Should you be in the business of calibrating your time on this planet against adventures in audio, it becomes easy to grow excited when contemplating the release schedules of certain years. It’s something you could label as nostalgia if you’re feeling unkind, but in reality it’s an essence far more dynamic than that – a heady process of cross-pollination, records soundtracking events, events contextualising the music listened to.
And if this is a symbiotic relationship, there are distinct parallels between those bulky echoes that define whole chunks of time, and the impact of the vinyl stash that it accompanies. Several life-changing, life-affirming occurrences stumbled across my path in 1997 (albeit I won’t go into detail here – this is a music blog, not a confessional). Still, I’ve often wondered if the sharply-pronounced significance of ’97’s playlist has been exaggerated in my mind by being explicitly linked to such heightened experience. Either way, it’s a year seared indelibly across my perception; I’ve been so looking forward to getting my teeth into its albums that forgot to include The Week Never Starts Around Here – the tremendous Arab Strap début – in 1996’s breakdown. An unforgivable oversight. Apologies.
I’m also going to do something slightly different than the usual two-part summary – because there are three records in which the word significant isn’t enough. In which the impact – cultural, personal – demands so much more than a paragraph or two sketched on a gloomy Saturday afternoon. Thus the next three entries on LGM will be devoted to each record. Digging at the detail. Riffing on this theme and that; should you be guessing all three – there are rumours there’s a comments facility hereabouts – I might even get around to organising a prize-type affair.
Browsing the release schedules it’s readily apparent how ’97 represented the arse end of the Britpop era. So many second-rate outfits defacing the guitar/bass/drums/vox template, that tedium is the only appropriate response. Meanwhile, a couple of bands caught waving the Britpop banner a few years previously were heading in far more interesting directions. The eponymous Blur album has been mentioned on these pages before; Supergrass haven’t, in part because their first album isn’t a visitor to the LGM turntable – it’s always sounded far too music hall for my tastes. Follow-up In It For The Money however is a far more nuanced affair, a delightfully crafted melancholia from the first Hammond chord onwards. This is an album in which their earlier fuzziness is retained in parts, but it’s something that has been refined, the instrumentation wide, the arrangements subtlety subversive – I’ve a particular soft spot for the warped introversion of ‘It’s Not Me’, which in places sounds like the theme tune the BBC were using at the the time for its darts coverage.
The Italian Flag is Prolapse ramping up the accessibility. An album full of catchy, commercial pop songs – although this being Prolapse, these terms are strictly relative. Constantly inventive, oblique, theatrical, and noisy, this sounds delightfully dangerous at regular intervals, like a pyromaniac with a lit match and a cheeky grin. A record that comes seriously close to invading that top three thing mentioned earlier.
Had Jonathan Fire*Eater held off releasing Wolf Songs For Lambs until the turn of the millennium, I have no doubt that it would have been massive – it covers similar territory to Is This It by The Strokes, but is a far more thrilling listen, all angularity and attitude. Unlike The Strokes, it also sounds sincere; a quality so integral to significance. For some strange reason, Everclear’s So Much For The Afterglow also makes this list. If they’d held off releasing this LP until never, I have no doubt my credibility wouldn’t have just taken a big hit. Oh well, we can’t pick and choose the records that reflexively make an impact – let’s just forget I admitted liking Everclear. Label it a guilty pleasure, then move on.
Unlike every other record mentioned hereabouts, Mogwai Young Team passed me by at the time, only arriving on the turntable a few years later, and therefore entailing a different set of contexts. The frequently-levelled complaint against Mogwai is that their sound hasn’t evolved to any great extent. I’m not sure I’d agree with that viewpoint – they’re a band as conversant in the subtitles as with grand, musical headlines – but it also becomes irrelevant when the back catalogue includes such grindingly mesmeric statements. As a suite, Young Team is expectedly intricate in places, positively tribal in others (if that makes sense in a post-rock context), a momentum that sounds explicitly fresh – narrowly edging Songs from Northern Britain by Teenage Fanclub as my favourite Scottish album of the year.
Other records with the Lazer Guided Melody Seal Of Approval – that should so be on stickers, like that Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics nonsense – include Shleep by Robert Wyatt (a voice to die for); Curtains by Tindersticks (that’ll be the voice thing, again); and Stereolab’s Dots and Loops (have I mentioned I’m a sucker for a gorgeous vocal?). When I Was Born for the 7th Time by Cornershop also deserves a mention. It sounds somewhat dated these days (except the Punjabi cover of ‘Norwegian Wood’, which I’d argue far outweighs the original), whilst ‘Brimful Of Asha’ is forever tainted by the god-awful ubiquity that is the Fatboy Slim remix; the version not messed around with is far slower than that beefed-up big beat travesty, and – more importantly – dexterous and enticing in a manner totally lost in the remix. The rest of the album ain’t bad either; intelligently funky, reams of mingled spice that at times really pays off.
The element of the eponymous Portishead LP that I find particularly appealing is that its tone is nowhere as reverential as first album Dummy. In its place; a luxurious retro-darkness, widescreen in texture, elegant in how it menaces, Beth Gibbons’ vocal a heart-shaped tear. A record for a cold, frigid, cinematic night if ever there was one.
Finally for today, two albums forever linked. Caught in each other’s reflections: one even samples the other. The Dandy Warhols Come Down can be a record it’s difficult to warm to, such is the conscious pandering to commercial sensibilities (something exaggerated even further on the next LP, Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia). That said, nobody does the Dandys sound better than the Dandys themselves; tracks that pose and pout in incredibly louche patterns. Give It Back! represents the flip side to this. Arguably The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s finest moment, it’s part homage, part piss-take of the whole West Coast stoner rock aesthetic. Yet it’s also far more than that, certain songs (‘Sue’; ‘The Devil May Care’) achingly tender and confessional, layers of atmosphere resplendent in the haze. Should you doubt that BJM are an important band, I suggest you lock yourself in a room with this on heavy rotation – it’s the only proof you’ll need.
Right; three records remaining; get in your guesses in now.
Supergrass / It’s Not Me
Prolapse / Slash Oblique
Jonathan Fire*Eater / When The Curtain Calls For You
Cornershop / Norwegian Wood