Nowadays, anybody can become an armchair Anglophile. Scan the charts, YouTube the videos, study the Wikipedia entries, and any insomniac with a computer might make a better anthology than Rhino’s 16-year-spanning 78-track shrine to emphatically English guitar bands, The Brit Box. But when most of this stuff was new, you had to be self-sacrificing and insane enough to make your fixation more important than square meals or sensible housing or drugs or babies. It’s disconcerting to see a good chunk of one’s life reduced to an unduly democratic track listing bound to be P2P’d for free.
Like most genre anthologies, The Brit Box telescopes much of the distance between superstars and common people: Blur and Babybird alike get one track each. Some U.K. smashes are omitted in favor of U.S.-college-radio also-rans (hello Ned’s Atomic Dustbin and Rodney Bingenheimer faves Birdland), while jangly guitar bands crowd out most dance-rock crossovers. This and the usual licensing complications means no Jesus Jones, EMF, or the Soup Dragons at the beginning, and no Beta Band, Robbie Williams, or Radiohead at the end. For every major band that epitomized an era or minor act with a brilliant moment (Rialto’s Spector-esque “Untouchable,” Silver Seas’ harmony-drenched “Service”), many others included here achieved U.K. credibility for reasons not audibly apparent: As former Select scribe Andrew Perry admits in his liner notes, Brits favor signifiers over chops. Between My Bloody Valentine and Teenage Fanclub on the shoegazer-heavy disc two, there’s rarely a melody, riff, or lyric worth remembering. Bleach, Five Thirty, Moose, and the Family Cat deluded themselves that the right sustain pedal could revitalize any tired Velvet Underground or Byrds rip. Certainly none of this lot could compete with Nirvana. Even the British press knew this: They embraced our grunge before we did. The subsequent Britpop avalanche—like punk before it—had to happen.
Or not. Whether it was synth-pop, hi-NRG, house, or the other club permutations that occurred between 1984 and 1999, U.K. dance music eclipsed the popularity and cultural significance of all but the supernovas included here. With Anglophilia once again a hip indie option and most electronica now in decline, it’s easy to forget how feeble much of this sounded back then next to the dance hits that typically outsold Brit Box fare like Cast, Marion, Kula Shaker, and other retrograde cash-ins. If the compilers dared to include just one British rave hit on the level of Rozalla’s “Everybody’s Free (to Feel Good),” they would’ve blown away this crazy idea still maintained by the British music press that their serious rock is categorically more compelling or enduring than their scintillating pop. Sugababes and Girls Aloud have far better tunes than Pete Doherty, but you can’t find their CDs in our stores.
Given their hunger to hype, trash, and replace, the Brit media routinely serves as accomplices in the destruction of countless bands. While Oasis, represented by the admittedly sublime early single “Live Forever,” believed their headlines, Suede, Echobelly, Blur, Elastica, Pulp, Spiritualized, and Mansun—all of them far more clever—soon imploded in the spotlight. Ambitious American bands from My Chemical Romance to Modest Mouse now want to sound like Mansun’s 1998 prog-glam-psych-punk-metal extravaganza Six, but it’s likely that they never even heard of Mansun, because the British press typically shredded this willfully mercurial quartet before it could find a stateside audience. Britpop wasn’t built to last.
But memories will endure. The time I spent swooning over the Smiths, New Order, and their children will make up for the lack of my own, even if asserting this now seems as embarrassing as it is absurd. Obsession remains its own reward.