The Boston Phoenix
December 25, 1997 - January 1, 1998

[1997 in Review]

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The year in rock

Ska, Puff, Prodigy, and Lilith

by Matt Ashare

It was a year that began with dire diagnoses regarding the state of the music industry and overblown predictions about something called "electronica." A year that found Bono holding court at a New York K-mart and Marion "Suge" Knight holding onto his embattled Death Row label from an LA prison cell. A year that saw the passing of young talents Jeff Buckley and Biggie Smalls while the Stones, Fleetwood Mac, and Bob Dylan proved they still had some life in them. And a year that ended with Puff Daddy covering the Police and "The Girls of Scream 2" on the cover of Rolling Stone's 1997 Rock & Roll Yearbook issue. In other words, though plenty happened, nothing happened that was enough to capture people's imaginations on a grand scale -- the way, say, Nirvana's grunge, Jane's Addiction's alternative, Nine Inch Nails' industrial, Snoop and Dre's West Coast gangsta, or Green Day's punk did in their day. Indeed, 1997 was the first year of the decade that really lacked for the kind of zeitgeist shock of the new (or, at least, unexpected) that we'd come to expect from the '90s.

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So maybe 1997 was a bit of a letdown, a year of first-rate copycats like Puff, Sarah McLachlan, and Jakob Dylan, and second-rate copycats like Matchbox 20 and Third Eye Blind. To me it felt a lot like the mid-'80s, not just because Puff was cruising the airwaves in Bowie's "Let's Dance" and the Police's "I'll Be Watching You," or because Moby grabbed a guitar and put Mission of Burma's "That's When I Reach for My Revolver" on the radio," or because Ozzy was a huge summer hit and Hanson and the Spice Girls reminded me of the Top 40 pap that once sent me scanning the left of the dial for music with spirit, meaning, and a sense of humor. No, what really did it was that for the first time in years none of my favorite music ended up anywhere near the charts. And in a strange way, there was something comforting about that.

For the record, my 10 favorites were, in no particular order, as follows:

* Lauren Hoffman, Meggido (Virgin)

* Sleater-Kinney, Dig Me Out (Kill Rock Stars)

* Belle and Sebastian, If You're Feeling Sinister (The Enclave)

* Built To Spill, Perfect from Now On (Warner Bros.)

* Elliott Smith, Either/Or (Kill Rock Stars)

* Pulsars, Pulsars (Almo Sounds)

* dEUS, In a Bar, Under the Sea (Island)

* That Dog, Retreat from the Sun (DGC)

* Superchunk, Indoor Living (Merge)

* Geraldine Fibbers, Butch (Virgin)

I won't bore you with the details of that list, which, come to think it, is so 1992, or 1988, or maybe even 1985. I mean, no electronica DJs, drum 'n' bass, or block-rockin' beats? Well, no. Just good old-fashioned words and guitars, as grrrl rockers Sleater-Kinney put it in one song. Instead, here's a rundown of some of the artists, events, trends, and contexts that made 1997, for better or worse, the year it was in the realm of pop.

Bjork 1. Exotic pop. Although none of them released an album that was quantifiably better than their previous work, Stereolab, Cornershop, and Björk all came through with pan-cultural pop that blurred the lines between organic and electronic, song- and texture-based, retro- and future-styled music. Franco-Brits Stereolab created intimate songs for mass consumption on Dots and Loops (Elektra). England's Cornershop offered a pastiche of turntable scratching, indie-rock strumming, and sitar jamming on When I Was Born for the 7th Time (Warner Bros.). And Björk breathed life into digital dreamscapes on Homogenic (Elektra). If there was a promising new direction in pop to be found in 1997, it wasn't in the block-rockin' beats of the Chemical Brothers but in the block-buildin' pop of Cornershop, Stereolab, and Björk.

2. Ska. If the 1997 performances of Green Day and the Offspring were any indication, punk is losing its grip on the mainstream. But punk's happy cousin, ska, came back with a vengeance. Three words: Mighty Mighty Bosstones.

3. Psychedelia. If there was a common thread that ran up from the underground into mainstream rock and even stitched its way into electronica, it was psychedelia. Indie-rockers got trippy with the Terrastock Festival last spring in Providence, which featured the first US appearance of England's Bevis Frond. And Built To Spill dazzled the few who heard the surrealist guitar jams of Perfect from Now On (Warner Bros.). On the radio there was Radiohead's OK Computer (Capitol), Portishead's Portishead(London), and especially the grandiose swirl of the Verve's Urban Hymns (Virgin). And in the clubs you had the mind-altering sounds of the Chemical Brothers, Crystal Method, and drum 'n' bass.

