Band: The Charlatans
Label: Beggars Banquet
What the music press said then: The Independent: “A supremely masterful, relaxed album of simple melodies and harmonies.”
And now: As NME tells it, the album was “their comeback masterpiece”.
What the band said about it: The album was their most commercially successful, having three top 10 singles. “Afterwards we were feeling ‘where do we go from here?’,” said lead singer Tim Burgess.
Why it’s so damn great: A swirling collision of Madchester and Britpop, full of tight, melodic tunes that stick in your head.
Label: Food Records
What the music press said then: James Hunter at Rolling Stone: “What still makes [Blur] great is their deep grasp of style and genre. What they haven’t done on Blur is roll out of bed, strum a few chords and loudly free-associate about the first thing that pops into their heads.”
And now: BBC Music’s Chris Jones: “This was the point when the Britpop dream – which had started to sour on Blur’s previous album, The Great Escape – was finally laid to rest.”
What the band said about it: The album’s genius is a result, partly, of guitarist Graham Coxon’s stated desire to “scare people again” and the raw, visceral lyrics of Damon Albarn. Coxon said in 2009: “I’m really fond of that record. I think it’s one of our best.”
Why it’s so damn great: The ethos of the album is encapsulated in Song 2, the track that broke America when America didn’t do Britpop; which contains the most mind-bending of Albarn’s lyrical stylings (When I feel heavy metal/And I’m pins and I’m needles); which has a lead bass guitar; and the intro of which is arguably the finest work of the finest guitar player of his generation.
Dig Your Own Hole
Band: Chemical Brothers
Label: Virgin/Freestyle Dust
What the music press said then: John Mulvey at NME: “Dig Your Own Hole is the fully-honed, full-on, block-rocking, cortex-hammering, take-no-prisoners real deal… It’s the lairy, hedonistic triumph of lad techno.”
And now: BBC Music: “There’s still been nothing quite like Dig Your Own Hole. It was a moment where the Chemical Brothers could harvest the minds and mess up the hearing of a whole new crowd of converts, and remains an immense, far out and most staggering work.”
What the band said about it: Ed Simons, one half of the duo: “Why is it left to a group like Oasis to express the way that young people want to go out? That’s what we are about. Tom and I are out all the time, off to clubs and gigs, living fast, living it up. That’s what I hope we’re putting across on our record.”
Why it’s so damn great: It’s an electrifying – occasionally terrifying – mash-up of rock machismo and crazy electronica, filtered through the warped minds of a couple of music-mad geeks. Even after 20 years, it still sounds like the future. And if there has ever been a more out there No.1 single than the Beatles-twisting, Noel Gallagher collaboration Setting Sun, we’ve yet to hear it.
Buena Vista Social Club
Band: Buena Vista Social Club
Label: World Circuit
What the music press said then: Rolling Stone’s Tom Moon described it as: “A collection of enduring reminders that in Cuba, the wisdom of the ages still counts for something.”
And now: One critic recently expressed the view that Buena Vista Social Club has become “world music’s equivalent of The Dark Side of the Moon”.
What the band said about it: Talking to a radio station in 2000, Ry Cooder, co-producer, musical director and organising force behind the album: “People say: ‘You knew this was going to happen.’ I say: ‘Are you kidding me?’ Find one reason why this would have been popular. There’s no logic.”
Why it’s so damn great: Timeless tunes played with exceptional skill by musicians with a lifetime of experience, many of them living in obscurity when Ry Cooder called them. The music has an immediacy as well as a warmth, patina and familiarity that makes it hard to resist. It sold 8 million copies worldwide, changed the way the world saw Cuban music and spawned a fabulous Wim Wenders documentary. Barack Obama was also a fan, as he told those musicians still alive who were invited to the White House in 2015.
Band: Daft Punk
What the music press said then: In March 1997, Pete Tong introduced Daft Punk for their first BBC Essential Mix by saying: “We are pleased to introduce two French blokes.”
And now: Twenty years on, Billboard said Homework sounds less dated than any other major electronic album from 1997, because “it turns out the big beat paragons weren’t thinking nearly big enough”.
What the band said about it: Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter told Magic magazine that Homework was supposed to have been a collection of singles rather than an album. The duo told the Swedish blog Pop Viminns that the record was created from start to finish in Bangalter’s bedroom with their own equipment, hence its name. In 2001, Daft Punk told The Guardian that Homework was “a happy thing, but there was also anger – a statement”.
Why it’s so damn great: Homework is one of the most influential electronic albums ever written. When it came out, hits including Da Funk and Around the World drew attention to the French house music scene and are still relevant today.
The Fat of the Land
Band: The Prodigy
Label: XL records
What the music press said then: David Browne, writing for Entertainment Weekly: “[The] Prodigy once confined themselves to robotic squiggles, but last year’s genre-busting single Firestarter proved what could be accomplished by merging techno with punk and hard rock. Shrewdly taking his cue from that song, Prodigy leader and beat master Liam Howlett has made The Fat of the Land harder, more subterranean, more diverse, and more vocal-oriented than previous Prodigy records.”
