Let me start this tribute to the glories of 1997 by talking about a relatively obscure record I first heard in 2013.
That year the name Casey Tucker was suddenly everywhere in my circle of house and techno heads and crate diggers. When I first heard his stuff, I thought it was another new take on that mid-’90s deep-techno sound – in this case an eerily authentic one. Turns out the UK-based Tucker had been around since the actual ’90s, mostly under the radar. The scintillating and gorgeous track I was hearing, ‘Terraform‘, was truly vintage: from a reissue of a rare and highly sought-after EP from back then.
And when I looked it up and saw the release date of the EP, Accumulated Knowledge, I laughed out loud. Of course it was from 1997! Because that year was magic. Everything was amazing then, everything was on fire in house and techno on both sides of the Atlantic.
And now that we’ve reached the 20-year mark, it’s time to just come out and say that 1997 was the best year for house music. And I’ve got 20 tracks that prove it. (Note: I’m excluding the old school, 1985-1991. That epoch is too primal and special to compare to anything else. In other words I’m arguing that 1997 was the greatest year in the modern period of house, which began around 1992 and is still going.)
Narrowing this list down to 20 was near impossible. In just a few minutes I came up with almost 60 tracks – each one a stone classic, all sounding as fresh as the day they dropped – and I was still going.
“In those days, the musical palette of house had expanded greatly, as it incorporated influences from jazz, techno and drum & bass”
Beyond the sheer quality, there was a particular feel to the music from that time. A particular lushness and adventurism that characterised the transition period between the classic era and the millennial wave of new technology and new styles. In those days, the musical palette of house had expanded greatly, as it incorporated influences from jazz, techno and drum & bass, but the excitement of the old school was still in the air.
Everything was working that year. Classic New York house and garage, led by producers like Masters at Work, still ruled, but the new style of more organic and live and jazzy house was exploding too. Detroit techno was in the midst of its classic Second Wave, and a huge influence on house via producers like Carl Craig. The new school of Chicago house, marked by a fusion with funk and disco, was peaking. UK house was in a golden age. French house, soon to sweep the world with Daft Punk in the vanguard, was just beginning to sweep the world. It was a time of overlap, layer upon layer of many genres and movements all at their peak or early peak.
As with all such lists, there were plenty of hard choices and compromises to be made. In the end this isn’t meant to be the final word, but a broad-ranging portrait of an era – a very special era that produced so much timeless, spellbinding and still-relevant music. The hope is that this list will inspire a lot of debate and digging amongst househeads old and young.
Kenny Dixon Jr. singlehandedly kickstarted a new wave of raw, organic, funky Detroit house on his own KDJ label with tracks like ‘I Can’t Kick This Feeling When It Hits‘.
In 1997 his debut album, Silentintroduction, dropped on his Motor City brother Carl Craig’s Planet E imprint and was received as an instant classic. Much like a hip-hop album or Spike Lee film from the same era, it’s a sweeping portrait of life in black America; unlike a lot of other club music, it’s intensely political too.
“Unlike a lot of other club music, it’s intensely political”
‘Sunday Morning’ is the album’s heart and soul, a meandering tribute to African American spirituality that combines sampled ’80s electro-boogie beats with live jazz and cinematic atmosphere.
Atlanta’s Chris Brann vaulted to the forefront of the Stateside scene in the late ’90s with his distinctive brand of lush, moody deep house, recording under a number of different names including Wamdue Kids and Ananda Project.
‘King of My Castle’ is Brann at his best, with celestial strings, worthy of some of the more adventurous techno or drum & bass of the day, offset by a stomping midtempo boogie swing and ethereal vocals. The track was rereleased in 1999 and became a huge hit thanks to a vastly inferior remix that for some reason has two videos, one made up of footage from Ghost In The Shell.
Some readers might complain, “But this is dub techno, not house.” I’m including it because the dark pulsating hypnotic sound of dub had a big impact on house in this era, blurring the boundaries between the two and midwifing a new subgenre, tech-house (for better and worse).
The exemplary M series from Maurizio, one of the aliases of Berlin’s Moritz von Oswald and Mark Ernestus, was prominent in the crates of many a house selector. I remember being in New York’s iconic Dance Tracks shop one afternoon in the summer of ’97 when Body & Soul’s Francois K. was going through a stack of new vinyl. When he put on M7 and pumped up its chugging bass, he broke into a big smile: “That’s dirty music!”
Later Francois founded New York’s influential Deep Space weekly, specially dedicated to exploring the fusion of house and dub.
Glenn Underground was one of the leaders of the new school of Chicago house who combined their hometown sound with new takes on techno, disco and funk. GU was as prolific as he was amazingly consistent; it’s really hard to pick just one track from his jaw-dropping output in ’97.
Runners-up include ‘House of Blues‘, with its gorgeous jazz guitar, released on crucial Chicago label Guidance Recordings; and ‘There Is a Time‘, his religiously themed acid trip for the UK’s legendary Peacefrog Records. But this one, for Cajmere AKA Green Velvet’s Cajual label, is especially brilliant, with its ludicrously funky, bottom-heavy disco swing and blistering instrumentation.
