Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Top 20 Britpop Albums of the 1990's

This list is either something I have compiled before, or perhaps a post I have been avoiding since it is probably a bad idea. Britpop gets thrown around a bit loosely for my liking, and probably always did, but then I am a Canadian who probably should have loosened his grasp and moved on from this genre or period of music long ago. If someone was to ask about my favourite periods or styles of music, there would be few buckets of sound that I continue to adore quite like the music coming from England between 1993 and 1997.

So some ground rules. The La's and Stone Roses, in my opinion, in and around 1989 set the stage for what would become the more clearly defined Britpop sound. Welsh bands like Super Furry Animals and Manic Street Preachers were in the mix, but stretched beyond strict pop songs (their exclusion has nothing to do with the sheep thing I swear). Same with The Verve and Radiohead, who were toying with psychedelic and anthemic sounds respectively during that four year stretch. I almost threw in Pablo Honey since it feels like a Britpop record in tone and spirit, but as much as I love them, Radiohead just weren't really a Britpop band.

The Britpop I love was represented by bands who in the face of American grunge hype and arena rock style production, made a conscious choice to be quintessentially British. The influence and mixture that made it palatable to listeners keen on melody was representative of 60's Beatles and Kinks hooks, 70's Bowie glam and The Jam mod stylings, and plenty of 80's jangle right out of The Smiths playbook. There was fuzz, but it wasn't overpowering or forced in order to cater to mosh pits. There was a tremendous sense of putting the song first, with competent musicianship, but few guitar solos and even fewer stories that took longer than  four minutes to tell. Led Zeppelin continue to pass easily as an American band. None of the 90's Britpop bands could be mistaken for anything other than being British.

This period often gets reduced, not so unfairly, to Blur and Oasis. I submit, as with many genres which blow up a bit, that the bands from this period could likely be ranked in A, B, and C type tiers. Britpop was not exempt from an eventual over signing and watering down effect, but on the other hand there were some solid albums that get forgotten or overlooked in favour of some of the heavier hitters and usual suspects.

Here are my Top 20, with some thoughts jotted down for the top 5.

20. Ocean Colour Scene - Moseley Shoals

19. Sleeper - The It Girl

18. Marion - This World and Body

17. Ash - 1977

16. The Boo Radleys - Wake Up!

15. The Auteurs - After Murder Park

14. The Bluetones - Expecting To Fly

13. Supergrass - I Should Coco

12. Cast - All Change

11. The Charlatans - The Charlatans

10. Oasis - (What's The Story) Morning Glory?

9. Blur - Parklife

8. Elastica - Elastica

7. Suede - Coming Up

6. The Charlatans - Up To Our Hips

5. Gene - Olympian

This choice comes with the benefit of time and hindsight. Much has been made of The Smiths influence on this record. Sure, you can tell Gene liked The Smiths. Given my own bias, maybe that's why I love this record so much. Regardless, there is a romance and vulnerability here that feels far less guarded than many of the best recordings from these years. Fuzzy guitar sections are far more selected and slipped into songs that commence with much more perceived melancholy. Gene, on Olympian have an ability maybe only matched by The Bluetones, to build songs to crescendo, without compromising the pop core leanings. I actually wish I had listened to this album more when it came out. It is an absolute gem.

4. Blur - Modern Life is Rubbish

This would (and maybe will) be considered a very obscurist aging hipster choice for number three, but this was Blur's way of settling into the skin they would wear. Their debut has some cool tracks, but it  is mostly flat and broadly uninspired. Here they seem to shed the pressure of catering to American audiences with a take this or leave it statement up front and centre. There was a common honest pop music thread that ran through all Britpop, but this was Blur declaring where they would fit in the grand scheme and laying the foundation for their run at the crown. Modern Life feels like Blur taking elements of Pulp's sophistication and blurring (cough..ahem) it with Suede's swagger, but with a playful brattiness.

3. Oasis - Definitely Maybe

The lads. Some British friends who were in university in Manchester in the 90's recently described to me the impact of Oasis on music fans, and it was strangely similar to how I viewed things from a Canadian vantage. Oasis, with this record, made everyday regular dudes, regardless of income bracket or background, feel like they could be in a band. They stole some riffs here and there, none of which they played with particular prowess. They had (and continued hereafter to have) some laughable lyrics, but they mostly had a knack for writing songs that still managed to sound like no one else. There were imperfections littered throughout this record, and not in a sloppy American indie way, but in an honest and endearingly forthcoming way. This was the first time in a while when a band declared themselves rock stars, and I am not convinced anyone has had the audacity to make the claim since. 

2. Pulp - Different Class

Given Pulp's earlier releases were, with due respect, largely hit and miss, it's hard to know if Different Class was a product of its musical environment, or if it was inevitable timing for a band about to hit stride. I believe it was the latter. They were just too good. This to me was always the "clever" Britpop album. Less gritty than some of the fuzzier albums happening, and less bratty than others. In its cleverness it also matches tremendous melody and slightly more complex song structures to the lyrical superiority of Cocker. This record feels to Britpop what wardrobe is to The Great Gatsby.

1. Suede - Suede

I fall in the camp that believe this album kickstarted Britpop in 1993. It literally set the tone for the type of soft and warm distortion that would run through so many songs to follow over the next four years. Suede announced itself with a swagger and snottiness that set the bar. These are eleven flawless songs executed flawlessly, with a cros section of just about everything that defines the purest and most sincere British music of the last fifty years. For the record, I have also not factored in the hand claps at the end of "Metal Mickey" into this decision.