During their recent week of features discussing the best and worst of pop culture from twenty years ago, The A.V. Club said that 1997 is a “frequent contender” for the title of Worst Music Year.
Sure, their point was strongly made by the fact that, during a two-week period in June and July of that year, albums were released Sugar Ray, Smash Mouth and Limp Bizkit; a beefcake triumvirate that provides no finer representation of everything that was absolutely horrid about music in the late 90s/early 00s.
By 1997, movements that had been so vital in their infancy during the earlier part of the decade, such as grunge and Britpop, were fast running out of steam thanks to acts that were nothing but second or third rate versions of the acts that had kicked open the doors for their respective genres in the first place.
Amongst all of the chaff being doled out by also-rans and dude-bros, 1997 also served up some of the brashest, most creative and best indie-rock albums of the decade. Some acts took their sound in new directions, while some pushed their sound and sometimes themselves to their absolute limit.
Here are ten albums that explain the glamour and the glory of indie rock in 1997.
10. The Dandy Warhols – …The Dandy Warhols Come Down
Having released debut Dandys Rule OK on Portland indie label Tim/Kerr, “the most well-adjusted band in America” made the jump to Capitol for their sophomore release. After the label rejected their first attempt, the band went on to produce an album that added a heavy dose of power pop and glam into their psychedelic/shoegaze stew, as best exhibited on ‘Boys Better’ and ‘Every Day Should Be a Holiday’.
Further listening: The Brian Jonestown Massacre – Give It Back!, Apples in Stereo – Tone Soul Evolution
9. Supergrass – In It for the Money
When they entered the studio to record the follow-up to 1995’s riotous I Should Coco, Supergrass only had two songs ready to record. This, coupled with tensions around drummer Danny Goffey’s extra-circular activities, put a strain on the drawn-out sessions. The resulting album sounds anything but laboured. In It For The Money finds the band getting more musically adventurous than on their debut, adding lush layers of strings and horns. Some of the album’s finest moments come from Rob Coombes’ cosmic keyboards, particularly in ‘Richard III’ and ‘Sun Hits The Sky’.
Further listening: The Charlatans – Tellin’ Stories, Jebediah – Slightly Odway
8. The Verve – Urban Hymns
Oasis’ northern neighbours and occasional touring buddies finally tipped over into the big time with their third album. The band’s second album, A Northern Soul, had hinted at The Verve’s move away from all-out space rock towards more anthemic, acoustic-driven tracks, particularly ‘History’ and ‘On Your Own’. This style served them well on three of the four big hits on Urban Hymns, ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’, ‘Lucky Man’ and ‘Sonnet’. Their space rock roots were still on show on the cacophonous ‘The Rolling People’, as well as album opener and The Verve’s most famous song, ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ melded woozy guitars with a towering wall of orchestration. Their use of a sample of a cover of The Rolling Stones’ ‘The Last Time’ meant the band had to relinquish their royalties and give a writing credit to Jagger/Richards. Bitter sweet, indeed.
Further listening: Radiohead – OK Computer, Paul Weller – Heavy Soul
7. Sidewinder – Tangerine
Sydney-based Canberra transplants Sidewinder’s second album was one of the most ambitious released by an Australian band during the 90s. Across its 13 tracks, it traverses a landscape that includes jangly distorted guitars (‘Here She Comes Again’, ‘God’), electronic loops, synth washes and psych folk weirdness (‘Sunshine In A Pocket’). Reportedly a small fortune to make (with more than enough music made for several albums), Tangerine only peaked at #76 on the ARIA Charts on release in September 1997. Sidewinder began work on a follow-up but decided to call it a day in 1999. Their catalogue, sadly, is currently out of print.
Further listening: Drop City – This Heavenly Machine, The Earthmen – Love Walked In
6. Sleater-Kinney – Dig Me Out
The classic line-up of Sleater-Kinney was finally established with the addition of drummer Janet Weiss to the trio following the release of 1996’s Call The Doctor. Weiss’ powerhouse playing became an essential part of the group’s sound, with the first signs of this coming on third album Dig Me Out. Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker’s guitars were more thunderous than on the previous two SK albums. The songs too were their best collection to date and deal with heartache, sexism, survival and defiance.
Further listening: Yo La Tengo – I Can Feel The Heart Beating As One, Blonde Redhead – Fake Can Be Just As Good
5. Teenage Fanclub – Songs From Northern Britain
On their sixth album, Scottish power pop dons Teenage Fanclub continued the roll of good form begun with 1995’s Grand Prix. Recorded at AIR Studios while Creation Records labelmates Oasis were recording Be Here Now elsewhere in the building, Songs From Northern Britain found the group taking their trademark sound in a folkier, more pastoral direction as displayed by the indomitable trio of singles ‘Ain’t That Enough’, ‘I Don’t Want Control of You’ and ‘Start Again’, as well as the warm embrace of ‘Your Love Is the Place Where I Come From’.
Further listening: The Pastels – Illumination, Elliott Smith – Either/Or
4. Blur – Blur
The old adage is that Blur won the Britpop battle but lost the war. While this is true for the most part, the band made a far more successful dismount from the genre they helped create than many of their contemporaries. By the time of Blur’s third album of the Britpop era, 1995’s The Great Escape, they were the biggest they’d ever been, scoring a string of top ten singles in the UK – including their first #1 – and becoming bona fide pop stars. The only problem was, the band had painted themselves into a corner creatively. Guitarist Graham Coxon in particular hated what his band had become and rebelled by embracing noisy, lo-fi American indie rock, the complete apotheosis to Britpop’s bright, cheeky chappy aesthetic. As he told Damon Albarn, he wanted to make music “to scare people again”. Decamping to Iceland, Blur produced their most experimental work to date. Lead single ‘Beetlebum’ with its soaring lead guitar lines gave the group their second UK #1 in spite warnings they’d be committing commercial suicide. Bouncing between thrashy (‘Chinese Bombs’, ‘Song 2’, ‘Movin’On’) and lackadaisical (‘Death Of A Party’, ‘Country Sad Ballad Man’, ‘You’re So Great’), Blur is the moment Damon Albarn and co laid Britpop to rest.
