Best albums of 1997: #1 Spiritualized “Ladies and gentlemen we are floating in space”

Remember when I said a couple of weeks ago that there was another good reason I saw Radiohead live (and that I would get to that later)? Well, this band and this album is that other reason. I had seen Spiritualized perform at a small club a few months earlier on the same tour for this album and when I heard they were opening for Radiohead, I was sold.

In my opinion, “Ladies and gentlemen we are floating in space” is one of the greatest breakup albums of all time. And though Pierce denies it, saying that most of the record was written before his breakup with Kate Radley, it has since come out that she had secretly married Richard Ashcroft in 1995. Yeah. So if you haven’t put two and two together yet, two of the best albums of 1997 (obviously, my two favourites) were directly or indirectly inspired by one woman: Kate Radley. I’ll just leave that there.

This album was lauded at the time and continues to be appreciated today. Much has been written, especially last year when celebrating its 20th anniversary, about how it is considered frontman and driving force, Jason Pierce’s masterpiece. Even he must’ve known it at the time. It was recorded relatively quickly but the production took several months, as if he knew he had to get it just right. The album is almost a symphony in its scope. The four main band members at the time (still including Kate Radley) were joined by contributions from string quartets, horn sections, gospel choirs, and even virtuoso session pianist, Dr. John. It has been performed live in full a number of times over the years, where Pierce manages to amass a massive cast of musicians on stage to recreate the album’s gigantic sound. Otherwise, plenty of electronic trickery is required.

But beneath all the madness and sounds on the album is Jason Pierce and his struggles. The emotion and insanity he imbues into the music reflects his perceived state of mind. He mixes metaphors and imagery, juggling drug addiction, religion, love, and love lost. A friend of mine from university once said to me that whenever she saw him perform live, or even just listened to this album, she just wanted to give Pierce a big hug and not let go. Indeed, for all the boldness of his compositions, he sounds so fragile when singing, like a strong gust of wind might take him down at a moment’s notice.

Yeah, so what is “Ladies and gentlemen, we are floating in space”? It is space rock, shoegaze, ambient, psychedelic rock, free jazz, and gospel, all packaged together in one album. It may sound scattered on paper but it works. And I’ll tell you, the two times I saw the band perform live on tour for this album, they were truly religious type experiences.

It just so happens that my three picks for you are the first three tracks on the album, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the album pales. Far from it. But these are as good a starting point as any. Enjoy.


“Come together”: It’s a droning beast. Heavy handed bass is relentless and the drums crash. Then come the wailing guitars and the crushing and ominous organs, flashes of horns, and a gospel choir somehow makes a jubilant appearance. Yes. All this happens in one song. It’s a chaotic cacophony but as ringmaster and orchestrator, Jason Pierce keeps it all together. It’s a perfect sample of this album, the structure, the sanity just seemingly on the verge of crumbling away. It’s a great tune for earphones because if you turned it up as loudly as you wanted without them, the neighbours would be complaining. Or not. I wouldn’t, if I was that neighbour.

“Ladies and gentlemen we are floating in space”:  The title track opens the album with the aforementioned Kate Radley saying the album’s title on the phone, presumably on an answering machine. There was a lot of conjecture and rumour about whether or not this was a real message left for Pierce but I think that would have been too much really. The song itself is a beauty. Lush strings play with Quindar tones while Pierce sings different lines and melodies in round. It sounds space age and classical (specifically, Pachelbel’s Canon) at the same time. Original versions had Pierce merging in parts of Elvis Presley’s “I can’t help falling in love with you” but they were taken out at the behest of Presley’s estate, though he usually adds them back in when performed live. Either way, it doesn’t get much more heart rending than this.

“I think I’m in love”: I don’t know how true it is but I’ve heard the only reason Jason Pierce let The Chemical Brothers remix this track was to somehow prove to them that the perfectly timed drum beat that wends through the song’s back end was recorded live, not by a machine. And while it is remarkable, that rhythm is only one piece of this fantastic masterpiece. Its eight minutes is divided in two parts or movements. The first is blissed out psychedelia: bass, washes, harmonicas, all floating in the ether with Pierce’s drugged up vocals. After about three minutes of this, the drums kick in and everything comes alive. Pierce’s vocals become a call and response, by turns, optimistic and cynical. “I think I can fly. Probably just falling.” So awesome. So sad. So brilliant.


In case you missed them, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. Cornershop “When I was born for the 7th time”
9. The Dandy Warhols “The Dandy Warhols come down”
8. Teenage Fanclub “Songs from Northern Britain”
7. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones “Let’s face it”
6. Ocean Colour Scene “Marchin’ already”
5. Blur “Blur”
4. James “Whiplash”
3. Radiohead “OK computer”
2. The Verve “Urban hymns”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.

Best albums of 1997: #2 The Verve “Urban hymns”

The Verve is one of the few bands that I truly regret not seeing live and I’m pretty sure my wife Victoria would join me in those sentiments. And this is how it played out.

