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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?

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    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

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    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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    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

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    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

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    “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

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    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

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    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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    40. Green Day – Nimrod

    Get It On Vinyl via Discogs

    The band, critics, and fans alike tend to peg Nimrod as the record in which Green Day matured. After four albums of being snotty adolescents, it was time to grow up. Nobody could really deny that musicians nearing 30 deserved to finally leave mom and dad’s basement and look to the future. That meant anything goes on Nimrod, as the band tried to find themselves. The result is an eclectic collection that oscillates between updates on the band’s traditional sound and experiments that see strings, violins, horns, and harmonica filling in where basic, three-chord guitar rock used to be. Armstrong’s lyrical themes also take a turn towards adulthood: focusing more on maintaining serious relationships (“Redundant”), aging gracefully (“The Grouch”), and appreciating but no longer rose-coloring the past (“Good Riddance”). If Nimrod missteps or comes across as a mess at times, it does so honestly. After all, no matter how old we get, figuring out who we are is never a simple or tidy business.

    Last Seen: These nimrods remain one of the biggest bands in the world, getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015 and tallying yet another No. 1 album in 2016 with Revolution Radio. –Matt Melis


    39. The Verve – Urban Hymns

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    Sometimes life gives you one more chance, and that’s the story of The Verve’Urban Hymns. The third studio album from Richard Ashcroft’s shaggy band of English rockers followed after a mediocre run that saw 1993’s A Storm in Heaven and 1995’s A Northern Soul receiving comfortable praise both critically and commercially. Feeling defeated, the group had actually called it quits, but Ashcroft wasn’t down for the count just yet and decided the best option for them was to go bigger. By adding guitarist and keyboardist Simon Tong to the fold, the newly minted five-piece outfit could create something bolder and more interesting, and alongside hip-as-hell producer Flood, they conjured up lush textures that were fitting of the overproduced rock ‘n’ roll of the time and yet also in line with the dusty melodies of yesteryear. Upon its release, “Bitter Sweet Symphony” felt like the anthem for every jaded twentysomething, and despite the plagiarism charges by the money-grubbing Rolling Stones, it brought them to America. Sadly, other decisive hits like “The Drugs Don’t Work”, “Sonnet”, and the album’s secret MVP “Lucky Man” didn’t connect on the same level, but those who tuned in past the Cruel Intentions closer — like, you know, all of the United Kingdom (and especially Chris Martin) — were rewarded with some of the richest music to ever be coined “Britpop.”

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    Last Seen: Although The Verve reformed in 2007, the reunion was short lived and Ashcroft put the nails in the proverbial coffin by 2010. However, Ashcroft continues to write and release new music (see: 2016’s These People). –Michael Roffman


    38. Beth Orton – Trailer Park

    Get It On Vinyl via Discogs

    A great voice can do so much on its own. If we still knew Beth Orton primarily from her early collaborations with the Chemical Brothers, William Orbit, Andrew Weatherall and others, that would be quite something all by itself. Instead, praise the powers that be we got Trailer Park. Orton’s debut (if you ignore the limited Japanese release of Superpinkymandy—Orton does) blends her simple, lovely songwriting and plaintive voice with elements of folk, trip hop, and electronica. The result is an album that feels like a slightly sad stroll through an English rose garden, provided that there’s a decent chance the garden in question is either on another planet or in the future. The opening “She Calls Your Name”, co-written by Orbit, might be the album’s standout, but it’s an opening salvo that sets the stage for 10 more winners. It’s a beauty, and 20 years later, that hasn’t changed a bit.

    Last Seen: Orton’s still touring, and she released Kidsticks in 2016, for which she collaborated with Andrew Hung of Fuck Buttons. –Allison Shoemaker


    37. Wu-Tang Clan – Wu-Tang Forever

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    You have to love the fact that RZA conceived a double album at the height of the Wu’s popularity without even considering packing it with celebrity guests or even many things that could be considered a chorus. Its biggest hit, “Triumph”, didn’t have a hook at all, just verse after verse of rapper’s delight over an even more minimal beat than usual. Compared to say, Biggie’s Life After Death, anything that made Wu-Tang Forever “cinematic” was largely in the length — despite the score-worthy strings and boxing-ring bell of “The M.G.M.”. But it’s also virtually all lyrics without much story-line pretense, and hypnotizers like the stretch from “Severe Punishment” to “Older Gods” are double features in and of themselves.

