Be honest: if you lived through Britpop, then you know that a lot of today’s 20th (ish) anniversary-related celebratory talk about the scene is the purest poppycock. Much of the music that came bracketed as Britpop was dross. Sleeper, Space, Echobelly, Kula Shaker, Cast, Dodgy, Ocean Colour Scene, Menswear: these acts were responsible for some awful releases that deserve to be buried as deeply as your patio can accommodate. And that’s just skimming the surface of crap around at the time – leaf through a copy Melody Maker or NME circa 1995 and it’s rammed full of this sort of derivative drivel.
However, British indie in the 1990s was capable of greatness – and that brilliance wasn’t restricted to the tabloid tittle-tattle spun by the Oasis versus Blur malarkey. Both of those acts exhibited moments of magic, true enough, but only one of Britpop’s big two truly realised a long-play classic – and ‘Blur’ by Blur marked a change in the foursome’s sound, more inspired by stateside riffs than the domestic pop of the 1960s, fiery alt-rock marching over their old Britpop motifs.
So if you must turn back the years to the mid-1990s and raise a flag to our nation’s brief flirtation with ’60s revivalism mixed with Loaded-generation laddishness, dial your receptors to these six records. As they’re the best that the era produced, no doubt.
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Suede – ‘Dog Man Star’ (1994)
Suede had scored an early victory in the Britpop period with their eponymous debut LP of 1993 charting at one in the UK, fired to success by the scintillating single ‘Animal Nitrate’, a top 10 hit. But there was unrest in the camp, as the relationship between guitarist Bernard Butler and enigmatic frontman Brett Anderson crumbled. ‘Dog Man Star’ represented a swift follow-up to the London band’s first LP, but tension in the ranks combined with a quick turnaround didn’t result in disaster. If anything, the pressures that piled atop these musicians catalysed them into creating their greatest-ever album.
‘Dog Man Star’ is an elegiac masterpiece of its time – of any time – rich in emotions-stirring string arrangements and warm brass, a definite darkness permeating singles ‘The Wild Ones’ – Anderson’s favourite Suede song (video below) – and ‘We Are The Pigs’. Listening today, the record feels as weighty as it did at the time, its production carefully pointing distress through the noise, setting beauty against the bleak.
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Pulp – ‘Different Class’ (1995)
Britpop was typically about new bands finding old sounds and redressing them for a time when Top Of The Pops was still something you watched before getting wrecked on fruity wine drinks and whatever your mate’s dad had in the cupboard. Rehashing and recycling, from the perspective of newcomers hungry for the myriad prizes that awaited the standout ensembles (hell, even Rialto achieved a handful of top 40 singles). But Pulp had been around for ages (the late 1970s!) before they really hit critical and commercial pay dirt – firstly, albeit to a lesser extent, with their fourth LP, 1994’s ‘His ‘N’ Hers’, which broke the UK top 10, and then with this, probably the best Britpop album, full stop.
‘His ‘N’ Hers’ missed out on the Mercury Prize, but ‘Different Class’ won both said gong and the hearts of the nation, going to the top spot on the albums chart, supported by the tearaway success of the single ‘Common People’ (video below). Frontman Jarvis Cocker’s star power was shining brighter than it ever had, and when he invaded Michael Jackson’s stage at the 1996 BRITs, shaking his fanny at the late King Of Pop, his place in musical history was assured. They wanted the right to be different. After five albums, they’d earned it, and some. Cocker played his part in showcasing the band’s eccentricities outside the studio, but inside it the Sheffield act had hit their uppermost gear and were racing for seminal status.
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Supergrass – ‘In It For The Money’ (1997)
There’s not shortage of This Sort Of Piece around at the moment, naturally. But most will probably look to Supergrass’ (pictured, main) debut, 1995’s ‘I Should Coco’, as the Oxford then-trio’s definitive statement. Allow me to disagree. The band’s first LP was a lot of fun, a bright and colourful adventure through teenage run-ins with the law, light-hearted joviality and, erm, big chickens? Its successor was a tighter, tauter affair, written almost exclusively in the studio environment (Sawmills, in Cornwall) and benefitting from this consistent environment.