4. Post-riot grrrls. The Lilith Fair tour was so rapidly mythologized as a triumph for women in rock's ongoing battle of the sexes (or battle against sexism) that nobody seemed to realize what a Pyrrhic victory it was. Sure, Lilith proved that a nominally all-female tour could generate big numbers, yet it did so largely by appealing to a regressive notion of women's role in rock as sensitive, sensual singer-songwriters backed by all-male bands (plus female backup singers). Fortunately, there were other women, outside Lilith's orbit, who continued to push forward with the notion that girls can play just as hard and independently as boys: Portland (Oregon) ladies Sleater-Kinney, whose angular punk was a reminder that riot grrrl is more than just a passing fad; Virginia's Lauren Hoffman, who delivered the best debut album of the year; England's playfully new-wavy Kenickie, whose Warner Bros. disc was the second best debut album of the year; and LA's Geraldine Fibbers.

5. Brit-pop.Oasis may have won the Brit-pop war a couple years back, but Blur seemed to win all the crucial battles this year by abandoning Brit-pop for Amer-indie rock on their new Blur (Virgin) and just being, well, a hell of a lot more likable than those Gallagher brothers. Yet it was Radiohead, with their densely textured OK Computer, who really walked away with it by surprising us all with a disc that was a hell of a lot deeper than "Creep" ever suggested.

6. NYC hip-hop. With both Tupac Shakur and Biggie Small dead and buried, the bitter East Coast/West Coast rivalry that pitted the LA gangstas against NYC's finest finally seemed to subside this year. But not before the stage was set for two New York crews -- Puff Daddy and the Family and the Wu Tang Clan -- to put East Coast hip-hop back on the map in a big way. The hard yet artful beats and rhymes of the Wu had the most to offer musically, but it was the ubiquitous svengali producer/entrepreneur Sean "Puffy" Combs and his Bad Boy empire who dominated the year, first with Biggie Smalls's swan song, Life After Death (Bad Boy), then with the Puff Daddy and the Family disc No Way Out (Bad Boy), and finally with the out-of-nowhere #1 triumph of Puff's new protégé Ma$e and his Harlem World (Bad Boy) debut. Not to mention Puffy's massive Pepsi-sponsored tour, or his production/remix work with Mariah Carey and Sting. Still, it was Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott and the rubbery grooves of her Supa Dupa Fly that struck me as hip-hop's big deal of the year.

7. Electronica. Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers got all the hype, moved some units, and yet failed to make a convincing argument for the end of rock. Electronica's biggest thrills came from French funksters Daft Punk, America's own Crystal Method, and a strange British dude known as the Aphex Twin. Even more exciting, though, has been the return of the DJ as someone who plays with records rather than just playing them. It started with DJ Shadow and the turntable tour-de-force of his Entroducing . . . (London) late last year. Before long England's Ninja Tune label was launching its "Stealth Tour" of the US and releasing discs by DJ Vadim, Coldcut, and the Herbaliser, even as US turntablists like Invisibl Skratch Pickles and the X-ecutioners started making waves.

8. A new wave of new wave. One of the more entertaining commercial failures (or underground developments) in '97 was the return of '80s-style new wave. Chicago's geeky Pulsars paid tribute to silicon teens on their Almo Sounds debut; Stephin "Magnetic Fields" Merritt was playfully maudlin on Future Bible Heroes' Slow River/Rykodisc debut; LA's That Dog grew up and then broke up after drawing on the power pop of the Go-Go's for their Retreat from the Sun (DGC); and Ric Ocasek went nowhere with a great album, Troublizing (Columbia), featuring former Minor Threat/current Bad Religion guitarist Brian Baker on guitar.

9. Nels Cline. On the subject of guitarists and CDs that didn't sell, 41-year-old avant-rock/jazz guitarist Nels Cline lent his formidable talents to two cathartic releases in 1997. First there was Butch (Virgin), the powerful sophomore disc by LA's Geraldine Fibbers, a band Cline has joined full time. Then there was Mike Watt's punk-rock opera Contemplating the Engine Room (Columbia). Cline also released an instrumental duet with Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore titled Pillow Wand (Little Brother Records, Box 3224, Eugene, Oregon 97403), which is worth digging around for.

10. Real folks.The best-box-of-the-year award goes to Smithsonian Folkways' reissue of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, a six-CD collection of oddities by blues troubadours, hillbilly hollerers, gospel chanters, and country crooners originally released in 1952. The best rock book of the year was Greil Marcus's Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes (Henry Holt). Together, the Anthology and the book reminded us where Bob Dylan came from. And then Dylan came along with Time Out of Mind (Columbia) and reminded us again.

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