1. Radiohead, OK Computer
1967 is rightfully—though overly, especially during its 40th anniversary—revered as a watershed year for pop music: It saw the release of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Songs Of Leonard Cohen, Are You Experienced?, The Velvet Underground & Nico, Forever Changes, and many other incredible and/or important albums. 1997, though lacking the benefit of as much hindsight, packed a pretty earth-shaking musical punch, too, clearly led by Radiohead's already-canonized OK Computer. Enough ink has been spilled about the album's dystopian outlook and overall concept, sometimes to the point of ignoring the most important element: Every track, from pure pop in wolf's clothing ("Paranoid Android") to experimental animosity ("Fitter Happier") feels exactly right. Everything in its right place, indeed.
Radiohead on Jools Holland, with Yorke shades
2. Modest Mouse, The Lonesome Crowded West
Modest Mouse's journey from drunken shows in dingy basements to packed auditoriums and Johnny Marr joining (that's still weird!) didn't begin with "Float On," it began with The Lonesome Crowded West, an overlong, barking, mean, and ultimately brilliant distillation of Isaac Brock's cranky worldview. Delivering the promise of less-studied earlier MM albums, it polished the sound—but only to a point. There's a remarkable edge to "Cowboy Dan" and the Mouse-defining "Heat Cooks Brain." While Crowded West didn't exactly pave the way for a seismic shift in music as a whole, it paved the way for more Modest Mouse.
Modest Mouse Vs. Bela Tarr
3. Sleater-Kinney, Dig Me Out
Punkish Portland trio Sleater-Kinney began hitting its stride on 1996's Call The Doctor, but Dig Me Out became the group's defining album. The band formed in 1994 during the riot-grrl era, but gradually used hooky pop melodies to transform the scene's abrasive personal politics into something more sonically palatable. Singer-guitarists Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein created an engrossing interplay, tightened by new drummer Janet Weiss. The first six of the album's 13 songs should've been worldwide hits, from the intense title track through the similarly hard-hitting "Words And Guitar," but there isn't a dud in the bunch. Dig Me Out made such a powerful mark that Sleater-Kinney spent the next decade attempting to live up to it.
4. Elliott Smith, Either/Or
In many ways, Elliott Smith's first three albums—Roman Candle, Elliott Smith, and Either/Or—can be viewed as of a piece: Each is spartan, confessional, and nearly claustrophobic. Either/Or dresses the songs in more than just his acoustic guitar and whisper-sing, mostly because it was recorded before Smith found the wherewithal and cash to get more ambitious in the studio. (Its success certainly led to the cash part, not to mention an Oscar nomination.) Delivered this way, though, the songs are allowed to be deeply sad in a way he would never quite reach again: He's got angry broken hearts ("Alameda"), complete dejection ("2:45 A.M."), and sweet, miserable longing ("Between The Bars"), all somehow delivered with sparks of hope. The next generation of punks would try to get songwriter-y in his wake, but no one succeeded in the same way.
Jem Cohen's short film about Elliott, Lucky Three
5. Yo La Tengo, I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One
After more than a decade spent as one of indie-rock's most respected underground bands, Yo La Tengo broke wider in 1997 thanks to stellar reviews for I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One and a clever, Mr. Show-aided video for "Sugarcube" that wormed its way into rotation on MTV. That track's tinge of bubblegum pop was a surprise for a band that had always hidden its emotions behind walls of Sonic Youth noise and Ira Kaplan's detached, Lou Reed-esque speak-singing, but then, I Can Hear The Heart was full of surprises, from twangy country-ish numbers ("One P.M. Again") to shoegazing Beach Boys covers ("Little Honda"). By far the group's most eclectic work, I Can Hear holds all its playful genre experimentation together with a touching emotional center crystallized in "Autumn Sweater," a ballad for soft-spoken boys in Buddy Holly glasses and the cardigan-clad girls who love them.
Yo La Tengo, taken to Rock School by Mr. Show
6. Spiritualized, Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space
In giving the repetitive drones of Spacemen 3 a Phil Spector studio sheen, Jason Pierce sacrificed gritty immediacy (and hipster cred) for studio indulgence, but the payoff is one of the best "headphone" albums of all time—not to mention one of the most convincing arguments ever made for drug abuse. From the adrift-in-the-cosmos majesty of the title track to the staggering acid-rock of "Electricity" and "Come Together," Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space is Pierce's psychedelic symphony, a pill-addled epic incorporating a gospel choir, huge orchestral sections, and even grizzled blues veteran Dr. John on the hypnotic closer, "Cop Shoot Cop." Though the album's influence on "space-rock" albums to follow—particularly The Flaming Lips' similarly grand The Soft Bulletin—is arguable, its impact on 1997 isn't: NME named it Album Of The Year over The Verve's Urban Hymns and, yes, even OK Computer.
