The tabloid press area of things seemed to be dominated this year by two bands, both of whom owe little of their apparent success to anything they may have done musically this year. Anyone who has read one of those irritating `small format' newspapers will have noticed that in 1997, the Spice Girls, and their surlier elder brothers, Oasis, have been everywhere this year. The parallels between the two groups are really quite frightening. Two groups, ten people, five male, five female, both more likely to feature in the papers because of their famous footballer, model, actress, etc girl/boyfriends (delete as applicable) than for anything they might have released this year. Somewhere in the middle of all this, of course, both groups found time to release an album. That nobody seemed to notice really, is probably for the best as far as Oasis are concerned. When people were disappointed by the wonderwall rip-off (sing the lyrics to either song over the chord progression Em, G, Dsus4, Asus4, and you'll see what I mean) that was D'You Know What I Mean?? would certainly not have expected it to be the stand out track on the album (which it most assuredly is). The scariest thing, of course being that the music press praised this one to the hilt, while the superior (though still hardly classic) Morning Glory was roundly slagged at the time of its release.
The less thats said on the subject of `Spiceworld', the better (I haven't actually heard the damned thing, but I don't feel as though I have to in order to have a go really). Though judging by sales figures, it would seem that while people are quite happy to go on munching the spice crisps, slurping the spice cola and breathing the spice air, they would rather not be subjected to any more of the Spice tonsils. That and the fact that the tabloids appear to have turned on Oasis of late, does at least leave me with some confidence that these two most irritating, musically conformist influences on 1997, may be dying out as we move on into 1998. My favourite's Baby Spice, in case you cared.
Back in the real world, the three most influential big selling albums of this year have been Radiohead's `OK Computer', The Prodigy's `The Fat Of The Land' and The Verve's `Urban Hymns'. Really these albums help sum up the two dominant moods of the year. Guitar music threw off the chirpy ghosts of Britpop at long last, and began to get increasingly dark and unsettled, while over in the other corner, dance music mutated giving us `big beats' or whatever the current trendy name for it is, which basically meant it ended up sounding an awful lot like old skool balls out rock, only with samplers, hair band metal for the nineties, only better.
OK Computer, at least, genuinely is some kind of a late 90's masterpiece. After a period of three or four years in which guitar rock music seemed content just to sit back and endlessly repeat past successes, here at last came a band who were prepared to do things which sounded like nothing which had ever come before. Unlike so many guitar bands, Radiohead weren't afraid to steal techniques from contemporary hip hop and dance, and mix them into their music. Unlike U2, they didn't sound like it was in any way forced either. Unlike so many arch-miserablist bands, their lyrics were at their best when at their most cynical and bitter. Whether anyone has written anything better than `Fitter Happier' or `No Surprises' in the last five years I very much doubt. Musically, it was of course, a revelation. And it was great to hear the seven minute noisathon, Paranoid Android, being played on daytime radio 1, alongside the Spice Girls. The only worrying aspect of their success is the thought of record companies rushing up to sign hundreds of angst-ridden English guitar bands, and us ending up with another Alice-In-Chains scenario.
The Verve took a very different line on guitar miserablism, and came up with an album that was almost as good. Essentially, their approach isn't greatly different from the increasingly tiresome Gallagher brothers. Both bands are heavily influenced by 1960s Brit guitar bands like the Beatles and the Stones, and neither seem particularly interested in playing around with samplers, fancy effects pedals and Michael Howard's favourite, repetitive beats. The difference is that Oasis have never written anything half as essential as Bittersweet Symphony, and Talk Tonight, or Wonderwall are not even anywhere close to the majesty of `The Drugs Don't Work' or Weeping Willow. So while The Verve are by no means the future of rock, they do at the very least present themselves as a very appealing take on the here and now of rock.
Of course, the band that everybody has been touting as the future of rock this year has been the Prodigy, which is strange in a way, because last year, they weren't rock at all, they were dance. All it took to change that, it would seem, was a neat Joy Division style riff on the seminal `Breathe' and all of a sudden, the American grunge crowd and Britishb indie kids were embracing them with open arms. The new album was, of course perfectly good stuff, but at the end of the day, the fact that the Chemical Brothers had released a similar sounding, and dare I say it, superior sounding record over two years ago seemed to get lost somewhere in all the hype.
If those were the big five albums of the year, then there was plenty going on elsewhere all the same. Spiritualised mixed their trademark drone-rock with all things gospel to come up with the impressive (if over hyped) Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, which contained the really quite brilliant single Electricity. U2 released Pop! to general derision, a shame really, as though it was nowhere near as good as say, Zooropa or Achtung Baby, it did have a number of notable singles on it, not least the chart-topping Discotheque. The Foo Fighters continued to stand as the last bastion of the early 90s grunge movement, and in `Everlong' put out a record that was at every bit as good as the best moments of Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins et al.
Meamwhile, those who see the future as being electronic would be well advised to check out Howie B's Turn the Dark Off, and DJ Shadow's new EP High Noon.
Anyway, the whole point of end-of-year things is to have a chance to say what was actually the best, so here's by two bits.....
Top 5 Albums
1.OK Computer Radiohead
2.Urban Hymns The Verve
3.Tellin' Stories The Charlatans
4.Dig Your Own Hole The Chemical Bros
5. Ladies And Gentlemen..... Spiritualised
Top 5 Singles
1. Paranoid Android Radiohead
2. Everlong Foo Fighters
3. Lazy Line Painter Jane Belle And Sebastian
4. High Noon DJ Shadow
5. Nothing Lasts Forever Echo And The Bunnymen