Grab yourself a nice cup of tea because we’re going back to the 1990s
Britpop could be said to be a concept that began with Blur’s brand of mockney Kinks revivalism and social commentary on Modern Life Is Rubbish in 1993, rose to ascendancy after grunge burned out with the death of Kurt Cobain, and died around the turn of the millennium with a raft of landfill indie bands and wannabe Smiths copyists. For the second half of this roughly a decade of British music it was already a dead movement that no one wanted to be a part of, Blur disowned it with their self-titled album in ’97 that already looked to American influences and ditched the Beatles brass, and today it doesn’t have many defenders left outside of a few key bands. But for better or worse these are the albums that shaped it and made it what it was.
(Controversially) there is no Supergrass, Charlatans, Black Grape or Boo Radleys on this list, but it does include bands from all four constituent parts of the United Kingdom. It also doesn’t include any Slowdive or My Bloody Valentine, as those bands are not Britpop but more usually included in the Shoegazing genre, which is not the same thing. It also doesn’t include the Prodigy or Screamadelica for the same or similar reasons, even though they were around at the same time. Who else is on the list? Who is left out? Read on to find out, and then shout at the wall about it or type angry comments.
10.Oasis – Definitely Maybe (1994)
There had to be some Oasis on this list, and even though I hated them at the time and still tend to leave if any of their songs ever come on a pub jukebox, some of the songwriting on their first (and best) album is clearly undeniable. Rick Beato recently featured them on his Youtube channel and tried to dissect what it was that made them just so anthemic – big choruses, and big guitars that defy the accusations of Beatles and Lennon copyism. Without Oasis – and Creation Records – there would be no Britpop.
If (follow-up) What’s The Story Morning Glory was an album about the experience of being a rock star, this debut was about what it was like dreaming about it. I personally prefer it, as it also isn’t as guilty of the kind of “brick wall” mastering (compressing everything for maximum loudness) that sadly became ubiquitous in all music after this.
KEY TRACKS: Slide Away, Live Forever
9.Radiohead – The Bends (1995)
While OK Computer might have been the most prog rock that britpop ever got, The Bends is an album that looked to American grunge while being simultaneously the most catchy and and melodic that Radiohead (the band were named for a Talking Heads song) ever got. Listen to Just – a track that doesn’t drop until over halfway into the album – and wallow in Johnny Greenwood’s guitar genius. Elsewhere, on Fake Plastic Trees he ditches the Telecaster completely and plays synth instead, something that would normally fuck up a delicate acoustic ballad, but somehow it works. Even the B-sides are excellent – all of them. Late-millenium misery was never better than this.
The band was famously memed in an episode of Father Ted, where a depressed priest decides to commit suicide after hearing a snatch of Thom Yorke’s vocals, having previously been convinced otherwise by some Isaac Hayes.
KEY TRACKS: Just, Street Spirit (Fade Out)
8.Ash – Free All Angels (2001)
Britpop might have harked back to the Beatles and Stones generation of its parents, but Northern Ireland’s Ash were clearly listening to punk rock in their garage. 1977, their debut album, dropped in ’96, but was just pipped onto this list by 2001’s Free All Angels, making it the latest-released album on the list. Britpop was already dead and buried by this point, but clearly no-one told Tim Wheeler and the boys (and girl) from Downpatrick, because Free All Angels is packed with power-pop classics and some grown-up songwriting. It was also the first (good) album that they did with second guitarist Charlotte Hatherley, who joined the band for the second album. It’s also their most varied album, which includes the Scott Walker sampling “Candy” and the massive hit Shining Light, which might be the band’s best moment if the songs Goldfinger and Girl From Mars didn’t exist.
Fun fact: The band once produced a horror film featuring members of Coldplay and The Foo Fighters, which has never been officially released.
KEY TRACKS: Shining Light, Sometimes
7.The Beautiful South – Quench (1998)
Although it isn’t strictly a Britpop album, I have included it because 1.It’s a good album that came out at the time, and 2.It doesn’t really fit anywhere else either. Singer Paul Heaton said he was “tired of that kind of music” after helping to originate the genre of socially-conscious northern indie boy music with the Housemartins in the 1980s (basically Smiths copyists, although they developed more of a soul sound that fed into what the South would do later on). When the band broke up Heaton enlisted former ‘Martins drummer Dave Rotheray as a singer and co-frontman and Irish girl singer Briana Corrigan (later replaced by Jacqui Abbot after she supposedly got tired of Heaton’s antics).
