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The Top 10 Albums From 1997

December 18, 2017 | Posted by David Hayter

So after a little delay, we’re back with the Top 10 albums of 1997 and, truth be told, this was a tough year for me. The extreme severity and gloom that defined the era has been my cup of tea.

It’s impossible to deny the quality of the music released, but there is also a feeling that outside of a couple of key releases, this was a year when artists produced great, but not transcendent albums.

1997: The Year In Music

The most noticeable absentee from my list is Ladies And Gentleman We Are Floating In Space by Spiritualized, a soulful, haunted, but not despairing listen, which I very much appreciate, but struggle to love. It would have been an disingenuous inclusion on my part, but the album deserves a shout out.

So who defined the year in music outside of the albums I selected?

Well U2 divided their own fans as well as the critics with Pop, an album that can be read as a playful evolution or as a midlife crisis, respectively. Wu-Tang Clan continued to build their legacy with a sophomore LP that couldn’t rival their debut, but more than satisfied its audience.

Indie entered something of a purple patch with seismic release from Sleater-Kinney, Belle & Sebastian, Cornershop, Yo La Tenga, Elliot Smith and, of course, the most 90s of 90s bands, Pavement. Rock and metal weren’t to be outshone either with Deftones releasing Around The Fur while Foo Fighters delivered their star making second album and Feeder began gathering steam.

Brit-pop was still alive and kicking with Blur chasing the American market and The Verve completing their superstar conversion with the brilliant Urban Hymns.

Elsewhere, Nick Cave’s Boatman’s Call asserted his staying power while The Prodigy evolved from ravers to chart toppers in the United Kingdom with Fat Of The Land – an album that still divides their fanbase to this day, despite featuring some of the biggest hits imaginable.

Lastly, there was R&B, whose year was dominated by two release Janet Jackson’s divisive Velvet Rope – an album better reviewed today than in 97 – and Baduism by Erykah Badu, a transcendent artist who was in the process of slowly carving out her own niche. Not quite fitting into either the R&B, Rap or Pop camp was Missy Elliot who produced the eminently loveable Supa Dupa Fly and let’s not forget that Wyclef also had a hell of a year. It’s worth noting that his absurdly long debut dropped in 1997, proving that there was more to The Fugees than Lauryn Hill.

…but if that’s a taste of what failed to make the cut, who did sneak into our Top 10?

10. New Forms by Roni Size/Reprazent 

Genre: Drum & Bass

The 411: So let’s make this clear at the outset: New Forms is too bloody long (Largely because these two disks really do represent two entirely different albums, albeit both coming from the same headspace). The second disc is a jazzier, acid influenced suite aimed closer to the ambient mix than the first, whose brazen concessions to the mainstream and unavoidably addictive grooves dominate. The whole work is connected, Size’s cheeky use of burbling bass is unmistakable, but while the former half embraces sharp R&B samples to create a dark, universal euphoria on the dancefloor, the latter is the sound of isolation, music for headphone warriors or the small set with the diehards in attendance – the 4am show where feeling in the face was lost several hours before. Considering the extreme length of this collection (and some of the songs themselves), its testament to Size’s inventiveness that he retains interest so well, managing to surprise without resorting to gimmicks or modern drops.

The Critics Say: “Yes, Size‘s production clout is much more apparent on the first disc than the second, but New Forms is laced with so much genius it’s worth the price of two discs to own all the excellent productions inside.” Allmusic

9. Come On Over by Shania Twain

Genre: Pop/Country

The 411: In a world where Country music has blossomed outwards and embraced pop production in myriad fascinating ways, the idea that Come On Over could be a controversial album is frankly ridiculous. Hell, today the CMA would bend over backwards to have Taylor Swift perform and yet, back in 1997, Shania became an outcast for releasing this driving pop/rock record. The bigger question in 2017 is not: did Shania Twain sell out? (who could possibly care) but, do those 90s pop dynamics hold up? The answer to the latter is a resounding yes. Come On Over is a remarkably crafted work of MOR arena pop, that might sound mundane, were it not for the fact that practically every track is a potential chart topper.

