Some Sounds, Some Buttons
By Bill Friskics-Warren
DECEMBER 22, 1997:
Year-end wrap-ups and critics' polls have increasingly degenerated into
rants about the sorry state of popular music. "Guitars are being replaced
by computers." "Lyrics don't mean shit anymore." "Radio sucks." "Rock 'n'
roll ain't what it used to be." Well, yeah. For better and for
worse, pop, rock, and rap have always been fickle, dynamic. If the music
isn't changing, it's not showing signs of life. People who don't like
surprises, people who can't stomach frequent let-downs, need only stay
tuned to Triple-A and modern-rock radio.
Still, looking back at 1997--the year tastemakers warned that machines
would assimilate the pop-music universe--curmudgeons should be doing
cartwheels. With few exceptions, many of '97's best records--the ones I
played most, anyway--were made by folks who favored words and guitars, to
paraphrase the indomitable Sleater-Kinney, over microchips.
Then again, technology is technology. Any differences between samplers,
turntables, and headphones on the one hand, and keyboards and guitars on
the other, have always been a matter of degree. Computers may lack the
character of an electric guitar pushed past the point of distortion, but
ultimately the music that moves us springs from the souls of the women and
men behind the machines, be they Fender Telecasters or the far more
sophisticated tools of DJs and engineers.
Electronica may not have achieved world domination, but it did produce
several of the year's most undeniable singles, with Prodigy, The Chemical
Brothers, and the Crystal Method all bringing the noise with block-rockin'
beats. Yet except for Roni Size and Beth Orton, the genre didn't produce
much in the way of great albums--and Orton built her collection around
dreamy vocals and an acoustic guitar. The rest of the electronic music that
I heard this year was either too abstract (Photek) or anonymous (Spring
Heel Jack) to start, much less sustain, any fires. (I'm still not sure
where Bjork and Portishead fit into the picture.)
Though reports that hip-hop died with Biggie and Tupac were premature,
it certainly was less of a presence this year than electronica's dots and
loops. Led by the enterprising but shallow Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs, the
genre mutated ever more toward R&B--not a bad thing, as long as the grooves
are smokin'. But in '97 only Missy Elliott, Timbaland and Magoo, Coolio,
Company Flow, and The Notorious B.I.G. kept the party going over the course
of an entire LP. Clocking in at around 90 minutes, the impressive
Wu-Tang Forever was too wanky to be the kind of record that anybody
but hip-hop heads would play all the way through.
Of those artists who made memorable music in other subgenres, most
retooled proven forms to make uncompromising and/or deeply personal
statements. Flailing like punks circa 1980, Sleater-Kinney and the
Geraldine Fibbers blew the lid off patriarchy even as they staked a claim
to their place within larger society. Tom House and Richard Buckner twisted
timeless Appalachia to expose bones rawer than anything this side of John
Fahey's Revenant label. Yo La Tengo and the Bottle Rockets unassumingly
brightened their respective corners of the world--Hoboken, N.J., and
Festus, Mo.--by mining '60s pop and '70s rock. Erykah Badu, Janet Jackson,
Joi, and Mary J. Blige made good with their beatwise approaches to jazz and
With producer Timbaland, Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott
proved there was still life in urban/hip-hop music this year
Photo by Michael Lavine
Reinforced by the unprecedented amount of music now available on
reissues, certainly all these artists would concede that it's all been said
and done before. Cornershop, whose When I Was Born for the Seventh
Time was the year's best and most conscious party record, embrace this
climate of recycling with a vengeance. Doubtless, they'd even enjoy the
pleasures of such ephemera as "Tubthumping," "MMMBop," and "Wannabe." "Some
sounds, some buttons, can release," Cornershop prime mover Tjinder Singh
sings on "Sleep on the Left Side." Wedding words and guitar to two
turntables and a microphone, Cornershop didn't just prove Singh's case; the
group reveled in the myriad possibilities of rock, pop, and hip-hop no less
than Beck did in 1996.
