The Best CDs of 1997

This was the hardest time I’ve ever had trying to put my year-end list together. Maybe I’m not being “critical” enough or something, but I liked a lot of music this year.

Also, I decided to change my format a bit. Every year I do my Top Ten, then spend the first two months of the following year finding music that would have been on my list. No list is ever complete, of course – none of us has time to listen to even a percent of what we “ought” to listen to – and this is also a function of an R&R industry which simply sucks at getting music before us in a timely fashion.

So this year, instead of rating the best of 1997, I’m rating the best of 1997 that I found so far, as well as the best of 1996 that I found since last year’s list. Basically, it’s the best of 1996-7 that hit my personal radar screen in 1997.

This also makes the job harder, since now there’s twice as much music I want to applaud here. As such, I won’t be doing a Top Ten this year – it’s a Top 25. And if I had the time, I’d do a Top 50 – like I said, I got a lot of good stuff this year, and the difference between #10 and #25 isn’t as great as usual. Feel free to move on anytime you get bored.

So, here’s the list:

1. World Party, Egyptology
This is the second time Karl Wallinger has hit the top of my annual list (1990’s Goodbye Jumbo currently resides on my Greatest Records of All Time list, in fact). Typical of Wallinger’s best work, Egyptology is intelligent and witty, smart and serious and passionate without being smarmy, self-righteous, or melodramatic. He writes great tunes, too. The CD is flawlessly performed and strikes a delicate production balance – smooth and accomplished, the technology is never allowed to get in the way of the genuineness of the songs. In so many ways, Wallinger is the new John Lennon, and unless something odd happens, he is destined to be remembered as one of the greatest performers of our age. Oh, I saw him live this year, too – he’s #1 on the Best Shows of the Year list as well.

2. Fish, Sunsets on Empire
Fish is one of the most compelling performers in rock today, and his newest release is perhaps his finest work (as either a solo performer or within the context of his former band, Marillion). Once upon a time Fish’s lyrics were impressionistic and romantically inclined, but he has lately grown increasingly political. His subjects, the tortured souls of a world at war with itself, could easily slip away into cheap typing and self-importance in the hands of a lesser artist. Fish keeps himself honest by questioning everything and everybody, and by avoiding the predictable at all costs. We expect our serious artists to toe the pop liberal PC line when addressing issues of social relevance, but Fish challenges the catechism at every turn, offering up earnest portrayals of people from all sides of the issues. Racists and conspiracy theorists are people, too, and you can’t understand them if you don’t depict them honestly. Sunsets on Empire is a masterful CD, easily #1 in most years.

3. Matchbox 20, Yourself or Someone like You
I have been excited to see, over the past three or four years, a resurgence in Southern rock and roll. I guess maybe Collective Soul was the impetus, but Matchbox 20 might be the best result of the trend. Yourself… is a dark, rainy package of absolutely beautiful vignettes exploring an offbeat, quirky face of love gone (or going) wrong. There’s an edge of the New Urban South gothic lurking in the shadows throughout, as though you had poured Counting Crows through the filter of REM circa Reckoning.

4. Graham Parker and the Figgs, The Last Rock ‘N Roll Tour
You don’t realize it until you see GP live, but the studio has never quite captured the essence of his musical power and authority. And in the Figgs, he has found perhaps his best foil yet. I saw GP/Figgs early on in the tour that produced this magnificent live album, and it was one of the five best shows I have ever seen: unlike many of his better-known contemporaries, Parker never lost sight of the stripped-down, straight-on lash of the British New Wave which spawned him two decades ago. TLRNRT weaves older standards like “Local Girls” in with material from last year’s Acid Bubblegum, and a healthy dose of everything in between results in a fairly balanced review of the singer’s career. Most of the early Wavers are gone now, but Parker stands as perhaps the most enduring talent of that generation, and this CD showcases the reasons why. One sure as hell hopes the CD’s title isn’t intended as prophecy.

