A Semi-Charmed Year
Lacking a galvanizing artist, album, or trend, 1997 was a lost year for rock music. The press, left at sea, tried to create and capitalize on electronica, but with the exception of Prodigy and The Chemical Brothers, the genre didn’t make much commercial or critical noise. In its place was another unclassifiable string of one-hit wonders by bands like Matchbox 20, OMC, and Hanson. Third Eye Blind’s great “Semi-Charmed Life” single signaled to some that catchy guitar rock lived, but in truth the same tune played on a Fairlight would’ve been just as huge.
So what did the year in music prove? Only that well-constructed pop music still trumps would-be “movements.” All that remains is for an artist whose talent and charisma equal his or her ability to write snappy, memorably arranged songs. When that happens, pop music will be interesting again.
The only artist who really got tongues wagging in ’97 was the British band Radiohead, whose OK Computer has landed on just about every musician’s and music critic’s Top 10. It’s a pretty good album, with a couple of memorable songs, but is it worth all the noise? Hardly. People seem to be overimpressed by the sprawl of the compositions and the technological theme of the record, but there’s too much clutter and too many dead spots to hold this up among the best work of the year.
Frankly, if you want sprawl and thematic unity, the record of the year is Built to Spill’s Perfect From now on.the vocals are better than Radiohead’s, the melodies are more hummable, and the guitar is electrifying. Plus, the lyrics have a down-to-earth message about self-improvement in the waning days of life. The album opens with a man contemplating eternity and pledging to attain perfection; it ends with the admonition, “When you see the darkness shining through/What are you going to do?” It’s a chilling thought, made all the more so by its presence at the end of a warm, witty, and incisive record.
The rest of the albums that turned me on this year were by bands following two different roads. First and foremost, I looked for music that seemed to be on the leading edge of something new and excitingsome new, relevant combination of genres and sounds. I wrote about most of these bands last week under the umbrella of “post-rock,” a fairly meaningless term that has nonetheless been applied to some very meaningful music.
The other path I followed was blazed by The Apples in Stereo, a Denver-area band whose blend of psychedelia and garage rock has inspired and conjoined with a whole fleet of retro-pop bands across North America. In Canada, the sui generis Zumpano and the newly Zumpano-esque Sloan have been bringing classicism back to clattering rock. In Boston, the Lilys transformed themselves from a My Bloody Valentine-inspired band of noise-poppers into the direct descendants of Todd Rundgren’s Something/Anything. And in Athens, Ga., the indie label Kindercore and the buzz bands Olivia Tremor Control, Neutral Milk Hotel, Elf Power, and Of Montreal learned what can be done with three chords, tape hiss, and a cracked world view.
What these bands have in common (beyond an inexplicable fascination with Dungeons & Dragons-influenced liner art) is a modern awareness that keeps their historical jaunts from resulting in mere nostalgic posing. Unlike The Chesterfield Kings or The Woggles, they don’t pretend that the last three decades never happened; they’re as aware of Guided By Voices and Sebadoh as those bands were aware of R.E.M. And while The Apples in Stereo and their ilk have yet to revolutionize pop music, they do make a joyful noise. (Plus, I think the Lilys are onto something.)
Before I bid farewell to the year that was, I must thank two entities that completely influenced my listening year:
1. The Trouser Press Guide to 90’s Rock. In March, the bookstores stocked the first new edition since 1991 of Ira Robbins’ invaluable roadmap to alternative music. For those of us who built their collections around the previous recommendations of Robbins and his staff, the six-year wait between volumes has been unbearable. Not just because we needed Robbins’ wit and insight to help us appreciate Nirvana and Uncle Tupelo, but because the warts-and-all approach helps lead us to bands and albums of which we might not otherwise have been aware. I thank Trouser Press for bringing High Llamas, Shrimp Boat, The Halo Benders, and Vulgar Boatmen into my life this year.
2. CD Now. I also thank this online shopping service for bringing these bands to my literal doorstep. No longer do I experience the frustration of flipping through the stacks at my local record store and failing to find the disc I’ve been searching for. CD Now is practically as cheap as a regular store, and its supply is breathtaking. (And if the service doesn’t have a record in stock, it can backorder; I’ve never had to wait more than two weeks for the company to find an item for me.)
Armed with my good book and the musical equivalent of an ATM, I spent much of the year happily buying old records and ignoring the buzz in the press. The best music I heard in 1997 was mostly released in 1996. If I had last year’s list to do over again, I’d find room for Mysteries of Life, Number One Cup, Lilys, Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, Tortoise, Zumpano, and Placebo.
I did try my best to stay awake, however, and I hope this year’s list is more comprehensive.
The top 20
1. Built to Spill, Perfect From now on. (Warner Bros.) A triumphant, inspired pastiche of riffs and maxims; it’s arresting from the very opening words: “Every thousand years....”
