Emperor – Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk
Released July 8th, 1997 on Candlelight Records
Listen, In The Nightside Eclipse is a stone classic. It’s my favourite black metal record, although if you’re a purist I’ll probably say it’s Sunbather just to piss you off. Regardless, Nightside is the album I would point to and say “that’s black metal”, in case you were wondering. That said, Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk, the band’s second album, does everything Nightside does, only bigger, and in widescreen. While there are somewhat less keyboards overlaying the churn of Anthems, and it doesn’t have “I Am The Black Wizards” on it, it does work in a much clearer fashion, upping the production values and drilling down more on the intense blastbeats to anchor the songs, rather than mixing everything into a shoegazer-approved blur.
By 1997, of course, the Norwegian band was surrounded by a black haze of controversy, like the filth and the fury surrounding the Sex Pistols twenty years prior but much more viscerally psychotic. Original drummer Faust murdered a man in 1992 for making passes at him in a forest near Lillehammer; that day he went with Mayhem’s Euronymous and Burzum/Mayhem-affiliated pagan-fascist Varg Vikernes to burn down one of Norway’s ancient Christian stave churches (the latter two would later fall out, leading to Vikernes’ infamous murder of Euronymous in 1993). He and Emperor co-founder Samoth went to jail in 1994, shortly before the release of In The Nightside Eclipse, although Samoth was imprisoned for arson, having been caught burning down another church with Varg Vikernes. Anthems was recorded after Samoth was released on parole in 1996; still, most of the record is the brainchild of Ihsahn, vocalist, lead guitarist, and main arranger of the sumptuous, vile suites. Controversy followed them on tour (and again in 2015, when Faust was released from prison and went on tour with Emperor), but it only served to bring further notoriety and interest to the Norwegian black metal scene and Emperor specifically.
Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk is arguably (but only barely arguably) the peak of Norwegian black metal, from a technical and sonic standpoint. The band themselves would put out a wildly uneven third record (IX) and then turn into an endlessly-touring machine under the sole control of Ihsahn. The genre would burn out on cheesy adolescent theistic Satanism, cross the Atlantic, and be reborn first as paganism with the Nordic fascism removed (Wolves In The Throne Room) and then as a vehicle for hipster American musicians’ experiments in metal, both failed (Liturgy) and sublime (Deafheaven). Anthems, then, remains the high-water mark for purely Scandinavian black metal.
The Prodigy – The Fat Of The Land
Released June 30th, 1997 on XL Records
The years following Kurt Cobain’s suicide marked a sea change in the makeup of popular music in England and North America. Hip hop and electronic music ate up market share until a rough sort of equality emerged; “the kids” were just as likely to be into dirty south or drum n bass as they were rock ‘n’ roll, signalling that the Boomers were finally old and ready to be put out to pasture. One of the key drivers of this changeover was the popularity of big beat between 1996 and 1998. This movement – a product of the Chemical Brothers, the Prodigy, Fatboy Slim Crystal Vegas, and helped along by the equally-brash sounds of other electronic acts like Daft Punk and the Sneaker Pimps – brought the slamming sound of drum breakbeats into the bedrooms of suburban teens from coast to coast.
The Prodigy were a little different from the others in that they incorporated a definite punk rock influence into their music. The most obvious of these influences was of course singer Keith Flint, who wore a pink mohawk and looked like he’d just crawled out of a bender in the basement of Malcolm McLaren’s haberdashery. There was also an aggressiveness to the way Liam Howlett arranged and programmed the songs, a certain je ne sais quoi that put the group more in the realm of anarcho-electro-punks Atari Teenage Riot than other English big beat acts that were jamming up contemporary rave culture. “Smack My Bitch Up”, with it’s controversial Kool Keith sample and it’s car-chase propulsion, was discussed endlessly as to whether it was misogynistic or simply a reflection of the culture. “Breathe” and “Firestarter” took the clenched-fist industrial energy of Trent Reznor and made it okay for kids tripping on E and glowsticks. “Funky Shit” and “Naryan”, meanwhile, were closer to what the Chemical Brothers had been doing on Dig Your Own Hole. Regardless of which direction the album took, it had the energy and edge that kids went for in the late Nineties.