Further listening: Pavement – Brighten the Corners, Guided By Voices – Mag Earwhig!
3. Primal Scream – Vanishing Point
The period around 1994’s narcotic-fuelled Give Out But Don’t Give Up brought Primal Scream as close to splitting up as they’ve ever got. When you compare 1997’s Vanishing Point to its predecessor, It’s almost like the work of a completely different band. The Rolling Stones/Parliament/Funkadelic-influence so blatant on the last album was reigned-in in favour of the songs that meld krautrock, dub, soul and psychedelia. The comedown from the ecstasy euphoria of the early 90s is evident in the darker paranoid and claustrophobic vibe of the album, in particular ‘Trainspotting’ and ‘If They Move, Kill ‘Em”’. It’s the first Primal Scream album to feature Stones Roses bassist Mani and his presence was immediately obvious thanks to the pulverising bass line on ‘Kowalski’. The album’s dub leanings became even more pronounced when the remix album Echo Dek was released five months later.
Further listening: Super Furry Animals – Radiator, Broadcast – Work and Non Work
2. Spiritualized – Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space
Across nearly 70 minutes, Jason Pierce’s magnum opus is the sound of heartbreak writ large. Straddling gospel, blues, free jazz, rock n roll, krautrock, doo wop and noise rock, it was a shift away from the minimalist sound found on Spiritualized’s first two albums in favour of a denser, more symphonic, more cinematic production. Sounding like it’s being broadcast live from the Mir space station, Ladies And Gentleman… explores an inner space occupied by despair and crisis. The heartbreak in question could be about Pierce’s breakup with keyboardist Kate Radley (who played on the album) or it could just as easily be anger with himself for falling so hard for heavy substances. The sprawling, drawling 17 minute closer ‘Cop Shoot Cop’ is unlike any track released by any other act during this period.
Further listening: Cornelius – Fantasma, Bowery Electric – Beat
1. Oasis – Be Here Now
If you want to get an Oasis fan talking, ask them what they think about Be Here Now. Very few albums in the history of rock are as loved or as loathed as much as Oasis’ third album.
The story of Oasis in 1996/97 is like the dog that chases the car for miles and then, once it’s caught up with it, doesn’t know what to do. Since their emergence in 1994, the band would tell anyone that would listen that they were going to be the biggest band in the world. After releasing two colossally popular albums in the space of 18 months – Definitely Maybe in August 1994 and (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? in October 1995 – and playing to ever-increasing crowds (particularly in Britain), their promise was actualising. Their ascendance culminated in playing to 250,000 people over two nights at Knebworth in August 1996, at the time the largest free-standing outdoor shows in British history. Oasis were well and truly the biggest band in the world (or at least the world they inhabited).
But where do you go after that?
The reality for Oasis post-Knebworth was another tour of America, a country where they were making in-roads but were far from the superstars they were at home. Liam Gallagher refused to join the start of the tour, leaving brother Noel to lead for a couple of shows. It wasn’t long after Liam re-joined the tour that it was Noel’s turn to abandon ship, as he travelled home without his bandmates. There was speculation that Oasis’ day was done.
This is the context in which Be Here Now was created.
As had been the case previously when things got fraught in the Oasis camp, heading into the studio was seen as the solution. Easing tensions through hard graft.
Having suffered from writer’s block after recording Morning Glory?, Noel pushed himself to get songs for the new album done during breaks in touring. Most of the songs that ended up on Be Here Now were demoed by Noel and producer Owen Morris during a stay at Mick Jagger’s villa on the island of Mustique. His new life as an international rock star heavily informed the lyrics he was writing, a stark contrast to the working class anthems of the first two albums.
Sessions at Abbey Road (where else?) were started then stopped due to complaints about noise and the unwanted media and fan attention recording in London was bringing. The bulk of Be Here Now ended up being recorded at AIR Studios in Hampstead and Ridge Farm In Surrey.
What eventually came out of the sessions was in some ways a cross-pollination of the sound of Oasis’ first two albums: taking the raucous guitars of their debut and the sumptuous production of their second album and turning everything up to eleven.
The lyrics teeter between being (faux) profound and poetic (‘Stand By Me’, ‘Don’t Go Away’, ‘D’You Know What I Mean?’) to, at their worst, absolute waffle (‘Magic Pie’, ‘Be Here Now’).
Musically, there are dense layers of trebly guitar everywhere (it’s believed at least one song has 30 tracks of guitar). Nine of the twelve tracks are longer than five minutes. There’s a choir, there’s an orchestra, there’s Johnny Depp playing guitar, there’s the sound of a door shutting to signify the end of the album.
Even the album’s release, on 21 August, was an over the top event with it hitting the shelves of British record stores in the middle of a chart week. It sold 424,000 copies in the UK on release day and sold 663,389 by the end of the chart week two days later, making it, at the time, the fastest-selling album in British history.
The story of Be Here Now is ultimately one about overindulgence, whether it be overindulgence of chemicals, fame, recording budgets or egos. It’s the first era of Oasis reaching its ultimate, fully-realised, ostentatious, riotous peak.
Further listening: Ocean Colour Scene – Marchin’ Already, Cornershop – When I Was Born For The 7th Time, Cotton Mather – Kon Tiki