If you’ve been following my list of my favourite tunes of 1991, you would know that one of my pastimes in the early nineties was recording alternative music videos to videocassette tapes off of MuchMusic’s “CityLimits”. I discovered a lot of music in this way, including The Verve’s early single, “Slide away”, except in the case of this song, I didn’t get around to exploring the rest of their material. I duly forgot about the band until the fall of 1997 when I first heard the single, “Bittersweet symphony” while dancing at York University’s largest pub and its infamous alternative pub night, “Timebomb Thursdays”. Suddenly, the song was being playing on Edge 102 and every week at the aforementioned pub night. I distinctly remember standing in line for a Charlatans UK concert near the end of September with Victoria and being handed a leaflet for the new album by The Verve and Victoria asking me about it. By the time we were hooked on the album, their Remembrance Day show at the Phoenix in Toronto was long sold out and then, when they returned the following year, it was in Hamilton! We were pretty jazzed when we heard they were reforming in 2007 but the tour swing through Toronto came mid-week, which made the trip from Ottawa a bit difficult to maneuver. So unless we see a fourth reformation of the band, Victoria and I will have to be happy with the Richard Ashcroft solo slot we caught, opening for Coldplay, a great set that was nothing at all to complain about.

But enough whining, I’m supposed to be praising “Urban hymns”, right? Ok, let me try.

The songs written for “Urban hymns” were meant to be for frontman, Richard Ashcroft’s debut solo album, after the band had dissolved following their second album. During the sessions, he began working with the various members of his old band and realized that he would need Nick McCabe’s guitars to truly realize his vision for the sound of the album. So The Verve was reformed and we are all truly thankful.

According to my wife Victoria, there are very few albums that she can listen to from beginning to end and not only not want to skip a track, but actually love pretty much the whole thing. “Urban hymns” is, for her, one of those albums and on that, we are agreed. I think we may even have the same favourite songs (but perhaps she might have subbed in “Sonnet” for “Lucky man” in the three songs below). It is a long album that doesn’t feel very long. One song leads quite logically and emotionally into the next. It is a big album with enormous sound, each song epic in scope and passion. It is real and honest but because McCabe was involved, holding Ashcroft back a bit, it doesn’t teeter into sappy and navel-gazing territory. It is a guitar rock album that lives in its own universe, nothing else can touch it, the sound is atmospheric and full and layered like a Russian doll.

Is it better than Radiohead’s “OK computer”? I am sure that is debatable either way. I personally think so but admittedly, it may be be nudged slightly ahead due to all the memories I have invested in it. But hey, have a listen to my three picks for you below and let me know your thoughts.


“The drugs don’t work”: “All this talk of getting old. It’s getting me down my love. Like a cat in a bag, waiting to drown, this time I’m comin’ down.” Such a beautiful song. Acoustic guitars and gentle string arrangements that build to a bombastic, full band accompaniment to Ashcroft’s ruminations on his life and his drug addiction. This track always reminds me of the earliest days of my relationship with my wife. But before you get any ideas, it’s not because either of us were heroin addicts. “Urban hymns” was released at the tail end of our first year ‘together’. Victoria and I both fell in love with the album and listened to it incessantly when we convened to my bedroom to get away from my roommates. The lyrics of the song spoke to us, especially those about being “better off dead” if “you leave my life” and singing “in your ear again”. So yeah, this song reminds me of being young and in love and singing softly to the lyrics in that tiny bedroom, lit only by a candle.

“Lucky man”: “Happiness, more or less. It’s just a change in me, something in my liberty.” This track is probably one of the most uplifting on the album but as evinced in the preceding quote, even that is tempered. The lyrics suggest contentment of a sort and with the benefit of hindsight, we know that there is a hint at Ashcroft’s battles with depression and also, that he was newly in the throes of early love. When Victoria and I saw him perform solo a number of years ago, Ashcroft performed this track and his preamble was a dedication to his wife Kate Radley, who he said, made him feel like the luckiest man every day. But even before I knew any of this or did any of my own deconstruction, this was one of my favourite tracks from the start. There’s plenty of whirling guitars and effects, layered over the simple guitar strum and drum beat, then the strings come in and the heavens open up for us to witness all the glory possible. It is utter brilliance and beauty.

“Bittersweet symphony”: “Cause it’s a bittersweet symphony this life. Trying to make ends meet, you’re a slave to the money then you die.” Yeah, this song. If you don’t know any other track on “Urban hymns”, you definitely know this one. Much has been made about how popular his track is and how it didn’t make the band any money due to the legal question of its use of the string sample. There have also been words written to the effect that this is the song that broke up the band but the band had always been in trouble. No, this song just adds a bit of tragedy to the story because of how brilliant it is. And yes, I can use the word ‘beautiful’ to describe this song too (for those counting, I’ve mentioned the word for each of these songs). It stomps and dances and flits and flirts. As Victoria is always telling me, you want to close your eyes and go to that place: the music is the place. You want to march straight down the road without stopping or changing course, like Ashcroft does in the video, ignoring all around you but the song. I don’t care how many times I’ve heard it, “Bittersweet symphony” is new every time, like true love, and it just has to be one of the best songs ever written and recorded.


