Great Years In Music – 1997

I sometimes feel bad that I lived through the release and evolution in the public and critical eye of certain albums, but never felt this impact myself due to young age. This feeling is most acute for the year 1997, it’s a feeling of emptiness, where nostalgia should be, there is lack of knowledge. My experiences of the time period must be felt second-hand.

Inspired by this, I will now commence with the first of what I hope will be a long and fruitful series of Great Years In Music.

Let’s get the obvious out the way. In June of 1997, Radiohead, who had already earned a decent reputation as one of the worlds most interesting alternative bands, unleashed “OK Computer”. Following the more genteel, palatable “The Bends”, it was the King of commercial curveballs, and was not de-throned from this position until Radiohead saw fit to release Kid A. That it topped so many end-of-year lists (as well as end-of-decade and end-of-eternity lists), it seemed the only place to start.

OK Computer formed a centrepiece of premillennial tension, giving a shout-out to adolescent confusion amidst Douglas Adams references and thinly veiled attacks on New Labour. The desire to suffocate under “a handshake of carbon monoxide” was the inspiration for much music to come. But putting aside the sheer influence OK Computer had on the music scene, the songs, taken simply as pieces of music, are still to this day immensely powerful and skilfully tender. 12 1/2 years is maybe not quite enough time to judge the timelessness of a record, but still, it’s a stretch to imagine the record not being as highly lauded in a decades time as it is now.

Critically and historically, OK Computer takes up a large chunk of 1997. But there is a wealth of genuinely classic releases to back up the Big Daddy. Britpop, though in its decline by now, went through a bit of a re-invention during 1997. Two of the biggest names from that movement, Blur and The Verve, brought out albums that defined their career. Firstly in February, Blur released a self-titled record which immediately dispensed with the usual swaggering recipe for Britpop and introduced a sense of fun, earnest at times, and with an unusual (at the time) penchant for lo-fi. Within seven glorious minutes (the opening two tracks are “Beetlebum” and “Song 2”) Blur had torn up what it was to be a Britpop band, and they were all the better for doing so. After the two stomping openers, the rest of the album can get forgotten about, but the strangely sweet ode to escaping loneliness “On Your Own” and the surprisingly bleak “Essex Dogs”, which showcases Damon Albarn’s capabilities at delivering razor-sharp spoken word wit should not be overlooked.

Later in the year, Britpop as an entity was yet again re-aligned by the release of “Urban Hymns”, The Verve getting the sort of commercial and cultural break that “A Storm In Heaven”, their debut, perhaps warranted more. The main noting point for the record is probably “Bittersweet Symphony”, which seemed to capture a shift in mood for the British public, or at least the music-listening public. The furore surrounding its use of Rolling Stones riffs did its image more good than one might have thought. More tender singles, such as “The Drugs Don’t Work”, written by Richard Ashcroft at his dying father’s bedside, and “Lucky Man” showed that British rock was turning over a new leaf from the stifling swagger of yesteryear.

And from the ashes of the dying Britpop phoenix came smarter genres, working against the established grain and getting recognition for it. Trip-hops flagship band Portishead followed up their debut “Dummy” with a more consistent and gloomy eponymous offering. Mogwai followed in the post-rock footsteps of Godspeed You! Black Emperor (whose influential second record “F#A#∞” was first released in August 1997) by putting out their debut, “Young Team” in October. My love of Portishead is well-documented, and Mogwai have put on consistently interesting albums for the past decade and a bit. It is fair to say that their efforts in ’97 brought them much reward.

The other side of the Atlantic had much to shout about also, most notably Foo Fighters bringing out what I consider to be their best album, “The Colour And The Shape”. It confirmed that the band would not be a post-Nirvana cool-down for Dave Grohl, and established the band as world-leaders in simple but effective rock. To this day the likes of “Everlong”, “Monkey Wrench” and “Hero” are to be found in guitar-rock collections, and there is more to be found on the album that just the well-known singles. Another side of American rock, more cerebral and willing to employ more diverse influences, was also having a surge in 1997. Modest Mouse caught the critics eye with “The Lonesome Crowded West”, whilst Yo La Tengo crafted their most lauded album of their impressive career, the stirring “I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One”. Built To Spill were also busy carving a similar message into musical history, with their self-knowingly prescient “Perfect From Now On”. These three albums together paved the way for much of 00’s American indie-rock, a genre which probably counts for near half of my favourite albums of the decade.

1997 saw the release of Bjork’s “Homogenic”, Elliot Smith’s “Either/Or” and Pavement’s “Brighten The Colours”, as well as the posthumous release of two Bill Hicks albums, “Rant in E-Minor” and “Arizona Bay”. But I thought the album I would leave you with would be one that accompanied the unrivalled cultural height of 1997. I am, of course, referring to the release of Final Fantasy 7, and more relevantly, the 4-disc soundtrack that was diligently engineered by Nobuo Uematsu. It was revolutionary not necessarily in its method (tonally unimpressive MIDI), but in its scope and ultimately its impact. Suddenly game music was real music, not just a single repeated and eventually annoying series of bleeps. The character motifs were beautifully constructed symbols of the characters plight, yet the music could be taken both in and out of context. It forced game developers to focus on music’s importance on the gaming experience. And gamers and music-lovers alike will forever be grateful (and will forever be humming “One Winged Angel” too).

What more could you possibly need from a year? Here’s to 1997, my greatest year in music history.