Top 10 Albums of 1997

Number 10.  –  Like Swimming – Morphine

Imagery counts for a lot with the minimalist band Morphine, who we can safely credit as the first band in rock and roll history consisting of a two-stringed slide bass, bari sax and drums. There, on the back of their latest album, are singer-songwriter Mark Sandman, saxist Dana Colley, and drummer Billy Conway, submerged in water and looking distorted but not unhappy. So it goes with this music, with Sandman singing gutsy art-R&B tunes with a voice like a gruffer, bad apple variation of Mark Knopfler. On the title cut, “Potion,” and an absurd ditty like “French Fries w/ Pepper,” the band projects its riff-based sound, without need for apology or explanation. Despite the peculiarity of the instrumentation, Morphine is no novelty act, but a new sound tapping into some fundamental resonance, some funk truths, lurking beneath rock legacy. In a real, hands-on way, it recognizes that, contrary to what rock lore would have us believe, real music power often comes from below.

Number 9.  –  Life After Death – Notorious BIG

If Ready to Die introduced us to this character, this Biggie Smallz who was a vicious thug, a gangsta, a frequent drug user, but also a man with a sense of humor, who loved his ladies and was more concerned with putting sex songs across to them than bragging to his crew about how he banged them, and most of all a man with a deep depression and sadness who looked at things in his life and who told stories about how hopeless it could make him feel, made him contemplate suicide, then Life After Death is a fuller exploration of every one of those ideas. You may not like the thug side of this thinker but it’s part and parcel of the man and to understand him you must go along with him for that ride. The intro is Puffy’s sad lament for a friend, and the whole album could also be taken that way, but again, it’s not just wallowing in gloom: there’s love, humor, sex, parental caring, and much more in there alongside the tragic crime stories, the scary crime stories, the drug stories, and of course, the shadow of death that hangs over the whole project. I don’t claim to love all of it – I don’t need to hear Too Short in this context any more than I need to hear his own albums and the same goes for the Bone Thugs guys, but musically it’s inventive beginning to end, whether he’s riding one of Puffy’s many R&B-powered grooves, Premier’s cut-and-scratch, Easy Mo Bee’s Zapp-bounce, whatever. And lyrically? Like I say, you can accept that the same guy who wants to just get high with Bone Thugs and the guy who’s threatening his enemies and providing a crack dealer’s manifesto is the same guy who’s writing a song to his daughter from a posthumous vantage point, who’s detailing crime sprees gone wrong over and over, who goes toe to toe with Lil’ Kim in a battle of the sexes (and only pulls a draw), who feels that “beef” is a pointless game. But you can’t reject him out of hand based on one facet of his personality. Or rather: if you do, you’re missing out. Start with Ready to Die and meet this guy, but proceed post haste to this one, which is bigger and more complex in all respects.

Number 8.  –  The Fat of the Land – Prodigy

No one can forget (or really remember) when they first heard this album. It charged onto the scene with violent punches to the face, fisting the 90’s in its mouth until it puked, and resulting in the perfect meeting point for ravers mashed up on ecstasy; goths and punks who liked to stick pins into their features; and emcees who liked their rhythm furious and dirty. It literally changed electronic music for good. Hell, it literally changed me for good, to the degree that when I saw the Keith Flint for the first time, I wanted to get my septum pierced (which I did, and it remains there to this day). And boy, did I dance. Suddenly with new found energy, it never gave me a second to breathe, my barely teenage teeth grinding in its pure UK sound. It is still untouched on that level, sounding as good today as it did back then. And please, don’t even get me started on the music videos, some of which have forever stood as some of my favourites of all time.

Number 7.  –  Dig Your Own Hole – The Chemical Brothers

Compared to its predecessor, “Dig” is more of an album than a collection of ideas, more of a wild ride rather than simply a snapshot at what the band can do. In that sense it has a real live feel to it. There are moments when the music is not as good, and where its just tedious and repetetive stuff. But if that only takes a couple of songs then that’s still an overall score 9 out of 11, and that feels exactly what the band deserves for their effort in making this album and quite simply put indisputable masterpiece of the 90s.

Number 6.  –  Portishhead – Portishead

With Dummy, Portishead cemented their niche in the world of trip hop, and honestly had no obligations to carry out afterwards. Dummy was a fantastic album, good enough that even if the group had stopped there and made it a one time deal, the album would not have faded into obscurity. In any case, Portishead’s early end has always felt slightly unrealized. Portishead only made two studio albums, one live album, and a few stray singles, b-sides, and rarities. It takes a very special band to be this appreciated with so little for fans to go on.While Dummy might be the focal point of Portishead’s short lived career, it is really a shame to stop there when such a good album is up for grabs for further listening. On one hand, the bands self titled sophomore album has some uninspired moments, specifically Half Day Closing and Only You, two easy picks for worst Portishead songs. The flipside is that there are many songs here that stand very tall and give the band more depth. It is a little more difficult, but it yields great rewards upon further exploration. Despite the fact that it is miles behind it’s predecessor, this is an album that is worth attention for reasons other than the fact that Portishead had very little material for people to feast on.

