Who rules the ‘90s?
Who rules the ‘90s? Grunge is channeling our inner monsters, fringe is becoming mainstream, hip-hop is taking over, the music industry is shifting from physical to digital. Across the pond, Noel Gallagher’s running around saying Oasis is “taller than Jesus Christ” and even if there are some people who agree, there’s another camp who thinks Blur is better and this is a very definitive choice indeed (if you read the celebrity rags). Britpop was UK’s paisley to America’s plaid, a transatlantic antidote to the growls of our collective unrest. Join us as we recall some of the best Britpop tracks from a transitional decade. Anyway, here’s “Wonderwall…”
* “Wonderwall” not included
Side A (Mod side)
1. Oasis – Some Might Say
Twenty-five years after “Some Might Say” was Oasis’ first UK Number 1 hit, we can’t recapture the freshness and naivete of that moment. Maybe it’s a sharper glance backward, informed by how Oasis’ reputation has developed over time. For anyone who ever speculated about whether Noel Gallagher imagined himself a Beatles protege, or wrote in their echoing image, “Some Might Say” confirms those suspicions:
“Cause I’ve been standing at the station/ In need of education in the rain/ You made no preparation for my reputation once again…”
The slanted rhyme of station, education, preparation and reputation resonates with the energy of the White Album, especially “Revolution.” The next three lines bring back what critic Ben Zimmer called the “serious silliness” of the Beatles: “The sink is full of fishes/ She’s got dirty dishes on the brain/ It was overflowing gently but it’s all elementary my friend.”
Juxtaposing those rhyme schemes feels a bit arrogant in retrospect: all the complex abstract terms, followed by the folly of “fishes” and “dishes.” Did Oasis get away with it? Whether this verse stands as high-minded or goofy has little to do with the powerful anthemic line from the song, “Some might say we will find a brighter day.” A simple message for a fist-pump singalong or a banner to hang somewhere when we find ourselves hoping for a brighter day, no matter the circumstances.
2. Elastica – Connection
How it must have gotten under Brett Anderson and Damon Albarn’s skin that, at the height of the Britpop movement, Elastica was more successful in America than Suede and Blur. But where those bands drew from glam rock and British Invasion-era guitar pop, Elastica—helmed by Justine Frischmann, Anderson’s ex- and Albarn’s then-girlfriend—emulated the zippy ferocity of punk and new wave. Hell, “Connection” reached #53 on the Billboard Hot 100 thanks to a riff borrowed from Wire’s “Three Girl Rhumba.” But the attitude was all Frischmann’s, and even if a lyric like “I don’t understand how a heart is a spade/ But somehow the vital connection is made” was deliberately vague, there’s no denying how fast, fizzy and fun “Connection” is. It’s the kind of song that leaps out of your speakers, grabs you by the shoulders, and shakes you for two and a half minutes—and then, just when you start to get used to the thrill ride, it’s over.
3. There She Goes – The La’s
Simplicity. Ringing, chiming, innocent and aching, the song reduced to its bare elements and held together by Lee Mavers’ nearly-broken voice, strummed guitar lines and tambourine. Never mind that the song would fail to chart upon release and take its own sweet time to find its way to success, never mind that the band would record a near-perfect debut and vanish almost immediately afterwards. The song sits at the dawn of Britpop and does exactly what the emerging genre needed. It looks both forward and back, reminiscing about pop music with its sound and structure, while offering a way to make those moments contemporary and useful once more. The Byrds-like lead guitar line is clear and autumnal, all falling leaves and bright winter days, while the lyrics are open-ended enough to be about almost anything (lost love? heroin?) and so of course it’s turned up on countless mix-tapes, film soundtracks and cover band setlists. Mavers hated it, commenting that “It never captured anything that we were about. To cut a long story short, too many cooks spoil the broth.” But what do authors know of their work? It’s the work that counts and “There She Goes” remains close to perfection as much for what it doesn’t do as what it does. No critical theory, no acerbic dismantling of class structure. Just a song offering a few short minutes of close harmony, mid-Atlantic sounding radio-friendly dreaming. And that’s okay.
4. Cornershop – Brimful of Asha
How funny it is that this little gem by Cornershop is how many Americans became familiarized with Asha Bhosle, who, just half a world away, is an icon of mythic proportions. Dynamo of Bollywood cinema and the most recorded vocalist in music history, Asha Bhosle’s decades-long career as a playback singer illuminates Hindi cinema; “sadi rani” (“our queen”) is a title surely earned. “Brimful of Asha” plays like a strolling devotional, and walking among those “cinema aisles” Tjinder Singh rattles off a list of influences in a curtain call of blessings: Mohammed Rafi; Lata Mangeshkar, Solid State Radio. But in specificity we come to the universal: “Everybody needs a bosom for a pillow/ Mine’s on the 45.” That’s a language everyone can understand.