The Top 10
- Sleater-Kinney, Dig Me Out (Kill Rock Stars) "Words and guitar/I got
it," screams 23-year-old Corin Tucker, as if tapping into some mysterious
life force. "Words and guitar/I like it/Way way too loud/I got it," she
roars, spurred on by Carrie Brownstein's stabbing six-string and the
hammer-like blows of drummer Janet Weiss. Much as Iggy Pop embodied the
idiocy and monotony of his surroundings, in the process gaining mastery
over them, Sleater-Kinney turn hysteria into raw, unmitigated power. No
longer concerned with defining themselves over and against anything, these
three women find a room of their own on Dig Me Out.
- Cornershop, When I Was Born for the Seventh Time (Luaka
Bop/Warner Bros.) With its funky beats, Asian pop, and Velvets-inspired
rhythm guitar, Cornershop's latest boasts a musical ecumenism as visionary
as Beck's Odelay or Los Lobos' Colossal Head. A Punjabi cover
of "Norwegian Wood" even turns the tables on the European-American plunder
of Indian culture.
- Erykah Badu, Baduizm (Universal) I never bought the
clack about Badu being the jazz-hop reincarnation of Billie Holiday. She
sounds more like Sade to me, but that's only in the vocal department. More
than anything, Badu's elegant mix of sensuality and spirituality recalls
Marvin Gaye, so much so that she could have subtitled her debut Midnight
Love '97 without compunction.
- Richard Buckner, Devotion + Doubt (MCA) Buckner's
major-label debut renders the dark night of the soul as a narcotic--a deep,
warm, desperate embrace. Yet as much as I love this record and the one that
preceded it, I sometimes wonder whether Buckner's haunted heart isn't a
callow conceit, the sort of thing that helps him get laid.
- Tom House, The Neighborhood Is Changing (Checkered
Past) I originally included this roughhewn stringband record in my top
10 country/Americana releases. But House's subversion of language and
rhythm is so harsh and prophetic that he ultimately shares more in common
with punk than with anything even remotely resembling country music.
- Geraldine Fibbers, Butch (Virgin) From the art-damaged
blues of "Toy Box" to the forcebeat funk of "I Killed the Cuckoo" to the
elegiac grandeur of "Trashman in Furs," this is as expansive and visceral
as rock 'n' roll gets. Lead singer Carla Bozulich makes defiance swing.
- Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott, Supa Dupa Fly
(EastWest/EEG) "There's too many producers that's given off these fraud
beats," declares Elliott on "Pass Da Blunt." "Your worst mistake is trying
to duplicate anything that Timba make." Judging by this record's
jeep-jackin' beats and its posse of bullshit-free MCs, this is no idle
boast. Supa Dupa Fly finds Elliott and Timbaland teaming up for the
producer's record of the year.
- Yo La Tengo, I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One
(Matador) Since bassist James McNew's arrival, Yo La Tengo has
solidified its reputation as one of pop's most visionary and literate
outfits, expanding indie/alt-rock's guitar-based vocabulary no less than
Beck or the Beastie Boys. If there's a hermeneutic at work here, it's a
commitment to beauty. And that's the case whether the trio is caressing a
gentle bossa nova or bringing the noise.
- Bottle Rockets, 24 Hours a Day (Atlantic) Whether
demythologizing Dolly Parton or showing us the desperation of a woman who
stands by her man, the Bottle Rockets expose the cracks in a regional
idealism that many Southerners still embrace. Their empathy, irreverence,
and good humor--and the way they rock--make them alt-country's best.
- Beth Orton, Trailer Park (Dedicated) Massive Attack
meets Sandy Denny-era Fairport Convention: Trailer Park
magnificently realizes electronic music's organic possibilities. If you
like Nick Drake and Dusty Springfield, buy this record. Just thinking about
Orton's cover of Ronnie Spector's "I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine" brings
me to tears.
The Next Ten
- R.B. Morris, Take That Ride (Oh Boy!) As with fellow traveler
Lucinda Williams, Morris is too much of a rock classicist--too indebted to
Bob Dylan, the Stones, and the Band--for anyone to mistake his cornfed
Americana for country. Possessed of the hopeful realism of Whitman and
Agee, even Morris' lyrics sing the body electric.
