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  • Lists & Guides: The 50 Best Britpop Albums
    Posted by Pitchfork Staff on March 29, 2017 at 5:00 am

    Lists & Guides: The 50 Best Britpop Albums Photo by: Illustration by Jack Dylan “‘Britpop?’ It’s just a shitty-sounding word,” Jarvis Cocker told Pitchfork this month. “I don’t like the nationalistic idea of it; it wasn't a flag-waving music. It was really distasteful when it got called ‘Britpop’ because that was like somebody trying to appropriate some kind of alternative culture, stick a Union Jack on it, and take the credit for it.” But Britpop, by any other name, still would’ve been a phenomenon. Born in London in the early 1990s, in grimy pubs and bare flats, the scene offered a thrilling new soundtrack for young British life. Bands like Suede, Blur, Oasis, Elastica, and Cocker’s Pulp captured the charms and eccentricities of their country while also excising their frustrations with class and community, topping it all with a defiant, tongue-in-cheek glamour. Their guitar-heavy anthems drew from the rock of 1960s England along with the pulse of waning Madchester and alt-rock trends, exporting this exuberant sound to every corner of the globe. By the late ’90s, this once-scrappy scene was so culturally powerful, it inspired tabloid blood rivalries (Blur vs. Oasis) and was hijacked by politicians (Britpop’s star emissaries, including Cocker and Oasis’ Noel Gallagher, were invited to meet Prime Minister Tony Blair). The cultural flash faded around the turn of the millennium, but not before Britpop reinvigorated rock‘n’roll, moving its epicenter from American grunge back across the pond. But more than geography and quick wit twines the Britpop scene together. With this list, we are defining Britpop as the musical scene active in the United Kingdom in the mid-’90s. Particularly, we are looking at the guitar-based musicians who shared focus on anthemic melodies, social observations of British culture and daily life, and their country’s musical heritage. Voters in this list come from the U.S., the UK, and Canada, and in the process of assembling it, we discovered that each location had a slightly different idea of what Britpop entailed; the final result represents the aggregate sensibility of its contributors. We’re not looking so much to progenitors (i.e. the Smiths, the Stone Roses), or alternative rock acts that followed (Coldplay, Kasabian), and location is also a factor—sorry, Anglophile rockers in the colonies. But before we dive into all that, let’s choose life with the director of the film that, as much as anything, made the world fall in love with Britpop. MILE END AND NEEDLE DROPS: DANNY BOYLE ON BRITPOP AND THE MUSIC OF TRAINSPOTTING Pitchfork: Britpop was an important part of the Trainspotting soundtrack: Blur, Pulp, Sleeper, Elastica. What role did music play in creating that film in 1996—what were you listening to? What were you energized by? Danny Boyle: Everything. It’s one of the things the film’s about, in a way. Music was an autonomic function for me. I just knew everything about music; I didn’t even think about it. And then you get older, there’s obviously a tipping point where you don’t know everything about music, and somebody mentions a band and you go, “What? Who?” That’s the tragedy of getting older, I suppose, for someone who was as obsessed with music as I was. Initially, certainly with the first couple of my films, people regarded my use of music as non-classical filmmaking—even though people like Scorsese were doing it. There was outrage that I was cutting everything like MTV, like a kind of pop video. But actually, I loved pop videos. Adored them. Thought they were a breath of fresh air and a great cultural moment. And these characters, especially when you read the book, they are pop culture. It’s part of the architecture of their lives, like it is for so many of us.    