The first version of this list, made at the end of 1997, looks vastly different from its current incarnation. Four titles from that list remain — everything else is a revisionist addition.
1997 was a transitional year for me. I wrapped up the final semester of working at the school newspaper, and immediately following, I moved to Austin for work. The lists from this year onward contain far more titles than ranking slots, on account of a disposable income. A regular paycheck does wonders to fix a collecting jones.
As a result, I would acquire a number of 1997 titles in subsequent years, but I’m ranking them anyway, regardless of when I first discovered them.
Musicwhore.org Favorite Edition 1997
A co-worker played the 1998 Japan Nite sampler in the office, and the Cocco contributions immediately grabbed my attention. Luckily, I found Bougainvillia at Waterloo Records, and I didn’t stop playing the album for more than a year. Cocco combined the two things I was looking for when I explored anime soundtracks in the early ’90s — a beautiful voice singing really, really hard rock. "Count Down" does Alanis Morisette’s "You Oughta Know" one better — she threatens her ex-lover by gunpoint.
Duran Duran, Medazzaland
Major labels at the time thought forcing underground electronic dance music into the mainstream would be the next great cultural upheaval. The public, instead, looked to the Spice Girls. Medazzaland would have been a perfect fit for that misdirected effort. Dark, adventurous and hard, Medazzaland finds Duran Duran far ahead of its time. But a long gestation killed the momentum built up by the success of The Wedding Album four years before. Duran Duran has not recovered creatively since.
It’s the strings. The mix of orchestral strings and processed beats was a giant leap from the scattered experiments of Björk’s first two solo albums, while bringing her back spiritually to the oddness of the Sugarcubes. Debut and Post warmed her up. Homogenic is where she took off.
10,000 Maniacs, Love Among the Ruins
The first thing I wanted 10,000 Maniacs to do after Natalie Merchant left the band was to bring John Lombardo and Mary Ramsey on board. And that’s exactly what happened. Love Among the Ruins would be a tough sell for fans who equated Merchant with the Maniacs, but the band played with a ferocious confidence on the album. Ramsey herself felt like a natural fit, contrasting herself enough from Merchant to sound simultaneously new and familiar.
The Old ’97s, Too Far to Care
This album kicks. A clear descendant of Uncle Tupelo’s No Depression, Too Far to Care injects a good dose of spunk into country music, a genre all too watered down by wholesomeness. Rhett Miller’s vivid but vague lyrics are more felt than spoken, the narrative tradition of country replaced by a more poetic approach. The Old ’97s were really on fire as writers and performers on this disc.
Soundtrack, The Simpsons: Songs in the Key of Springfield
Alf Clausen’s music for The Simpsons has the versatility of the old Looney Tunes scores by the likes of Raymond Scott and Milt Franklin. Keeping up with the quick, sharp writing of the show requires musical skills equivalent to a juggling act.
Molotov, ¿Dónde Jugarán las Niñas?
There was a time when I tried to juggle Japanese indie rock with Latin alternative rock. But Latin alternative soon came to equal rap-rock, and the variety of Japanese indie rock was more appealing. Molotov has the distinction of recording a seemingly homophobic anthem that’s a big remix hit in Mexican gay bars. When they were accused of being intolerant, they reached out to their accusers. But even I, with zero Spanish skills, knows how to translate "Chinga du Madre".
Bill Frisell, Nashville
Frisell eschews the downtown New York abstractions for a pure country/folk sound, but even with the lighter material, there’s a shade of dark just around the edges. Robin Holcomb pops in to contribute vocals on two songs, one a cover of the old hit "The End of the World".
Pizzicato Five, Happy End of the World
Emphasis on the word happy. This album is so infectiously bright, it’s teeters on delirium. (Yup, that’s a Neil Gaiman/Sandman reference there.) "Arigato We Love You" epitomizes the album’s aesthetic. A jovial phone exchange at the start of the song gives ways to an appreciative chorus and a la-la melody. If I did more drugs, I could probably make an appropriate pharmaceutical comparison.
China Digs, Looking for George …
Back in 1997, alt-country bands weren’t a dime a dozen, and Nebraska’s China Digs managed to key into that post-No Depression spirit as good as anyone. This one and only album was recorded at a college recording studio, so it’s not exactly glossy — which really is most of the charm. Of course, I may not be speaking objectively since I know the band’s guitarist/singer, Jason Groteluschen. (Hi, Jason!)
A few of the following titles were displaced from their top 10 perch.
- John Taylor, Feelings are Good and Other Lies Taylor is no Simon Le Bon, but on this hard rocking debut, he doesn’t sound like Duran Duran either.
- Jack Ingram, Livin’ and Dyin’ Ingram is a country radio hit these days, but before then, he was writing and recording his own material.
- Kronos Quartet, Early Music (Lachrymæ Antiquæ) Kronos explores the near present with the distant past on an album alternating between modern works and Medieval music.
- 8 1/2 Souvenirs, Souvonica I like this better than Happy Feet, and it features the only performance by Kelly Willis that doesn’t bore the hell out of me.
- Prodigy, Fat of the Land Great for workouts.
- Györgi Ligeti, Ligeti Edition 1: String Quartets and Duets Ligeti cops to writing his two string quartets under the influence of Béla Bartók.
- Kim Richey, Bitter Sweet Emmylou Harris opened up country music for me, so forgive me if some of my picks tend to veer to the mainstream. Not that Richey ever became a household name.