It was such a success that at one point, probably around 1998 or so, I overheard a big farm kid claim that AC/DC wasn’t a real rock band and that real rock bands sounded like The Prodigy. He was objectively wrong (and dumb as a rock to boot) but there you have it: proof that, for the thrill and excitement that “the youth” craved, big beat was doing what rock ‘n’ roll acts couldn’t.
Blink-182 – Dude Ranch
Released June 17th, 1997 on Cargo Records / MCA Records
Anyone over the age of 16 who claims that Blink-182 is one of their favourite bands is solidly immature – and the older they get, the more you can be assured that they’re existing in a state of suspended adolescence that just gets sadder the closer you get to grey hair. Anyone under the age of 16 who claims that Blink-182 is one of their favourite bands is probably riding on a crest of Le Wrong Generation smugness, hating on the musical offerings of their generation simply to be contrarian and faux-cool. I mean, you kids know PUP exists, right? Pissed Jeans? There are much better punk bands out now than Blink, you don’t have to suck up to Xinneials for brownie points.
So why are we celebrating the twentieth anniversary of an album that pretty much strikes one note over and over again until you just want to scream “I GET IT DELONGE YOU MANIAC! YOU GREW UP IN THE SUBURBS AND YOU HAD A TYPICAL SUBURBAN TEEN UPBRINGING! I’VE SEEN CAN’T HARDLY WAIT I KNOW HOW THIS WORKS!”? Well, for one thing, it’s to say holy shit Dude Ranch is twenty years old and you are soooooo old! For another, it’s to remark that, while Dude Ranch is basically NOFX with the edges sanded off, the personification of suburban skater punk, it’s also the perfection of that form. “Dammit” is the pop-punk song of the Nineties, and if the rest of the album is basically just fourteen more iterations of “Dammit” it’s okay because that formula works here, and it works exceedingly well.
The rest of the songs also have their charms, of course. “Dick Lips” is about getting drunk and kicked out of high school; “Apple Shampoo” is about getting your heart broken (and about Elyse Rogers of Dance Hall Crashers); “Emo” is about Jimmy Eat World; “Josie” is about the perfect girlfriend, while “A New Hope” is about the perfect girlfriend, who just happens to be rebelicious Princess Leia Skywalker (RIP Carrie Fisher). It’s all juvenile, of course, fitting for a band who were still mentally in high school and and for a fanset who largely were still there as well. It’s girls, drinking, hanging out, and being goofballs – something the band would continue to tackle right up until their 2003 self-titled swan song, which should have been their Rubber Soul but wasn’t.
This is closing in on 500 words now, which begs the question, “who the hell unironically writes 500 words about Blink-182?” I guess I do, who knew? I will straight-up admit to unabashedly loving this album as a 16 year old, who was that age right at the time they were doing records like Dude Ranch. I had a pirated copy, too, burned onto a CD-R that I copied from a friend long before Napster came around to revolutionize that sort of thing. I might even still have it somewhere; it’s one of those artifacts of youth that have sentimental value, if not precisely musical. Sometimes nostalgia doesn’t need a sacred reason; sometimes it just about where you were at when you were a kid. I guess this is growing up.
Wu-Tang Clan – Wu-Tang Forever
Released June 3rd, 1997 on Loud Records & RCA Records
According to legend, Wu producer/abbot RZA struck a deal with the other members of the Wu-Tang Clan in 1992: if they agreed to give RZA total control without question for five years, he would ensure that they would change hip hop and become the number one group in America. Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was the beginning of this plan; in 1997, when the sprawling double-CD Wu-Tang Forever was released, they had achieved RZA’s plan and then some. It’s easy to talk about Dre and NWA changing hip hop, or Biggie, or Pac, but the Wu brought hip hop to a wider audience than anyone else. The social aspect of the Clan was it’s biggest selling feature; it was never enough to just like the music. Liking the music lead to wanting to know about each member, and tracking down their solo records, and picking apart their verses in a comparative fashion. Was Method Man the best rapper? The GZA, with his esoteric verses? The balls-out crassness of Ol’ Dirty Bastard? The cinematic majesty of Ghostface Killah? Even rural regions erupted in Wu symbols and white boys suddenly interested in rap and gritty NYC rappers.
