Pop music tends to evolve slowly, gradually swaying from one trend to the next without sharp turns or dramatic spikes. Some years, though, you can listen to the radio and really feel the ground shifting, if not outright quaking, beneath your feet. 1997 was one of those years.
The first half of the ’90s was largely defined by the fallout from the grunge explosion of Nirvana and Pearl Jam and the rise of West Coast hip-hop, as shepherded by Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg. As late as ’96, alt-rock and G-funk still held serve as the dominant sounds of the moment. But by ’97, most of the leading lights for both genres had either faded, gone on hiatus or left the game altogether, creating a void at the mainstream’s center that badly needed filling.
What came along to fill it was the return of mega-pop: Massive, barnstorming, top 40-geared breakouts from groups like Spice Girls, Hanson and Backstreet Boys — artists that bore some of the sonic signifiers of decade’s beginning, but lacked any connection to the angst of grunge or the edge of G-funk. In hip-hop, the Bad Boy empire was springboarded to the top of the food chain, as label head Sean “Puffy” Combs was reborn as Puff Daddy, and quickly became the best-selling rapper in the universe thanks to a series of gigantic, top 40-recycling pop-rap smashes for himself and his labelmates.
Within a year or two, post-grunge had been replaced by nu-metal and pop-punk on alternative radio, West Coast had almost totally given way to East Coast in the hip-hop mainstream, and pop’s center was dictated daily by teen-pop soothsayer Carson Daly on Total Request Live. But while the core of top 40 was fundamentally evolving in ’97, a lot of other weird stuff was going on, from the rise of nu-soul and crossover country to the last gasps of trip-hop and hi-NRG dance. And of course, there were one-hit wonders: plenty of dance-pop novelty smashes, international flukes and alt-rock parting shots to give the year character.
Here are Billboard‘s 100 favorite pop songs — capping it at one song per lead artist, and broadly defining “pop” as music that either was played on top 40 at the time or could conceivably have been — from one of the most pivotal years in the genre’s history.
(Word of warning: To make our list more authentic to the experience of living through 1997 pop, we counted songs as eligible if they peaked on the Billboard Hot 100 — or if they were disqualified from the Hot 100, but peaked on our Radio Songs chart — within the 1997 calendar year. That means that some songs that came out earlier but crested in ’97 are here, but many songs that came out in ’97 but hit their mass-culture moment later on aren’t. So apologies, “My Heart Will Go On,” “Torn,” “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” “Make ‘Em Say Ugh” and many more — see you all in ’98.)
3. Hanson, “MMMBop” (No. 1, Hot 100)
Despite literally being a band of boys, Hanson weren’t actually a boy band in the traditional sense — musically and structurally, they had more in common with Blues Traveler and the Spin Doctors than New Kids on the Block or Take That — but they did signal to anyone paying attention that the world might be ready for another round of ’em. “MMMBop” was alt-rock in construction but pure pop in impact, with a non-verbal chorus that stands as one of the most iconic of the entire decade, and an irrepressibly positive energy that disguised the fact that the song was three teens singing about the ephemeral nature of life and the inevitability of death. The debut single set the brothers Hanson up for both meteoric success and an extended post-phenom career, and it never stops being a jaw-dropping achievement: a perfect pop song that simultaneously marvels at the world’s wondrousness and sighs about how none of it lasts forever.