15 That Got Away: The Most Overlooked Albums of 1997
By WARREN PEDERSON
Blast San Francisco Bureau
The year 1997 was hardly a memorable year for pop music. Big-name acts such as Aerosmith, the Rolling Stones and U2 released albums heavy on hype but short on hooks. Electronica was touted as the next big thing, but its artists were notable more for their appearance and attitude than their musical contributions. Laura Nyro died, and the Spice Girls were born.
But before we close the books on a generally forgettable year, let's give some credit to the smaller pop acts who didn't generate gobs of media coverage, appear in television commercials or -- truth be told -- make a dent on the Billboard charts.
Here is a sampling of 15 albums that didn't get the airplay, press coverage or sales they deserved in 1997. This is by no means a complete list. Nor is it a ranking of the "best," which is why it's in alphabetical order. As an added incentive to discover these overlooked gems, most of these CDs can be found in the clearance bins of your local record store. A couple bucks can go a long way.
Paul Carrack, "Blue Views" (Ark 21): This talented singer-songwriter has been at it for a long time, from Ace and Squeeze in the '70s to Mike + the Mechanics and solo success in the '80s. It would be a stretch to say he's better than ever --he seemed to hit his peak in the early '80s -- but he's certainly not ready to rest on his laurels. Carrack is in his element in "Blue Views," a rich mixture of understated blues tunes and soulful ballads.
Caulfields, "L" (A&M): It's baffling why a phenomenally talented band like the Caulfields gets virtually no radio airplay or media recognition. The Delaware band sets passionate, literate lyrics to irresistible melodies, and "L" excels as a testament to both thoughtful songwriting and pop craftsmanship.
Devlins, "Waiting" (Universal): Blissful pop at the center with occasional sharp edges, this duo is so captivating that it's easy to ignore the fact that the sound is really quite basic. An understated, unpretentious alternative to image-conscious bands.
Freddy Jones Band, "Lucid" (Capricorn): While Dave Matthews and Phish attract the HORDE element, the Freddy Jones Band takes a more low-key approach and, as a result, comes off as more sincere. This bluesy, folksy, jingle-jangly Chicago band is as unclassifiable as it is satisfying.
Huffamoose, "We've Been Had Again" (Interscope): To paraphrase one of their songs: How very enigmatic they are. From the alternative rocker "Wait" to the folksy gay love song "James," Huffamoose can easily be forgiven for their annoying name.
Material Issue, "Telecommando Americano" (Ryko): Singer/guitarist Jim Ellison's suicide in June 1996 confirmed many listeners' suspicions that a dark underbelly lurked beneath this Chicago power pop trio's glossy exterior. This release consists of works in progress at the time of Ellison's death, plus the CD release of Material Issue's eponymous 1987 E.P. Much of it feels incomplete, but it's an excellent testament to Ellison's talent and torture.
Eric Matthews, "The Lateness of the Hour" (Sub Pop): The critics love Matthews, but the record-buying public has no idea who he is. Well, here's your answer -- he's an extremely talented multi-instrumentalist whose beautiful, brooding melodies recall the finest symphonic pop of the '60s. Don't let the fact that he's on Nirvana's old label confuse you; Matthews is about as far from grunge as you can get.
Monaco, "Music for Pleasure" (Polydor): With New Order again in limbo, bassist/vocalist Peter Hook fills the void with a darkly danceable collection of synthesized pop tunes straight out of the mid-'80s. And make no mistake, that is a supreme compliment.
Orquestra Was, "Forever's a Long, Long Time" (Verve Forecast): For those still reeling from the breakup of Was (Not Was), producer Don Was has assembled many of the same musicians in an eclectic stew that's part jazz, part pop and totally satisfying. Was gets extra points for proving that Merle Haggard and Sheila E. aren't merely answers to pop trivia questions.
Redd Kross, "Show World" (Mercury): These guys were retro long before it became hip, and while "Show World" is far from their best, it overflows with driving riffs and punchy vocals that recall the best of '70s AM radio.
Refreshments, "The Bottle & Fresh Horses" (Mercury): Better known for performing the theme song to Fox TV's "King of the Hill" (which unfortunately is not included here) the Refreshments mix rockabilly, Tex-Mex and standard hard rock to irresistible effect. The Arizona band's sophomore effort isn't as accessible as their first album, "Fizzy Fuzzy Big & Buzzy," but has plenty of staying power once you give it a chance.
Splitsville, "Ultrasound" (Big Deal): Power pop geniuses Greenberry Woods
never got much recognition beyond a cult following, so some of the members
took a harder approach as Splitsville. The new band has a raw sound that would appeal equally to fans of the Raspberries as well as Green Day -- if only they got the chance to hear it.
Rick Springfield, Bob Marlette & Tim Pierce, "Sahara Snow" (MTM Music): For those who assumed Springfield was resting on the royalties from his '80s chart-toppers, "Sahara Snow" provides proof of an artist who is more than a video-ready heartthrob. It's a snappy, slightly experimental work that shows the darker side of bubble gum rock. Unfortunately, it was also poorly marketed.
Kyle Vincent, "Kyle Vincent" (Carport/Hollywood): Irresistible, self-assured power pop from the former lead singer of overlooked '80s jangle rockers Candy. If there were any justice in this world, "Wake Me Up (When the World's Worth Waking Up For)" would have been the year's top single, rather than Elton John's sappy Princess Diana tribute.
The Wilsons, "The Wilsons" (Mercury): All right, everyone's entitled to at least one guilty pleasure, and -- excluding Hanson -- they don't come any guiltier than Wilson Phillips minus Chynna Phillips. Sisters Wendy and Carnie have produced an album of shimmering harmonies with an able assist from their father, Beach Boys wunderkind Brian Wilson. It's enough to make you forget about Carnie's talk show, which you probably already have anyway.