5. Morrissey – Now My Heart is Full
Does Morrissey even count as Britpop? Well, sure. Many of the marquee acts of the scene were directly influenced by the Smiths and Morrissey’s Vauxhall and I (1994) arrived the same year as Oasis broke through with Definitely Maybe and Blur stunned fans with the career-defining Parklife.
Many consider Vauxhall to be Morrissey’s best solo album and nothing better embodies its spirit better than opening track “Now My Heart is Full.” Perhaps one of the most vulnerable tracks in Morrissey’s arsenal, “Now My Heart is Full” gives us a Moz who is reflective and melancholy. Though he would return to his backbiting, juvenile ways, this song is an emotional tour-de-force from its quiet beginnings to its soaring conclusion. “Tell all my friends/ I don’t have too many/ Just some rain-coated lovers’ puny brothers,” Morrissey laments. Yet his heart is full.
6. Pulp – Do You Remember the First Time?
Pulp’s songs are littered with swaggering cocksmen and infidelity, yet there’s always a tragic bent to these characters that Jarvis Cocker wants to make sure that you grasp. “Do You Remember the First Time?” makes that abundantly clear on the first verse, in which Cocker coyly tempts his ex-lover for a night of sex by reminding her of the staid, safe, boring relationship waiting for her at home. It’s played with a romantic swell, the rising synths giving one the feeling of a John Hughes finale. Yet, when that chorus hits, it’s pure, cynical sadness masked as triumph: he ultimately doesn’t want to rekindle their relationship; he just wants one more night of fun. This is where Pulp began mining the fun in tragedy and the tragedy in fun.
7. Suede – Animal Nitrate
So much of Brit-pop was a revival of the genre’s of British rock’s past, and none of these bands quite got the handle on a style the way that Suede revived and recontextualized glam. “Animal Nitrate” is quintessential Suede in this regard. It has everything: the overwhelming stomp, the otherworldly sneer of Brett Anderson’s voice, and a squealing, macho guitar part from Bernard Butler, perhaps the greatest guitarist to come out of this period in British pop music. The lyrics hint at something dark hiding under the surface, but Anderson isn’t interested in examining it further. No, this song aims for cheap thrills and hits gloriously. Never has wanton, reckless drug use sounded so alluring. I mean, it’s right there in the title.
8. Blur – The Universal
In the battle for Britpop, Blur, and especially lead man Damon Albarn, take up an art school ethos, embracing cleverness, metaphor and social critique. “The Universal” is an exemplar of Blur’s social critique, although in a more subdued tone than some of their more danceable tunes. Reminding listeners that “the future’s been sold” and “No one here is alone / Satellites in every home” places Blur in the middle of late 20th century dystopia. Filmmaker Jonathan Glazer’s music video is an homage to A Clockwork Orange, in which Albarn seems to savor his role imitating Alex, the film’s lead.
Notoriously despised by Albarn’s then-girlfriend Justine Frischmann (then lead singer of Britpop band Elastica), “The Universal” shines on its own terms. It is not a typical pop song in either music or lyrical content, offering a soothing salve that works to contain the ominous warning of complacency-as-giving-up that is central to the song. Wanting the song to be less menacing or more angry would undo the subtle ways it still resonates politically.
9. Kula Shaker – Govinda
Try to separate the message from the messenger if you must – “Govinda” is a Sanskrit chant offered by a white Brit boy after all – but this single from Kula Shaker’s debut K remains an ecstatic fusion of neo-psychedelia and exaltation. Everything here is actualized: the guitar riffs are pure power and Crispian Mills makes good on his spiritual devotion by delivering this prayer through exclamation. When he sings “Nrsimhadeva, Jaya Nrsimhadeva!” there is fire in his belly as he gives glory to the half-lion, half-man incarnation of Krishna. This is such blissful abandon; may the beast defeat the cynic. It’s hard to come away from “Govinda” as anything but a believer.
10. Divine Comedy – National Express
British nostalgia is an odd beast, mostly now a flaccid national self-pity as evidenced in the destructive petulance of Brexit. But the finest moments of Britpop manage to both celebrate nostalgia sonically whilst also pointedly critiquing it as mainstay of the culture industries. In this, “National Express” is a key example, the intro’s gloriously retro brass section announcing the song’s exploration of what happens between being promised that “Tomorrow belongs to me” and arriving as an adult at the death of those dreams. Neil Hannon’s attention to period detail in his singing is a highlight, pasting in Sinatra-esque references while outlining the ways in which memories are the only escape from the horror of the ordinary. It’s no surprise then that “National Express” was loathed by the music press upon its release, lambasted for its perceived mocking of the working classes when, to listen to it now, one can hear the kinds of up-tempo mourning for lost possibilities that made Britpop so interesting. Regardless, the song is, as was intended, a jolly old knees-up, the kind of thing that gets eventually divested of its critical position and is sung round an out-of-tune piano by exactly those people who feature in it.
