Twenty Songs From 1997: A Mixed Tape With Shake Appeal

Some of these songs shook the world in 1997, some didn’t, but they lodged in the minds of Observer music writers. Herewith, a wholly unscientific approach to the science of making a good mixed tape.

Side 1

Missy (Misdemeanor) Elliott , “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” (East West/EEG). In a year when it became a felony to issue a hip-hop record without the participation of Li’l Kim, Foxy Brown, Puff Daddy or Missy Elliott, only Ms. Elliott took pains to insure her ubiquity was matched by her quality control. This all-singing, all-dancing, all-rapping Renaissance woman was everywhere, but “The Rain” was her towering achievement. Built on Ann Peebles’ 70’s soul smash, “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” the combination of Missy’s whacked-out ruminations and producer Timbaland’s syncopated beats induced a stunned, “What was that?” ( Jonathan Bernstein )

Doktor Kosmos , “Porno-Person” (Minty Fresh). The most hated release of the year, according to an informal survey of fellow music critics. But what’s not to like about this Swedish fellow? Being the keyboardist for Komeda, Kosmos’ “Porno-Person” is mostly Casiotone and Euro new wave nostalgia. The good Doktor drawls deadpan on consumerism from a country where that pose still means something. The liner notes, had there been any, would have read like a graduate thesis that confused Kraftwerk’s politics with Laibach’s. Or is that vice versa? ( D. Strauss )

Ben Folds Five , “Battle of Who Could Care Less” (Sony 550). Led by impish piano man Ben Folds, this guitarless trio knocked out some of the most sophisticated pop of the year on Whatever and Ever Amen . With its fuzzed-out bass, crashing cymbals and three-part falsetto harmonies, this song about the power of aloofness is an artless mix of 70’s-era pop and punk energy. But it’s Mr. Folds’ sweet tenor that gets you. When he sings, “I know it’s not your thing to care, I know it’s cool to be so bored,” you can almost feel his pain. Well, I can. ( Tracey Pepper )

Sportsguitar , “Very Weird” (Matador). Sure, Sportsguitar sounds like a brand of antiperspirant, but this song works wonderfully, like David Bowie’s “Heroes” on Zoloft. The loopy, rolling guitar hook recalls Berlin-era Bowie, but freed of all that Cold War Weltschmerz , it kicks along like an adrenaline buzz. And the most amazing thing is, these guys are Swiss! Which also means, don’t waste a lot of time trying to figure out the lyrics. “You ain’t no beard, but his ain’t weird.” Huh? ( Frank DiGiacomo )

Jai , “I Believe” (RCA). Jai (a.k.a. Jason Rowe), a 23-year-old British singer with a heavenly falsetto, is making white soul smart again. Dumbed down after years of George Michael, Rick Astley and Simply Red, Jai’s brand of soul has a sophisticated, noirish sweep. On this stylish single from his headstrong debut album, Heaven , Jai lets it rip while the bass thumps, the guitar trills and cathedral bells toll in the background. Unlike anything you’ll hear on the radio, yet perfectly suited for it. ( Pepper )

Fleetwood Mac , “Landslide” (Reprise). Was there ever a regrouping more emotionally satisfying than the return of Fleetwood Mac? The passing of years has done little to dampen the fascination of these five uniquely unsuited but bizarrely in-sync individuals. And the eternal soap opera of Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks resumes as if they hadn’t been estranged and out of each other’s orbit. When they duet on this beautiful song, all the drugs, all the heartache and recriminations just melt away. And that moment when Stevie, now and forever the gypsy, rasps, “I’m getting older, too,” … oooh, chills. ( Bernstein )

Pavement , “Shady Lane/J vs. S” (Matador). The best song about narcissism and bourgeois yearning since “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now.” Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have a delivery like Steve Malkmus’. He’s made a career (or as he would sing, a ca-ree-ah ) out of being elliptical, so you’re forced to listen closer. To wit: “Freeze, don’t move, you’ve been chosen as an extra in the movie adaptation of the sequel to your life.” For a song that simultaneously puts us down while it puts us on, it’s a great kick. ( Jay Stowe )

Frank Pahl , “These Lips” (Vaccination). For those not convinced that success has turned Tom Waits into a parody of himself, here’s a Technicolor refutation. Mr. Pahl, who has one foot in the cosmic cowboy trough and the other in the vacuum of improv-squawk on his album In Cahoots , is doomed to the margin of the margin, excepting a big settlement should he get into a car accident. No wonder he resents (or is it idolizes?) a faux down-and-outer like Mr. Waits; Mr. Pahl is much more convincingly weird. ( Strauss )

The Notorious B.I.G. , “Mo Money Mo Problems” (Bad Boy/Arista). Sampling became so widespread and debased in 1997 that Weird Al Yankovic suddenly became a contender for hip-hop’s most outstanding influence. The man to blame is also the man to praise: producer Sean (Puffy) Combs, whose dazzling recontextualization of Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out” made B.I.G.’s first posthumous release his most exciting. A dissertation on the jealousy and bitterness that accompanied his rise, it was so thrilling, it reduced everything else on the radio to embarrassed mumbling. In Biggie Smalls, Mr. Combs had his own personal theme park. It’s a shame he never got the chance to groom him for his true calling as a corpulent, profane alternative to Will Smith. ( Bernstein )

Negativland , “I Believe It’s L” (Seeland). Dispepsi works O.K. as a social critique of mass media-for those not familiar with Negativland’s modus operandi, it’s all samples of commercials, market research tapes, etc.-but even better is the Pepsi jingle itself. Simultaneously upbeat and soothing, it reminds me of some of my favorite cavities. Coca-Cola’s “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” is a sweeter melody, but that’s why “L” is the preferred track, as it inserts the word “Pepsi” into the superior Coke jingle. At last, the best of both worlds. ( Strauss )

