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Great Albums: Britpop

While America was suffering through grunge the U.K. underwent a lush pop music revival. How did a few bands transforming club music with live instruments lay the foundation for Oasis? Find out here...
March 19, 2005

Britpop arose from the sonic remnants of post-punk bands such as Joy Division and The Smiths. Northern England was saturated with illicit substances that influenced many musicians to shed the gloomy and pretentious sounds of their predecessors for a dance beat-charged revival of traditional British pop styles that emerged during the '60s British Invasion. Soon, drug-popping club kids were picking up guitars and forming bands like the Happy Mondays, who in turn influenced others, like The Stone Roses. Bands such as these mixed psychedelia and jangle pop into a formula that lead to a short-lived neo-British Invasion of America, which delivered such bands as Jesus Jones and EMF.

Once the party was over, acts began to emerge that seemed to take seriously the carrying of the traditional musical torch. Suddenly hard-hitting guitar-based pop dominated the popular British conscience, giving way to a resurgence of glam rock, atmospheric psychedelic rock, and new romanticism. All this was happening during the era of grunge in America.

The Stone Roses - The Stone Roses (1989)

In 1989, The Stone Roses released The Stone Roses, which emerged during an era heavily saturated by UK house and acid house. This eponymous album managed to fuse Manchester and London's affinities for dance-oriented beats with sonic styles reminiscent of eras past, such as psychedelic rock and '60s pop-guitar structures. Aside from defining a sound that would be tagged "baggy," The Stones Roses literally opened the door for the commercial viability of acts like Inspiral Carpets, Charlatans UK, Happy Mondays, and arguably the whole of the shoegazer movement.

The UK charts were very kind to The Stone Roses in 1990. Four of the band's singles landed in the top 40, and the group went from playing small clubs to selling out stadiums, with attendance climbing as high as 30,000. Audiences were addicted to the narcotic-inspired pop transmitted by The Stone Roses. Club hits, like "She Bangs the Drums," "Fool's Gold," and "Elephant Stone," were inserted among wall-of-sound psychedelia that treaded on ground being tilled by the likes of Ride and My Bloody Valentine.

The Stones Roses suffered from the weight of their success, however. Legal battles with the label, as well as internal strife, led to a five-year void between the band's phenomenal debut and its sophomore release. Shortly after The Second Coming was released, The Stone Roses disbanded. Though critics and fans alike dished cold reviews upon the release, we here at MP3.com agree the album is worth a listen.

The La's - The La's (1990)

This is the LP in this list with the most mysterious background. The La's debut and final album was not even supposed to be released to the public. According to Lee Mavers, The La's eccentric front man, it was never finished and remains to this day incomplete...and "rubbish." The band's record company rushed to release the album in 1990, which then achieved critical and commercial acclaim (only after Mavers supposedly attempted to rerecord it a fifth time). According to La's lore, Mavers would only record on original Abbey Road Studios' decks. When he still couldn't get the sound he wanted, Mavers looked over the equipment and made a comment about the decks not having enough Abbey Road dust on them. (We're not kidding, folks.)

The album itself owes more to The Beatles and The Hollies than to The Smiths. It's infectious, optimistic, and short, just like its 1960s inspiration. The stand out track, There She Goes, is a constant on the radio to this day, and it supposedly single-handedly pays for Mavers' reclusive lifestyle. supposedly single-handedly pays for Mavers' reclusive lifestyle. "Looking Glass," the album's closer, rivals The Stone Roses' "I Am the Resurrection" as the genre's bloated, epic masterpiece. The album's contribution to the genre is immense once commented that he started Oasis to finish what The La's had started.

Over the years, the myth of Mavers, who has all but sequestered himself from the world, has been built to grail-like proportions. Is he still recording? Is it true that his new songs, which few have heard, are the best thing to come out of Liverpool? We'll never know. We're just going to have to settle for this one brilliant album...and hope.