The group has a uniquely “regional” style that couldn’t really have come from anywhere but the north of England, but also takes in influences as diverse as Carlos Santana and the Reverend Al Green. Another former Housemartin, bass player Norman Cook (AKA Fatboy Slim) is listed as “rhythm consultant” on this album. I have no idea what he actually did. Jacqueline Abbot (who had replaced Corrigan by this time) has a unique set of lungs and her duets with Heaton are always on point. I always thought that this album and predecessor “Blue is The Colour” are the only things that ever really captured this odd Britpop/Northern soul sound. It’s a nice place to be.
KEY TRACKS: How Long’s A Tear Take To Dry?, The Lure of The Sea
6.Super Furry Animals – Radiator (1997)
The country of Wales had many competitors entered into the Britpop / John Peel band category, prompting Teen Anthems to pen the song “Welsh Bands Suck” in ’97 (B-side: I hate Oasis). All such joke bitterness aside, Radiator is a solid Britpop album which I still occasionally listen to. Super Furry Animals also carried on for many years after Britpop had officially ended and made several other non-sucky tunes, not bad for a band who originally started out mostly famous for smoking dope with Howard Marks and also gave the world Rhys Ifans, who absolutely stole the the video for “God Show Me Magic.” That song isn’t on this, though. What you do get is melodic invention going from Bowie-ish glam rock to the semi-serious valley boy angst of “Demons,” which has a lovely trumpet bit in the middle.
KEY TRACKS: The Placid Casual, Play It Cool
5.The Verve – Urban Hymns (1997)
Although the Verve’s early, meandering shoegaze releases are undeniably worth a listen, and had some very cool cover art, Oasis’ mate Richard Ashcroft really bloomed as a songwriter on this, the band’s third album. And it showed – lead track Bittersweet Symphony was a massive hit, and impossible to avoid to the Playstation Generation of the late 1990s. It was followed by The Drugs Don’t Work, an equally hit single which provided the counterpoint to The Prodigy’s brand of drugged-up post-rave hedonism exemplified by track titles like “Smack My Bitch Up” (a reference to heroin, not domestic violence, but no less controversial). Urban Hymns also had sweet acoustic moments like “Lucky Man,” and acid rock freakouts like Weeping Willow and Come On that recall Ashcroft & Co’s earlier more freeform jazz incarnation.
KEY TRACKS: Bittersweet Symphony, The Drugs Don’t Work
4.Belle & Sebastian – The Boy With The Arab Strap (1998)
In the 1990s, having friends who were “diverse” probably meant that they came from Scotland or Wales. The Belles had been around since the mid 90s producing albums on the tiny independent Jeepster label, but somehow managed to win the prestigious Brit award for best newcomer with a word of mouth campaign for this album orchestrated by fans at BBC Radio 1. It’s still a low-key worthy chilled listen, with 60s inspired melodies recalling Bob Dylan and Nick Drake (who the band would claim never to have listened to). The album’s success was the more surprising given that the group never toured for many years, claiming that the fact that they featured strings so prominently and had so many members in the group meant that it took them too long to soundcheck to even be able to appear at festivals. Later they would be another of those bands who grew to evolve their sound quite a bit, but they were never more amusing than the ramshackle whimsical quality of their early indie & strings efforts.
Later, when I grew up and went to University, I fell in love with a Scottish girl and I guess looking back the fact that we both listened to this kind of music maybe had something to do with it.
Fun Fact: In 2009, frontman Stuart Murdoch would realise and release a feature film based around the band’s music starring Emily Browning and Hannah Murray. It doesn’t feature any songs from this album.
KEY TRACKS: Is it Wicked Not To Care?, Dirty Dream #2
3.Mansun – Six (1998)
As prog rock as OK Computer is, it isn’t even the best prog Britpop album. That title, for me, goes to Mansun’s ode to coke-fuelled paranoia, late night TV and modern life that is Six. Taking the old Beatles trope of sticking bits of songs together that have no right to be in the same five or six minutes of music, Mansun’s Paul Draper was a troubled genius from Chester who disappeared for a few years post-band breakup and eventually came back as a producer and solo artist in his own right. Allegedly, according to Draper, the record label told him to “never make another album like this again.” Not surprisingly, it was big in Japan, but it never really got the kind of acclaim it perhaps deserved in the United Kingdom, and completely failed to break the US. The album is 70 minutes long, and features a monologue by Tom Baker (AKA the best Doctor Who), that was originally supposed to be the divider between the two halfs of a vinyl edition.
