Wednesday, 22 June 2005

Top 10 Years For Album Releases - #2

Here we are again. It's certainly been a long time between drinks.

Why the delay? Of course, laziness is always the excuse. But this time I have also been debating the top 2 positions in my mind. It's so hard choosing between them. They both have special places in my heart. One brings back a lot more memories than the other year. One probably has higher peaks, but the other is so consistenty brilliant that I feel it doesn't deserve anything less than the top spot. It's a really tough decision. If I'd known how stressful ending this list was going to be, I probably wouldn't have started it.

But I have made my bed, and now I have to lie in it. What the hell does that mean? Why do you have to lie down in a bed you have just made? That doesn't make any sense! Okay Jiggy. Compose yourself. It's only a blog!

Only a blog? This is one of most controversial lists ever published on the web! Move aside, Pitchfork and Stylus magazine. There's a new gun in town! Okay...what was that? Shut up? Okay, I will shut up now.

With great sadness, I will now announce the runner up to the best year for album releases in history.

#2: 1997

It hurts. It really hurts. 1997 has always held a special place in my musical heart. Or maybe that should be: 1997 has always held a special place in my ears. However you want to say it, that's the facts.

Cat Stevens once sang "it's not time to make a change, just relax, take it easy." Easier said than done, Yusef. You see, 1997 was certainly a HUGE year for change. It was first year uni. It was the year I turned 18. It was the year I moved from South Oakleigh to West McKinnon. No longer constrained about what the teachers at school and Uncle Sam could tell me to do. And did I live it up! Well, no not really. I do remember joining the chocolate club at Monash university because they had a keg at O-Week. I remember catching a bus to my cousin's place afterwards and then my parents picking me up, and I was off my face. I still remember turning up to my first 2-3 maths tutorials pissed. Those were the days :-)

More than anything, the start of '97 brings back a lot of memories of being young. The year probably went worse as it went on, when I discovered that uni was about more than just free beer. You see, they put on this free beer to impress the new students, so they would think uni life is all happy happy joy joy. Then a few weeks later, the beer just STOPS. It's like prohibition all over again, except you can still go to the pub and buy a beer. I still remember going to the pub with my teammates before a Professional Communications presentation and downing a few shots of bourbon to make the presentation run a little smoother. I always found it ironic that the Professional Communications lecturer was practically deaf.

But anyway, I used to be about the music, and now I'm rabbiting on about uni. Yes, I'm certainly looking through uni with rose coloured glasses here. In all honesty uni probably wasn't as good as I'm making it out to be here, but I guess it's human nature to try to remember the good things about situations and forget the bad things.

So there you go, I've set the scene for 1997. I guess one of the main reasons I love this year is because of the memories I associate with it. But of course, memories don't make great music. Music makes great music. And 1997 has some sensational music.

In fact, some of my absolute favourite albums of all time are from 1997.

Here's some of the masterpieces released that year:
  • Radiohead released their masterpiece, and one of the best albums ever with OK Computer. This album has been hyped to godlike status ever since its release. Does it live up to its hype? Well, yes and no. It's an absolutely superb album, but I still wouldn't call it the best album of all time like Q magazine did in 1997. You can't possibly comprehend, when listening to this album, that this was the same band who released the single Creep only 4 years earlier. OK Computer was an almost perfect synthesis of the past (guitar-based rock) and the future (electronic music). But unlike its successors Kid A and Amnesiac, this album didn't over-emphasize the electronic portion. It left the melodic beauty and, most importantly, the song intact.
  • Legendary Welsh band Super Furry Animals released their masterpiece Radiator. These guys are truly one of the most innovative bands around at the moment, and in my opinion they have yet to top this, their second album. It's just so perfectly sequenced: opener Furryvision (TM) sets the scene. Hard rockers Placid casual and The international language of screaming lead the way to the epic Demons. Short painkiller gives us a spot of relief (hence the name) before we launch into the sensational middle set of the album. Seriously, it's pretty hard to find a trilogy of songs as consistently brilliant and catchy as She's got spies, Play it cool and Hermann loves Pauline. A couple of rockers follow (one of them in their native language), and then we have the comedown from the earlier highs: Bass tuned to D.E.A.D., Down a different river and Download (try listening to these tracks when driving at night, Download sounds sensational!). And just when you think they've gone all mellow on you, they unleash the epic Mountain people together with a techno assault to end all techno assaults. Quite simply, one of the best indie releases of all time. Ink Blot Magazine got it right in their review of this album when they called it "the fucking epitome of music".
  • The Whitlams released their masterpiece Eternal nightcap. Yes, this is the album they released before they became shit. It was released shortly after the death of founding member Stevie Plunder, who plunged to his death on Australia Day 1996. While not as fun as their earlier albums (for obvious reasons), this album manages to combine sombre beauty (the Charlie trilogy, No aphrodisiac) with jazzy rockers (You sound like Louis Burdett). The result is one of the best Australian albums of all time.
  • The late Elliott Smith released his masterpiece Either/or. While he never released a bad album in his lifetime, not many fans would dispute that this is probably his greatest achievement. This was his 3rd album, and finds the perfect mix between his earlier lo-fi roots, and his later more "produced" material. It was his last independantly released album. Listen to Between the bars, Alameda and 2:45am. Music simply doesn't get much better than this.
Some other great albums released in 1997:

