Every year, once I’ve completed the arduous task of narrowing the best music of the year to just one CD worth of tracks, I attempt a glance back at the best songs of 10 and 20 years prior with just one rule: I’m not allowed to review the best-of mixtape I made that year before I decide. 1997 was an especially difficult year for me not to look because I know my tastes have changed wildly in two decades. You’ll be pleased to know I resisted the urge to peek. Here’s my Best of 1997, as seen from 2017, called Johnny Wants a Plane.
There’s also a Spotify playlist at the bottom of this post, if that’s your jam.
Daft Punk: Around the World
In retrospect, it’s easy to see the impact of Daft Punk – they’ve influenced a generation of musicians now with their infectious disco-infused beats – but at the time, we didn’t know what to make of it. I remember being confused by this band that eschewed the business side of the music business – hiding their faces, for example, making strange music videos that incorporated but in some ways played down their music, and refusing interviews. But it was a confusion colored by excitement. I didn’t know what Daft Punk was but I knew I wanted to know more.
I’m going to break with convention (already) and embed a different single from Homework because the clip is one of my faves.
Around the time Ivy and the Big Apples came out, I was spending a lot of time driving around with my friend K8 in her rag-top jeep, stereo at the max. Both of us big fans of gangly guitar pop-punk and harboring just a bit of youthful angst, the playful-yet-rageful Calypso was just the ticket for those long nights on the road, driving nowhere in particular.
Bran Van 3000: Drinking in L.A.
During a deep dig into the archeology of a previous relationship, High Fidelity‘s misanthropic protagonist Rob Fleming muses about a codependent relationship he was once in. He says: “Only people of a certain disposition are frightened of being alone for the rest of their lives at the age of 26, and we were of that disposition.” It’s one of the gems of self-deprecating reflection that makes the story a Gen X classic.
In this 1997 (nearly) one-hit wonder, Van Bran 3000 (named after the band’s dodgy tour van, which ran on “bran flakes, brännvin (vodka) and brand recognition,” in case you where curious) poses a similar question: What the hell am I doing drinking in L.A. at 26? A common fear of a life wasted twisted into a catchy ditty that, while dated as hell, is still fun to hear.
The Blackeyed Susans: Smokin’ Johnny Cash
Those of you who didn’t live through the 1990s in Australia might have missed this blues-rock gem. Don’t mind the pompous video – this is one of the best songs of an era.
White Town: Your Woman
Admission time: I agonized about whether I really wanted to include this tune, not because it isn’t a pop tune as fascinating as it is polished, with a hook that stands up as one of the best of the decade, but because frequent listens make me hate it. Like, a lot. There’s just something about it that makes me angry. Maybe the walking bass is just a bit too slow, or is it that jarring trumpet line? I don’t know – I just know that a little bit of this tune goes a long way. So I’ll see you again in 10 years, White Town.
Foo Fighters: Everlong
Even if it wasn’t for the foot-stomping riff or the slow-build bridge to the final set of choruses, Everlong would be worthy of inclusion for containing one of the most romantic lines in hard rock, ever:
“The only thing I’ll ever ask of you / You’ve got to promise not to stop when I say when.”
Filter / The Crystal Method: (Can’t You) Trip Like I Do
Great comic book movies are not unheard of these days, and great soundtracks accompany them more often than not. But 20 years ago, the Spawn soundtrack took us all by surprise, not just for the quality of its tracks but for the way producers matched electronic and hard rock acts to collaborate.
In (Can’t You) Trip Like I Do, The Crystal Method dulls Filter’s rough edges while the latter gives the electronic duo a structure that keeps this industrial anthem driving forward to a layered cacophonous climax.
The Prodigy: Breathe
Remember when all you needed to look dark was to have cockroaches in a badly wallpapered room, illuminated by a slow strobe? These were more innocent times.
Hailing from Essex – yes, that accent is real – The Prodigy has turned out to be one of the most enduring groups to emerge from the early 1990s rave scene. This tune is classic Prodigy. The second single from their best-selling record Fat of the Land, Breathe is in many ways a better song than the higher-selling Firestarter, and I just love the earthy steel-string guitar riff and repeated far-off calls to fight.
Breathe the pressure. Its an invitation. Let’s rumble.
Wu-Tang Clan: A Better Tomorrow
Recently, my colleagues introduced me to the classic 1980s PSA “I learned it from watching you, Dad!” Of course, I’d seen it parodied on countless TV shows but I wasn’t prepared for just how unbelievable and twee it was. Like, is that 8-year-old smoking crack? Seriously?
The thing that upsets me the most about public messages like those is that they undermine the use-positive, culturally appropriate messages produced by community programs that acknowledge the social determinants of health and approach them with care and intention. Wu-Tang’s A Better Tomorrow carries pretty much the same message as that horrid PSA, but in the same breath, recognizes the world in which drug use happens, draws a line between use and abuse, and gives young people a vocabulary for negotiation.