Jesper Dahlbäck AKA The Persuader was one of the key producers for Sweden’s Svek label, which lit up the club world in the late ’90s with a unique and very Scandinavian blend of melodic techno and deep house that was highly influential on later tech house.
This tune (actually one of four enigmatically untitled tracks from an EP that cheekily references ’60s UK spy TV series The Saint) is still so arresting, thanks to how loopy and off-kilter it is. The insidious driving rhythm, sinister bassline and unsettling synth noises add up to make this a subtle but unforgettable floor-destroyer.
In the mid-’90s, self-styled house gangster DJ Sneak led the dazzlingly talented new wave of Chicago producers along with Cajmere, Boo Williams, Paul Johnson and Glenn Underground. Sneak had one of his biggest hits in 1997 with the banger ‘You Can’t Hide from Your Bud‘ (highlighting Chicago’s influence on disco-loopy French house, which became one of the dominant sounds of the era).
But I went with this lesser-known beauty (recorded in collaboration with Roy Davis Jr.) because it shows the more melancholy, melodic side of Sneak. The gorgeous tinkling keyboard refrain leading into the powerful drop with huge thumping kick and soaring disco strings make it a quintessential house track of the era.
The UK’s Charles Webster was one of the most respected deep-house producers before and after the millennium; and this track is considered by many fans to be his finest. (The remix credit is an in-joke; Webster is both Hot Lizard and LFSF, the latter a reference to Webster’s early- ’90s days in California.)
A nearly perfect fusion of techno, deep and progressive, it gives the listener so much over its unforgettable 10 minutes: a hypnotic bassline, tough clanging Detroit- style industrial drums, ecstatic strings, a spine-tingling buildup and a wonderful breakdown marked by jazzy piano licks. Hearing David Mancuso play it at The Loft confirmed its classic status for me.
Turn it up, let it play all the way through and see what it does to you.
Carl Craig was already at the forefront of the Second Wave of Detroit Techno with his diverse repertoire that also incorporated electronica, broken-beat and jazz. His 1997 album More Songs About Food and Revolutionary Art, his fourth full-length, cemented his dominance.
As with M7, house purists may object to its inclusion here. But Craig’s emotive machine funk, like so much of the output of his Detroit brethren, is perfectly in line with the tradition of deep house. Compare this beauty, with its shivery strings, melancholy bassline and piano groove, to some of the moodier fare from Mr. Fingers.
This uniquely uplifting track by Haitian-born, Brooklyn-bred producer, singer and multi- instrumentalist Jephté Guillaume was an underground hit on both sides of the Atlantic. It helped make Body & Soul resident Joe Claussell’s Spiritual Life Music an influential label in house as well as world music.
The track’s fusion of house grooves, lush live instrumentation and Haitian vodun religious chants epitomise the eclectic vibe at Body & Soul, one of the most prominent New York weeklies of the era. Claussell’s Acroostic Mix, emphasising the jazz guitar, Haitian percussion and swooshing oceanic sound effects, is just as essential.
Indeed, Claussell would mix the two versions together into a suite during many a rapturous Sunday-evening peaktime at Body & Soul.
Detroit DJ, producer and Acacia Records boss Kelli Hand has been a highly respected purveyor of techno and funky house for almost 30 years without achieving quite the same recognition and fame as many of her peers. This was a banner year for Hand, with a number of releases on Acacia and other labels that still hold up; but ‘Project 5’ is the go-to for diggers.
It’s four untitled tracks all trade in stomping hard house with driving keyboards and stinging vocal loops. The second track on side B is an especially brilliant combination of soulful New York-style garage and that tech edge and relentless groove that are undeniably Detroit – a perfect summary of all that was great about the era.
UK producer and mad genius Matthew Herbert became a club sensation in 1996 with his experimental tracks that were somehow funkier than most others despite being made with spoons banging on dishes and other sounds recorded in his kitchen. The following year saw the first of his collaborations with San Francisco chanteuse Dani Siciliano (also his life partner).
There hadn’t been a sound quite like this before: the combination of Siciliano’s smoky, evocative vocals and Herbert’s deep and deeply weird grooves was like a cool breeze in an industry riddled with clichés. Among other things it helped make the world safe for adventurous fusions of dance and indie in the next decade.
One of the best things about 1997 was Larry Heard’s comeback. The Chicago legend, who pioneered deep house in the mid-’80s as Mr. Fingers, had never really gone away, but in ’97 he returned to the vanguard with several important releases.
“One of the best things about 1997 was Larry Heard’s comeback”
This track was recorded for and named for upstart Chicago label Guidance Recordings, which was quite suddenly a major innovative force. It ties together everything brilliant about Heard’s latter-day output. Rather than relying on the classic sounds that made him an icon, it’s forward-thinking, with a subtle techno edge that’s a wonderful contrast to Heard’s lovely and distinctive keyboard work.