7. Company Flow, Funcrusher Plus
Hip-hop was born and nurtured on independent labels, and for much of its early life, it thrived on them. But the early stuff isn't viewed as indie rap, per se; that concept was born with Rawkus, and Funcrusher Plus codified it more than any other of the label's releases. That's partly because of its sheer griminess: Its sound is dense, hard as granite, and unapologetically belligerent, with vocals to match. But El-P and Mr. Len were as likely to get science-fictional as street-tough on songs like "Vital Nerve" and "8 Steps To Perfection"; "Last Good Sleep" even dealt with El-P's abusive childhood. For rap fans disenchanted with the style's buoyant mainstream takeover (1997 was the year of Puff Daddy's ascent), Funcrusher Plus helped build a new church. And for college-radio types, it remains a foundational text.
Company Flow's 8 Steps To Perfection
8. Björk, Homogenic
Though she was by no means a straight arrow in preceding years, Björk really shot off on Homogenic, an album full of diverging songscapes that are bigger and more forcefully emotive than any she's made since. Her declaration of a "state of emergency" in "Joga" raises the question of whether a state so gorgeously lamented could be all bad, and her fusion of portentous film music with twitchy IDM in "Bachelorette" ranks as one of Björk's defining moments. (Certainly it's her best song about a "killer whale trapped in a bay.") In a discography as diverse as Björk's, Homogenic serves as a sort of hinge: It didn't quite mark the opening or closing of a particular sound, but it remains the album that divides her work into "before" and "after."
Michel Gondry's video for Joga
9. Belle And Sebastian, The EPs
Though it was released in late 1996, If You're Feeling Sinister probably belongs on any list covering the music of 1997: It had a much bigger impact once it became more widely available. But it's easy to make a case that Belle And Sebastian's three actual 1997 EPs—Dog On Wheels, Lazy Line Painter Jane, and 3… 6… 9… Seconds Of Light—were equally influential. Every indie band that never thought of embracing its twee side before picked up the import-only discs as they became available, gobbling up the biting, precious stories of "The State I Am In" and "A Century Of Fakers." The tracks are all available now on Push Barman To Open Old Wounds, an excellent compilation of B&S singles.
If you already think Belle And Sebastian is wimpy, don't watch this
10. Notorious B.I.G., Life After Death / Wu-Tang Clan, Wu-Tang Forever
How do you follow a debut album that changed pop music forever, made you an icon/household name, and is widely credited with revitalizing East Coast hip-hop in the face of a massive G-Funk revolution? If you're Wu-Tang Clan or Notorious B.I.G., you take some time off to enjoy the fruits of your hard work (unless you're Wu-Tang mastermind RZA, in which case you hole up for years, producing one solo masterpiece after another), regroup, then come back with a double-disc monster that tries to make up for in quantity and ambition what it lacks in freshness and cohesion. Wu-Tang Forever and Life After Death, the legendary, legendarily flawed follow-ups to Enter The 36 Chambers and Ready To Die, respectively, are widely remembered for monster singles like "Triumph," "Hypnotize," "Mo Money, Mo Problems," and "Sky's The Limit" in part because the albums they emerged from are prohibitively difficult to listen to in their entirety. How many fans even tried to listen to both these monsters from the first track to the last? They're prototypical follow-ups to historic debuts: brilliant, uneven, overreaching, messy, and vital. For all their flaws, they're both screamingly essential, especially Life After Death, an album that takes Ready To Die's gloomy, noir-hued gangsta fatalism to bleak new levels while still finding ample time for partying and bullshit.
Cars, choppers, boats, Puffy…
11. Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott, Supa Dupa Fly
Supa Dupa Fly offered fans a twofer: a revolutionary beatsmith whose drum patterns, wiggy synthesizers, and electronic flourishes split hip-hop production into two eras (pre-Timbaland and post-Timbaland) and a songwriter, rapper, and singer utterly unlike any previous artist. Together, Timbaland and Elliott formed an unbeatable twosome that, beginning with Supa Dupa Fly's hypnotic title track, cranked out a string of giant hits accompanied by mind-bending, eye-popping videos that wowed highbrow critics and the masses equally. Elliott's star has faded a bit lately, but Timbaland's longevity is astounding: He's been one of the top five hip-hop producers for a solid decade, a formidable feat even if he hadn't branched out to conquer the R&B and pop realms as well.
The puffy outfit hits its zenith
12. Erykah Badu, Baduizm
What Supa Dupa Fly did for hip-hop, Erykah Badu's Baduizm did for what would be dubbed "neo-soul." Badu's unhurried tempos and self-confident lyrics carried a personality that was playful, yet dead serious; so did her honey-rich voice and flexible phrasing. However different Elliott and Badu were individually, together, they made R&B in their own images—which still exert a powerful influence on everyone who's come along since.
