Monday, September 12, 2011

10 Best Albums of 1997

In keeping with the current theme of 1990's music influenced posts, thought I would focus on 1997 as it was one of my favourite musical years of the decade. I think there were other years that may have produced more good music from a volume perspective, but few would match the calibre of offering from '97 in my opinon. This list spans major and independent label releases and hopefully captures a decent cross section of genres, which to me is part of what made 1997 a special musical year in so many ways.

10. Erykah Badu - Baduizm

There was a real interesting R & B movement happening when Baduizm was released. Seems to me Badu landed right around the time cool artists like D'Angelo, Jill Scott, and Maxwell were making music that was slick, but with a keen sense for where it came from. Neo-Soul was getting thrown around a lot, but like so many media created sub genres, I would suggest we can just call it soul and I would suggest this album was the strongest not only from the time period, but sits easily alongside soul classics from 30 years earlier. The album brims with smooth confidence, balance, and consistency.

9.  Ben Folds Five - Whatever and Ever Amen

Imagine playing one of the Lollapalooza stages when your core instrument is a player piano, during a period where noise, distortion and general guitar shenanigans rules the day. The debut is a stronger album than this one in my opinion, but this recording was dripping with a coyness that most of the grungier guitar stuff happening around it could never pull off. Almost made me want to learn piano. Such clever writing and quirky hooks.

8.  The Chemical Brothers - Dig Your Own Hole

Some of the "Big Beat" artists of the mid '90s were unfairly categorized as simple arena based electronic artists, purposely dumbing down the artier side of their music as some sort of protest against the perceived pretension of earlier 90's electronic stuff. The Chems always stood out as having the quintessential big beat sound, but they were far craftier and clever, and Dig Your Own Hole to me catches them straddling all sides of big beat and electronic music in general. The songs here appeal to a wide audience but without compromising anything for electronic music purists. Plus there are a whole lot of chances to shake so much of yo' ass.

7.  Elliott Smith - Either/Or

I am probably in the minority of Smith fans who prefer his more upbeat songs. I still love the melancholy and bits of sad boy sincerity that made him so brilliant and believable, but even his less morose work bears that feel. This album to me is him allowing himself to be a little more of everything for everyone without being something he was not. There are occasions where I prefer Figure 8 because I am such a sucker for Brit inspired jingle jangle tunes, but this album still feels like an indie album. It never slips into twee and on tracks like "Cupid's Trick" it even grinds a little.  "Rose Parade" will always be my favourite Elliott Smith song. There are a lot of us that still really miss this sad little bastard.

6.  Teenage Fanclub - Songs From Northern Britain

Not the purest guitar pop album from the best pop band of the last 20 years, but certainly a near perfect recording. This one signals the Fannies transitioning from fuzzier Big Star influenced 90's guitar pop, to a more Byrds-esque jingle jangle sound. Sort of the sound they would come to master perfectly even as recently as last year with their most recent album. What I love here, like with every TF album, is the unabashed care taken to make every song about melody and craft. Some bands come up with great hooks, then worry they won't project enough muscle, and out comes the distortion pedal. Fanclub always do what is right for the song and each track on this album holds within the parameters of how it was written and intended to sound. An almost perfect album from a masterful band.

5. Daft Punk - Homework

Sort of wish I had a cool motorcycle helmet to wear as I type this one. And so it begins. I have often heard people describe Homework as brash. I would not disagree. This was going to be a dance album. Not a dance in front of your mirror with a microphone, lip synching lyrics type deal. I am talking lots of flashing lights and big speakers surrounding you and lots of friends and strangers bumping into you while you dance until you can't dance anymore. There is a comfort here with the repetitive elements of house and early underground disco that allow you to settle into songs which otherwise would be far less dynamic even for casual listening. Probably still the best Daft Punk album and easily deserving of a top 5 placing for 1997.

4.  Pavement - Brighten The Corners

The word "accessible" got thrown around a lot when this album came out. Not because it was that necessarily, but because it wasn't weird as shit like Wowee Zowee. There's no question that the boys don't turn the songs upside down after they write them on this one like they may have previously, but leaving the songs a little more alone almost lets you pick up on some of the Malkmus' sarcasm more readily. This album is worthy of all the band's previous catalogue and maybe even landed them 2-3 new fans. It belongs on the list based on the merits of the collective songs, but if not then the lyric from"Stereo" that goes "what about the voice of Geddy Lee? How did it get so high? I wonder if he speaks like an ordinary guy? I know him and he does".

3. Modest Mouse - The Lonesome Crwoded West

What is up with all the bending guitar sounds and what's wrong with that dude's voice? Man do I miss both. The highest ranking indie recording on this list and perhaps the last epic indie guitar album of the 90's. The follow-up, The Moon & Antarctica actually doesn't sound like a major label release in fairness, but it's still a very different recording than the LCW. There are some absolutely frantic moments on this album. I still get a little stressed out by the first 2-3 minutes of "Teeth Like God's Shoeshine". There are also some absolutely warm and endearing guitar sections on the album, like the main riff for "Polar Opposites". If you consider yourself a "huge Modest Mouse" fan and your fave tracks are "Float On" and "Dashboard", I think you may have missed the point.  The point is The Lonesome Crowded West.

2.  The Verve - Urban Hymns

Everything in me wants to call this the best album of 1997. Not as a means of being contrary to popular opinion, but because it really in any other year would be a no brainer for best album. I would argue it is the most flawless album of 1997. It also captures a brilliant and sometimes underrated band at their optimum artistic and musical output. When we talk about bands firing on all cylinders, this album is what that means. Even with overplay, "Bittersweet Symphony" kick starts the album with classic Ashcroft snottiness and in a joyful way hammers home the pointlessness of it all. What I love is how that theme is balanced with so many other very different takes on the human condition. Suffering and reconciliation, optimism and reunion, the need for companionship and partnered strength. It's all here bundled in perfectly crafted songs that music snobs and casual fans alike can appreciate equally.

1.  Radiohead - OK Computer

This will not be the first nor the last time someone makes a best of 97 list with this album at number one. I hate lists that are Rolling Stone magazine obvious, but sometimes it just is what it is. This is also not a chance for me to grand stand about how brilliant Radiohead are. Everyone should know that by now. I will say that I grapple with whether this is in fact my favourite Radiohead recording. For years I bounced between this album and The Bends, and as of not so long ago, I would even throw In Rainbows into this struggle occasionally. 

The other confession is I actually did not like OK Computer when I first listened to it. Like many fans, some of whom have still never recovered, I think I wanted them to make The Bends over and over. Once I got my head around this OKC thing, I was very glad they did not. I think even if you were not looking for a repeat of it predecessor, there is just nothing immediate about OKC, at least not in 1997 when it was seemingly so unique in its combination of soundscapes. 

Perhaps the most rewarding listen over time I can think of. At the time I would have described it the same way people do challenging books. "It's a tough read". OK Computer seemed like a tough read at the time, but in retrospect, it is actually mostly a really fluid album, and I am not sure why it seemed like a "tough listen".  There is a tiny amount of filler on this album in my opinion, but the collective strength of the output is unmatched not only in 1997, but when you consider the other greatest albums of all time.