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Top 50 Albums of 1997

Damned if we can remember where we were, but here's what we listened to and still do

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    Decades, presented by Discogs, is a recurring feature that turns back the clock to critical anniversaries of albums, songs, and films. This month, we dial it back to the top 50 albums of 1997.

    Only in the scheme of cosmology, geology, or evolution does 20 years not sound like an awful long time to me. It’s a generation. Those ’97 babies aren’t babies anymore. Some are parents themselves. It’s nearly two-thirds of my lifetime, meaning I was a young teen consuming radio-friendly fare as readily as vending machine potato chips and candy bars back in 1997. I’m not a baby anymore either, though the baby fat and thin hair have started to come back. My parents, god bless them, used to yell at me to turn down a number of the albums on this list. They’re old enough to be grandparents now, though, and have moved on to hollering at me for other things. Progress of a kind.

    Two decades might be even longer in music industry terms. It’s far longer than the average band lasts. If you look through this list, some of these acts are no longer together – or find themselves somewhere in the rinse-and-repeat cycle of breaking up and reuniting – and others are no longer with us period. Some are still capable of turning the music world on its head; others are out there reminding us that they, too, once shook the world if only for a moment. A fistful of trends, movements, and styles have emerged and faded over those two decades. Some of those bands have shaped the new music we listen to today; others stick out in our old CD towers like a pink tutu hanging in a closet of denim and flannel. Neither category of those bands had to seriously consider the prospect of their music being pressed on vinyl or pick-pocketed and shared across the globe at lightning rates. All in good time.

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    As a music writer, so much of your time is spent on other people’s music. But for your thirtysomething editing staff here at CoS, this list feels like ours. We bought these albums as adolescents, relied upon them to make our terrible teens tolerable, and carried them into adulthood with us not as keepsakes or crutches but as pieces as vital to our makeup as anything can be. Looking back, in most cases, we knew what we had. Hell, kids are smart like that. In some cases, we had no idea. What can I say? We were only kids.

    Now, click ahead before your dial-up modem wakes the damn cat.

    –Matt Melis
    Editorial Director


    50. Harvey Danger – Where Have All the Merrymakers Gone?

    Get It On Vinyl via Discogs

    It’s far too little and much too late to say that Harvey Danger deserved better than the 99-cent bin and being known chiefly for a hit song that most people don’t even know the correct name of. (“Isn’t it ‘Paranoia, Paranoia Something’, honey?”) Record label reshuffling not only left their remarkable sophomore album, King James Version, in extensive limbo but, worse yet, killed any momentum the band had mustered from chart-smashing single “Flagpole Sitta” (that’s it, sugar!) and their little ’97 debut that could, Where have all the merrymakers gone?. The shame is that record, rough and ragged as it spins, revealed a Seattle band cut from a different swath of flannel than their post-grunge alt-rock brethren. Led by nerdy-looking frontman Sean Nelson, Harvey mixed snottiness and distortion with the cultural chutzpah to quote Moby Dick (“Old Hat”), allude to Bob Dylan (“Problems and Bigger Ones”), and nod at Alfred Hitchcock (“Carlotta Valdez”) without ever surrendering their right to shred the occasional heartstring. The fact that it all started ending almost before it began? To quote Nelson, “It’s a damn shame.”

    Last Seen: The band made merry with a final record, Little by Little…, and subsequent touring before breaking up for good in 2009. Sadly, founding bassist Aaron Huffman died of respiratory failure in early 2016. –Matt Melis


    49. Common – One Day It’ll All Make Sense

    Get It On Vinyl via Discogs

    Occasionally as sharp and focused a rapper as his reputation among what was formerly known as the conscious set, Common is first and foremost a musical talent. So here’s where you get to learn why he nailed down ?uestlove, The Neptunes, and Kanye for entire albums apiece — Kanye for two even, between “Gold Digger” and “Stronger” no less. The airborne jazz and scratching of “Invocation”, the diced-up horns and electric guitar of “Real Nigga Quotes”, and the drumless piano, flute, and upright bass of “My City” don’t get enough credit for setting the stage for the widescreen live instrumentation Kendrick Lamar would eventually bring world-class rapping to on Section.80 and To Pimp a Butterfly. Then there’s “Retrospect for Life”, a back-and-forth meditation on abortion and planned parenthood from a guy who knows it’s ultimately none of his damn business.