The Critic Say: “Aside from its quota of musical sound effects, Twain’s latest incarnation obviously has nothing to do with country. Setting out into the vast unexplored territory separating Garth from Madonna, she and husband-producer-cowriter Mutt Lange glance over at Gwen Stefani and take a few tips from Lange’s old charges the Cars before arriving at a new pop formula that’s all flirtatious ebullience and lively hooks. And miraculously, this discovery proves more exhilarating than a barrel of orgasms–the happy kind, none of your soul-shaking groaners. Not while this incarnation has juice, anyway.” Robert Christgau

8. Portishead by Portishead

Genre: Trip Hop

The 411: Portishead had an impossible task at hand. Dummy was the perfect debut album: arriving with a complete sound that was both frighteningly new, but still linked to the zietgiest in tone and demeanour. Their eponymous second album couldn’t repeat the trick, the Trip Hop sound had now been assimilated into the pop landscape and fans expected beautiful stillness and gut-wrenching ennui. It’s not surprising then, that, at the time, Portishead’s second helping was greeted with somewhat of a shrug, as the band carefully honed and obscured their core dynamics to create a rich and brooding album, that was neither a departure nor a hit parade. It received strong reviews upon release, but it is a better listen today, where the dreamy soundscapes and Beth Gibbons’ Lynchian vocals are no longer burdened with a weight of expectation. The band’s decision to record live performances and then sample themselves proves a masterstroke giving the album an air of unreality. The music is both raw and alive, but also stilted as if it comes crackling out of a gramophone. This is not a collection of hits, but it is a devastating start-to-finish listen rooted around a mesmeric voice surrounded on all sides by alluringly-rudderless production.

The Critics Say: “Beth Gibbons takes her place alongside Sinead O’Connor and Bjork as one of pop’s premier female singers, while her partners craft compelling tracks conveying the depth of her emotions.” The L.A. Times

7. The Lonesome Crowded West by Modest Mouse

Genre: Indie

The 411: It’s funny how quaint 90s indie music sounds sitting here at the end of 2017. The angst, the paranoia, the wilful atonality and the sheer creepiness of the sound: it was revolutionary at the time, but today it feels wedded to its era – like Timbland’s production or the Mersey Beat sound. This isn’t to the music detriment – even if the scratches do feel corny – The Lonesome Crowded West still feels feral, like the over-anxious release of brooding emotion that has been violently repressed for too long. This tension between what is screamed and what’s left unsaid charges Modest Mouse with a nervous electricity, they are impossible to second guess, as even the sweetest melody or softest ditty threatens to devolve into structureless screaming. There is a wonderful sensation throughout that Isaac Brock is muttering under his breath, waiting for his target to pass out of earshot before exploding into lewd gestures and psychotic ramblings. Modest Mouse want to be fuck the world cynical rockstars, but something is holding them back. They’re still mannered, even in their insanity. The result is a glorious halfway house that in many ways draws the line between peculiar indie and balls out rock.

The Critics Say: Lonesome came out right on the hinge between indie rock’s regional phase and its global one, in 1997, the year I got my first email address, and I still have the original LP I bought around then. Listening to albums you loved that long ago often feels like looking at old photos, but the remarkable thing about these reissues is that their thrill feels contemporary, a present sense of physical and psychological danger. “ Pitchfork

6. Homework by Daft Punk 

Genre: Dance 

The 411: Like Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black in our 2007 list, it would be foolish to pretend that Homework is a flawless front to back listen, it’s not. Like most dance records (especially those released before the millennium), much of the music is presented, not so much for the audience at home, but to create a sonic space that can be rearranged in a thousand different ways to create an evolving journey of sound in the live arena. “Revolution 909”, for example, would be used to underpin samples and blend between tracks in DJ sets the world over, but it’s not necessarily a full realized stand alone composition. As such, much of Homework’s beauty lies in imagining what could be, alighting on a sonic thread and unwinding it, discovering where and how it all fits together – all the while evoking memories of the best live show in the business. And yet, just like Back To Black, when Homework hits it mark, as it very often does, the highs obliterate practically any and all competition. Moreover, sitting back in 2017, it is clear that Homework is the most influential album on this top 10 – only the number one can claim as broad an influence and it could be argued that that album’s impact is limited to a selection of genres, while Homework would revolutionize all of pop music while redeeming the 1970s sounds so greatly detested in 1997 (althought that would happen more fully on 2001’s Discovery). Perhaps I’m biased, I cannot untangle this record from some of the greatest memories of my adolescent and university years: to me, Homework will always be, the soundtrack to the best time of my life.

