Retrospecticus: The Top 15 Songs of 1997

Ok y’all, I’ve been too down to write lately. I was supposed to write about Beowulf, Enchanted, and the WGA strike and I just did not care about them. I’ll hit on the WGA strike later but I’m getting the cobwebs cleared out with a series of pieces this week and this feels like a chance to just completely test myself as a writer. Just for fun I’m looking back at the music of 1997. Yes, I’m not only going to go back 20 rather than 20 years but I’m also going to do a music column for The Film Room.

Why? Because the music of 1997 is pure nostalgia for me. The songs of 20 years ago may not be good or bad but they are in my soul. And I know they’re in the soul of people I know.If this is a column about nostalgia, why not look at the soundtrack. So it’s been 20 years. Let’s look at 15 songs.

BONUS: Ready To Go — Republica. A theme for this year is tightness. We think of the mid 90s as a shaggy, rambling time in the media and that was definitely true but by 1997, everything was moving towards the vaunted year 2000 (which turned out staggeringly underwhelming.) This song screams that spirit. It’s driving. It’s sleek. It’s fresh. It fuels you.

15. The End is the Beginning is the End — Smashing Pumpkins. You fall into one of two categories. You either prefer the slowed down version associated with Watchmen or the hard rock version associated with Batman and Robin. I choose the latter. Rarely has Billy Corgan’s voice sounded as blissfully demonic as it does here. This is a creepy, gothic as hell song that honestly belongs on a great Batman movie, not the second worst yet. (Batman and Harley Quinn dethroned it.)

14. Precious Declaration — Collective Soul. It’s funny. I love this song but I never considered this a huge hit. Actually it was the biggest modern rock song of the year and #65 on the hot 100 chart for the year. This isn’t as known as the hits they had from the albums before and after it all the same and that’s a shame because it’s just a tight breakup song. A great guitar riff coupled with Ed Roland’s vocals at their smoothest makes it hum.

13. On My Own — Peach Union. This is a very forgotten song now and I hate that. I just plain love European pop music from 1997. There is something sonically fascinating about this song. It doesn’t feel earthly. Lyrically it’s a very standard walking away song but this is just constantly vibrating with all kinds of wild synth work. A lost gem.

12. Kiss The Rain — Billie Myers. I’m more than happy to argue Myers has been a bit forgotten looking back at the music of this era. She had three singles on US radio and all three were gold. This is the best known of her tracks and it just aches. A bleak, bleak song about doomed longing that almost feels wrong. There isn’t hope in this song and I love that. It’s just so sad and so cathartic.

11. Walkin’ On The Sun — Smash Mouth. I’m saying it right now: While All Star has become the ultimate meme for bland pop songs, Smash Mouth were wonderfully odd. Astro Lounge is less an album of generic pop and more a throw back to 60s surf music. If it wasn’t for lyrics directly calling out how the 60s hippies sold out, this could’ve played over a beach movie. And that’s why it’s great. Look at the lyrics and this is a furiously angry song. But it sounds so light.

10. Show Me Love — Robyn. Putting a Robyn song on my list before her rediscovery almost feels like a cheat. But I loved this in 97 and I love it now. It doesn’t even feel like 90s pop. Throw it on the radio now and it still feels fresh. There’s energy. Next to Dancing on My Own or Call Your Girlfriend, it feels natural. She was already awesome in 1997. It just took time for others to get it.

9. Building a Mystery — Sarah McLachlan. Lilith Fair gets its representation. Sweet Surrender is great too but this song has such a great drive and such witty lyrics. I can’t not feel happy listening to this song. It speaks so hard to me. Also “a beautiful f***ed up man” this the best lyric of the year.

8. To The Moon and Back — Savage Garden. Let me be a hipster for a second. I Want You came so close to taking this spot and yeah, if you want to sub that in because you know it, go for it. It’s an amazing song. But this is the one I love. It’s this surreal, dark, moody song that captures the weird techno-future vibe of the year. It’s creepy, weird, and shows that while their sappy love songs were what they were known for, this was their strength.

7. Semi-Charmed Life — Third Eye Blind. The 90s really were the time of irony and this was the peak. A fun, bubbly song about the utter hell of drugs, it’s the musical version of Trainspotting. You’re having such a great time you forget the song is incredibly bleak. That’s fitting.

6. Everlong — Foo Fighters. This made it as high as #6. Think about how great a year in music it was this isn’t my #1. Because this song is just that great. Famously David Letterman’s favorite song, this is what tight sounds like. The riff at the start grabs you, dragging you into a gradually escalating, driving journey of what love feels like. It builds, and builds, and builds to a burst of pure ecstasy.

5. I Do — Lisa Loeb. This list happened because I heard this song and realized I wanted to write up the songs of this year. The four songs above it are staples while this one seems forgotten in the past. Please. This is a song of raw expression, the frustration of a relationship collapsing. (The relationship in this case was Loeb working with the record company. They demanded a single and as often happens wound up getting a single about how abuaive the industry is.) It’s angry and tense yet vulnerable in Loeb’s effervescent voice. 1997 was heavily defined by female singer/songwriters. It didn’t get better than here

4. MMMBop — Hanson. Look there was no way we were leaving this year without this one. What I think is fitting is that I wouldn’t have had it on the list in 1997 but it belongs here now. Why? It’s a perfect song about the ephemerality of time and the world we live in. And it was written by CHILDREN. These were kids with no sense of what the hell they were discussing and they nailed it anyway. It still works 20 years later.

3. Karma Police — Radiohead. I’m having fun picturing Radiohead fans having an aneurysm if I left something from OK Computer off. Of course that wouldn’t happen. This is one of those songs that just stays with you, a haunting slog that slowly descends into madness. When it collapses into distortion, the effect is nailed.

2. One Headlight — The Wallflowers. What a weird song this is. It’s dark in its imagery. Jakob Dylan has a very gravelly voice. It’s restrained, kind of light yet also kind of dark. It’s a bleak song but it’s also hopeful. Anyway I love every single thing about it. It’s a powerhouse of a song that’s not shockingly popular with depression sufferers. It captures frustration, pain, and the gallows humor you develop in a crisis.

1. Tubthumping — Chumbawamba. Why this at #1? Because nothing else could be for me. When that first note hits, you know what it is. The ultimate anthem for the downtrodden. The song is a shout, a chant, and rather inevitably the greatest drinking song ever. This song is hope and life and joy. The best song of the year, hands down.

This was a fun experiment. I hope I get to do another one of these soon. Next up: Why Spawn Matters!

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