True, the glowingly reviewed new Pulp: A Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets has bowed humbly out of NYC-area theaters — though it is, ahem, available for rent or sale via iTunes — but in any case our bet is that the Sheffield lads’ doc signals just the tip of a looming iceberg. Surely, with Britpop’s best-regarded exponents and their seminal records approaching 20-year jubilee status, we’re in store for a whole lot more retrospective feting: reissues, remasters, deluxe editions; would a Justine Frischmann tell-all be too much to hope for?
Anyway, the presumptive coming flood led us to reflect on what “Britpop” even is, or encompasses. To keep things (relatively) brief, it’s: bright, melody-forward, commercially intent guitar-band pop-rock; unabashedly British, of course, in pub-singalong sensibility and/or deployment of accent; and, crucially, for our purposes here, limited to post-’92 or thereabouts (the interregnum betwixt shoegaze and, well, Radiohead), meaning the some-might-say criminal exclusion of the progenitive Smiths and Stone Roses from consideration. All of which, naturally, then led to our wondering: If you absolutely gun-to-head had to choose, given these parameters, what would a list of 10 Best Britpop Albums of All Time, Ever, look like?
So, without further ado…
10. Suede, Coming Up (1996)
To insist on Coming Up‘s superiority to Dog Man Star, Suede’s putative masterwork, is kinda like rating In Utero over Nevermind, or maybe Isolation Drills over Bee Thousand: You might have an argument, and there’s no accounting for taste, but you’re still gonna sound like a contrarian asshole.
But whatever. We’ll take the plunge. Admittedly, there’s nothing on Coming Up as immediately frisson-inducing as that Byron-biting verse from the earlier album’s “Heroine” — but then that track’s refrain was always a total deflating letdown. And there’s the rub. The songcraft on Coming Up feels more refined, the hooks hooking harder, the big moments unashamed to unzip. Take “Filmstar,” total spangled cock-rock, a Matt Bellamy wet dream of a tune, basically the Platonic ideal of a Muse song; none of it ought to work, what with the huge dumb “Fever Dog” stadium drums, the full-on hoary sleaze of the verse…and yet just try to resist when Brett Anderson & co. pull that hard left onto Bowie Boulevard.
Coming Up‘s chockablock with this kind of thing — and we mean both in terms of magic passages and the more or less overt aping of Bowie. That’s OK. Britpop as a category wears its Duke-indebtedness on its sleeve, and besides, soon enough it’d be Suede’s turn to, er, furnish source material (e.g., when Keane lifted “By the Sea” for their own littoral lullaby, “Somewhere Only We Know”). And speaking of “By the Sea,” don’t even get us going on the goddamn bassline, a tubular, melodically adventurous bit of sapidity we can only imagine had Sir Paul pulling cartwheels along some riviera somewhere.
9. Blur, 13 (1999)
In which Damon Albarn and his not-so-merry band of cohorts channel the selfsame interest in American lo-fi that made the preceding self-titled a slapdash, dilettantish mess into a bona fide concept album. Well, more or less. Say what you will about 13, at least it hangs together, which is more than you can credit to most Britpop (which, of course, this LP might be in Blur imprimatur only). Post-breakup heartsickness is the polestar, each track in its orbit evocative of a fraught specific: rose-tinted nostalgia begetting earnest beseeching (“Tender”); the drab longueurs of workaday life Without Her (“Coffee and TV”); chest-puffing, too-desperate efforting at alphadom (“Trailerpark”). There are, without doubt, unfortunate choices peppering the record — the vocoder/talkbox trick in “B.L.U.R.E.M.I.” comes to mind — and it’s hard to imagine that the ever-prolific Albarn didn’t have some ideas drifting around his transom that would’ve suited the disc better than some of the uptempo, punkish numbers — but even those feel of a piece with the rest of 13, suggestive as they are of their narrator’s not so much rawking out as exorcising hurt, masquerading as aggression, via amped-up BPM. “Trimm Trabb” is the sound of it all coming to a disastrous head; “No Distance Left to Run,” the pure distillate of regret.
