The 10 Best Albums of 1997

The 10 Best Albums of 1997


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In my introduction to Slant’s list of the 100 Best Albums of the 1990s, I described nostalgia for the decade as “an idealized vision of a time when Bill Clinton was the fresh, young Democrat on the block, beepers were the hottest new tech items, and every major record label and Top 40 radio station was scrambling to discover the next big alternative to run-of-the-mill pop.” I went on to lament: “It’s human nature to look back on things with irrational fondness and nostalgia, overlooking the bad and romanticizing the good. But while the ’90s had its fair share of ’crap,’ it’s hard to deny that the ’good’ was exceptionally good.” So good, in fact, that we decided to dust off our lovingly curated list of over 400 albums to compile individual Top 10s for each year of the ’90s. Many of these titles are already widely—and rightfully—celebrated, but these lists also give us the opportunity to honor some typically overlooked gems. Sal Cinquemani

Honorable Mention: Nuyorican Soul, Nuyorican Soul; Mariah Carey, Butterfly; Company Flow, Funcrusher Plus; Cornershop, When I Was Born for the 7th Time; The Prodigy, The Fat of the Land; Godspeed You Black Emperor!, F# A# Infinity; Modest Mouse, The Lonesome Crowded West; Mogwai, Young Team; The Verve, Urban Hymns; Kylie Minogue, Impossible Princess

The 10 Best Albums of 1997


Bob Dylan, Time Out of Mind

In hindsight, it’s incredible to think that Bob Dylan’s stock was ever wavering, but this is the context unto which he released Time Out of Mind. The 1980s were a tumultuous decade for Dylan, and in the first half of the ’90s he was suffering from a distinct creative drought, with the underwhelming Under the Red Sky earning a middling reception at best. Time Out of Mind introduced us to a new Bob Dylan, his world-weathered lungs reveling in this raw sound. “Love Sick” feels like it’s sung from some dusty, eerie blues bar, while “Not Dark Yet” sounds like the dying words that his detractors had erroneously predicted. Huw Jones

The 10 Best Albums of 1997


Janet Jackson, The Velvet Rope

The Velvet Rope is handily Janet Jackson’s most personal effort and, Rhythm Nation excepted, one of her most important creative statements, diving headlong into the politics of personal and sexual self-actualization. But unlike other topical pop records, and despite its sadomasochistic overtones, The Velvet Rope’s textures are warm and inviting, striking a balance between soft and gritty that’s reflected right in the album’s title. Jackson’s breathless dirty talk has since grown tired, but Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’s expert use of her looped whimpers and moans—and, of course, those luscious harmonies—on standout cuts like “My Need” and “Rope Burn” is nothing short of orgasmic. Cinquemani

The 10 Best Albums of 1997


Sleater-Kinney, Dig Me Out

More raw than what passed as emo and more rebellious than what passed as punk, Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out found a trio of reformed riot grrls crashing the alt-rock boys club in unimpeachable style. The searing guitar licks on “Words and Guitar” showed that they could play with as much swagger and ingenuity as any “classic” rock act, while “Little Babies” called out patronizing male fans even as it gave them something to dance to. But their secret weapon was Corin Tucker’s hurricane wail, never put to better use than on the standout “One More Hour.” Here Tucker anguishes over her breakup with bandmate Carrie Brownstein; the fact that the band stayed together and stayed awesome for the next decade suggests that the song must have been as hugely cathartic to perform as it is to hear. Matthew Cole

The 10 Best Albums of 1997


Portishead, Portishead

Portishead’s eponymous second album, their most adventuresome and engrossing to date, confirmed the band as trip-hop’s reigning melodramatists. It begins in the throes of absolute menace, and the phantasmagoric mood is impressively sustained throughout, even during unexpectedly vampish timeouts like “All Mine.” The Old West meets sci-fi meets the jazz halls of the 1940s throughout, and of all the stars in the album’s sonic sky, none pulsate as manically and wildly as Beth Gibbons’s voice (electronically pulsated to insane effect on nearly every track, most memorably on “Half Day Closing”). The effect of these theremin-wielding space cowboys’ ploys—all that sampling, all that scratching, all that distorting—is one of danger and deception. These torch songs sound as if they’ve reached us via some alien transmission, and you spend the duration of Portishead’s relentlessly ominous running time wondering if the band comes in peace. Ed Gonzalez

The 10 Best Albums of 1997


Erykah Badu, Baduizm

“Most intellects do not believe in God, but they fear us just the same.” Hubris much? Damned straight, and served with a gunshot-rimshot. One of the most confident debut albums of, well, ever, Baduizm doesn’t mince words, it gifts them. And if you still seriously resent her Soulquarian arrogance (“Who gave you permission to rearrange me?”), then you need to pick your Afro, daddy. She’d go on to flex her sense of humor and shake the tweeters later on. In the thick of a very-Diddy 1997, Badu’s humorless tribal overtures, earthy wisdom, and neo-Billie Holiday vocals were their own reward, but Baduizm continues to endure thanks to its uncluttered neo-soul elegance and a low end hefty enough to give A Tribe Called Quest pause. Eric Henderson