  • The Verve released their highly acclaimed swansong Urban hymns. While I don't believe this is quite the masterpiece the history books would make you believe, there's no doubting that it has many stunning songs on it. Besides the hits (Bittersweet symphony, The drugs don't work, Lucky man) - there are many hidden gems on this album. Some of my favourites are Sonnet, Weeping willow (probably my favourite) and the gorgeous Velvet morning. It's a very long album (75 minutes) and I think if this album was trimmed, it could have been very close to masterpiece status.
  • Supergrass released their excellent sophomore album In it for the money. This album bears no relation to the Frank Zappa album of [almost] the same name, We're only in it for the money. They certainly avoided the dreaded sophomore slump with this album, which showed the band maturing after their punky debut I should coco. There's some stunning songs on this album - Late in the day, the epic opening title cut and G-Song being my absolute choice cuts.
  • Ween released their stunning concept album The mollusk. There's a definite perception out there that Ween are a novelty band, but with this album they really proved themselves as amazing musicians. The nautical theme runs throughout this album, and despite the lyrics being a tad crass at times (and with Waving my dick in the wind, the song titles as well) the utter beauty of songwriting prowess shown throughout this album allows it to transcend the novelty tag. Personal favourite cuts: the title track, It's gonna be (Alright), Buckingham green and the epic closer She wanted to leave.
  • Ben Harper released another incredibly solid album with The will to live. This guy has a lot of talent - nuff said. The voice, the guitar playing, the songwriting all add up to a great listen. My personal favourites on this one are Jah work, Widow of a living man and Glory & Consequence. But they're all good. I didn't get into Ben Harper until long after this album was released, so it doesn't particularly remind me of that time of my life.
  • Yo La Tengo released their excellent album I can hear the heart beating as one. Commonly considered to be their masterpiece, it's a great listen from a great band -- let down only my the overlong drone of Spec bebop. My personal favourite songs are Sugarcube, Shadows, Stockholm syndrome and Autumn sweater. And the guitar solo in We're an American band is one of the best and most emotional I have heard -- superb.
  • Modest Mouse released their excellent 2nd album The lonesome crowded west. Before Float on made it big on the radio, MM were much rougher around the edges and personally I think it suited them a lot more. This is a very solid (if a tad overlong) album. Personal favourite cuts include the hip-hoppy Heart cooks brain, incredibly catchy Doin' the cockroach, epic Trailer trash and heartbreaking Bankrupt on selling. Isaac Brock's voice is certainly an acquired taste, but it does grow on you.
Now for a few albums which are "so 1997". By this I mean that they really remind me of this year in my life. Maybe they haven't aged as well as some other albums, but putting them on will always take me back...

  • Jebediah released their debut album Slightly odway. Many readers of this blog (me included) tend to associate this album with 1st year uni. Maybe it's the fact that Leaving home was dominating the airwaves, and while none of us were actually leaving home at that point, it still struck a chord. I'll confess that I haven't given this album a spin for a while, but it's an incredibly solid debut album.
  • Ben Folds Five released their 2nd album Whatever and ever amen. Brick, Song for the dumped, Battle of who could care less. All these songs bring back memories of '97. A far cry from Mr Folds' more "mature" output of late. Great fun album that probably hasn't aged that well.
One of the most anticipated albums ever (for me) was released in 1997. Oasis had released 2 masterpieces in Definitely maybe and Morning glory. I can't explain how much I was looking forward to their 3rd album Be here now. I bought it from the union building at Monash University on the day of its release (August 26th). I really enjoyed listening to all 71 minutes of it. The critics praised it initially (with Q magazine actually giving it a 5 star rating!). Time hasn't served this album well, with most publications jumping on the bandwagon and bagging it, but I gave it a listen recently and it still holds up for me as a good album, even if it wasn't as solid as their first 2 albums.

Then there's Unit by Regurgitator which was absolutely killed by overplay on the radio. Very overrated at the time, it did contain a few incredibly catchy songs which brought back the retro feeling long before new bands like Franz Ferdinand and The Killers decided that they could cash in this whole movement. Personally, I don't think time has served this album that well, even if it's an enjoyable listen.

