A lot can happen in 25 years, both in the music world and outside. The past 25 years have seen unprecedented technological advances; the smartphone you now take for granted casts quite the metaphorical shadow over your Windows ‘97 PC. In 1997 mobile phones were cumbrous bricks with little antennae, and it was, of course, the year that welcomed the famous Nokia game Snake. Outside of your mobile’s glitchy monochrome screen, you could play on the state of the art Playstation, on Tomb Raider or Tekken 3 or perhaps kick back and watch the pilot episode of South Park as it aired for the first time.
As we cast our minds back to 1997, it’s easy to see how far we’ve come in the past 25 years. But what we had, even then, was quite advanced, especially in the world of music. The 1990s were arguably the last truly magnificent decade for music before it became a cycle of pastiche. It seems that the boundaries of musical exploration had become mostly saturated by the late 1990s after an explosion of technological advancement and experimentalism over the previous 25 years.
If we step back into our DeLorean once more and travel back to 1972, we will see that technology inside and outside of the musical sphere was really quite primitive. In 1971, Kenbak-1, the earliest personal computer, was released. The PC’s capabilities were naturally limited, and the product was a commercial failure. In the music world, The Beatles had not long split up and David Bowie was the new kid on the block with the emphatic release of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. While music technology had come on in leaps and bounds since the early 1960s, by 1972, popular music was still dominated by the familiar setup, with electric guitar-based rock and roll taking the limelight.
The year 1972 falling 25 years before the year we have under the microscope today appears rather fitting. A group I often use to place a flag on the musical timeline is Roxy Music. Some of you will think this is rather peculiar, but let me explain. Before their latter years of chart-topping pop music, Roxy Music were steered creatively by not just Bryan Ferry but also Brian Eno. The band’s eponymous debut album, released in 1972, came as an eclectic blend of novel and very intriguing ideas which they would later master in their follow up album. But most importantly, the early album marked a pivotal moment in music history; the synthesiser had become a dominating instrument. Eno became one of the earliest synthesiser players to be positioned with a central position on stage during live shows, tampering with the input audio of his bandmates to produce other-worldly and abstract soundscapes.
While Eno’s presence in the group wasn’t long-lived, his career burgeoned through the 1970s and beyond as he became one of the most important and innovative producers and musical collaborators of all time. His collaborations sustained the success of David Bowie during his experimental phase in Berlin and brought the likes of Talking Heads and U2 to the masses with his innovative production methods. You may be wondering why I’m talking about this now while we’re supposed to be looking at 1997. Well, the use of synthesisers in music governed popular music in the 1980s and laid the groundwork for electronic dance music genres moving into the 1990s.
Throughout the 1990s, experimental electronic musicians like Aphex Twin and Autechre built upon the early synth-heavy electro-pioneering work of Kraftwerk and co. in a leap that ostensibly laid a final blueprint for the popular electronic music that we’re overwhelmingly familiar with today.
The 1990s saw a return to guitar-driven rock music in the popular Britpop wave, and meanwhile, other artists like Radiohead and Spiritualized were creating experimental electro-rock music that seemed to blend all we had learned over the 20th century concluding what had been music’s most momentous moment under the light.
In the last 25 years, music hasn’t appeared to have covered as much new ground. Don’t get me wrong, there’s been a whole host of fantastic music to feast our ears on, but nothing that has pushed the boundaries into so much new and exciting territory as seen in the previous 25 years. For now, at least, it seems that while technology continues to advance exponentially, music has hit a ceiling where it can only move laterally with new combinations of old styles. It will be interesting to see how music develops over the next 25 years, and I look forward to writing the next article in this series in the year 2047.
Today we celebrate some of the greatest music from one of the greatest eras in popular music with the 25 best tracks of 1997.
25 best songs from 1997:
- ‘Exit Music (For A Film)’ – Radiohead
- ‘I Think I’m In Love’ – Spiritualized
- ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ – The Verve
- ‘One To Another’ – The Charlatans
- ‘Not If You Were The Last Junkie On Earth’ – The Dandy Warhols
- ‘Only You’ – Portishead
- ‘Paranoid Android’ – Radiohead
- ‘Into My Arms’ – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
- ‘Young Face Gone Wrong’ – Mogwai
- ‘Ladies and gentlemen we are floating in space’ – Spiritualized
- ‘Angeles’ – Elliott Smith
- ‘Lucky Man’ – The Verve
- ‘Between The Bars’ – Elliott Smith
- ‘Hypnotize’ – The Notorious B.I.G.
- ‘Stay With Me’ – Spiritualized
- ‘All Mine’ – Portishead
- ‘Beetlebum’ – Blur
- ‘What Do You Want From Me?’ – Monaco
- ‘Remember Me’ – Blue Boy
- ‘Blinded By The Sun’ – The Seahorses
- ‘Risingson’ – Massive Attack
- ‘Susan’s House’ – Eels
- ‘Sun Hits The Sky’ – Supergrass
- ‘No Surprises’ – Radiohead
- ‘Beep Street’ – Squarepusher