Side B (Mad side)
1. The Verve – Bittersweet Symphony
Sometimes the obvious choice is still the best choice, for an obvious reason. 1997 marked the end of Britpop—Blur embraced American indie rock and Oasis’ “biggest band in the world” claim disappeared in a cloud of cocaine—but at least the Verve saw to it that it went out with a bang with their masterpiece Urban Hymns. Lead single “Bitter Sweet Symphony” wasn’t just the Verve’s biggest hit, but its resurrection, the band’s first single since a brief breakup in 1995. Even though it might be one of the few Britpop songs (not to mention the only Verve song) that Americans can name, it really is one of the best tunes of the era, with all of its sonic elements—the soul-stirring strings, the boom-bap drumbeat, the guitar effects that sound like a UFO taking off—coming together to form one of the most psychedelic musical experiences since the 1960s. Like all highs, it didn’t last: A failure to clear the opening orchestral sample meant millions in royalties went to the Rolling Stones, and internal conflicts would drive the band apart in 1999. But that’s life, and you’ve got to learn to take the bitter with the sweet.
2. Saint Etienne – He’s on the Phone
Though Saint Etienne falls into the Britpop scene, the long-running group rejected much of the movement’s sound. More refined in instrumentation, more diverse in songwriting and more comfortable in its own skin, Saint Etienne’s music leaned more towards the dancefloor, none more so than its 1995 single “He’s on the Phone.”
Written about an “academia girl” in a bad relationship with a married man, “He’s on the Phone” blows off the more wistful aspect of Saint Etienne’s music for pure Eurodisco pop. It’s shameless dance music designed for the radio. Very much of its time, “He’s on the Phone” still resonates through Sarah Cracknell’s sweet and sad vocal and the song’s unabashed, syrupy strings and horns. While Saint Etienne’s contemporaries would never set foot in a dance club, Cracknell and company embraced the flashing lights and sweating bodies with enthusiasm.
3. Pulp – Disco 2000
“Disco 2000” manages to distill the very essence of Pulp into just over four and a half minutes. All your basic Pulp themes are present and accounted for (classicism, social outcasts, unrequited love, etc.) and coupled with a brilliant chorus hook that allows the song to standout even on an album full of stellar, thematically similar tracks (see also: “Common People”). From the opening guitar riff to the disco groove that kicks the song into high gear to Jarvis Cocker’s first-person narrative, “Disco 2000” offers listeners everything they could ever hope for in a Pulp song, making it something of a calling card for the band in terms of its distillation of lyrical themes, impressive instrumental arrangement and Cocker’s spot-on lyrics delivered from the outcast point of view. “We were friends that was as far as it went,” he sings on the song’s second verse, “I used to walk you home some times but it meant / Aw, it meant nothing to ya cause you were so popular,” the last word virtually spat out before launching into the minor key pre-chorus that leads into the celebratory chorus. Love, longing, loss and hope for a brighter tomorrow, all delivered in the guise of pop song.
4. Suede – The Wild Ones
Destroyer’s Dan Bejar once called Suede’s “The Wild Ones” “one of the great English-language ballads of the last 100 years or so,” and it’s hard to disagree with him. The song sounds like “Thunder Road” written by U2 instead of Bruce Springsteen, right from its poetic opening lines: “There’s a song playing on the radio/ Sky high in the airwaves on the morning show.” From there on down it’s all running dogs and bleeding tattoos, Brett Anderson’s soaring vocals and Bernard Butler’s crushed velvet guitar. Damn right cynical, grunge-addled American critics thought Suede (rebranded as “the London Suede” stateside) were pretentious and melodramatic—almost a year before the fabled “Battle of Britpop,” Anderson and Butler had already set their sights on what was to come after, writing songs that were more romantic and experimental than what the lads in Blur or Oasis were capable of. They almost certainly would have topped it if interpersonal tensions hadn’t driven them apart, but then again, few other Britpop bands wrote a song as magnificent as “The Wild Ones.”