    Last Seen: Sort of in tatters on 2014’s troubled (but underrated) A Better Tomorrow, where the public squabbling between dueling factions RZA and Raekwon particularly came to a head. Oh, and creating the lone copy of the rarest record ever made with Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, sold to professional prolapse Martin Shkreli for $2M in an online auction. –Dan Weiss


    36. Ben Folds Five – Whatever and Ever Amen

    Get It On Vinyl via Discogs

    Every year delivers its fair share of anomalies; however, looking back, Ben Folds Five scaling the charts in ‘97 feels more like a miracle than an outlier. In an era of post-grunge and nu metal (ew, gross), how does a piano power pop trio without a guitar to distort conquer the radio waves? Ah, yes, a fourth single piano ballad about driving a girlfriend to have an abortion. Well, that makes sense … wait, what? There may not be a mold or formula that explains the miscounted trio’s success other than to say that Whatever and Ever Amen was, and remains, a quietly terrific album. Folds and co. managed to dial up a perfect combination of juvenile piano tantrums (“Song for the Dumped”), apathetic piano pop (“Battle of Who Could Care Less”), reflective relationship songs (“Smoke”), and, yes, ballads that can make a piano weep (“Brick” and “Evaporated”). It’s a record we didn’t know we wanted 20 years ago, but it’s one we haven’t put down since. Hey, all’s fair in love and piano rock.

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    Last Seen: After an 11-year split, the band reunited in 2011 to tour and record a fourth album. They’ve since gone on hiatus with Folds returning to his various solo projects and collaborations. –Matt Melis


    35. The Dismemberment Plan – Is Terrified

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    The Dismemberment Plan largely begin and end for most indie rockers with 1999’s immortal Emergency & I and 2001’s more placid Change, which shortchanges the most creative post-punk collective to ever exist. Maybe you’re too cool for 2013’s gorgeously gawky dadsterpiece Uncanney Valley, so try their first masterpiece instead, which rivals OK Computer for sheer weirdness contained by a competently written 1997 alt-rock album. The no-wave synth of “That’s When the Party Started” underpins a guy in your chimney who definitely ain’t Santa, “One Too Many Blows to the Head” throws a tuba into a throbbing jazz tantrum, and “Bra” finds Travis Morrison comparing himself to Young M.C. while going down two different types of Amazons. Terrified mines subject matter that’s completely of its scene (the cross-armed D-Plan spectators in “Do the Standing Still”) and couldn’t be further from it (shouting unsolicited advice for Gladys Knight as “Midnight Train to Georgia” soundtracks one drunk and sad NYE on the absolute classic “The Ice of Boston”). It goes out on a 12-minute ballad as bitchy and angst-ridden as the punchy stuff.

    Last Seen:  They reformed for bracing live shows in the 2010s and one uncharitably reviewed album, 2013’s keyboard-heavy, danceable Uncanney Valley, which is filled with goofy lyrics like “You press the spacebar enough and cocaine comes out/ I really like this computer!” and surprisingly durable new wave anthems like “Daddy Was a Real Good Dancer” and “Go and Get It.” –Dan Weiss


    34. Third Eye Blind – Third Eye Blind

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    It’s easy to forget just how unstoppable Third Eye Blind was two decades ago. Back then, it was impossible to avoid songs like “Jumper”, “How’s It Going to Be”, and, naturally, “Semi-Charmed Life”. They were on car stereos, all over mainstream radio, and soundtracking pretty much every teenage melodrama for The WB. Because of this, they’re the aural bookmark of the late ’90s, the first act that so many think about when they see Wet Seal at the mall or hear the name James Van Der Beek. But, as we learned on the festival circuit this past year, these songs still connect — and with younger audiences, too. Sure, Stephan Jenkins’ rapping is insufferable, but that croon of his is quite timeless, a coating of sweet treat sugar on an already diabetic casserole of pop rock. Die-hard fans will point to 1999’s Blue as their crown jewel, but everyone else will go to bat for their self-titled debut — and not just because of the obvious singles but for the deep cuts that are similarly enriching: “Narcolepsy”, “Motorcycle Drive By”, and “Burning Man” complement bigger jams like “Losing a Whole Year” and “Graduate” with aplomb.