The whole archaic notion of highbrow/lowbrow. Right, all that. The heartbeat of the film was this Underworld album, dubnobasswithmyheadman... We used one track from that album and a new track that they put out as an unsuccessful single, “Born Slippy,” which I found in an HMV store. At the time, although we weren’t as aware of it as you’re aware now, Britpop was happening. It’s been emulsified as an occasion, in retrospect. But at the time, it didn’t feel like it. I remember Jarvis Cocker and Damon Albarn coming in to watch a rough cut of the film. Damon wasn’t sure about it; he was worried about the drugs side of it. But Jarvis said to him, “Oh, no, it’s like, really cool, man,” and sent us a few songs. Pulp’s “Mile End” was new for the soundtrack, right? It was, and I lived in Mile End. It was unbelievable; it was like synchronicity. I mean, I still live there. The area's been gentrified a bit now, like so many places, but at the time it was pretty rough. I was so proud of that.  So Damon Albarn, who at times had a bit more of a party reputation than Jarvis Cocker, was the one who had reservations about the content? I mean, it was very disturbing at the time to watch it, because obviously it was a celebration of youth, really, of that time of life, in all its recklessness and carelessness, and obviously when you bring heroin into that equation, it’s quite hardcore. But [Albarn] was great, and he gave us this song, and I remember him saying, “I haven’t got a title for it.” And I said, “Oh, there’s an amazing phrase in Irvine [Welsh]’s book where he calls heroin users ‘closet romantics.’” They’re romantic people the drug affects most terribly, and they’re often, in Irvine’s experience—certainly as it’s expressed through the book—those that can’t even acknowledge they are romantic. And it kind of seals their fate, really, for their life. And so he called it “Closet Romantic.”  When you fit music to film, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t work. But it was weird—everything we did seemed to work then. Obviously the film was made in that spirit of a time in your life but in reality, the characters span an almost unnatural length of time as young men—because their references are actually punk, which is my era, and kind of Britpop, which is more like the actors’ era. And there’s like 15 years between us. They couldn’t really have gone to see Iggy [Pop] in concert. That’s an amazing scene in the book and it leads to the obsession with “Lust for Life.” So they couldn’t really span all of that time, but of course it’s a movie, so you can compress time, extract time, avoid it. We didn’t use any score music at all; it’s all what they call “needle drops.” Even though it’s a very emotional rollercoaster, there's no manipulative music, no almost-invisible score music which you use to manipulate emotions. It’s all purposeful and highly presented in terms of volume. Nothing is floated in subliminally. Everything's like, “Ping!” Here’s the song. It’s just as important as the dialogue. It’s just as important as the characters.   Illustration by Jack Dylan Were you going to a lot of shows when you were working on Trainspotting?   Yeah. Not so much now. It’s that same story. In the preparation for the new Trainspotting film, we did talk about repeating a scene that’s in the original book: They all go to an Iggy concert in Glasgow and Tommy, the character who dies, has a spiritual moment where Iggy looks at him from the stage and sings the line, “Scotland takes drugs in psychic defense” to him. And when we were talking to Iggy about using “Lust for Life” early on, I was telling him we might do a scene at one of his concerts and the guys would be older, going back, remembering one of their heroes who was still working. It didn’t work out, unfortunately, because he was in South America by the time we were shooting, but Iggy remembered the story from the book and he remembered that line. He had read the book. I mean, I was amazed.   Were you one of the ones who went to Glastonbury and saw Pulp’s iconic performance in ’95? No, I never did that. I remember watching it live on the telly, saw “Common People.” That’s one of the great moments. Irvine sent me a link the other day saying what’s-his-name, Captain Kirk, had recorded “Common People.” William Shatner. Star Trek! He recorded “Common People”! He records all these songs apparently and they’re slightly jokey but quite good versions. So anyways, yeah, I’d seen Pulp at the Brixton Academy, probably before Glastonbury. I’ve never been to Glastonbury, but my daughters go. Your song choice as director of the 2012 Summer Olympics’ opening ceremony was fascinating. “Song 2” was one of them. That’s