The Year in Music

The year 1997 proved (as if anyone doubted it) that record label executives are lost souls. They continued to run around seeking a quick fix for the sales slump that started in 1994, the one artist or genre or gimmick (like changing formats again) that could send their profits back into the stratosphere.This year, the gimmick wasn't "electronica." Despite a handful of successful albums by acts like the Chemical Brothers and Prodigy, who shaped their dance music to rock marketplace demands, and despite a flood of once hard-to-find electronic dance releases through major label channels, electronica was just another element in the mix, not the panacea that some label people were touting this time last year.One trend that did emerge was the "return" of pop -- both the adult (Celine Dion, Barbra Streisand, Amy Grant) and teen (Spice Girls, Hanson, Aqua, Backstreet Boys) varieties -- taking its place more prominently in the Top 40 mix. The most amusing aspect of this was some critics' efforts to impute more weight to this stuff than it's intended to carry. Venerable pundits like Los Angeles Times writer Robert Hilburn and the Village Voice's Robert Christgau, for instance, have both suggested that somehow Hanson has more substance and staying power than previous teen pop acts. In reality, the last teen pop sensation, New Kids on the Block, had a more sophisticated musical sense. Hanson will have their two to three years and then do dinner theater and make comeback albums like virtually all the others who preceded them. The Spice Girls seem to be taking themselves out of the picture. They recently fired their manager, got booed at a European awards show and have a movie in the pipeline that sounds like a stinker. Anyone remember Vanilla Ice? He sold 10 million albums, too. Country music has added a few big crossover stars: the loungey Shania Twain and 15-year-old LeAnn Rimes, whose instrument and mainstream adult pop delivery have made her a likely competitor to Carey, Dion and Whitney Houston. Word is, she's recording three Diane Warren tunes on her next album, a sure sign of a crossover move. Grave dancers have been predicting the demise of rap and "alternative" rock for years. Rap and R&B artists continued to burn up the pop charts -- led by Clevelander Gerald Levert with the new superstar trio, Levert, Sweat, Gill, and Cleveland rappers Bone Thugs-n-Harmony -- despite suffering a second major blow with the drive-by shooting death of superstar Notorious B.I.G., following Tupac Shakur's 1996 death under similar circumstances.The situation with modern rock was more difficult to read clearly. When the most reliable of Seattle heavy rock bands, Soundgarden, announced their breakup this year, it felt like the end of something. Putting your finger on what was difficult. Contrary to record label moaning, it wasn't lack of good artists, although a lot of the major voices of '90s rock were missing in action. Smashing Pumpkins is between albums. Pearl Jam just announced another boycott. Layne Staley hasn't licked his "health" problems. Nine Inch Nail's Trent Reznor is rumored to be playing computer games instead of recording. Instead of Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, NIN and Smashing Pumpkins, we got the endless march of faceless bands: Naked, Creed, Smashmouth, Superfly, Days of the New and Matchbox 20. Is there anyone who believes these bands will make a mark as intense as the major voices? Yet, perversely, more than ever, the faceless bands are crossing over to Top 40: Sugar Ray, Smashmouth and Matchbox 20 have all had pop hits, as have Tonic and Third Eye Blind. Maybe that's due to the very anonymous, catchy impermanence of the bands; Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam take more work. These new bands operate more like pop than rock bands, being known more for their song than their actual identity. Because of that, most will fade as fast as Deep Blue Something.The Wallflowers, Jewel and Sheryl Crow could be among the few with staying power, with strong identities and multiple hits. The big hype albums of the year included Radiohead (look for this to top critics' polls), Cornershop (ditto), Oasis and Sleater-Kinney.Despite all the media "grunge is dead" palaver, record labels still feel impelled to clone Alice in Chains (Days of the New) and early Pearl Jam (Creed), along with everything else that worked two, three and four years ago. More punk pop, more sensitive acoustic-based college rock, more neurotic girl-rock, most of it not terribly inspired. Did we really need to hear back from Lisa Loeb?Predictably, a few representatives of the old-and-out-of-inspiration crowd returned, although it could hardly be called a trend. This year's big returns were the re-formed Fleetwood Mac and the periodically resuscitated Rolling Stones. A Genesis without Phil Collins enthused audiences much less. Despite less-than-blockbuster sales of their latest album, Pop, and failure to sell out all their stadium shows, U2's continuing, steady work ethic paid off for them in terms of a constant level of popularity and credibility, and they certainly remained in the top rank of superstars. Plenty of young acts were selling out their club dates, proving that whether they stick around or not, fans are hungry for new music and willing to give them a shot. Bands like Matchbox 20, Marcy Playground, Sister Hazel and Tonic sold out shows on the basis of a song or two, something that wouldn't have happened back in the '80s. And there were even artists building their popularity slowly, the old-fashioned way, via word-of-mouth. Among them: Soul Coughing, Barenaked Ladies and, of course, Phish, the band that absorbed most of the younger Deadheads. We lost a number of significant music personalities this year. No loss is regretted more than that of singer/songwriter Jeff Buckley, just thirty, whose single album showed enough flashes of brilliance to earn him a devoted fan base and promised much for this late bloomer. He drowned in Memphis in July. From the celestial to the profane, we lost both Pakistani master musician Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and El Duce of the crude, sexist metal band the Mentors. The latter's death in a drunken encounter with a train will be mourned by the same folks who miss G.G. Allin. Also gone are blues guitarist Luther Allison; New Age guitarist Michael Hedges; author/producer Robert Palmer; country/folk songwriter Townes Van Zandt; Michael Hutchence, John Denver; and the original Tori/Alanis/Fiona, Laura Nyro.

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