Artists Of The Year

We list the best of the best of 1997.

Buckley tried, intoxicatingly--which may be why, as with Nirvana, I can hardly bear to listen to his music anymore. It's too real, too raw, too rich for my thin blood.

Kate Sullivan is a Minneapolis writer and frequent contributor to City Pages.

by Jim Walsh

Matt Adams

In January, his "Shelter from the Storm" played over the closing credits to Jerry Maguire. In May, the same month he turned 56 and the same month he was recast by Greil Marcus's groundbreaking Invisible Republic, he was hospitalized with a near-fatal heart and lung ailment. In July, his kid's album hit the 3 million mark, outselling any of his own bestsellers by a million. In August, two months after getting out of the hospital, he was back on the road, an anti-legend playing any stage that would have him: in theaters, clubs, high schools, arenas, and at festivals.

In September, he was in Italy, playing for the pope. In October, he released his best record in more than two decades, the perfectly naked Time Out of Mind. In December, he was given a lifetime achievement award by the Kennedy Center for the Arts, the citation for which barely got it right when it called him "The single most influential and continually compelling presence in American popular music, and the foremost songwriter of our time."

Jim Walsh is the pop-music critic for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

by Katherine Spielmann

Scott Walker's astonishing album Tilt finally made it to these shores this year. On its initial U.K. release in 1995, someone dubbed its nine tracks "rock lieder"--or, to translate, "German art song." But the self-exiled American singer/songwriter forges a new idiom on Tilt, complete with tragic yet thrilling visions rarely offered to a pop-music audience--if ever.

Walker's voice, once Jack Jones-schmaltzy when he chalked up U.K. hits in the 1960s, is now pared of its vibrato excrescence and emotes with an impeccable, tensed-up ring. Trailing shreds of melody, each song struggles between desolate private affliction ("all of the trembling vein that you can bare"), fearful conspiracy ("see how it blows/a mile up the road"), and hushed communal appeal ("save the crops and the bodies from pestilence, hunger, and war").

A musician who keenly studies the forces of history and politics ("Patriot" views the Gulf War from ground-level Iraq), Walker writes music led not by beats or even melody (though the melodies go deep), but by lyrics and meaning. To this end, instruments, arrangements, and structures well beyond current rock norms are drawn into play: "Farmer in the City," for instance, adds to its basics the London Sinfonia's strings, an oboe, and a cittern. The lyrics of "Farmer" review aspects, known and imagined, of the mysterious murder of Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini. The thrill and horror so tenderly sketched here prepare us for a tapestry of modern violence and despair set forth throughout Tilt, as ideas--always physically manifested--lure a listener down corridors seldom explored in songs of any kind.

Katherine Spielmann is senior editor at Puncture.

by Ira Glass

There's something about stumbling across greatness where you least expect it, and believe me, Late Night with Conan O'Brien is where I least expect it. On August 8, 1997, Conan replaced his normal studio audience with kids aged 6 to 8. It was jaw-dropping television. Conan told typical talk-show jokes ("So Alan Greenspan made some news today at the Federal Reserve..."), and, of course, bombed. Typical talk-show guests like Dave Foley (News Radio) began typical talk-show anecdotes and were booed mercilessly by the audience in under a minute. It was disturbing, the atmosphere of the thing, as if Conan had decided to do a performance-art rendition of a network talk show, designed to make us feel the strangeness of something we take for granted.

It was stunningly inventive. At one point, Conan tells the kids he has a treat for them, a special guest: Dustin Hoffman. The 6-year-olds are unmoved. So Conan gives them a choice: Dustin Hoffman, or Dustin Hoffman in a Snoopy costume. Naturally, the kids choose Snoopy. So a guy in a Snoopy costume comes out, waves at the kids, and leaves. A pause. A girl yells from the audience: "Let's see him without the head on!" Conan declares it's too late: Snoopy has left the building. The kids get unruly. It feels on the verge of flying out of control--truly out of control--any minute.

When does that ever happen on television? Watching it, I felt the rarest thing one feels watching TV or listening to the radio: surprise.

Ira Glass is the host of This American Life on Public Radio International.

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