Pre-release single ‘Going Out’ acted as a bridge track, connecting what was then to what was now, thick organ tones and brassy parps conveying a buoyant atmosphere, despite the perhaps prickly lyrics. But it’s ‘Richard III’ (video below), issued just a month before its parent LP, which really mashes home how much growing Supergrass had gone through between albums. Leaner, meaner, louder: this is Britpop taking the fight to itself, tossing aside expectation to merely do the same thing time after time and daring to snarl with spirit while others bullied with braggadocio.
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Lush – ‘Lovelife’ (1996)
Much like Pulp, Lush had orbited mainstream success for a while without fully engaging with it, the Londoners forming in 1987 and putting out two long-players proper prior to their breakthrough third, ‘Lovelife’. Their debut, ‘Spooky’, did go top 10, but its lasting appeal and singular qualities were questionable – a feeling made all the more real by the manner in which the 12 songs collected here went and eclipsed what its makers had achieved previously. In part, this move towards wider recognition was due to a shift in sound – initially more of a shoegaze crew, Lush’s switch to a somewhat more palatable Britpop direction, albeit entirely on their own terms, paid dividends.
‘Lovelife’ spawned three top-20 singles – ‘Single Girl’, Ladykillers’ and the evergreen ‘500 (Shake Baby Shake)’ (video below) – featured a cameo from a certain Mr Cocker, and it seemed like further highs would follow. But when drummer Chris Acland committed suicide in 1996, just seven months after the release of ‘Lovelife’, the band hit a terminal point in their ascendance, at which the only option was to shut down completely. Such a shame, as Lush were realising an accomplished breeziness in Britpop that was warmly welcomed.
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Super Furry Animals – ‘Radiator’ (1997)
Apologies to Elastica at this point, as originally their eponymous 1995 debut sat in slot five. (Let’s call it our honourable-mention seven.) But there’s no denying the pure joy that runs through every moment of this second album from Welsh wonders Super Furry Animals. No doubt thanks to the behemoth that was Oasis, a few acts on Creation managed to creep into the public consciousness like they otherwise might not have if signed to another label, and the Furries certainly seemed like one of these outfits.
Bringing vintage sounds into the sprightly mix manifested with the band’s ‘Fuzzy Logic’ debut of 1995, but somehow sounding futuristic at the same time, ‘Radiator’ is an oddity in the sense that it doesn’t feel like a Britpop album at all. But its timing, its associations, the leisure/sportswear and its legacy suggest that it’s actually one of the standout LPs of the scene, of the time, and one that still tickles the pleasure sensors today, tracks like ‘Play It Cool’ and ‘Herman Loves Pauline’ (video below) buzzing with a quirky cool, and off-the-wall lyricism from Gruff Rhys, that no other act as come close to capturing since. Well, perhaps The Beta Band. But they’re definitely not Britpop.
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Mansun – ‘Attack Of The Grey Lantern’ (1997)
Another for the Is It Really Britpop file, but an album that certainly meets a bundle of the necessary criteria, ‘Attack Of The Grey Lantern’ was the first of a Mansun-helmed double-header of LPs that took Britpop from revivalism into a riveting contemporary space informed not simply by The Kinks and The Beatles but by… everything. 1998’s ‘Six’ arguably crams too much information into its already considerable run time – it’s one of the longest 70 minutes you’ll sit through, not in a bad way – but this debut, still over an hour long, kept the ambition tethered but the rope slack enough for a host of ideas to be realised.
With anticipation for the album high after a series of well-received EPs, ‘Attack…’ went to number one in the UK and drew critical acclaim from all corners of the music press – except for Select (so often the party poopers). This is Britpop-does-prog, really, stretching the possibility space for the scene with a cornucopia of classical tendencies colliding with the urge to turn everything to 11. Driven by the singles ‘Wide Open Space’ (video below), ‘She Makes My Nose Bleed’ and ‘Taxloss’, it’s a suite of pop-rock riffs and high-concept themes spinning in every colour imaginable, and may its unique moves never end.
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Words: Mike Diver
No Radiohead, no Verve, no Blur or Oasis? Reckon The Longpigs’ ‘The Sun Is Often Out’ is better than Lush’s ‘Lovelife’? Really have a soft spot for Ocean Colour Scene? Tweet us about it.