ALBUM OF THE YEAR: 1 OK COMPUTER // Radiohead (Capitol, album) Contemplating the world around him through squinty eyes, Thom Yorke, lead singer and songwriter of Radiohead, would rather tune himself out. In his songs, all he sees are cynical politicians and excessively regimented lifestyles, and he’d prefer to wait for aliens to scoop him up for an intergalactic ride. Weary of the draining intensity of modern life, Yorke is in search of ”no alarms and no surprises,” as he sings in one of his cryptic lyrics, and he’s looking for a higher ground, a fresh start. On Radiohead’s most ambitious album, he’s found it. When we first heard from them some four years ago, Radiohead were egregious grunge clones — and from England at that. Three albums on, they’ve come into their own on this subtly resplendent opus. Wafting, swelling, and subsiding in billowy bursts, the songs aren’t rock or electronica, but a celestial place somewhere in between. As each song segues gracefully into the next, OK Computer becomes a cohesive album — remember those? — with Yorke’s frail sigh, which glides to a falsetto before inevitably crashing down, providing the glue. No other piece of music this year so eloquently captured fin de siecle wariness, the gnawing sense that a new, scary, and potentially enlightening world may be only two years away. Until the UFOs arrive, the sullen grandeur of OK Computer will have to suffice for Yorke, and the rest of us, too.
2 DIG YOUR OWN HOLE // The Chemical Brothers (Astralwerks/Caroline, album) On stage, Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons are the first techno act to make like rock stars: Lurching their computers back and forth, they look like Butt-head and Garth partying in a cybercafe. Their kinetic, incessantly inventive second album makes like rock too. Capturing the rave-new-world intensity of their concerts, Dig Your Own Hole is a series of relentless, playful romps that merge the futuristic grind and caffeinated break beats of techno with the walloping power of rock (and the occasional human voice, like that of Oasis’ Noel Gallagher). No, electronica didn’t conquer the charts in 1997, but albums like Dig Your Own Hole accomplished something more important than breaking sales records: They challenge accepted notions of song structures and dynamics while tapping into the same creativity and energy that once epitomized rock.
3 ”YOUR WOMAN” // White Town (Chrysalis/EMI, single) Is it the sexual ambiguity of the lyrics? The alluring clip-clop of the beat? Or the forlorn quality of that voice, which sounds like a bereft lover calling ultra-long distance? Whatever the reasons, what could have been a goofy dance-club novelty is instead a poignant dance-club romantic tragedy, courtesy of British one-man band Jyoti Mishra. Bonus points for sneaking the phrase ”your highbrow Marxist ways” onto Top 40 radio.
4 MIDDLE OF NOWHERE // Hanson (Mercury, album) You’ve a right to be sick of ”MMMBop,” but this summer’s most refreshing musical water sprinkler is merely one of a dozen kicky treats on these Tulsa brothers’ major-label debut. Christian milk imbibers who can sing, write, and play, they’re no New Kids clones (that dubious honor goes to the Backstreet Boys) but rather a genuine oasis of pop soulfulness and melody. (Keep an eye, and ear, on Taylor.) From start (”Thinking of You,” which sprouts wings and flies) to finish (the joyful teen grunge of ”Man From Milwaukee [Garage Mix]”), Middle of Nowhere is the kind of pure, exhilarating pop no one seems to make anymore, and what a shame. In an mmmbop they might be gone, but when the music’s this infectious, who cares?