Number 5.  –  Homework – Daft Punk

We can hear dance music as much as possible, and it can feel good, but we try to explain why and discover that putting that feeling into words is a very difficult thing to do. This is true, especially, I feel, of Daft Punk’s Homework. This is not challenging music, there are no big ideas here – it all comes down to the beat – but everything about it is so defiantly indefinable when it’s not playing.  Homework is music for the times when your brain is too tired or drunk or in love to formulate cohesive thoughts. Your brain says “I’m fucked, let the body do it.” With Homework playing, the body is more than willing. Homework is music for the times when you don’t need words, you can just stay silent and listen to this joyful, outgoing and ultimately life-affirming music. Nothing more needs to be said, Homework feels good.

Number 4.  –  Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space – Spiritualized

It has probably been said many times over, but the opening track – the title track – makes a huge promise for what’s going to come. Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space simply couldn’t have started off better – the line “all I want in life’s a little bit of love to take the pain away” sums up what this album is going to be about, and Jason lyrically nods a little to Elvis Presley’s classic “Can’t Help Falling In Love.” This song is both perfectly suitable for an opener and great individually. I’m always been intrigued by this album, but I’ve never been sure how I feel about it.  It never quite gets its act together to be the masterpiece that I want it to be, but I absolutely love J. Spaceman’s vision of a fusion of gospel and space rock, with chaotic horn sections thrown in for good measure.  It’s a man looking at creation and trying to make sense of it all through music (or something).  I guess part of the problem is that the chaos has a tendency to overtake the order. I won’t go through every individual song, but another highlight is “Broken Heart.” The song title sums up what it’s about, basically – and it’s magnificently delivered in music. Another very good reason to get this album unless you already have it.

Number 3.  –  OK Computer – Radiohead

I won’t lie and say that OK Computer is the first album that made you feel like as we’re loosing humanity as we journey towards to the advances of the future (Pink Floyd where the originators) but it was so good that it feels like it really is. With OK Computer, Radiohead decided to experiment a bit more and disregard common song structures, arguably creating one the most interesting and stunning albums ever. Sonically, this album is as close to perfect as it gets – the production is excellent and the instruments (most prominently the acoustic guitar) are played extremely well , every track offering something new with each listen. Thom York sounds like he is in deep pain and the incredibly dense and terrifying sound overall only compliments that.  Because of it’s high level of emotion and capturing our deepest emotions its no wonder why many considers OK Computer as the most important album of at decade and I’ll agree that this album is perfectly placed in such landmark. Psychologically, one needs those fantastic diversions, but there has to be something real to return to again and again. OK Computersimply is the anxious, self-important, uncertain, technologically overwhelmed 1990s.

Number 2.  –  Homogenic – Bjork

Listening now, it’s hard to believe that this was released in 1997, and I remember my initial shock hearing this for the first time back then, I’d never ever heard anything quite like this before, it sounded so alien to my ears…. suddenly, from being a quirky mainstream popstrel with underground leanings, we bore witness to the birth of this unique, cutting edge, conceptual pop artiste, who at that moment moved miles ahead of the rest of the pack. To this day, she runs so far ahead of the rest of the pop ‘aristocracy,’ that it’s almost comical to witness any attempt to catch her. Haunting contemporary dark electronic is what this album makes me think of. Björk’s evolution into starchild siren was pretty surprising given her predisposition for flighty, often jarring musical juxtapositions.Homogenic was arguably her first fully formed statement as a passionate, forward-thinking ambassador to electronic pop. It’s exciting to witness an artist mature and create something that is equal parts unique and universal. She may never top this, few could.

Number 1.  –  Lonesome Crowded West – Modest Mouse

This is why I love Modest Mouse so much, it’s not my favourite Modest Mouse album, but I think it embodies them and it’s what defines them as a band. They’re definitely one of my favorites, and here is them at their most passionate and angry. They’re definitely one of the most distinctive bands I’ve ever listened to, you just know it’s Isaac shrieking and screaming at you, and Modest Mouse are absolutely one of a kind and Isaac is without a doubt the greatest lyricist I’ve ever listened to, his use of metaphors, similes, clever play on words, contradictions, and his ability to tell a great story which I think sometimes gets overlooked is amazing. On The Lonesome Crowded West his ability to paint a very vivid picture that evokes such a clear picture is absolutely brilliant, you listen to Trucker’s Atlas and it just evokes someone travelling across America occasionally stopping at gas stations to do more cocaine, fuel up and keep on the opening road with no real purpose or destination. The whole concept of the album (if you can call it a concept) is reflected in the way in which the songs are played, the songs have a very expansive feel about them. Songs about or alluding to cities, the long road, parking lots, trailer parks. It feels like there’s an awful lot of freedom to the album, songs about open spaces. Though you have a stark contrast with that, you have themes of religion, drugs, corporate America, isolation and alienation. One of the first lines is “Well I get claustrophobic”, but there’s no claustrophobia here. I think the juxtaposition makes for an extremely powerful listen, on the one hand you have something with so much freedom, but there’s so much there to bring you down as well. I think the album is care-free rocking Modest Mouse at their very best. It’s dissonant, messy, impassioned, energetic, thought provoking, angsty, powerful, philosophical and it displays emptiness and isolation in a way not too many things can.

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