it’s the way the heavily treated guitar has an Afro feel; or the way the synths sound a bit like kalimbas, but it flows perfectly with a deep or tribal mood like few other tech-house tracks.
Like the original Chicago acid classics that transformed the music, it’s proof there’s soul in the machine.
Jim Poe is a writer, DJ, and editor based in Sydney. He tweets from @fivegrand1.
You can read more about the incredible history of house music on inthemix.