20 Albums Turning 20 in 2017: the best alternative releases of 1997
The alternative rock landscape had changed by the late 90s. Grunge was pretty much dead, no longer considered a viable commercial option for record labels. Nirvana were over, Soundgarden had split and Alice in Chains were hobbled by Layne Staley’s heroin habit. Pearl Jam had become a genre unto themselves.
Post-grunge emerged in its absence and with very few exceptions it sucked. So the pendulum swung back to Europe with techno and Britpop gaining more mainstream acceptance.
I was two years out of college in 1997. Still figuring out what the hell I wanted to do with my life, but the economy was good, the world seemed somewhat stable and I had some spare cash to buy new CD’s and let life sort itself out. I don’t think I realized how good we had it back then. The late 90’s was the last gasp of alternative rock in mainstream culture. Luckily it went out with a bang.
So here’s our list of the 20 best albums turning 20 this year in every alternative sub-genre. Without further ado.
20. Pulsars Pulsars
If this self-titled release came out today, The Pulsars would be the latest indie sensation. Sadly they were doing the retro 80’s synth-pop thing before it was cool and this quirky album got lost in the shuffle. But tracks like the whirring Silicon Teens and wistful My Pet Robot still hold up as shimmery, sonic confections.
19. Faith No More Album of the Year
FNM’s last effort before their first breakup was easily the weakest of the Patton-era. Certain songs like She Loves Me Not and Home Sick Home seemed more like sonic sketches then fully realized material. This was due to a lack of communication and burnout between band-members.
EVEN still, there are some truly stunning tracks that make AOTY worthy of inclusion on the list, with songs like the pummeling Collision, soaring anthems Last Cup of Sorrow and Ashes to Ashes and flirtations with electronica (Stripsearch).
Like most late 90’s alternative bands, James’ decided to tinker around with the burgeoning popularity of electronica in their native UK and this underrated release is a mostly successful synthesis with their sunny indie/Britpop sound. Play Dead and Go To The Bank are made for the dance floor, while tunes like Blue Pastures, She’s A Star and the chill-inducing Tomorrow showcase their rock roots.
The second best band you’ve never heard of to appear on this list, Kent were another adopter of 80’s post-punk stylings, fused with the moody alt-rock of acts like Radiohead. This was the Swedish group’s sole English release, full of wonderful moody anthems like If You Were Here, Things She Said and the spine-tingling 747.
Blur moved away from Britpop to draw inspiration from moody American indie rock on their eponymous release, marking a fairly drastic change in sound. It worked out rather swimmingly, being their best-selling effort in the U.S.
Tunes like Beatlebum and Death of a Party had a world-weariness that belied their young years while Song 2 was a bombastic bass heavy anthem that still packs a wallop.
The Deftones sophomore release saw the band expanding their sound, from the bludgeoning nu-metal end of the spectrum My Own Summer (Shove It) to more textural alternative territory Be Quiet (and Drive Far Away), while other songs (Lotion) split the difference between the two sonic extremes.
The end result is a sound that distinguished them for their low-tuned 7 String peers and made them their own microcosm of sound.
The late, sorely missed David Bowie indulged in the techno trappings of the era for this underrated effort, utilizing drum and bass on zippy tunes like Little Wonder and Dead Man Walking. As always he never sounds like a musical tourist, always capable of taking new influences and transposing them exquisitely into his unique musical architecture. And the menacing and dynamic I‘m Afraid of Americans feels timely as ever.
Portishead’s sophomore release had a troubled gestation. The band was dealing with writer’s block in trying to top their instant classic début Dummy, choosing to create most of their own samples than relying on vintage references.
As a result, their self titled sophomore release doesn’t reach the same heights as Dummy, but it’s still pretty damn great. Mourning Air is a spectral ballad, Over is gothic nirvana while Humming’s eerie theremin intro is straight up sci-fi horror soundtrack.
Techno (or electronica, whatever your preferred descriptor) was harder to market in America than in the U.K.. Knob twiddler’s and DJ’s made for a faceless genre for a country that liked rock stars.
The Prodigy changed all that thanks to frontman/manic dancers Keith Flint and Maxim Reality.
Fat of the Land became their breakout smash buoyed by the hits Firestarter, Breathe and (the controversial–and misunderstood) Smack my Bitch Up.
But Fat’s deep cuts like Funky Shit and Climbatized also rocked. It remains their definitive release. Heavy enough to head bang and sleek enough for ass shaking.
The Foo’s have yet to top their solid sophomore effort, which greatly expanded upon the sound of Grohl’s one-man band début. This group effort (including Nirvana/Germs guitarist Pat Smear) is full of ear worm anthems, the most notable being My Hero, and their finest song to date, the anthemic, beatific Everlong.
Bjork’s third solo album is also her best, showing an evolution in sound, bridging electronic music and string instruments into novel sonic concoctions, featuring a collection of songs dedicated to her native Iceland.
A musical mad scientist, the singer veers from the busy percussive Hunger to the ambient tranquil All is Full of Love with ease and grace.
It’s impossible to hear any single off Homogenic without recalling the wonderful music videos. Bjork has always been the whole package and this was her finest hour.
The Scream have changed their spots many times over, but Vanishing Point remains one of their strangest and most distinctive works.