Check back next Thursday for album #1. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. Cornershop “When I was born for the 7th time”
9. The Dandy Warhols “The Dandy Warhols come down”
8. Teenage Fanclub “Songs from Northern Britain”
7. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones “Let’s face it”
6. Ocean Colour Scene “Marchin’ already”
5. Blur “Blur”
4. James “Whiplash”
3. Radiohead “OK computer”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.

Best albums of 1997: #3 Radiohead “OK computer”

I’m sure for many others out there, Radiohead’s “OK computer” would be the clear cut number one album on their lists for 1997 and in any other year, it would’ve been for me too. And it was super close, my top three albums for 1997 are amongst my favourite ever, the distance separating them is minute. I knew immediately when I started putting together this list (for the rest so far, scroll to the bottom of this post) that these were easily the top three but ordering was not so much as simple. In the end, I went with the amount of time I figured each spent in my CD player over the years and how often each still gets put on my turntable platter these days.

I saw Radiohead live for the first and only time in 1998 for the tour in support of “OK computer” and it also happened to be the first and only time I saw a concert at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens. It was my friend Terry that convinced me to go. He was a huge fan of the band. He was convincing in his praises of their live show but there was another reason that helped my decision along that I will get to later on. Anyway, I was very glad that I had procured a ticket for that Easter Sunday because Ed O’Brien, Philip Selway, Colin and Jonny Greenwood, and Thom Yorke did indeed put on a magnificent show. Their huge sound filled the famed hockey arena, a worry I had, given that it was likely the largest show I had seen to date. The energy and euphoria carried on afterwards and infused every time I listened to the album thereafter and I remember that night.

For me, “OK computer” is Radiohead at their pinnacle. Many others may argue this point but I feel like the band lost a little something after this album. I definitely wouldn’t have wanted them to go into the studio for the next album and record another one just like this but “Kid A” and the albums that followed took them further and further from the band I loved. I still enjoy them but by comparison, I still get wistful when listening to their newer material.

“OK computer” might have been the band’s reaction to 1995’s “The bends” but it still carried along in a similar vein. It was guitar rock that flirted with experimental sounds to just the right degree and effect. The songs had structure still, though they were loose and sprawling. And despite the band not calling it a concept album, it all feels cohesive, a complete unit, rather than singles to be taken separately. So I’d love to present all twelve songs below for your enjoyment but if I’m to stick to my own rules, I have to limit myself to picking the three below.


“No surprises”: “A heart that’s full up like a landfill. A job that slowly kills you. Bruises that won’t heal. You look so tired, unhappy.” Cheery thoughts, no? It’s funny that when Radiohead set out to record the follow up to “The bends”, they did so with the determination that it would be a more upbeat sounding record than its predecessor. I suppose this mission was accomplished but it did nothing for the bleakness of the lyrical content. “No surprises” is not a prime of example of the upbeat sound, instead it’s slow, plodding, and dreamlike. This sound was created by the band playing the acoustic and chiming electric guitars and glockenspiel at a higher speed and then dubbed at a slower speed with the vocals. I love how it sounds like a lullaby at the beginning and it seems to build as Yorke seems to get more and more menacing.

“Paranoid android”:  “Ambition makes you look pretty ugly, kicking, squealing Gucci little piggy.” It was a weird choice for a lead single, another example of a decision that shouldn’t have worked for Radiohead but did. At six and a half minutes, it’s one of the longest, if not the longest, of Radiohead’s studio recordings. It was influenced by The Beatles, The Pixies, and Queen in that it has four distinct movements, a result of it being multiple unfinished song fragments fused together. The band originally saw it as this funny joke, which it why it was named after a character from “Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy”, but nobody’s laughing now. This here is the imprint for what the band would become. It’s risky and convoluted but really, quite the masterpiece.

“Karma police”:  “Karma police, arrest this man. He talks in maths. He buzzes like a fridge. He’s like a detuned radio.” Here’s another song that started off as an in-joke within the band, constantly ribbing each about calling the “karma police” on each other while on tour. It’s also another song that doesn’t end the way it starts. Halfway through, the pace and energy change completely, from a haunting, threatening dirge to outright rocking mania. For me, this is Radiohead at their best. A band at the crossroads between rock and roll and art house experimentation, taking a step in each direction while walking in place. The effects are beautiful and frightening. It’s a song worth exploring over and over again for hearing something new and at the same time, one that you can shut off your mind to and just close your eyes to everything. Not bad at all for a hit song that received oh so much airplay everywhere.


Check back next Thursday for album #2. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. Cornershop “When I was born for the 7th time”
9. The Dandy Warhols “The Dandy Warhols come down”
8. Teenage Fanclub “Songs from Northern Britain”
7. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones “Let’s face it”
6. Ocean Colour Scene “Marchin’ already”
5. Blur “Blur”
4. James “Whiplash”

You can check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.