The Best Songs of 1997

Well, we’re at the big one for me.

I don’t think any year on this project will compare to 1997 in terms of importance. I was 13 in 1997. Music just sounded louder at that age. It mattered more. It was the landscape of my brain. I remember every big hit from this year and even if I don’t like them I can sing them. This feels like the one that counts. 0

And as years go, 1997…is thoroughly average. And I’m being nice. It’s not as bad as the adult contemporary soaked years and what’s good is very good. But there is a lot of novelty in 1997. The Macarena and the arrival of the Spice Girls didn’t exactly set a lot of good trends. Boy bands kick in this year and I’m no longer snobby about them but I’m also not naive that they’re any good. When I look at this list, I’m struck how only a few acts from it actually make a future list. Either their next song isn’t as good or they don’t get a next song. That happens a lot. But we have one nice solid list here.

Honorable Mentions:
Sister Hazel- All For You. This is one of those songs that’s always existed. It first existed here though. I love this singalong country rock style. Very rootsy.
Paula Cole- I Don’t Want To Wait. If I couldn’t justify every single song on this list as one of my favorites from the last 25 years, this would be on. This thing is a classic and deserves more love than as a theme song.
Smash Mouth- Walking on the Sun. Smash Mouth was so good as a weird band. Even their hits are weird. It’s actually probably pretty basic with a can’t we all get along message but it’s so buried.
Billie Myers- Kiss the Rain. This one shouldn’t be this forgotten. What I love is how if you listen closely, this isn’t so much about someone suspicious of a cheater as someone utterly broken by paranoia. This is what panicked delirium sounds like.
Lisa Loeb- I Do. I really hate Love Song by Sara Bareilles because I heard Loeb do the same thing better here. This is a direct rant at her label demanding she give them a single and given that this was a hit, well they got one! It’s angry and tense.

My number 10 song is one of only two picks on this list I’d link with my life in 1997. But it’s a tight link. I wasn’t yet at my pit but it was close when I heard this song. And I just needed it. This was what I wanted to know was true. Things weren’t eternal. This wouldn’t be something I couldn’t leave. It was a pause. It was only a pause.

10 Sawyer Brown- This Night Won’t Last Forever. My last country song for the project is one of my favorites. This song captures a very direct feeling that depression evokes. You’re well aware it’s in your mind. But you still feel it. So you focus on one night at a time. It also nails the hell of being in a situation you do not want to be in. This is a cover btw. I’ve heard the original version and this version, especially the live version, is by far the best. But honestly it’s just a great song in any form.

You know this list is good if Sarah McLachlan is at 9. This was her year with Lilith Fair which really set a tone for music. You might expect me to say I wasn’t into that sound. I was 13 after all. Nah. I dug all of it. Especially McLachlan. Sweet Surrender was this year and that’s a virtual twin to Possession which cracked my list in 1993. I could put that but I’ll go with one I love.

9 Sarah McLachlan- Building a Mystery. 1997 was a great year for McLachlan but this was her peak. This is just a song of great imagery that seems vague but it’s pretty blunt actually. We all put up fronts when we’re just screwed up people. The song celebrates it. I realize it’s a cliche to call this an earthy, sexy song because that’s her whole schtick but it is. It’s a very appealing warm song.

If you want a study in how time changes perception, look at the reception Robyn got for her 2010 work. Dancing on My Own and Call Your Girlfriend were hailed as revolutionary works. They felt very different from anything on the radio at that moment. Her music is considered very indie, very eclectic. And I’m going to be the guy who says what anybody awake in 1997 has been thinking. Absolutely nothing about her sound now is shocking if you remember her work in 1997.

8 Robyn- Do You Know (What It Takes). This song is seriously exactly what she would be known for later. I say that not to insult her later work but to celebrate this. There was a lot of European pop in 1997 but even then I knew this was the good stuff. I loved this song in 1997. Why do I still love it? It’s an aggressive pop song. It’s very forceful and Robyn herself sells it. It’s also got a great beat. This marks an important moment as I first put Karl Sandberg AKA Max Martin on the list. He is the god of modern songwriting and he worked on this. This is perfect bubblegum.

I have a paradox to put forward. A song about nostalgia will, with time, become a piece of nostalgia itself. It’s inevitable. If the song is linked to good memories and a specific moment, it has to become a self reflexive example. It’s a weird thing. And here’s the big example.

7 Hanson- MMMBop. Another song that’s gotten a reevaluation and I’m glad it has because it really nails what it’s aiming at. This is what being young and aware it’s almost over is like. It’s stressful. People think youth is a blissful halcyon time. It’s not. The clock is always ticking and you just wish it wasn’t. That this song was by very young men fits. It’s a frustrated cry of how brief life is. I think it was easy to mock for how bubblegum it is, seriously that was so back in 1997, but I think there’s real honesty here. It’s raw and I think should hold up.

Savage Garden fascinates me as a band. They had a really cool set up, cowriting with Darren Hayes singing and Daniel Jones doing the music. I really hate their ballads with a flaming passion but I’m high on them. They had some good stuff. I Want You was in 1997. I should have that on the list as I do love it. I don’t though. Nah the track I really sparked to was a really underrated song.

