WHY 1997 WAS ONE OF MUSIC'S BEST YEARS
22 albums that prove 1997 was an incredible year for music
If 1997 can be reduced to just two driving forces, they would be upheaval and innovation.
There were great changes in political power in the UK and US, global shock and mourning over the death of Princess Diana, and the crossing of a technological milestone with the cloning of the first animal. The impending millennium brought with it a high level of uncertainty and fear; Y2k was on the horizon, and nobody knew exactly what that would mean.
It’s hard to imagine now, when our hands constantly twitch towards our phones, but the growing intrusion of technology on daily life was a major source of anxiety. Some artists, like Radiohead, Grandaddy and Björk, tackled this head on, while The Chemical Brothers and The Prodigy preferred to distill their rage into songs they could escape within.
At the same time the very notion of pop music was splintering off into so many things. It was a unique point in time where Britpop bands (Blur, Verve), post-grunge outfits (Silverchair, Third Eye Blind), bubblegum novelty acts (Aqua, Mr President), boy bands (Backstreet Boys), self-described anarcho-punks (Chumbawamba), dance provocateurs (Prodigy) and gangsta rappers (Notorious B.I.G, Puff Daddy) were all jostling for their place at the top of the charts.
1997 was also when the musical gaze shifted from one side of the Atlantic to the other. On one side, the US was shaking the dregs of grunge off, and had yet to form a musical identity free from it. Consequentially, the best albums from America came from places that had nothing to do with distorted guitars: Erykah Badu’s magnum opus Baduizm, Notorious B.I.G’s Life After Death and Missy Elliott’s Supa Dupa Fly.
Wilco were redefining the possibilities of alt-country with the gloriously imperfect double album Being There and Eels’ Beautiful Freak introduced the world to the genre-hopping eccentric genius of a man known simply as “E”.
On the other side of the Atlantic, another British invasion was brewing. Radiohead reached their paranoid peak on Ok Computer; Supergrass made one of the best rock records of the decade with In It For The Money; while in the battle for Britpop supremacy, Blur delivered Oasis a knock-out blow, countering the cocaine-fuelled indulgence of Be Here Now with an album of masterful pop moments and sharp observations (Blur).
That’s not to say we didn’t contribute anything ourselves: 1997 brought massive releases from the likes of Silverchair, Nick Cave and newcomers Savage Garden.
There were plenty of excellent albums in 1997 – mounting a pretty strong case for best year ever status – but these 22 stand above the rest as truly definitive of that particularly fruitful year.
Radiohead – OK Computer
On their third record Thom Yorke and co. disappeared deep into their psyches to explore the troubling pre-Y2k world of technological doom. This was Yorke’s Orwellian tragedy – a world in which people “buzzed like fridges” and lost themselves in waterfalls of binary code. There was the dislocating menace of ‘Fitter Happier’ and the chicken voices of ‘Paranoid Android’, but also the gentle sigs of ‘Karma Police’ and ‘Exit Music (For A Film)’. That they brilliantly used technology to create an album about its impending danger remains Ok Computer’s greatest irony – but then, that was the point. – Jules LeFevre
Björk – Homogenic
Björk described Homogenic as “the beautiful relationship between complete discipline and complete freedom”, and it’s hard to find a better way of describing it so succinctly. After the spiralling pop explosion that was Post, Homogenic had Björk whittling down her focus to one idea and one obsession. Classical instrumentation collided with scattershot dance beats, and she wove organic and synthetic textures together in a way where it became impossible to tell where one ended and the other began. In the 20 years since, this marriage has never been bettered. – Jules LeFevre
Prodigy – The Fat of the Land
Legend has it that when The Prodigy dropped this album, UK paper The Mail on Sunday launched a bullheaded campaign to stop The Fat Of The Land hitting airwaves, proclaiming them as “Audio Filth”. The headline is reminiscent of The Sex Pistols’ infamous branding as “The Filth And The Fury” two decades prior. Like their punk predecessors, The Prodigy were feral, intense and genre-defining, both musically and visually (Keith Flint’s hair is the epitome of ‘90s dance), and the kids couldn’t get enough of it. The Fat Of The Land was irreverent and ferocious, blending elements of garage, drum ‘n bass, turntablism and rock in a way so fresh and powerful that it still fucking rules today. – Lauren Ziegler
Silverchair – Freak Show
This album – and its masochistic song titles and themes – saw Silverchair branching out in a dozen directions. Where the grunge-centric Frogstomp earned them the “Nirvana in Pyjamas” nickname, Freak Show toyed with punk, metal and more. Opener ‘Slave’ had Pantera-inspired riffs, ‘Lie To Me’ wore Minor Threat on its sleeve. ‘No Association’ showcased just how vicious Daniel Johns sounded when he growled. And the expansive ‘Petrol & Chlorine’ introduced strings and sitars; an indication of the instrumental experimentation we’d hear more on Neon Ballroom.
