Decades
A quarterly report that looks back
on music and film from 10, 20, 30 years ago

Top 50 Songs of 1997

on May 24, 2017, 2:00am

notorious big life after death Top 50 Songs of 199735. The Notorious B.I.G. – “Mo Money, Mo Problems”

Life After Death


It was a melancholic summer atop the Billboard Hot 100 after The Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death was released in the wake of Biggie Smalls’ passing to success and acclaim. “Mo Money Mo Problems” replaced “I’ll Be Missing You” following that song’s 11-week run during the summer of 1997 and arrived atop the charts a few months after “Hypnotize” held the same status. To this day, there’s a rueful disconnect between the upstroking joy of Kelly Price’s voice atop a Diana Ross sample and the irony of the hook that made the song a ‘90s classic: “The more money we come across/ The more problems we see.” Biggie had a lot left to do before his sudden departure, but “Mo Money Mo Problems” stands as a promise of what could have been and was accompanied by one of Hype Williams’ all-time great videos to boot. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer

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wyclef jean Top 50 Songs of 199734. Wyclef Jean – “Gone Till November”

The Carnival


Though at one point he’s just listing out the months of the year, there’s something absolutely heartbreaking about Wyclef Jean’s “Gone Til November”. The third single on the Fugees founder’s debut solo album, he builds from simple acoustic guitar, strings, and a skipping drum line. The track sounds soft enough, but many have noted that it’s told from the perspective of a drug runner trying to explain why he needs to go out on a big deal and leave his girl at home. But, ever the compelling charmer, the song feels immediate and relatable even to those outside of that particular hustle. The strings swell and tug, but Jean’s understated lilt feels so achingly human, sinking the story directly into your heart. –Lior Phillips

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sarah mclaughlan Top 50 Songs of 199733. Sarah McLachlan – “Building a Mystery”

Surfacing

Long before Sarah McLachlan spent her free time reducing us to soggy lumps of tears on the floor as her songs play over pictures taken at animal shelters, the Canadian singer-songwriter was making a name for herself as both an A-list artist and activist. 1997 proved a particularly pivotal year for McLachlan. Fed up with how the music industry often mistreats women, she co-founded the original Lilith Fair, a touring festival that featured female solo artists and woman-fronted bands. That same year she took home two Grammys, four Juno Awards, and had four hit songs off her best-selling album, Surfacing. And if we could only keep one of those hits, “Building a Mystery” would probably be the one. Minus some mystical-sounding accompaniment, the song about how we hide our true selves from others relies on little more than McLachlan’s straightforward strum, sincere eye-witness delivery, and supernatural-themed lyrical work. It’s a throwback to a time when so many acoustic guitar-slinging and piano-plunking female songwriters seemed to rule the airwaves, too talented to be drowned out by their much louder peers. –Matt Melis

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bjork homogenic large la Top 50 Songs of 199732. Björk – “Joga”

Homogenic


Always a decade or more ahead of the trend, Björk’s “Joga” predicts (and outdoes) the dubstep and EDM music it predates. But more than a predictive genius, the song thrives because of the incredibly cathartic way that the singer connects with her lyrics, pouring her heart into her kinetic “state of emergency.” The Icelandic legend has described the song as akin to a national anthem and is dedicated to her best friend, Jóga Johannsdóttir — quite the honor, considering the explosive, enchanting power of the tune. While the Homogenic centerpiece feels ahead of its time, the epic poetic lyrics, chilly strings, and resonant emotion burn with a primal energy as instinctive and grand as Iceland itself. –Lior Phillips

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radiohead ok computer Top 50 Songs of 199731. Radiohead – “Let Down”

OK Computer


For the most part, OK Computer finds Radiohead awaiting the coming millennium, as well as the existential fog which accompanies it, with pre-emptive shudders. These are expressed both lyrically (“Paranoid Android”‘s fever-dream soothsaying) and compositionally (the minor-key funeral marches of “Karma Police” and “Exit Music (For a Film)”). “Let Down” is the eye of the band’s apocalyptic storm: a latter-day carol so hypnotic and swaddling, Yorke’s dreadful imagery (dead bugs, alcoholics, suburban zombies) scan as the trappings of paradise. Its bridge is a swirling, jangle-pop crescendo that culminates in one of Yorke’s career-defining vocal performances, a devastating one-man chorus, whirling in the void. –Zoe Camp

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