Wu-Tang Forever is the cap on this era, a blown-out tribute to everyone’s collective skills. Enter The Wu Tang was very minimalist, when it came to production; the RZA’s style had it’s genesis there, but his work on GZA’s Liquid Swords, Meth’s Tical, and Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx expanded his pallet exponentially, and that expansion is keenly felt on Wu-Tang Forever. In addition to the grimey drum sound that he was famous for at the time, Wu-Tang Forever saw RZA adding in horns, strings, lush samples, and a myriad of other instrumentation to make the album much denser than Enter The Wu Tang had been. Of special note is his penchant on this record for chopping up old soul songs and speeding up the pieces to use as samples; if this sounds oddly familiar, it’s because Kanye West built his name on doing the exact same thing for Jay-Z’s stable. To go along with the supreme density of RZA’s production, the group went abstract on their lyrics, piling on wordplay and slang until it became a thick stew of instantly quotable near-nonsense that managed to remain coherent and thrilling despite that. The peak of this verbal insanity was the single, “Triumph”, which was six minutes, had no chorus, and still managed to be the best single song to come out of 1997 by a wide margin.
There are two major flaws in the record that manage to diminish all of the above, however. The first is the bizarre Five Percenter religious weirdness that is embedded in the record, especially on the lead-in track “Wu-Revolution”, which manages to deny evolutionary theory out of hand without any, you know, evidence. The second flaw is the length; at two full CDs even the magic of the Wu wears thin, and while there are a lot of great tracks on the album the second disc starts to bog down halfway through (somewhere around “Dog Shit” or “Duck Seazon”). It’s a drawback that a lot of contemporary hip hop suffered from, an idea that it was better to jam as much music, filler or not, in order to justify CD prices in the mid-1990s. Still, the album remains a classic, and certainly the last great album that the Wu recorded as a collective.
Radiohead – OK Computer
Released May 21st, 1997 on Parlophone Records
First of all, I want you to look carefully at that heading section. Both of the sites I’ve used this year to glean “best of” rankings from – the two largest crowdsourced music ranking sites on the internet – rank OK Computer as literally the greatest album ever recorded. That uncomfortable feeling that’s washing over you? That tiny little intense bit of pain that’s set itself up in the centre of your brain, pulsing with madness and threatening to grow into some sort of blood-soaked brain tsunami? That’s fifty-plus years of music critic bullshit melding with Baby Boomer arrogance to tell you that this can’t possibly be the case. In fact, if you slap that ol’ Boomer lens on your face and look outward, such an idea is more laughable than anything else. Surely these people have forgotten about Pink Floyd, that amalgamated Rolling Stone-fueled smug critic machine cries out. Obviously the Beatles are objectively the greatest band ever and every single album they ever released is in fact the greatest piece of music ever recorded, hallelujah and amen, just as our forefathers and their magically mysterious Beatlemania intended. The Stones! Black Sabbath! Led Zeppelin! Any of these bands our parents grew up with and forced into our heads as collectively better than anything that came after, from 1980 onward; this, that shrill voice claims, is real music.
Increasingly, though, that condescending gate that Boomer mythology has put up across the history of modern popular music – the one that plants itself in around 1982-1984 and lets very little in if it came afterward – has been bereft of a keeper. The internet facilitated a lengthy, often nonsensical conversation about popular music, it’s hierarchy, and it’s relative worth across decades. That, in combination with the fact that the glory days of “alternative rock” are now (somehow) twenty years gone has led to a reevaluation of the music of Generation X and the oldest Millenials with regard to the self-interested myth-making of Boomer publications. The same has happened in other art forms. Cinemaphiles convinced that Citizen Kane was the greatest movie ever made probably feel that same maddening itch and pulse in their heads when it turns out that a number of crowdsourced movie rankings place Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind in the #1 slot of the best movies ever made (or, failing that, the second-most popular option, The Shawshank Redemption). Changing demographics and the slow die-off of the Boomer generation has flipped the switch on their supposed stranglehold on real music, whatever that happens to be. People don’t read Rolling Stone and Melody Maker and NME like they used to. The gatekeeping paradigm shifted online around the turn of the century with the rest of print media, and so when it comes to popular music the tastemakers are far more likely to read Pitchfork and The Quietus than they are Rolling Stone.
