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My Heart Skips Around When I Hear the Sound
The Best of 1997
Veruca Salt: Eight Arms to Hold You
Everclear: So Much for the Afterglow
1997, for me, was the year rock music woke up, stood in front of a wardrobe of cultivated indifference and alienated exhaustion, and decided it no longer had anything to wear. Veruca Salt hired a heavy-metal producer, flew to Hawaii, and made an album that infuses arena-shaking guitar-hero bombast with fond affection and irrepressible glee. Everclear went home to Portland, after two years of touring behind an album with the subtlety of a bruised fist, and discovered that cathartic rage can be transformed into soaring resolve and electric hope with a few deep breaths, a little bit of shiny ribbon, and the willpower to rip the roof off of your comfortable prison and see the open sky above the pressing walls. If the rest of the Nineties were mine to direct, these two albums would be the signposts that point rock's core spirit towards its second century.
The Leslie Spit Treeo: Chocolate Chip Cookies
"Indie" and "DIY", long since become style labels almost distinct enough to be Casio presets, had coherent meaning breathed back into them by the Leslie Spit Treeo's fourth album, a two-disc encyclopedia of country twang, folk reserve, surging rock drama, chirpy music-business naïveté, flying warthogs, breathtaking compassion, a profound understanding of the life-force in small kindnesses and a ragged nightclub rendition of the Canadian national anthem. Like the bizarre and wonderful secret world the kids next door are always telling wild stories from, only one day you go over to visit and find that they actually have constructed a fairy-tale universe in their basement, this album is to me an astonishing testament to the power of ceasing to care what anybody else wants from you. And, fortunately, their dog runs their record label.
Papas Fritas: Helioself
In a strikingly happy year, Helioself was the happiest album of all, sparkling with pop charm so guileless it almost sounds like children's music, because who could have reached adulthood with this much buoyant optimism intact?
Kenickie: At the Club
If the Spice Girls' Girl Power had any substance beneath the fizz, Kenickie would have been its champions this year instead. Smart and aware where the Spice Girls are insipid and oblivious, charged and erratic where they are limp and generic, propulsive where they are puppeteered, Kenickie made a version of Girl Power with a considered punk and New Wave heritage and a clear eye for cultural pathos, and thus one that has, as the Spice Girls' version does not, some hope of lasting longer, or reaching deeper, than a soda commercial.
Beth Nielsen Chapman: Sand and Water
The year's most powerful emotional truths, for me, came in Beth Nielsen Chapman's wake and living requiem to her late husband, a reverent synthesis of heart-wrenching sorrow, life-redeeming joy and transcendent spiritual resilience. I am an atheist, and this album makes me hope there is an afterlife.
Longpigs: The Sun Is Often Out
Stereophonics: Word Gets Around
After Oasis has come and gone, I think we will look back and realize that they changed the flow of a lot of money, but it was Radiohead who changed the course of British rock. Longpigs and Stereophonics pick up the threads left dangling by The Bends -- melancholia's persistent ache, the muted desperation of normal lives, and the serene fury of electric guitars -- and perhaps a few anthemic ones left over from U2's War, and set to inventing a future for the form that doesn't rely, like the Gallaghers', on sweeping clichés, cynical plagiarism or sneering rock-star petulance.
Jesus Jones: Already
The last time the music world seemed as optimistic as this, it was 1991, half the globe was waking up from a grim 45-year dream, and Jesus Jones "Right Here, Right Now" captured the sense of awe-struck wonder I felt hovering in the air. Six years later wonder is no less precious or appropriate, and Jesus Jones have made one of the very rare albums that manages to suspend me in that reverie of limitless potential for its entire length.
Steve Earle: El Corazón
Son Volt: Straightaways
For all this country's obvious, soul-destroying pathologies, there is still a terse, nasal nobility hidden in the core of the idea of America, and a few corners of the land that refuse to turn into cartoons of themselves. Steve Earle and Son Volt make calming and expansive music that tries to reconcile cosmopolitan electricity with the impassive strength of trees, and distill the common aspirations out of bright city lights and a clear night sky.
The Dambuilders: Against the Stars
Of the year's several surprises, perhaps the biggest one, for me, was finding that the Dambuilders, who I'd pretty much filed under "intriguing, but...", have made an album that more or less recapitulates the entirety of modern alternative musical history, from "Rock Lobster" to "Bullet With Butterfly Wings", filtered in such a way that every phase of it seems like another spiky permutation of pop-song genius and rock drive.
Helium: The Magic City
Linoleum: Dissent
As heartening as it was to see so much of music intent on a melodic recentering, there's still plenty of unexplored territory left along innumerable jagged edges, and Helium's and Linoleum's were my favorite experiments, Helium's in kaleidoscopic synth-epic dreamscapes that make mysticism seem like an art-punk invention, Linoleum's in a massive geometrical minimalism like towering Mondrian enlargements rendered in concrete slabs and barbed wire.