6 Savage Garden- To The Moon And Back. Why this wasn’t their biggest song I will never know. It was only briefly big here but it is one of those one-of-a-kind tracks that music is better for having. It sounds weird and cosmic. Hayes sounds distant on it too which helps the feeling of something darkly ethereal this song thrives on. Jones is the star though. In an age where synths were coming back, he really kills on that end. The guitar work is phenomenal too. This is just a surreal dizzying track. Seek it out.

My top 5 is straight classics. I don’t expect that to happen much. But in 1997 what I loved was big. So these songs topped the charts. Let’s begin with one of the most insidious earworms ever. I feel like this song has become so known as a misinterpreted song it’s almost more of a misinterpretation now that it is one. We all know what it is. We love it.

5 Third Eye Blind- Semi-Charmed Life. I almost ranked this as an honorable mention simply because it’s so embedded in the culture I can’t imagine what I can add. But this is a best list and this is a great song. From that endlessly hummable chorus to the bright as a summer day sound, this holds up as a great track. And yes it’s obviously about drugs. Everyone knows that. But putting a light spin on addiction is pretty common, especially the year after Trainspotting. This is a timeless, addictive song. There. I wrung that out.

The 90s were when sampling went mainstream. It had always been there in rap and when rap broke so did it. I think Sean Combs, who did it nonstop and was astoundingly bad at it, made it look bad but sampling is an art. Look at Young M.C. taking Ballin’ Jack’s Found a Child, deconstructing it, and making a whole new perfect thing. Rap in the 90s has some profoundly great samples. But the best sample wasn’t in rap this decade. It was an obscure sample of The Andrew Oldham Orchestra covering The Last Time by The Rolling Stones. It is one of the most sublime songs ever.

4 The Verve- Bitter Sweet Symphony. Another hard to talk about song. The Verve ruled btw. Huge fan of Lucky Man. This is another song rightly in our cultural DNA. Who doesn’t love this song? It just sounds so good with that perfect sample. But if that was all it had I wouldn’t list it. The thing is the lyrics to it are fantastic. Richard Ashcroft spins such a clear, distinct portrait of feeling out of place and disoriented, young and poor. His vocals are incredible too. There’s nothing like this.

I don’t envy Dave Grohl picking up after Kurt Cobain’s death. Krist Novoselic had projects, sure, but he was never as visible as Grohl was. Grohl had the weight of being the banner carrier for Nirvana. He was the public face everyone associated with doing so. And credit due, he kind of crushed it. Why? Well he’s Dave Grohl. He’s a musical genius. And he wrote this.

3 Foo Fighters- Everlong. If it was pulling teeth to discuss the last two songs because they’re so self evidently great, this is the opposite. I could go for hours on this song. I’ve called it my favorite love song ever and I mean it. This is what being in love should feel like. It’s sheer glorious exhilaration. The song starts so tight before spiraling into a blissful madness. Grohl is belting as hard as he can. Guitarist Pat Smear wails with some of the hardest work the band will ever see. We’re going back to this band a lot and I’m excited.

OK so if Dave Grohl had to carry the legacy of Nirvana, at least it was his legacy. Jakob Dylan didn’t get that choice. He had to carry the weight of Bob Dylan’s legacy. And sure, being Bob Dylan’s son probably got him in the door. But I can’t imagine the hell of trying to live up to that. But again, good work can fix that.

2 The Wallflowers- One Headlight. This is kind of a marvel of a song. Jakob Dylan has said it’s about the death of ideas. I say whatever. I don’t think this song is “about” anything. It’s a lot of really great patchwork imagery that’s clearly about death but again, it’s a meaningless fluff song. The thing is it all sounds so good I can’t imagine it not being high on this list despite that. Credit really has to be given to then guitarist Michael Ward who also made this list with School of Fish’s 3 Strange Days. His work here gives it texture that it needs. Dylan also gives it his all with his smooth, cool vocals. And maybe the fact that the song is so ramshackle in its construction from a band that really is just a rotating group of members to support a celebrity’s son fits perfectly. It demonstrates itself.

Time for personal song 2. In the fall of 1997, I was in seclusion for all intents and purposes. I didn’t see very many people. I was home schooled. I saw my friends occasionally but only occasionally. I was on my way to an autism diagnosis at year’s end. I was in other words mortally depressed. I needed a song to give me drive to keep going. And in the winter, one emerged. I loved it then. I consider it my favorite song of the 1990s now.

1 Chumbawamba- Tubthumping. Has there ever been a better anthem for those seeking to feel better? The song is a perfect thing to scream when drunk and sad. As it should. It’s a very obvious drinking song down to literally talking about that. The chorus was built for that. Is it satirical as I’ve heard some say, making fun of the downtrodden man who drinks instead of fixing his life? Not a chance in hell. This is a weird earnest fluke hit from a legendary anarchist collective who actually didn’t fit into that scene because they genuinely did love things like football and getting hammered. And who doesn’t love that? I’m obviously now of drinking age (and many years past) and more than a few times working on this, I’ve had a pint while listening to it. This is a song that never sounds worse. The horns pop every time. The verses sound good. The chorus always kills. I can’t imagine a world without this song. Oh and really look into the band’s other stuff. I have no idea how Amnesia wasn’t a huge hit because it’s one hell of a party song.

Still in the dark next week in 1998.

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