8. The Verve, Urban Hymns (1997)
Seventeen years on, and we’ve finally arrived at a point we don’t have to hear “Bitter Sweet Symphony” every five minutes. We ought to enjoy it now, Clear Channel playlisting being what it is. Or, what the hell, skip it, and dig the rest of the lineup its placement as leadoff hitter pre-empted. Turns out “B.S.S.” (did Richard Ashcroft split “bittersweet” so as to avoid an unwanted initialism?) isn’t even the best cut on the album; that honor goes to the by turns fogged-over and double-time thrilling “Velvet Morning” (which, bonus points for the Slowdive nod).
7. Pulp, This Is Hardcore (1998)
Pace the risqué cover art and closing feedback squall affixed to intro track “The Fear,” This Is Hardcore‘s reputation as the dark, abrasive follow-up to the Different Class juggernaut is not only not entirely earned — it’s total bullshit. Hardcore is actually, pound for pound, a slower, statelier record than its predecessor (nothing on it comes even close to the agitprop hard charge of “Mis-Shapes”), and while, yes, “The Fear” does indeed get dark, and yes, the title cut gets downright seedy, are those two any darker/seedier than, say, “Pencil Skirt” or “I Spy”? We should say not.
All grumbling aside, This Is Hardcore is a great Britpop album in the way of most other great Britpop albums: That is, it’s more hodgepodge than cohesive whole. Nothing wrong with that — not when you’ve got discrete tunes of this caliber (“Dishes,” its effortless conjuring of a transcendence discovered amid the mundane, is a particular favorite) and lyrics like the following, from that dready “Fear”: This is the sound of someone losing the plot/Making out that they’re OK when they’re not/You’re gonna like it/But not a lot/And the chorus goes like this! How meta of you, Jarvis! (But you’re wrong! We don’t care! We love it!)
6. Arctic Monkeys, Favourite Worst Nightmare (2007)
Yes, yes, it dropped a full decade after Radiohead were bruited to have categorically exterminated Britpop. And surely Alex Turner, who apparently prefers the terms “dogshit rock ‘n’ roll” and “chip-shop rock ‘n’ roll” in characterizing his (main) band’s early efforts, would bristle at FWN‘s inclusion among all these hallowed, not to mention slickly produced, projects 10-plus years the album’s senior. Still, he owes Bowie (melodic content) and the Kinks (songwords), et al., in much the same way as his forerunners (check out the Bowie-esque “Cornerstone,” from Humbug, which is the 13 to FWN‘s Parklife), and no way in hell could you claim the Monkeys’ stuff is not distinctly, proudly English (what the fuck is a “Teddy Picker,” anyway?). So this is, in all its kitchen-sink glory, the AM album that best evinces the Britpop influence. Oh, and — ignoring a couple schmaltzy mid-album numbers (put there, presumably, to permit listeners to collect their breath) — it’ll rock your blocks off. Not for nothing is Matt Helders’s drum kit emblazoned “AGILE BEAST.”
5. Super Furry Animals, Rings Around the World (2001)
So call this the other entry, along with No. 6 above, in Britpop: The New Class. Viewed in this light, the record’s point of departure, “Alternative Route to Vulcan Street,” all pensive plodding jazzy drift, serves as something of a head-fake; the real fun begins with “Sidewalk Serfer Girl” ‘s Day-Glo paint-spatter, then proceeds through a triumvirate of pure-cane pop until “Receptacle for the Respectable,” in its caudal breakdown/freakout, ushers in the shall we say lysergic Rings cycle. But even at their wiggy weirdest, and even when they strive for real pathos, the Furries never lose sight of the pleasure principle — which is, come to think of it, what qualifies them for inclusion in this list in the first place. Post-OK Computer, about a billion bands from the British Isles began trafficking in second-rate doomsday prophesying; the candy-colored SFA were emphatically not one of them.