an amazing song. My argument in presenting the Olympics was: Listen, you want to talk about what we are good at? We were good at the Industrial Revolution. That was a long time ago. What are we good at now? Music. Culture. We’re really good at it. We should be prouder of it, spend more money on it, promote it more, educate kids more into it—that it’s theirs and that we’re good at it. Fuck’s sake. I remember trying to fit “Wonderwall” in and I just couldn’t fit it in anywhere. Speaking of Oasis, I read that you wanted Oasis in the original Trainspotting soundtrack but they took the title too literally and refused. Is that true? I’ve heard that story as well, but I have no idea whether that’s true. It’s funny because obviously I remember promoting the first film, having to explain the title, especially in America because the word had no meaning at all. It was like a made-up word. Now there are so many more connections with geek culture—you know, internet obsessives. It just has so much more resonance.    Lastly: Oasis or Blur? I knew you’d do that! Well I come from Manchester, you see. So that’s my answer. Danny Boyle is the Academy Award-winning director of Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire, 28 Days Later..., and T2 Trainspotting, in theaters now. Interview by Stacey Anderson Denim Back in Denim Boy's Own 50 After the indie enigma Lawrence (born Lawrence Hayward) ended his project Felt in 1989, he made plans for a new band, a new decade and—this time, surely—imminent fame. His schemes were typically idiosyncratic. In 1990, as Lawrence’s indie peers turned onto dance music, betting his reputation on the guitar crunch of glam rock would have seemed perverse. But for once, Lawrence’s studio perfectionism brought him in sync with the times: Back in Denim came out at the end of 1992, at the start of Suede’s glam-driven rise. The 1970s, and its pop templates, had suddenly come in from the cold. Back in Denim is more than just a nod to the 1970s: It’s a memoir of the decade as seen by a British kid (“The Osmonds”), an acting-out of boyhood superstar dreams (“Back in Denim”), and a pledge of devotion to better times (“I’m Against the Eighties”). Like most of Lawrence’s projects, it relies on his slightly nasal, flat-affect voice, which can be a hard taste to acquire. But this time, Lawrence is backed by the famed producer John Leckie (Public Image Limited, the Fall), which makes the stomping, platform-booted hooks sound authentically massive. In the end, Denim came no closer to the big time than Felt, but Lawrence’s tunnel-vision dreams of the 1970s and his unashamed pop aspirations helped light Britpop’s fuse. –Tom Ewing Listen: Denim: “Back in Denim” James Laid Mercury / Fontana 49 In the early 1990s, even when whip-smart Britpop singles seemed to vie for national anthem status in the UK, they rarely got many spins on American radio. But when James released “Laid”—with its cross-dressing, therapist-referencing protagonist—one of Britain’s most intelligent bands finally broke through to the States. By then, they had been around for nearly a dozen years; they’d already toured with the Smiths, partied at the Hacienda, and had hits with the Madchester anthem “Come Home” and the poppy “Sit Down.” Laid is emotionally ragged, earnest, and rife with dashed dreams of romantic and religious security. Tim Booth repeats lyrical phrases like meditative mantras, particularly with his cries of “Here they come again!” on “Out to Get You.” Producer Brian Eno gently but significantly expands the band’s textural palette, adding synthesizers and emphasizing reverbed slide guitar (the latter inspired by James' 1992 acoustic tour with Neil Young). James would never have a hit like “Laid” again, but crucially, they showed the value of reinvention to their tour openers that year: a young band called Radiohead. –Elia Einhorn Listen: James: “Laid” Echobelly Everyone’s Got One Fauve 48 Led by Sonya Madan, Echobelly stood out in a scene largely comprised of white guys with guitars. She wasn’t the only female in Britpop, of course, nor was she the only singer of Indian descent (Cornershop was led by Tjinder Singh), but Madan was singular in her confidence: She seized guitar rock from the lads, molding it in the shape of her bold personality. Madan was an