5. Lush – Single Girl
There’s “Miss World,” “50ft Queenie” and “Rebel Girl,” but let’s not leave out Lush’s more temperate but no less disaffected “Single Girl.” Miki Berenyi catalogs the anxieties a break-up brings (“Don’t want talk to myself again tonight/ Don’t wanna put out the light”) but a liberating realization seems to dawn on her as the bridge concludes with a coo that rises and pops like a wayward soap bubble. The tempo slows towards the final proclamation – “Single girl/ I just wanna be a single girl” – and the winding-down represents a deliberate reclamation of time and space. In other words: get the fuck away from me, loser.
6. Supergrass – Caught by the Fuzz
Supergrass busted on to the Britpop scene like feisty little brothers crashing their older siblings rager. Their scrappy, impish demeanor was emulated perfectly by their speedy, wiry punk music and their debut single “Caught by the Fuzz” was a breath of fresh air. While the big boys worried about the grander issues of life, love, work and what it all means, Supergrass had more immediate concerns. In the case of “Caught by the Fuzz” it meant an unfortunate run-in with the cops over some hash. Singer Gaz Coombes manages to capture both the rush and regret of doing something stupid and getting caught, knowing full well he’d do it all over again. After all, you’re only young once.
7. Manic St. Preachers – If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next
Manic Street Preachers could hardly have come up with a more melodramatic refrain for their number one hit “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next.” Singer James Dean Bradfield, you might think, needs to simmer down a little. Instead, the band weaves a historical call to arms into a reflection on idealism, anxiety and action. With an epic chorus and an unusual organ sound, the Manics hit on a perfect combination for a song that manages to be both an anthem and a deconstruction of its own anthemic nature.
The lyrics draw from history, primarily the Spanish Civil War, in creating their ambivalent web. “The future teaches you to be alone/ The present to be afraid and cold,” Bradfield sings to open the song, inscribing the bleakness that the next four minutes will have to overcome. He moves through 1930s threats to shoot fascists and Orwell’s historiography and British concerns about a dangerous movement growing in Europe. All that tucks into the song, but it never sounds dry. The Manics might doubt the success of idealism turned into violent action, but the chorus never suggests we give up on resistance. Few bands have had the craft to create something that inspires in spite of (and because of) its awareness of inspirational limitations.
8. Pulp – Common People
Pulp were Britpop’s hedonists with a conscience, but there’s very little that’s hedonistic about “Common People.” If anything, “Common People” is a condemnation of a specific type of hedonism, one that can only be indulged by those with the means to do so. Given their origins in the northern industrial city of Sheffield, it’s easy to see how Pulp may have been more attuned to the issues of gentrification and class tourism that some of Britpop’s London-based groups may have been blind to. And “Common People” pulls no punches in this regard: the seething contempt that Jarvis Cocker has for wealthy kids slumming it in poor neighborhoods is palpable with every line, particularly on the song’s iconic chorus: “You’ll never live like common people/ Never do whatever common people do/ Never fail like common people/ Never watch your life slide out of view.” Pulp brought indelible dance beats and day-glo synths to Britpop, but it’s Cocker’s acid tongue that makes “Common People” a classic.
9. Oasis – Slide Away
Oasis wore a lot of hats on their first two albums: they could be sneering, hedonistic and even kind of romantic. Most of all though, there was an air of positivity that was unlike anything their peers were putting out at the time, and “Slide Away” is imbued with that spirit. It has a striving spirit that is sadly lacking in most of Britpop as a genre, even as Oasis eventually came to define what it sounded like. While most of the album “Slide Away” comes from (Definitely Maybe) stomps in borrowed swagger and guitar sludge, “Slide Away” soars above it all. Framed as a love song, the lyrics could easily be Noel and Liam speaking to each other in happier times. A pair of nobodies from Manchester with dreams of rock stardom, the song is filled with hope that those dreams will eventually come true. Neither Oasis nor the rest of Britpop ever sounded this full of life afterwards.
10. James – Out to Get You
James had been making music since the early-‘80s before scoring an international smash with hit single, “Laid,” in 1993. Long-popular in native Great Britain, the fruits of the band’s labor paid off and for a short period of time they were one of the biggest acts in the world.
“Laid,” however, was an outlier on the album of the same name. Most of James’ music therein revealed itself to be raw, solemn songs about broken hearts and emotional strife. Take opening track, “Out to Get You,” which begins with a languid guitar lick and unfolds into a squalling, expressive performance by vocalist Tim Booth. Produced by Brian Eno, Laid and “Out to Get You” continue to be sonically rich experiences that still tug at the heartstrings nearly three decades later. –
Contributors: Justin Cober-Lake, David Harris, Kevin Korber, Linda Levitt, Eric Mellor, Jacob Nierenberg, John Paul, Stacey Pavlick, Scott Wilson