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    Last Seen: Well, all the original members have since bailed, but Jenkins is still doing his “thing,” and that “thing” involves rapping about Black Lives Matter at festivals all across North America. Next up, he’ll perform this album in full at a venue near you. –Michael Roffman


    33. Deftones – Around the Fur

    Get It On Vinyl via Discogs

    Chino Moreno is a man of extremes. His favorite tones are the dread-inducing whisper and the agonized scream, and he doesn’t spend much time in between. Of course, lots of metal frontmen like to toggle between beauty and beast, and Moreno had already begun exploring this tension on the Deftones’ first album, Adrenaline. But on sophomore follow-up Around the Fur, he found a new expressiveness in his softest singing, from the plaintive pain of “Lotion” to the creepy coos of “Mascara”. But the song that launched the Deftones into a new stratosphere of popularity was breakout single “My Own Summer (Shove It)”, and the star of that song is not Moreno, but Stephen Carpenter’s thunderously heavy 14-note riff. Carpenter’s drop-C#-tuned guitar sounds like it’s boiling up from cracks in the earth, and coupled with Moreno’s darkly poetic lyrics (“I think god is moving its tongue”), “My Own Summer (Shove It)” showed how intensely memorable this young, rising band could be.

    Last Seen: The Deftones’ album Gore was one of the best albums of 2016, and in June the band is kicking off a North American tour with Rise Against. –Wren Graves


    32. Jay Z – In My Lifetime, Vol 1

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    On his debut album, Reasonable Doubt, Jay Z proved he was a great rapper, and that’s undoubtedly the most important skill an emcee can have. But on his second album, In My Lifetime… Vol. 1, he demonstrated the second-most important skill an emcee can possess: the ability to evolve alongside popular music. Reasonable Doubt was prime-cut gangster rap, as sparse and violent as anything by Tupac or The Notorious B.I.G. But by 1997, gangster rap was on the way out, while Will Smith and “Gettin’ Jiggy With It” were ascending. For that reason, Jay Z opted for a glossier sound, enlisting Sean Combs’ in-house production team, The Hitmen. The results are a mix of personal (“Wishing on a Star”) and commercial (“The City Is Mine”), polished and profound. Looking back, it’s clear how much of Jay Z’s success depended on his ear and his sense of style: always on trend and never lagging behind.

    Last Seen: In recent years, he’s been less a musician than a mogul, investing his energy into business ventures like music-streaming service Tidal. But Hov returned with several guest verses in 2016, and rumors abound that he’s gearing up to release his first new album since 2013’s Magna Carta Holy Grail–Wren Graves


    31. Blur – Blur

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    “Woohoo!” Throughout their self-titled album, Blur do a remarkable job of pulling from decades of British rock music … but really, it’s hard to get past “Song 2” and that absolutely iconic hook. Pumping The Kinks and Beatles with twitchy energy, sharp noise, and swift psychedelia, Blur’s fifth album wobbles and thrives, fueled in equal parts by brilliant songwriting and raw instrumentation. Guitarist Graham Coxon reportedly brought Pavement to the band’s inspiration palette, and while you shouldn’t go in expecting Malkmus-ian slackerdom, there’s a sneering jangle and loose-heeled guitar fun to Blur that rings with American indie inspiration. And even when parodying that inspiration, it’s hard to beat “Song 2” when it comes to earworms of the era.

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    Last Seen: Blur returned after a 12-year absence with 2015’s The Magic Whip, a record that received largely positive, if mixed, response. Oh, and Damon Albarn masterminds Gorillaz; don’t know if you’ve heard of them. –Lior Phillips
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    30. Janet Jackson – The Velvet Rope

    Get It On Vinyl via Discogs

    Even twenty years later, the bold way in which Janet Jackson uses The Velvet Rope to openly address topics like homosexual relationships, domestic abuse, and AIDS is astonishing. Her inspiration and openhearted approach are equally progressive and dynamic: “It’s important to let others know about certain things that you may have experienced in your life and that they’re not alone … and that they can make it through.” An album like this could risk alienating a large part of a pop star’s fan base in 2017, but Jackson so believed in her message that she embraced it fully. And singles like “Together Again” and “I Get Lonely” thrill, inspire, and empower in equal measure, proving her concept and mastery in one magnificent album.

