Understand that I'm not being so arrogant as to claim that these albums are "the best of 1997" - I didn't have time to hear everything I would have liked to hear, by a long shot. Note in particular that there are no new jazz albums listed, only archive releases. It's taken me this long to start catching up to music recorded forty years ago, so I'm extremely under-informed regarding new jazz developments. This then is no best-of list - these are just the CDs I most enjoyed bumping into this year. After the first couple of entries they're in no particular order.
I'm already on record as declaring this to be my second favorite musical thing ever, so I won't elaborate here. This should have been a 1996 release - it being the date which the packaging bears, plus, throughout the liner notes, references are made to the "30th Anniversary" of "Pet Sounds" (which was released in 1966) - but Beach Boy infighting kept it collecting dust in warehouses for over a year, so it's '97 by default. It was so very completely worth the wait.
I'm still in love with this album, which lives up to all its hype times fifty. I'm a big glubhead, though - I went to my wife's office Christmas party a couple of weeks ago and forgot to program my VCR for the live Radiohead broadcast on MTV. Then I didn't read the TV Guide and missed the rebroadcast two days later. Glubhead! Any of you folks nab it? Hey, can anyone explain to me and Scott Chatfield why Oasis are so famous? We don't really get it.
Makes it as a 1997 release because all this material has never been collected in one box before. Read my Vai diary from Japan to relive my existential dilemma about whether or not I should buy the nifty Japanese Village Vanguard releases, which each documented one or more nights of the Vanguard engagement, knowing full well that Impulse! in the US would eventually remaster and reissue the thing in some irresistible way. Little did I know how irresistible - with not only over half an hour of previously unreleased material, but also featuring a truly compact and attractive box, with lovely new paintings of Coltrane tucked all around inside it. There's even a poster. Plus the remastered audio is measurably clearer and beefier than any earlier incarnation.
1997 was one of my periodic Dylan rediscovery years, greatly aided by the writings of journalist Paul Williams, so it was terrific timing to have a new album to obsess over. With many layers of sound, performance and meaning to wallow in for years to come, this is for me his most rewarding release since the Rolling Thunder tour wheezed to a halt.
Neil, like Dylan, is an artist I love as much for his cojones as for the work he produces. But where with Dylan you're never quite sure what the overall tone of any given album might be, Neil, whether in electric or acoustic mode, is pretty comfortingly familiar (certain 80s-era genre experiments excepted). So familiar, in fact, that my first listening to the "Year Of The Horse" CD, backstage at a G3 show in the rain, was not earth-shattering, although it was overwhelmingly pleasant. It wasn't until seeing the film of the same name (which features different performances) that I was again made stingingly aware of what a treasure Neil and the Horse are, and the album really came alive for me. Maybe we've heard this noise before, but no one else makes a noise anything like it - and it's a GREAT noise.
Robert Fripp has been gleefully diving into the archives for the last few years, and releasing some incredibly elegant Crimson albums, which make a strong case for the band's risk-taking adventurousness, especially relative to the other "big" prog acts of the 70s. "Epitaph" is a 4-CD set documenting the 1969 Crimson, and runs the sonic gamut from some fairly wretched sounding cassette recordings to some eye-wetteningly pristine BBC tracks (hearing another studio-quality performance of "Court Of The Crimson King" was a mind-blower for this nostalgic proggie) - historically invaluable, and with the superb packaging which has become a point of pride with all things Fripp these days, plus insanely informative, detailed, every angle explored liner notes (you thought "Dust Speck" was anal?). "The Night Watch" is a 2-CD set presenting the entire 1973 Amsterdam performance which provided 30 minutes of material for the "Starless And Bible Black" album, presented with such loving good humor that one fervently wishes for certain other tape vaults to be plundered so intelligently.
The monaural disc, especially. Mono kicks ass!!
Brak is King. I laughed harder at Brak this year than I laughed at "South Park" and that's saying a real, real, real lot.
