Different Class is so special is that its creators had quite clearly lived the pain the songs described.
More than any “genre,” Britpop is kind of a tricky and nebulous term to pin down to anything solid because it’s so clearly a marketing term. Granted, one could argue that any genre is a marketing term at its core, but Britpop doesn’t have any real genre signifiers or artistic flourishes to define it. Essentially, one had to fulfill the criteria of “being British” and “playing music in the 1990s” to qualify. There are exceptions made for what it isn’t (British bands who played grunge were deemed too outwardly dour and American, and thus didn’t qualify), but other than that, it was an artistic free-for-all. A survey of Brit-pop would feature glam revival (Suede), arch art-pop (Blur), post-punk (Elastica) and massive-sounding stadium rock (Oasis), among other things. Therefore, there arguably can’t be a “best” Britpop album because so much of it boils down to taste. “The best” ends up being your favorite, depending on what you’re into.
But that’s just one perspective to look at. One could also argue that Britpop is irrevocably tied to a British experience and identity, given how much of it was a reaction to the dominance of American popular music at the time. With the rise of grunge and American indie, a whole generation of British musicians eschewed imitating their counterparts from across the Atlantic in favor of embracing a British musical identity, even if much of that character was severely indebted to what came before. With this embrace of British sounds–post-punk, glam, all of which never landed in America in a meaningful way–it was inevitable that lyrical perspectives would shift towards exploring aspects of young British life. And the apotheosis of this, the album that epitomized and perfected what this could be, was Pulp’s Different Class.
Unlike their contemporaries, who seemed to be deliberately and proudly reaching back into the annals of history to craft their music, Pulp’s signature synth-laden sound was a natural progression. The result of over a decade toiling away at the back end of the pop charts, Pulp’s aesthetic was simultaneously out of time and perfect for the moment, a dose of neon venom into a scene of kids semi-ironically waving Union Jacks. Particularly, at a time when British pop music was embracing guitar rock and looking at the rise of rave culture with a somewhat skeptical eye after the burnout of Madchester, Pulp crucially injected a sense of fun into proceedings with Different Class, crafting music that worked just as well on the dance floor as it did for festival crowds.
Those synths and dance rhythms were only part of the story, though. Underneath the disco sheen was a stark portrait of British working-class existence that just wasn’t present in any honest way in Britpop. So many of the big names in Britpop wrote from a fairly detached perspective, either because they had no interest in examining deep issues (such as Noel Gallagher) or because they grew up too comfortably to worry about much in their lives (pretty much everyone else). Pulp, meanwhile, came out of the decidedly unhip city of Sheffield and gigged for years without any success, and that hopelessness that a stratified class system engenders in a person has its fingerprints all over Different Class. A lot has been written about the way class conflict is portrayed on “Common People,” the album’s biggest single, but there’s also the album’s lyrical obsessions with Bacchanalian pleasures to consider. The hedonistic streak of “Pencil Skirt” and “Sorted for E’s & Wizz” comes not out of joy but despair. After all, if one’s lot in life is more or less predetermined, why not indulge in as many earthly pleasures as one can. Jarvis Cocker’s narrators come across as ebullient and sinister in equal measure because they have absolutely nothing to lose. The result is something that could be described as a party soundtrack for the end of the world, but that’s only because Armageddon comes pretty damn fast for those who can’t buy their way out of it.
If Different Class was purely working-class rage with synths, it’d be a fantastic album, but what really makes the record a masterpiece is the shot of sweetness that the band provides. Alongside acerbic songs like “Common People” are genuinely touching moments, songs that remind you that certain life experiences remain intact no matter your economic lot in life. Cocker toys with the idea that fate exists on “Something Changed,” and he successfully frames the concept of serendipity as being something other than incredibly cheesy. Conversely, “F.E.E.L.I.N.G. C.A.L.L.E.D. L.O.V.E.” frames the discovery of love itself as something terrifying, something beyond one’s control that overwhelms and permeates every aspect of life. Even as the desolate realities of late capitalism surround and bear down on the narrator, love improbably comes over him and consumes him. Moments like these give the album a sense of humanity and make into something more than pithy social commentary. After all, anyone can look at society and point out where it’s going wrong; what made Different Class so special is that its creators had quite clearly lived the pain the songs described.
Granted, the qualities described above aren’t specifically tied to Britpop in any particular way, but that is specifically why Different Class is head and shoulders above its peers. Rather than being irrevocably tied to a specific place and historical period, the album transcends that epoch and achieves a sense of universality that no other artist save for Oasis ever did. However, while Oasis got there by not really saying anything and allowing their audience to project themselves onto the music, Pulp managed to have a clear and defined ethos and message while also creating music that listeners could relate to. There’s a whole new generation of rave kids to whom “Sorted for E’s & Wizz” speaks, and loads of people living in rapidly gentrifying big cities can find some solace in “Common People,” just to name a few examples. Different Class isn’t great because it defines what the genre was; as was stated before, that’s kind of impossible. However, Different Class artistically transcends Britpop in a way that nothing else has or will, and that’s what makes it the best album of the Britpop era.