acolyte of Morrissey, and a follower of his octave-leaping melodies and fey swoon, but on Everyone’s Got One, she’s not plagued with his self-doubt or irony. Look at the title: It reduces to an acronym of EGO, no coincidence for a band whose first hit single was “I Can’t Imagine the World Without Me.” Echobelly hit harder than the Smiths: Their guitars slice and roar, clearly indebted to the neo-glam explosions of Suede’s Bernard Butler. Furthermore, the tempo on Everyone’s Got One doesn’t slow until "Taste of You," the halfway point, which gives it a certain relentlessness; still, they flash a sentimental streak on "Insomniac," which pairs that thunder with vulnerability not heard much elsewhere. It’s a sly, affecting grace note on a record that captures the unbridled self-confidence of Britpop. –Stephen Thomas Erlewine Listen: Echobelly: “I Can’t Imagine the World Without Me” Placebo Without You I’m Nothing Elevator Music / Hut / Virgin 47 Brian Molko is bad at a number of things. Chief among them: picking cover art, quoting Bob Dylan, and judging his own work. Upon the celebration of Placebo’s 20th anniversary, the frontman ranked his albums, a futile exercise for a band with only one standout—and he placed it sixth. Without You I’m Nothing establishes, once and for all, everything Molko is good at: First and foremost, rhyming words with “weed” and making straight men ask themselves a lot of questions while watching the “Pure Morning” video. Placebo’s taste is impeccable here, cribbing Sonic Youth’s dissonant guitar squalor, block rockin’ beats, and a reverent take on David Bowie’s gender-bending queen bitch shtick that impressed the man enough to feature on a remix of the title track. But Molko’s genius lies in repackaging all that into pithy, pissy anthems for the sullen, sexually curious teens who were reflexively turned off by Britpop’s rigid heteronormativity, and whose access to pop culture only went as far as the mall or basic cable. Yeah, the Bowie cosign must’ve been nice, but the crucial placement of “Every You Every Me” in the Cruel Intentions soundtrack confirms Without You I’m Nothing’s true legacy as Britpop’s finest piece of late-’90s alterna-trash. –Ian Cohen Listen: Placebo: “Every You Every Me” The Divine Comedy Casanova Setanta 46 If the central tension of Britpop was middle-class (Blur) vs working-class (Oasis), that left an obvious space for the upper class. Enter Neil Hannon, son of an Irish bishop, who takes wicked delight in playing the louche aristocrat throughout Casanova. His plummy tones, sprightly hooks, and appetite for pastiche means there’s something joyful in every track, even if there’s usually something preposterous, too. This irrepressible bonhomie made Hannon a star, championed by the same tastemakers who’d embraced “lad culture” and Oasis. But maybe that wasn’t such an unlikely alliance: Casanova is an album about sex—or, rather, the pursuit and consequences of it—and underneath the jollity and artifice, darker notes sound. The wannabe pick-up artist of “Becoming More Like Alfie” and the jaded and jilted narrator of “The Frog Princess” are insecure and sour; the jokester of “Through a Long & Sleepless Night” brims with melodramatic venom, and Hannon never glosses over the grubby and dishonest aspects of male desire. The Scott Walker-influenced final track finds the once-great lover on his deathbed, alone save for his faithful horses and hounds: It’s grandiose and pompous but beautiful nonetheless, a fitting farewell for a deceptively high-spirited album. –Tom Ewing Listen: The Divine Comedy: “Theme from Casanova” Mansun Attack of the Grey Lantern Parlophone 45 If Paul Draper had kept his nerve, Mansun’s debut album would’ve been a superhero origin story and the unlikely upstart that bested Be Here Now, Urban Hymns, OK Computer, and Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space for the most grandiose British rock album of 1997. Instead, Draper admittedly "ran out of steam" and delivered “half a concept album—a con album," a sly acknowledgment of the pretentious trickery at the core of these projects. Though the inexplicably resequenced American version of Grey Lantern made any storyline a moot point, we’re lucky that “Dark Mavis,” “Stripper Vicar,” and “Egg Shaped Fred” aren’t plot points but