This is the one that has four CDs in it which you're supposed to play all at once. Scott, Joe Travers and I went and did it, we obediently got four CD players and synchronized our start positions and listened to the damn thing. Some sections are truly startling, some just annoying, and some very funny. The songwriting is not exactly world-beating throughout but the concept is fascinating and, as it is the first commercial release I've encountered which encourages this specific form of interactivity, it definitely ranks as an outstanding release for this year. Let's see someone take it a bit further now.
This study of the US cola wars is the best, scariest and funniest load of media-tweaking since "Helter Stupid" a decade ago. This CD likely rewards repeated listenings more than any "pop" release of the year, and "Happy Hero" sports an even better bubblegum pop-song melody than the chorus to "Potato". Plus they offer a revolutionary advertising concept, free of charge, to Coke and Pepsi, which if implemented will offer both companies an incredible financial windfall whilst simultaneously subjecting the great viewing public to progressively fewer and fewer cola commericals. Scariest thing about this advertising concept: it actually makes sense.
Specifically the four-CD Euro Ralph version, not the 2-CD Ryko abridgement which excises all manner of essential stuff. This is one of the most beautiful compilations ever, both from a packaging and an audio standpoint. The audio is the real revelation - a German re-mastering lab called Master And Servant was evidently given access to Residents tapes which haven't been used for a while, because the sound quality improvement over the initial Rez CD releases is truly startling. In fact this compilation might be looked at mainly as an expensive advertisement for the new series of remastered Rez CDs now available in a store near you, if it weren't for the hour plus of unreleased material, the scintillating edit collages which collapse entire albums into ten-minute "concentrates", the totally kick-ass packaging etc. etc.
Matt Mahaffey follows up "Subliminal Plastic Motives" with more infuriatingly great, twisted pop. He's really starting to annoy me.
Chris Butler was guitarist, songwriter and mastermind of The Waitresses, a very wonderful and subversive band from the early 80s which inspired me in a variety of ways. "The Devil Glitch" is technically a 1996 release but it came to most peoples' attentions, including mine, this year. It contains two versions of the title tune, one an edited five-minute version, the other the complete...ahem...69-minute version, which will be in next year's Guinness Book Of World Records as world's longest pop song and will probably maintain that title until Dweezil gets around to putting out "What The Hell Was I Thinking?". The song ends with over 550 choruses which revolve mainly around one note, seems like it's going to be excrutiating for about twenty minutes and finally becomes absurdly addictive, thanks to a shifting musical backdrop (Chris farmed out sections of the accompaniment to various musical accomplices - wish he'd known me when he was sending out chunks) and a glorious batch of smart-ass, smart-head lyric couplets. "I Feel A Bit Normal Today", living up to its name sort of, is simply a group of eleven songs, but CB's archness has worn well with time and his new material is even richer than the best of the Waitresses' stuff.
David Thomas was the lead singer of Pere Ubu, whose Geffen box set from last year I recommend unreservedly. This year came a five-CD box called "Monster", stuffed with most of Thomas' previously released solo work, plus "Meadville", a previously unreleased live CD. Thomas, manic, unnerving and generally thought-provoking, is an acquired taste which I acquired long ago, and he unleashes any number of memorable moments on this disc. The Two Pale Boys, meanwhile, scare up dense clouds of amazing music using only MIDI guitar and Trumpet Machine Thing. It's one of the most startling live displays of electronic instant-orchestration capabilities I've ever been near. Deeply worth experiencing.
Then there's a bunch of albums which I heard only briefly and sometimes not even in their entirety, but which made tremendous first impressions, and which I know will repay much attention in the future:
and the three immensely appealing albums of Cuban music released by Nonesuch records:
Gonzales' piano playing in particular is an amazing revelation. Ry Cooder (who produced "Buena Vista Social Club") calls him "the greatest piano soloist I've ever heard. He's like a Cuban cross between Thelonious Monk and Felix The Cat." --- a quote I'd have given anything to come up with. These three albums together will take you on a journey unlike any other you'll take this year. Give them a shot.
So there's 24 albums I can recommend without reservation. Not a bad crop. Not a bad year.
For more information about what I've been getting up to this year, Mike Types To You!
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