And the Winners Are ...

Handing out the trophies for 1997's best albums.

Readers angry at me for giving negative reviews to their favorite bands regularly accuse me of not liking anything. This charge is amusing in part because each year since 1991, I have assembled a massive roster of recordings that I do like--the largest, most wide-ranging list of its kind that I've seen. Anyone who can read the following and make such a claim likely has undergone a few too many shock-therapy treatments.

Of course, finding good stuff hasn't been easy of late; as practically everyone agrees, 1997 hasn't been a banner year for the music industry financially or creatively. With the collapse of grunge, the imaginative stasis that's afflicting hip-hop, the glut of electronica cash-ins and the absence of compelling new movements, the scene is mired in one of the most dismal down cycles in recent memory. Let's pray that it has hit bottom.

The more than 100 offerings listed below helped pull me through the tough times; they're reminders that stellar work can always be found as long as you're willing to dig for it. I've chosen first-rate discs in seventeen different categories, including an expanded section for boxed sets and "Folk/Singer-Songwriters," perhaps my clumsiest designation yet. As usual, some of the selections don't fit all that snugly in their assigned pigeonholes. My focus wasn't on strict definitions but on celebrating as many estimable CDs as possible. As for the pick of the local crop, it's set to be extolled in our January 1 edition.

If one of your faves doesn't appear below, it may be because I didn't hear it: On occasion, things slip through the cracks. But I've done my damnedest to pay tribute to as many different kinds of music as I could--and to prove that (to paraphrase Sally Field) I like music--I really like it.

ALTERNATIVE

Built to Spill
Perfect From Now On
(Warner Bros.)

The guitar hero is a discredited archetype; in the Nineties the term is practically synonymous with self-indulgence. But Doug Martsch rescues the notion by mating impressionistic soloing with songs that more than earn their keep. Add heartfelt vocals and ingenuous lyrics, and you've got an irrefutable treasure.

The Geraldine Fibbers
Butch
(Virgin)

It's not unusual for iffy albums to be dubbed tours de force; this actually is one. Carla Bozulich imbues as impressive a batch of songs as she's ever written with all the zeal and anger she can muster--and that's plenty. Too real for the radio, Butch is beautiful and ugly and unforgettable.

Sleater-Kinney
Dig Me Out
(Kill Rock Stars)

Everything about Dig Me Out is yesterday's news, with one exception: its quality. Carrie Brownstein and her sonic sisters use the rudiments of played-out genres to beget an album so robust it makes guitar rock, alternative branch, seem full of possibilities again. Would that there had been more albums like it this year.

Spiritualized
Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space
(Arista/Dedicated)

Jason Spaceman specializes in drug rock--but unlike most of his brethren, who regularly confuse jamming with aimlessness, his trips are worth taking. The twelve tracks here are less idiosyncratic than previous Spiritualized efforts, but they're just as dizzyingly satisfying. Take two songs and call me in the morning.

Mike Watt
Contemplating the Engine Room
(Columbia)

Watt, of Minutemen and fIREHOSE fame, has put together a ridiculously ambitious project: an autobiographical concept piece that attempts to link the military experiences of his father with memories of American punk's glory days. There's no decent reason why it should work, but somehow it does--and wonderfully well.

AMBIENT/ELECTRONIC

Aphex Twin
Richard D. James Album
(Sire/Warp)

Other electronica acts have garnered more mainstream press, but James, the self-styled Twin, doesn't seem to care: He's more interested in coaxing curious noises out of his staggering array of machines than in becoming the flavor of the week. His latest finds him engrossed by his own inventions--and the feeling is contagious.

Death in Vegas
Dead Elvis
(Time Bomb)

Richard Fearless is well named: He takes his Death in Vegas project into every sonic dark alley he can find, but he always comes out unscathed. On "Opium Shuffle," "Amber," "Rematerialised" and the rest, he layers the music with samples that add immeasurably to the slightly seedy mood--and quite often, he hits the jackpot.

Malacoda
Cascade
(World Domination)

With the assistance of producer Ian Caple, Malacoda crafts tracks that move deliberately, but never at the expense of momentum. Synthesized snippets shift in and out of the mix amid percussion that's clever without seeming overly busy. Typical is the title cut, which keeps the frivolity flowing for nearly ten groovy minutes.

Shizuo vs. Shizor
Shizuo vs. Shizor
(Grand Royal/Digital Hardcore)

You could call this dance music if you were so inclined: The beats are fast and furious, and there are a lot of them. In truth, though, it is a willfully abrasive electronic assault that cannot be ignored. Some people are apt to be disturbed by it, but to me, it's the most consequential release to date by the Atari Teenage Riot-owned Digital Hardcore imprint.

Various Artists
Hyper Civilizado: Arto Lindsay Remixes
(Gramavision)

Lindsay's album Mundo Civilizado has been turned upside down by a spectacular cast of turntable jockeys led by the estimable DJ Spooky, whose "Mundo Civilizado Inversion Mix" is a wonder of imaginative studio tinkering. It's the rare remix album that surpasses the original.

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