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.
Meredith Brooks, Blurring the Edges: Thanks for nothing, Alanis.
Rolling Stones, Bridges to Babylon: The Glimmer Twins recast Tattoo You for the '90s -- and came up with pretty much the same old moldy routine.
Smash Mouth, Walkin' on the Sun: This featured every dorky neo-ska cliche on the planet. Plus, it was delivered with a shrill, unfun cockiness that sent anyone with sense scrambling for the old Madness imports.
Shania Twain, Come on Over: Silicone-supermodel country at its most lethal.
Spice Girls, Spiceworld: And the backlash begins (like you couldn't see it coming an ocean away).
Will Smith, Big Willie Style: Further proof that once you're immortalized on the multiplex screen, everything else pales in comparison. (Hobart Rowland)
The Static 15
Radiohead, OK Computer: Quite possibly The Wall of the '90s, but with one crucial exception: Lead singer Thom Yorke didn't have to leave the band as a result and move in with his mum.
Stereolab, Dots and Loops: Falling somewhere between Muzak and postmodern lo-fi pop, the unclassifiable Stereolab turned out another minor masterpiece.
Pavement, Brighten the Corners: Loose, smart indie rock with a wicked sense of humor; the band's best since the incomparable Slanted and Enchanted.
The Chemical Brothers, Dig Your Own Hole: They may not be brothers, but their relentless, gunpowder-charged grooves are so impulsive and unaffected that their origins could only be genetic.
Bjork, Homogenic: An Icelandic stew of techno, torch and Tchaikovsky from one of the most irrepressibly original talents in pop music.
Wyclef Jean, Wyclef Jean Presents the Carnival: Sheer hip-hop genius with a bold eclecticism and a rugged star power that, thankfully, had virtually nothing in common with the Puff Daddy family.
Lori Carson, Everything I Touch Runs Wild: Soft, poignant, deceptively difficult lullabies for quiet evenings at home.
The London Suede, Coming Up: Shrugging off reports of the death of Brit-pop, the London Suede turned up their noses at the departure of guitarist Bernard Butler and strutted out with a release so good that Oasis and Blur should have been vying for its leftovers.
David Bowie, Earthling: Having survived the half-century mark, the original karma chameleon played the fresh-faced kid with the spiky orange hair and Union Jack trench coat, oozing futuristic stream-of-consciousness poetry, sweeping sonic resourcefulness and pummeling drum and bass.
OP8, Slush: Tucson, Arizona's wayward sons Giant Sand and fiddler/ chanteuse extraordinaire Lisa Germano mixed uneasily for what turned out to be a surreal and sublime jaunt down Route 66.
Gene, Drawn to the Deep End: On their second release, Smiths clones Gene turned the tables on critics by embracing the anthemic, gentle symphonics of Queen and latter-day R.E.M.
Clan of Xymox, Hidden Faces: Opting out of the dance/techno scene just as it was beginning to get interesting, Xymox let their hair down and exposed their lush, Gothic roots.
The Crystal Method, Vegas: Crystal Method paid homage to their hometown with an abrupt sensory implosion laced with vice and vengeance.
Forest for the Trees, Forest for the Trees: If hip-hop had somehow taken hold in the 1960s, and a sudden technology boom had given Brian Wilson access to a sampler and a drum machine, Pet Sounds might have sounded something like this.
Matthew Sweet, Blue Sky on Mars: Sweet's trademark love-gone-astray laments, buoyed by more hooks than Charles Barkley's golf game. (Compiled by Hobart Rowland from suggestions by Carrie Bell, Stephen Gershon, Seth Hurwitz and Hobart Rowland)
The Texas 15
The Hollisters, The Land of Rhythm and Pleasure: Houston finally has a country band to rival any in Texas; this was the most impressive homegrown debut of the year.
Delbert McClinton, One of the Fortunate Few: Delbert came back, and we found out that he's still funky after all these years.
Trish Murphy, Crooked Mile: In the Year of the Woman, this Houston-bred songstress alternated between sassy and touching with remarkable polish and grace.
Old 97's, Too Far to Care: A buff combination of pop hooks and country twang that sounded best when played very loud.
Cotton Mather, Kontiki: Lennon and McCartney fans take note: Cotton Mather has a Beatles fetish, and thank goodness, it's not something they take lightly.
Wayne Hancock, That's What Daddy Wants: The enigmatic son of Butch went big band (sort of), and the slight change in surroundings more than suited him.
Slobberbone, Barrel Chested: Anyone still lamenting the breakup of Uncle Tupelo could have done worse than dipping into this bracing sophomore effort from one of alt-country's most misunderstood bands.
