Why 1997 Was the Best Musical Year of the '90s

Radiohead, 1997.
Jim Steinfeldt/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Radiohead in Los Angeles, California in 1997. 

After focusing on 1994 last week, now, we're wondering what the best year for music was of the '90s. We've already made a case for 19901991199219931994 and 1995. Now it's time for 1996 and 1997.


In 1997, popular music eased the world through two crushing losses: Princess Diana and Notorious B.I.G. The two couldn’t have come from more disparate walks of life, but their eulogies dominated the same radio waves, and marked a somberly spectacular year at the tail-end of the music industry’s pre-Napster heyday.

Released less than three months after Biggie was gunned down in Los Angeles, Diddy (then Puff Daddy) and Faith Evans’ Police-sampling “I’ll Be Missing You” hit No. 1 on June 14 and stayed atop the Hot 100 for 10 more weeks. Biggie’s legacy lived on in more ways than one: only a handful of true hip-hop tracks had topped the Hot 100 before, and as we all know, an absolute deluge followed, including the posthumous No. 1 “Mo Money Mo Problems” (which joined Biggie’s chart-topping “Hypnotize” from earlier in the year). Much of the hip-hop canon had already been written by 1997, but these were the days when outsiders — pop-first fans who stuck to the Top 40 — started accepting the genre’s staying power as a mainstream force.

And then there’s Elton John and his Princess Di tribute. Top 40 again tapped into the international news cycle when Elton repurposed some lines from his 1973 hit “Candle in the Wind” and switched its subject from Marilyn Monroe to the fallen princess. The somber ballad topped the Hot 100 for 1997’s final 12 weeks.

The Titanic soundtrack was also released that November, bringing a tale of tragedy to the albums chart for months to come. But 1997 wasn’t entirely about the tearjerkers. Hanson hit No. 1 that fall with a Jackson 5-evoking debut single, “MMMBop,” that hinted at a sparkling, parent-approved career to come, and never really did. Two other boy bands — ’N Sync and the Backstreet Boys — truly broke out in America in 1997 and began their TRL reign. And on the girl group front, the Spice Girls delivered their sophomore smash Spiceworld (a more worldly effort than their 1996 debut Spice, some might say), which featured hits like “Spice Up Your Life” and brought the U.K. quintet even more international stardom.

Finally, ’97 was a year of change in alternative. Grunge’s coolness had eroded since the early 90s (enter Marcy Playground and Third Eye Blind!) and across the pond, Britpop was starting to wane as well. On a positive note, Radiohead changed the game entirely with OK Computer, and the electronic front saw Daft Punk and the Chemical Brothers both release standout albums. And what ties it altogether? Many of 1997’s biggest hits would soon be compiled on America’s first ever Now That’s What I Call Music! compilation, which followed Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” on its track listing with Radiohead’s “Karma Police.” You better believe today’s poptimists were paying attention.