And now: Mixmag described the scowling, in-your-face Firestarter: “The moment we hear those apocalyptic synths roll in, we can’t help but want to set everything on fire. Simply put, this is an absolute classic.”
What the band said about it: In an interview with The Independent, Liam Howlett, co-founder and songwriter said: “I’m not doing another album. There isn’t another Prodigy album. I went through so much pressure. I don’t want to go through that again.” The band has released a further three studio albums since.
Why it’s so damn great: Despite the scene, and genre, having many incarnations, the growling, grinding rhythm of The Fat of the Land has had few rivals for its intimidating clashing of sounds. It is a defining album of the 1990s.
Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space
What the music press said then: Released on the same day as Radiohead’s OK Computer, Jason Pierce’s third album made it to the top of NME’s releases of the year: “It is, quite simply, a seismic tour de force. The work of a man who, having assimilated an army of influences – Captain Beefheart, Sly Stone, Elvis, Zappa, Red Crayola – has managed to create an entirely new noise.”
And now: After seeing the album played in full at The Barbican, The Telegraph wrote: “There isn’t a single dud track on Ladies and Gentlemen… Come Together still sounded both addictive and forbidding and its concluding gospel affirmation was irresistible.”
What the band said about it: “I think records are like time-capsules or spaceships. You finish them and push them off and they start relating to other people. They’re not really my records any more, so because of that you have to get them absolutely right... It’s the easiest medium, it’s rock ’n’ roll, how much more f***ing simple can it get?”
Why it’s so damn great: Apart from having possibly the best album packaging ever – Google it – the music is 70 minutes of escapism and pathos. There are songs about drugs, break-ups and spirituality, influenced by the blues and gospel, with a bit of trance-rock thrown in. Try to listen to Broken Heart without crying.
Band: The Verve
Label: Hut Records
What the music press said then: The Verve’s third album came after a brief split in 1995 due to tensions within the band. Entertainment Weekly said the album was “a surprising and stunning comeback.”
And now: On bbc.co.uk: “The thing is, Urban Hymns still sounds thrilling. Grand daubs of baroque rock and massive, sweeping arrangements sit side by side with heartbreaking declarations of failure.”
What the band said about it: Richard Ashcroft revealed: “The Verve are not complete without Nick McCabe (the band’s guitarist).” He expressed disappointment that the distinctive string hook on the album’s first single cost him both the songwriting credit and all the royalties.
Why it’s so damn great: A good album can transcend time, generation gaps and cultural shifts, embedding its enduring appeal. Urban Hymns went 10-times platinum in the UK and is still the 18th bestselling album ever released in the country.
What the music press said then: Music journo Paul Morley: “One of the basic messages of this album is, ‘Love the beauty of speed.’ Radiohead, looking at times just like a rock group, are unhinged cybertravellers.”
And now: Duncan Lindsay for metro.co.uk wrote: “The Radiohead album, which was well ahead of its time when it was first released in Japan on 19 May 1997, remains the most genius compilation of music ever created.”
What the band said about it: On the provenance of the album, lead singer Thom Yorke said: “I found myself in a computer store and all of a sudden I get this thought: What if a computer could go drive a car? Then I laughed, ’cause I got the picture of a computer drinking a pint and hanging out with his computer mates. Then all of a sudden I stopped laughing, because I got the idea of what if a computer could play guitar. I was transfixed by this idea. And that’s when I knew: We needed to do an album about that.”
Why it’s so damn great: The giddying sweetness-to-dissonance sweep of Jonny Greenwood’s genius guitar riffs coupled with Yorke’s twitchy, lyrical artistry made it an unsettling kicker of an album 20 years ago, and it still sounds unique today.
Band: Wu-Tang Clan
Label: Loud/RCA Records
What the music press said then: Neil Strauss at the New York Times: “The album effortlessly slices through the noise and music around it, thanks chiefly to its producer, known as the RZA, whose precision beats ring crisply and sharply in the air while the sound snippets he uses to back the raps propel them like slingshots. Then there are the lyrics, as dense, obsessed, prolific and full of popular and arcane references as a Pynchon novel.”
And now: Jack Hamilton at Slate: “At the time of its release, both the album and its expectations felt so daunting it seemed impossible to evaluate, but it’s aged remarkably well, and its best tracks are worthy of its predecessor.”
What the band/artist said about it: Method Man: “The sum of our parts is worth all the organising. It’s like the Power Rangers where they come together… This album will destroy every hip-hop record made in the past 10 years.”
Why it’s so damn great: Biggie Smalls was killed earlier in 1997 and hip-hop was at a crossroads. It was trending towards more money, more cars, more everything. Instead Wu-Tang released a double album that was introspective, complicated and had few hooks. But with nine MCs at their peak and RZA orchestrating, it was brilliant.