Good Medicine Band, Spirit of the Sharecroppers: Some disciples of the Band fell under the spell of a brisk dose of premillennial angst -- and of Axl Rose.
Kacy Crowley, Anchorless: This was hardly the astonishing debut many were predicting from this earnest East Coast transplant, but it was a scintillating enough approximation of her Patti Smith-meets-Joni Mitchell aura.
Jimmy LaFave, Road Novel: With hardly a glance back, LaFave keeps on churning out uniformly moving roots rock at an impressive rate, and Road Novel was no exception; it's Born to Run for ranch hands.
David Garza, The 4-Track Manifesto: All Dah-veed, all alone (almost), all pop, all great.
Abra Moore, Strangest Places: Fortunately for us, when Poi Dog Pondering split for Chicago and Discoland, they left Ms. Moore in Texas, where she conceived a remarkable major-label debut that negotiated the crooked line between cute and cantankerous.
Bad Livers, Hogs on the Highway: The Livers continued to take bluegrass to places it's never been before.
Buick MacKane, The Pawn Shop Years: Alejandro Escovedo and band made garage-glam an art form.
The Derailers, Reverb Deluxe: Ushering the Bakersfield sound safely and slickly into the '90s -- and beyond. (Compiled by Hobart Rowland from suggestions by Jim Caligiuri, Stephen Gershon and Hobart Rowland)
The Best R&B and Hip-Hop
Warren G, Take a Look Over Your Shoulder: Yes, the "Regulate" guy cut a CD this year. It was undervalued, underhyped and overflowing with four-star hip-hop.
Erykah Badu, Baduizm: Leave it to a singer from (Dallas?) to come up with a sound that can only be described as retro-meets-boho.
EPMD, Back in Business; Rakim, The 18th Letter/The Book of Life: A pair of icons from rap's past returned with two releases so phenomenal that somehow it's best to lump them together rather than set them apart.
Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott, Supa Dupa Fly: This sister did it for herself on this bouncy debut CD, and she wasn't forced to dress like a hoochie mama to do it.
MJG, No More Glory: Among the '97 R&B or hip-hop releases with ties to Houston, this coolly charged outing from the back half of Eightball & MJG topped the list.
Rashaan Patterson, Rashaan Patterson: As slinky as D'Angelo and as stimulating as Maxwell, this recent initiate to the new-jack soul brigade arrived toting a debut CD designed to knock Tony Rich's block off.
Common, One Day It'll All Make Sense: In a year of fashion-conscious poseurs, this South Bronx rap veteran's fusion of eclectic beats and swift urban poetry made perfect sense.
Robyn, Robyn Is Here: Surrendering to the cute soul stylings of this Swedish sweetie was the guilty pleasure of the year. (Craig D. Lindsey)
The Best Jazz, Blues, Etc.
Ralph Towner, Ana: This brilliant solo performance ought to be required listening for any guitarist.
Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny, Beyond the Missouri Sky: Two of the premier jazz artists of our time lived up to their billing with a serene, intelligent and subtly dramatic statement.
McCoy Tyner, What the World Needs Now ... The Music of Burt Bacharach: Bacharach's music as performed by Tyner and orchestrated by John Clayton was a fine hybrid of easy listening and classic jazz.
Larry Coryell, Spaces Revisited: Thought fusion was a dead art form? Guess again.
Jelly Roll Morton, The Piano Rolls: Artis Wodenhouse's historic performance annotation restored the nuances missing from Morton's cheaply produced piano rolls, creating the closest approximation yet of what Jelly Roll intended over 70 years ago.
Various Artists, Beg, Scream and Shout!: Classic soul sides, famous and obscure, 144 in all -- talk about a hoot.
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Various Artists, Southern Journey, Vol. 3: 61 Highway Mississippi : In 1959, folklorist Alan Lomax carried his tape recorder to the Sunflower State to chronicle the country blues, spirituals, work songs and dance music of local folks. These five volumes in his ongoing series were all wonderful.
James Hunter, ... Believe What I Say: Largely unknown in the States, this London-based singer came on strong, like a Ray Charles for the new millennium.
Charles Musselwhite, Rough News: The best blues harpist on the planet gave it his cross-country all, with studio tracks cut in Chicago, New Orleans and on the West Coast.
Lou Pride, Twisting the Knife: This undervalued bluesman lamented about spoiled love while being expertly backed by Bob Greenlee's stable of Florida musicians. (Frank-John Hadley and Paul MacArthur)