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Meredith Brooks’ strumming and stomping across MTV provided one of the past 12 pop months’ most unfortunately representative images. Nodding her head imperiously, staring the camera down, fully certain in her delivery of “Bitch”‘s message—I am woman, hear me roar, laugh, cry—she immediately flattened any claim to her own complexity into one big, smug pancake.

Although little if anything was as insufferable as Brooks’ monthslong moment in the spotlight, rock audiences had to deal with other bothersome manifestations of what Greil Marcus once called “the old progressive school fallacy that says if what you write is about your own feelings, no one can criticize it.” From Perry Farrell hopping back onto the Jane’s Addiction gravy train with an inane song about his cat to Jewel mooning and spooning her way to 7 million album shipments, 1997 was enough to make you at least question your belief in self-expression.

More than most, this was a year for small, personal pleasures, whatever they were. Rock—and lots of other genres—on the radio grew so stultifying that it was hard to find something to listen to during a five-minute drive to the grocery store. While I found plenty to hold on to, from indie-rock inventiveness by Pavement and Cornershop to enticing Cuban and Brazilian sides and the major-label re-release of DJ Kool’s bottle of caffeine tablets disguised as an album, I also spent plenty of time with old stuff: Dramarama, Zeppelin, the Spinners.

But who doesn’t hate critical carping about subpar Years in Music? So we didn’t get lots of Live Through Thises and Buhloone Mindstates; history should have taught us by now that something great, even life-affirming, is just around the corner. And, as noted above, there were plenty of fine things to be heard, with disagreement on just what they were being a reason for hope (I think—when Noel Gallagher starts voicing doubts about his own work, as he did a couple of weeks ago regarding Be Here Now, objective reality itself may be out the window).

Many observers griped about consultant-driven radio hits by the likes of the Verve Pipe, Matchbox 20, and Third Eye Blind. While the first two had nothing to offer but Live knockoffs, the latter actually put together something interesting, if not as epochal as “C’mon ride the train,” for Top 5-level overconsumption. The “doot doo doo” chorus of “Semi-Charmed Life,” linked to a slurred lyric about speed addiction, made a pretty good excuse for itself as a subversive single.

Better still, especially with Sarah McLachlan’s vision of the female

singer-songwriter dominating media accounts—Lilith Fair’s roster improved considerably with the late-fall addition of Portsmouth, Va.-bred rap goddess Missy Elliot and the gold-selling (yay!) Luscious Jackson—there was Björk. Depending on who tells it, last winter’s Telegram either successfully reinvented or ruined most of the songs from its predecessor, but if you didn’t care for it, she quickly followed with the pained Homogenic, one of the year’s biggest electronic/organic scores. This Icelandic world citizen laid her weirdness down so surely that it took on an aspect of moral authority Meredith Brooks would smash her acoustic guitar for.

At least McLachlan figured out a way to draw in ticket buyers; the HORDE tour, formerly the province of jam bands and the occasional country-rocker, went out with a wider-ranging bill and failed financially. That too many crowds, from ravers to old Replacements fans, wanted to be coddled in their tight little choices, wasn’t a surprise, but it did kind of…well, suck. That some of the best records of the wildly inconsistent techno—er, electronica—scene (Chemical Brothers, Daft Punk, both of whom made great videos, too) racked up major numbers was another sign that someone was willing to be challenged. Even if it was by the lame Prodigy, who stepped into the void left by the lack of a new Nine Inch Nails disc.

And what of Puffy? By year’s end, Sean Combs was such a presence that the uber-Caucasoid sitcom Frasier was dropping his name in a joke. At this late date, there’s not a lot left to be said about the Puffster’s (over?)reliance on sampling past hits, his lack of skills on both the mike and his feet, and, oh yeah, that guy Biggie. But “Mo Money Mo Problems” put “I’m Coming Out” to incredibly loosey-goosey use, and Puff’s “Roxanne” remix is a hoot that I fervently trust will scandalize anyone who gets the new Sting/Police best-of for Christmas.

The meeting of tradition and technology wasn’t solely Puff Daddy’s game board, of course. Beck continued to dominate more than just rock writers’ imaginations until he finally took his show off the road a few months ago; his one-off contribution to the A Life Less Ordinary soundtrack shows that ideas just keep popping out of his head. Soldering a backwoods vision to some computers, A3 made a better U2 than U2 did. And on his gratifyingly best-selling Time Out of Mind, Bob Dylan proved something about the old trick of using state-of-the-art machines to make a record that sounds as if it crawled from a hole.

Also a happy achievement, and not exactly a trick, was Patty Loveless’ figuring out how to get George Jones back on the radio—a bigger accomplishment than those of her Music City peers who name him in their songs or of the alt-country types who think that owning a copy of “White Lightning” makes them “authentic.” By making her “You Don’t Seem to Miss Me” everything but an outright duet with the master, Loveless offset her own beautiful vocal on Jim Lauderdale’s typically soulful, elastically melodic piece of writing and made the kind of sound that itself could be the reason that pronouncements on the ill health of the music have been oddly muted at the end of this admittedly weak year. One record isn’t going to make or break a season, but it sure can make you feel a lot better.CP