The Ten Best Albums of 1997

a RICHARD BUCKNER, Devotion + Doubt (MCA). Buckner’s unhealthy absorption in his own cyclical romantic traumas has made him able to describe the tenuousness of love and the persistence of its memory more beautifully than anyone currently in possession of an acoustic guitar. A terrific support cast, including steel guitarist Lloyd Maines, versatile guitar whiz Marc Ribot, and the sensitive roots duo Calexico, follows his astonishingly impulsive, unpredictable singing like a mirror.

b BOTTLE ROCKETS, 24 Hours a Day (Atlantic). Chronicling small-town life without sentimentality or smugness, the Bottle Rockets cast their net well beyond No Depression’s shrinking boundaries to make the year’s best true American rock album. Neil Young drone, ZZ Top boogie, and Merle Haggard twang, foremost among many inspirations, are elevated by the band’s faultless execution, hardscrabble humor, and killer hooks.

c MISSY “MISDEMEANOR” ELLIOTT, Supa Dupa Fly (East-West). Sean “Puffy” Combs may have been the “hottest” producer, but Elliott and her studio ace Tim “Timbaland” Mosley were the year’s most exciting team in hip-hop and R & B. Elliott’s written for fellow artists from Lil’ Kim to Mariah Carey, and her own sturdy singing and rapping have a definite commercial sheen, but thanks to Mosley’s remarkable stew of bumping Miami-bass beats and skittering, junglelike hi-hat patter, Supa Dupa Fly sounds as innovative and infectious as anything on the charts or off.

d ELLERY ESKELIN WITH ANDREA PARKINS & JIM BLACK, One Great Day…(Hatology). New York tenor saxophonist Eskelin works in several fascinating contexts, but he truly thrives in this trio with percussionist Black and accordionist and sampler whiz Parkins. Most of my favorite recordings of the year feature seamless style mixing, and this jazz record is no exception. One minute the group is a funky organ trio, the next it’s delivering edgy collective improv–but the shifts always come off as logical, presaged by something as big as a phrase or as small as a sound.

e BOB DYLAN, Time Out of Mind (Columbia). Bob Dylan’s near-death experience and an endless barrage of crassly adaptive, musically shitty new releases this year from geezers like the Rolling Stones and David Bowie cast his first all-original album in seven years as some sort of masterpiece. It’s not, but it is a fine, unassuming, and gritty collection of bleak (sometimes prosaic) writing, endearingly ragged singing, and warm, naturalistic performances. It doesn’t approach his finest work, but he gets extra credit for refusing to repeat himself.

f BJORK, Homogenic (Elektra). Reining in the cloying eccentricities that hindered her previous work, the peripatetic Bjork fused the same minimal, ominous electronics she’s worked with for several years with brooding orchestral strings. The result isn’t merely an interesting juxtaposition, but a focused, full-blown marriage.

g HENRY THREADGILL & MAKE A MOVE, Where’s Your Cup? (Columbia). The man who gave twin tubas a good name slips into another strange instrumental lineup–his flute and alto sax, plus guitar, electric five-string bass, drums, and the accordion and harmonium of Tony Cedras. AACM veteran Threadgill continues to defy expectations and blithely ignore boundaries. He spends half the year in India these days, and it shows in the intros by Cedras, which resemble alaaps, the introductory passages of ragas. But Threadgill’s assimilations are just that–so worked over and personalized that it’s practically impossible to identify their sources. The resulting rich compositions make prime launchpads for scads of first-rate improvisations, none more breathtaking than Threadgill’s own.

h BUDDY MILLER, Poison Love (Hightone). Plenty of singer-songwriter-guitarists get tagged “triple threats,” but not many make good on those threats. Buddy Miller rarely veers from the honky-tonk path–the folk-rock protest tune “100 Million Little Bombs” being a notable exception–and he steers clear of the flashy gimmickry of many of his indie-country peers, but he was the most potent singer-songwriter-guitarist working in Nashville in ’97.

i GORKY’S ZYGOTIC MYNCI, Barafundle (Mercury). These maddeningly multifaceted Welsh kids, who often sing in their native tongue and who can slide a Beatles-esque hook into an ethereal medieval ditty faster than you can say their name, never let the roller coaster get out of control. Despite unusual instrumentation, such as the three-shawm blowout on “Starmoonsun,” shades of antiquated British folk, as on “Cursed, Coined, and Crucified,” and numerous other odd choices, they never sacrifice melody on the altar of novelty.

j ARTO LINDSAY, Mundo Civilizado (Bar/None). On this sultry summer record, no-wave veteran Lindsay lovingly stirred the muted downtown beats of New York “illbient” hip-hop and the breezy percussion of several Bahian percussionists into his own geeky brand of cosmopolitan pop. Where others might have chosen to contrast the club beats with the Latin rhythms, he looked for complements, in an easy, sexy mix that never sounds tepid or calculated.

Some honorable mentions include: Sleater-Kinney, Dig Me Out (Kill Rock Stars); Pavement, Brighten the Corners (Matador/Capitol); Bally Sagoo, Rising From the East (Tristar/Columbia); OC, Jewelz (Payday/ffrr); Autechre, Chiastic Slide (Warp); Yo La Tengo, I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One (Matador); Eleventh Dream Day, Eighth (Thrill Jockey); Jim O’Rourke, Bad Timing (Drag City); Bill Dixon, Vade Mecum II (Soul Note); R.B. Morris, Take That Ride(Oh Boy).

And finally, a dozen releases that made Spot Check columnist Monica Kendrick’s year: Fushitsusha, The Time Is Nigh and A Death Never to Be Complete (Tokuma); Geraldine Fibbers, Butch (Virgin); Tony Conrad, Early Minimalism Volume One (Table of the Elements); Yo La Tengo, I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One (Matador); Andrew Bird, Music of Hair (self-released); Lake of Dracula, Lake of Dracula (Skin Graft); Run On, No Way (Matador); Red Red Meat, There’s a Star Above the Manger Tonight (Sub Pop); John Fahey & Cul de Sac, The Epiphany of Glenn Jones (Thirsty Ear); Kaffe Matthews, cdAnn (Annette Works); Bad Livers, Hogs on the Highway (Sugar Hill); Andy Haas, Arnhem Land (Avant).

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album covers.