Woo! Technology, eh? 1997 was the year I bought my first home PC – I had a Sinclair ZX81 years before that, sure, but this was the real thing. It completely revolutionized the way in which these Pick Of The Year compilations were assembled. As you can see from the image on the left, this was the first time I ventured into the arena of sleeve design, grabbing images from the internet of the sixteen artists involved and mashing them into a square grid, regardless of their original aspect ratio. As for the compilation itself, I used up-to-the-minute software to “rip” the CD tracks into audio files, assemble them into two 45 minute sequences, and then, er, record them through the PC’s headphone socket onto tape. (My first CD burner wouldn’t come till 1998.)
So, wrapping up the year of self-indulgent archive recycling that was Spank Gold, here’s the last of my POTY compilations to feature an explicit Side One/Side Two split.
1. PROPELLERHEADS – On Her Majesty's Secret Service (from Shaken And Stirred, East West) (video)
This track would turn up a year later on the Propellerheads’ one and only album, Decksanddrumsandrockandroll: but initially, the band was merely part of the all-star cast on composer/arranger David Arnold’s album of James Bond theme cover versions, Shaken And Stirred. Even John Barry himself was impressed with how Arnold brought these overly familiar tunes up to date without losing what made them great in the first place. And that’s especially the case with O.H.M.S.S., a sprawling dancefloor stomper whose opening two-and-a-half minute buildup to the main theme is a masterclass in the arrangement of acoustic and electronic musical forces. By the end of 1997, David Arnold had been commissioned to write the score for Tomorrow Never Dies, and he’s been doing them ever since. Which effectively makes Shaken And Stirred the most elaborate job application in movie soundtrack history.
2. THE VERVE – Sonnet (from Urban Hymns, Hut) (video)
This was The Verve’s year, really. Despite all the legal unpleasantness, Bittersweet Symphony still holds up as a classic single: while The Drugs Don’t Work picked up an unexpected boost from being released at a time when radio stations were desperate to play slightly sad songs that didn’t mention dead princesses. The album that spawned both those singles is surprisingly consistent in the quality of its other songs: Sonnet was just the one that appealed to me most around the end of 1997. I never really liked the band before this, and certainly didn't buy into their recent reunion, but Urban Hymns still holds up.
3. PRODIGY – Smack My Bitch Up (from The Fat Of The Land, XL) (video)
You can never remind people too many times how Prodigy started: a cheesy rave track called Charly, which sampled the 1970s public information films about the cat who scared kids out of playing with matches and paedophiles. Several years later, they’d evolved into a pantomime band whose primary function was to scare the shite out of parents. But at the time of The Fat Of The Land, they at least had the musical chops to back up the visual image. I remember seeing them play live in late 1997 at the Forum in Kentish Town: the bass surge that roars in at the start of each phrase of Smack My Bitch Up sounded like an aeroplane engine being held directly over your head and turned on for half a second. Sure, lyrically it’s a pure slice of fried wrong, but musically it shows how great Liam Howlett was at assembling terrifying sound collages out of the most basic source materials. (And here’s how to make it at home.)
4. RADIOHEAD – Exit Music (For A Film) (from OK Computer, EMI) (video)
It’s easy to forget just how familiar a lot of Radiohead’s breakthrough album was by the time of its release. Lucky had appeared on at least two compilations in 1995, while this particular song had been used as the end title theme to Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 Romeo And Juliet. (Its quiet melancholy also soundtracked one of the subtlest visual gags in Father Ted: a priest who’s just been pulled back from the brink of suicide accidentally hears it on the radio, and all the brightness slowly drains out of the frame.) I never considered OK Computer to be the apogee of rock music that everyone else claims: I’d still suggest that The Bends is a better album overall. But when the songs on Computer work, they really work.
5. RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS – Love Rollercoaster (from single Love Rollercoaster, Geffen) (video)
Recorded specifically for the soundtrack of Beavis And Butt-head Do America, no less: although I personally picked this up as a single, with Engelbert Humperdinck’s Lesbian Seagull on the b-side. (It bloody is.) It seems fitting to have Beavis, Butt-head and the RHCPs together like this, as it reminds me of one of my earliest experiences of the band – seeing the video of Breaking The Girl on B&B’s show, with Beavis excitedly yelling “It’s Flea! It’s Flea!” whenever their bassist appeared on screen. This is more like the sort of funk we know them best for, with some surprisingly unembarrassing use of kazoo throughout.
6. THE DIVINE COMEDY – In Pursuit Of Happiness (from A Short Album About Love, Setanta) (video)
By now, my infatuation with the works of Neil Hannon and The Divine Comedy was reaching some sort of peak, even though for most other people that peak was reached around the time of previous album Casanova and its accompanying hit singles. This mini-album could more accurately be titled A Short Album About The Bloody Great Noise A Full-Sized Orchestra Makes, and Happiness’ wildly extended coda shows just how much fun it was for Hannon to have his songs arranged in Cinemascope. They recreated that sound at a splendid Royal Festival Hall gig the same year, notable for Hannon shaving his beard off during the interval. “It was making me look like a cunt,” he said at the time, which possibly counts as wordplay.
7. RONI SIZE + REPRAZENT – Hi-Potent (from New Forms, Mercury) (video)
With the possible exception of the Former Acquaintance Of One Of Spank’s Pals that we know as Dizzee Rascal, urban acts who win the Mercury Prize tend to do pretty badly afterwards. Speech Debelle’s finding that out at the time of writing, and a dozen years earlier it became apparent that Roni Size wasn’t going to turn into a megastar off the back of the prize. Which is a shame, because I think he deserved to: the mix of cutting-edge electronics and Si John's real double bass gave his drum ‘n’ bass tunes an organic quality that other artists at the time simply weren’t capable of. This is actually from the bonus disc of off-cuts rather than the main album itself, but is excellent enough to join the better-known tracks like Brown Paper Bag.
8. LAMB – Gorecki (from single Gorecki, Fontana) (video)
Ooh, cheeky. This was technically a 1996 release, as a track from Lamb’s eponymous debut album. But by 1997, it was being used on TV soundtracks almost as heavily as the symphony that inspired it, so it ended up getting a single release that allows me to cover up for the fact that I discovered the band late. Lamb – and later, Lou Rhodes on her own – have subsequently appeared on these compilations on numerous occasions, and have a collective body of work they can be proud of: but Gorecki is magnificent enough to justify their existence on its own.
1. COLDCUT – Return To Margin (from Let Us Play, Ninja Tune) (video)
Back in the 1980s during my bedroom b-boy days, I had a very soft spot for Coldcut: proper old-school hip-hoppers creating banging beats and using unexpected samples. A decade on, they reinvented themselves as purveyors of the hi-tech White Boy Fake Jazz that would become the stock-in-trade of their label Ninja Tune. It’s a beguiling sound even today, but it’s fun to pick up on the few elements that have dated badly, notably the references to the technology of the time. The track title, for a start: the wonky CG avatars of Jonathan Moore and Matt Black on the cover: and the CD-ROM bundled with the album, stuffed with QuickTime videos of the songs and a rudimentary sample/loop program called My Little Funkit. Wonder if it still works with Windows Vista?
2. DAVID BOWIE – Dead Man Walking (from Earthling, Columbia) (video)
Aladdin Sane (1973): Heroes (1978): Let’s Dance (1983): Tin fucking Machine (1988): The Buddha Of Suburbia (1993). For over two decades, without actually planning it, I ended up buying a David Bowie album once every five years. 1997’s Earthling was the one that broke the cycle, and I’ve never bought another one since. But then, who has? This was sold to us as Bowie’s experiment with drum ‘n’ bass, but songs like Dead Man Walking show that wasn’t the case at all: rather, it was a rock album that used elaborately programmed beats to give some traditional tunes a bit more spice. Still, nowt wrong with that.
