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.

Fave Local Disc: The Suicide Kings' debut was a genuine joy, its country comforts laced with notorious self-saboteur Bruce Connole's clear-eyed vision. Front-Runner for '98: Whatever Dead Hot Workshop disc that includes the new killer song "Oh Well."

Brendan Kelley:
1. Modest Mouse, The Lonesome Crowded West (Up Records) This 72-minute double LP is the standard by which all other recordings this year were judged, and none came close. The Modest mice are the precocious bastard offspring of the Pixies' experimental aesthetic and Built to Spill's pop ingenuity, warped by guitarist/vocalist Isaac Brock's beer-soaked high-school-dropout trailer-trash perspective. And these kids are barely out of their teenage years. Pray they never "mature."

2. Elliott Smith, Either/Or (Kill Rock Stars) Smith's latest solo recording makes kids put down their guitars out of shame. Smith plays every track on this lo-fi acoustic masterpiece. Twenty years from now, when your kids (or grandkids) ask you what folk music is, you'll say Elliott Smith before you say Joan Baez.

3. The Get Up Kids, Four Minute Mile (Doghouse America) Scenario--hip-hop kid listening to this recording says to me, "This record makes me feel kinda sad and kinda happy at the same time; will you turn it off?" Intensely introspective, these Kansas City kids delve into subject matter that rips at your heart while you're pounding your fists in the air. This is the most intelligent "emo" recording of the year.

4. The Promise Ring, Nothing Feels Good (Jade Tree) Delaware and blue jeans and Chevys and parks & recreation pools and Heaven and quiet airplanes and pink chimneys and Air Supply and Southern belles and rafts; Davey and the Promise Ring boys have created the best pop album of the '90s, sonically and lyrically. "I'm proud of my genius just like a painter and dumb like a poet," as well they ought to be.

5. Joan of Arc, A Portable Model of (Jade Tree) The hardest recording to describe of the year--acoustic pop minimalism layered with "electronica" like you've never heard before. Vocalist/guitarist Tim Kinsella (who, along with bandmates Mike Kinsella and Sam Zurick and the Promise Ring's Davey vonBohlen were in the seminal math-emo Cap'n Jazz) is a master of pop deconstruction. Alternately tender and disturbing, A Portable Model of gives "concept record" a new definition.

6. Sleater-Kinney, Dig Me Out (Kill Rock Stars) Riot Grrl grows up. Though Sleater-Kinney didn't quite reach the masses to the extent the press expected, this is still the best recording ever to come out of Olympia, Washington's grrl-rock scene. Quite possibly the definitive punk recording of the year, Dig Me Out is a benchmark that transcends gender.

7. The Peechees, Games People Play (Kill Rock Stars) Lookout! Records' house band (vocalist Chris Appelgren and his wife, drummer Molly Neumann, run Lookout!; bassist Rop Vazquez works in the Lookout! store) busted out a recording seething with sex and slicked-back attitude. Forget pop punk, this is fucking rock 'n' roll. Sophomore slump, my ass--Games People Play is twice the recording last year's Do the Math was, and that's saying a lot.

8. Superchunk, Indoor Living (Merge) What can you say about a band whose name has become synonymous with the term "indie rock"? Superchunk released yet another classic this year, more layered, more mature, and with more organs. Will this band ever release a less-than-brilliant recording? I doubt it.

9. Lync, Remembering the Fireballs (part 8) (K Records/Troubleman Unlimited) A retrospective of the late, great Lync's seven inches and compilation tracks. Stalwarts of the early-'90s Northwest experimental indie-pop scene that spawned bands like Built to Spill and later Love As Laughter (which includes Lync's Sam Jayne and David Schneider), Lync was the precursor to all the simplistic pop seven inches covering your local record stores' shelves. The minimalist frustration anthem "Turtle" alone puts this in the Top 10.

10. Uranium 9 Volt, wild 7 (Lookout!) From the ashes of veteran East-bay bands Monsula, Sawhorse, and Pinhead Gunpowder (best-known as Billie Joe Armstrong's other band), Uranium 9 Volt came from outta nowhere (no press, no hype, no tours) with this six-song EP. Crunchy, loud, melodic emo-core that avoids the wuss-rock trap so many "mature" hard-core bands fall into. Angry music for sad people.

Gilbert Garcia:
1. Elliott Smith, Either/Or (Kill Rock Stars) Smith really isn't a folkie, he just uses a folkie's acoustic tools because his haunting tunes sound best in spare settings. He's actually a masterful pop songwriter, composing melodies so gorgeous that they enliven and enrich his simple, opaque lyrics. On "Ballad of Big Nothing," he gently sings "You can do what you want to, whenever you want to," and makes it feel heartbreakingly sad in a way that printed lyrics never are.

2. Cornershop, When I Was Born for the 7th Time (Luaka Bop) In a musical year defined by cultural collisions, this was one of the more exotic, and certainly the most accessible. Tjinder Singh is a Brit of Indian descent who gets off on house music and knows his way around the Velvet Underground catalogue, and his band's music is as wonderfully schizophrenic as such a bio implies.

