Social activist and comedian Paul Krassner likes to tell a story about one of the regulars on Venice Beach’s colorful boardwalk. Amid all the jugglers and mimes and hustlers, this particular fellow would spend the bulk of each day walking in a counterclockwise circle. From morning to night, he’d be there, making his circle, not paying attention to any of the activity around him. He became such a part of the landscape that locals began to refer to him as “The Pacer.” Cops steered around him. Other street performers respected his space, leaving his self-designated spot open until he arrived in the morning; they even saved the area for him when he stopped for lunch.
One day, long after The Pacer had established his presence, an open cigar box was placed within his circle by one of the other street performers. Suddenly, people walking along the crowded boardwalk began dropping change into the cigar box. As Krassner puts it, “The mere presence of the box had transformed his neurosis into a marketable talent.”
These days, rock music seems to be doing the same thing: Caught in an endless cycle, the sound keeps pacing the same circles without any interesting movement forward. From rock to rap, the music of 1997 primarily recycled ideas from the past; only rarely was any personality or originality grafted into the grooves.
In the place of freshness, we got performers who did little more than indulge their own neuroses. With the music industry providing the cigar box, a continuing stream of young singers and players paraded their peculiarities in front of crowds and video cameras as the money poured in.
Let’s take a look down modern rock’s boardwalk: There’s the masochistic, hate-spewing fetishism of Marilyn Manson; there’s the self-obsessed caterwauling of young women with acoustic guitars (Jewel) and grand pianos (Fiona Apple); there’s the bitter self-loathing of aggressively obnoxious British rockers (Oasis); there’s the creative bankruptcy of wealth-obsessed hustlers who put sing-song rap choruses on top of classic rock and soul tracks (Sean “Puffy” Combs); and there’s the attention-getting tactics of glamour-cloaked anorexic divas who marry powerful producers and record executives (Mariah Carey, Celine Dion).
Little of it is truly fun, moving, or creative. No wonder record sales are in a slump.
In this midst of all this, the industry and the media, desperate to stir up interest with a new trend, locked onto electronica as rock’s next big thing. But the rise of the hyper beat turned out to be mere hype; while dance clubs and rave culture continued to flourish, the music failed to create much noise on the pop charts. Despite getting more attention than any other new act in the mid-’90s, Prodigy and The Chemical Brothers did not become the massive sales leaders of a new rock movement. U2, David Bowie, and other seasoned artists gambled on electronica’s rise, and they wound up with the poorest selling albums of their careers. It didn’t help that the experiments of these veteran acts sounded forced and totally lacking in inspiration.
There were those who did find true inspiration in electronica’s sonic possibilities. From hardcore techno acts like Aphex Twin, Daft Punk, and Spring Heel Jack, to pop-oriented performers like Bjork, Lamb, Portishead, and Beth Orton, electronica’s studio-obsessive, percussion-oriented sound proved to be a creative milieu for some experimental types. Unlike U2 and Bowie, these artists clearly connected with electronica’s pleasures and potentials.
With not much to hook onto, rock fans devoured whatever upbeat morsel of fun was thrown their way. From ska-rock to the Squirrel Nut Zippers, 1997’s biggest breakthroughs involved the catchy, the quirky, and the lighthearted. The emphasis was on lightweight amusement, whether it was Hanson or the Spice Girls or such omnipresent hits as Sugar Ray’s “Fly,” Smashmouth’s “Walking on the Sun,” and Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping”this last tune being the year’s most unlikely hit, a working-class anthem created by a collective of avowed English anarchists.
The year’s mood was perhaps best personified by big-ticket releases from two of modern pop’s biggest sellers: A liberated Mariah Carey lightened up and enjoyed another hit album, while Janet Jackson grew serious and bombed. Meanwhile, there were a few glimmers of hope: The wildly entertaining Missy Elliot proved that rap and urban pop could still be fresh and enjoyableand she never had to recycle an old pop riff or mention guns, gangstas, or graphic sex.
