A Semi-Charmed Year
By Noel Murray
DECEMBER 22, 1997:
Lacking a galvanizing artist, album, or trend, 1997 was a lost year for
rock music. The press, left at sea, tried to create and capitalize on
electronica, but with the exception of Prodigy and The Chemical Brothers,
the genre didn't make much commercial or critical noise. In its place was
another unclassifiable string of one-hit wonders by bands like Matchbox 20,
OMC, and Hanson. Third Eye Blind's great "Semi-Charmed Life" single
signaled to some that catchy guitar rock lived, but in truth the same tune
played on a Fairlight would've been just as huge.
So what did the year in music prove? Only that well-constructed pop
music still trumps would-be "movements." All that remains is for an artist
whose talent and charisma equal his or her ability to write snappy,
memorably arranged songs. When that happens, pop music will be interesting
The only artist who really got tongues wagging in '97 was the British
band Radiohead, whose OK Computer has landed on just about every
musician's and music critic's Top 10. It's a pretty good album, with a
couple of memorable songs, but is it worth all the noise? Hardly. People
seem to be overimpressed by the sprawl of the compositions and the
technological theme of the record, but there's too much clutter and too
many dead spots to hold this up among the best work of the year.
Frankly, if you want sprawl and thematic unity, the record of the year
is Built to Spill's Perfect From now on.--the vocals are better than
Radiohead's, the melodies are more hummable, and the guitar is
electrifying. Plus, the lyrics have a down-to-earth message about
self-improvement in the waning days of life. The album opens with a man
contemplating eternity and pledging to attain perfection; it ends with the
admonition, "When you see the darkness shining through/What are you going
to do?" It's a chilling thought, made all the more so by its presence at
the end of a warm, witty, and incisive record.
The rest of the albums that turned me on this year were by bands
following two different roads. First and foremost, I looked for music that
seemed to be on the leading edge of something new and exciting--some new,
relevant combination of genres and sounds. I wrote about most of these
bands last week under the umbrella of "post-rock," a fairly meaningless
term that has nonetheless been applied to some very meaningful music.
The other path I followed was blazed by The Apples in Stereo, a
Denver-area band whose blend of psychedelia and garage rock has inspired
and conjoined with a whole fleet of retro-pop bands across North America.
In Canada, the sui generis Zumpano and the newly Zumpano-esque Sloan
have been bringing classicism back to clattering rock. In Boston, the Lilys
transformed themselves from a My Bloody Valentine-inspired band of
noise-poppers into the direct descendants of Todd Rundgren's
Something/Anything. And in Athens, Ga., the indie label Kindercore
and the buzz bands Olivia Tremor Control, Neutral Milk Hotel, Elf Power,
and Of Montreal learned what can be done with three chords, tape hiss, and
a cracked world view.
The Apples in Stereo, creating garage-pop sounds for the
Photo by Richard Peterson
What these bands have in common (beyond an inexplicable fascination with
Dungeons & Dragons-influenced liner art) is a modern awareness that keeps
their historical jaunts from resulting in mere nostalgic posing. Unlike The
Chesterfield Kings or The Woggles, they don't pretend that the last three
decades never happened; they're as aware of Guided By Voices and Sebadoh as
those bands were aware of R.E.M. And while The Apples in Stereo and their
ilk have yet to revolutionize pop music, they do make a joyful noise.
(Plus, I think the Lilys are onto something.)
Before I bid farewell to the year that was, I must thank two entities
that completely influenced my listening year:
- The Trouser Press Guide to 90's Rock. In March, the bookstores
stocked the first new edition since 1991 of Ira Robbins' invaluable roadmap
to alternative music. For those of us who built their collections around
the previous recommendations of Robbins and his staff, the six-year wait
between volumes has been unbearable. Not just because we needed Robbins'
wit and insight to help us appreciate Nirvana and Uncle Tupelo, but because
the warts-and-all approach helps lead us to bands and albums of which we
might not otherwise have been aware. I thank Trouser Press for
bringing High Llamas, Shrimp Boat, The Halo Benders, and Vulgar Boatmen
into my life this year.
- CD Now. I also thank this online shopping service for bringing
these bands to my literal doorstep. No longer do I experience the
frustration of flipping through the stacks at my local record store and
failing to find the disc I've been searching for. CD Now is practically as
cheap as a regular store, and its supply is breathtaking. (And if the
service doesn't have a record in stock, it can backorder; I've never had to
wait more than two weeks for the company to find an item for me.)
