Top 50 Songs of 1997

Here's why pretty much everyone listened to the radio in the '90s


    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 songs of 1997.

    Only in the scheme of cosmology, geology, or evolution does 20 years not sound like an awful long time. 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 songs 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.


    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 albums for these songs 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

    marcy-playground50. Marcy Playground – “Sex and Candy”

    Marcy Playground

    You can usually point to what you like about a one-hit wonder’s hit song, and it’s often something that the rest of their songs lack. In the case of Marcy Playground’s “Sex and Candy”, I still have no idea why the song climbed the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks – remaining at No. 1 for a then-record 15 weeks – but I also know I’ve never once turned the radio dial during that song. An unlikely amalgam of grunge, melody, slacker ethos, and hippie lingo, John Wozniak and co. dished out enough sex and candy on the airwaves that year to notch our belts down to nothing and rot our teeth to the gums. Maybe it’s as simple as the old saying: sex and candy sells. Plus, I heard the double-cherry pie is orgasmic. Dig it. –Matt Melis

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    mariah-carey49. Mariah Carey – “Honey”



    Everything about “Honey” screams 1997: the tasteful piano melody (an earworm of a sample from World’s Famous Supreme Team’s “Hey DJ”), a Mariah Carey vocal at the height of her hit-any-damn-note-imaginable powers, the overlong music video with jetski intrigue and a villainous Eddie Griffin. But what stands out most about the singer’s megahit first single from the 5x platinum Butterfly is the Puff Daddy sound on the production, as Carey became one of the earlier pop vocalists to collaborate with hip-hop producers and incorporate the sound, one of the crucial bridges to rap taking over the music world. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer

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    atmosphere48. Atmosphere – “Scapegoat”


    In 1997, there were few who would’ve suspected that Minnesota hip-hop outfit Atmosphere would still be making such an impact two decades later. At that time, the duo were a trio and their first big single, “Scapegoat”, made them darlings at college radio. But the song eventually became a scene, a label, and a career. On its own, though, “Scapegoat” still ranks as one of MC Slug’s best moments. It’s a laundry list, a snapshot at 1997’s hardships, a peak through a window that hasn’t much changed in the ensuing time. It’s a song that, despite being so rooted in a specific time and place, still manages to resonate 20 years later. Who would’ve thought? –Philip Cosores

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    offspring47. The Offspring – “Gone Away”

    Ixnay on the Hombre

    Ixnay on the Hombre was arguably the last time anyone could take The Offspring seriously. Because after that, they’d resort to tongue-in-cheek garbage like “Pretty Fly (For a White Guy”), their 1999 blockbuster single that catapulted them to another era of fame and fortune, the likes of which they’d try to replicate again and again for years thereafter (see: “Original Prankster”, “Hit That”). But that wasn’t the case 20 years ago, when they felt like the angsty, edgier step brother to Green Day, the one who had the brass knuckles and dark past over the bloody fingers and stickered-skateboards. “Gone Away” is the not-so-hidden gem off their fourth studio album, a somber exercise in grief that excels from frontman Dexter Holland’s expressive vocals, particularly in the choruses, where he brings that trademark rasp to a palpable whine and lets it all hang out. That breakdown in the middle is a swift reminder why they were every teenager’s alternative anti-hero 20 years ago. –Michael Roffman

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    next46. Next – “Too Close”


    Rated Next

    In a golden age of streetwise soul and grinding loverman jams, Next solidified their place in the 24-carat ‘90s R&B canon by dropping the Symphony No. 5 of songs about erections. The group would later take pride in sneaking a song entirely dedicated to getting wood on a club dance floor onto the radio, but “Too Close” wasn’t exactly throwing feints. “I try but I can’t fight it,” sing T-Low, R.L., and Tweet. While guys like Brian McKnight and Dru Hill made music for the balmiest tantric sex ever blueprinted, Next were getting to grips with biology like a bunch of teenagers.