3. Ron Sexsmith, Other Songs (Interscope) Lost in a world without empathy, the Toronto-based Sexsmith humbly sings with genuine compassion for Average Joes and Josephines like himself, and makes it feel like a new concept. "Strawberry Blonde" is the most beautiful track here, but it's the implausibly sympathetic "Child Star" that fully demonstrates how big Sexsmith's heart is.

4. Sleater-Kinney, Dig Me Out (Kill Rock Stars) Every track is a punk juggernaut, but the title song best defines the frantic exultation of this girl trio. Dig Me Out does for riot-grrl what the Clash's London Calling did for punk a generation ago: suggest a way the music could mature without losing its urgency.

5. Helium, The Magic City (Matador) Mary Timony is a shy, nervous performer, but her kaleidoscopic use of musical textures made this album the Pet Sounds of 1997 lo-fi indie rock. With the Carslike, New Wave synth ride of "Leon's Space Song," this Liz Phair for the D&D set even proved she has a sense of humor.

6. Super Deluxe, via satellite (Revolution) From the disrespected power-pop faction of the Seattle, Washington, scene that also produced the Posies come four guys who love a big hook and never got over their old Farrah Fawcett posters. They're such natural populists that when they sing "Your pleasure's mine," they really mean it.

7. Geraldine Fibbers, Butch (Virgin) Largely eschewing the bittersweet country-punk of Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home, Carla Bozulich and her band throw themselves into relentless punk rage, and emerge the better for it. Like Come's Thalia Zedek--with whom she shares a sleepy, nicotine-stoked raspiness--Bozulich is a heroin-damaged soul desperately hanging on to her defiance, as evidenced by the clinching final line of "California Tuffy": "You will never get my heart."

8. You Am I, Hourly Daily (Sire) This was actually released a year ago in the band's native Australia, but it only recently made it stateside. Anyone who still has affection for the mid-'60s heyday of the Kinks and the Who will tumble for this.

9. Ben Folds Five, Whatever and Ever Amen (550 Music) Ben Folds is a smarmy smartass with a mile-wide cruel streak, but, boy, can he pound them ivories. This Carolina Joe Jackson for the '90s doesn't bother to look sharp, but tosses some tuneful, well-aimed revenge daggers at childhood bullies ("One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces") and ex-lovers ("Song for the Dumped").

10. Various artists, The Inner Flame (Atlantic) Tribute albums are onerous by nature, but this is the exception that proves the rule. Tucson dobro-guitar god Rainer Ptacek joins in on a celebration of his unjustly overlooked career, along with notables like PJ Harvey, Evan Dando, and Giant Sand. Ptacek's recent passing makes this all the more poignant and essential.

Honorable Mention: Just when you thought Rhino Records had exhausted every worthy reissue possibility, it weighed in with three of its best-evers: The Big Ol' Box of '60s Soul and box sets devoted to Ray Charles and Charles Mingus did what these kind of reclamation efforts are supposed to do; they rekindled your enthusiasm for timeless music.

Serene Dominic
1. The Geraldine Fibbers, Butch (Virgin) My favorite album of the year has it all: humor ("Folks Like Us"), blitzkrieg ("Toy Box"), pop ("I Killed a Cuckoo") and pathos ("Butch"), and it does it all in an arc, wearing you out like great sex or a trip to the dentist. It even manages to sound like both simultaneously. Incredible!

2. Sneaker Pimps, Becoming X (Virgin) When trip-hop adheres to the pop formula of verse/chorus/verse, both worlds of songwriting benefit. And with lyrics like "Just cause we're talkin' don't mean we're friends," Kelly Dayton gets my crown for Miss Ice Queen of 1997.

3. Del Amitri, Some Other Sucker's Parade (A&M) Because Justin Currie has such a likable voice and the group's songs are so instantly catchy, there's a wrongheaded tendency to view Del Amitri as some Scottish version of Huey Lewis & the News. Even the single "Not Where It's At" gamely makes light of the band's square-to-be-square cache. If its traditional rock arrangements married to intelligent, insightful lyrics make it a guilty pleasure, then maybe wonderful pop isn't a priority for you.

4. Everclear, So Much for the Afterglow (Capitol) "Everything to Everyone" was my favorite single this year, and "The hand you hold is the hand that holds you down" was my favorite line. Art Alexakis is a most-underrated songwriter, probably 'cause he once sidelined as a rock critic. Read into that what you will.

5. Blur, Blur (Virgin) Why Blur keeps being viewed as Avis to Oasis' Hertz is beyond comprehension. Oasis' recent idea of being creative is stretching slight songs out to seven minutes in an effort to weigh in with "Hey Jude" importance, but it always wound up sounding more like a waterlogged "Atlantis."

Blur simply throws the glove in Noel Gallagher's mug with "Beetlebum," and then shows those poseurs how to make inventive and highly melodic music for the '90s.

