It’s been a little while since my last entry in my (increasingly) occasional series of posts on my “top ten albums of the year” – the last was for 2016. Prior to that I’d looked back at 2015, 2010, 2003, 1995 and each year from 1975 through to 1989. This time I’ve decided to go back twenty years and figure out what my favourite ten albums released that year are.
This was surprisingly difficult. Not because there were so many contenders to choose from – quite the reverse. It took me some time to come up with a shortlist of fifteen notable (to me) records from 1997 and then no time at all to whittle them down to the following ten. I guess that just wasn’t a particularly strong year for album releases that really resonate with me to this day…
1. Blackmore’s Night “Shadow Of The Moon”
When Ritchie Blackmore quit Deep Purple for the final time in 1993 and reformed a version of Rainbow for 1995’s underwhelming “Stranger In Us All” it looked like he would carry on rocking under that banner for at least a little while longer. It was some surprise to many, despite his known interest in all things medieval , when he launched Blackmore’s Night – a renaissance music project featuring his fiancée Candice Night on lead vocals.
The group’s debut album “Shadow Of The Moon” surfaced in June of that year, and did particularly well in Germany. For me it was an accessible introduction into an older form of folk music than I was used to through tracks like “Play Minstrel Play”, “Wish You Were Here”, “Writing On The Wall” and “Greensleeves”. Not as essential as his work with Purple or Rainbow, granted, but this is still an enjoyable record.
2. Depeche Mode “Ultra”
A total change of style for this entry. I can remember during my latter school days having an active dislike for Depeche Mode. Whilst I enjoyed “proper” pop bands such as Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet (as they played traditional instruments) alongside my regular diet of heavy rock and metal, I had no time for synthesizer-based acts. It was only with the rediscovery of the band around the time of hit single “I Feel You” that I began to appreciate Depeche Mode, leading in time to include their earlier work too.
Coming four years after said hit, “Ultra” found the band recovering from a near breakup following the departure of keyboardist Alan Wilder – leaving just Dave Gahan (vocals), Martin Gore (guitar / keyboards) and Andy Fletcher (keyboards) to soldier on. And soldier on they did, producing a great pop record with no less than four hit singles including “Barrel Of A Gun” and the brilliant “It’s No Good”. This album comes a close second to “Songs Of Faith And Devotion” as my favourites in the Depeche Mode catalogue.
3. Genesis “Calling All Stations”
When Phil Collins quit prog rock legends Genesis in 1996 to concentrate on his solo career he likely wouldn’t have anticipated that this would lead to diminishing returns for himself as well as the band, but time would show that his solo glory days were behind him. For the group it looked to be all over, with just founding members Mike Rutherford (guitar / bass) and Tony Banks (keyboards) remaining. Despite recruiting vocalist Ray Wilson for the “Calling All Stations” album and tour this record would prove to be the band’s last release of new material to date.
But do you know what? This isn’t a bad album at all. Sure it’s no match for the trio of “Genesis”, “Invisible Touch” and “We Can’t Dance” from the group’s commercial peak of 1983-1991 and was their first not to reach number one in the UK since 1978’s “…And Then There Were Three…”. That said it does contain some great tunes like “Alien Afternoon”, “The Dividing Line” and sublime ballads “Shipwrecked” and “Not About Us”. A solid though unspectacular album but one that still gets fairly regular airings even now.
4. Oasis “Be Here Now”
“Be Here Now” was the third album from Manchester band Oasis, and was hugely anticipated following the massive success of second album “(What’s The Story) Morning Glory?” and its hit singles, not to mention all the publicity surrounding brothers Liam and Noel Gallagher and their various scrapes with the law and each other, as well as Liam’s decision to bail out of their 1996 US tour in order to buy a house!
Reportedly selling getting on for half a million copies on the day of its release (one of which was to me, purchased in Devon whilst on holiday) the album was preceded by the number one single “D’You Know What I Mean?”. Despite a subsequent backlash from press and fans, dismissing much of the record as self-indulgent and overblown (which the band themselves would later concur with, and I can also see where they’re coming from), “Be Here Now” remains my second favourite of the group’s, behind the aforementioned “…Morning Glory”. As well as the first single there were two others – “Stand By Me” and “All Around The World” – and other top tracks include “Don’t Go Away” and “Magic Pie”.
5. The Prodigy “The Fat Of The Land”
Now, if I hadn’t been overly keen on synthpop back in the Eighties, I definitely wasn’t fond of rave and techno music that acts like Essex’s The Prodigy were producing. At first I didn’t like the first single from “The Fat Of The Land”, the number one “Firestarter”, either.
However for reasons lost in the mists of time I found myself listening to the album as a whole and loving it! Kicking off with the controversial “Smack My Bitch Up”, then steaming through the superb “Breathe” and “Diesel Power” the record just didn’t let up until the epic nine-minute trip of “Narayan” which, in turn, gave way to “Firestarter” towards the back-end of the album. Very much of its time, no doubt, but an excellent album that made a great cycling soundtrack at the time and still gets the blood pumping today.