Mecca Normal: "Excalibur" (from Who Shot Elvis?)
Bracing, compact, frightening and inexorable, this is the Rock Song in one of its elemental forms, like a basement demo-tape found clenched in the Wicked Witch of the East's crushed fist, after the rubble of Dorothy's house was cleared away, that makes the ruby slippers seem a little less incongruous.
Tanya Donelly: "Pretty Deep" (from Lovesongs for Underdogs)
Another elemental form, this one sinuous, composed, haunted and haunting.
Richard Shindell: "The Next Best Western" (from Reunion Hill)
Richard Shindell is my favorite folk storyteller, and the deft Raymond-Carver-like irony of this yearning portrait of the search for grounds for faith, I think, is its narrator's helpless obliviousness to how much ardent belief is already immanent in his awareness of his own loneliness.
Mary Lou Lord: "Martian Saints" (from Martian Saints EP)
Curious Ritual: "Get With It Girl" (from Get With It Girl EP)
These were my two favorite Boston songs this year, Mary Lou's a whirring, breathy tangle of tangible realities and impossible dreams of escape, defining the terms and consequences of denial, and Curious Ritual's a passionate reminder that, most of the time, you have to make your own escapes after all.
Thought Industry: "Consistently Yours, Pluto" (from Black Umbrella)
It wasn't a good year for heavy metal, but Thought Industry's contorted, epileptic, incomprehensible blast showed, to me, that there's still a pulse.
The Bobs: "The Waiting Song" (from I Brow Club)
If I never quite laugh whole-heartedly at their customary demented joke-songs, it's because I remember that when they forget to derail one the Bobs can make, with just four voices, unalloyed pop more enchanting and luminous than most people can construct with a studio full of wands and lanterns.
Verbow: "Holiday" (from Chronicles)
Michael Penn: "Like Egypt Was" (from Resigned)
Verbow filled in a hole, for me, between Bob Mould and Michael Penn. Michael Penn filled in another one between Aimee Mann and Thomas Dolby.
IQ: "Unsolid Ground" (from Subterranea)
Midway through the second disc of IQ's shimmering and symphonic confrontation with eternity, the orbits of all their musical spirals finally intersect in five minutes of translucent rapture that embraces mortality and random disaster like pain is no more alien, frightening or avoidable than your own flickering shadow.
Per Gessle: "Saturday" (from The World According to Gessle)
Adrian Borland: "Stray Bullets" (from 5:00am)
No year would be complete, for me, without a song or two with the unselfconscious radiance of a new sun and the majestic sweetness of a 1:1 Mt. Rushmore carved out of marzipan. Per Gessle is the grand master of this exuberant art, and the pain of a year without a new Roxette album was alleviated greatly by his galloping, burbling, and magnificently frivolous solo album. Ex-Sound singer Adrian Borland uses heavier materials, but also finds stronger winds, and so reaches similar heights.
Mike Scott: "Sunrising" (from Still Burning)
Mary Black: "One and Only" (from Shine)
Several steps removed, stylistically, from Irish jigs, these songs seem to me, nonetheless, like the modern avatars of their ancient, bonfire-lit defiance of the circling demons, kinetic twirl as life-affirmation, dizzy reels meant to outspin the Earth, and so, even if only briefly, evade its constraints.
New Artists
Kenickie, Linoleum, Longpigs, Stereophonics
I haven't fallen in love with an entire generation of British bands in a long time, long enough to wonder if it was only really possible when I was fifteen, but this feels like the beginning of another one.
Live Albums
Big Country: King Biscuit Flower Hour Presents & Brighton Rock
A blazing radio broadcast from fourteen years ago last night, and an incendiary Greenpeace benefit from 1995. Another amazing year of music gone by, and Big Country are still my favorite band in the world.
Ani DiFranco: Living in Clip
OK, now I understand why people adore her.
Compilations & Reissues
Marillion: Script for a Jester's Tear & Seasons End (remastered, with bonus discs)
I didn't think there was anything wrong with the first editions, but if all their old albums get this same treatment, Marillion will have one of the most meticulously reconstructed catalogs in rock.
Remixes & Remakes
Sleeper: "Motorway Man Artic.Mix" (remixed by Steve Osborne, from Romeo Me #2 CD5)
This is either the renaissance of remixes, or their dark ages, depending on whether turning every single into six minorly different flavors of homogenous dance mush seems like an accomplishment to you or not. Osborne's obsessive clockwork recombination of Sleeper's tense, beepy drive-by was the only remix I heard this year, in an admittedly disenchantment-thinned sample, that seemed to me to elaborate on an unexplored aspect of the original, rather than just perching a few token fragments of it on top of something unrelated.