    Last Seen: Ms. Jackson returned with 2015’s Unbreakable, a record that while maybe not as powerful as The Velvet Rope certainly showcases an artist who refuses to go gently into the pop night. –Lior Phillips


    29. Oasis – Be Here Now

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    Between heavy drug use, massive in-fighting (familial and otherwise), and relentless media scrutiny, it’s amazing that Be Here Now materialized at all — let alone that it turned out much more than halfway decent. Perhaps fueled by the controlled substance intake, the Gallagher brothers and co. wound up with a record that delves into lengthier song structures, ambitious choices, and a complete unabashed push for big, heroic pop moments. This is “a bunch of guys, on coke, in the studio, not giving a fuck,” apparently, according to none other than Noel himself. And though that might not sound like a blast, the resulting record makes it seem like it couldn’t be all bad.

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    Last Seen: The fighting Gallagher Brothers were both featured in 2016 documentary Oasis: Supersonic. They’ve each got their own projects, and it seems the odds of seeing Oasis as such are dwindling by the day. –Lior Phillips


    28. Beulah – Handsome Western States

    Get It On Vinyl via Discogs

    A good band is easy to kill. That spin on a Beulah lyric wound up being the title for a documentary about the group’s eventual collapse, and it’s hard to revisit their exceptional catalog without reflecting on those seven words. In 1997, with the release of debut album Handsome Western States, the stakes were remarkably low. It was their lone release for the famed Elephant 6 label (which would later receive much renown thanks to Neutral Milk Hotel) and their only true lo-fi album, but the collaboration between San Francisco locals Miles Kurosky and Bill Swan didn’t need big production to illuminate its majesty. Combining sly lyrics with earnest delivery, the straight-ahead songwriting with trumpet toots and Beach Boys harmonies wouldn’t be far away from the blueprint that would make indie rock huge in the next decade, but Beulah would never catch on in any large sense. “I want to be a rock star 10 times bigger the sun,” Kurosky sings early in the record with a wink, but Handsome Western States and Beulah were possibly something better. They connected deeply and for the long term with a much smaller contingent, earning a cult legacy that sits waiting to be discovered and loved as thoroughly by future listeners.

    Last Seen: Beulah broke up after four albums in 2004 and have yet to reunite. –Philip Cosores


    27. The Prodigy – The Fat of the Land

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    It’s always telling when a particular pop cultural artifact becomes ubiquitous enough to become synonymous for a certain thing. For many, The Prodigy is to electronic music as Kleenex is a name for tissues, and that all goes back to The Fat of the Land. Like so many artists on this list, the English producers struck gold platinum on their third go around, spiraling out of control with juggernaut singles like the not-at-all-offensive “Smack My Bitch Up”, the menacing “Breathe”, and the schizophrenic “Firestarter”. Whether you saw their over-the-top videos on MTV, heard the songs in equally over-the-top films like Charlie’s Angels, or worshiped ECW’s also equally over-the-top psychopath Al Snow, the music itself was always weird and addicting enough to take away and wonder, Christ, what the hell was that? As such, it was a gateway to the genre for many teens, who needed an accessible introduction to far more inaccessible stuff — for instance, all the terrifying chaos that Aphex Twin was creating in his own backyard. Regardless, it’s hard to deny the album’s Surge-soaked, big-beat energy and how it still sounds unique enough to maintain its own identity, one that’s highly more articulate than, say, your average electronic guru these days.