6. Robbie Williams “Life Thru A Lens”
Yet another artist and album that I didn’t like (or want to like) at the time! Despite the undoubted quality of their hit “Back For Good” I wasn’t, at the time, impressed by Take That and when Robbie Williams decided to go solo I was distinctly underwhelmed by his take on George Michael’s “Freedom”. In truth it wasn’t until the release of the singles “Millennium” and “No Regrets” from his next album “I’ve Been Expecting You” the following year that I sat up and took notice of Williams as an artist.
By that time the whole world and his dog knew mega-hit single “Angels”, the song that finally made “Life Thru A Lens” a bonafide hit album. As a whole it doesn’t come close to “I’ve Been Expecting You” or much of his subsequent work, but with songs including “Let Me Entertain You”, “Lazy Days” and the simply ace “Old Before I Die”, this album is always a good listen.
7. Rolling Stones “Bridges To Babylon”
Back onto more familiar territory here with a great British institution and a band that I’ve been a fan of for as long as I can remember. “Bridges To Babylon” was an excellent follow-up to 1994’s “Voodoo Lounge” and arguably their last really good album of original material.
“Anybody Seen My Baby?” was the lead single and was accompanied by a video featuring the then relatively obscure actress Angelina Jolie. I was lucky enough to see the band on the world tour that followed the album’s release, catching the show at London’s Wembley Stadium in June 1999 during which they played tracks from the album including “Saint Of Me” and “Out Of Control”. The UK shows that year had been postponed from August 1998 as the band were unhappy with the then Labour government’s changes to tax laws which, Mick Jagger and co. claimed would cost them 40% of the entire tour’s earnings. Regardless of that, the show they did play was excellent. Back on the album itself, other top tracks include “Already Over Me” and Keith Richards’ “Thief In The Night”
8. Stereophonics “Word Gets Around”
Well, wouldn’t you know it, another one I gave a wide berth to at the time. I was clearly having a more narrow-minded view of what I’d listen to back then! Stereophonics are a Welsh band and “Word Gets Around” was their debut album which interested me not one bit at the time, despite the recommendation of some work colleagues that they were great!
By the time of excellent second album “Performance And Cocktails” I had come around and also gone back to discover the debut and the great small town stories that are contained within its songs. Amongst the best of a very good crop of tunes are opener “A Thousand Trees”, “Not Up To You”, “More Life In A Tramp’s Vest”, “Traffic” and, of course, the ever-fantastic “Local Boy In The Photograph”. Kelly Jones and gang may have become a little stale and samey in recent years but the songs on this album will forever be classics.
9. Shania Twain “Come On Over”
“Come On Over” was Canadian country singer Shania Twain’s third album, and would go on to become the sixth best-selling album in the US with over 17.5 million sales. I’d been introduced to Twain around the time of her breakthrough second album “The Woman In Me” in 1995 via the cable channel CMT, but she didn’t begin to make headway in the UK until 1998 when the ballads “You’re Still The One” and “From This Moment” took off.
Later, a very poppy remix of “That Don’t Impress Me Much” and “Man! I Feel Like A Woman!” in late 1999 became big hits (in fact, twelve of the album’s sixteen songs were issued as singles) and it was actually the 1999 revised and remixed “International Version” of the album that became a hit here in the UK (the remixed album idea would go to extremes with Twain’s next album “Up!” in 2002 which was released in three entirely different mixes at the same time). It is, however, the original more country sounding 1997 version of “Come On Over” that I play most often.
10. Whitesnake “Restless Heart”
The first new Whitesnake album since “Slip Of The Tongue” back in 1989, “Restless Heart” was apparently intended to be a solo album (despite featuring guitarist Adrian Vandenberg and drummer Denny Carmassi who’d both toured as part of the band on the previous tour in 1994) until the record company insisted on it being released under the moniker “David Coverdale & Whitesnake”.
A rawer sounding record than Whitesnake’s big sellers of the late Eighties, the album contains a good mix of bluesy ballad like “Too Many Tears” and “Can’t Go On” with a few tougher rock tunes like “Restless Heart”, “You’re So Fine” and the Zeppelinesque “Woman Trouble Blues”. A proper solo album would follow in 2000 before Coverdale would reconvene the band once more for some heavier rock records from 2008 onwards. “Restless Heart”, meanwhile is a fine link between the big hair days of “1987” and “Slip Of The Tongue” and the 1993 collaboration with Led Zeppelin man Jimmy Page – the cunningly titled “Coverdale Page”.
There you have it, then. My favourite ten albums of 1997. This was a year in which the nation mourned when HRH Princess Diana was killed in a Paris car crash. Elsewhere, in the US President Bill Clinton begins his second term in office whilst in Britain the government changes hands with Conservative John Major being succeeded by Labour’s Tony Blair. In football Manchester United win the Premier League for the second season running, then see talisman Eric Cantona announce his retirement, whilst Chelsea win the FA Cup. And in screen entertainment by far the biggest movie release was “Titanic”, with “The Lost World : Jurassic Park”, “Men In Black” and Bond movie “Tomorrow Never Dies” some way behind. On the small screen Channel 4 in the UK became a 24 hour broadcaster and ITV crime drama “Midsomer Murders” makes its first appearance.
At some point in the (hopefully) not-too-distant future I shall look back to either 1974 or 1990…