Yes: Open Your Eyes unlisted bonus track
I have plenty of albums I love whose "bonus" tracks seem like an ill-advised mistake, but Yes' atmospheric twenty-minute collage of nighttime ocean-shore sounds and shard-like a cappella excerpts from the preceding songs is the first bonus track to make me resent the album that takes up the indexed part of the disc.
Cover Songs
The Moog Cookbook: "More Than a Feeling" (Boston; from Plays the Classic Rock Hits)
The Moog Cookbook may be the goofiest cover band in history, but this kamikaze faux-techno remake of Boston's classic FM-radio top-down-convertible driving anthem is almost more earnest and endearing than the original.
Everclear: "Our Lips Are Sealed" (Go-Go's; from Everything to Everyone CD5)
Everclear's cheerful stomp through the Go-Go's bouncy signature tune summarized for me, as succinctly as anything, punk's renewed awareness of its own positive energy.
An Pierl: "Are "Friends" Electric?", Jesus Jones: "We Are So Fragile", Earl Brutus: "M.E.", Kenickie: "I'm an Agent", Chris Holmes: "Remember I Was Vapour", Deadsy: "Replicas" (Gary Numan; from Random compilation)
Tribute albums didn't improve much this year overall, I thought, but the deluge of them did, mercifully, abate a little, and perhaps the most unexpected, Beggars Banquet's twenty-six-track homage to one of the New Wave pioneers most in need of belated encouragement, produced at least six songs that revealed more life and viability in his legacy than even I, already one of its defenders, remembered.
Various-Artist Compilations
Girls! Girls! Girls! (Curve of the Earth)
Compilations with premises like "twenty-four songs by local bands with women in them that you've probably not heard of, even if you live here" rarely turn out to be as good ideas, in practice, as they are in political and community theory, but Curve of the Earth has a knack for them that sends me scurrying back out into the cold the next day, in search of anything else I can find by the participants. If Chelsea on Fire's wailing "Wig", January's churning "Fuzzy Sweet", Sara Mann's wah-soaked "Little Premonitions" and Half Cocked's pounding "Whole in the World" were all by one band, they would have made my album list. If your city has two dozen unknown bands this good, too, it's a wonder any of us ever manage to shut the stereo off and leave the house.
Belated Mentions
The Apartments: The Evening Visits... (1985) & Drift (1992)
Peter Milton Walsh's first two albums, reissued in an echoey, defiantly unremastered blur, simmer in his own morosity with a grace halfway between Nick Drake and the Smiths, something like a distracted Aztec Camera backing up a desperately exhausted Scott Walker, or Stephin Merritt fronting a heavily sedated Flesh for Lulu. The mere fact that someone could make these maudlin albums without killing themselves is insanely encouraging.
Rheostatics: Melville (1991), Whale Music (1992) & Introducing Happiness (1995)
Lest you ever think the Canadians don't have mixed feelings about their southern border, remember that they sent us Bryan Adams and Celine Dion, and kept the Leslie Spit Treeo and Rheostatics to themselves. In the solipsistic universe where things are new when I discover them, Rheostatics were clearly 1997's best new artist; through this trilogy in the middle of their career they sound like Brian Wilson, David Bowie, Jane Siberry and Bruce Cockburn fighting over the arrangements for a band composed of Wolfstone, Spirit of the West, an unplugged Thought Industry and a troop of renegade court jesters.
Magellan: Impending Ascension (1994)
An entire band based on the most grandiloquent five seconds of Yes' "Leave It".
The Gathering: Mandylion (1995)
Like Enya fronting a death-metal band. Chilling in a way that normal death metal stopped being, for me, long ago.
Sleater-Kinney: Call the Doctor (1995)
Frequent claims that they're musical revolutionaries puzzle me, since they remind me so much of a matte-finish Go-Go's, but this is one of the catchiest albums post-Fugazi hardcore punk has produced.
Slingbacks: All Pop, No Star (1996)
As much as I love Veruca Salt and Everclear, I will always believe that Slingbacks, dropped and dissolved before I ever heard them, should have been the standard bearers of rock's next wave. All Pop, No Star is my favorite album I heard this year, and accomplishes, for me, in one seething power-trio sprint, everything Eight Arms to Hold You and So Much for the Afterglow achieved between them, Veruca Salt's redemptive pop fervor without Bob Rock's production pageantry and Everclear's fiery punk surge tempered by empathic sighs in place of mosh-pit thrash. I waited, patiently, for it to be released in the US and blast every depthless, gutless thing out of its path. It never happened. The band folded, the record never came out here. The movement they would have led seems to be underway even without them, but let your next bonus-track lacuna be a moment of silence, and the next time you go out, squash a few depthless, gutless things for me in their memory.
For the original reviews of releases cited in these lists, see:
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