4. The Auteurs, New Wave (1993)
This one was a hand-wringer. Once again — there’s a theme emerging here — we have a band it’d be wrong to claim as a great “album” group, and New Wave, for all its other merits, predates some of the (unrightfully forgotten) Auteurs’ absolute standout efforts: the solo-Harrison-cribbing “New French Girlfriend”; the cryptic, aggro “Land Lovers,” from the Steve Albini era. After Murder Park devotees will be sure to grouse that Albini’s trademark art brut production best enabled Luke Haines’s penny-dreadful narration, but we disagree. New Wave bevels those sharp edges, setting Haines’s compositions firmly within the grand tradition of British songsmiths who were aces at delivering vinegar cloaked in honey. (Cf. Pink Floyd’s “Mother,” and how a good swath of the public still thinks it’s a loving ode.) At its best, New Wave‘s euphonies can move you damn close to tears — we’re thinking here of the Pachelbelish “Junk Shop Clothes,” of the stunning moment in “Valet Parking” where third verse elides into final refrain — until you step back a sec, take the time to parse the lyrics, and come to realize you’ve been had: “Valet Parking” is about an attendant who, in league with an equally embittered chauffeur, spitefully murders a plutocrat; “Junk Shop Clothes” is simply an admonition not to slum it at Goodwill.
3. Oasis, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? (1995)
It’s always struck as ironic, given their Beatle-worship/-mimicry, that Oasis were essentially the Stones to Blur’s Fabs: Held up against Parklife‘s mannered character sketches, Morning Glory scans as raggedy, shambolic, freewheeling, maybe a little dangerous. Even Liam Gallagher’s conchal stylings — which one senses began as a Lennon emulation — seem, here, in primo cuts like killer opener “Hello,” purposeful, vaguely menacing: a kind of auditory sneer. Doubly ironic, then, that the standout, over and above all the other vaunted contenders (“Wonderwall,” “Champagne Supernova,” “Some Might Say,” “Cast No Shadow”), is a slice of pure Beatloid bliss. You know the one we’re talking about.
2. Blur, Parklife (1994)
The question is not whether it hangs together as a “loose concept album,” as Damon Albarn once described it (going so far as to cite inspiration from Martin Amis’s London Fields), but whether it hangs together as an album at all. But maybe that’s just Britpop being Britpop — no record on this list, with the possible exception of Blur’s own 13 (by which point Albarn had one metaphorical eye on Mali and the other on Gorillaz’ fledgling cartoon-world anyway), really feels like more than the sum of its parts, though those parts might be individually brilliant. Which the style-hopping tracks on Parklife, almost without exception, are. Blur even avert some could’ve-been disasters by way of a studio-cultivated editorial judiciousness: See the extended version of Alex James’s “Far Out,” which as a traditionally structured song is a train-wreck but at some point got pared into the lovable, starry-eyed (literally!) early-Floydian curio it remains today, and for posterity. And Jesus, what can one even say about the neo-baroque “Clover Over Dover”? Very possibly the loveliest song Albarn’s ever written — which is saying a lot (this is, after all, the guy who wrote “El Mañana” and “Stop the Dams” and “On Melancholy Hill”) — it’s also probably the best single cut from any album on this list.
1. Pulp, Different Class (1995)
So is that title a promise to make with the trenchant class-system commentary? A little boast about the abilities of the artists recorded therein? Based on the execution, we’ll go with both. As ever, ol’ Jarvis is best when playing preening dandy (“Pencil Skirt”) or astute fly-on-wall, training (to alter the phylar comparison) a hawk-eye on youth politics (“Mis-Shapes”), rave culture (“Sorted for E’s and Wizz”), and romantic entanglement (every other song, basically). The album’s not without its dodgy bits, as when Jarvis goes all skulking nightcrawler on “I Spy,” which ends up more affected than effective. But that little misstep aside, the rest is gold, frequently exuberant (“Disco 2000”), often stirring (“F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E.,” though it’s a pain to type), dabbed in sweetness (“Something Changed”); Different Class is, at the end of the day, an empathic record. That it reserves its one true KO for “Common People” — far and away its best-known number — is an irony, though not one to bemoan: Is there any line more savagely, deliciously stinging than Laugh along with the common people/Laugh along even though they’re laughing at you/And the stupid things you do/Because you think that poor is cool?