2. 1/2 The Sea and Cake, The Fawn (Thrill Jockey); 1/2 Stereolab, Dots and Loops (Elektra) Two John McEntire-produced records that are breathtakingly beautiful and, at their core, strikingly sad.
3. Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, Barafundle (Mercury) Not since Emerson Lake and Palmer took a break from “The Curse of Baba Yaga” to record “Lucky Man” has a U.K. band so completely explored the link between early pop music and the modern Top 40. Thankfully, GZM does it in two-and-a-half-minute ditties, rather than in album-side symphonies.
4. 1/2 The Apples in Stereo, Tone Soul Evolution (SpinArt); 1/2 Sloan, One Chord to Another (The Enclave) Snare kicks and guitar licks are pushed to the front of the mix, while the harmonies shimmer in the background.
5. 1/2 Cornershop, When I Was Born for the Seventh Time (Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.); 1/2 Pizzicato Five, Happy End of the World (Matador) It’s a world of filler music, and these are two intentionally filler-filled records, both interested in the random melodies we overhear every day.
6. Yo La Tengo, I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One (Matador) A catalog of popular music, lovingly compiled by rock’s most diligent husband-and-wife team.
7. 1/2 The Dambuilders, Against the Stars (EastWest); 1/2 Pulsars (Almo Sounds) Props for the ’80s from two bands with a different idea of what “nostalgia” means.
8. Mike Watt, Contemplating the Engine Room (Columbia) An idosyncratic, open, and personal exploration from the hardest-working man in alternative rock.
9. The High Llamas, Hawaii (V2) Music to get oblivious byginger sweet and slightly addled.
10. Negativland, Dispepsi (Seeland) A masterful dissection of the culture of selling, set to surprisingly engaging electronic music.
11. Ivy, Apartment Life (Atlantic) This year’s Cardiganssmooth uptown pop with a sprightly personality.
12. 1/2 Butterglory, Rat Tat Tat (Merge); 1/2 Ladybug Transistor, Beverly Atonale (Merge) Two of the best DIY bands around, building pop music from the hooks up.
13. Pavement, Brighten the Corners (Matador/Capitol) Anytime they want to rock again will be fine by me, but in the meantime, Steve Malkmus’ unique lyrical vision makes the record’s laconic mid-tempo framework worthwhile. “Stereo” should’ve been a hit.
14. The Grifters, Full Blown Posession (SubPop) Their most polished album has been lambasted by some who miss the old, “purer” slackness, but I wouldn’t trade the accomplished first half of this record for all the off-key guitars in Memphis. The second half is admittedly pretty dull.
15. Fuck, Pardon My French (Matador) An unfortunately named band, given the innocent charms of their low-key, spacious folk-pop.
16. Swell, Too Many Days Without Thinking (Beggar’s Banquet) Mind-blowing fuzz-rock with a haunting rattle.
17. Varnaline (Zero Hour) You can have Whiskeytown’s honky-tonk pretensions; I’ll take Varnaline’s spine-tingling, spine-shattering howl of country-inflected fury.
18. Will Oldham, Joya (Drag City) After burying Palace, Oldham has freed himself to roam aimlessly through the hills and find new rocks to turn over. The result is welcomefresh folk-rock sounds with little of Palace’s heavy aura.
19. Fl. Oz., Big Notebook for Easy Piano (Spongebath) What Ben Folds Five could be if Folds would lighten the hell up and write words as pleasant as his melodies. Oppressive Ross Rice production keeps this from being as loose and ecstatic as the band’s live show, but their songcraft cannot be denied. A promising debut.
20. Bottle Rockets, 24 Hours a Day (Atlantic) No Brooklyn Slide, but Brian Henneman’s latest trek through trailer parks and greasy spoons is still tight and twangy, with a heart as big as Missouri.
Four great EPs
1. Lilys, Services (for the soon to be departed) (Primary/Che) A seamless 20-minute suite of eccentric experimental pop, driven by soul-lifting guitars.
2. Idaho, The Forbidden (Buzz) Loping and sorrowful as ever, thank God.
3. Lambchop Thriller (Merge) An LP, really, but short enough to qualify for this list, and worth it for “The Old Fat Robin” alone.
4. The Need (Chainsaw) Put these aggressive grrls in a room with Fiona Apple for 20 minutes, and she’ll be running back to her designer dresses and award shows. We’ll see what’s “bullshit” then.
So long Don. Your creative energy and encouragement were inspirational to me.
It was so great being one of those kids in Dayton.
I miss Iodine.
^ It's nice to see an official acknowledgement by management. Kristen Mcarther Miles (the girl…
How ironic that "Vandy radio" gets resurrected as a fictional station?! I was just glad…
Wonderful tribute to a wonderful man.