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1997 top albums

May 14, 2012

Top LPs, 1997

June 1998 note: I’ve NEVER done this before. But I was so ashamed of this list, and so impressed with three 1997 records I didn’t get to until 1998, that I HAD to amend the list. I just added three more old farts — Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash — but it’s a better list. And the numbers in parenthesis indicate where I originally had the album listed.

1997 turns out to be the year I lost it, and I didn’t even care.

What I lost was any need or desire to keep track of what’s the biggest in popular music.

I lost the ability a long time ago, mind you. I remember reading a few years back that Boyz II Men were breaking some chart record held by the Beatles … and I HADN’T EVEN HEARD the Boyz II Men song. I was troubled.

At some point in 1997, meanwhile, I grabbed a copy of Billboard magazine and looked at the top 10. I didn’t know any of the songs, and I didn’t really care. I had nine hours of bootleg Frank Zappa concert tapes sitting at home waiting for me.

In fact, it took until the end of the year for me to even find 10 albums I felt comfortable listing in a top 10.

At the start of the summer, I was encouraged by the wonderful airy pop music I was hearing, typified by Hanson’s “Mmm-Bop.” But that song didn’t have the legs I thought it might, and the album turned out to be equally lightweight. Oh well — the same fate befell Smashmouth, whose “Walking on the Sun” is my single of the year, but whose album turned out to be just OK.

I’m happy with the good music I’ve been fortunate enough to find. I just don’t want to waste any more time plowing through a dozen 4AD releases to find one Cocteau Twins. I’m getting sick of buying Dionne Farris albums, and only finding one “I Know.”

Of course, I’m also really sick of my album of the year going to people whose records don’t sell (Lindsey Buckingham, Michael Petak) or people who lose their record deals the same year they put out a great album (Adam Schmitt, Chris Whitley). If only I could figure out how to do this myself, I’d sign all these people and they’d at least know the label is behind them.

1. Chris Whitley, TERRA INCOGNITA

As each song went by, I’d be thinking, “Wow, that was better than the last one. How long can he keep this up?” For the whole album, as it turned out. White blues, sung empathatically, with some fascinatingly surreal lyrics and some nasty guitar playing.

2. Bill Hicks, ARIZONA BAY

Without question the best comedy album ever made, and by that I mean it holds up well to repeated listens. It’s as much a musical art piece as it is comedy. Had Hicks lived, he might have redefined comedy albums the way Firesign Theater did before him — turned them into pieces that would make you listen hard and think, as opposed to documentary replications of live performances.

Actually, it’s just funnier than a really good spit take, but I had to dress up my description somehow.

3. Moxy Fruvous, YOU WILL GO TO THE MOON

It’s easy to latch onto “Michigan Militia,.” because it’s catchy and clever. But there’s much more interesting stuff here, including the Eastern-influenced “No No Raja” and their XTC tribute, “Get in the Car.” If you get a chance, go see them live. You’ll thank me.

4. David Bowie, EARTHLING

Hard to believe this is the first time Bowie’s been in my top 10 list, but it’s also hard for me to believe how much time I spent listening to this. His first vital album since “HEROES,” and, while I know the competition is pretty slim, probably the best rock and roll album ever made by somebody over age 50.

5. Led Zeppelin, BBC SESSIONS

Geez, if you forget about the bombast, these guys were basically just a nice little three-piece rock band with a singer who sounded like his genatalia was caught in a vise. And they were fun. I love hearing the snare drum rattle during the opening “quiet” part of “Stairway to Heaven.” I love how, every once in a while in other songs, everything sounds like it’s going to fall apart, and they pull it back. I miss these guys.

6. Devlins, WAITING

My most unexpected pleasure of the year. Breathtakingly tuneful, memorable, heartbreaking pop music that sounds best when either bouncing off the walls of a dark, packed hockey arena (yeah, like guys these good would ever be accepted by the masses to that degree) or at 3 a.m. in a darkened living room. Thanks for the heartaches, guys. I’ll be back many times.

7. Bob Dylan, TIME OUT OF MIND

I laughed a lot when I was listening to this. It was laughter of joy, realizing that his Bobness still had a sense of humor, still had the ability to string together words in a coherent way. He’d taken so much to cruising on past glories that I’d been thinking he was more a jukebox than an artist. Imagine my surprise when reviewers started discussing what a depressing record this was. Guess that’s what I want out of Dylan — a little misery.

8. Paul McCartney, FLAMING PIE

You can hear him thinking, which is good. And he surprised me, which is even better. Follow this link, and I’ll get into it a little deeper.

9 (7). Derailers, REVERB DELUXE

The greatest album Buck Owens never made. As opposed to much of the plastic, cookie-cutter country that gets pawned off these days, these guys are the real deal, which is why most of us will never hear them anywhere. Too bad. 14 songs, too, so they’ll never fit in with the Nashville elite — they want to give the customer value for the buck.

10. Johnny Cash, UNCHAINED

American Records bought an ad in the country music trade magazines ”thanking” the current narrow-minded company programmers for putting this album’s songs on the radio (which, of course, they didn’t). The picture was of Cash extending his middle finger toward the camera. ‘Nuff said, but here’s a little more from me.

(8). Neil Young, YEAR OF THE HORSE

“It’s all the same song!” Young yells at the start of this record. But it’s Neil and the Horse playing like they’re on the RUST NEVER SLEEPS tour, loud, live rock and roll. Remember what I said about David Bowie and 50-year-olds? Neil Young is 52. So there are a couple out there.

(9). Jayhawks, SOUND OF LIES

I know, I know, HOLLYWOOD TOWN HALL is their masterpiece. For me, it was OK, but I never got it the way other people seemed to. So this is the anti-TOWN HALL, if you will. I could identify with a lot of this, which sounded like it was recorded in 1975, when you could still get away with four or five different musical styles on one record.

(10). The Doors, BOX SET

The best thing about the Doors is exemplified in this package. They were perfectly willing to take their worst traits and just shove them in your face time and again. What didn’t you like? That monotonous organ? The pretentious acid-inspired lyrics masquerading as poetry? Their annoying pop hits? For me, it was/is Morrison’s Vegas croon. They’re all here in force. And I can still listen to “Peace Frog” about any time. I’ll leave somebody else to sing along with “Roadhouse Blues.” Somebody always does.

Honorable mention (boy, is THIS thin): Pete Ham, 7 WEST AVENUE; Material Issue, TELECOMMANDO AMERICANO; Simpsons, SONGS IN THE KEY OF SPRINGFIELD; World Party, EGYPTOLOGY

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