A hallucinatory homage to the cult 70’s car chase film of the same name it’s full of cinematic imagery on tracks like Kowalski, If They Move Kill’Em and the theme to Trainspotting, while bringing dance rock furor to Motorhead and Medication.
Before they became charming, if formulaic, critical darlings, the French electronic duo’s début was indulgent, electro junk food, with just the right amount of whimsy to stand apart from the techno pack.
Around the World is as euphoric as any track of the decade, while Da Funk sounds straight off a 70s cop soundtrack. Rolling and Scratching remains my favorite, a sonic tug of war that pushes the limits of the build-and-release orgasmic techno song structure.
7. Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds The Boatman’s Call
Following on the heel’s of 1996’s theatrical epic Murder Ballads, Cave went in an entirely different direction on The Boatman’s Call, opting for subdued, piano-centric compositions that was atypical of Cave’s typical melodramatics.
It’s an album of romantic yearning, and songs like Into My Arms, (Are You) The One That I’ve Been Waiting For? and Green Eyes rank among his best material.
The Manchester duo expanded their big-beat/techno/house hybrid on Dig Your Own Hole, working with collaborators like Oasis’s Noel Gallagher on The Beatles-esque Setting Sun, and Beth Orton on the ambient ballad Where Do I Began.
They didn’t shy away from dance floor bangers either thanks to slammers like Block Rocking Beats and It Doesn’t Matter. It’s one of the most essential electronica albums of all time.
Depeche Mode were in a fragile place by the late 90s: sonic architect Alan Wilder bounced and vocalist Dave Gahan was coming off treatment for a brutal, near fatal heroin addiction.
This makes Ultra a subdued triumph, which for many bizarre reasons went unnoticed by critics and fans who dismissed it as sub par. Mainly because the band were content to follow their unique sonic fingerprint, refusing to tinker with their sound for the dance floor-friendly flavors of the times.
I defy you to listen to Home, Love Thieves, Barrel of a Gun or any other song and say it’s not magical. If you disagree, well, you’re just plain wrong.
Ween’s slow transition from sloppy sonic pranksters to their strange brand of witty prog-jam awesomeness was in full swing with The Mollusk.
An album obsessed with nautical themes (Mutilated Lips, Ocean Man), surprisingly touching ballads Its Gonna Be (All Right), and gloriously crude anthems (Waving My Dick In The Wind, The Blarney Stone), it’s one of their best efforts to date, which still brought the belly laughs, but with more accomplished musical chops.
The UK space rockers made the best album of their career with Ladies and Gentlemen, an epic psychedelic opus augmented by orchestral flourishes and gospel choirs.
Recorder in the aftermath of the breakup between frontman Jason Pierce and keyboardist Kate Radley, song like Broken Heart, Stay with Me and the title track sublimely reflected heartbroken discord.
But for all its troubled production, the album never seems to wallow in self-pity, instead reaching for healing through hypnotic droning bliss.
The Verve were always a fragile outfit. After breaking up after their excellent 1995 effort A Northern Soul, fans thought they were done for good. But they would reform in 1997 to make the best album of their career.
Urban Hymns has unfortunately been overshadowed as a complete entity thanks to the focus on hit single Bittersweet Symphony. That song became an instant classic track that was sidled with a lawsuit by the Rolling Stones over a sample so subtle, it’s amazing it caused such a legal ruckus.
As a result the rest of the album hasn’t really had its due: The Drugs Don’t Work is a beautiful country ballad, while Sonnet is a Beatles-esque wonder. Add in psychedelic epics like Chasing The Butterfly and The Rolling People and Britpop anthems like This Time, and you have a damn near perfect album. Of course they would break up after it. Sigh.
What else can you say about Ok Computer? It was considered by critics and fans as a masterpiece, and one of the most defining albums of the decade. And it’s not hard to see why.
Working with producer Nigel Godrich, Radiohead expanded on their moody alt-rock beginnings into something more grandiose and melancholy. First single Paranoid Android was the opening salvo,and it showed the heights of their ambition.
Radiohead are one of the few bands that can elicit heartfelt emotion from songs encased in isolation. Let Down, No Surprises, Karma Police, Airbag–really with the exception of the meh inclusion Electioneering, it’s impeccable.
While I will sing the praises of the underrated Pablo Honey and sophomore effort The Bends until my dying day, you can’t underestimate OK’s importance. But its triumph remains bittersweet for this blogger. It was the beginning of their dalliance with electronics, which while novel at first, would prove a demarcation line with Kid-A: an album that was a launching pad for new fans, but a departure for those who enjoyed their guitar-centric origins.
So that concludes my list of the best albums of 1997! Agree with my ranking? What albums would you add to the list? Tell me in the comments. I’ve included several honorable mentions below. And stay tuned next month when I’ll be covering the best albums from 1992 and 1987.
Honorable Mentions: Mogwai Young Team, Oasis Be Here Now, Sleater-Kinney Dig Me Out, Roni Size New Forms, Suede Sci-fi Lullabies, The Dandy Warhols Come Down, The Orb Orblivion, Mansun Attack of the Grey Lantern, Elliot Smith Either/Or, Grandaddy Under the Western Freeway, Yo La Tengo I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, Lamb Lamb.