Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene 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 R&B.

Fly girl
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

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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 no joke.

  9. 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.

  10. 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 Music (Mercury).

Five Reissues

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).

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