Friday, August 4, 2017

Psychobabble's Ten Greatest Albums of 1997!


Whatever claws underground rock seemed to have in the mainstream since the beginning of the nineties were effectively dislodged by 1997. That year saw Gavin Rossdale turn Nirvana into a toothless advert for high cheek bones, Elton John and Sean Combs score the year’s two biggest hits by recycling a couple of old hits for smarmy eulogies, No Doubt get play on 120 Minutes with the Miami Sound Machine-sound-alike “Don’t Speak”, and the rise of Hanson and The Spice Girls. Despite the tide of shit overwhelming pop music, 1997 also produced some of the best albums of the decade, including one that defined the second-half of the nineties as dramatically as Nevermind defined its first half. Here’s that disc and nine others that defiantly bucked the mindlessness that defined 1997. 


10. Dig Me Out by Sleater-Kinney

Sleater Kinney’s third album continues the double-six string/double-voice attack of Call the Doctor with the new addition of Janet Weiss’s crisp drumming. The sour and sweet counterpoint between Corin Tucker’s anguished bleat and Carrie Brownstein’s controlled speak-singing continues to be the most exciting musical element, reaching a toe-tingling peak on the gotta-sing-along “Little Babies”. With its sneering satire of the traditional female role in the patriarchy, it is also the only song that clearly makes good on Dig Me Out’s reputation for having a pointed feminist pov, but perhaps the mighty attack of the band’s three women does that regardless of what they’re signing about. Without doubt there was a fair share of women who decided to band together and elbow their way into the male-dominated rock world after hearing Dig Me Out. Nevertheless, its songs mainly mine more archetypal pop themes of romantic relationships healthy and otherwise and the recuperative powers of playing and hearing great Rock & Roll. With its wild, liberating guitars and voices, Dig Me Out has its own recuperative powers. Plus that Kink Kontroversy homage on the cover is the most. 

9. Eight Arms to Hold You by Veruca Salt

Like fellow Chicagoan Liz Phair, Veruca Salt were a small-time local band who made a lo-ish-fi debut with the assistance of producer Brad Wood and secretly longed for more mainstream Rock & Roll stardom. Unlike Phair, the superstars they followed weren’t of the MOR nature of Sheryl Crow. While I’m no fan of producer Bob Rock’s stable of metal meatheads from Mötley Crüe to Metallica, he was still a good fit for Veruca Salt. Eight Arms to Hold You may lack the evocative atmosphere of American Thighs, but it is a damn good hard rock record. Tracks such as the head-rush “Don’t Make Me Prove It”, the slithery “Shutterbug”, the seething “Venus Man Trap”, and the awesome “Awesome” make the best of Rock’s slick production ways and the Salt’s way with heavy hooks. Eight Arms is not just some sort of heavy metal pastiche, and the band’s love of glammy pop (“With David Bowie”), moody ballads (“Benjamin” with its glorious use of slide guitar swoops straight out of Grease’s “Hopelessly Devoted to You”), and slow-burn epics (“Loneliness is Worse”) are still in effect.

8. Painted On by Holly Golightly

On her fourth solo album, former-Thee Headcoatee Holly Golightly made the ultimate neo-garage rock record. With its organic production, raw performances, and raw language, Painted On is retro without being pastiche. Golightly’s anger is one of the things that makes this a very real album rather than an exercise in sixties styles, but fans of the Stones, The Sonics, and The Seeds could still be easily be fooled into thinking Painted On came out in 1965 (at least until they hear her stream of “fucks”). And though Golightly takes her sonic and rhythmic cues from those great old bands, monsters such as “Run Cold”, the swaggering “For All This”, the lethal title track, the hip-shaking instrumental “Snake Eyed”, and the mesmerizing closer “Anyway You Like It” still vibrate with originality. So does Golightly’s defiantly cockney intonation laid over decidedly American-style blues, country, and Rock & Roll. Painted On would be simply cool if Golightly’s nastiness wasn’t so superheated.