The Charlatans UK - Some Friendly (1990)

Straight out of the gate, Charlatans UK never received a fair shake. Firstly, the band was accused of producing a carbon copy of the "Madchester sound," which was defined by The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays. Secondly, the group's name acted as an affirmation of the first point. However, Some Friendly injected traditional British Invasion elements into modern psychedelia, resulting in dreamlike pop that was both immediately accessible and sonically unique.

Some Friendly flaunts a happy-go-lucky veneer, but lurking below the surface are very melancholic songs. While the beat groove of "The Only One I Know" remains the best-known song, tracks like "Then" and "Sproston Green" provide clear insight into the paranoid psychotropic excesses typified by the era. Of course, just when you think the despondent guitar washes and warm organ are carrying Some Friendly into some post-chill-out lake of introspection, a track like "Polar Bear" emerges with hypnotic dance-floor fury. But again, pay attention to Tim Burgess' lyrics as they stand in stark contrast to the omnipresent fun vibe. This album is extremely deceptive and has, surprisingly, remained rather fresh-sounding. The Charlatans UK would find themselves diving deeper into the stereotypical mid '90s Britpop sound, but this album remains a testament to the resurgence of '60s psychedelic pop.

Blur - Parklife (1994)

Parklife followed in the wake of Blur's sophomore release, Modern Life Is Rubbish, which cemented and solidified the group's position as heir to the Britpop revivalist throne. The band didn't miss a beat. Parklife presents a concept album that leads listeners through a living, breathing museum of British rock history. With seamless execution, Blur mimics styles defined by The Kinks, The Small Faces, The Jam, and XTC.

The album was a phenomenon in the UK. The sonic pastiche that Parklife created was both a scathing social commentary and a celebration of English tradition. Singer Damon Albarn lyrically sculpts a multidimensional representation of modern English life that, at times, matches the despair that forerunners such as Pink Floyd created. Actually, on "Far Out" it sounds as if Albarn has locked himself in a light-tight room assiduously studying Syd Barrett's Madcap Laughs. Albarn's lyricism is matched with astoundingly intelligent musical backdrops. "To the End" calls to mind Beatles producer George Martin mixing a Burt Bacharach tune, while "Girls & Boys" mashes the disco-fried experimentations of the Cure, circa 1995, with the seemingly vacuous fashion of Duran Duran. In all honesty, Parklife borders on perfection and deserves any and all praise tossed to it.

Oasis - Definitely Maybe (1994)

Undeniably, when Americans think of Britpop, they think of Oasis...and that usually ends the discussion. The reasons for this revolve around two very popular albums: Definitely Maybe and (What's the Story) Morning Glory. While Glory is the one that shot the band into superstardom, Definitely Maybe is the better of the two. And along with early '90s LPs from Blur and Suede, Oasis brought British guitar rock back in to the mainstream. While many criticize the band for its overt Beatles influences and haircuts, no one denies Noel Gallager's songwriting, which, coupled with his brother's trademark snarl, is definitely something to remember.

While the infighting between the two brothers and a rivalry with Blur would later take the spotlight, Definitely Maybe was all about the music. "Live Forever" and "Shakermaker," in particular, are two of the best songs in the collection, and they stand up much better than many of Glory's more popular ballads. The album is also grittier than the band's later work, and tracks like "Rock 'N' Roll Star" are at least partially responsible for bringing crunch guitar out of a grunge movement that had enveloped the world for the previous half decade.

Suede - Dog Man Star (1994)

Our assumption is that many Suede fans ran to their local record shop, purchased this album, ran home, put it on, and repeatedly debated as to whether 33 or 45rpm was the correct speed. Here, Suede trades in the paint-by-numbers glam rock executed on its debut for sonic tragedy. Dog Man Star borders on melodramatic ridiculousness, as vocalist Brett Andersen delivers lyrics penned while in the midst of a self-induced hermetic vision quest. The album also marks the final appearance of founding guitarist Bernard Butler, who departed prior to the work's completion, which makes Dog Man Star's cohesiveness all the more difficult to comprehend.

Every song on the album feels as though it were being translated from Suede's collective dream journey...as if the listener were not hearing it firsthand. The vocal work is haunting, the guitar feverish yet distant, and the general production rich with romanticism. This is an album best listened to on a cold winter's night, next to a fire, while you contemplate the lover who's escaped your grasp.

