The realisation of how strong a year 1997 was for music, certainly in the UK anyway, has been seen by a whole litany of posts on various sites in recent months (this one from 6Music piqued my interest, seeing as every single album in the list, I think, will be covered by me in my own 1997 series!), and in particular OK Computer, which I covered in 295: Tracks (May 1997).
298: Tracks of the Month (June 1997)
It wasn’t all good, though, and my return to 1997 this week sees me reassessing some very good songs and albums, and some that have aged appallingly. But, that’s the way with this. Twenty years is a long time, and over that time my tastes have changed, my views have changed, and I’m not going to like everything I did back then.
That said, I’m not going to be embarrassed about liking anything back then, or now. Music is such a subjective thing that we’ll all have our own views, I just happen to write a lot about mine.
Up next week will be Tuesday Ten: 299, with a look at the best new music of the past month, and then Tuesday Ten: 300 will be marking the milestone in style.
In the meantime, here’s that look back at 1997.
Quite how Geneva were ever lumped in with Britpop I’ll never know. Their indie-rock musical style was taken to different realms by Andrew Montgomery’s extraordinary voice, with a soaring, dramatic range unlike any of his peers other than perhaps David McAlmont. Their debut album ranged between striking powerpop like Into The Blue, to chamber ballads like The God of Sleep, the glorious title track, and the sonic experimentation of Worry Beads, and their obvious differences to much of the other bands around at the time meant that they gained a fanbase quickly. I never saw them the first time around, as I recall, but saw Montgomery solo a few years back, where he played an awful lot of Geneva songs, and it was clear there were a lot of long time fans there. Sadly, their label fucked up in a big way with their second album – which is a whole lot better than many will have you believe – and the band fell apart quickly. The opening song of that first album, though, remains one of my most cherished songs from a wonderful album – a song of trying, but failing, but the important part is that the trying was attempted. Which kinda sums up the fate of a band with much promise, really.
Some bands have a short life in the public eye, and Human Waste Project were sadly one of them. Fronted by Aimee Echo, they were a rare band in the wider Nu-Metal sphere that were fronted by a woman, and their one album was one of the more interesting of the time.
It was, in the main, a heavy, grinding album, but with a wider sphere of influences than many of their peers, taking in punk and goth influences as well as snarling metal. Aimee’s vocal delivery also varied hugely – she could sing delicately, brimming with emotion, or howl like a banshee, and in some songs she did both (the scorching Disease being a perfect case in point), and lyrically she was certainly different to the frequent, uncomfortable misogyny of some of the bands, with a more emotional, relatable view on love and sex (and she wasn’t shy about singing about either in quite some detail).
But it was where the band slowed things down, and took the foot off the throat where they got really interesting. Such the nightmarish lullaby of Electra, and the dark tale of physical abuse that is Interlude, told in an oddly emotionless third person. Best of all, though, is the distinctly different One Night In Spain…, which musically sounds almost radically different to the rest of the album, rather lighter in touch, and was the only song I ever heard of theirs live, when Aimee Echo came to Sheffield ten years later with her later band theSTART (see Into the Pit: 053).
Not the only album from 1997 that has aged badly, by any stretch, but fucking hell, this can stay back in the nineties. Their first album from ’95 saw a more funk-metal-punk approach (a similar direction to Snot, actually, but perhaps without the humour or bratty charm of that band), but this album saw a dilution of the sound, and a total change to chilled reggae-hip-hop on Fly, which of course was the song that broke them in a big way. That the band then moved entirely in that direction, to capitalise on their new-found success, was an extraordinarily cynical move, but they sold well beyond five million records on the back of it. So someone, at least, was commercially astute, I guess.
Brown Paper Bag
One of the albums that confirmed that drum’n’bass had gone mainstream, it’s still an astounding album twenty years on. Remarkably the winner of the Mercury Music Prize – one of the first of a string of left-field winners (and particularly the 1997 award, where it beat The Prodigy, Suede, Primal Scream and Radiohead’s OK Computer!), it was a recognition at least that the fertile ground of British music of the time was more than just white men with guitars. This had roots in Bristol – Roni Size had hung out with the Wild Bunch collective (that also spawned Massive Attack, among others), but Size went a different way to his peers and evolved a drum’n’bass sound that by the time of New Forms, was using live drums and double bass – not to mention vocals unusual in drum’n’bass – to create a very, very different vibe to that of the earlier Jungle movement. Some took it into “coffee table” territory, often forgetting the bass along the way, but Roni Size walked a tightrope here and managed the full crossing, particularly on the still-astonishing, nine-minute single Brown Paper Bag. Even twenty years on, it hasn’t dated, still at the top of a considerable pile as one of the great drum’n’bass tracks ever released.