- Roni Size/Reprazent, New Forms (Talkin' Loud/Mercury)
Mixing On the Corner-style polyrhythms, 170 beats per minute, disco
divas, and dub bass, Size and Reprazent may not exactly be fashioning new
forms for the next millennium, as MC Bahamadia boasts on this album's title
track, but they come close. And I'm only talking about the first disc, the
one with the "songs," including the silky, silky "Heroes." Disc two is all
instrumental; it takes listeners ever deeper into the jungle.
- Bob Dylan, Time Out of Mind (Columbia) Who'd have
thought that Dylan's best record in two decades would be a groove album?
It's almost as if he remembered that the music on Highway 61
Revisited and Blonde on Blonde was as revelatory as the words
that surged from his spleen--maybe more so.
- Portishead, Portishead (Go! Beat/London) On 1994's
Dummy, singer Beth Gibbons exuded a dispassionate sadness that often
bordered on boredom. Here she conveys palpable despair. Sometimes she's a
bit shrill (I keep hearing the witches in Macbeth), but the record's
sinister arrangements are as beguiling as they are meticulous.
- Janet, The Velvet Rope (Virgin) With its forbidden sex
and flaky sentiments ("It's my belief that we all have the need to feel
special"), it's tempting to think that Janet is trying to be freaky like
Mike. But if you can listen past the obligatory sensationalism (she is,
after all, a Jackson), The Velvet Rope starts to sound like a
confessional record, black pop's answer to Blue or For the
Roses. As if to make sure we get it, Janet samples Joni's "Big Yellow
Taxi" on the album's lead single, "Got 'Til It's Gone"--a song boasting
warm beats, ace turntable scratching, and a cameo from MC Q-Tip. A funky
record, in every sense of the word.
- Whiskeytown, Strangers Almanac (Outpost/Geffen) Ryan
Adams may be full of himself, but if he doesn't burn out on booze and
drugs, he just may prove to be the Westerbergian savant his cult claims him
to be. His band sure can rock: The first five tracks on their major-label
debut kick like the A-side of a late-'60s Stones LP.
- The Chemical Brothers, Dig Your Own Hole
(Astralwerks/Caroline) This non-sibling duo wields beats the way Eddie
Van Halen wields his guitar--relentlessly. Playing Apollo to Roni Size's
Dionysus, though, the Chems' icy interface grows numbing over this longish
CD. Still, judiciously reprogrammed at 30 minutes, Dig Your Own Hole
makes for some of the year's most exhilarating music.
- T-Model Ford, Pee-Wee Get Your Gun (Fat Possum) Never
mind Jon Spencer, here's the blues explosion. Whereas Spencer comes off
like a medicine-show clown, T-Model sounds and is dangerous. "I went
to jail for kickin' a man's ass," he sings on "I'm Insane." And that ain't
- Lonesome Bob, Things Fall Apart (Checkered Past)
Cheating, murder, suicide--no matter how desperately the men and women in
Lonesome Bob's songs try to get together, things always take a turn for the
worst. It sounds a bit arch on paper, and it would be, if Lonesome didn't
render it with such tortured conviction. The stabbing electric guitars tell
the rest of the story.
- Pavement, Brighten the Corners (Matador) At this
point, Pavement really is the best rock band of the '90s.
Three great albums from late '96 that I didn't hear until this year: DJ
Shadow, Endtroducing (Mo Wax/FFRR); Dr. Octagon, Dr.
Octagonecologyst (Bulk/Dreamworks); Tony Toni Tone, House of
Various artists, Anthology of American Folk Music (Smithsonian
Folkways); various artists, American Primitive Vol. I: Raw Pre-War Gospel
(1926-36) (Revenant); Charles Mingus, Passions of a Man (Rhino/Atlantic);
Stanley Brothers, The Complete Rich-R-Tone 78s (1947-1952) (Revenant); Jim
Ford, Harlan County (Edsel).