My favorite music year: 1997

There’s no originality in calling 1997 my favorite year in music. Not since the A.V. Club’s Josh Modell did so back in February with a top-5 list that will look eerily familiar to mine, and not since a few weeks back, when Questionable Content pushed out a comic arguing for the cause, citing many of the same albums.

There’s a reason for that, of course: 1997 was a fertile time for independent records, standing in the middle of music’s last pre-Napster generation, when being independent meant being under the radar and, by association, free from pop-chart co-opting. This was Modest Mouse before “Float On”; post-punk/emo before the skinny jeans; Radiohead before their guitars were stolen on their 1998 World Tour.

(That’s what happened, right?)

For me, 1997 was life changing on an entirely different level. I graduated from high school and went to college. I lived on my own and began to break away. Post-punk wasn’t a secret, by any means, but it was what I used to separate myself from the rest of Marshall’s resident collegians, their country-tinged pick-ups reminding me more of high school than of the rich and storied halls of academia.

So while Puff Daddy made millions on Notorious B.I.G.’s death, I rocked out as some of emo’s most important albums were released: Promise Ring’s Nothing Feels Good, the first Get Up Kids EP Woodson and follow up full-length Four Minute Mile, Cursive’s Such Blinding Stars for Starving Eyes (a raw and brilliant introduction to Omaha’s finest, I might add). And while Elton John made millions on Princess Diana’s death, I grasped the sudden resurgence of hardcore with 1997’s Further (Guilt), Progression Through Unlearning (Snapcase) and Eightpennygalvinized from Sioux Falls’ own Floodplain.

This was all fine and good. These were the bands I already listened to, the music I brought with me from high school. This was fantastic music, but it was also typical. For me, at least.

See, at some point in high school (as many of us did) I had jettisoned the idea of listening – or liking – anything resembling mainstream.

“NOT cool,” I said.

“NO WAY,” I screamed.

Not a CHANCE you’d walk in and see some point of weakness, as if my chain necklace and Less Than Jake t-shirt refused to hold court next to ANYTHING released on a major label.

And then: OK Computer.

Because, I mean, it was good. It was GOOD.

I heard “Paranoid Android” and fell in love. I couldn’t get enough. The video – THE VIDEO! – was SO good, and I ran to Sam Goody and I bought the SHIT out of that CD and I listened to it and it was all so fantastic and, seriously, I just forgot it all: the chain necklace, the Less Than Jake t-shirt, the reasons behind forging such a singular view of music.

I embraced the mainstream. Kind of. Almost.

1997 was the year that what was once called “alternative” had become too big to contain, its form lurching along as it pulled in sub-genre after sub-genre, like a net overfilled with bottom-feeders. Weighed down by itself, it split. Ben Folds Five released Whatever and Ever Amen and no one knew where it was supposed to go. The Foo Fighters brought us their best in The Colour and the Shape, and we couldn’t figure out if it was rock or alternative or something different.

Mainstream had developed a sub-mainstream – a super-independent track, if you will – that brought to mind the early 80s, with its popular-but-still-quirky new wave and its garage-y Athens bands and its punk flag-wavers, but with an understanding that making it to MTV no longer meant what it used to mean.

It became okay to be independent. It became a goal, not a consequence – enough that even major label bands like Radiohead brought success down to the indie-rock masses.

From this split came music that I didn’t even know about. I was a young pseudo-punker from the Midwest – I had no idea that in the future I’d fall in love with some of the year’s best indie records; that, 14 years in the future, I’d place 1997’s Perfect From Now On and The Lonesome Crowded West in high esteem, or that I’d somehow become some weird Ween fanatic and argue that their 1997 release, The Mollusk, shows the band at the peak of their musical ability.

Some of my favorites were just a year away. Braid had begun recording Frame and Canvas. Jets to Brazil had formed. Sunny Day Real Estate re-formed. The blank recordable compact disc was introduced. Other favorites – Texas is the Reason the most notable – broke up.

The nation’s musical taste even died a little, as we managed to put Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” and Hanson’s “Mmmbop” atop the charts.

In the end, though, it was my musical awakening that contributes to 1997’s importance. It was a fantastic year for releases, but it was also the right time for me to make changes in the way I listened to music.

I was on my own. I was making my own decisions (though I was barely making my 8 am class) I was struggling to find my balance. It was all fueled by music. Music kept me tied to my friends, and my home. It kept me entertained. It kept me on the road, from Mankato to Minneapolis to Omaha, my schedule cleared for nothing but shows and new CDs and a completely open mind.

It’s cheesy to say that music provided the soundtrack to my senior year of high school, or that it helped shape my first year in college.

Still though. That happened. Soundtrack, life shaping, all of it.

And it was all great. All of it.

This was lovingly handwritten on June 8th, 2011