The Critics Say: Daft Punk‘s full-length debut is a funk-house hailstorm, giving real form to a style of straight-ahead dance music not attempted since the early fusion days of on-the-one funk and dance-party disco. Thick, rumbling bass, vocoders, choppy breaks and beats, and a certain brash naiveté permeate the record from start to finish, giving it the edge of an almost certain classic. While a few fall flat, the best tracks make this one essential.” Allmusic

5. Life After Death by Notorious B.I.G.

Genre: Rap

The 411: Life After Death is too unwieldy to be Biggie’s best record, but it is impossible to deny as the rapper’s last will and testament. This is a tour de force that not only demonstrates every facet of Biggie’s talent (his pop chops, his street life tales, his unlikely loverman charisma and his undeniable sense of humor), but the east coasts best producers (RZA, Premier, Clark Kent, etc..) and finest wordsmiths (Jay-Z, Lil Kim, The L.O.X.). Of course, we’d be remiss if we didn’t carve out some space to praise Puff Daddy, because if the 24 tracks are testament to Biggie’s brillaince, then the album’s commercial success and its three staggering singles are Sean Combs greatest achievements. It’s amazing, considering that this record is 20 years old and that these singles have been ungodly overplayed, that they sound so vibrant and fresh. Of course, Life After Death is an album that mixes glorious escapism with inescapable reality: “Mo Money…” is followed by the street-level-severity of “Niggas Bleed”. That track ends with a classic pull-the-rug-out punchline, Biggie’s journey would end on a more sorrowful note. However pleasurable it is to spend two hours hypnotised by Biggie’s easy flow and sneakily sharp lyricism, the record’s jarring detours are a reminder of just how suddenly this talent was snatched from the earth. 

The Critics Say: “The man called Christopher Wallace is dead. Poverty made him and riches killed him. His sick creation, The Notorious BIG, is however very much alive in these grooves as a malevolent presence and a shit-talking evil spirit. Let both rest in peace.” NME

4. Dig Your Own Hole by The Chemical Brothers

Genre: Dance

The 411: It’s hard to separate The Chemical Brothers from my youth, because I was a kid in the United Kingdom and the world seemed to moving at an incredible pace when this record dropped. Tony Blair had just swept to power in a landslide, pop music dominated every aspect of British television and The Chemical Brothers released the best song I had ever heard in my life (at that point). Okay, so twenty years later, I don’t think “Block Rockin’ Beats” is the best thing since sliced bread, but a smile still creeps across my face every time I hear it, as I get to tap into a well of feverish childlike energy that has long since deserted me. Putting my youth to oneside, Dig Your Own Hole remains a landmark release in the history of dance music, alongside Homework by Daft Punk, but going much further, The Chemical Brothers were pushing, pulling and stretching electronica into new and previously unimaginable shapes. Dance music, in the right hands, would not be contained; it could be the new rock and roll, the new psychedelia and the backbone of modern pop. Dig Your Own Hole was the Pandora’s box moment – The Chemical Brothers were coming for crown armed with weapons no one really understood and few could hope to resist.

The Critics Say: “As with another aspect of computer culture, the Internet, it’s hard to tell whether Dig Your Own Hole is the future incarnate or merely another step in that direction. What it is at times is a little spooky, like accidentally tuning into a radio station from the next century. And in the eyes and ears of the Chemical Brothers, that musical future is more fun — and much less scary — than anyone could have imagined.” Entertainment Weekly

