The Year in Rock
Ska, Puff, Prodigy, and Lilith
By Matt Ashare
DECEMBER 29, 1997:
It was a year that began with dire diagnoses regarding the state of the music
industry and overblown predictions about something called "electronica." A year
that found Bono holding court at a New York K-mart and Marion "Suge" Knight
holding onto his embattled Death Row label from an LA prison cell. A year that
saw the passing of young talents Jeff Buckley and Biggie Smalls while the
Stones, Fleetwood Mac, and Bob Dylan proved they still had some life in them.
And a year that ended with Puff Daddy covering the Police and "The Girls of
Scream 2" on the cover of Rolling Stone's 1997 Rock & Roll
Yearbook issue. In other words, though plenty happened, nothing happened that
was enough to capture people's imaginations on a grand scale -- the way, say,
Nirvana's grunge, Jane's Addiction's alternative, Nine Inch Nails' industrial,
Snoop and Dre's West Coast gangsta, or Green Day's punk did in their day.
Indeed, 1997 was the first year of the decade that really lacked for the kind
of zeitgeist shock of the new (or, at least, unexpected) that we'd come to
expect from the '90s.
So maybe 1997 was a bit of a letdown, a year of first-rate copycats like Puff,
Sarah McLachlan, and Jakob Dylan, and second-rate copycats like Matchbox 20 and
Third Eye Blind. To me it felt a lot like the mid-'80s, not just because Puff
was cruising the airwaves in Bowie's "Let's Dance" and the Police's "I'll Be
Watching You," or because Moby grabbed a guitar and put Mission of Burma's
"That's When I Reach for My Revolver" on the radio," or because Ozzy was a huge
summer hit and Hanson and the Spice Girls reminded me of the Top 40 pap that
once sent me scanning the left of the dial for music with spirit, meaning, and
a sense of humor. No, what really did it was that for the first time in years
none of my favorite music ended up anywhere near the charts. And in a strange
way, there was something comforting about that.
For the record, my 10 favorites were, in no particular order, as follows:
- Lauren Hoffman, Meggido (Virgin)
- Sleater-Kinney, Dig Me Out (Kill Rock Stars)
- Belle and Sebastian, If You're Feeling Sinister (The
- Built To Spill, Perfect from Now On (Warner Bros.)
- Elliott Smith, Either/Or (Kill Rock Stars)
- Pulsars, Pulsars (Almo Sounds)
- dEUS, In a Bar, Under the Sea (Island)
- That Dog, Retreat from the Sun (DGC)
- Superchunk, Indoor Living (Merge)
- Geraldine Fibbers, Butch (Virgin)
I won't bore you with the details of that list, which, come to think it, is so
1992, or 1988, or maybe even 1985. I mean, no electronica DJs, drum 'n' bass,
or block-rockin' beats? Well, no. Just good old-fashioned words and guitars, as
grrrl rockers Sleater-Kinney put it in one song. Instead, here's a rundown of
some of the artists, events, trends, and contexts that made 1997, for better or
worse, the year it was in the realm of pop.
- Exotic pop. Although none of them released an
album that was quantifiably better than their previous work,
Stereolab, Cornershop, and Björk all came through
with pan-cultural pop that blurred the lines between organic and electronic,
song- and texture-based, retro- and future-styled music. Franco-Brits Stereolab
created intimate songs for mass consumption on Dots and Loops (Elektra).
England's Cornershop offered a pastiche of turntable scratching, indie-rock
strumming, and sitar jamming on When I Was Born for the 7th Time (Warner
Bros.). And Björk breathed life into digital dreamscapes on Homogenic
(Elektra). If there was a promising new direction in pop to be found in
1997, it wasn't in the block-rockin' beats of the Chemical Brothers but in the
block-buildin' pop of Cornershop, Stereolab, and Björk.
- Ska. If the 1997 performances of Green Day and the Offspring
were any indication, punk is losing its grip on the mainstream. But punk's
happy cousin, ska, came back with a vengeance. Three words: Mighty Mighty
- Psychedelia. If there was a common thread that ran up from the
underground into mainstream rock and even stitched its way into electronica, it
was psychedelia. Indie-rockers got trippy with the Terrastock Festival
last spring in Providence, which featured the first US appearance of
England's Bevis Frond. And Built To Spill dazzled the few who
heard the surrealist guitar jams of Perfect from Now On (Warner Bros.).
On the radio there was Radiohead's OK Computer (Capitol),
Portishead's Portishead(London), and especially the grandiose
swirl of the Verve's Urban Hymns (Virgin). And in the
clubs you had the mind-altering sounds of the Chemical Brothers,
Crystal Method, and drum 'n' bass.