KEY TRACKS: Cancer, Anti Everything
2.Manic Street Preachers – Everything Must Go (1996)
Great albums often have great stories, and while the early Manic Street Preachers were furious and interesting they really matured on this album which straddles the line between early punk anthems and later pop (over) productions. Guitarist and lyricist Richie Edwards disappeared early in the making of the album, his body never found, and plays on only a single track. With frontman James Bradfield left to create dynamics on his own he really rises to the occasion with some great lead lines on his Les Paul. The sense that he means every word of what he’s singing (mostly written by bass player Nicky Wire) was never higher than on this record. The songs are anthemic, the politics never overpower the good tunes, and the fact that it came out at the height of Britpop just cemented its place in the culture. The band made many iconic TV appearances including Later With Jules Holland and TFI Friday (because of course they did), and even got featured in the re-union episode of iconic 90s TV show This Life.
KEY TRACKS: A Design For Life, Kevin Carter
1.Blur – Blur (1997)
1997’s Blur might just be the first post-britpop album. First track Beetlebum is such an obvious Gallagher brothers diss that I somehow totally missed at the time, but in my defence I was 13. It was the year that Diana died, Tony Blair became prime minister and invited Oasis to 10 downing street, and suddenly it seemed Britpop jumped the shark. Blur Guitarist Graham Coxon was listening to Pavement and other American bands, and bass player Alex James has said of the recording sessions that the band were all agreed on one thing: “no more fucking brass.” Meanwhile, Coxon was dealing with alcoholism, and Damon Albarn was jetting off to discover all-night drinking in Iceland, where parts of this album would eventually be recorded (author’s note: all pubs in the UK legally had to close at 11pm by law at this time. Also, you could smoke inside. Win some, lose some, right??). The whole disillusioning experience gave rise to venemous punk thrashes like “Song 2” (which would eventually appear, years later, on The Simpsons for some fucking reason), “B.L.U.R.E.M.I.” (which is presumably some sort of Sex Pistols reference), and the manic “Chinese Bombs” which is about Bruce Lee or something.
One of this albums best moments is actually the laid-back acoustic “Look Inside America” that seems to be about pretty much giving up on trying to break America, which is what Britpop bands like Oasis infamously failed to do (but Albarn did eventually do with Gorillaz, and some Americans even know who the Gallagher brothers are, but Britpop was always kind of an insular scene). The album features some of the band’s best lyrics, which went on an odd trajectory from meaningless to socially conscious to deeply personal over the course of their 1990s career. This kind of soul-searching Americana would culminate on the gospel-inflected “Tender” from follow-up album 13 (I guess they were never much good at album titles), but if you want the most “Blur” album I guess this is the one to go for. Closing track Essex Dogs also features someone playing a petrol engine of some kind and seems to describe some of Albarn’s dodgy early life experience living in Colchester, where I also grew up. It was a dingy and grungy place, but also kind of charming, with a lot of new stuff going up, and now that I think about it that also kind of describes the experience of listening to this album. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… it was the 1990s. And while I was fifteen when it ended, and barely twenty by the time Britpop was finally and truly burned out and over and the kids had all gone electronic, it was also a final flowering for music that was truly analogue in a way that it just isn’t now – not wrong, or better, just different. All history now.
KEY TRACKS: On Your Own, Beetlebum
Kula Shaker – K
Kula Shaker has often been derided as a “joke band” (Simon Price, the Observer, 2014) but as frontman Crispian Mills has pointed out: “the music styles on K are mainstream now. People didn’t know how to take it at the time.” Blending Indian raga with 60s psychedelia and 70s rock seems obvious now, but back then The Beatles was the only real obvious frame of reference that music hacks had to go on – although everyone seemed to enjoy it when they did it, and the album sold well, so it’s a bit baffling why the music press hated them so much. Standout moment “Hush” was in fact a cover of a Deep Purple song – interesting, that!
The Divine Comedy – Casanova
While some people might find Neil Hannon’s victorian playboy schtick annoying, it’s certainly an acquired taste worthy of investigation for anyone curious about the sweeter side of British music of the fin de siecle. The group’s (really just Hannon and various session musicians) best album is almost certainly Victory For The Comic Muse, but as that didn’t come out until 2006 I almost included this (from almost ten years earlier) on this list. You can whistle almost every song on it, and it also has a Father Ted connection with the track “Songs of Love” being recycled by Channel 4 for the theme tune of the comedy about the priest from Craggy Island that was essential watching for every British schoolboy on a Friday night at that time.
The track “Heroes of the Middle Class” appears on the 2-disc compilation Your Generation (1997), which is one of the best overviews of what Britpop was like at that time and also features Gene, David Devant and His Spirit Wife and also (bizarrely) Placebo. Hannon has remained an interesting personality in the years after Britpop and continued releasing worthwhile and arguably better stuff.
Cultural Observations of Father Ted
by Just An Observation (channel on Youtube)
Go read Something Else
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