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    Last Seen: Cross-assassin-beating the shit out of Keanu Reeves in John Wick: Chapter Two this year and collaborating with cross-generational A-listers from Stevie Wonder to Syd on 2016’s nearly professorial Black America Again–Dan Weiss


    48. That Dog – Retreat from the Sun

    Get It On Vinyl via Discogs

    Listening to that dog.’s former swan song (see below) today, it’s completely bizarre to think it was significantly outsold by say, The Toadies. Every song on Retreat from the Sun puts on a clinic in sweet’n’sour, high-end, major-label alt-rock, as if 3/4 of Weezer in their prime were replaced by women with a violinist thrown in (the group’s Rachel Haden actually sang lead on ace Weezer B-side “I Just Threw Out the Love of My Dreams”) and even more emphasis on harmonies. Sounds like a sugar shot, right? The hooks of synth-abetted “Never Say Never”, BDSM-attempting “Gagged and Tied”, and the eternally quotable “Long Island” (“By definition a crush must hurt”) will make your power-pop dreams flesh, and before Carly Rae came along, they may as well have been pop’s premier infatuation specialists. Don’t forget to check out 1995’s more abrasive, Sweet Valley High-inspired Totally Crushed Out! as well. But start with the perfectionist one.

    Last Seen: Reunited, playing shows, and making a new album (via Kickstarter) for the first time in 20 years, actually! –Dan Weiss


    47. Paul McCartney – Flaming Pie

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    Get It On Vinyl via Discogs

    Much of life is informed by experience. So, when Paul McCartney set out to write and record his tenth studio album, Flaming Pie, it wasn’t a surprise to discover an album that felt more in line with The Beatles than, say, Wings or Ram. After all, the former Beatle had just finished working on the long-gestating Beatles Anthology project. As McCartney explains in the album’s liner notes, “[The Beatles Anthology] reminded me of The Beatles’ standards and the standards that we reached with the songs. So, in a way, it was a refresher course that set the framework for this album.” Well, you can’t go wrong emulating The Fab Four, especially when you’re one-fourth of them, which is why so many songs on Flaming Pie hit the same chords, literally and spiritually. There’s an Abbey Road swagger to lead single “The World Tonight”, a Rubber Soul heart to “Young Boy”, a Help!-full meditation in “Somedays”, and a nonsensical wisdom to the title track that recalls the rabid nonsense of The Beatles. Above all else, though, it’s a super catchy and super friendly collection of ballads and pop songs that breathes with intimate, ’70s-style production that belongs on the carpet of anyone’s living room.

    Last Seen: At nearly 75 years old, McCartney never stops and when he’s not headlining major festivals across the world, delivering three-hour performances that put teen rockers to shame, he’s doing weird shit like hanging with Kanye, popping up on Saturday Night Live, and appearing in Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Oh, Paul! –Michael Roffman


    46. Primal Scream – Vanishing Point

    Get It On Vinyl via Discogs

    Despite the success of their debut album, Psychocandy, Bobby Gillespie wasn’t long for The Jesus and Mary Chain. Whether it be his admittedly rudimentary drumming or the prospect of being a non-voting partner behind the Reid brothers, it’s clear that Gillespie had greater aspirations than being a de facto drum machine. What those aspirations were, though, are anyone’s guess. If you try to define Gillespie’s modus operandi as the ringleader of Primal Scream, you could do far worse than “never repeat yourself.” After the band finally found critical and commercial success with 1991’s house-indebted Screamadelica, they tossed it aside three years later for a disappointing blues sound on their next record. So, where would Gillespie turn next in ’97 with something to prove? Ah, yes, an album that borrowed from dub, ambient, dance, and krautrock – with a Motörhead cover partially sung through a Darth Vader Mask to boot. And damned if it doesn’t work. Gillespie describes Vanishing Point as an “anarcho-syndicalist speedfreak road-movie record.” I don’t know about all that, but two decades later, it still feels more like a trip than an album – a strange, beautiful, unpredictable trip worth taking.

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    Last Seen: The band just released a new album, Chaosmosis, in mid-March. –Matt Melis


    45. Mariah Carey – Butterfly

    Get It On Vinyl via Discogs

    On the back of the impressive 1995 album Daydream, Mariah Carey went through a divorce and found herself working with hip-hop producers and artists, including Puff Daddy, Q-Tip, and Missy Elliott. Rather than go solely for the displays of vocal wizardry that marked her previous records, Butterfly expressed an honest and open emotion — in addition to that range-leaping technical ability. Singles like “Honey” and “My All” achieve the crave-able radio pop wonder of her previous height, but added a more genuine warmth. Carey later wrote that she considers Butterfly her magnum opus and a turning point in her life and career, and considering the ambition and passion, it’s not hard to understand why.

