The 1st two really shoulda been a tie but, you know, Paul’s always been my favorite thing, the reason I do what I do - the most naturally gifted musician I know of. I guess the point is that both Paul and Bob can do things most humans can’t do. And they’ve really done it this time!
1) Paul McCartney - Flaming Pie
The fact that Paul McCartney could make, not only a definitive record in his career in 1997 but, his BEST post-Beatles effort gave me more faith in the longevity of rock ‘n’ roll than anything in a long time. The melodies and voice are in top form and, lyrically (always his weak suit), he pulls a rabbit out of a hat with lines like “I go back so far, I’m in front of me” - tongue planted firmly in cheek. And, I must say, the falsetto he hits in “Little Willow” is one of the single greatest utterances I’ve ever heard. On a par with the best of his Beatle ballads. And 11 strong songs out of 14 is almost a miracle for him.
2) Bob Dylan - Time Out Of Mind
I’m sure I played this record more than any other in ‘97. It was my constant companion from August (when some kind soul slipped me an advance) to this day and it’s still going strong. It may be debatable who the best band of all time is, or who the best singer or guitarist is but it seems pretty unanimous that, when it comes to lyricists, this guy steals the show hands down. And, he’s no slouch with a melody either. The skeptics complain about how sad Bob sounds but I don’t think it’s all autobiographical. He takes some real sad personal stuff and, man oh man, he runs with it to the point of fiction and innumerable interpretations. It’s a breathtaking achievement in the forty-odd years of rock ‘n’ roll.
P.S. The sound is crucial to the stew - almost like another musician and is far more subtle and preferable to producer Lanois’ last encounter with Bob.
3) Supergrass - In It For The Money
This was pure mania for me. I loved their singles and the first album and, after getting a preview in the form of the “Going Out” single, was fully expecting to have my socks knocked off by number two. But nothing could have prepared me for this. To these ears - the best band in the world right now. Key word here: BAND. Great writers. Great singers. Great players. Great sense of pop lyric (not to mention being excruciatingly good looking). Most importantly though, they play rock ‘n’ roll music ‘cause it’s fun and that’s downright contagious.
4) Robert Wyatt - Shleep
A “comeback” the caliber of Dylan or McCartney, this man’s a stone cold genius. One of my favorite singers ever with a bottomless imagination to boot. What more could a guy ask for? I’m only beginning to grasp this record some six months after getting it.
5) The Jayhawks - The Sound Of Lies
If somebody told me in advance it was another “breakup” album I probably would have been nauseated but... this is one harrowing experience. It’s a completely uncategorizable record, musically, and that’s my favorite kind. It makes me laugh to read the reviews that try to analyze it as “alterna-country.” By only the second song you feel like you’re listening to “I Am The Walrus” for godssakes. Gary Louris is a fiercely individual and visionary frontman and few bands can touch them in terms of vocal harmony. “Dying On The Vine” has to be one of the greatest songs to ever come out of the state of Minnesota. Plus they were smart enough to give drummer Tim O’Reagan a lead vocal. My favorite Jayhawks album and no slight to Mark Olson intended.
6) Son Volt - Straightaways
So what if it sounds like part two of “Trace?” I think this group is fascinating enough to make it work a second time. I don’t know if it’s possible that there is a more meticulous songwriter around today. These songs feel so carefully written they’re bulletproof. And one of the the most puzzling word guys since Bob himself. These songs mean almost completely different things to me at different times. But, again, a key word here is BAND. From the vocal harmonies to the instrumental virtuosity, frontman Jay Farrar would be hard pressed to replace any one of ‘em. Alright, so there’s no “Windfall” or “Tear Stained Eye” but “Last Minute Shakedown” and “No More Parades” send me reeling everytime.
7) Mark Eitzel - West
For those people who get tired of hearing Mark whine it used to be that the only alternative was not to listen to him for a while. But here, with Peter Buck writing all the music, we can listen to him whine in completely different surroundings! The fact that these words were written fast with little or no chance to edit shows him to be smarter and more gifted than I already thought he was. Contains the best recorded drums I’ve heard in ages. Or, could be just that Barrett Martin is the drummer.
8) Ron Sexsmith - Other Songs
I was the last person on the block to get into this guy. Then I saw him live and his self effacing stage demaenor completely won me over. I’d defy anyone to see him in person and not come away a fan. He’s cool and timeless like those mid-sixties sorta folk records Dion made. If I had a criticism it would be that the material gets same-y after awhile and the stage show especially suffered from that. Live, it was a classic case of, he would’ve been infinitely better if he’d played six less songs.
9) Stereolab - Dots And Loops
I heard someone say that they thought Stereolab kept making the same album over and over again. Nothing could be further from the truth if you ask me. I like pretty much everything they do and find their sound quite varied. I don’t claim to understand most of their politics (or the ones sung in French!) but I still think I can say I love their words. Another group of meticulous songwriters. Music that’s pretty much appropriate for all occasions.
10) David Bowie - Earthling
I didn’t think Bowie could make a record I’d care about ever again - that was until I heard 1995’s brilliant “Outside.”. And while this new album is no match for that, it’s still a continuation of Bowie’s return to relevance. The single “Little Wonder” alone makes it worth getting. Pretentious? Well, of course it’s pretentious, we’re talking about David Bowie aren’t we? But, as with Leonard Cohen, people often miss the sense of humor which makes the pretense palatable.