    Last Seen: In 2015, the outfit released their sixth album, The Day Is My Enemy, which band songwriter Liam Howlett says may be their last full-length effort as they plan to opt for the EP medium in the future. They also retooled Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” for Danny Boyle’s T2 Trainspotting, and it’s pretty great. –Michael Roffman


    26. Mogwai – Mogwai Young Team

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    Nobody flexes that quiet-loud dynamic quite like Mogwai, who don’t escalate and amplify established melodies so much as detonate their insides, sprouting horns, claws, and extra limbs from their every note. Though the Scottish outfit’s output has been steady throughout the years — the band’s evolution creeping along as deliberately as their songs — their ability to cull menace from beauty has perhaps never manifested with as much power as it does on Young Team. Listening to a song like the epic, 11-minute “Like Herod”, for example, is akin to watching a video game’s final boss evolve into its terrifying final form. On the other hand, a glockenspiel gives way to touching melancholy on “Tracy”, a song that simmers without ever boiling over. The same goes for “R U Still in 2 It?”, a song that relies on the whiskey-soaked vocals of Arab Strap’s Aidan Moffat to convey a dreadful listlessness. The 16-minute “Mogwai Fear Satan” is a perfect closer, a 16-minute march through the flames of this Alighieri-style hellscape.

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    Last Seen: Mogwai’s as vital as ever, though these days they’re incorporating as many synthesizers into their songs as they are guitars. They’re still playing “Mogwai Fear Satan” live. –Randall Colburn


    25. Blink-182 – Dude Ranch

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    Blink-182 fully completed their transformation from merry pranksters to multi-millionaires with 1999’s Enema of the State, but the seeds of their superstardom can be traced back to a rowdy plot of land called Dude Ranch. This was still several years before pop punk became a craze and then a laughingstock, which means there wasn’t much of a blueprint for songs like lead single “Dammit” and the irreverent, insanely catchy “Dick Lips”. Sure, Green Day and their East Bay brethren had already put pop punk on the map, but nobody could approach the youthful enthusiasm that oozed from these three idiots’ pores. Blink didn’t even pretend to be interested in politics or any other mode of critical thought; these guys just wanted to find a party and a girl who wouldn’t dump them, and for a minute back in 1997, that’s all that seemed to matter.

    Last Seen: Blink-182 have seen their share of highs and lows over the years, but they’re back on the up-and-up with last year’s release of California (their first album with Matt Skiba replacing founding member Tom DeLonge). –Collin Brennan


    24. Wyclef Jean – Wyclef Jean Presents the Carnival

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    Wyclef Jean’s The Carnival is best remembered for its Bee Gees-sampling lead single, “We Trying To Stay Alive”. The song cemented Wyclef as a bankable solo artist, launching him from the exploding star of the Fugees. But behind the album’s pop hooks — the iconic “let me clear my throat” — lay messaging about police violence and racial and economic inequity. Opening track “Apocalypse” deploys its title as an allegory for the dark “End of Days” American millennium — the song’s last lyric: “A rookie shoots a boy over mistaken identity.” Even the album’s third single, the middle-school dance favorite “Gone Till November”, described the plight of northern men of color heading south, trafficking drugs out of economic necessity. On “Anything Could Happen”, Wyclef raps, “When I’m writing with my pen/ It turns into a lethal weapon,” which recasts even the seemingly weightless “We Trying To Stay Alive” as a statement of radical, against-the-odds existence.

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    Last Seen: After an aborted run for the Haitian Presidency in 2010, Wyclef has continued to release political music, including the recent “If I Was President” from the EP J’Ouvert. The EP is a preview of The Carnival Vol. III, arriving this summer to coincide with the 20th anniversary of The Carnival–Geoff Nelson


    23. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – The Boatman’s Call

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    For decades, Nick Cave had earned a well-established reputation as a wide-eyed, slithery wildman. In the wake of a terrible divorce and overwhelming loneliness, he showed he could pour himself just as intensely and passionately into balladry. And though the songs dig into Cave’s personal pains and struggles, the cathartic emotional displays resonate deeply for any dark moment. “And I don’t believe in the existence of angels/ But looking at you, I wonder if that’s true/ But if I did, I would summon them together/ And ask them to watch over you,” Cave sings on “Into My Arms”, a song that’s heartbreaking in the context of an ending relationship, but even more tragic for true loss — as seen in the context of Cave’s performance of the song at the funeral of childhood friend and INXS vocalist Michael Hutchence. The Boatman’s Call is a smoldering, drizzly masterpiece perfect for whatever type of loss you’re suffering through.

