Welcome to The 50, a Rhapsody scheme in which we attempt to compile the biggest, best, most historically remarkable songs of every year. Our list of 50 tracks -- presented here in no particular order, ideally flowing like a time-traveling DJ set -- has been argued over and (grudgingly) agreed upon by our full editorial staff. Please enjoy.
Who can even remember 1997? It was only 16 years ago, but by some weird trick of perspective, it might have happened in another lifetime. Bill Clinton was just starting his second term, the Internet was just beginning to boom and the economy looked rosy. (Not only did we still have Cash, Jobs and Hope, but Johnny Cash had just delivered Unchained, the second of his American Recording albums with Rick Rubin.)
The year in music could probably be summed up in one title: "How Bizarre." Not that OMC's Billboard-topping song necessarily defined the sound of '97, but there sure were a lot of hits that seemed to come out of nowhere, from Aqua's campy "Barbie Girl" to Chumbawamba's jock jam for the ages, "Tubthumping."
Half a decade past grunge's peak, rock music had gotten cozy, if not complacent, with bands like Foo Fighters, Matchbox Twenty, Third Eye Blind and The Wallflowers serving up modern-rock comfort food. There was turmoil under the surface, if you knew where to look: Sleater-Kinney did a great job of tapping into the pre-millennium tension, but indie groups like Yo La Tengo and Spiritualized were more representative of the Alternative Nation's newfound kinder, gentler vibe.
Electronic music was just starting to shake things up, of course. While underground dance music found itself at an uncharacteristically unfocused moment – Carl Craig's masterful More Songs About Food and Revolutionary Art being one notable exception -- acts with their eyes on the big tent, like The Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy and Daft Punk, were setting the stage for EDM's stateside ascent over the next decade and a half.
But the real action that year was in hip-hop and R&B. 2Pac was already gone, and The Notorious B.I.G. was gone by March, but their songs ruled speakers all year long, and their absence rippled through the culture in the form of songs like Diddy's Biggie tribute "I'll Be Missing You." The Wu-Tang Clan held it down for classic boom-bap, but there were new styles on the horizon too, as Missy Elliott and Busta Rhymes injected jittery future-funk into the pop mainstream, and Kool Keith's Dr. Octagon took rap fans and indie kids alike to a planet they never knew existed. In R&B, meanwhile, a wide-open sense of possibility gave us neo-soul classics (Erykah Badu's "On & On"), nimble crossovers (Janet Jackson's "Got 'Til It's Gone"), and good old-fashioned bedroom jams (Usher's "You Make Me Wanna …," R. Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly," Keith Sweat's torrid "Twisted").
It was also a year when alt-culture visionaries were beginning to realize their potential as shapers of the conversation. Björk, Radiohead and Aphex Twin were hardly unknown by 1997, but all of them made significant leaps forward that year, testing their audiences and finding, to everybody's pleasant surprise, that listeners were indeed ready for something new. Maybe that's why it might be hard to fix 1997 squarely in our memories: That slightly unfamiliar scent in the air was optimism.