10 Best Albums of 1998 -- The EW critic ranks ''The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,'' REM's ''Up,'' and Madonna among the best of the year. Plus: The five worst of the last 12 months

1 The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Ruffhouse/Columbia)
Album of the Year
While her cohorts in the Fugees made do with recycling other people’s hits, Lauryn Hill opted for a different and far loftier goal: to create one of the most forceful statements ever by a woman in pop. With The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, most of which she wrote and produced herself, the 23-year-old accomplished exactly that. Hill is one stern puppy, using her songs to lecture the music business, African-American men and women, even anyone who attempted to talk her out of having a child. But the music constantly resists her dourness. This is an album of dazzling, free-flowing eclecticism: The rap is lean and taut, the reggae sways like the coolest island breeze, and the love rhapsodies swoon, thanks to the funky elegance of her own multitracked harmonies. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is unflinchingly intense in every aspect, yet it’s informed by a love of music, a love of the healing power of the human voice, and a sense of self-respect that transcends the cliches of hip-hop and contemporary R&B. (Miseducation? Compared with Hill, most of today’s dressed-up divas sound like they should be the ones returning to school.) Even if you wouldn’t want to be trapped next to Hill at a party, her first solo missive sets the standard for a new breed of pop. It’s music without borders, a truly world beat.

2 ”The Rockafeller Skank” Fatboy Slim (Astralwerks, single)
It’s official: Electronica is the next big thing of twisted-kicks singles. From Air’s ooh-la-lull ”Sexy Boy” to the Propellerheads’ head rush ”Bang On!” to the Crystal Method’s diva-fueled ”Comin’ Back,” techno-colored hits are flying around faster than hypocritical congressmen in Washington. The king of this particular hill is Fatboy Slim, the artist formerly known as British DJ Norman Cook. A piece of demented, speed-freak funk, ”The Rockafeller Skank” hooks you in with its incessantly looped rap sample (”Check it out now/The funk soul brother”). But notice too how Cook continually alters the track’s musical bed with each verse — from surf guitar to vocal chants to drum breaks to ringing telephones — and thereby tosses record-making conventions on their ear. Like the best of this genre, ”The Rockafeller Skank” leaves you dazed, confused — and undeniably buzzed.

3 This Is Hardcore Pulp (Island)
Pulp headmaster Jarvis Cocker populates his latest songs with loners and losers desperately searching for physical or karmic satisfaction in an uptight world. It would be a seamy, disturbing listen — the equivalent to the movie Happiness — if it weren’t for the music that drives and uplifts both Cocker’s songs and his dry, cracked-actor delivery. Equal parts decadent cabaret, supper-club elegance, and blaring glam, This Is Hardcore places Pulp alongside David Bowie and the Kinks as twin-razor-edged mixers of music-hall theatricality and lordly rock. By the end, you’re thankful that none of Cocker’s characters are you — just as you’re realizing that a little part of you resides in every one of them.

4 Up R.E.M. (Warner Bros.)
Here’s how old-school R.E.M. are: For their all-eyes-on-them debut as a truncated trio, they make an album that requires time and patience, neither of which are valued qualities in today’s hyperactive record biz. What at first seems like a rhythm-challenged, low-fi-techno murk gradually unfolds as a work of quiet beauty and dignity — electronic-folk-mass hymns without the church. Michael Stipe’s voice has rarely sounded this supple, the band rarely this exploratory. As they grow older, quirkier, and more stubborn, R.E.M. ironically tap into the universal: sorrow, distance, regret, and, now and then, cautious optimism.