Rock and roll over
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.
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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:
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.
Forest for the Trees, Forest for the Trees (Dreamworks/SKG). The year for this collection of polyglot influences--rap, Celtic bagpipes, and an entire globe's worth of flavors, studio wizardry, Eastern mysticism, and pure pop structure--will probably be 1998, but this densely packed album by the man behind the success of both Rap-A-Lot Records and Beck's "Loser" grabs the ear with such force that it bears mentioning now, if only so we get credit for noticing.
Retrograde, Friends of Dean Martinez (Sub Pop Records). This atmospheric album manages to cop the same kind of emotional theater that made Gene Pitney ("Town Without Pity") so popular in the '60s, then match it with a thoroughly modern--and no less lovely--sense of detachment.
Habana, Roy Hargrove's Crisol (Verve Records). Yes, yes, to hipsters the Afro-Cuban movement in jazz was over before Eartha Kitt was Catwoman, but anyone who's ever eaten anything out of an Easy Bake oven knows there's a world of difference between done and done well. This is the latter: sharp, direct, skillful, and passionate.
The Will to Live, Ben Harper (Virgin Records). Singers have long posed as pilgrims. Ben Harper swam below the surface of the blues for quite a while before he pulled himself into a new flow. Conscious hip-hop folk blues? Whatever it was, it came at just the right time to capitalize on hip-hop's trend toward melody, spiritualism, and traditional song structure. His blend of gospel, blues, beats, and samples forms the soundtrack to the spiritual searches in his lyrics, producing music that is not for the ears but the head and heart.
the neighborhood is changing, Tom House (Checkered Past Records). No drum machines, no samples, no loops, and no singing through a megaphone--the national debut by Nashville outsider Tom House is nothing but poetry and a direct songwriting style that's straight out of the Appalachians. With images considerably more immediate and real than anything rolling around Tim McGraw's head, House paints a picture of modern life intruding upon old patterns and produces what may be the best album of the year.
Most Things Haven't Worked Out, Junior Kimbrough (Fat Possum/Capricorn Records). More polished--and palatable--than Fat Possum (and North Mississippi) stablemates R.L. Burnside or T-Model Ford, Kimbrough is nonetheless a chunk of the blues from much closer to the bone than most of our urban stylists. Still raw and rural, the mournful pride and dogged resilience that animate Kimbrough's music are undiluted and unbowed.
Poison Love, Buddy Miller; and Blue Pony, Julie Miller (both on Hightone Records). A husband-wife team who share a long association with Emmylou Harris (Buddy plays guitar with Harris' road band), the Millers' two 1997 albums were high watermarks in the burgeoning (commercially, at least) Americana movement. Writing and arrangements as sharp as the point of a brand-new icepick present stories of keen desire, dully throbbing pain, love won, and faith lost in hardscrabble accents--all cushioned by Buddy's bizarre palette of mando-guitar tones--kept these two releases particularly noteworthy.
Smoochy, Ryuichi Sakamoto (Milan Records). Although technically a 1996 release, we didn't listen to it until 1997; so there. Smart and sophisticated, this hard-to-place combination of techno, ambient, classical, and pop has an awareness of (and more importantly, respect and affection for) the past, along with an eye on the future and all the tools of the present. Seemingly familiar modalities drift by, changing before they can be identified, and songs shift implication in mid-argument. Alternating between taut and playful, Smoochy has one thing that most electronic music lacks: soul.
Transplanting, Elaine Summers (Loosegroove Records). Excellent step out front by the backup vocalist and acoustic guitarist from Pete Droge and the Sinners. Summers takes a real person's sense of life and imbues it with rock's sense of heroic theater, creating in this case the kind of intelligent bar-band populism that Sheryl Crow tries so hard to capture and usually misses. Her gift is rock and roll's rarest treat: great songs that you think are about you.
Wu-Tang Forever, Wu-Tang Clan (Loud Records). Loud, sprawling, self-indulgent, and real, this album probably could've been cut down to a single disc. After just one listen, however, you know that the Clan's answer to such a suggestion would be "Why the fuck would a black man in America want to edit himself?" Repeated listens only make an appropriate reply more difficult.
Appointment with His Majesty, Burning Spear (Heartbeat Records). Reggae brought up to date without any loss of authority.
Acoustic Stories, R.L. Burnside (M.C. Records). Although many know and love Burnside for the spastic primitivisms that he indulges in when electric (no doubt to impress booster Jon Spencer), this acoustic album avoids such window dressing (it also isn't on Fat Possum, a label that seems to encourage Burnside's wild side) in favor of spare, direct communication. Essential to fans of the man, important to lovers of the genre.
Live at the Cimarron Ballroom, Patsy Cline (MCA Records). This live album, recorded in 1961 after a frightening car wreck in which she was seriously injured, shows Cline at her most real--earthy, live, a bit uneven but still full of confidence and power as she rides Leon McAuliffe's crack eight-piece around this popular Tulsa ballroom. A seldom-heard aspect of a great singer.