You could practically picture the trio in their bedrooms, working their way through every genre of rock they could find, learning and absorbing new sounds and styles along the way. That’s what I loved most about Silverchair – they grew up in real time with their albums, and with them came an entire generation of angsty, curious teens. – Lauren Ziegler
Foo Fighters – The Colour And The Shape
If you’re going to make a guitar album full of loud-soft-loud dynamics why not get the guy behind the Pixies’ Doolittle to produce it? British producer Gil Norton brought just the right amount of studio sheen to the Foos’ sound without sacrificing the somewhat visceral quality of their debut.
The album opened on a quiet note with the minute-and-a-half ballad ‘Doll’, but it was just a ruse – from there the band delivered an onslaught of genuine hits (‘Monkey Wrench’, ‘My Hero’, ‘Everlong’); how-the-hell-aren’t-they hits (‘Hey, Johnny Park’, ‘Enough Space’, ‘My Poor Brain’); and some of the most beautifully sentimental songs Grohl has ever penned (‘February Stars’ and song-within-a-song ‘Up In Arms’). They haven’t come close to this since. – Darren Levin
Daft Punk – Homework
From the moment the beat thudded into place on the propulsive ‘Revolution 909’, the riot had begun. Daft Punk’s debut studio album was a controlled funk-house explosion from beginning to end, and a revolutionary one at that. While the artists around them were busy sampling rock records, the French duo proved that house and techno could not only compete with their pop-leaning peers, it could beat them at their own game. – Jules LeFevre
Elliott Smith – Either/Or
One of the most enduring indie-rock moments of the late-1990s featured Elliott Smith – resplendent in a white suit – winning over Hollywood elite with his fragile rendition of ‘Miss Misery’ at the Oscars. While he lost out to Celine Dion’s theme from Titanic (yes, this is a real thing that happened), the song’s inclusion in Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting fast-tracked Smith’s transition from cult bedroom auteur to the confident fully-realised songwriter that later emerged on XO and Figure 8.
On third album Either/Or, his songs still sounded like they’d literally been poured straight onto the page from an open wound. But dismiss this album as the work of a tortured sadsack at your peril. Tracks like ‘Ballad Of Big Nothing’, ‘Pictures Of Me’, ‘Say Yes’ and ‘Speed Trials’ proved he could deliver melody and melancholy in one hit. – Darren Levin
Savage Garden – Savage Garden
“I’ll be your dream/I’ll be your wish/I’ll be your fantasy.” With a few words, Savage Garden pried open every tween heart and made themselves a home. ‘Truly Madly Deeply’, with its ringing guitars and kohl-edged angst, was a defining pop single of the late ’90s along with ‘I Want You’ and ‘To The Moon and Back’. Darren Hayes and Daniel Jones proved themselves as dynamic songwriters and arrangers, blending polished ’80s pop melodies with Eurythmics-inspired rhythms. The album stayed at #1 on the Australian charts for 19 weeks. – Jules LeFevre
Notorious B.I.G – Life After Death
That this album was finished six months before Biggie’s death in March 1997 is one of the greatest and strangest mysteries in hip-hop. The album continues in the same premonitive theme as his groundbreaking debut Ready to Die, the final track of which, ‘Suicidal Thoughts’, immediately leads into the conceptual Life After Death.
