2017 should be remembered as the year the world got stuck in an OK-hole. Maybe it’s something to do with how ‘OK Computer‘ perfectly captured the anxiety of alienation, political uncertainty, and our uncomfortable yet co-dependent relationship with technology that has made its 20th anniversary so ubiquitous. The internet is fast filling with yet more articles about OK Computer; “hear this previously unreleased track“, “read this in-depth lyrical analysis“, “learn about the origin of the album title“, “look at this highway the album cover art is based on”. OK, we get it.
The celebration of ‘OK Computer’ is not without reason. For an album that was released 20 years ago, it still sounds hauntingly current, and its influence echoes throughout countless new releases. It’s both the most collected and most wanted release of 1997 among Discogs users, clocking in at 39532 Haves and 29975 Wants (at time of writing), with 5 stars from 4341 of the 5712 users that rated it.
Still, all this Radiohead talk left us hungry for a discussion on albums from 1997 that goes beyond ‘OK Computer’ and what the band ate for breakfast while they were recording it. So when we asked some of the world’s most renowned music critics for their take on the best albums of ’97 there was one catch…
IT CAN’T BE ‘OK COMPUTER’.
Never much for horn sections, I’ve always preferred my clave straight from the timbales, perhaps with some charanga violins for accent. But in part that’s because not even Eddie Palmieri gives up as much montuno as this 77-year-old Cuban virtuoso, making his first album as a leader five years after he thought he’d retired, his joints aching and his home piano consumed by woodworm. Rhythm and romance flow from his old-fashioned digital memory as he and his friends jam the classics, guaracha to bolero to cha cha cha.
– Robert Christgau, Dean of American Rock Critics (US)
The Spice Girls were stretched wafer thin in 1997, lending their name to anti-perspirant, lollipops, crisps, cameras, clothes, and any other plastic gewgaw big enough to bear the SPICE brand. Their extra-curricular activities were so pervasive that you could almost forget that at heart, they were the world’s biggest pop group trying to follow up a gigantic debut. The recording sessions for second album Spiceworld took place in mobile studios in between filming scenes for the delightfully awful movie of the same name, so by rights, it should have been a lackluster facsimile of 1996’s Spice. But the five-piece doubled down on their cartoon camp, putting their brazen platform-booted stamp on salsa, Motown, doo wop and balladry. It was so tied up in their image that you never hear it played any more, but nobody needs an actual copy of Spiceworld to remember the brash piano of Spice Up Your Life, or Too Much‘s luxurious swoon (though if you happen to have it on vinyl, it’s worth a bomb now).
– Laura Snapes, Guardian • Observer • Pitchfork • Q (UK)
Mine would be (and was) Bob Dylan’s “Time Out of Mind.” This was Dylan’s stunning return to form after several lackluster releases in which he seemed to be struggling to reconnect with his muse by going back to the fundamentals by recording his takes on folk and blues classics. In “Time Out of Mind” he offered up a deeply engrossing work exploring the ravages of age, what love and lust mean in the so-called “golden years” and the loss of youthful dreams. It ranked with the best of his most revered efforts from the mid-‘60s.
– Randy Lewis, Los Angeles Times (US)
By 1997, they were saying Dylan was finished. His previous two studio albums (1992’s Good as I Been to You and 1993’s World Gone Wrong) were both full of folk-and-blues traditionals. But producer Daniel Lanois wasn’t throwing in any towels, and Dylan, despite Love Sick weariness, wasn’t giving up either. Lanois covers Dylan’s ravaged poetry with a moody sonic haze. Not Dark Yet is devastating. And if Make You Feel My Love is bargain Dylan, it’s also a beautiful love song. Adele and Billy Joel say so, and they’re in that business.
– Brad Wheeler, Globe and Mail (CANADA)
For Japanese people, artwork is a strongly eye-catching piece. In the artwork of the Japanese version CD at that time, the signboard of the deceased Japanese bank “Fuji Bank” (centered) was being printed black… Since the Japanese version of LP has not been released, I am looking forward to the day when the Japanese version of “black paint” is produced.