7. I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One by Yo La Tengo

Speaking of cool, Hoboken, New Jersey’s Yo La Tengo had been a banner band for cool indie kids since 1986’s Ride the Tiger. Their mixture of Velvet Underground squall and detached vocals was always hip, but on I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One the material really justified the presentation. There are explicit Velvets references (“Moby Octapad” cops the bass line of “European Son” outright) but other tracks wander into more pastoral vistas. The beautiful “Autumn Sweater” magically draws up images of leaves drifting down on country lanes. The instrumental mood-setter “Green Arrow” is like a firefly-flecked summer night translated into music. “Damage” is like a deep trek into dark, Lynchian woods. “Stockholm Syndrome” recalls that most pastoral of all pop discs, The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society. Yo La Tengo also make room to crank up their signature noise, and the driving “Sugarcube”, a punk cover of “Little Honda”, and the overwhelming “Deeper into Movies” are some of their best bone shakers. 

6. 50,000 B.C. by Shudder to Think

If ever there was a band for which the rock star brass ring seemed unattainable, it’s Shudder to Think. Or is it? After all, beneath Craig Wedren’s unearthly wail and choppy surrealism there were plenty of riffs fit for a Queen album. On 50,000 B.C., Shudder to Think shed much of their prog angles and slither out in a spangly, glam skin. While that costs them a good deal of what made them unique, they emerge as a fabulous Rock & Roll band that still has enough vocal and lyrical weirdness to remain distinct from any other group. What other band would coo “Naughty, naughty, naughty, can’t steer so sexy in a war” or “My teeth are fit with mandibles and a dangled fig”? However, Wedren does get less obscure and even sweet on love songs (love songs! From Shudder to Think!), such as “Beauty Strike”, “All Eyes are Different”, and “You’re Gonna Look Fine, Love”. They also play with soul and jangle-pop and make a brilliantly accessible rock anthem of “Red House”, an old track from 1991’s Funeral at the Movies E.P. Even the most dogmatic fans have to forgive what sounds like a new happiness in Shudder to Think’s music, especially considering that 50,000 B.C. came on the heels of a serious cancer scare for Wedren (Hey, Craig… what’re your feelings on hair?). One of the main virtues of Shudder to Think had always been their ability to shock, and hearing them embrace traditional beauty and pure joy may be their most shocking move of all. 

5. Either/Or by Elliott Smith 

Joy, however, is on short order in the work of Elliott Smith. Beauty is not, and Either/Or is a tour de force of lovely sadness. Smith’s third album builds a bit on the skeletal acoustic sounds of his eponymous second album. There are more drums, more up tempos, and occasionally, even electric guitars in tracks such as “Alameda”, the big-rocking “Ballad of Big Nothing”, the pounding “Pictures of Me”, and the venom spitting “Cupid’s Trick”. Smith apparently made the record to get away from the darkness and depression of Elliot Smith, yet this is still pretty dark and depressing music despite the extra lift of the new arrangements and rhythms. Even the moments of relative light are infused with acute emotions. Closing track “Say Yes” twists the smitten opening line “I’m in love with the world through the eyes of a girl who’s still around the morning after” with a litany of bitterness, and if it doesn’t make you weep, you should probably report your soul stolen. 

4. In It for the Money by Supergrass 

Following a fat, stripped down Rock & Roll debut, Supergrass broadened their sound in wonderful ways. The magical, Rubber Soul-esque “Late in the Day” would have been out of place on I Should Coco, but it finds a complimentary home on an album that welcomes big horn arrangements, acoustic guitars, synthesizers, pianos, and the wicked weirdness of whatever the hell “Sometimes I Make You Sad” is. There’s still a glut of classic Supergrass super rock on the thrashing “Richard III”, the Chuck Berry-subverting “Tonight”, the spacious and borderline psychedelic “Sun Hits the Sky”, and “Cheapskate”, but their exploration of more colorful arrangements and textures erases the relative saminess of I Should Coco completely. That album didn’t have much in the way of prettiness, and “Late in the Day”, “It’s Not Me”, and the smoky “Hollow Little Reign” have it in spades. In It for the Money deserves to be spoken of in the same reverent breaths as Parklife and Different Class.