Fuel My Fire
The Fat of the Land
One of the most anticipated albums of the year made The Prodigy into a Massive Deal in the US, and helped to usher in an age of electronic dance music ruling the roost over there, too. Everything learned from Music For The Jilted Generation and from their peers (Liam Howlett was clearly paying close attention to what was happening in London’s clubs) saw this album recorded with everything turned up to eleven – from the very start this is a loud, brash album that roars out of your speakers with a punkish snarl and fistfuls of bass. It was dancehead friendly, metalhead friendly, and needless to say crossed over exceptionally fast, but that might have been down to the release of Firestarter and Breathe in the year before the release of the album. The controversy around Smack My Bitch Up (fantastic dancefloor track, less great lyric samples) only fuelled the fire, while Saffron from Republica joined in to cover L7’s Fuel My Fire with better results than her own band. That the band took seven years to record the follow-up – and which was an almost complete waste of everyone’s time after one listen – shows just how high they set the bar. But after ten million sales of this album, I’m sure they were laughing all the way to the bank.
Three Dollar Bill, Y’all$
Limp Bizkit are treated as something of a joke nowadays – and with good reason, particularly thanks to their terrible more recent music – but their first album raised a few eyebrows in different ways. At least with this album their schtick wasn’t tired and overused, even if there were a few questionable moments in many ways on this album (all of which would be amplified to an uncomfortable degree on later albums, as their success took them into the mainstream). That said, there were some fun moments here, particularly on the breathless, knowing cover of George Michael’s Faith that has remained a metal club staple ever since, but better was the rampaging pairing early on of Counterfeit and Stuck, two bruising tracks that relied on Wes Borland’s guitar work, thundering, telegraphed mosh-friendly breakdowns and Fred Durst’s quickfire delivery. Counterfeit in particular was rooting out “fakers”, something that was rather prescient in this band’s future. History has been less kind to their later material, but you know what? As a Nu-Metal artefact, this album is better than you might think. See also 223: Break Stuff – Reappraising Nu-Metal?.
An unusual album in that it rekindled interest in a long-obscure film (the titular road movie Vanishing Point), and much of that was down to the lead single.
But it raised eyebrows in other ways, too. After Screamadelica, Primal Scream had mystifyingly gone full-on blues rock on Give Out But Don’t Give Up, which was a popular album sales-wise but, well, hasn’t aged well (the mighty Jailbird excepted). So their return in 1997 with the dark-as-pitch Kowalski, sampling the Vanishing Point film extensively, underpinned by a thundering, bass-heavy rhythm that was more Death In Vegas than the Rolling Stones, was a heck of a shock.
The album followed a similar track. Dub and heavy, druggy trip-hop ruled the show, the dark flip-side to the euphoric, languid highs of Screamadelica, and in my eyes this album is easily the match of it’s much-lauded predecessor. Well, except for the godawful, whining ballad that is Star.
Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk
The greatest of all Black Metal albums, by the great Black Metal band of all. Yes, a bold statement, and I’m sure that some will argue the case that someone else is better, but Emperor were the most consistent, and best balanced the line between “authenticity” and musical ability. Their albums were well produced from the start, which meant that their albums weren’t in desperate need of remastering and re-issuing (but they had those anyway, on more than one occasion), and their sound used symphonic elements without it overpowering the pure, Black Metal core of their songs. This balance is best seen on this astonishing album, and in particular on the five minute whirlwind that is Ye Entrancemperium, full of neck-snapping tempos, a barrage of drumming, walls of guitars, and added synths to fill out an already dense sound. Then there is Ihsahn’s voice, howling from within the maelstrom but perfectly clear. That they continued this brilliance for an entire album to follow that is quite something, and while final album Prometheus – The Discipline of Fire and Demise ran it close, this remains their greatest album.
Nothing Lasts Forever
After ten years since the original line-up had disbanded, the triumphant return of Echo & The Bunnymen in 1997 was actually one of the first reformations of a much-loved eighties band, a path that a great many other bands have followed since, with wildly varying degrees of success. This album was rather a return to what made the band great in the first place, too, but the grandiose, elegant orchestral sweep of the lead single, Nothing Lasts Forever, was nothing short of exquisite brillance. Ian McCulloch was prone to proclamations about his band being the best in the world, but the fact that he and his band wrote songs as brilliant as this meant he could get away with it without being laughed out of the room.
…The Dandy Warhols Come Down
I was utterly hooked on this album when it was released, all thanks to the synth-rock, summery joy of (UK, at least) lead single Every Day Should Be A Holiday, although I must confess that I got a bit of a surprise when listening to the whole album, finding just how self-indulgent they could be. There were odd electronic instrumentals, prog freakouts, strange in-jokes, but amid all of that, there was at least half an album of bulletproof pop songs. …Holiday and the gloriously cutting Not if You Were The Last Junkie on Earth were two of them, but then there was the chiming Boys Better and the oh-so-funny wordplay of Minnesoter, and that wasn’t all. They might have gone onto greater success with 13 Tales of Urban Bohemia, but this album still has their best songs on it. It has some of their worst, too, but I’ll willing to forgive that.