    Last Seen: Tragically, Cave most recently suffered through another unthinkable loss: his young son. Last year’s cathartic, shattered, soaring Skeleton Tree was shaded by Cave’s attempt to make sense of the experience. –Lior Phillips


    22. Buena Vista Social Club – Buena Vista Social Club

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    When California guitar legend Ry Cooder arrived for a session in Havana in 1996, he likely had no idea that his trip would prove the catalyst for one of the greatest albums of Cuban son music ever produced. Finding the Malian musicians with whom he was originally supposed to collaborate absent due to visa issues, Cooder and his local connection, bandleader Juan de Marcos González, decided to expand upon González’s Afro-Cuban All Stars project. They lured out of semi-retirement some of the legendary musicians from the city’s older generation, most of whom had honed their craft at the pre-Communist Buena Vista Social Club. This intergenerational meeting of musical minds produced a group and record named after the fabled club, one that preserved the talents of these Cuban virtuosos (many of whom were then in their 70s and 80s) while reawakening the world’s appetite for Cuba’s bygone glamour and enduring local sounds. The record still sounds great today; its simmering, sun-baked music is best represented by opener “Chan Chan”, which was composed and sung by the group’s spry, fedora-clad octogenarian singer Compay Segundo. 

    Last Seen: Buena Vista Social Club was a worldwide smash, charting in the top 10 in countries through Europe and the Americas, earning platinum certification and winning a Grammy in 1998. The group continued to tour as the Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club through 2015, but many of the band’s original members (including iconic pianist Rubén González and singers Ibrahim Ferrer and Compay Segundo) passed away during the intervening years. –Tyler Clark
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    21. Whiskeytown – Strangers Almanac

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    Whiskeytown was never built to last. Some 20 years later, we now know that singer-songwriter Ryan Adams is better off alone, as evidenced by alternative masterpieces like Heartbreaker, Love Is Hell, and this year’s Prisoner. But when it comes to the push-and-pull of being in a working band, especially one with a revolving door like that of Whiskeytown’s, you couldn’t ask for a more soluble collection of harmonies, licks, and melodies than those found within Strangers Almanac. The second full-length album from Adams and Caitlin Cary’s alternative country outfit is a baker’s dozen of heartbroken meditations that sound as if they were written on late-night strolls through the meandering backwoods roads of North Carolina. Producer Jim Scott, who had just engineered Tom Petty’s Wildflowers three years prior, adds a vivid touch behind the boards, especially with the organ and piano work, turning songs like “Everything I Do”, “Yesterday’s News”, and “Houses on the Hill” into the stuff that would sell a Cameron Crowe film. Granted, there were a handful of similar banner names popping up around this time — what up, Wilco — but the coarse, tattered-sleeve romanticism of Whiskeytown is what elevated them above their peers. Like The Replacements or Cowboy Junkies, their music felt more like a lifestyle and one that wasn’t too populated.

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    Last Seen: After recording the also-excellent Pneumonia in 2001, the moniker was shut down, and everyone went their separate ways. Rumors have long hinted of a reunion just around the corner — and, to be fair, there was a one-off, impromptu performance back in 2005 — but nothing’s ever come to fruition. But hey, it’s not like Adams isn’t busy these days. –Michael Roffman
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    20. Sleater-Kinney – Dig Me Out

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    “What’s it like to be three women in a rock band?” It’s a question that Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker, and Janet Weiss have been asked probably thousands of times over the years. In fairness, despite the riot grrrl movement of the ‘90s, women screeching into mics and wailing on guitars was far from a common image in the alt rock mainstream. Still, if given one chance to ask Sleater-Kinney something when their third album, Dig Me Out, came out in ’97, the better question would’ve been, “What’s it like when a rock band totally clicks?” As mind-blowing as their first two records had been – assaults of punk and attitude – Dig Me Out captures the band truly emerging: Weiss solidifies the drums and brings a more rock feel to the skins; Tucker and Brownstein learn to fill the band’s bassless space with bigger guitars that speak to, lean on, and dance with each other; and the vocal interplay between the two evolves into a dynamic that not only sounds utterly unique but adds tremendous pathos to the band’s songwriting. Two decades later, “Dig Me Out” still absolutely rattles brains, and how many moments in alt rock are as devastating as Brownstein – fresh off a breakup with Tucker – not merely backing up but consoling her ex in the choruses of “One More Hour”? Damn, why can’t all-male bands be this ballsy?