3. The Magic City by Helium

On Helium’s debut, The Dirt of Luck, the Boston trio painted a masterpiece with globs of oily noise.  The smears of guitar noise were not thick enough to smother Mary Timony’s innate tunefulness, which made every track both scary and deeply pleasurable—like curling up on the couch to watch Frankenstein. That’s an apt comparison since The Dirt of Luck also gave Timony an outlet for her fixation on monsters and mythical creatures at odds with the stark realism of nineties rock (though Timony always put a personal spin on her gorgons and skeleton people). On The Magic City, Timony takes a turpentine-soaked rag to the thick oils of The Dirt of Luck, drawing her melodies closer to the surface and pulling the shroud off her fantasies completely. The Magic City is home to castles and dragons and astronauts and medieval people and oceans of wine. Timony compliments such idiosyncratic fancies with the kinds of baroque keyboards and melodies that would take full flight during her solo career. Helium still manages to whips up some hurricanes on their final album, working hard dance and electronic influences into things like “Medieval People” and “The Revolution of Hearts, Pts. 1 & 2”, on which she comes out of the closet as a prog acolyte once and for all.

2. Mag Earwhig! By Guided by Voices

Shudder to Think and Helium weren’t the only nineties bands that embraced progressive rock, and we’ll ride out this list with two others who clearly listened to their share of King Crimson and Can. First up is that beer-chugging genre-blender from Dayton known as Guided by Voices. We must make the distinction that this is how they are known because aside from high-kicking mainstay Bob Pollard, GBV is a completely different band from when we last saw them under the bushes and under the stars. Gone are Tobin Sprout, Mitch Mitchell, and Kevin Fennell after rough going during their last sessions (though a few tracks featuring the newly departed members— “Are You Faster?” “I Am Produced”, and “Knock ‘Em Flyin’” — made the cut of Mag Earwhig!). In are Cobra Verde from Cleveland. Also in is the high-polished sound that began the process of alienating some of Pollard’s more small-minded fans. Those who could not let the Devo-like mechanisms of “Can’t Hear the Revolution”, the Stonesy “Bulldog Skin”, the gripping psychedelia of “Learning to Hunt”, the metal sing-along “Little Lines”, the agitated “Bomb in the Bee-Hive”, or the sublimely space-age power pop of “Jane of the Waking Universe” into their hearts lost out big time. Such fans made the mistake that Guided by Voices’ greatest asset was the way they recorded their music when it had always been Pollard’s wonderful songs. That being said, one of Mag Earwhig!’s finest moments—the towering “I Am a Tree”— came courtesy of new boy Doug Gillard, the only Cobra Verde member who’d stick around for GBV’s next and most controversial album yet.

1. OK Computer by Radiohead

Radiohead began as a somewhat weedy British off shoot of what Nirvana started. They found a voice of their own with their excellent second album. On their third, they rebuilt contemporary rock using some unexpected tools. OK Computer was nothing if not a neo-progressive rock album, waving around all of prog’s trademark feathers: big concepts, science-fiction, creative chording, and tricky time signatures. Yet no one would mistake OK Computer for some Yes album buried in the archives since 1972. It is not merely modern sounding; it is futuristic, and fellow artists seemed to get in line behind it as dutifully as they’d gotten behind Nevermind. Also like Nirvana’s milestone, Radiohead’s exploded with songs that defined their era. Where were you in ’91/’92? Watching “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, “In Bloom”, “Come as You Are”, and “Lithium” on MTV. Where were you in 1997? Somewhere with headphones on marveling to the Lennon-esque “Karma Police”, the celestial “No Surprises”, the surging “Let Down”, and the magnificently shifting “Paranoid Android”, my personal pick for the decade’s greatest track. In between the singles churn such brilliant gears as the soaring “Subterranean Homesick Alien”, the suitably dramatic “Exit Music (For a Film)”, the gnarly “Electioneering” (Radiohead’s last traditional guitar-based rocker for a long time), and the aching, crawling “Tourist”. With its recurring themes of unchecked consumerism metastasizing into existential alienation, OK Computer also crystallized ideas that had been swirling through the Brit Pop world since Blur put out Modern Life is Rubbish in 1993, but in a way that seemed to rocket beyond the limited, quotidian social observation of that genre. OK Computer is not quotidian, and it is anything but limited. It is the greatest album of 1997.  

Five More Great Albums from 1997
Brighten the Corners by Pavement
Blue Sky on Mars by Matthew Sweet
Cherry Peal by Of Montreal
Blur by Blur
Push Kings by Push Kings
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