rather pop songs on one of the most beguiling records to ever hit No. 1 in the UK. Glam, prog-rock, James Bond themes, record-scratch effects, Rule Britannia kitsch, a seven-minute interpolation of the Revolver song about taxes, a panoramic glam-folk single remixed by Paul Oakenfold when that sort of thing mattered—it's all here, and nothing else sounds like The Grey Lantern. –Ian Cohen Listen: Mansun: “Wide Open Space” Edwyn Collins Gorgeous George Setanta 44 The most famous track on Edwyn Collins’ third album is his ingenious 1960s throwback “A Girl Like You,” one of the best singles of the Britpop era. Highlighted by the ex-Orange Juice frontman’s aloof, Bowie-esque croon and a recurring marimba lick played by Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook, “A Girl Like You” became an unexpected hit after it appeared in the 1995 Gen-X comedy Empire Records. In the U.S., where “A Girl Like You” hit the Top 40, the song epitomized Britpop for many Americans; no song by Blur or Pulp ever charted so high stateside. However, anyone who sought out more tunes like “A Girl Like You” on Gorgeous George was bound to be disappointed: The rest of the LP is quieter, predominantly acoustic, and slyly sardonic. An important figure in European post-punk, Collins never set out to be a pop star. On songs like “The Campaign for Real Rock” and “North of Heaven”—the latter of which includes a then-timely dig at Guns N’ Roses—Collins is content to be the clever outsider. But “A Girl Like You” put Collins in the mainstream by exporting a familiar British commodity: timeless, James Bond-style cool. –Steven Hyden Listen: Edwyn Collins: “A Girl Like You” Catatonia International Velvet Blanco y Negro 43 Catatonia frontwoman Cerys Matthews made headlines for boasting that International Velvet’s lead single, “Mulder and Scully,” was better than Oasis’ single “All Around the World.” Their “X-Files” reference was a gamble—nostalgic at the time, with Matthews wrapping her thick Welsh accent around those sci-fi detectives—and it pushed the band to the top five of the UK album charts. It was an able representation of their second album, who reference cultural trivia throughout: “I Am the Mob” winks at The Godfather, and “Road Rage” was inspired by an infamous 1996 murder case in which the victim was stabbed by his fiancée, who claimed the attack came from a stranger. The singles stalked the charts and cushioned Catatonia in the bosom of mainstream radio, their insatiable pop choruses still standing up as some of Britpop’s most immediate. The album has much more diversity to offer, too, from the downbeat intimacy of “Why I Can’t Stand One Night Stands” to the trippy beats of “Goldfish and Paracetamol.” Also notable: The confidence of the UK music industry was such in 1998 that the title track was sung in Welsh, rendering “International Velvet” Wales’ unofficial anthem. –Eve Barlow Listen: Catatonia: “Mulder and Scully” Ocean Colour Scene Moseley Shoals MCA 42 In 1996, the opening bars of Moseley Shoals were used to introduce guests on the British TV show “TFI Friday,” the place where Britpop’s finest characters were blasted into the homes of the public. There was no greater rubber stamp to secure this Birmingham quartet’s place among Britpop’s finest, and it was a significant feat for a band who rose up via Madchester, only to be too late to catch that wave with their 1992 debut. Soon enough, though, scene kingpins Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller were singing OCS’s praises, teeing up an audience for the group’s newly looser, R&B-inspired jams. Front-loaded with singalong staples such as “The Riverboat Song” and “The Day We Caught the Train,” Moseley Shoals moseyed its way onto indie dance floors and remains there to this day. During the summer of its release, workmanlike bands inspired by Northern soul and ’60s throwback were inescapable. Despite the fact Ocean Colour Scene remained brutally uncool, not least from their unwavering lack of pretense, they represented the art of big-hearted, blue-eyed rock’n’soul at a time when Britpop was becoming flashy and bombastic. –Eve Barlow Listen: Ocean Colour Scene: “The Day We Caught the Train” Space Spiders Gut 41 Often enough, bands throw everything but the kitchen sink into their debut albums to see