6. Beat Angels, Red Badge of Discourage (Epiphany) These cads cover twice the ground DeGeneration does at half the budget. Plus, they brought "snot" into pop vernacular, something the Sex Pistols didn't even do!

7. Trunk Federation, The Infamous Hamburger Transfer (Alias) When the Trunk Feds brought their elaborate stage show to L.A., some naysayer in the audience referred to it as "shtick rock." As if shtick was a bad thing. As if rock didn't need some mighty shtick shoved up its ass. Initially, some local fans were disappointed by this CD because they'd been used to hearing these songs with the arresting visuals. This is known in some quarters as "The MTV Problem." Careful repeated listening reveals it as a masterful album, brimming with dark and amusing songs about murder, mayhem and Jell-O.

8. The Interpreters, Back in the U.S.S.A. (Freeworld) These guys pen punk pop so simplistic it's amazing no one else thought of it first.

9. The Dandy Warhols, Come Down (Capitol) "Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth" was plain stupid, almost the kind of antiheroin novelty song you'd expect Mike Love to write. The rest of this album sounded like a brilliant marriage of Syd Barrett and the Velvet Underground. Sure wish the single had been "I Love You," which repeats the title ad infinitum until you feel like you're being stalked.

10. The High Llamas, Hawaii (V2) To painstakingly re-create pastiches of Brian Wilson's incomplete masterpiece Smile takes brains and guts. So much so that the Beach Boys tried to enlist Sean O'Hagen to produce the next album and lead them out of Kokomo hell, but it's probably a better idea just to wait for the High Llamas' next one.

Honorable Mention or Best Reason to Look Forward to 1998: Lush Budget Present the Les Payne Product, a six-song EP on Aviator Records, due out in January. The advance tape hasn't left my car tape deck since November. And I don't leave my car until it's over.

Jabas Smith
1. Del Amitri, Some Other Sucker's Parade (A&M) The opening, hook-ripe loser-confessional "Not Where It's At" makes power-pop cliche superstition by virtue of song. And a good song will always be.

2. Martin Luther Lennon, Music for a World Without Limitations (Not Lame) It's a painful world if you're a songwriter who grew up aping the wrong recordings, and MLL's guaranteed pathetic fiscal return for its work attests to its Nick Gilder-20/20-Buzzcocks-Beatles-Badfinger-Big Star-Shoes-Raspberries album collections. And kudos to the Not Lame label for its dedication to The Pop Song.

3. Sugar High, My Star demos (unreleased) "My Star" will realize its deserving massive hit status, and the flatulent frauds who program radio shall have their shallow shekel-dictated insights schtupped. In a perfect world, perhaps.

4. Cheap Trick, Cheap Trick (Red Ant) Logical successor to Dream Police and, of course, a chart stiff of John Holmes magnitude. "Shelter" is the best song Harry Nillson never wrote, and "Say Goodbye" upholds the "Daddy's all right/Mommy's all right" honor while airwaves-free "Say Goodbye" is yet further proof that radio is but kiss-ass histrionics for morons.

5. Pollen, Peach Tree (Wind-Up) If Pollen's provenance was as unlikely as Pittsburgh, then its relocation to Tempe is even stranger. But history has taught us that lost boys make great recordings, and thundering power chords will win wretched punk-rock hearts every time. Like mine.

6. Redd Kross, Show World (Mercury) With a truckload helping of hack rock-journalistic self-congratulation befitting a music paper of lower form, I'll say my opinion means more than yours. Which means you should own this album.

7. Super Deluxe, via satellite (Revolution) Singable songs bottlenecking pop's past, born of TV-weaned insights and the glory of four perfectly placed chords. Now open up and say ahh!

8. Love Spit Love, Trysome Eatone (Maverick) Warholian rock star Richard Butler's Love Spit Love comes clean with a near-perfect pastiche of pop, topical pap and organized noise: From the obligatory Furs-ish guitar-bass-drum sucker punch of "Long Time Gone" to the almost baroque "Believe," the choruses soar, the verses throb, and each song is sturdy enough to stand on its own three feet.

9. The Pistoleros, Hang On to Nothing (Hollywood) A prerequisite to ace rock 'n' roll is chemistry as defined by the masters: Jagger/Richards, Lennon/McCartney, Tyler/Perry, Strummer/Jones, blah blah blah . . . And in barrio brothers Zubia, that tradition is as on as the soaring mariachi horns in this season's most heartbreaking three minutes: Doug Hopkins' musical epistle to his girlfriend penned shortly before his suicide, "My Guardian Angel." And that song, on this album, could bring a bit of needed credibility to the strip-mall-maligned Mill Avenue.

10. Piersons, Appleberry Wine (Epiphany) Exuberance over content is necessary for maxi-brat rock 'n' roll. Any idiotic, beer-swilling Hootie obsessive knows that, and Appleberry Wine is best served in a loud, drunken, prefuck environ.

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