Critics' Choice

A year-end recap of the albums that made it worthwhile to own a stereo in 1997

Some people can maintain their composure in a burning skyscraper. But the average record-company exec, faced with a few months of flagging album sales, is liable to run naked through the nearest strip mall, brandishing an AK47 and screaming threats in some twisted form of pig Latin.

So, in 1997, a very nervous record industry decided to force the issue by imposing trends on an ever-malleable public. You take a fractured dance movement that's been building for more than a decade and call it "electronica," and maybe someone will believe that it's the hot new thing. At year's end, the genre's most intriguing artists had yet to catch on, and the resulting success of Prodigy proves only what media saturation and a Bozo coif can do.

Electronica hype aside, it was strange and kinda depressing that the big commercial movers of the year were actually albums that had already reached moldy status by the end of '96 (Jewel, Fiona Apple, Sublime, Celine Dion). And when the folks at Rolling Stone and Spin devoted covers to "Women in Rock," they probably didn't realize that female chart dominance is already upon us, and here's what it smells like: Spice Girls, LeAnn Rimes, Celine Dion, Barbra Streisand, Shania Twain.

All whininess aside, however, 1997 had its share of outstanding releases, and with that in mind, here's a special New Times year-end survey, in which some of our favorite music contributors get to spout off about what they liked this year, and why.

Ted Simons:
1. Love Spit Love, Trysome Eatone (Maverick/Warner Bros.) Evocative pop songs turned fine art by ex-Psych Fur Richard Butler. There's a sense the aging New Waver is still full of himself, but when his glancing, observational lyrics blend with his inherently melancholy vocals, the results make for as poetic an expression as you'll find in the pop-music bins. Killer cut: "7 Years."

2. Serge Gainsbourg, Comic Strip (Phillips/Mercury) Long-gone '60s hipster Serge Gainsbourg was perhaps 1997's most unlikely rediscovery, his dabblings in jazz, pop and lounge released on a variety of entertaining discs. This one's the best, with an ode to Bonnie and Clyde, sung with a suitably impassive Brigitte Bardot, among the coolest curiosities.

3. Greg Garing, Alone (Paladin/Revolution) A startling CD. Garing, a onetime Nashville honky-tonker, relocates to New York and comes up with a mix of trip-hop and hoodoo with down-home country sounds. The resulting noise guarantees more than a few double takes. One of the most original and exciting Americana efforts in recent years.

4. Alison Krauss & Union Station, So Long So Wrong (Rounder) Nothing new about Krauss' latest. Her featherweight vocals are still there, the heartsick love ballads, too, and her neo-bluegrass backing band still plays and sings with amazing precision. No, nothing new here, and all the better for it. Great song: the title cut, which rivals last year's wonderful "Now That I've Found You."

5. Kronos Quartet, Early Music (Nonesuch) The notoriously difficult Kronos comes through with a calmed effort that still challenges. The CD's "early music" is as old as prepolyphonic Perotin and as recent as pieces by Part, Lamb and Schnittke, much of which is played on decidedly nonclassical music instruments. At once contemplative and striking.

6. The High Llamas, Hawaii (V2) "Let's rebuild the past, 'cause the future won't last," sings Sean O'Hagen, and that's just what he does with this dead-on homage to all things Pet Sounds. The partly sunny songs are skewed enough to avoid outright plagiarism, but there's no doubt Brian Wilson and (especially) Van Dyke Parks would get a kick out of this one.

7. Marcy Playground, Marcy Playground (Capitol) Slow-motion mind trips made tuneful by a considerable sense of melody. The music, written and sung by leader John Wozniak, takes its sweet time in figuring out where it's going and even longer in getting there, but it's worth tagging along for the ride. These guys just might be giants.

8. Thomas Ades, Life Story (EMI Classics) Alternately pensive and playful, this collection of Ades' more imaginative compositions includes works dating back to 1990, when the precocious pianist was all of 19. Shades of Cage and other modernists pop up at random, but there's a freshness here that keeps comparisons to a minimum. Intriguing stuff.

9. Helium, The Magic City (Matador) Fertile topsoil from the indie underground, Helium highlights leader Mary Timony's spacy word play through a looking glass of inventive, prog-pop songcraft. Think old Let's Active (Mitch Easter produced) crossed with a talky Tortoise. Cool song: "The Revolution of Hearts, Parts One and Two."

10. Roni Size/Reprazent, New Forms (Mercury) Drums 'n' bass with an organic touch, this musicians' "collective" is being touted as the Next Big Thing No Fooling We Really Mean It This Time from across the pond. Hyperbole notwithstanding, Size, et al., know their way around sound collages and can find a refreshingly strong pulse out of an inherently lifeless style.

Fave Single: "Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth," by the Dandy Warhols, a jumpy, tuneful attack on trendiness that only slightly hints at self-righteousness.

Honorable Mention: Sarah McLachlan's "Building a Mystery"; Guided by Voices' "I Am a Tree"; and Sloan's "The Good in Everyone," which was inexplicably wounded in album form.

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