5. Catherine Wheel, Adam & Eve
1995’s Happy Days saw Catherine Wheel stepping out from the dark dreampop landscapes which defined their previous work, and to be honest, I wasn’t all that thrilled about it. Adam & Eve isn’t Ferment by any means, but it does find the band rediscovering the Pink Floydish textural aesthetic which made their earlier work so compelling. Beautiful, intelligent songwriting (“Phantom of the American Mother” is an instant classic, although the DJs here seem to like “Delicious” better) and lush arrangements make A&E one of the more substantive bits of ear candy you’ll hear this year.

6. Van Morrison, The Healing Game
Is Morrison capable of bad music? (That was a rhetorical question.) The Healing Game doesn’t really break any new ground, but so what? Van has been cranking out passionate and thoughtful rock, blues, and jazz for 35 years now, and his worst efforts are usually better than anybody’s else’s best. Time takes a toll on most artists, a toll which often manifests in lame self-derivation, futile attempts at self-recreation, or retirement. But Morrison has proven through the years – and he proves again with this CD – that the artistic wellspring inside him is deeper and richer than anybody could ever have dreamed 30 years ago. I look forward at the end of the decade to sitting down with Morrison’s 1990s releases, because I think I’ll be able to make the case that this has been his best work ever.

7. Ben Folds Five, Whatever and Ever Amen
My first reaction to Chapel Hill’s BF5 was “so what?” These days you need some kind of hook to break through the clutter, and quiet, reflective songs about relationships going wrong – well, so what? But this band grows on you if you give them a chance. I think the greatest strength of WAEA is that it tells stories we all recognize and relate to, and Folds populates these stories with real people and a tangibly real sense of place. You can see the rooms in which conversations take place, feel their texture, smell them; and the characters are honest and credible and precisely the size of life as most of us live it. I notice that I’m using the term “intelligence” a lot in this list, and I’m not sure whether that says more about me or the music of 1997. But this CD is a must for those who appreciate honesty and thoughtfulness.

8. The Tories, Wonderful Life
Or, Deadeye Dick and the Caulfields get together and go hang out with Dada. I’m a big fan of the re-emerging Power Pop genre, and 1997 was a fantastic year for Power Pop. The Tories stand as the best of the lot, I think, mainly because of their slightly unconventional approach to harmonies and the way they collect and sift the icons of popular culture through what remain, basically, old-fashioned Beatles-esque style pop tunes. George Bailey, Gladys Kravitz, and Fred Flintstone’s boss, Mr. Slate, all put in appearances, and where early-90s grungemeisters looked at the world and saw ugliness and strife and angst, these guys look around and conclude that despite the weirdness and irony of it all, it really is an okay life.

9. Tonic, Lemon Parade
Wow. Guitars. Real guitars, like Jimmy Page would play if he were still alive. This is one of those releases where the whole is really a lot more than the sum of the parts – I can talk about the playing and the lyrical self-confidence all I want, but in the end there’s a depth and control to Lemon Parade that I haven’t entirely gotten my mind around yet. And “If You Could Only See,” which got a lot of airplay up here in the high country, hit me smack between the eyes.

10. Kara’s Flowers, The Fourth World
1997 was a big year for kids in popular music. Hanson got the mega-hype, of course, but we saw some really substantive work from people like Fiona Apple (19 – more on her later) and Johnny Lang (15 when he recorded Lie to Me). Kara’s Flowers are still in their teens, too, I understand, and this record may go a long way toward demonstrating that the next generation (the Millennials, to use Howe and Strauss’ terminology) are much different from their anxiety-ridden GenX predecessors. Witness this from “Myself”: “I can’t find a thing to be sad about/They say I’m doomed but I feel fine/But if I’m sitting here lonely/With no one to hold me/At least I’ll have my health/I’m trying to control myself.” If The Tories think things are generally okay, Kara’s Flowers seem positively elated at the very idea of waking up in the morning, and it’s so natural and fresh-faced and honest you simply cannot help but hum along. Two more things: 1) God, what catchy songwriting; and 2) lead vocalist Adam Levine is the second coming of Paul McCartney. I just want to see these kids play the Hollywood Bowl…

11. Hooverphonic, A New Stereophonic Sound Spectacular
Breathy, ethereal, Eurodreamy ambient that manages to accomplish a lot more than you might expect from the genre. I don’t like the comparisons I keep hearing between Hooverphonic and Portishead, who strike me as darker and more – what’s the word here – worldly? Hooverphonic is more innocent and occasionally funny in their choice of samples to dissect.