Armed with my good book and the musical equivalent of an ATM, I spent
much of the year happily buying old records and ignoring the buzz in the
press. The best music I heard in 1997 was mostly released in 1996. If I had
last year's list to do over again, I'd find room for Mysteries of Life,
Number One Cup, Lilys, Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, Tortoise, Zumpano, and
I did try my best to stay awake, however, and I hope this year's list is
The top 20
- Built to Spill, Perfect From now on. (Warner Bros.) A triumphant,
inspired pastiche of riffs and maxims; it's arresting from the very opening
words: "Every thousand years...."
- 1/2 The Sea and Cake, The Fawn (Thrill Jockey); 1/2
Stereolab, Dots and Loops (Elektra) Two John McEntire-produced
records that are breathtakingly beautiful and, at their core, strikingly
- Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, Barafundle (Mercury) Not since
Emerson Lake and Palmer took a break from "The Curse of Baba Yaga" to
record "Lucky Man" has a U.K. band so completely explored the link between
early pop music and the modern Top 40. Thankfully, GZM does it in
two-and-a-half-minute ditties, rather than in album-side symphonies.
- 1/2 The Apples in Stereo, Tone Soul Evolution (SpinArt);
1/2 Sloan, One Chord to Another (The Enclave) Snare kicks and
guitar licks are pushed to the front of the mix, while the harmonies
shimmer in the background.
- 1/2 Cornershop, When I Was Born for the Seventh Time (Luaka
Bop/Warner Bros.); 1/2 Pizzicato Five, Happy End of the World
(Matador) It's a world of filler music, and these are two intentionally
filler-filled records, both interested in the random melodies we overhear
- Yo La Tengo, I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One
(Matador) A catalog of popular music, lovingly compiled by rock's most
diligent husband-and-wife team.
- 1/2 The Dambuilders, Against the Stars (EastWest); 1/2
Pulsars (Almo Sounds) Props for the '80s from two bands with a
different idea of what "nostalgia" means.
- Mike Watt, Contemplating the Engine Room (Columbia) An
idosyncratic, open, and personal exploration from the hardest-working man
in alternative rock.
- The High Llamas, Hawaii (V2) Music to get oblivious
by--ginger sweet and slightly addled.
- Negativland, Dispepsi (Seeland) A masterful dissection
of the culture of selling, set to surprisingly engaging electronic music.
- Ivy, Apartment Life (Atlantic) This year's
Cardigans--smooth uptown pop with a sprightly personality.
- 1/2 Butterglory, Rat Tat Tat (Merge); 1/2 Ladybug
Transistor, Beverly Atonale (Merge) Two of the best DIY bands
around, building pop music from the hooks up.
- Pavement, Brighten the Corners (Matador/Capitol)
Anytime they want to rock again will be fine by me, but in the meantime,
Steve Malkmus' unique lyrical vision makes the record's laconic mid-tempo
framework worthwhile. "Stereo" should've been a hit.
- The Grifters, Full Blown Posession (SubPop) Their most
polished album has been lambasted by some who miss the old, "purer"
slackness, but I wouldn't trade the accomplished first half of this record
for all the off-key guitars in Memphis. The second half is admittedly
- Fuck, Pardon My French (Matador) An unfortunately
named band, given the innocent charms of their low-key, spacious folk-pop.
- Swell, Too Many Days Without Thinking (Beggar's
Banquet) Mind-blowing fuzz-rock with a haunting rattle.
- Varnaline (Zero Hour) You can have Whiskeytown's
honky-tonk pretensions; I'll take Varnaline's spine-tingling,
spine-shattering howl of country-inflected fury.
- Will Oldham, Joya (Drag City) After burying Palace,
Oldham has freed himself to roam aimlessly through the hills and find new
rocks to turn over. The result is welcome--fresh folk-rock sounds with
little of Palace's heavy aura.
- Fl. Oz., Big Notebook for Easy Piano (Spongebath) What
Ben Folds Five could be if Folds would lighten the hell up and write words
as pleasant as his melodies. Oppressive Ross Rice production keeps this
from being as loose and ecstatic as the band's live show, but their
songcraft cannot be denied. A promising debut.
- Bottle Rockets, 24 Hours a Day (Atlantic) No
Brooklyn Slide, but Brian Henneman's latest trek through trailer
parks and greasy spoons is still tight and twangy, with a heart as big as
Four great EPs
- Lilys, Services (for the soon to be departed) (Primary/Che) A
seamless 20-minute suite of eccentric experimental pop, driven by
- Idaho, The Forbidden (Buzz) Loping and sorrowful as
ever, thank God.
- Lambchop Thriller (Merge) An LP, really, but short
enough to qualify for this list, and worth it for "The Old Fat Robin"
- The Need (Chainsaw) Put these aggressive grrls in a
room with Fiona Apple for 20 minutes, and she'll be running back to her
designer dresses and award shows. We'll see what's "bullshit" then.