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The year in lists... The word that best sums up popular music in 1997 is "potential" -- not because there was so much of it, but because there were so many cases in which it was squandered, ignored or flat-out lacking. Still in a state of extended grief over the death of grunge, a reeling industry sought solace in ska-punk, not to mention an increasingly anemic "modern rock" that continues to make the rumored resurgence of radio's classic rock format appear more and more attractive. Meanwhile, great music that didn't fit those narrow parameters was passed over in bulk.

As is their nature, critics (myself included) sneered at 1997's mainstream trends; many, instead, lavished their attention on electronica. But alas, aside from the fluky ascension of Prodigy and the not-as-surprising success of the Chemical Brothers, technology's bold new animal was a commercial turkey. With the fizzle of several critically acclaimed releases and the poor overall turnout for various national package tours, electronica's push had slowed almost to a crawl by year's end.

Meanwhile, the goings-on in Houston in 1997 were a tad sluggish as well. With a few exceptions (the Hollisters, Carolyn Wonderland and Mary Cutrufello are three big ones), many of the acts that were kicking up plenty of dust a year earlier were nonfactors in '97. Indie popsters the Jinkies and Clouded have been laying low, while the promising acid-country-bumpkins in Horseshoe are still reeling over the departure of drummer Eddie Hawkins. Talented singer/songwriter Trish Murphy has long since left town to chase fame in Austin, and we're still waiting on that new Justice release from Jesse Dayton. And what of the Sonnier Brothers, who keep slaving away on the local club circuit without a single release (self-financed or otherwise) to show for their efforts? Lord knows that by now they have enough fine songs to fill a CD.

The shuttering of live-music landmark Rockefeller's, combined with the financial unraveling of downtown's Urban Art Bar, haven't exactly helped to steel optimism. At least the opening of the Aerial Theater at Bayou Place ensures that we'll have to endure fewer shows at Numbers and the International Ballroom, where nasty employees and cruddy sound can take the fun out of the concert experience.

Still, there were things worth recalling about '97 -- acts worth listening to, CDs worth treasuring -- and to remind ourselves that not all was dross, we polled some Press music writers to get an inventory of the year past.

The Best of What You Didn't Hear
World Party, Egyptology: Stylistic handyman Karl Wallinger took a brilliant revisionist stab at resurrecting his career; too bad the welcome-back celebration was a commercial washout.

Cornershop, When I Was Born for the 7th Time: The merging of East and West never sounded so, umm, global as it did on this sunny, plushly layered forecast for the future of pop in a multicolored world.

Freedy Johnston, Never Home: The singer/ songwriter's songwriter crafted yet another modest folk-pop masterpiece -- but fine as it was, Never Sold might have been a more appropriate title.

Various Artists, Puro Eskanol: Ska-punk sung in Latin? Sure sounded a hell of a lot more exotic than Goldfinger, even if you couldn't decipher a word these vatos were saying.

Kim Fox, Moon Hut, DreamWorks: This startlingly varied, gorgeously composed and executed debut was a bit too complex for the lightheaded Jewel contingent -- which was all the more reason to applaud it.

Chris Whitley, Terra Incognita: This, the experimental blues/rock troubadour's third release was, like its predecessor, unfavorably measured against the guitarist's classic 1991 debut. It deserved better.

X, Beyond and Back: The X Anthology: Now that punk is dead (again), what better way to relive its formative years than with this spirited, smartly assembled retrospective?

Big Head Todd and the Monsters, Beautiful World: Any assumptions that this Colorado trio was just another groove-giddy, melodically challenged H.O.R.D.E. band were erased with this tuneful, well-crafted collection.

Whiskeytown, Strangers Almanac: This Carolina-based electric folk outfit may have lost a few longtime fans with this polished major-label debut, but the songs have the emotional intensity and homespun fortitude to withstand their cushy treatments.

Drivin' n' Cryin', Drivin' n' Cryin' : If the raucous, Southern-fried cover of the late John Denver's "Leaving on a Jet Plane" is what eventually draws folks to this release, then so be it, as this is by far Drivin' n' Cryin's most consistent effort in years. (Hobart Rowland)

The Worst of What You Did...
Matchbox 20, Yourself or Someone Like You: Counting Crows by numbers -- with a bit of faux-grunge shading between the lines. The future of rock never sounded so bleak.

Mariah Carey, Butterfly: Tommy's little songbird left the nest and tried to toughen her wings overnight, much to the detriment of everyone involved.

Puff Daddy and the Family, No Way Out: Indeed, the title couldn't have been more appropriate, thanks to Sean "Puffy" Combs's atonal, dime-store rapping.

Aqua, Aquarium: Suffice to say, the "Barbie Girl" controversy will probably be the only thing this rubbery Scandinavian pop outfit will be remembered for, a year from now; ABBA they're not.

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