    “Too Close”, though, sleeks into view with dapper poise. The snappy guitar line (lifted from Kurtis Blow’s “Christmas Rappin’”) and spotless beat smoothly underpin Next and guest singer Vee’s soulful back and forth — the velvety pop symphony offering a slick counterpoint to the daft lyrics. It takes a lot to make something this goofy and weird sound cool. –Dean Van Nguyen

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    puff-daddy45. Puff Daddy – “It’s All About the Benjamins”

    No Way Out

    Bad Boy Entertainment founder, Sean “Puffy” Combs marked his solo debut with the 1997 release of the No Way Out LP. Third single, “Its All About the Benjamins”, played up Puff’s knack for monstrous posse cuts with verses from Lil’ Kim, The LOX, and franchise player The Notorious B.I.G. It got a trial run on DJ Clue’s 1996 Holiday Holdup tape before being juiced up and added to No Way Out. Still reeling from B.I.G.’s death months earlier, Puff became the face and voice of Bad Boy with a hard-body single that would punctuate the pre-“bling” excess of the shiny suit era and solidify his place as the author of a rap dynasty. Nevermind Lil’ Kim dropping what might be her hottest verse on the track. “All About the Benjamins” is hit machine Puff in his prime — a force that remains unmatched in rap. –Karas Lamb

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    Oasis44. Oasis – “Don’t Go Away”

    Be Here Now

    Nary a soul would venture to call Be Here Now Oasis’ best album, and only a handful of the most contrarian fans would place it in their top three. Be Here Now is a bloated, jaded thing disappointing upon release, and it hasn’t aged well since. Some might think it was misunderstood back then, what with the hype with which it had to contend and the maelstrom of bad press that swirled around it. But no, it’s just not that good. There are standouts, however: “Stand by Me”, for instance. “My Big Mouth” has a certain energy. But then there’s “Don’t Go Away”, the song that, despite everything surrounding it, serves to remind us just what exactly it was that made the band’s brand of Britpop so satisfying. In a word: Earnestness. It was when Liam and Noel Gallagher could set aside their token sneer, drop the attitude, and offer up plaintive calls for help and connection: In terms of vulnerability, Liam’s cry of “don’t go away” is up there with Noel’s assertion that “you ain’t ever gonna burn my heart out.” Despite its sumptuous orchestration, “Don’t Go Away” still feels sparse, a simple and affecting plea that pierces through the cloud of cocaine dust that obfuscates the rest of Be Here Now. –Randall Colburn

    Get It On Vinyl via Discogs

    depeche-mode43. Depeche Mode – “It’s No Good”


    Depeche Mode’s ninth studio album, Ultra, emerged from a time of great turmoil, marked by Alan Wilder’s departure from the band and frontman Dave Gahan entering rehab to try to kick his drug habit. No wonder the second single from the record, “It’s No Good”, has such an ominous edge. “I’m going to take my time,” Gahan croons, his voice weary and unsettled. “I have all the time in the world/ To make you mine.” The song’s music matches the sinister vibe: Insistent, hollowed-out industrial rhythms and dark synths ebb and flow, creating a backdrop of minimalist seduction that bridges Depeche Mode’s early work and its future directions. –Annie Zaleski

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    our-lady-peace42. Our Lady Peace – “Superman’s Dead”



    The idea of using Superman as an allegory in pop music died out sometime after Three Doors Down wrote “Kryptonite”. But man, when Our Lady Peace forged the Man of Steel with Mike Turner’s guitar work and Raine Maida’s banshee wails … well, it was a stronger marriage than whatever Warner Bros. has been doing with Kal-El these past few years. The lead single off Clumsy thrives from its lush wall of sound. There’s so much going on, and although this was the age of polished mainstream alternative rock, “Superman’s Dead” felt like an outlier in its ability to sound so dour and yet feel so sweepingly optimistic. And like much of the criticism surrounding today’s onscreen depiction of Superman, the song itself questions the moral ineptitude of the culture at large and how everything has to be so goddamn bleak and morbid, concluding: “But ordinary’s just not good enough today.” As someone who prefers his Kryptonian knight on the sunny side, this writer’s inclined to agree. (On a side note: Given its final line, it’s baffling that Subway hasn’t at least tried to use this song in any of their marketing campaigns.) –Michael Roffman

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    dandy-warhols41. The Dandy Warhols – “Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth”

    …The Dandy Warhols Come Down

    In the ’90s, The Dandy Warhols were irony kingpins, although “Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth” comes off more like detached, exasperated commentary. Frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor sounds like he’s rolling his eyes as he sings lyrics such as “You never thought you’d get addicted/ Just be cooler in an obvious way,” as slurring beats, whirring organ, and Stones-esque guitars shake and unfurl around him. Taylor-Taylor’s scorn makes sense, however, when you consider his two inspirations for the song: a girlfriend who became a heroin addict and Brian Jonestown Massacre leader Anton Newcombe. The latter had his revenge on the Dandys, however: Later in the year, BJM countered with the song “Not If You Were the Last Dandy on Earth”, fueling the band feud so exhaustively detailed in the documentary Dig! –Annie Zaleski

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    shania-twain40. Shania Twain – “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!”