what sticks. That's certainly true of Spiders, which contains rock (“Me & You Vs the World”), funk (“Voodoo Roller”), trip-hop (“Money”), and a trumpet solo (“Dark Clouds”). The album was almost too smart for its own good, and served proof that Britpop bands could—and arguably should—defy the retrogazing that was suddenly so trendy. Even within songs, Space’s genre-bending makes it impossible to define the foursome's sound, which comes across as psychedelic as Happy Mondays yet equally inspired by Cypress Hill and Ibiza nightlife. Recorded in Liverpool, Spiders was released via Gut Records, renowned for bold, unpredictable chart hits like Right Said Fred’s “I'm Too Sexy.” Employing the production clout of Nick Coler, who was integral to the KLF's style, these tracks are madcap narratives born from lyricist Tommy Scott's obsession with films, and the hilarious images have more in common with horror B-movies than anything that happened in Britain in 1996. For a band who looked to have their tongues firmly in cheek, they paved their own seriously inventive road. –Eve Barlow Listen: Space: “Me & You Vs the World” The Boo Radleys Giant Steps Creation 40 In 1993, the Boo Radleys were brimming with so much brazen creativity that not only could they steal their third album’s title from John Coltrane, they could live up to its next-level promise. Just as Britpop was coalescing as a movement, the Merseyside band was already waging a sonic assault on the scene’s retrograde sensibilities. Like many of their contemporaries, the Boos were devout students of the Beatles but, as adept as they were at ’60s psych-pop simulacrums, they were more interested in applying the anything-goes experimentalism of the post-Sgt. Pepper era to dub, free jazz, orchestral soundtracks, and other crate-digging concerns. The band’s formative shoegaze remains, but here it serves as the fabric that holds these disparate sounds together. On Giant Steps, it feels like the ground will drop out from underneath at any moment. Pensive harpsichord ballads erupt into symphonic cacophony (“Thinking of Ways”); breezy, flute-trilled, jangle-folk serenades are ravaged by swirling, tape-loop tornadoes (“Barney (...and Me)”). Aquatic reggae ripples into a tsunami of brassy pop grandeur (“Lazarus”). But the combination of guitarist/chief songwriter Martin Carr’s masterful melodicism and singer Simon “Sice” Rowbottom’s choir-boy croon keeps you floating safely throughout. Alas, Giant Steps would amount to just a tiptoe into the U.S. market for the Boos. That year, the band would get more stateside exposure for covering “There She Goes” by the La’s on the So I Married an Axe Murderer soundtrack—a faithful facsimile that, sadly, misrepresented a band who sought to change the shape of Britpop to come. –Stuart Berman Listen: The Boo Radleys: “Thinking of Ways” Super Furry Animals Radiator Creation 39 It’s a testament to the amount of blow being hoovered at Creation Records in the mid-’90s that, at one point, a band who released an EP titled Llanfairpwllgwngyllgogerychwyndrobwllantysiliogogogochynygofod (In Space) was bandied around as the next Oasis. And for a moment, Super Furry Animals seemed amenable to being Britpop by association, loading up their 1996 debut Fuzzy Logic with mad-for-it anthems that drew on genre-mandated proportions of ’60s psych and ’70s glam. But on their second album, Radiator, the band took the first exit ramp they could out of the Britpop rat race and began burrowing their singular path forward. While Radiator continued the melodic immediacy of its predecessor, it also established the fusion of guitar rock and electronic sonics that would become the band’s standby. The album also provided the first real evidence that Gruff Rhys’ charismatic croon was well suited to both wacky and weighty material: For every comical fuzz-punk rave-up about mythical bloodsucking monster-bats (“Chupacabras”), there was a rueful folky-Dory rumination on more existential evils (“Demons”). The band’s great progress can be most accurately gauged by the closer, “Mountain People”: What begins as a formal, Ray Davies-esque exercise in social observation gradually builds into a volcanic expulsion of squelching, thumping techno. And after conquering that fiery peak, Super Furriy Animals never looked