Mysteries and conspiracies aside, this is one of the most important, genre-defining albums within hip-hop, and certainly the greatest rap record of 1997. It cemented Biggie’s reputation and sanctity for all eternity. While standalone tracks like ‘Mo Money Mo Problems’ and ‘Hypnotize’ are considered among the most iconic of all time, the entire album serves as a refined blueprint for gangsta rap as a whole. R.I.P B.I.G. – Lauren Ziegler
Chemical Brothers – Dig Your Own Hole
Coming off the high of their successful debut, The Chemical Brothers set their ambitions to “sky-high” on Dig Your Own Hole, and pretty much hit pulled it off. Opener ‘Block Rockin’ Beats’ was a blood-pumping hot mess of dub beats, industrial distortion and, somehow, funk. They built a dance monster that drew on everything from R&B to Britpop to rock – hell, Noel-bloody-Gallagher even turns up in the middle of the chaotic ‘Setting Sun’. Visceral, punching, spiralling – Dig Your Own Hole gets better the deeper you go. – Jules LeFevre
Spiritualized – Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space
This is an album that continues to reveal new meaning and beauty upon each listen. From the heart-wrenching pleads on the title track to the manic confidence of ‘I Think I’m In Love’, the drug-addled diet of ‘Home of The Brave’ and the devastating breakdown of ‘Broken Heart’, this album is confronting, enveloping and painfully honest. Musically too, it’s wild: across 70 minutes it traipses between frenzied guitars and hypnotic ambience, meditative shoegaze to blinding feedback – sometimes in a single song.
Easily one of the greatest drug albums of all time, the album was also immortalised with one of the coolest box sets ever. One special edition release seeing every single track released on its own CD, encased in blister packaging. To listen you had to pop each one out like a pill. Makes you miss physical releases a bit, doesn’t it? – Lauren Ziegler
Missy Elliott – Supa Dupa Fly
Today, Missy Misdemeanor Elliott is considered one of the most important females in hip-hop history. But in 1997 she was unknown. Until Super Dupa Fly, that is. The album was the perfect introduction to this rapping, singing, song-crafting extraordinaire. It also couldn’t – still can’t – encapsulate ‘90s hip-hop better, with its Timbaland production and guest spots from Busta Rhymes, Ginuwine, Queen Latifah, Lil Kim and Aaliyah, among others.
Listening back, the production actually feels a bit more boundary-pushing than most of what was happening at the time, and more importantly, it didn’t rely on the East vs West gangsta stuff that most of her contemporaries were entrenched in. A good thing too, considering it came out less than a year after the death of Tupac and two months after the shooting of the Notorious B.I.G. – Lauren Ziegler
Erykah Badu – Baduizm
I have absolutely no doubt that more than a few babies have been conceived because of this album. No matter how many times you listen, Baduizm never ceases to be smooth, sexy, spiritual. Perhaps one of the most fully realised debut albums ever, Baduizm blended soul, jazz and R&B together with the finesse and understanding of an artist decades further into their career.
Not only did it kickstart one of the most successful careers for a black, female solo artist of the past two decades, but along with D’Angelo in ’95 and Lauryn Hill in ’98, it laid the foundations for the entire genre of neo soul. Today we might point out the rise of jazz in hip-hop, electro-soul or R&B-fused pop, but that modern cross-genre blend all stems from artists like Erykah Badu. – Lauren Ziegler
Portishead – Portishead
The hardest part of any young band’s career is following up a groundbreaking debut. Countless have fallen prey to the curse of the second album. Many have failed. Portishead did not.
While grunge and rap were taking over America, trip hop was fast emerging over in Bristol – and Portishead saw it reach adolescence. This album is utterly, despairingly bleak. And within that there is a purity and beauty in its sadness, best exemplified in tracks like ‘Mourning Air’, ‘Over’ and ‘Only You’.
It’s unsurprising to think that this album came out after three years of seclusion – even less so that it would take the trio eleven years to release their next one. – Lauren Ziegler
Sleater-Kinney – Dig Me Out
Dig Me Out’s imperfections are what makes it so perfect. The music, and the three musicians behind it, are wild. Electrifying. Human. This was one of, if not the first female-fronted rock bands I ever heard. Yes, yes, I know – Sleater-Kinney aren’t exactly keen on being labeled a “female band”, and for good reason. But for an impressionable young teen like myself – who knew pretty much zero non-pop female artists at the time – it was a fucking revelation.
