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Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Suede - "My Insatiable One"
Very few Britpop bands replicated the sex and swagger of Suede but there's no doubt that they kick-started the revolution in 1992/1993. The Stone Roses may have created the template for much of what followed, but without Suede's visceral sensuality, Britpop may have amounted to nothing more than Damon Albarn's master plan of reviving an England that never was, but Suede gave the movement heart and meat, turning the abstract into something quivering and alive. This was true on their first single, "The Drowners," backed by "To The Birds" and, this piece of unquestioned brilliance, "My Insatiable One." Brett Anderson happily blurs sexual boundaries -- he famously claimed he was a bisexual who never had a homosexual experience, which just meant he loved sensuality in all its incarnations -- as Bernard Butler unleashed thick sheets of guitar, the riffs and chords seamlessly intertwining with Anderson's melody. It's a loud, gorgeous piece of work, one that is far seamier and sexier than any bedsit indie of the '80s but retains the nervy outsider politics of the decade past. At the time, some recognized the song as the start of something new -- Morrissey covered the song during his Your Arsenal tour of 1992 -- and it still provides a searing, satisfying jolt unlike any song before or since.
Sleeper - "Inbetweener"
Britpop was littered with one-album and one-single wonders, and Sleeper was one of them. Led by Louise Wener, a Smiths disciple who learned the value of controversial press from Morrissey, Sleeper never translated across the ocean but at their best they were a barbed, clever pop band, musically indebted to tradition but happy to play with lyrical themes. "Inbetweener" captured the band at its best, a tight pop tune driven by its melody and words, not its riffs, chronicling a transient relationship -- the one between two major loves, an "Inbetweener." Wener has a deft eye for detail, something her insouciance undersells, but that's the charm of this song: it's simultaneously detached and heartfelt, offering a thrill but never committing to it.
Menswe@r - "Daydreamer"
If any group captured how ridiculous the Britpop boom was it was Menswe@r, a band that seemed inspired by the fashions of the time, not the music. Some might say they were signed because of their look, some might argue they were in the right place at the right time, but the fact is this: they captured the gold rush of the mid-'90s unlike any other band. They dressed like a sharper Blur -- reportedly, they were regulars at the Groucho Club and Good Mixer, venues frequented by Blur guitarist Graham Coxon -- some appeared in Pulp videos and on this, their biggest and best single, they shamelessly ripped off Elastica ripping off Wire. There's always a sense that Menswe@r didn't get it, that they didn't know why they were appropriating the moves they stole, but that's the beauty of the band: they were pure style and, in being so, they captured their time unlike any of their peers.
Oasis - "Round Are Way"
And then there was Oasis, the kings of Britpop, the ones who usurped Blur and turned the whole arty concept into a full-throated appreciation of everything that makes Britain British. And "Round Are Way," a B-side of their biggest hit, "Wonderwall," is the band's greatest celebration of England, a stomping celebration of close-knit neighborhoods and football matches worthy of Madness and Ian Dury, its sweet nostalgia undercut via a three-chord romp by way of Slade. Noel Gallagher tucked his delirious salutation to the mundane onto a B-side but Oasis performed it with gusto, piling on the horns and harmonica, Liam laying into the narrative with an undercurrent of nastiness that keeps this from being too bright. Sure, Oasis had bigger and better songs, but none sounded as thoroughly British as this piece of pop.
Pulp - "Cocaine Socialism [proper version]"
Like most trends, Britpop did not end neatly. It petered out, with some bands fading out and others winding up in the big leagues, some succumbing to the glitz and adulation of stardom. Oasis' Be Here Now captures the coked-out splendor of those end days, and Blur's 13 is mired in the undertow of another, slower narcotic, but Pulp's This Is Hardcore is the greatest and bleakest coda to the glory days of Britpop -- and its best song never appeared on the finished album. "Cocaine Socialism" was rewritten as "Glory Days" for the This Is Hardcore album release and the song was tucked way onto the B-side of "A Little Soul," given another shot at the big time when This Is Hardcore received a deluxe reissue in 2009. It is one of Pulp's greatest songs, preserving the moment when Britpop began to sell out, the moment when New Labour was ascendent thanks to the rise of Cool Brittania. In it, Jarvis Cocker rubs elbows with a Blair-ite who is on the make, somebody who knows the singer is a rock star but not sure what band he's in, then asks to do a line or two with the pop star. It's a brilliant piece of commentary on par with "Common People" -- a song referenced in the second verse, along with "Misshapes" -- capturing the unwitting condescension of a class just slightly more elevated than your own. "You owe it to yourself/Don't think of anybody else," sings the protagonist as the song reaches its end," illustrating how a movement that began on the fringe soon came corrupted and diluted. All counter-cultural forces reach that point, but "Cocaine Socialism" thrives because of its details: it's an anthem for the end of Britpop.
Elastica - Car Song
Britpop was by and large a boys' -- or rather, lads' -- club, with the likes of Blur and Oasis, and to a slightly lesser extent Pulp and Suede, dominating the headlines and the charts. The few female-fronted bands in the scene stood out by merely existing, but with singles like "Car Song," Elastica proved they had more than enough style and hooks to rival the big boys. Justine Frischmann's double entendre-laden lyrics and the song's spiky instrumentation paid homage to new wave rather than the glory days of British rock in the '60s, making for a side of Britpop that was a lot sexier and less overtly nostalgic than some of Elastica's XY-chromosomed contemporaries. And a lot more playful, too -- it's hard to imagine, say, the Gallagher brothers hunting down ghosts and Godzilla in a neon-lit Tokyo as Frischmann and crew do in "Car Song"'s video.