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)
6. The Dance, Fleetwood Mac, Reprise Records (16 points)
Those who have praised this reunion have done so because of what was, not because of what is; they hear pristine echoes frozen in time, classic-rock memories that have held on for two decades. They don't hear a Lindsey Buckingham who has lost his voice or a Stevie Nicks grasping for one final comeback; they don't see a band standing in front of the ATM machine, gouging the faithful for every last cent. This debacle of a live album denigrates the memories of Rumours and Tusk; it saps their power, the perfect way they told of imperfect relationships. The harmonies have turned to mush, the crystalline production to cracked pavement, and all we're left with is this tin souvenir of a night when five rock and roll veterans went looking for their legend and found only stolen cash. (Wilonsky)
7. Fat of the Land, Prodigy, Maverick Records (15 points)
Firestarters? These boys would be hard-pressed to muster a spark with a blowtorch in a fireworks factory. The techno Monkees perverted most of the rave scene's most positive ideals, replacing its pacifist politics with violent, macho fantasies ("Serial Thrilla," "Mindfields") and its non-aggressive sexuality with the same old predatory disco bullshit ("Smack My Bitch Up"). Still, nobody cared, and that was the real testament to how insubstantial the group was: Why get bent out of shape about a bubblegum band? C'mon, Madonna, level with us: How much did your Maverick label pay NOW to instigate this recent controversy? (DeRogatis)
8. The Colour and the Shape, Foo Fighters, Capitol Records (13 points)
If the Foo Fighters' 1995 self-titled debut proved that former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl could play guitar and sing, this follow-up shows that he can't handle being a democratic bandleader. Sharing songwriting duties with the rest of the group, Grohl struggles to come up with compelling material: Such songs as "My Poor Brain," "Enough Space," and "Hey, Johnny Park!" sputter with stop-and-go guitar chords, pointless lyrics, and throaty, half-hearted screams. Guitarist Pat Smear and drummer William Goldsmith had the good sense to jump off this sinking ship. (Jeff Niesel)
9. Peace and Noise, Patti Smith, Arista Records (11 points)
Doped up on the nice cover art and the memory of her good records, now 15 years past, aging reviewers drooled over her for, essentially, showing up to the studio, being sad about people dying, and not hiring Puff Daddy. But the songs are draggy, content-free jingles gussied up with minor-key guitars, and the band's no more than serviceable. And as for the star, she's barely functional and trading on her iconhood--if she weren't the person who made Radio Ethiopia, nobody would care. You had a swell career, Patti, and we're all very proud of you. But it's the tragedy of the music business that performers who should get nice pensions get record deals instead. (Douglas Wolk)
10. Bridges to Babylon, Rolling Stones, Virgin Records (11 points)
Except in Rolling Stone, a magazine perennially bowled over with misguided loyalty, Bridges to Babylon got pretty bad reviews all around. But it's still overrated, because no review was bad enough. Bridges lacks all traces of the Stones' twin strengths, bonhomie and foreboding; in their place are tired riffs, dumb lyrics, and a kind of greasy professionalism. That ripped-off chorus of "Anybody Seen My Baby" (which had to be credited at the last minute to k.d. lang) is merely symptomatic of the record's innate cynicism: It should have been titled An Excuse to Tour. (Arnold)
11. Sound Verite, Make Up, K Records (10 points)
There is a special place in hell reserved for these tuneless, grooveless, useless poseurs. Especially for calling their inept fake soul "gospel yeh-yeh." They wouldn't know gospel if their bushes were on fire, and yeh-yeh requires actual songs, not to mention the ability to sing them. Extra demerits for former Sassiest Boy in America Ian Svenonius, an unbelievably irritating frontman who sounds like a squeaky gate, and who incidentally is under 30 like I'm over 90. (Wolk)
12. 24 Hours a Day, Bottle Rockets, Atlantic Records (10 Points)
Two words: Molly Hatchet. (Keven McAlester)
13. Trailer Park, Beth Orton, Heavenly Records (10 points)
It's impossible to hate Beth Orton, such an inoffensive, harmless, Cockney sort. Likewise, Trailer Park, her debut, isn't worthy of much emotional energy--it's simply rather null, though Orton's musical ennui (less a conscious effort at hipness, more a general malaise of musical personality) is ultimately grating. There's no crime in being dull. The crime occurs when dullness is hyped as genius simply by dint of cool associations. Orton has sung with the Chemical Brothers, William Orbit, and members of Primal Scream. OK, fine. If a not-unintelligent singer-songwriter who sounds like a monotone Carly Simon on downers floats your boat, then Trailer Park is your desert island disc. (10 points) (Katherine Turman)
14. Whatever and Ever Amen, Ben Folds Five, 550 Music/Sony Records (nine points)
Past the age of 16, cleverness is more a liability than an asset, proof of superficiality instead of true smarts. And so it is with Ben Folds and his intentionally misnamed trio. From the title alone, you know that "One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces" is bound to be as wordy as Elvis Costello at his worst. But even when Folds tackles a powerfully primal subject--a guy taking his girlfriend to an abortion clinic--he proves himself to be an emotional geek. "She's a brick and I'm drowning slowly," he sings, and the mixed metaphor would be easier to take if the guy singing it weren't so smug and creepy. (Moerer)
15. Let's Face It, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Big Rig/Mercury Records (nine points)
What hath No Doubt wrought? The irony of ska's newest wave--so crassly inspired by the multi-platinum success of the pride of Anaheim--is that No Doubt had largely abandoned the genre before the 1996 release of its mega-hit Tragic Kingdom. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones make this list largely as veteran representatives in an increasingly crowded field. Let's Face It isn't so much offensive as mostly just unnecessary so long after the Specials and Selecter and their ilk were cranking out an edgier, smarter brand of the stuff almost two decades ago. Overkill has turned a once-vibrant style into another fad. (Appleford)
The best obscurities of 1997
Sometimes it's not what you know, but where you look
Face it; in this job you listen to way more music than almost any other human being on the planet. It's hard not to drift off into Musicgeekland--where if it sells, it sucks, and if anybody else has heard of it, it must be bullshit. There are, however, some interesting things out there, languishing miles from the nearest strip mall, that most people just won't ever become aware of.