    Come On Over

    The story goes that Shania Twain’s then-husband Mutt Lange played her the riff for “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!”, and she followed by spitting out the lyrics “out of the blue.” When you’ve got a no-brainer crossover hit like this one, there’s almost no other way that it could’ve happened. The seventh single from her third studio album, Come on Over, the track is the kind of blissfully fun pop goodness that you won’t mind having stuck in your head for a few months. While not exactly a touchstone of feminism, Mutt and Shania were really onto something, and her charisma makes the goofy nonsense of the song into satisfying fun. –Lior Phillips

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    elliott-smith39. Elliott Smith – “Between the Bars”


    When it comes to the music of Elliott Smith, the late singer-songwriter’s vocals traditionally resonate over anything else, namely for that light cadence of his that sounds like a candle if only candles could, you know, speak. That’s certainly the case with “Between the Bars”, the heart-wrenching ballad off Either/Of that doubles as a midnight confession. And like any Moment of Truth, it’s fast and cunning and wavering, feelings that are wired to every word he spells out in the terse two-minute time frame. Rather subtly, the song captures the drunken, late-night realizations everyone has from time to time — our own self-doubts, our own deep regrets, and our own inner demons — and, more importantly, nails how we feel as powerless as we do numb towards their seemingly sobering conclusions. As he sings, “People you’ve been before that you/ Don’t want around anymore/ That push and shove and won’t bend to your will/ I’ll keep them still,” we similarly remain just as stoic. It’s a real pill. –Michael Roffman

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    janet-jackson38. Janet Jackson – “Together Again”

    The Velvet Rope

    One of The Velvet Rope’s purest moments of shimmering pop bliss, “Together Again” is a dance track with serious reach. It would be enough to simply be one of Janet Jackson’s most memorable vocal performances — she sounds delighted, as if she couldn’t be happier to be singing it — or her purest Diana-meets-Donna disco-inspired missive. All of those things are more than enough to make “Together Again” one of 1997’s most memorable and lasting tunes, but it’s the aforementioned reach that earns it a place in any reasonable person’s pop hall of fame. Written from a place of grief, both for a friend she’d lost to AIDS and in response to a fan who’d sent a letter after the death of his father, Jackson and her writing team turned that sorrow into hopefulness and joy, making a dance classic that’s also somehow a response to one of the most difficult things a person experiences in life. And if that weren’t enough somehow, Jackson donated a portion of the fat cash this single raked in to The American Foundation for AIDS Research. Try listening to it now without smiling or getting just a little misty. –Allison Shoemaker

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    the-verve37. The Verve – “Lucky Man”


    Urban Hymns

    At their best, The Verve could capitalize on both feelings and smarts. Whereas a song like “Bittersweet Symphony” frames the English rockers as masterminds of rich pop tapestries, oozing with swagger and sex appeal, “Lucky Man” finds them excelling at their fundamentals. That’s not to say this Urban Hymns single is any less rich or dense — the layers to the song are quite comparable to their global hit — but it feels a little more organic. Richard Ashcroft’s use of repetition — specifically, the line: “It’s just a change in me/ Something in my liberty” — swims above the guitar, the strings, the piano, and the cinematic percussion, yanking at the heart strings in an earthly way that’s spiritually in sync with everything we’re given. Of course, it helps that he’s weighing in on timeless themes of happiness and relationships, never leaning on a solution to its many ebbs and flows, but instead unconvincingly insisting he’s a lucky bastard. Truth be told, nobody’s ever really lucky, per se; they’re just in the moment. This is one of them. –Michael Roffman

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    the-lost-highway36. Nine Inch Nails – “The Perfect Drug”

    The Lost Highway OST

    Artists are often their own toughest critics. If you ask Trent Reznor his thoughts on “The Perfect Drug”, he’ll tell you he considers it a rushed disappointment done no favors by a “bloated, over-budget video.” However, if you ask anyone my age, they’ll tell you both the song and music video are among the most memorable of the ‘90s. Originally conceived for David Lynch’s 1997 film Lost Highway – for which Reznor produced the soundtrack – the song’s taken on several other lives. Lyrically nimble enough to be about actual drug addiction or a debilitating romantic infatuation, most of us have come to associate the song with the Edwardian nightmare depicted in Mark Romanek’s music video, in which Reznor indulges in absinthe to deal with the loss of a son. Whatever your interpretation, there’s no denying that driving chorus, inhuman drum solo, or the crushing weight of the song’s coda. Mr. Reznor doth protest too much, methinks. –Matt Melis

    Get It On Vinyl via Discogs

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