By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
Love's Been Rough on Me, Etta James (Private Music). Nothing's more embarrassing than an established artist trying to keep up with the times and failing; by the same token, nothing is as inspiring or serves as greater proof of true talent than achieving that relevance. Here the great soul survivor does the latter.
The Book of Secrets, Loreena McKennitt (Warner Bros. Records). Skipping across time and place, harpist McKennitt continues to extend and refine the formula she first announced in 1992 with The Visit. That she does so with so few outward signs of strain is a tribute to her intelligence and skill.
Bitter Sweet, Kim Richey (Mercury Records). Most "young country"--here used demographically rather than to indicate a format--either rejects contemporary Nashville completely or embraces it much the same way. Richey does the best job to date in accommodating both camps, and Bitter Sweet lends credence to the idea that it may be because she tries to sound more like herself than pander to anyone else.
Heavy Soul, Paul Weller (Island Records). A jagged call back to the swingin' sounds of a London where the Who were anything but a joke and people still believed in the power of electric guitars (the two concepts probably died together). Weller--always a bit of a chameleon--has returned as a Traffic-era Stevie Winwood, so convincingly attired that you can smell the patchouli. Not a rehash but a reawakening.
The Crit and Shap Poll
A tally of the most overrated records of 1997
Here's how it works: We assembled an expansive music-critical think-tank (nine people) and asked each person to submit a list of the 10 most overrated, mediocre, or generally worthless records of 1997. (Each participant was left to his or her own devices to determine the relative merits of mediocrity, worthlessness, and hype; the last seems to have won.) The lists were then compiled and, using an advanced point-tabulation method (a calculator), each album was ranked according to the amount of bile it fomented. This scientifically accurate master list was then pared down to the 15 top finishers and distributed among the panel for further comment. The results follow.
1. OK Computer, Radiohead, Capitol Records (42 points)
This must be album of the year, right? I mean, Capitol sent out advance tapes to critics superglued into a Walkman, and damned if they didn't goose-step on command, hailing it as a must-listen. Too bad Thom Yorke fears modern life more than he values smart lyrics or unaffected emotion. OK Computer might contain some lovely sounds, even a few good songs, but Yorke's recycled Pink Floyd pretensions and the band's insistence on stretching most tracks way past their breaking point make this disc cool by association (Michael Stipe loves it!) only. (Keith Moerer)
2. Pop, U2, Island Records (41 points)
Contrary to what you might have read, U2 never really reinvented itself as techno; it just added a harsh digital sheen to the same old dinosaur rock. The band's real reinvention happened in 1991 with Achtung Baby!, but that was the sort of trick a group could pull off only once. Did Bono really expect us to forget that the last time we saw him, he was "Mister Macphisto, the Last Rock Star"? The lads tried hard to convince the Kmart shoppers that their new music was hot and horny, swirly and psychedelic, but it had the cold, cruel impact of a bucket of ice water in a Minnesota February. (Jim DeRogatis)
3. Be Here Now, Oasis, Epic Records (28 points)
Like the band's two previous records, Oasis' Be Here Now isn't especially bad--it's just repetitive and vacuous. So, of course, are the Spice Girls, but Oasis are far more full of their own sense of importance, and that makes them a bit more unbearable. Plus, onstage the band is a black hole of charisma, four blocks of wood plus a supercilious asshole for a frontman, and they've somehow successfully substituted having sex with celebrities and periodic group in-fighting for any real depth of character or musical interest. (Gina Arnold)
4. Dig Your Own Hole, The Chemical Brothers, Astralwerks/Caroline Records (19 points)
It's the dullest record of the year--either a dance album for the one-legged or a mediocre Oasis single bookended by filler and gristle. Ed Simons and Tom Rowlands deliver tiresome at 100 beats per minute, proving that swiping someone else's block rockin' alone can't feed a starving audience. Dig Your Own Hole does nothing more than strip hip-hop of its hop, rock and roll of its rock, and funk of its funk. It is meager and tenuous, a CD single masquerading as full-length vision; it has no beginning and no end, because there's nothing in the middle except Schoolly D, Noel Gallagher, and a whole lot of 1985. (Robert Wilonsky)
5. No Way Out, Puff Daddy, Bad Boy/Arista Records (17 points)
Sean "Puffy" Combs is an entrepreneur extraordinaire, with a staggering roster of charting hip-hop acts propping up his Bad Boy empire. But he's no artist, and he's certainly no rapper. On No Way Out, Puff Daddy does manage to strut like a motherfucker, dodging bullets and promising vengeance on "What You Gonna Do?"--which puts an ugly, confused spin on his public mourning for the murdered Biggie Smalls. And too much here is overly dependent on existing music, ripping off whole melodies and tracks, dipping into anything from Bowie's "Let's Dance" to the Rocky theme. The record is just a high-budget vanity project, where he wisely surrounds himself with the likes of Smalls, Busta Rhymes, Faith Evans, and Foxy Brown--even if that just makes the disparity between Combs' self-image and his talent ever clearer. When he trades sex talk with more dynamic Lil' Kim on "Friend," he's all Puff and no Daddy. (Steve Appleford)