12. 60 Ft. Dolls, The Big 3
It’s interesting that 60 Ft. Dolls would generate this CD in a year when I have Graham Parker so high on my list, because it’s clear from listening to The Big 3 that the Dolls have been fans of Parker for some time. And The Jam, and a lot of other unaffected UK Punk/Wave stuff from the late ‘70s. File this one with 3 Colours Red (see below) – much ado is made of the self-proclaimed best band in the universe, Oasis, but this new upsurge of honest, guitar-swaggering neo-wave is, for my money, better quality stuff on all counts.

13. Death in Vegas, Dead Elvis
Techno was the next big thing, I kept hearing, so I dutifully lent an ear to all the stuff that was supposed to be the best of this genre about which I knew very little. But I just didn’t care that much about all the stuff I was supposed to like. Then I accidentally stumbled down a couple of side alleys, one of which led to this odd little dub trip called Death in Vegas. I won’t even try explaining it, but if you’ve seen the video for “Dirt” then you get the idea. Their use of actualities from Woodstock in this cut (“the man next to you is your brother,” “What’s that spell?!” etc.) alone make DiV worth the price of admission.

14. Space, Spiders
I guess the resurgence of lounge and big band is one of the big stories of the year, too, and while I didn’t like a lot of it (frankly, I hate Sinatra), the offbeat inventiveness of these postmodern lounge lizards won me over. The songs are funny and often elaborately conceived, and the disc is driven by an undeniable hipness that gets me past their love of Ol’ Blue Eyes.

15. Sarah Mclachlan, Surfacing
McLachlan’s past efforts have been driven by an occasionally sinister edge (“Possession” was a stalker ode, okay?) that was belied by her vocal sweetness and beauty. I like Surfacing a lot, but in it the sweetness seems to have conquered, at least temporarily, the darker undertones. I never realized before how important that tension between dark and light was to her music, but I do now.

16. 3 Colours Red, Pure
Very much of a piece with 60 Ft. Dolls, this neo-punk/wave throwback also dips into 1970s American Power Pop for the occasional inspiration (there’s this one moment in the third cut where they sort of morph into Cheap Trick for a moment, with exhilarating results). As best I can tell, I’m the only person in America who has actually purchased a copy of this disc, which tells me all I need to know about the promotions folks at Epic Records.

17. Fiona Apple, Tidal
I remember hearing that the woman behind this voice and these songs was 19. Yeah. Right. Nobody gets that much soul in 19 years. But when you read a bit about her life to date, you get a sense for where some of the power comes from. There’s an almost frightening maturity and depth to Tidal – I can’t wait to see where she goes from here.

18. Prodigy, The Fat of the Land
The Sex Pistols of Techno, I guess. The thing I most like about Prodigy is that a lot of techno I hear comes off as dynamically thin, but TFOTL hits you with a sonic depth that stands it alongside less electronically obsessed rock bands. I’m still trying to sort out “Smack My Bitch Up,” though – it’s supposed to be funny, right?

19. The Apples, Tone Soul Evolution
Denver’s own purveyors of pop continue what they started with 1995’s exceptional Fun Trick NoisemakerTSE isn’t a complicated CD, owing much to early Beatles and the West Coast reaction to the British Invasion, but band leader Robert Schneider understands a great deal about making sparse instrumentation and basic arrangements work with really good songwriting. One warning, though. If you ever go see The Apples live, you’ll quickly notice that Schneider is really good, but everybody else just flat-out sucks. I think this is called “Billy Corgan’s Disease.”