The Notorious B.I.G. Hypnotize
From the sublime to the ridiculous. If you watch the overlong opening to this, his biggest hit, you’ll see Biggie literally toss money into the sea while a very real look of panic briefly overtakes one of his companions’ faces. This was his M.O. – flashy, shocking, fun to a fault.
Riddled with bad puns and sweet pop samples, his music takes the playfulness of beat poetry, empties it of meaning and fills it up with Dom Perignon. Check out this quatrain-wreck:
I can fill ya wit’ real millionaire shit (I can fill ya)
Escargot, my car go, one sixty, swiftly
Wreck it buy a new one
Your crew run run run, your crew run run
Was that a Ronettes reference? I don’t even care – it’s lavish, and preposterous. And it never fails to lift you.
Something For Kate: Captain (Million Miles an Hour)
There’s that bad wallpaper again. In a jail cell, no less.
What my beloved Something For Kate lacks in subtlety they make up for in earnestness. Being a SFK fan means inviting a kind of emotional glasnost that, while certainly riddled with angst and self-evisceration, is surprisingly naive. For example, the band (and especially lead singer Paul Dempsey) are known for producing heartfelt, even beautiful covers of pap pop songs, like Christina Aguilera’s Genie in a Bottle. Don’t believe me. Listen for yourself.
Captain (Million Miles an Hour) was the band’s breakthrough track, and set them on a path to national recognition. While the album Elsewhere for Eight Minutes also contains one of my favorite songs of all time, Pinstripe, I think this is more representative of the band at this time. A transparent metaphor for the escape music provides from a bad home situation, this tune speaks to anyone who has ever wanted to get away. Which is everyone.
Women on bass are just better. There, I said it. Kellie Lloyd, IIRC, is self-taught, and it shows. She has a singular approach to what a bass guitar can do, what it’s for, even where the notes should fall! And bless her for it. Like a musical rock-climbing team, Lloyd is the bedrock for Tim Steward’s reckless belaying in the higher register. I’ve been going to live Screamfeeder shows since this song came out, and I always leave them sweaty, tired and happy.
Dart is the indie guitar pop trio at its most jaunty, with a machinegun riff, call-and-response double chorus and a dual vocal assault on the main chorus, which is essentially an accusation. Turn it up!
Harvey Danger: Flagpole Sitta
Before we had Twitter, we used zines to find our tribe. And before we made pop songs about SSRIs, we made reference to neuroatypicality like this. This was one of the first singles I bought with my own money and I remember playing it constantly, feeling like it captured our collective strained consciousness at that moment.
Back then, I didn’t know that the societal angst and lack of belonging that underpins Flagpole Sitta was, in fact, a generational affliction, and that it would get so much worse.
Apollo 440: Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Dub
My love of this tune is all down to that Van Halen sample. So good.
David Bowie: I’m Afraid of Americans
The 1990s weren’t really David Bowie’s best years. After a long break around the turn of the decade, he released Black Tie White Noise to … not a lot of noise, then followed it up with Outside, which was interesting but more than a bit odd (remember the Pet Shop Boys collaboration Hallo Spaceboy?) Of course, that’s not to say that Bowie wasn’t wonderfully strange his whole career; maybe that the mid to late 1990s were an introspective time, and his flights of fancy to Broadway-inspired New Jersey vignettes perhaps wasn’t the ticket.
And then came Earthling. Recorded in a flash after touring for Outside, it is an album of barely restrained rage. I’m Afraid of Americans is a sardonic look at American culture and consumption. This mixtape, Johnny Wants a Plane, takes its name from a lyric. I’m especially fond of this version, a collaboration with Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor at his gothiest peak.
Rammstein: du hast
I can’t believe it took me 20 years to look this up, but apparently du Hast is a play on the words used in German wedding vows, subverting “you have” to “you hate.” Such romance. But that riff still makes you swoon.
Depeche Mode: Barrel of a Gun
No one knows the modern condition like Martin Gore does. With distorted anguished vocals over distant, screaming guitars, Barrel of a Gun asks a series of rhetorical questions of a presumed partner (or perhaps the god-like tormentor present in so many Depeche Mode songs,) and the only answer comes in the confessional refrain: Whatever I’ve done / I’ve been staring down the barrel of a gun.
And this video! Shot in black and chrome by Anton Corbijn (who is responsible for a good chunk of the Mode’s visual œuvre,) it’s as pointless and despair-filled as the song.
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds: Into My Arms
Get through this bad boy without weeping – I dare you. Into My Arms is a simple, beautiful piano ballad about the values and passions that can bind people together despite fundamental differences, like religion. I needed it in 1997 and by god, I need it today. Thanks for listening.
Johnny Wants a Plane: Lyndal’s Best of 1997 (As Seen From 2017)
Main image adapted from b-metro.com