3. BJORK – Batchelorette (from Homogenic, One Little Indian) (video)
As with Bjork’s previous appearances on these compilations (Play Dead in 1993, Hyper-Ballad in 1995) - not to mention the ones still to come – it’s the hugely overblown drama of Batchelorette that appeals to me. I don’t think I saw Michel Gondry’s video until a couple of years later, when Volumen became one of the first music DVDs I ever bought. But that film adds another layer of mindshag to what was already fairly torrid stuff. “A fountain of blood in the shape of a girl,” indeed.
4. PET SHOP BOYS – Somewhere (from single Somewhere, Parlophone) (video)
Speaking of hugely overblown drama… if there was ever any doubt that the Pet Shop Boys were a gay act, this enormous orchestrated version of the West Side Story classic would have set people, um, straight. In the past, when they’d covered songs like Always On My Mind and Where The Streets Have No Name, there was always an undercurrent of cheese, and the sense of tongues being firmly inserted in cheeks. Here, though, you can tell they just want to do the song right. And even with the turbo beats hammering through it, that’s exactly what they do.
5. OASIS – Don't Go Away (from Be Here Now, Creation) (video)
Yeah, I fell for it too. Do you remember the day that Oasis released Be Here Now? It was a Thursday in August 1997, specifically chosen to separate it from the common herd of records coming out on Mondays. That morning, I was flying out to Ireland for a family wedding, and found myself standing outside the Manchester Airport branch of Our Price (ask your parents, kids) waiting for them to open at 8am so I could buy it. Little did any of us know at the time that it’d turn out to be a textbook example of the sort of overextended, bloated nonsense that people make when they’ve got easy access to cocaine. Which is why Don’t Go Away stands out from the rest of the album: a short, sweet ballad that hasn’t been completely buried under 64 tracks of guitar overdubs.
6. MARY COUGHLAN – Run Away Teddy (from After The Fall, Big Cat) (video)
I’ve always had a lot of time for the divine Ms C, ever since I first caught her in a support slot for Robert Cray in the mid-80s. Her career’s been a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs since, some of those downs coinciding with attacks of thirstiness. But you do get some extraordinary comeback records whenever she gets her act together again, and After The Fall is one of those. After a decade or so of doing magnificent work with songs written for her by other people, this album saw her contributing her own lyrics for the first time. Given the snappy feminist wit of many of the tracks she’s covered in her time, it’s no surprise that her own work (including this song) went in the same direction.
7. HALF MAN HALF BISCUIT – Paintball's Coming Home (from Voyage To The Bottom Of The Road, Probe Plus) (video)
Generally speaking, it’s usually the shorter, sillier HMHB songs that end up on my collections (with 2001’s Vatican Broadside as the ultimate example). This example touches on one of Nigel Blackwell’s perennial themes: the lambasting of perceived class traitors for the cliché that their lives have become. It steals its tune from three different and completely recognisable sources, but does it in such a cheerful way that nobody could possibly object. Even Annie Lennox, subject of the line that I stole in turn for this tape’s title.
8. THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS – The Private Psychedelic Reel (from Dig Your Own Hole, Virgin) (video)
Remember back at the end of Side One, when I was talking about Lamb’s Gorecki, and the way that hack directors were using it on soundtracks throughout 1997? Well, count me in as one of those hack directors. The end titles of my Hong Kong holiday video, Return Of The Great Leap Forwards, used it for maximum pathos over news footage of the handover ceremony. It was an editorial decision that looks so cheesy these days, I can’t bring myself to put that bit on YouTube. Unlike, say, the opening titles, in which I used the beginning of the Chemical Brothers’ nine-minute beat freakout in what was a similarly clichéd fashion for the time. Well, it wasn’t like anyone outside my immediate circle of friends would ever see it! Oops.
And that was it: the last ever Pick Of The Year on cassette. I think that by the time I’d recorded it, I’d realised that I’d have to move to CD in the very near future. However, I’m not sure how aware I was that for years afterwards, I’d be telling thousands of strangers (oh, all right, dozens) about my track choices. Still, as I put the final touches to the 2009 compilation – in a year when a track from my very first one looks like it has a fighting chance of becoming the Christmas Number One – I’m rather glad that it’s a habit that I’ve got into. Being a monkey, and all.