20. The Verve, Urban Hymns
I admit it – I’m poisoned. This disc is on a lot of top tens this year, and for good reason. But I can’t make myself get past the band’s 1993 Storm in Heaven, which I think is one of the finest records of the decade. A number of artists are up against this phenomenon this year – U2, McLachlan, the Muffs, Green Day and Bowie all produced music I liked, but which really suffered when stacked up against previous efforts. Don’t get me wrong – if this is in your top ten, I’m not arguing with you.

21. U2, Pop
I’d like this disc more if I hadn’t seen the live show, which was an amazing spectacle and no doubt accomplished exactly the statement the band hoped to make, but which simply wasn’t as good as anything else they have ever done. Once upon a time U2 led and others followed. Now, instead of cutting the edge, they’re mucking about like so many Tricky wannabes in the shallows of techno waters that even people like Moby believe are about fished out. People who know me know how much it has to hurt to criticize the band this way, because I remain convinced that they’re the best band of our era, and perhaps the best ever. A couple more rounds of this “we don’t want to be remembered as folk artists” horsewax will tarnish that view, though. I look forward to the day when Bono et al get tired of following and go back to leading. They’re smart enough to know better.

22. Counting Crows, Recovering the Satellites
I’m still trying to decide whether or not fame has been bad for Adam Durwitz. I really do like this disc, but I only just recently got it, and may after a few more listenings decide I have done it a disservice here.

23. Laura Love, Octoroon
I rarely like acts with such pronounced artsy/coffeehouse roots, but its impossible to overlook the sheer spiritual presence of a performer and songwriter like Love. And as wonderful as her own songs are, the pearl of the disc is the second-best pop rendition of “Amazing Grace” I have heard (Sean Kelly, frontman for the Samples, has a version on his solo Lighthouse Rocket disc which puts George Beverly Shea to shame). Love’s take begins with a couple of verses a capella, then kicks in to a laid-back zydeco groove for the remainder, and is by itself worth the price of the CD.

24. The Vents, Venus Again
Another Power Pop gem, Venus Again owes a lot to the Replacements. If you have a copy of Rhino’s American Power Pop compilations, you have a pretty good idea where The Vents are coming from.

25. Treble Charger, Maybe It’s Me
Soaring, ringing, can’t-stop-humming-along melodies – Treble Charger is part of a solid and apparently growing Canadian Power Pop movement that features bands like The Odds and Sloan. This is one of those CDs I just listened to over and over and over again – this is another one I might be wishing I had rated higher before it’s all over with.

And Now, in Alphabetical Order, a Laundry List of Other Stuff I Liked a Lot this Year, or Why I Wish I Had Time to Do a Top 60 List…

Auteurs – After Murder Park

Big Blue Hearts – Big Blue Hearts (* jury award for best Chris Isaak record of the year)

Big Head Todd & the Monsters – Beautiful World

David Bowie – Earthling

Caulfields – L

Charlatans UK – Tellin’ Stories

Marshall Crenshaw – Miracle of Science

Dance Hall Crashers – Honey, I’m Homely!

Foo Fighters – The Colour and the Shape

Fountains of Wayne – Fountains of Wayne

Green Day – Nimrod

Nielson Hubbard – The Slide Project

Indigo Girls – Shaming of the Sun

Jane Jensen – Comic Book Whore

KMFDM – *&%#^@

Johnny Lang – Lie to Me

Loreena McKennit – The Book of Secrets

Mighty Mighty Bosstones – Let’s Face It

Monaco – Music for Pleasure

Muffs – Happy Birthday to Me

Munly de Dar He – Munly de Dar He

Offspring – Ixnay on the Hombre

Orb – Orblivion

Michael Penn – Resigned

Redd Kross – Show World

Seraphim Shock – Red Silk Vow (Best of Breed: Goth Metal)

Sloan – One Chord to Another

Sister Hazel – …Somewhere More Familiar

Storyville – A Piece of Your Soul

Super Deluxe – Via Satellite

Supergrass – In It for the Money

Veruca Salt – Eight Arms to Hold You

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