20 tracks that prove 1997 was the best year ever for house

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.

#20 Moodymann – ‘Sunday Morning’

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.

#19 Wamdue Project – ‘King of My Castle’ (Original Mix)

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.

#18 Maurizio – M7

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.

#17 Glenn Underground – 70’s Trip

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.

#16 J Dahlbäck – ‘What Is the Time, Mr Templar?’

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.

sneak again

#15 DJ Sneak – ‘Symphonic Nights’

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.

#14 Hot Lizard – ‘165… Drop’ (Love From San Francisco Mix)

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.

#13 Carl Craig – ‘Butterfly’

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.

#12 Jephté Guillaume feat. Daniel & Marjorie Beaubrun – ‘The Prayer’

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.

#11 K. Hand – ‘Project 5’

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.

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