Generational culture wars aside, though, is OK Computer the “greatest album ever made”? An examination of that has to begin with some definitions and explanations, for the pedantic and the curious. When we talk about “the greatest album ever made” we mean “the greatest popular music record released since 1963, when the Beatles crossed the Atlantic and ushered in the modern era of blended pop and art.” While “Greatest Albums Ever” compilations like those found online or in the pages of Rolling Stone feature a few albums made in the 1950s, they’re mainly heavyweight bop albums that are the exception more than the rule. The temporal range of the “Best Ever” lists coincides with the development of the album as an art form. Popular music was, prior to the early 1960s, mainly singles-oriented. We don’t talk about “great Elvis albums” because they were spiritually just compilations of 45s anyway. Singles were important after Beatlemania as well (they still are) but from ’63 onward the album, as a singular piece of art, began to dominate the way people consumed pop music. If this seems Boomer-centric, it is, but it also reflects changes in technology and distribution of physical products that lend themselves well to a Marxist analysis.
In addition to temporal analysis, there is unfortunately a racial filter involved as well. “The Greatest Album” is always something produced in the Global North. The Global South is completely left out of the picture, with the notable exceptions of Fela Kuti and Bob Marley. The music of the West is prioritized; music from eastern or southern Asia is only discussed in Western media when it fits into the pre-approved Western molds. Even within Western popular music there is a stark racial divide. Rolling Stone‘s 500 Best Albums Ever extravaganza features precisely one black artist in the top 10, Marvin Gaye. The crowdsourced efforts do even worse: BestEverAlbums features no black artists in their top 10 and neither does RYM. Tellingly, RYM’s chart has the first black artist coming in at #11 (Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue), which seems to say We’ll throw you a bone, but don’t think for one second that you really belong here to black American musicians. This, despite the fact that all of the key pillars of modern pop music draw their inspiration at least in part from three predominately black musical movements: the electric blues (from which rock ‘n’ roll sprang, and from which psychedelia gained it’s heft); Motown (soul, R&B, and later funk and hip hop); and jazz. Further, both RYM and BestEverAlbums prominently feature Led Zeppelin, who made their bones on the wholesale piracy of Willie Dixon’s back catalog. As such, any discussion of “The Greatest Album Ever” is immediately compromised by the inherent generational, cultural, and racial biases that are brought to the discourse. This is without even getting into a post-modern understanding of what the “greatest” album even means – to deconstruct the entire process of what determines greatness and near-greatness in an extremely subjective and emotionally-driven form of expression like music would take a lifetime in itself. To talk about it requires one to assume that there are greater overarching meta-narratives, that music is in fact sacred and driven, and that we can determine rankings of recordings on scales whose criteria make sense if you squint a lot and don’t think too much about it.
So, if we frame the discourse with an admittance that we are talking about a narrow spectrum of available music that carries with it unfortunate biases with regard to race, sex, and culture, is OK Computer the greatest album ever made? It becomes, at this point, a matter of comparison: what did the Boomers uphold as the greatest records, and how does OK Computer compare with them. If we look to the crowd again, there is some definite overlap in the top 10 of both RYM and BestEverAlbums. The Beatles show up, of course, with Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon is there, as befitting an album that spent a legendary 420,000,000 weeks on the Billboard charts. The Velvet Underground & Nico is there, for reasons I went over several weeks ago. Led Zeppelin IV is there, because nothing goes better with a bong load than some Stairway, maaaaaaan. These are the usual suspects when Boomers and Boomer aficionados start listing the best albums ever made. The Beatles provide fey psychedelic weirdness backed with impeccable melodies and song structures that experimented but didn’t break the mold entirely. Pink Floyd crafted epic guitar-driven songs that were at once adventures into space and examinations of the dour nature of the English personality. The Velvet Underground made it okay to be messy and to let a lot of your mental anxiety shine through. Led Zeppelin glamoured listeners with the irresistible call of pure volume. Where does Radiohead fit in with this? Pretty much everywhere.
