What were you were you listening to 20 years ago? Something impressive like OK Computer or Supa Dupa Fly? Some underground hip-hop or cutting-edge drum 'n' bass?
Maybe you were, maybe you were. But not everyone was.
By the end of 1997, 29 albums had reached the top of the Billboard 200 charts, each purchased by hundreds of thousands of humans who presumably went on to listen to these CDs several if not many times.
I stayed up way too late last night ranking these charttoppers from worst to best, and, I've got to say, I've done so with shocking accuracy. Please, whatever you do, don't argue with this list. You'll only embarrass and possibly even injure yourself.
29. Howard Stern: Private Parts -- The Album
Offers recorded evidence that the shock jock once got to duet with Rob Zombie -- a sad kind of Make-A-Wish for a famous adult millionaire.
28. Barbra Streisand -- Higher Ground
To be fair, the album that Streisand's contemporaries the Rolling Stones released in 1997 sounded just as dated musically. But Bridges to Babylon had a better beat.
27. LeAnn Rimes -- You Light Up My Life -- Inspirational Songs
How inspirational? As inspirational as “Bridge Over Trouble Water.” As inspirational as “God Bless America.” As inspirational as… uh, something called “Ten Thousand Angels Cried.”
The soundtrack to Tupac's final film, released after his death. He appears on four cuts, Snoop appears on three, and there were (and are) better ways to pay your respects -- without paying Suge Knight.
25. Live -- Secret Samadhi
At least Bush weren't pretentious. Well, not this pretentious. Anyway, Gavin Rossdale had better cheekbones.
24. LeAnn Rimes -- Unchained Melody: The Early Years
A quick cash-in, mostly recycling tracks recorded when Rimes was 11. Recommended to fans of county fair talent shows and 1997 LeAnn Rimes albums that don't include “Ten Thousand Angels Cried.”
23. Master P -- Ghetto D
I admire the No Limit founder's initiative, his productivity, his taste in album art, and his ability to make 'em say “uhh.” Well, I acknowledge it, at least.
22. Bob Carlisle -- Butterfly Kisses (Shades of Grace)
If a real country singer had co-opted this Christian Contemporary crossover-er's mawkish number about watching a daughter grow up we'd still be hearing it on the radio today -- an opportunity lost and/or a bullet dodged, depending on your perspective.
21. U2 -- Pop
20. The Firm -- The Firm -- The Album
As The Firms go, this cynical merger of Nas, Dr. Dre, Foxy Brown, AZ, and Nature contains not a single moment as entertaining as Paul Rodgers singing “Radioactive” or Tom Cruise beating the shit out of Wilford Brimley.
19. George Strait -- Carrying Your Love With Me
Pleasant professional product.
18. Metallica -- Reload
This disc of Load leftovers rocks plenty, sure, but you know what they say about sequels.
17. Men in Black: The Album
By '97, Puffy had shown the world that all it took to form rap hits out of jacked R&B oldies was a big enough budget and a small enough conscience, and the movie star on the mic fit the bill on both counts. Will Smith? Of course he will.
16. No Doubt -- Tragic Kingdom
Gwen Stefani had no chill.
15. Scarface -- The Untouchable
Dabbling in g-funk, the onetime Geto Boy backed away from the psychological depth he'd achieved on The Diary and which he wouldn't fully recover until The Fix in 2002.
14. Fleetwood Mac -- The Dance
This live album, from their reunion tour, was where they stopped thinking about tomorrow.
13. Aerosmith -- Nine Lives
Here is a thing I once said:
Get a Grip is the 2nd best Aerosmith album— Keith Harris (@useful_noise) March 4, 2017
But even I've got my limits.
12. Bone Thugs N Harmony -- The Art of War
How much Bone Thugs is too much Bone Thugs? Check back in with me when you get to disc two.
11. Garth Brooks -- Sevens
The schlockiest album (thus far) of Garth's hardly tasteful career still had its moments, including a raucous, rubbery take on "Longneck Bottle" and the melodramatic "I Don't Have to Wonder." Guess whether the song about pina coladas was one of those moments.
10. Boyz II Men -- Evolution
These bona fide innovators were sadly running out of steam just as a buncha white boys in Florida were about to revolutionize the industry by adopting the Boyz'z mix of sweet harmonies and jacked up beats.
9. Mariah Carey -- Butterfly
The lovely larva freed herself from her cocoon of a marriage to Tommy Mottola, ditching adult contemporary just as R&B became the only game in town.
8. Puff Daddy and the Family -- No Way Out
He couldn't have crossed the finish line without Biggie, Mase, and Lil Kim picking up the slack, But you know, I could never even entirely hate “I'll Be Missing You.” Not in a year where “Candle in the Wind '97” was an even bigger (and more saccharine) hit eulogy, anyway.
7. The Prodigy -- The Fat of the Land
Every one of you fuckers who mocked electronica as dumbed-down and "commercial" deserved every last nü-metal hit you had to suffer through afterward.
6. Wu-Tang Clan -- Wu-Tang Forever
With the seams in their world-dominating rap collective already showing, the title felt like wishful thinking even at the time. But this messy double album's sprawling excess is kinda the point -- they needed to space to showcase not just the RZA's beat-crafting ingenuity but also underrated second-stringers like Inspectah Deck.
5. Spice Girls -- Spice
Like other image-driven and world-altering British albums -- think Never Mind the Bollocks... -- this gets a little flimsy after the hits. But wot hits! “Wannabe,” “Say You'll Be There,” and “2 Become 1” were all these empowered role-players needed to make their future dream of a shopping scheme come true.
4. Mase -- Harlem World
I needed Mase after Biggie was murdered the way America needed the Beatles after the JFK assassination. When Mase is good he raps like the sedation has just worn off after a wisdom tooth extraction. When he's great he raps like it hasn't.
3. Mary J. Blige -- Share My World
Having bid adieu to Puffy Combs, the producer who'd lent her beats a distinctive hip-hop edge, the premier female R&B singer of the decade (and you can maybe scratch “female”) sought a lusher sound and explored a fuller emotional range.
2. Janet Jackson -- The Velvet Rope
Turns out taking control was the easy part. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis are at their most versatile here, generating straight-up house propulsion, balladic folktronica, and Timbaland twitchery as Janet plunges into past trauma and emerges all the wiser and sexier for it.
1. The Notorious B.I.G. -- Life After Death
No MC made pop as big as Big Poppa, who accomplished feats of asthmatic gymnastics every bit as hooky as the R&B melodies his partner Puff swiped and retooled. Biggie died on March 9, but for the rest of 1997 he sounded as alive as anyone on the radio.