As the subtitle suggests it’s “Calm” enough to be soothing home listening; but in a club setting it’s powerfully bassy and propulsive.
This is such a terrific tune because it demonstrates that house in this era was not only chock-a- block with soul but also fun as hell.
With its infectious melodies, rolling pianos and former Ten City lead singer Byron Stingily’s soaring falsetto calling the dancefloor to arms while the backup singers are movin’ movin’ slidin’ slidin’, it’s a party anthem worthy of the best funk and disco from the ’70s.
UK duo Mark Pritchard and Tom Middleton were amongst the most accomplished producers of the time. Under numerous monikers, also including the Jedi Knights and The Chameleon, they had highly regarded releases across genres from house to ambient to drum & bass.
Then they unleashed a series of uniquely expansive, game-changing deep-house tracks; ‘The Way’ in particular blew minds back then and still does. Beginning with a looping bassline and vocal snippet from Dexter Wansel’s 1979 classic ‘The Sweetest Pain‘ – the first two minutes alone have more going on than a dozen lesser tracks – it keeps building and building and building.
You wouldn’t mind if it went for another hour – it’s more like a DJ mix than a track.
“Little” Louie Vega and Kenny “Dope” Gonzales certainly lived up to being called Masters at Work. In 1997 they went into the studio under their NuYorican Soul alias with a slew of superstar collaborators including Roy Ayers, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Tito Puente and George Benson, and came out with a masterpiece, their self-titled debut album.
A tribute to decades of New York Latin jazz, soul and funk, the LP is filled with highlights, but this anthem featuring Jocelyn Brown became a standard on dancefloors throughout the era. With its live drumming, luscious piano and ecstatically cascading choruses, it straddles house, broken-beat, garage and soul in timeless fashion.
Daft Punk’s deubt album, Homework, dropped in January of 1997 and we haven’t looked back. You could write a book about what this album has meant to electronic music in the 20 years since. ‘Around the World’ might have been a more obvious choice, and entirely worthy; but ‘Revolution 909’ is Daft Punk’s house manifesto.
“Daft Punk’s deubt album, Homework, dropped in January of 1997 and we haven’t looked back”
Only a few elements make it up: a rough techno-style kick, liquid disco bassline, crystalline high-hats, a subtle “Go! Go!” chant, DP’s expert use of the filters that were later a cliché in French house. It’s all exquisitely balanced and such an infectious dancefloor experience.
Even the title is perfect, with overlapping references to the Beatles, the classic drum machine and the social upheaval of rave and youth culture. Revolutionary indeed.
Chicago veteran Roy Davis, Jr., who got his start with acid-house pioneers Phuture, was very busy in 1997 with a number of standout releases. But this collaboration with vocalist, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Peven Everett became an instant classic and a seminal work in a number of genres including deep house and two-step.
In a scene dominated by bottom-heavy, vocal-saturated garage, it was such a refreshingly light, sparse and jazzy sound with its broken- beat swing and hypnotic trumpet riffs. Everett’s lyrics draw a connection between biblical archangels and modern dance music, lending the tune an enduring mystical feel.
Fresh & Low was a Scottish production trio made up of Julian Dembinski, David Robertson and Calum Walker who released quality tunes on many labels throughout the late ’90s.
Out of all their discography this one is widely considered the bomb. It has one of the best buildups of any house track ever, taking its sweet time as it only slowly layers different rhythmic elements, strings, synths and vocal stabs into a hypnotic brew.
More than halfway through, like the sun breaking through clouds, comes a chord change that’s exquisitely subtle and thrilling, as the track evolves from dubby and deep into something warmer and jazzier. The unique perfection of this track makes it just as sought after by DJs and just as incendiary on dancefloors today as it ever was.
Voices was an unusual project, a one-off collaboration between five vocalists, including house diva Sabrynaah Pope and well-known gospel and R&B singer Michelle Weeks. New York house masters Kings of Tomorrow – you know them from their 2001 hit ‘Finally’ – did an uncredited remix; it was released as a much-sought- after bootleg and became an instant classic.
It’s absolute fire, with an unstoppable groove and a loose structure, based on traditional gospel, in which the five take turns unleashing devastating improvised vocals about overcoming darkness and reaching for light. There was nothing like hearing it played by Francois K. or Danny Krivit on the massive sound system at Vinyl on Sunday evening at a packed, sweaty, ecstatic Body & Soul.
It’s fitting that such an epochal year was highlighted by such a definitive house track – so definitive it’s simply called ‘House Music’. It deserves such quintessential billing; it’s the kind of track that’s only meant for a peaktime dancefloor and to explicitly remind the heads why they’re there – a call to arms as it were.
Over a fierce track that features bruising drums, scorching keyboards and eerie high-pitched strings, a spoken word intones, “Not everyone understands house music. It’s a spiritual thing, a body thing, a soul thing.” ’Nuff said.
Jim Poe is a writer, DJ, and editor based in Sydney. He tweets from @fivegrand1.