Songs of the Year—1997

Go ahead you can laugh all you want
I got my philosophy
Keeps my feet on the ground
And I trust it like the ground
That’s why my philosophy
Keeps me walking when I’m falling down
–Ben Folds Five

Songs of the Year: “Super Bon Bon,” Soul Coughing; “Bury Me,” Guster

Runners-up: “Philosophy”, Ben Folds Five; “Stickshifts and Safetybelts,” Cake

Honorable Mentions: “Firestarter,” The Prodigy; “Tubthumper”, Chumbawumba; “Hypnotize,” Notorious B. I. G.

In 1997, I went to college. I had the grandest of opportunities to re-invent myself. In life, rare are the occasions when you can literally trade in your old mask for a new one. So, I changed my clothes (a little); I broke up with a girl over Limp Bizkit and I went off to conquer the world.

Or something like that.

But first, I had other issues to attend to. During 1997, before college, I stopped working at a gas station and got a job at a glorified arcade. I listened to the radio almost constantly either in the car or at work. It was a good job; I played Tekken every day for free, killed countless zombies, and made it through hundreds of kids’ birthday parties without ever making anyone cry. I had the keys and the alarm code: I could play laser tag with my friends after hours. It wasn’t a good job. After pumping gas in the snow and rain, it was a great job.

Except for the radio that year. When Matchbox 20’s “Push” wasn’t playing, the two songs in heavy rotation were “Semi-Charmed Life” by Third Eye Blind and The Verve Pipe’s “Freshman”. Both songs were melodic, maudlin and, as such, memorable. Both songs were hits. I hated them both.

Some Honorable Mentions: During my second trip to New York, my friends and I heard “Firestarter” by the Prodigy over and over again. What else can you be besides a firestarter? One friend, let’s call her the Milkmaid, proposed “I’m a Florida Manatee, twisted Florida Manatee.” It stuck. Soon after, The Prodigy went the way of the dodo for “smacking a bitch up”.

When I went to college, I didn’t just leave such a wonderful job. I also “broke up” my band, started a new one and met too many people whose musical interests I could not fathom or match. Popular music was also changing: it was also pretty much the end of the alt-rock era. Within a year, ‘NSync and Britney Spears would be dominating the airwaves.

The Horror

In college, as is typical, I found myself making the obligatory rounds through frat parties, drinking too much and saying ridiculous things. (Alas, I was never invited to join a fraternity.). Nearly every house that year was playing “Tubthumper” by Chumbawumba and “Hypnotize” by Notorious B. I. G.. I used to play “Tubthumper” on my guitar late in the AM in my dorm room. An actual Greek hallmate gave me the CD single, believing that I liked the song. (Do foreigners know nothing of irony?)

When I wasn’t alienating my dorm-mates with bad Chumbwumba covers, I worked in the cafeteria making and boxing hamburgers. A six foot five Korean guy played Notorious B.I.G. songs during every shift. I hated him. I envied him: only he could get pumped up to make greasy burgers and fries every day.

My shifts in dining services turned into shifts in the dishroom. For some reason, this was the year I became obsessed with Ben Folds Five’s first album. Anyone approaching the mechanized dishwasher was likely to hear “Philosophy” and a chorus of fools singing along. Ben Folds is a great singer and a very good lyricist. In the guitar-driven nineties, his piano playing was a revelation.

(I once almost got fired for having a dish-washer hose fight with the student manager. We attacked each other and ended up on the conveyor entering the machine, soaked and shirtless. Instead of firing me, they promoted me. The previous student manager used to come into the dishroom, grab cookies from discarded trays and eat them. Yummm).

Imagine me with a white vinyl top

While my 1997 was filled with albums I loved (U2, somehow, won me back with Pop; Cake floored me with Fashion Nugget; I flirted with Bare Naked Ladies and Moxy Fruvous), my year’s obsession started with a Dave Matthews show (sadly). The Mix Tape Girl convinced me to go to Boston to see the Dave Matthews Band at the Fleet Center (she also paid). The opening band was Soul Coughing. Their set design? A white sheet with Soul Coughing written on it.

I had heard the singles “Sound Track to Mary” and “Super Bon Bon” before, but when I saw Soul Coughing live I was immediately won over by the upright bass, the crazy samples and the beat-esque lyrics over simple and repetitive guitar patterns. (It didn’t hurt that I was looking for anything to be better than Dave Matthews.) I don’t remember anything from the DMB, but I do remember buying Irresistible Bliss the next day. During the summer, I was pulled over while speeding in my 1987 Buick LeSabre with a white Vinyl top. The song blaring? “Super Bon Bon.”

My college roommate and I bonded the first day over our love of Irresistible Bliss.  He soon convinced me to love another band: Guster. We listened to Goldfly almost every night for the first month of the fall semester. “Bury Me”, with its frantic hand drums, crazy speed, and not-too-perfect vocals made me rethink the polish and structure of pop songs.

I met my wife in 1997 (she was listening to Life After Death and Bon Jovi’s Crossroads. A strange mix); I mocked every Oasis fan I met, resisted any compulsion to listen to Phish or the Grateful Dead even while joining the Ultimate Frisbee club. A contrarian, of sorts.

And you, brother? You were certainly eating solid foods in 1997….

All of this meant that there was much more to come. (And much more to say about Guster and 1997).

Other notables from the year: Either/Or, Elliot Smith; Pop, U2; Goldfly, Guster; Life After Death, Notorious B.I.G.; The Carnival, Wyclef Jean

Horrors: “Freshman”; Limp Bizkit; Backstreet Boys; Spice Girls; Big Willie Style, Will Smith; “Barbie Girl”, Aqua; “Mmmbop,” Hanson

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