    Last Seen: The band reunited in 2014, released a year-topping record in 2015 (No Cities to Love), and put out their first live album in January. –Matt Melis


    19. Daft Punk – Homework

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    Homework will be playing as my soul glides into the ether. Long before they were the most famous robots in the world, Daft Punk were merely two French tricksters named Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo. At the time, they had begun wearing masks to produce an ego-less, universal presence for dance music, but rather than mechanic flourishes on the album art, they opted for simple satin. Even on their debut, they had established signposts in house, techno, G-funk, and hip-hop, with a remarkable clarity and grace. The album’s connections to the past and influence on the future can be seen just as swiftly.

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    Last Seen: Daft Punk have been riding the wave of 2013’s Random Access Memories for a few years now, adding in a collaboration with The Weeknd to boot, with rumors of another sure-to-be-massive tour coming. What may come next is, as always, a fingernail-biting mystery. –Lior Phillips


    18. Grandaddy – Under the Western Freeway

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    From their first album, Grandaddy weren’t just a band; they were a worldview. Robots on the fritz, appliances in the forest, the loneliness of scientists, the vines growing on the sides of freeways. In 2017, we’ve virtually become cyborgs with our cellphones, but through the eyes of Jason Lytle and his sad, beautiful songwriting, technology and nature were both in combat and harmony. On Under the Western Freeway, Grandaddy doesn’t just paint pictures with lyrics; the music reflects the subject manner. The instruments sound broken and damaged, combining futuristic keyboard tones with acoustic guitar strums. Distorted electronics are presented in contrast to whispered melodies, as much a delicate plume as it evokes the hum of florescent lights or car engines from a mile away. Much like Modest Mouse would see the world creeping up on Issaquah, Washington, Lytle and his band witnessed the changing of the American west from their Modesto, California, front porches. Both resulted in records very much the product of their time that resonate because artists dared to look beyond their own noses. When Lytle says “everything beautiful is far away,” his record rises up to face that challenge.

    Last Seen: Grandaddy would release three more LPs before disbanding in the mid-aughts. However, they reunited in 2012 and released a new (quite good) album this year. –Philip Cosores


    17. Portishead – Portishead

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    In any other band’s hands, the tracklist to Portishead might seem unbelievably cloying. “All Mine”, “Only You”, “Morning Air” — well, actually it’s “Mourning Air”, and that slippery ‘u’ gets exactly to the reason why Portishead and their melancholic mystique made such a big impact. “To hold you/ Enfold you/ Never enough,” Beth Gibbons sings on “All Mine”. Portishead frequently sang about love, but even the better moments feel claustrophobic. The sweetly titled “Only You”, meanwhile, opens with the words “We suffer every day.” But though the darkness lingers thick, it never completely overwhelms. Instead, metallic percussion, threads of eccentric, silvery samples, and Gibbons’ haunting vocals lead like a will-o-the-wisp through the thick forests.

    Last Seen: Though hints of new music have been coming since 2008’s Third, the Portishead camp have been pretty quiet. There have been a few concerts and festival appearances each year, and an ABBA cover to boot, but that mythic fourth album is still on the way. –Lior Phillips


    16. Built to Spill – Perfect from Now On

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    The wild, brilliant excesses of Perfect from Now On permanently quashed the idea that indie rock could ever be defined by its restraint or self-effacing modesty. Led by frontman Doug Martsch and his mostly off-key vocals, Built to Spill crafted an unapologetically messy and ambitious magnum opus for their major label debut, eschewing common sense and harmony for the grander project of turning no idea away at the door. The result, with only a single song clocking in at under five minutes, is a breathtaking exploration of indie rock’s outermost limits — far less poppy than 1994’s There’s Nothing Wrong with Love, but more rewarding in its complexity. Grunge, power pop, noise rock, and even folk intersect at various points on Perfect from Now On, an album that has no right to call itself perfect but gets away with it anyway. Perfection rarely sounds so accidental; brilliance often does.

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    Last Seen: Built to Spill released their most recent album, Untethered Moon, in 2015. –Collin Brennan


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