Now for some albums that I didn't really get into (or even know) at the time but have since acquired:

  • Glaswegian legends Teenage Fanclub released their brilliant Songs from northern Britain album. These guys have been around since the early 90's releasing classic albums that generally go unnoticed. No, they aren't particularly innovative. And while their influences (ranging from Beach Boys, The Byrds, Big Star to Crosby Stills & Nash) are pretty obvious, there aren't many other bands out there that are doing what they are doing so amazingly well. Choice cuts on this album include Ain't that enough, I don't want control of you and Winter.
  • Nick Cave released his (commonly considered masterpiece) The boatman's call. I gotta say, I bought this album with high expectations. And while it contains some incredible tracks (Are you the one that I've been waiting for? is one of the most beautiful songs I have heard), the sombre tone of the album can get a much after a while. I think this album would have benefited from a few rockier tracks here and there to break the mood a bit, but many would disagree with me.
  • Bjork released her critically acclaimed 3rd album (on a major label, anyway) Homogenic. This album starts out brilliantly with the first 4 tracks, and then goes off into weird dance territory until it comes back to earth in the final track All is full of love. Hasn't grown on me entirely yet, but maybe one day it will (maybe if I stop buying CDs and I get a chance to listen to this old stuff!).
  • Will Oldham (a.k.a. Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Palace Music, Palace Brothers, ) released his excellent album Joya. Interesting story to tell about this album. I probably gave it about 8 spins and it still didn't "do it" for me. I was about to take it out of my CD case when I decided to give it one last spin. That last spin hit me like a Mack truck. Suddenly all the songs started to pop out at me like the image in a magic eye picture (well actually I can never see those but that's another story). Amazing how music has the power to do that. Personal favourite cut is the breathtaking Apocolypse, no!. Mr Oldham is an acquired taste, but it's a taste worth acquiring.
  • Spiritualized released their [commonly regarded to be a masterpiece] album Ladies and gentlemen we are floating in space. After many, many listens, the jury is still out on this one. Combining beautiful ballads with free jazz freakouts and a 70-minute running time, it's not an easy listen. When it works (like on the stunning Broken heart) it really works. I do think you need to be under the influence of something to truly understand this album though.
  • Stereolab released their acclaimed Dots and loops album. While I do enjoy this while listening to it, I can't say I've gotten the urge to go back to it a lot. Probably has something to do with the copious amount of music I purchase. All this beautiful music on that shelf, and I keep buying more. That's addiction for ya.
  • Blur released their "transitional" self-titled album. This one is a huge change from their previous album The great escape. It's a pretty diverse album, ranging from pop (Beetlebum), punk rock (the overplayed Song 2, Chinese bombs) to weirdass experiments (Essex dogs). And it probably contains my favourite Blur song of all time -- You're so great. Sung by ex-guitarist Graham Coxon, and sounding like a B-Side from the White Album sessions, it's a masterpiece.
  • Bob Dylan released his acclaimed "return to form" Time out of mind. It's a pretty dark album this one (and a long one at that). Personally, I'm more a fan of Bob's more upbeat stuff, and his more recent album Love & Theft made more of an impact on me. But it's still Bob, and even bad Bob is good Bob (not that this is anywhere close to being bad Bob).
Some debut albums that were released in 1997:

  • Grandaddy released Under the western freeway. While their 2nd album (the cleverly titled The sophtware slump) was an incredibly solid album, they had a lot to learn here still. Nothing really stands out on this album.
  • Travis released Good feeling. Not a lot to say about this album except -- Bring on the 2nd album! (Oh yeah, and leave it at that ;-) [Actually, the amusing U16 Girls almost saves this album, but not quite.]
  • Something For Kate released Elsewhere for 8 minutes. It has its moments (Pinstripe and Soundczech) but they hadn't quite reached the brilliant maturity of their 2nd album Beautiful sharks. But then again, maybe I haven't given it enough time to grow on me.
  • Flake Music (the predecessor to the brilliant Shins) released When you land here, it's time to return. Not sure what to make of this album yet, it's been recorded very quietly so it's hard to hear the music (especially on the computer) without turning it up a lot. I'll have to do a raincheck on this review.
And now for some honourable mentions and disappointments of the year:
  • Portishead released their self-titled sophomore album. After their brilliant debut album Dummy, they went much darker with this one. Unfortunately nothing on this album quite matches up to the beauty of Roads, Glory box and There's a fire from their debut album.
  • Live released their 3rd album Secret samadhi. I still stand by my words when I say that Throwing copper is a masterpiece. Here they went all ambitious and it just didn't work that well. That's not to say that it doesn't have its moments - Turn my head and Gas hed goes west are some nice tracks. But I think I only really need one Live album.
  • U2 released their highly derided album Pop. Bought it cheap, listened to it once. Nuff said.
  • Cornershop (of Brimful of Asha fame) released their album When I was born for the 7th time. I think Q magazine included this on their list of greatest albums of all time which was published in 1997. Ha! Talk about being caught up in the moment. Not sure why I haven't sold this one on Ebay yet, actually. Actually, I know why. Nobody would buy it.
  • Lighthouse Family released their album Postcards from heaven. Not quite sure what to say about this one. Not the kind of thing I'd normally buy. High is a nice track. There are some other nice ones. Let's just leave it at that, shall we?
Suede also released their brilliant B-Sides compilation Sci-fi lullabies in 1997. Does that count? And the Simpsons CD Songs in the key of Springfield was also released this year. Just thought I'd mention them...

My fingers are sore!

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