Side 2

Cornershop , “Brimful of Asha” (Luaka Bop/Warner Brothers). Like all great rock songs, this one’s about salvation, pure and simple. Over an easy three-chord strum, Tjinder Singh rhapsodizes about Bollywood film extravaganzas, 45 r.p.m. records and the magical voice of Asha Bhosle. Don’t worry: Before your brain so rudely interrupts with “Asha who?” your heart’s won over by the infectious, giddy melody. By the time he gets to the chorus-“Everybody needs a bosom for a pillow … mine’s on the 45”-you realize that heaven is only a couple spins away. Bonus: When I Was Born for the Seventh Time is packed to the gills with similar gems. ( Stowe )

Big Punisher , “I’m Not a Player” (Loud). It continues, “I just fuck a lot.” Thanks to the Wu-Tang Clan’s patronage, soon you will, my overweight friend. This rap picks up the gauntlet of the lovable-loser ethos, which was swept from indie rock a couple of years ago. I can’t think of a more succinct recalculation of the hippie mantra, “Make love, not war.” ( Strauss )

Giant Sand and Rainer Ptacek , “The Inner Flame” (Atlantic). “Saddest song I heard, was so beautiful,” Howe Gelb sings halfway through this number, and the sentiment applies here. Ptacek wrote this after being diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor (he died in November), and the lyrics depict a man looking for answers to big questions. “What do I know about love?” goes the refrain. Ptacek’s bright steel guitar, a shuffling rhythm section and Mr. Gelb’s smooth bourbon growl drive this journey through darkness and light to its spiritual conclusion: “Love is a crucible, and it’s open to all/ You can bring your valuables, jump in and let ’em fall.” ( DiGiacomo )

Edwyn Collins , “The Magic Piper” (Setanta/Epic). Discarding the Motown-inspired feel of his smash hit, “A Girl Like You,” Mr. Collins catches dance fever on this single. Inspired by the rare grooves of 70’s groups like Tavares and the Fat Back Band, it tells a piquant tale of a slick Casanova. And the melody’s propelled by a flute. All that’s missing is someone yelling “Play that funky music, white boy!” ( Pepper )

Backstreet Boys , “Quit Playing Games With My Heart” (Jive). Artificial, perishable pop made a very belated return to the American airwaves this year, which was good news for everyone: Tots had new obsessions, surly teens had something to despise, media voyeurs had grist for their worthless opinions. But for no one was the teeny-bop revival better news than the Backstreet Boys. Long deities in Europe, they were finally allowed to flaunt their abs in front of shrieking American teens. They earned the adulation with this heartfelt slice of pop pleading-which latter-day devotees will soon be startled to discover is their only good song. ( Bernstein )

Mychael Danna and Sarah Polley , “Courage” (Virgin). The soundtrack version of this 1992 song by the Tragically Hip is as haunting as the film it comes from, The Sweet Hereafter . Minimal and mournful, with pedal steel, cello and the sweet vocals of Sarah Polley (who stars in the film) and Anne Bourne, it evokes the bleak landscape of a town that has lost its children in a bus accident. Like the movie, there’s much more flailing around in “Courage” than just sadness and loss. The lyrics are a puzzle that hint at anger and fear, surrender and acceptance: “Courage, it couldn’t come at a worse time.” ( DiGiacomo )

Belle and Sebastian , “The Stars of Track and Field” (The Enclave). They may sound precious on the surface, but underneath, Belle and Sebastian are hard as nails. This lush track off the Scottish collective’s stellar ’97 album If You’re Feeling Sinister , starts small and quiet, grows cinematically in scope and volume, then ends with a hushed “Stars of track and field are beau-ti-ful people.” You know, of course, that the striving “stars” are not, but then that’s the point. ( Stowe )

Blur , “Song 2” (Virgin). There’s a scene in Ralph Bakshi’s 1981 animated history lesson, American Pop , where a guy in a leather jacket and peg-leg pants pogos and backflips around razor imagery. It’s supposed to dramatize the coming punk era, but, inexplicably, the song that plays in the background is Bob Seger’s “Night Moves.” Blur’s “Song 2” is 16 years too late, but it should have been that tune. It’s about as American as “Night Moves” is punk, but those super-shaggy guitars and hopped-up “woo-hoos” make me want to flop around like a doomed carp, whining “It’s not my prob-luuuuum.” ( DiGiacomo )

Janet Jackson , “Got ‘Til It’s Gone” (Virgin). Come out of the closet, Janet fans, it’s cool to like Miss Thing again. Ms. Jackson and her producers have assembled one of the smoothest jams of the year by teaming her up with sultry rapper Q-Tip and sampling a hefty slice of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi.” Though her quavering vocal is the weakest thing on the track, the overall effect sounds fresh and modern. Good thing, too, because Janet was about to become a card-carrying member of the unhip-diva club, alongside lifers Celine Dion and Mariah Carey. ( Pepper )

The Divine Comedy , “Everybody Knows (Except You)” (Setanta). Backed by an orchestra at Shepherds Bush Empire in London, Neil Hannon delivers a gorgeous declaration of love to the one who could care less. Overinflated pop pleas don’t get any bigger than this, except perhaps in Backstreet Boys tunes. But Mr. Hannon lays it all on the line so winningly, with equal measures of charm, grace, faux heartache and downright begging, and the music swings with such retro pop ebullience that even you, dear listener, will give in. ( Stowe )

Twenty Songs From 1997: A Mixed Tape With Shake Appeal