Right from the beginning, the thick, overdriven strings that open “Airbag” promise something different. It’s as though Loveless were reborn, cured of the opiated languor that permeates that album. The guitars take the experimental leads that people like David Gilmour and Robert Fripp imagined and plays with them, smudging and expanding and blurring until the guitar becomes an alien and interesting instrument all over again. Thom Yorke’s voice hangs haunting and sodden with deep existential dread over the viscous liquid that roils beneath it, summing up the horror and paranoia of modern life in the form of a story about the time an airbag saved his life in a car accident in the mid-1980s. And that’s just the first song. “Paranoid Android” ups the ante significantly. Johnny Greenwood’s guitar figure is unsettling – creepy, even – and Yorke’s vocals only amplify that. Written in four parts, much like John Lennon’s “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”, the song is central to the album’s mixed feelings about human existence and capitalism. Described by Yorke himself as “about the dullest fucking people on Earth”, the song has its roots in the time Yorke found himself in an L.A. bar surrounded by vapid rich assholes high on cocaine and themselves. There’s a sense of disgust with that sort – capitalists, and by extension, capitalism – that runs through much of the album. “Subterranean Homesick Alien” speaks of isolation and the feeling of being alien from one’s own culture; “Let Down” is about the hollowness of corporate-sponsored sentiment and the similarity of pop songs and advertisements. “Electioneering” summons a Chomsky critique of capitalist society, while “Climbing Up The Walls” turns that critique inward, examining the headspace of paranoia and distress. “No Surprises” combines the two, finds the soul-sucking job on par with soul-sucking politics, and whispers about the handshake of carbon monoxide in search of an exit. “Lucky” brings the album back around again, imagining a plane crash to complement the car crash that started the album. “The Tourist” is like a ghost in the wreckage of this suicide and loss of control, imploring the listener to stop rushing through life and take the time to enjoy or at least acknowledge the experiences around them.
Musically, OK Computer is an impressively dense album. The strings that herald the arrival of “Airbag” return in differing forms throughout the album, to greatest effect on “Climbing Up The Walls”. On that track, the theme of internal chaos is mirrored by a backdrop of sixteen violins, each tuned a quarter-note apart from each other and inspired by “Threnody To The Victims Of Hiroshima”; Johnny Greenwood’s orchestral arrangements would, in the 21st Century, be one of the band’s most enduring strengths. Filtered and fiddled keyboards play a large role in the album as well, especially on “Subterranean Homesick Alien”, “Let Down”, and the Beatles-referencing “Karma Police”. Greenwood and Ed O’Brien layer guitar in sinuous, overlapping ways, outdoing David Gilmour on the mournful wail of “Lucky” and drowning out Zeppelin on both “Paranoid Android” and “Electioneering”. There are even post-modern (for the era) flourishes in the form of drum machine programming, dub approximations, and neo-classical arrangements. Few bands in history have ever been able to blend the sacred and the profane in a way that transcends both; none of them have made it sound as utterly seamless or integral to the human experience as Radiohead on OK Computer.