Lush - "Ladykillers"
Just as they arrived toward the end of the shoegaze wave, Lush were also fashionably late to the Britpop party, but they closed it out with the scene's best-written songs. An anthem of disappointment, "Ladykillers" catalogues a parade of men behaving badly with some of Miki Berenyi's most harshly eloquent lyrics, especially compared to the more abstract words she was writing just a few years before. While the entire song is quote-worthy, lines like "When he's nice to me/He's just nice to himself/And he's watching his reflection" stand out because they're as heartbroken as they are angry, a feeling echoed in the post-girl group "sha la la"s decorating Berenyi's bitterness. However, she and the rest of the band also leave a little room for some sadder-but-wiser sisterhood, making "Ladykillers" some of the catchiest commiserating of the lad-mag era.
Blur - "Charmless Man"
Appearing on Blur's unfairly maligned 1995 album, The Great Escape, "Charmless Man" is a catchy, guitar-driven number that details the life of a well-to-do fellow who's happiness and self-worth are hung upon the fragile, if gilded, framework of his privileged existence. Lead-singer Damon Albarn veritably spits lines like, “Educated the expensive way, he knows his Claret from a Beaujolais/ I think he'd like to have been Ronnie Kray/ But then nature didn't make him that way.” As with "Country House," the song reinforced the notion that the high life and excess of Cool Brittania (symbolized by the charmless man’s desire to be more like infamous British gangster Ronnie Kray) along with Britpop music, had come to an abrupt, if tuneful end. As Damon observed in the song, “He's just so keen for you to listen/But no one is listening.” Despite, or perhaps because of, the album’s success, there was a backlash in the press that implied Blur had succumbed to the same florid London excess and inauthentic middle-class mediocrity they were satirizing. Although Britpop was over, Blur were only two years away from their biggest success with the 1997 single, “Song 2.”
Gene - "Olympian"
Years before Dashboard Confessional and the rest of the emo class of 2000 would “yearn” their stripes on MTV, Gene were writing some of the most painfully desperate and romantic ballads this side of The Smiths’ “I Know It’s Over.” The title track to the band’s 1995 debut, "Olympian" just might be the most desperate and romantic of them all. Sure, Gene were among the most slavishly indebted to The Smiths of the Britpop bands, but in vocalist Martin Rossiter they had their own crooner without a cause, who could really and truly (no slag on Morrissey) carry a tune. Just listen to the way Rossiter barely shivers his way through the verses and draws out the word, "OH-LYM-PI-AN," and it’s a wonder they ever get past the first chorus. A poetic anthem for sexually ambiguous lust, emotional repression and a fragile desire for human connection, “Olympian” is a forgotten classic from one of the most overlooked and underappreciated bands of the era.
Longpigs - "On and On"
If you're from America you've probably never heard of Longpigs, let alone their lusty, gorgeous 1996 single, "On and On." That is, of course, unless you really enjoyed the Mission: Impossible soundtrack on which the song was featured. In fact, although they were fairly well-known in Britain, they're primarily remembered as guitarist Richard Hawley's other band, coming in second, behind the legendary Pulp. Showcasing the pained, if still sonorous lead vocals of Crispin Hunt, the song was a lust-ridden ballad that combined Suede’s David Bowie fixations with Oasis’ straightforward rock melodicism. Next to Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game,” the song also just so happened to get one of the sexiest video treatments of the ‘90s.
Denim - "Middle of the Road"
Denim’s main man Lawrence would likely be horrified to be included on a list of Britpop. He’s about the last guy you’d ever find waving a flag, unless it was for Lieutenant Pigeon. After his band Felt split in 1989, he hightailed it out of London for the lure of NYC and American rock but soon found himself back home because nobody in the US knew (or cared) who he was. Luckily, he channeled his love of simple punk, huge hooks, novelty songs, and slagging everyone into the incredibly good Back in Denim. We could talk about the brilliance of that record for about another 1,000 words, but let’s focus instead on the track from it that both invents Britpop and merrily rips it to pieces. Over a glitter pop backbeat, Lawrence tears into the history of rock & roll with a sick vengeance (“I hate the Stones and I hate blues/Eddie Cochran and Blue Suede Shoes”), calls into question everything that the yet-to-form Oasis will champion (“I hate riffs and guitar licks/I hate coke and I hate spliffs”) and ends by singing along to a sample of the deathless “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep” by ABBA wannabes Middle of the Road. It’s no wonder that the general public never caught on to Denim’s oddball genius, though a couple years later they did latch on to Jarvis Cocker’s more showy, showbizzy version of classic British eccentricity. Tough break, Larry. At least you can rest easy knowing you made a timeless classic album and that you’ll never be called on to get the band back together to tour on oldies bills with Salad, Shed Seven and Dodgy, or play acoustic sets with Noel, or make nice with the drummer out of Blur. (And yes, that is the Glitter Band’s Gerry Sheppard in the video.)
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