Rock and roll over

In today's music business, tomorrow's revolution is yesterday's fad

How do you experience a year? Can a person ever shed his innate subjectivity and perceive or appreciate something on a different level than he would a warm, fuzzy sweater, a pork chop, or a long car trip? It doesn't really matter; nobody's going to pay me to write about fuzzy sweaters, and now that I think about it, death really has little to do with the marketing of pork products, although from the pig's point of view, mortality is a rather big part of the process. In the case of our porcine pals, however, that death--no matter how important to the individual pig--never spiked the sales of pork futures the way Princess Diana's death helped Elton John's catalog, or unleashed upon the pig-processing industry an entrepreneur as ubiquitous--or voracious--as Sean "Puffy Gravedigga" Combs. The reaper is one of those universals haunting the dreams of all of us, and to address those specters is the job of music--at least part of the time.

Of course, that deep, Jungian function has to co-exist with another human impulse--the tendency to run each and every thing encountered straight into the ground without delay, lest someone else have some fun (or money) at our expense. Thus, we ended up drowning in a sea of quirky, three-piece power-pop bands and watched electronica--the label, at least--become as fresh and exciting as New Coke. The all-consuming maw of the pop machine--as hungry for new stimulus as a White Rock Lake dredging platform is for black mud--has already sucked up all the easy, obvious choices and now is searching the hidden nooks and crannies, slurping up obscure flavors like ska and exposing them to the masses (good) before beating them into cliche (bad).

This will be remembered as the year that the Insane Clown Posse took Establishment censure and used it to accomplish that most Establishment of goals--in this case, advancing the theft of rap and hip-hop from the people who invented it and turning it into a suburban theme park. It was the year that Americana got its own niche market and almost immediately started to go stale and founder as thousands of opportunistic rats boarded her.

The force of the pop machine feeding itself is always in the background of our lives, like the tornado at the beginning of The Wizard of Oz. It stirs up quite a lot of debris, to be sure, but in its own blind way it dispenses justice: 1997 was also the year that all but the most soulless and pig-ignorant music fans took one look at Pat Boone and the long, steady piss he was taking on the head of rock music with his In a Metal Mood and got up to make themselves a sandwich. By so doing, they left one of music's worst war criminals to twist slowly on the tenterhooks of his own oblivious arrogance while the Christian right--the bug-eyed maniacs he'd built an entire life pandering to--battered, beat, and pounded on him without mercy.

Despite isolated instances of things turning out right, there's more crap out there than ever before as the major labels buy up everything in sight--lest someone else grab and develop it into profitability--and vet their rosters later. Thus Radish gains the kind of creative control that earlier artists went insane or even died struggling for and sells something less than 25,000 units of their debut full-length album, and the tomorrowpeople have A&R stooges at their gigs before they can even play together as a band.

All of which transpired in the name of quality music, yes? Perhaps not, but there were some excellent albums released in 1997.

Best major label releases of 1997
First, the Hey-you're-supposed-to-be-geniuses list of people who won't be appearing in this article, because we've heard quite enough about them already. This is not to say that these albums aren't just peachy--in fact, they all are--it's just that so much has been said, most of it so positive, that we just can't bear the thought of discussing these albums further:

Homogenic, Bjsrk
Mag Earwhig!, Guided by Voices
OK Computer, Radiohead
Straightaways, Son Volt
Dots and Loops, Stereolab
I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, Yo La Tengo.

Also, North Texas has been blessed with an unusually high number of acts that could be considered either national or local. Foremost among these in '97 were Erykah Badu, whose Baduizm redefined soul music with an eye cast toward both Mother Africa and the Sisters doin' it for themselves; Lisa Loeb, whose Firecracker seemed at least to be thinking about doing the same thing for white girls; and Hank Thompson, a country music pioneer whose Hank Thompson and Friends took what is often a last-gasp, contract-fulfilling measure--the "duets" album--and turned it into proof of his continued prowess.

If You're Feeling Sinister, Belle and Sebastian (The Enclave). This "new folk" effort takes the orchestral approach of born-again Bacharachs like Ron Sexsmith and applies it to an impressionistic storytelling approach that Joni Mitchell might recognize: up-to-date, but not at the expense of universal.

24 Hours a Day, Bottle Rockets (Atlantic Records). The band's third national release still follows the formula they established with their first--half so-so, half good, with one gleaming jewel. However, the Bottle Rockets have honed their bar-band craft to the point where their good ("Indianapolis") is great and even their misses hold up.

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