Part of that transcendence comes from the album’s influences, of which the band has been quite forthcoming. The initial inspiration for the sound of OK Computer came from Mile Davis (as seen above) and his 1970 avant-jazz Bitches Brew. Further inspiration came from Elvis Costello and the Beatles, as well as soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone (he of the indelible popular sound of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns) and Krautrock band Can, who were known to use the recording studio as an experimental lab. Another part comes from the surroundings it was recorded in. Like many English rock bands before them, Radiohead chose to record in an old English mansion, St. Catherine’s Court. The acoustics of the place can be heard especially well on “Exit Music (For A Film)”, which was recorded in a stairwell, and “Lucky”, which was recorded in a ballroom in the witching hour. Most of the album was recorded live, with the band unwilling to potentially destroy a good thing through retakes and overdubs; Thom Yorke went with a one-take-and-done approach to his vocals, fearing that he would start to doubt everything if he stood around and thought too much about it.
The greatest album ever recorded, though? I think you can make a strong argument for it – as I’ve laid out above. It out-Floyds Floyd. It doesn’t ride the swampy concerns of a minority artist, like Zeppelin. It paints a more accurate picture of 1997 (and beyond) than the Beatles ever did in 1967. It flows and carries on, without ever coagulating or getting bogged down in disappearing into the band’s own head. Thom Yorke, upon being asked about the critical explosion of goodwill that greeted the release of the album, protested that Radiohead didn’t set out to create art, they just wrote pop songs. The counterpoint to this of course is that the best artists never set out to create Art, with the capital intact and all the pompous weight that is loaded into the word present and accounted for. They set out to replicate what they’re seeing, reading, or hearing in their head, and if they’re good enough people will find some reflection of themselves or their lives in it, and embrace it accordingly. In the neo-liberal, corporate-driven, emotionally artificial and distant world of the Washington Consensus, there is a lot of reflection to be found in OK Computer, lyrically, musically, and spiritually. Many talk about tapping into the zeitgeist. OK Computer actually does it.
Guided By Voices – Mag Earwhig!
Released May 20th, 1997 on Matador Records
Guided By Voices was never supposed to be a full-time thing. Formed in the late 1980s as a real band, it slowly morphed into a revolving door of Dayton, Ohio musicians – basically anyone who would come over and drink with 4th-grade teacher Robert Pollard. 1992’s Propeller caught Pollard by surprise when it found a listener base in the wake of the Alternative Revolution, a base that expanded exponentially with the one-two punch of Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes. Under The Bushes Under The Stars, a 1996 album recorded with Pixies bassist Kim Deal, solidified that base, but by 1997 Pollard was pushing at the boundaries of what was possible with his new found underground rock star status, a status that had finally allowed him to ditch his day job and pursue his high-kicking rock frontman dreams full-time. To this end, he got rid of the 1992-1996 Guided By Voices lineup and hired Cleveland garage band Cobra Verde to be his backing band; the first record of this lineup was Mag Earwhig!, the last great Guided By Voices album.
Mag Earwhig! is at once much more professional sounding than previous Guided By Voices efforts (except perhaps for the “sterile-sounding” REM-aping 1986 EP Forever Since Breakfast) and as a result it can be jarring for a listener who has been going through the band’s ridiculously lengthy discography. The joke of this is encapsulated in the sketch-song “I Am Produced”, which finds Pollard musing on all the prepping and packaging that goes along with bigger recording contracts and studio time. As a “pro-level” GBV record, it’s still messy and filled with a certain willful need to colour outside of the lines; “The Old Grunt”, “Are You Faster?”, “Choking Tara”, “Hollow Cheek”, and the title track are all barely filled-in sketches in the vein of what studded the length of Bee Thousand. At the same time, there are any number of songs that point the way toward the rock-melody-genius three-minute British Invasion style tracks that would comprise the band’s output up until 2004; “Bulldog Skin”, “Not Behind The Fighter Jet”, “Portable Men’s Society”, “Jane Of The Waking Universe”, and the utterly sublime “The Colossus Crawls West” are among the best of Pollard’s compositions, overall, but it is interesting that the best track on Mag Earwhig!, the high-energy “I Am A Tree”, is actually a composition by Cobra Verde’s Doug Gillard.
After, GBV would release a major label debut, Do The Collapse, that was a crushing bore, with few exceptions. They would release some solid albums after that, both before the 2004 breakup and after the 2012 reunion, but none would hold a candle to the classic lineup or to Mag Earwhig!.