13. Mogwai, Young Team
Sigur Rós' Von and Godspeed You Black Emperor!'s F#A#? both came out in 1997, but those groundbreaking debuts weren't widely available, and they went virtually unheard that year. Mogwai's Young Team, though, made a big, instant splash on its '97 release, pumping new life into post-rock and shoegaze, two relatively nascent genres that already seemed tired by mid-decade. Genre-splicing aside, Young Team is a force unto itself: Mostly instrumental and adrift in a void of pissed-off yet blissful noise, the Scottish group's inaugural album balances delicacy and thunder with haunting samples and an aura of churning loss. By the time Arab Strap's Aidan Moffett finishes deadpanning on the disc's sole vocal track, "R U Still In 2 It," there's no turning back. Since its release, Young Team has influenced everyone from Explosions In The Sky to Pelican to Bloc Party, whose Kele Okereke recently cited the record as his musical "year zero."
Mogwai Fear Satan at Coachella
14. Daft Punk, Homework
Electronic music has turned out no image more winning than the skeletons and robots dancing around a would-be Busby Berkeley set to Daft Punk's "Around The World." The thing is, the song didn't even need a good video to stick. In 1997, Daft Punk's breakout single and the attendant album Homework sounded a call to revisit dance music's roots in house and disco (as opposed to, say, the rock and rave of acts like The Chemical Brothers and Prodigy). The best songs drew a circle and waited to see what would happen if they kept on spinning. What has happened since, in pretty much every realm of dance music, owes a lot to that same assignment.
Skeletons and robots dancing around a would-be Busby Berkeley set
15. Helium, The Magic City
Beholden to Kim Gordon and Kim Deal, Helium leader Mary Timony crafted a bold, raw classic with 1995's Dirt Of Luck. By '97, though, her band was in flux. Bassist Ash Bowie was recording the sitar-smeared Shapes, the fragmented fuck-off of his other project, Polvo, and everyone from Liz Phair to Hole had swiped enough of Helium's sound to drive Timony in a new direction. That direction turned out to be utterly astounding: The Magic City, while retaining some of Helium's previous acidity, incorporates unabashed Yes-style prog and Renaissance-faire instrumentation. Fantasy and science-fiction themes abound—there's even a song called "Medieval People"—and tracks like "Lullaby Moth" and "Blue Rain Soda" presage Joanna Newsom's Ys a decade in advance. The Magic City sounded kind of like a prank in 1997, when prog was still a four-letter word, but recent history has proven Mary Timony to be a prophet.
Mary Timony has a rainbow dragon we could ride
16. The Promise Ring, Nothing Feels Good
The Promise Ring became an indie favorite with 1996's 30 Degrees Everywhere, but Nothing Feels Good secured the band's status as the most important entry in emo's second wave. Songs like "Is This Thing On?", "Why Did We Ever Meet," and "Forget Me" showed the Ring's punk roots, but wrapped them in big pop hooks with sweet sentiment. The Promise Ring didn't create a new aesthetic on Nothing Feels Good—other bands were doing something similar—but the album was its apotheosis. Even though the group never lived up to the "next big thing" status Nothing Feels Good conferred, the record remains one of the era's defining albums. As such, it fomented thousands of crappy-sounding copycats, a curse that lingers a decade later.
Roller-blading, BMX-ing, and gingerbread men with The Promise Ring
17. Bob Dylan, Time Out Of Mind
1997 wasn't just about new artists breaking fresh ground. It was also about older artists finding inspiration in the past. After a long period of writer's block set in following 1989's remarkable Oh Mercy, Bob Dylan dug back into the American folk songbook for a pair of covers albums. When he finally released new material in 1997, it was shot through with the spare sound of eccentric folk, drawing on sources from what Greil Marcus memorably described as the "old, weird America." By this point, Dylan was an old, weird American too. Time Out Of Mind's meditations on mortality foreshadowed a life-threatening ailment that set in shortly after its completion. The album is obsessed with death and last attempts to make sense of things, but it's wryly funny, too. The album-closing "Highlands" spins a shaggy-dog tale for more than 16 minutes, dwelling on minute, mundane details while referencing the eponymous hills as the singer's natural home. It's as if he had to keep singing to avoid ending up there too soon.
The White Stripes tackle Dylan's Love Sick
18. Other essential 1997 listening:
Portishead's Portishead, Pavement's Brighten The Corners, Clem Snide's You Were A Diamond, Catherine Wheel's Adam & Eve, The Verve's Urban Hymns, Smog's Red Apple Falls, Will Oldham's Joya, Rex's 3, Blonde Redhead's Fake Can Be Just As Good, Built To Spill's Perfect From Now On, Robert Wyatt's Shleep, The Chemical Brothers' Dig Your Own Hole, Cornershop's When I Was Born For The Seventh Time, The Spice Girls' Spice, Joan Of Arc's A Portable Model Of, Janet Jackson's The Velvet Rope, Roni Size/Reprazent's New Forms, Timbaland & Magoo's Welcome To Our World, The Get Up Kids' Four Minute Mile, Blur's Blur, Foo Fighters' The Colour And The Shape, Grandaddy's Under The Western Freeway, The Sea And Cake's The Fawn, Godspeed You Black Emperor's F♯A♯?, and Chisel's Set You Free.