– Hiroko Aizaqa, Record People Magazine (Japan)
The summer of 1997: what a glorious rush of music. The saddest and bleakest time of my life, up to that point, so I clung to my radio like a life raft. A great year for quiet records, like the Softies’ Winter Pageant or Lois’ Infinity Plus or Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind. And a great year for loud records, by Biggie and Puffy and Lil Kim and Hanson. But the loudest bang belongs to Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott. Her debut Supa Dupa Fly, with Missy leaning way back on the cover, sticking her sneaker in your face. She and Timbaland, breezing out of Virginia Beach with the keys to the Jeep, the slow-motion dankness of “The Rain”, the humid fever dream of “Sock It 2 Me”, the blizzy-blizzy blasé banter of “Izzy Izzy Ah”. It was the loudest noise at a time when I needed it most. And many times, late at night, hearing her whisper the stormy-weather blues at the end of “The Rain,” it also sounded like the quietest record in the world.
– Rob Sheffield, Rolling Stone (US)
Major label hip-hop was more experimental, more daring, more just plain weird than most things being called “alternative” in 1997. The stuttering start-and-stop Seals & Crofts beat of Busta Rhymes‘ “Put You Hands Where My Eyes Can See“; the rubbery push-pull jalopy-spaceship of Timbaland & Magoo‘s “Peepin’ My Style” and Missy Elliott’s “The Rain” (Supa Dupa Fly”); that screeching and screaming DJ Q-Bert turntable solo at the end of Dr. Octagon‘s “Blue Flowers“, just reissued by Dreamworks. Add a Hype Williams fisheye and a David LaChappelle photo shoot and the whole year felt like it was blasted from the future.
The sprawling Wu-Tang Forever was just a dumping ground for fabolously strange ideas, producer RZA (with assists from 4th Disciple, True Master and Inspectah Deck) taking the broken boom-box sound they were forged on, exploding it from the claustrophobia of 1993’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and turning into a stylized epic. Clocking in at nearly two hours, the number of good ideas on display is absurd. A young Miri Ben-Ari squalling and squealing violin solos across “Reunited“; the way the music on “For Heaven’s Sake” feels a few beats behind the downbeat of the raps; “Cash Still Rules” skipping and skipping on the last segment of Skeeter Davis saying “shore” and slowly fading out while Method Man is still rapping; whatever busted squall happens at the end of “Bells of War”; the errant, hard-panned noises all over “The Dog Shit.” The best might be building a song on Love‘s desolate “Signed D.C.” and letting just a little more of Arthur Lee‘s voice appear as the song goes on — “S—,” “Some,” “Sometimes I—” — without ever letting him finish. There’s entire essays that can be written about the overdriven snares. The lead single had “hypotheses” in the opening lines.
– Christopher Weingarten, Rolling Stone (US)
Either/Or is Elliott Smith’s third album, released in February 1997. It was his breakthrough record – the one that introduced the world to his haunting vocal style, baroque flourishes and the Beatles-esque simplicity that underpinned his entire output. From the Ballad of Big Nothing – with its chugging pop sensibility – to the urban melancholy of Angeles and the shimmering alt-rock lullaby of Rose Parade, this was a record that cemented Smith’s place in music history as a troubled troubadour with a flair for off-kilter beauty.
– Hannah J. Davies, The Guardian • Q (UK)
1997 was the beginning of the age of soulquarians. Hip hop, soul and a renewed hippy spirit that coalesced around the warm nurturing sound of Erykah Badu’s voice. “Bauduizm”, her unbelievable first album, pointed in a future where swag and mindfulness would meet and she was a being from that future, returned to teach us all: “I have some food in my bag for you/ Not that edible food the food you eat?/ No I have some food for thought/ Since knowledge is infinite it has infinitely fell on me”. Her apple tree was full of woody drum sounds, intelligent synths and enlighten lyrics. It is because of “Baduizm” and Badu’s Neo soul that 1997, at least for me, sounds like a place you can come back when everything else it out of order. Oh, and we would probably never have had D’Angelo’s “Voodoo”. That would have been a bummer for R’n’B.
– Felix Zwinzscher, Die Welt (Germany)