Pulp - Different Class (1995)

A companion piece to Blur's Parklife, Different Class covers similar territory in that it focuses primarily on British social class and rule. Where it differs, however, is in its overly thematic and theatrical sonic tendencies. With a sound more similar to The Phantom of the Opera than to a Beatles album, Different Class is well different. Overdramatic vocals, character-driven lyrics, and Cure-like synth work combine to create the band's catchiest album. And let's be honest, the genre isn't known for its catchiness, so this is quite an accomplishment.

The cover for Different Class is a simple wedding photo--a favorite of Britpop fans--that complements the album's focus on status and sex. "Common People," the famous single, narrates the story of a rich girl who parades the streets of the slums searching for lower-class sexual thrills. Other tracks, including "I Spy," "Live Bed Show," and "Underwear," contribute to the album's somewhat pessimistic thoughts on sex and love. With Different Class, Pulp front man Jarvis Cocker had perfected his songwriting skills and penchant for drama. The result is an album that just sounds complete.

Radiohead - The Bends (1995)

In 1993, Radiohead was thrust into popularity with the self-deprecating single "Creep," from the group's debut Pablo Honey. Despite the albums apocalyptic pop brilliance, nothing could have prepared audiences for the genius that lay ahead. The Bends was a gigantic leap from its predecessor, yet it still only provided a glimpse into the complex sonic universe that would be OK Computer.

The Bends drapes noise-rock themes over Britpop structures with ease, allowing the album to sway from anthemic rock to desperate atmospherics. The album's title track showcases the band's tendencies toward assailing triple-threat guitar work, while "Fake Plastic Trees" perfectly summarizes the lyrical anguish and desperation so often revisited by Thom Yorke. The Bends may forever walk in the shadow of OK Computer, but it's worth exploring, as it perfectly captures the transitional stage of a group desperately seeking to voice its desire to create the perfect pop song while perpetually experimenting to avoid classification.

Supergrass - In It For The Money (1997)

If ever there was a band on this Earth to clap your hands to, it would be... well, Sly and the Family Stone. Second on that list would be Supergrass. No one in Britain does upbeat guitar rock better than Supergrass. Although not an entirely original album, In It for the Money, Supergrass' second release, is a beautiful one. Full of lush guitar work that exudes the kind of clean happiness you'd expect from your favorite bar of soap, the album feels bright without getting gummy.

The title track has the kind of bass-driven buildup that would become a trademark of the band, and the feeling carries through the rest of the album. Late in the Day is one of the aforementioned hand-clap songs. While the lyrics of the songs themselves aren't neccesarly optimistic, you'll always find yourself tapping your feet to the tunes. Britpop, as a genre, has never been very danceable, but In It for the Money, and the albums to follow from Supergrass, defied that idea.

The Verve - Urban Hymns (1997)

The Verve only lasted thee albums before it imploded and disbanded. Urban Hymns was its swan song, and the album was most definitely the best one of the bunch. Britpop hadn't seen a vocalist of Richard Ashcroft's quality since Morrissey. Like The Smiths front man, much was publicized about Ashcroft's infighting with his writing partner and lead guitarist Nick McCabe. Also at the heart of their breakup was a legal battle with The Rolling Stones, who claimed a large chunk of Urban Hymn's profits resulted from a sample used for "Bittersweet Symphany," the album's hit single and opening track.

While "Bittersweet Symphany" is the song everyone remembers from the album, most forget that Urban Hymns in its entirety is a brilliant album filled with great tunes. It's not only one of the better albums of the genre, but also of the decade. "Weeping Willow," "Lucky Man," and "Catching the Butterfly" were athemic dirges that spiraled into guitar-driven oblivion remiscent of The Stone Roses debut. While it's unfortunate the band broke up, we can at least be thankful that the infighting fueled the cacophonous battle of voice and guitar that resulted in this album. Richard Ashcroft, who later achieved a moderately successful solo career, would never hit the same heights again.

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