What follows are personal highlights from the thousands of pop and rock albums that came out in 1997. As I’ve said in the past, such lists shouldn’t be viewed as judgments bestowed from some critical mountaintop. This list is nothing more than a highly individual reflection of what I most enjoyed hearing.
The top 10
1. Geraldine Fibbers, Butch (Virgin) A wildly eclectic collection of gale-force punk, gothic pop, moody instrumentals, and twisted country rock; it all comes together through the vivid emotional purging of singer Carla Bozulich, a confrontational performer who uses warped melodies and devastating imagery to create music packed with defiance and rough dignity.
2. Bjork, Homogenic (Elektra) Electronica found its most accessible presence in the glass-shattering voice of this charismatic eccentric from Iceland. In both arrangements and lyrics, Bjork continues to amaze and surprise. Here she exploits ambient atmospheres and a broad spectrum of beats to create an expansive, orchestral album, enlivening in its sheer nerve and energy.
3. Bob Dylan, Time Out of Mind (Columbia) A devastating treatise on failed love, Dylan creates one of the most emotionally moving albums of his career with help from producer Daniel Lanois’ subtly textured arrangements. Bluesy and severe, Dylan is at his most direct and boldly unguarded.
4. Richard Buckner, Devotion + Doubt (MCA) A quiet yet unsettling collection of softly murmured emotion and lean, nuanced instrumentation, Buckner’s second album presents songs that are as disturbing as they are tender. He displays a sureness of presence that puts him in league with Leonard Cohen and Richard Thompson.
5. Patti Smith, Peace and Noise (Arista) Dedicated to William S. Burroughs, Smith’s second album since her ’90s comeback simmers with edgy, bleak dirges about death and renewal. Featuring long segments of chanted poetry over discordant music, the record was partly improvised in the studio; Smith takes risks like few established performers would ever dare in this era of commercially calculated career moves.
6. Erykah Badu, Baduizm (Universal) The revival of silky, seductive soul found its first visionary in Badu, who has forged her own identity with songs rich in character, nuance, and intellect. She reaches beyond heated romanticism to reflect a world where even the most prideful and moral of characters must deal with the poverty, drugs, and disenfranchised youth of inner-city America.
7. Pavement, Brighten the Corners (Matador) The band’s damaged guitars and jagged arrangements assert their presence more forcefully than ever, and singer Stephen Malkmus sounds impassioned rather than ironic and distanced. One of the great bands of the ’90s comes across with a lustful glee that it rarely indulged in the past.
8. Built to Spill, Perfect From now on. (Warner Bros.) The most breathtaking guitar rock of the year comes from an Idaho-based band awash in lengthy, baroque flights of fancy that build and crash with glorious eloquence. While bandleader Dough Martsch has his predecessorsTelevision, Sonic Youth, The Wedding Presenthe has found a singular way to expand upon the language of rock’s (still) primary instrument.
9. The Holmes Brothers, Promised Land (Rounder) More than 30 years on, the Holmes Brothers are still digging deeper paths into the emotional core of gospel, rhythm and blues, and country. On the most potent album of their career, the unpretentious trio distills everything important about the soul of raw, rhythmic music, displaying it with unusual, cut-from-the-heart power.
10. Lori Carson, Everything I Touch Runs Wild (Restless) A sweetly doleful album cut with an unsettling dreaminess, Carson’s latest presents songs that are nakedly unguarded and as hushed as a wounded whisper. Her confessional style, both sensual and eccentric, makes it sound as though the singer is whispering disarming personal revelations directly into the listener’s ear.
The next 10: Lamb, Lamb (Fontana/Mercury); Matthew Ryan, Mayday (A&M); Sleater-Kinney, Dig Me Out (Kill Rock Stars); Ross Rice, Umpteen (E-Squared); Van Morrison, The Healing Game (A&M); Jelly Roll Kings, Off Yonder Wall (Fat Possum); Buick MacKane, The Pawn Shop Years (Rykodisc); Eddi Reader, Candyfloss and Medicine (Blanco y Negro/Reprise); Cornershop, When I Was Born for the 7th Time (Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.); Kate St. John, Second Sight (Thirsty Ear).
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*Alexandra Grace, not Alexadra Grace