- Post-riot grrrls. The Lilith Fair tour was so rapidly
mythologized as a triumph for women in rock's ongoing battle of the sexes (or
battle against sexism) that nobody seemed to realize what a Pyrrhic victory it
was. Sure, Lilith proved that a nominally all-female tour could generate big
numbers, yet it did so largely by appealing to a regressive notion of women's
role in rock as sensitive, sensual singer-songwriters backed by all-male bands
(plus female backup singers). Fortunately, there were other women, outside
Lilith's orbit, who continued to push forward with the notion that girls can
play just as hard and independently as boys: Portland (Oregon) ladies
Sleater-Kinney, whose angular punk was a reminder that riot grrrl is
more than just a passing fad; Virginia's Lauren Hoffman, who delivered
the best debut album of the year; England's playfully new-wavy Kenickie,
whose Warner Bros. disc was the second best debut album of the year; and LA's
- Brit-pop.Oasis may have won the Brit-pop war a couple
years back, but Blur seemed to win all the crucial battles this year by
abandoning Brit-pop for Amer-indie rock on their new Blur (Virgin) and
just being, well, a hell of a lot more likable than those Gallagher brothers.
Yet it was Radiohead, with their densely textured OK Computer,
who really walked away with it by surprising us all with a disc that was a hell
of a lot deeper than "Creep" ever suggested.
- NYC hip-hop. With both Tupac Shakur and BiggieSmall dead and buried, the bitter East Coast/West Coast rivalry that pitted the
LA gangstas against NYC's finest finally seemed to subside this year. But not
before the stage was set for two New York crews -- Puff Daddy and the Family
and the Wu Tang Clan -- to put East Coast hip-hop back on the map in
a big way. The hard yet artful beats and rhymes of the Wu had the most to offer
musically, but it was the ubiquitous svengali producer/entrepreneur Sean
"Puffy" Combs and his Bad Boy empire who dominated the year, first with
Biggie Smalls's swan song, Life After Death (Bad Boy), then with
the Puff Daddy and the Family disc No Way Out (Bad Boy), and finally
with the out-of-nowhere #1 triumph of Puff's new protégé Ma$e
and his Harlem World (Bad Boy) debut. Not to mention Puffy's massive
Pepsi-sponsored tour, or his production/remix work with Mariah Carey and Sting.
Still, it was Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott and the rubbery grooves of her
Supa Dupa Fly that struck me as hip-hop's big deal of the year.
- Electronica. Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers got all
the hype, moved some units, and yet failed to make a convincing argument for
the end of rock. Electronica's biggest thrills came from French funksters
Daft Punk, America's own Crystal Method, and a strange British
dude known as the Aphex Twin. Even more exciting, though, has been the
return of the DJ as someone who plays with records rather than just playing
them. It started with DJ Shadow and the turntable tour-de-force of his
Entroducing . . . (London) late last year. Before long
England's Ninja Tune label was launching its "Stealth Tour" of the US
and releasing discs by DJ Vadim, Coldcut, and the
Herbaliser, even as US turntablists like Invisibl Skratch
Pickles and the X-ecutioners started making waves.
- A new wave of new wave. One of the more entertaining
commercial failures (or underground developments) in '97 was the return of
'80s-style new wave. Chicago's geeky Pulsars paid tribute to silicon
teens on their Almo Sounds debut; Stephin "Magnetic Fields" Merritt was
playfully maudlin on Future Bible Heroes' Slow River/Rykodisc debut;
LA's That Dog grew up and then broke up after drawing on the power pop
of the Go-Go's for their Retreat from the Sun (DGC); and Ric Ocasek
went nowhere with a great album, Troublizing (Columbia), featuring
former Minor Threat/current Bad Religion guitarist Brian Baker on guitar.
- Nels Cline. On the subject of guitarists and CDs that didn't
sell, 41-year-old avant-rock/jazz guitarist Nels Cline lent his
formidable talents to two cathartic releases in 1997. First there was Butch
(Virgin), the powerful sophomore disc by LA's Geraldine Fibbers, a
band Cline has joined full time. Then there was Mike Watt's punk-rock
opera Contemplating the Engine Room (Columbia). Cline also released an
instrumental duet with Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore titled Pillow
Wand (Little Brother Records, Box 3224, Eugene, Oregon 97403), which is
worth digging around for.
- Real folks.The best-box-of-the-year award goes to Smithsonian
Folkways' reissue of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk
Music, a six-CD collection of oddities by blues troubadours, hillbilly
hollerers, gospel chanters, and country crooners originally released in 1952.
The best rock book of the year was Greil Marcus's Invisible Republic:
Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes (Henry Holt). Together, the Anthology and
the book reminded us where Bob Dylan came from. And then Dylan came
along with Time Out of Mind (Columbia) and reminded us again.