The Covenant, Wally Brill (Island Records). Despite the multiple idiocies that cluster around electronic music, the medium does present fascinating opportunities for the kind of cultural blending that's been known to create great art. The Covenant--full of found sounds, loops, and samples, but built upon old 78-rpm recordings of Jewish cantors--may be one of the most forceful arguments in favor of electronica since Ryuichi Sakamoto's Smoochy.
The Get-Go, Paul Cebar (Don't Records). Cebar is one of the heirs to that funky throne carved by Dr. John, Little Feat, and Van Morrison. So perfectly does he capture the mood of high-stepping on a humid Southern day that it comes as something of a shock when you find out he hails from Milwaukee. Nonetheless, his songs are syncopated soul-stirrings at their most rhythmically appealing.
Symphony 1997, Tan Dun and Yo-Yo Ma (Sony Classical). Helped along by a large rack of ancient bells unearthed in China a few years ago, this symphony commemorating the return of Hong Kong to the Chinese is both immediate and deeply tied to the past. Yo-Yo Ma's extraordinarily resonant cello seems to speak for the cost behind all advancement, and the singing of the Yip's Children's Choir is light with the promise of the future.
Parole Music, Kevin Johnson and the Linemen (Sam Records). Despite the album's title, Parole Music establishes this East Coast aggregation as something fairly rare these days: pursuit of roots-rock ideals with restraint. The better qualities of this album seep in around the edges, gradually making themselves known.
Last Tango in Bubbleland, Phoebe Legere (Random Records). New York's Legere may play all the kewpie doll/French maid roles with the costumes and personae she enlists in the telling of her little-girl-in-the-big-city story, but she's far from dumb: She understands how much a song needs a touch of scenery-chewing and sense of soap opera. On this album Legere has fun, to be sure, but always with a piece of her real heart showing.
Looking for Butter Boy, Archie Roach (Hightone Records). Roach is an Aborigine who was taken from his birth parents and raised in a mission in Australia. Perhaps that sense of "outsideness" is what enables him to write such gently yearning pop songs or such justifiably anthemic declarations. His voice is reminiscent of Sam Cooke's, colored by his personal experiences just as the music on Butter Boy is influenced by Australia: an enduring frontier resonance, but livened up with a tropical streak and cushioned by an English beer hall sense of sentiment. Very resonant.
Schoolgirl Report, Gert Wilden & Orchestra (Crippled Dick Hot Wax Records). This is the year's great hidden treasure. Wilden is a soundtrack king in Germany, where in the '70s he wrote the scores to a string of soft-core porn movies called Schoolgirl Reports. The songs here are precise evocations--like you'd get from a computer or alien visitors--of the kinds of music used to set the mood in Matt Helm or biker movies, but attacked with Teutonic enthusiasm that somehow makes them more. Echoes of the songs these cuts were cribbed from float through the melodies like ghosts. Few albums this year were this much fun to listen to. Wagnerian lounge? It could happen.
Wingless Angels, Wingless Angels (Island Jamaica). "Brother Keith" Richards is the motive force behind this album, but he does a commendable job of staying out of the way while producing and playing guitar on it. Showcasing the style of a group of Jamaican Nyabinghi (a Rastafarian sect) drummers who sing as a group while they play, the African rhythms of the drums mix hypnotically with the singing, which follows melodies adapted from Wesleyan hymns. Needless to say, this is a very tribal album, with the music drawing power from the union of what at first appear to be opposing styles. Full of primal campfire and water-hole vibes, this album is perfect for any hunter-gatherer's more meditative moods.
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