    Last Seen: Carey recently announced the launch of her new label, Butterfly MC Records. The first album reportedly to be released under that shingle? Her 15th studio album and first in three years. –Lior Phillips


    44. Teenage Fanclub – Songs from Northern Britain

    Get It On Vinyl via Discogs

    “They’re the second best band in the world,” touted labelmate Liam Gallagher of Teenage Fanclub in the mid-‘90s. (You can probably figure out who the modest Oasis frontman had in his top spot.) They’re also the band who bumped off Nirvana, R.E.M., and My Bloody Valentine to win Spin’s Best Album poll in 1991. So, how does a Scottish band most Americans have only heard of in passing boast these accolades? Simple: They dial back the clock to something timeless. Once a noise band, on Songs from Northern Britain, we hear a modern rock act whose straightforward lyrics, irresistible hooks, and golden harmonies sound straight out of California and ‘60s/’70s a.m. radio. The oddest part of the Fanclub formula may be that they somehow accommodate three principal songwriters, Norman Blake, Raymond McGinley, and Gerard Love, all of whom take lead vocals on their own songs. Chalk one up for Scottish democracy, and just try not to be happy when a single like “Start Again” or “Ain’t That Enough” spins. It’s some bloody beautiful music. Ain’t that enough?

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    Last Seen: Though their pace has slackened, Teenage Fanclub continue to tour and record, last releasing their 10th studio album, Here, in 2016, which became a top-10 record in the UK. –Matt Melis


    43. Smog – Red Apple Falls

    Get It On Vinyl via Discogs

    A Bill Callahan song has a way of going everywhere and nowhere all at once. It hangs on the same stark, repetitive melody for minutes at a time, as if actively trying to numb the listener’s senses. But it also pokes and prods at those senses, offering up a feast of lyrical themes and images to make the numbness feel more like a trance. This is especially true of “Red Apple Falls”, the nearly seven-minute centerpiece of the 1997 album of the same name, but Callahan’s ambivalent rendering of depression can also be heard in songs like droning opener “The Morning Paper” and lead single “Ex-Con”. There are, perhaps, other Smog albums with songs better than or equal to these, but Callahan’s artistic mission statement here is uncompromising and magical in its totality. The darkness suffocates, yet the light still manages to peek through.

    Last Seen: These days, Callahan records under his own name. His latest album is 2014’s Have Fun with God, a “dub” version of his previous album, 2013’s Dream River. –Collin Brennan


    42. Puff Daddy & the Family – No Way Out

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    Get It On Vinyl via Discogs

    Puff Daddy’s debut studio album arrived in July of 1997, under a dark cloud. “Damn … I would have never thought that it woulda been like this,” the rapper sighs in the opening track, acknowledging the death of his close friend The Notorious B.I.G. as police sirens blare in the background. Biggie’s posthumous shadow colors much of No Way Out, from the Police-sampling worldwide hit “I’ll Be Missing You” to tracks like “Victory” and “Been Around the World”, both featuring verses the rapper recorded before his death. But the album isn’t simply an exercise in grief. Songs like “It’s All About the Benjamins” and “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” shuffle, flex, and sample their way toward hip-hop nirvana, proving that there is, indeed, life after death.

    Last Seen: The irrepressible Sean Combs has popped up in a lot of places over the years, trying his hands at everything from fashion (Sean Jean) to comedic acting (Get Him to the Greek, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia). His latest album is 2015’s MMM, and — well lookee here! — No Way Out 2 is next in the pipeline. –Collin Brennan


    41. Ween – The Mollusk

    Get It On Vinyl via Discogs

    Concept albums are typically associated with high-stakes concepts – blue-collar struggles, pinball wizards, American Idiots, and the like – and then there’s The Mollusk, Ween’s unrelentingly silly, ultra-ambitious magnum opus. An artful amalgam of sea shanties, sun-soaked psychedelia, and country-fried industrial (give or take the odd folk ballad about bearing one’s nasty bits in the great, wide wilderness), the record marked the group’s apotheosis from tricksters to titans while leaving their tomfoolery intact, in the form of goofy fisherman impressions and playful pitch-shifting. Seven years after the album’s initial release, it caught a second wind, thanks to “Ocean Man”’s inclusion on the Spongebob movie soundtrack, a fitting platform, to say the least.

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    Last Seen: Co-founder Aaron Freeman (better known as Gene Ween) left Ween in 2012, prompting the group’s dissolution. In November 2015, the Weens reunited for a tour, captured on last November’s concert album, GodWeenSatan Live–Zoe Camp
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