The Best Albums Of 1997
1997. The year yours truly graduated high school. The year of the deaths of Princess Diana and Mother Teresa. The year Bill Clinton began his second term as president. A loose cross between the calm and the chaotic.
1997 was pretty great cinematically, an improvement over 1996, the weakest year of the 1990s. Musically though, it was a step-down. If in 1996, there was still a sense of possibility that the “alternative rock revolution” might lead somewhere, 1997 offered definitive proof that the moment had passed and all the possibilities that had leapt forth following the early 90s breakthrough had reached an impasse or petered out totally.
By mid-1997, alternative had become more or less a buzzword, a fashion statement. Rock had started shifting towards softer, more mainstream stuff like Matchbox 20 and Third Eye Blind, stuff that never would have qualified as alternative four or five years prior. Meanwhile, teen pop was experiencing a resurgence of sorts thanks to the Spice Girls and Hanson. One of the biggest songs of the year was “Barbie Girl” a piece of euro-dance by a group called Aqua that was just as manufactured as the titular doll.
Hip-hop wasn’t much better. After the murders of 2Pac (in September 1996) and Notorious BIG (in March 1997) the mainstream scene became dominated by Master P clones who lacked a fraction of those men’s talent. Underground hip-hop would keep my faith in the genre going. But even that seemed somewhat slow.
Even so, 1997 did manage to offer up some pretty good to great stuff as I show here. No, none of the bubblegum or pseudo alternative. Bubblegum was meant to be chewed while kicking ass until one was all outta bubblegum.
Honorable Mentions: Fat Of The Land-Prodigy, Supa Dupa Fly-Missy Elliot, Baduizm-Erykah Badu, Nimrod-Green Day and Time Out Of Mind-Bob Dylan
10: The Offspring-Ixnay On The Hombre
Many of the bigger acts from 1994-95 hit a rough patch in 1997. Live, Seven Mary Three, Counting Crows and Collective Soul all released albums that were considered disappointing. A lot of people also filed the Offspring’s follow-up to the hit that was 1994’s Smash in that category as well. But to me, it was their best album. It showed them maturing somewhat yet still remaining undeniably punk. After this, they would take to repeating themselves in a desperate attempt to keep relevant with the MTV crowd. But this was one great blast of punk glory.
9: The Chemical Brothers-Dig Your Own Hole
For the first half or so of 1997, there was much excitement in the music press about the “electronica boom” that was supposed to supersede guitar-driven rock. It didn’t quite come to pass: many of the edgier electronica artists were overlooked in favor of glossier more mainstream variations. One that did breakthrough was the British duo known as The Chemical Brothers. Not as artistic-minded as many of their peers, they managed to offer up stuff that would get the dance floor going, yet still doesn’t sound bad on the home stereo. While most of the attempts at mainstreaming techno faded, this album still holds up pretty well for the most part.
8: Janet Jackson-The Velvet Rope
While Control, Rhythm Nation and Janet all had good songs, they were more singles driven. The Velvet Rope is the first time that Janet Jackson attempted a concept album of sorts and she pulled it off quite well. With Control she announced she wasn’t nobody’s little girl, with Rhythm Nation she showed her social conscience. Here she turns erotic while still finding time for the elements of both previous albums. The result stands as her best album, albeit one that’s definitely not suitable for work or children.
7: Pavement-Brighten The Corners
Maybe not Pavement’s best album. But close. They managed to be more accessible without shooting for the mainstream.
6: Wyclef Jean-The Carnival
After tearing down the constraints of hip-hop with the Fugees on 1996’s The Score, Wyclef set out to demolish the limitations of pop on his first solo album. Perhaps recognizing that he’s a good but not spectacular MC, he makes The Carnival an all-star jam. Guests include his Fugees bandmates Lauryn Hill and Pras, The Neville Brothers and Celia Ctuz. Accordingly, the album explores many genres. There’s hip-hop and reggae of course. But also soul, disco and Latin. While it’s been largely forgotten as of late (overshadowed by the massive success of Lauryn Hill’s Miseducation album the following year), this is still an excellent example of how diverse hip-hop can be as opposed to the studio gangstas that dominate it today.
5: Sleater-Kinney-Dig Me Out
One group that got progressively better with each album, Sleater-Kinney released their masterpiece in 1997. These women could have easily sold out and shot for the mainstream. But they stuck to their guns and gave us feminist punk that holds up very well without being dogmatic as that description might imply. Just one listen to this should be enough to demolish the sexist notion of “Girls who rock”.
4: Tie: Wu-Tang Clan-Wu-Tang Forever/Notorious BIG-Life After Death
If 1997 was the year that the studio gangstas took over rap, it was also the year in which the double album rose to prominence in that genre. 2Pac kicked it off the previous year with his “All Eyez On Me”. While that one was a smash, it was full of filler. The two here are the two best double albums in rap history.
Coming off the success of the game changer that was 1993’s Enter The Wu-Tang, RZA and Co knew it would be impossible to top. But there’s too much talent here not to try and they come close at times. Unlike most rap double albums which are loaded with guest appearances, the Wu-Tang had nine MCs and so guest were not necessary. If Enter changed the game, Forever asserts the Wu’s place at the top of the summit.
Recorded prior to his murder, Life After Death revisits and continues on from the themes Biggie introduced on his classic debut, 1994’s Ready To Die. Like the Wu-Tang album, there’s little filler and the album itself shows us that Biggie could create aural masterpieces that are the equivalent of a Scorsese movie. Two double albums that are worth the extra space and bucks.
3: Cornershop-When I Was Born For The 7th Time
Nowadays, it’s a good bet that much of the general public remembers Cornershop as a novelty act like 1997 one-hit wonders Marcy Playground and Chumbawamba. Shame too, for they’re far better than those one-song nothings. Cornershop, like Beck the previous year and another group we will get to shortly, was open to all possibilities and like Wyclef draw on a wide range of influences to create music that’s more diverse than what you would normally find on pop radio. Brimful Of Asha was the hit. But there was way more to the album than that.
Hot off the success of 1995’s Post (an album I regret leaving off my best of 1995 list), Bjork turned inward and set out to make a concept album about life in her native Iceland. While Post was eclectic, ranging from rock to Broadway style showstoppers, this one is even more so. While it doesn’t draw you in immediately like the previous album did, this one on the whole is even more rewarding. Acclaimed at the time and still holds up 20 years later.
1: Radiohead-OK Computer
It may not be Radiohead’s best album (1995’s The Bends still holds that spot 22 years later). But it’s close and it’s by far the best album of 1997. Continuing with the themes of alienation and social isolation that were prevalent on the previous album, Radiohead push those themes into a futuristic concept album. However, they don’t fall into the trap they would fall into on later efforts like 2000’s Kid A where the warning of a technological future gone haywire would be undermined by loosely jumbled story lines.Here the concept fits. Musically, Radiohead step forward from the guitar-driven rock on The Bends and mix in more experimental elements. In some ways, OK Computer is the sound of the 90s reaching a musical peak, showing off most of the possibilities of the era. If the final 2 years of the decade would be devoted to finding a new direction now that the alternative revolution was over, here was a brilliant last gasp.
There they are. 11 albums that kept my faith in music going in an era of “Wannabe”, “Barbie Gitl”, “Tubthumping” and Master P. 11 albums that still sound great today. What would you pick as the best of 1997? Let us know in the comment section please.
Posted on January 18, 2017, in Music, Top Ten and tagged 1997, Biggie Smalls, Bjork, Cornershop, Hip-Hop, Janet Jackson, Offspring, Radiohead, Rock, Wu-Tang Clan, Wyclef Jean. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.