3. Time Out Of Mind by Bob Dylan

Genre: Folk

The 411: Bob Dylan seemed lost in the mire. The never-ending tour continued to live up to its name and, while the idea that he was putting out bad records was overblown, there was no doubt in the greater public’s mind that his glories belonged to the long and distant past. 1997 would radically alter that perception. The release of Time Out Of Mind, a rich and warm collection of husky Americana, set Dylan on a course that would see him become the sound of Apple’s iPod advertising campaign in 2006. Today, we’re so accustomed to the revered and periodically essential Dylan that it’s easy to overlook Time Out Of Mind. After all, it now stands alongside Love And Theft, Modern Times and Tempest, bookending a phenomenal late career purple patch. Still, we shouldn’t overlook how shockingly fantastic and sexy this record was upon release. Dylan suddenly stood, not as a man lost in the modern landscape, but as a wiley old fox: the true master of the great American songbook. With a raw and versatile band at his back, Dylan’s rhymes would creep and crawl insidiously across slow boogie-blues sweeps and downbeat-yet-romanticised honky tonk, folk hybrids. The greatest tribute we can pay to Time Out Of Mind is to say that, in 2017, it doesn’t sound like a thrilling return to form, but one of the greatest albums of the 1990s.

The Critics Say: “With Dylan’s last original songs seven years gone, fans hoped he had another decent album in him; not many figured he’d make one this fresh, or win a Grammy for Album of the Year. Instead of evoking his early glories, he devised a new songwriting style, built around the gravity of his ravaged voice, and wrote a series of crawling, crushing songs about the unbearable heaviness of heartbreak and intimations of mortality. “I think it might be shocking in its bluntness,” he said, and it is—even the loose, jokey 16 1/2-minute closer “Highlands” delivers a gut-punch.” Blender

2. Homogenic by Bjork

Genre: Art Pop

The 411: Whether Homogenic was inspired by her break-up with drum and bass icon Goldie matters little, something cast a shadow over Bjork and turned her gaze inwards. “I feel emotional” she cries on the phenomenal “Joga”, a track that sees Bjork declaring a state of emergency and it is the perfect introduction to an album whose bleakness is only matched by its beauty. In 2017, we are perhaps used to the idea of Bjork blending naturalistic instrumentation with the dark machinery of industrial dance music, but time hasn’t blunted the edge of these productions. The great achievement of Homogenic is in its sonic alchemy, that allows the Icelander to reject melody and obvious hooks and yet find such resonance in these linger phrases and undulating vocals. The cutesy teenaged Bjork isn’t exactly laid to rest – the pixie sprite vocals are still present – but this is undoubtedly a coming of age record. Illusions have been shattered as deep reflection takes the place of jubilant explosions and petulant shrieks. For one glorious moment in 1997, poor Bjork found herself trapped an ice coated upside down and, with no escape in sight, gave voice to a beautiful lonesome siren song named Homogenic .

The Critics Say: “As its title implies, Homogenic is her most holistic work. While it might not represent every side of Björk‘s music, Homogenic displays some of her most impressive heights.” Allmusic

  1. 1. OK Computer by Radiohead 

Genre: Rock

The 411: OK Computer is an album that tells two tales. One is extremely well rehearsed, a frighteningly clever bland use end-of-the-cycle paranoia to deconstruct the modern arena rock album. Guitars are still prominent, but they warped and disguised, layered and processed, disintegrating into glitchy mood pieces when they should explode and soar. The rhythms no longer drive, they stagger and march like crooked fingers to syncopated rhythms that have the wonderful aura of a dark fairy tale. Thom Yorke is still a front man, but one coming apart at the seams, he’s retreated into his crawl space so thoroughly that he’s slipped through to the otherside and now floats in a realm of artificial electric light, ready to pass judgement on the society before him. However, for all the disruption and innovation, there is another side to OK Computer story and it’s a simple one: Radiohead wrote a collection of fantastic songs, bold in their ambition, but underpinned by the most hauntingly beautiful melodies, guitars that sounded like solar systems collapsing in on themselves and artificial sonics which recalled the analogue world being eaten by turn-of-the-millennium modems. OK Computer is a landmark in sound, but it is, first and foremost, a peerless pop record – and that point, should not be forgotten in a rush to laud its many innovations.

The Critics Say: “OK Computer was the balance everyone agreed upon though– real songs and tunes, but ones that didn’t shrink from the increasingly unlimited possibilities of modern music-making. In that sense, Radiohead were not only record-collectors but futurists, approaching the 21st century from the perspective of their day rather than from the generation prior, as Stereolab, Broadcast, Tortoise, and others were doing (to wonderful effect, granted).” Pitchfork