Not all British pop is Britpop, nor is all U.K. indie necessarily pop music -- nor does British indie of the '80s sound like British indie of the '90s, for that matter. There are certain similarities and shared traits, along with a clear progression from post-punk to Britpop, but the notoriously mercurial British music world of the '80s and '90s had too many niches and scenes -- and was documented by a music press obsessed with bestowing new names to even minor ripples in pop music -- to be tidily boxed up, as Rhino's well-intentioned and hopelessly muddled four-disc set The Brit Box: U.K. Indie, Shoegaze, and Brit-Pop Gems of the Last Millennium attempts to do. That subtitle suggests that the box digs into the specific subgenres of British alternative rock, when it does nothing of the sort. Instead, it throws together 78 tracks recorded by U.K. acts of the '80s and '90s, assuming that if the artist resides in the United Kingdom and isn't Bros, Take That, Wet Wet Wet, or the Spice Girls, they're fair game. Ground zero is the Smiths' 1984 anthem "How Soon Is Now?" -- a widely acknowledged classic single that could very well be argued as the foundation of the classicist guitar pop that ran throughout British '90s rock. Fair starting point, but instead of pursuing a logical path through the next 15 years, The Brit Box careens all over the place, following a well-worn path for a while before suddenly taking a detour -- sometimes picturesque, sometimes quite rocky -- that leads back to familiar territory before it all stops suddenly, arbitrarily with Gay Dad's 1999 Britpop afterbirth, "Oh Jim." If that's what all this music was leading to, then what was the point of it all?
Of course, Gay Dad was hardly the destination for Britpop, even if they almost certainly were the end of the line for British indie in more ways than one. The very fact that such an ambitious, far-reaching set like this ends on such a sour note highlights how unfocused The Brit Box is. Although it's assembled in chronological order, there is no narrative thrust to the four discs, as certain threads are dropped entirely -- the dance-rock innovations of Primal Scream and Happy Mondays are forgotten by the time the set gets to the mid-'90s, even though electronica was so pervasive at this time, Noel Gallagher was singing with the Chemical Brothers, a cross-pollination this set never comes close to acknowledging -- while musical logic is sacrificed in favor of cutesy sequencing, with Gene's "Sleep Well Tonight" followed by Menswear's "Sleeping In," Cast's "Alright" piggybacking Supergrass' "Alright," and Super Furry Animals' "Something 4 the Weekend" leading to the Divine Comedy's "Something For the Weekend." Such shenanigans are good for a chuckle when scanning a track listing, but they don't make for great listening, nor does the odd mix of selections from the titans of Britpop, where Blur is represented by the deep album track "Tracy Jacks" instead of the era-defining "Parklife" and "Girls & Boys" (or, if you want to get obscure, either of the influential singles "Popscene" or "For Tomorrow," for that matter) while their arch-rivals Oasis get the too-familiar "Live Forever" when they would be better served by something livelier and unexpected; and for as indelible as Suede's "Metal Mickey" is, "The Drowners" kick-started the Britpop phenomenon. This is a problem with second-tier bands as well -- Sleeper gets "Sale of the Century" instead of their fantastic one-shot "Inbetweener," Menswear's Elastica-aping "Daydreamer" is their great moment in the sun (which points out that for as wonderful as "Stutter" is, Elastica is indeed a band that could have also been represented by their biggest hit, "Connection") -- and these off-kilter selections don't quite balance out with the set's sharp inclusions, of which there are many, whether it's the obvious ("She Bangs the Drums," "Loaded," "There She Goes," "Here's Where the Story Ends," "Vapour Trail," "Only Shallow," "Common People") or cult favorites (Eugenius' "Breakfast," Babybird's "You're Gorgeous," Manson's "Wide Open Space").
Then again, each British scene from the '80s and '90s was so full of great singles that it'd be easy to pick songs at random and come up with something that is reasonably enjoyable, which The Brit Box is. The problem is, the box seems like it was assembled at random, as it has all those odd song selections, omissions both major and minor -- never mind that Radiohead is missing, where are the Auteurs, one-time rivals with Suede, where are one-hit wonders like Space's "Female of the Species" or Shampoo's ridiculous "Trouble," where are Orlando or any other Romo bands? -- and questionable inclusions (all these great bands were overlooked in favor of Superstar, Rialto, and Nick Heyward's lovely but tangential "Kite"?). Worst of all, it drifts from place to place, never making the connection between the C-86 aftershocks of the beginning of the set and the dream pop the pops up on the second disc, never setting up a context for how different the bright guitars of Britpop sounded in comparison to those soft, swirling harmonies, or making a case for the explosion of great pure pop tunes in the mid-'90s, for that matter. Instead, The Brit Box just throws a bunch of songs -- some great, some good, some notable only as a memory -- in a box, hoping that it will pass as an introduction to kids who know the name Misshapes as a club, not a song, or evoke some nostalgia, which it does, but anybody who lived through a time when these songs were on college radio or 120 Minutes will only think, "I remember how it was back then and it wasn't like this."