Wednesday, August 1, 2012

That Wonderful Year in Music... 1997

Two types of music dominated the critics' lists (and Billboard charts) in 1997: hip-hop and British alternative. The American hip-hop scene was a watershed, teaming with new voices (Timbaland, Wyclef Jean, Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott, Erykah Badu) even though the death of Notorious B.I.G. nearly overshadowed these developments. The bigger story, however was the latest and adamantly Gen-X British invasion: cult UK acts like Blur and The Verve were suddenly burdened with a left-field hit in the states, then quickly written off by myopic trendmakers as one-hit wonders. Two years after The Bends, Radiohead released one of the most important rock albums of the '90s, if not all time. Pre-21st century dance-rock was defined by the likes of Daft Punk, Prodigy, and The Chemical Brothers.

And where was I in 1997? Transitioning from grade school to junior high, I was still mostly oblivious to popular music. I remember we had a new gym teacher that was hip enough to play "MTV Buzz Bin" and the Lost Highway soundtrack during class. If I had a personal highlight, I joined my middle school AV Club and fiddled around with camera equipment, a gateway of sorts to my career in radio. The long-awaited arrival of the first CD player in the Allard household that Christmas, however was the likely impetus of my musical obsessions. (Alas, at the time my sister dominated the boombox with her Spice Girls CDs.)

1. OK Computer, Radiohead. Can a guitar-rock album feel accomplished and bewildering when it doesn't feel like a guitar-rock album? If that album is as subtle and textured as OK Computer, than the answer is yes. Building upon The Bends but refusing to augment old ideas, the innovation and surprise of Radiohead's third album makes this an essential, albeit demanding, listening experience for a whole generation.  There's little else I can say that any other music critic hasn't praised or construed.
2. Dig Your Own Hole, The Chemical Brothers. Raising their game from promising, above-average post-techno act to innovators, Hole carries many of the same challenging yet rewarding qualities that OK Computer does, if not at the same echelon. This feast of sound begins with the cacophonous "Block Rockin' Beats," with the Beatles-baiting hit single "Setting Sun" serving as the main course. This is a mercilessly propulsive album, an exhilarating experience these brothers-in-spirit have yet to match.
3. The Colour and The Shape, Foo Fighters. The best straight-up rock album of '97 was a proving point for Dave Grohl. In his desire to prove he wasn't just "the drummer from Nirvana" and an artist of his own merit, Grohl turned his side project Foo Fighters into a full-fledged band and entity. The end result is The Colour, the last (?) great "arena rock" album and Grohl's most tenacious effort as a drummer, frontman, and songwriter. As the band thrashes for 47 minutes, Grohl and producer Gil Norton maintain a semblance of focus and control.
4. Either/Or, Elliott Smith
5. Homework, Daft Punk
6. Urban Hymns, The Verve
7. Homogenic, Bjork
8. Blur, Blur
9. The Lonesome Crowded West, Modest Mouse
10. Time Out of Mind, Bob Dylan. The unlikeliest great album of the late '90s started a new chapter in an American icon's sprawling career. After releasing two decades' worth of albums that ranged in quality from adequate to disposable, not to mention spending most of the decade touring without writing or recording, there was a certain suspension of disbelief when Dylan finally returned to the studio in late '96. Like most of his post Desire efforts, this is album that blends blues and folk, but its essence lies in Dylan's songcraft and Daniel Lanois' ominous production.

Honorable Mentions: Whatever and Ever, Amen, Ben Folds Five; Brighten the Corners, Pavement; Fat of the Land, Prodigy; Ladies and Gentleman We Are Floating in Space, Spiritualized; Third Eye Blind, Third Eye Blind; Presents the Carnival, Featuring Refugee All-Stars, Wyclef Jean; I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, Yo La Tengo.

"The Perfect Drug," Nine Inch Nails
"Miss Misery," Elliott Smith
"Sonny Came Home," Shawn Colvin
"Legend of a Cowgirl," Imani Coppola
"The Freshmen," The Verve Pipe
"One Headlight," The Wallflowers
"Angel," Sarah McLachlan
"The Impression That I Get," Mighty Mighty Bosstones
"Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away)," Deftones
"I'm Afraid of Americans," David Bowie feat. Trent Reznor

1. "Smack My Bitch Up," Prodigy. As epic was it was controversial, this seemingly mundane POV clip takes one dark turn after another, which crescendos into a brilliant twist ending. Banished to the wee hours of the night by MTV (where it aired exactly once) it remains a NSFW roller coaster 15 years later.
2. "Everlong," Foo Fighters. 1997 was a breakout year of sorts for director Michel Gondry; he directed seven short-form videos that year, three of which are on this list. "Everlong" takes the cake, at least stylistically; the overlapping dreams of Dave Grohl and "wife" Taylor Hawkins are a creepy world onto itself.
3. "Virtual Insanity," Jamiroquai. A quick hint about the video's production: the walls move, not the floor. I hope that doesn't ruin the magic of this trippy clip.
4. "The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)," Missy Elliott. A hard video to forget, even if it carries many of the usual late '90s hip-hop video clich├ęs (the Hummer, the booty walk, the Puff Daddy cameo). The essence lies in the fish-eye lens, which make the diminutive, lusciously lipped Missy look like a colossus.
5. "Criminal," Fiona Apple. In two words: heroin chic. Not nearly a controversial as "Smack," but almost as pornographic. Modern-day hipsters will think this video is nothing more than a moving Hipstamatic print. They don't know this broke the mold.
6. "Bachlorette," Bjork.
7. "Around The World," Daft Punk.
8. "Karma Police," Radiohead.
9. "Not If You Were The Last Junkie on Earth," The Dandy Warhols.
10. "Sky's The Limit," Notorious B.I.G. featuring 112.

Your thoughts?

1 comment:

  1. An uncreative and awful year for music. Radiohead's album certainly belongs at #1, but after I looked at the complete list of albums released in '97, I could find nothing else worthy. I thought Depeche Mode's "Ultra" was okay, but unremarkable. I bought mostly older stuff that year; pickings were so slim that I even bought The Cure's compilation, "Galore", even though I already had almost everything on it already. I found everything else to be boring and trivial.