The album is like a musical slap in the face – in all the right ways. It was overflowing with ferocious, exuberant energy, particularly the chemistry between Corinne Tucker and Carrie Brownstein’s guitars, at their absolute peak on Dig Me Out. To me this is Sleater-Kinney’s greatest album – and one of the best punk records ever. – Lauren Ziegler
Cornershop – When I Was Born For The Seventh Time
While they’ve continued to make frightfully diverse records since 1997, Cornership are mostly known today for this album’s surprise hit ‘Brimful of Ash’. But take a chance to revisit this in its entirety, and you’ll grasp the rare stylistic breadth of the band. It’s an album that tries everything, from a country duet with Tarnation’s Paula Frazer to a Punjabi-language cover of ‘Norwegian Wood’. ‘Sleep on the Left Side’ is as perfect an opener as ‘Brimful’ is a single, and ‘Good Shit’ and ‘Funky Days are Back Again’ are winsome larks. – Doug Wallen
Supergrass – In It For The Money
If the bratty pop smarts of I Should Coco was Supergrasss’ Meet The Beatles, second album In It For The Money was the English trio’s Rubber Soul. From the tempo shifts and moody introspection of ‘Late In The Day’ to the lush psychedelic harmonies of ‘It’s Not Me’, the trio’s second album showed a more expansive side to a band everyone expected to burn and fade in the mid-1990s Britpop rush. ‘Richard III’ and ‘Sun Hits The Sky’ were some of the era’s finest rock moments, while ‘In It For The Money’ and ‘You Can See Me’ illuminated singer Gaz Coombes’ struggle with the spotlight. – Darren Levin
Hanson – Middle of Nowhere
In the golden age of the boy band, Hanson were the kind of group label execs wish they manufactured themselves. Three wholesome brothers whose voices had barely broken, writing irresistible pop hits. Putting aside some of the more ’90s production choices (turntable scratches, anyone?), 20 years later Middle of Nowhere’s simple formula of catchy pop hooks crafted from guitar, keys and drums holds an honesty and purity that still stands strong. Lead single ‘MMMBop’s’ chorus is an awkward white-boy attempt at scatting, but its overall message – about the transience of life and relationships – belies the gibberish. – Amelia Marshall
Aphex Twin – Come To Daddy
Richard D. James famously dismissed the title track as “a joke”, but to the rest of the world it was anything but. Yes, this was electronic music, but funnelled through layer upon layer of distorted rock rage. It had more in common with Nine Inch Nails than it did with James’ previous efforts – or indeed, anything else on the album. The eight-track mini album was a pivotal point in electronic music, and remains his highest charting release to date. Even aside from the incendiary single, tracks like ‘IZ-US’ and ‘Funny Little Man’ were wildly inventive, and stunning in their controlled madness. – Jules LeFevre
Robbie Williams – Life Thru A Lens
When Robbie Williams left the comfort of world-conquering boy band Take That to go solo, there was a general consensus that he would fail miserably – and he nearly did. For the first eight months of its release, Life Thru A Lens enjoyed only lukewarm success. Then fourth single ‘Angels’ was released, and everything changed. Suddenly you couldn’t walk into a shop without hearing Williams’ voice. Musically, this was Robbie Williams’ grand take on Britpop, taking big chunks of Oasis and injecting it with his irrepressible charisma – and stadium ready pop hooks. – Jules LeFevre
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – The Boatman’s Call
The Boatman’s Call may not be one of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds’ loudest, most experimental, or dramatic albums. But that’s so much of what makes it this great. Armed with little more than his voice and a piano, this album remains one of the most sombre, intimate, pained records of Cave’s career – perhaps only second to 2016’s Skeleton Tree. Released just one year after the raucous Murder Ballads, the bare bones of The Boatman’s Call was as unexpected as it was heart wrenching.
Interestingly, this album exists almost entirely because of the song ‘O’Malley’s Bar’. Cave once stated that the song wouldn’t fit on any other record, so they crafted The Boatman’s Call specifically to make “an environment where the songs could exist”. – Lauren Ziegler
Blur – Blur
‘Song 2’, ‘Beetlebum’, M.O.R’ – Blur’s self-titled effort crammed in so many hits all three of those tracks came in before the halfway mark. After years locked in a race with Oasis to be the ultimate Britpop outfit, Blur decided on a reinvention. They stripped away the polish and filled their fifth album with scruffy, lo-fi sonic experiments. For the first time ever, they decided to look away from their homeland and to the US, with Albarn and guitarist Coxon declaring their love for Pavement and Beck – and it worked. The album broke them in the States, but its British influences were definitely still intact: the John Lennon homage of ‘Beetlebum’, or the nod to Space Oddity in ‘Strange News From Another Star.’ – Jules LeFevre