back. –Stuart Berman Listen: Super Furry Animals: “Mountain People” McAlmont & Butler The Sound of McAlmont & Butler Hut 38 Bernard Butler’s last year with Suede was not a happy one, so it wasn’t a surprise when he left the band as they were completing their second album, Dog Man Star. Freed to pursue his lavish visions, Butler teamed with former Thieves singer David McAlmont on an album that functions as a riposte to the towering darkness of Suede’s sophomore record. Bright and bold, with an unapologetic debt to lush 1960s pop, The Sound of... McAlmont & Butler is both an album of its time and somewhat out of step with it. Much of this is due to the pair’s idiosyncrasies. McAlmont isn’t a soul singer, per se—he’s a cross between Terence Trent D’Arby and Glenn Tilbrook, a powerhouse with pop mannerisms. This suits a record that swings like the ’60s but is undergirded by a sense of New Wave songcraft: "What’s the Excuse This Time?" feels like a splice of Squeeze and Prince. McAlmont may be the frontman, but there is no doubt that this is Butler’s album: The Sound airs out his prog inclinations, with "You Do" running seven-and-a-half minutes as it becomes thoroughly intoxicated on its own swirls of strings and guitars. It’s a celebration of sound that exudes exuberance, a swagger that’s right in line with the heady indulgence of Cool Britannia. –Stephen Thomas Erlewine Listen: McAlmont & Butler: “You Do” Sleeper The It Girl Indolent 37 The It Girl launches with a clanging, slightly acidic chord that lands brusquely and takes its sweet time to dissipate—an assertive burst à la George Harrison’s kick into “A Hard Day’s Night.” But Sleeper’s second album is more than the retro ’60s photocopy favored by so many of their Britpop peers; it’s guileless in its bounce-along blend of skiffle guitar, riot-grrrl crackle, and jazzy basslines. There’s even a bit of the Clash’s punk-reggae furor on “Sale of the Century,” a glimpse at Sleeper frontwoman Louise Wener’s well-earned frustration: the glamorous singer was a lightning rod for sexist criticism, her light croon regularly maligned in fetid live reviews. The lads of Trainspotting didn’t shrink from Sleeper’s charms, though, when the band’s cover of Blondie’s “Atomic” nearly stole the show on that film’s iconic soundtrack. –Stacey Anderson Listen: Sleeper: “Statuesque” Teenage Fanclub Grand Prix Creation 36 “I don’t need an attitude,” sings Raymond McGinley on “Verisimilitude.” “Rebellion is a platitude/I only hope the verse is good.” By shedding the flannel and feedback of 1991’s Bandwagonesque and aspiring instead to power-pop perfection, Teenage Fanclub practically guaranteed that they would be underrated. In a notorious essay pitting them against Suicide, Nick Hornby framed the Scottish band as the acme of amiable middlebrow songcraft—a sincere compliment that sounded like faint praise. Still, what songs they are. Despite their unwaveringly American influences (the Byrds, Big Star), good timing brought Teenage Fanclub into alignment with Britpop at the precise moment that their musical chemistry peaked. (Liam Gallagher called them “the second best band in the world.”) McGinley, Gerard Love, and the endlessly melancholy Norman Blake are so evenly matched here that Grand Prix plays like a singles collection, every jingle-jangle riff and bittersweet harmony a delight. Ain’t that enough? –Dorian Lynskey Listen: Teenage Fanclub: “Sparky’s Dream” Black Grape It’s Great When You’re Straight...Yeah Radioactive 35 Britpop successes are stories of improbable survival: Maybe you weathered a ruthless tide of hype cycles, or transcended an imploding scene, or perhaps you just stayed together long enough to finally hit it big. Shit, maybe you just didn’t die. Shaun Ryder, of the Happy Mondays and later of Black Grape, can say all of this and more, and It’s Great When You're Straight...Yeah is a jubilant survival song. With the Happy Mondays, Ryder basically invented the deliriously debauched Madchester scene, and nearly killed himself a million times over in the process, but he didn’t make his masterpiece until he cleaned up (for the first time, anyway). It’s Great When You're Straight...Yeah is the moment, post-rehab and recovery, when parties start being fun again. The music—a fat, blocky, honking mix of horns, drum loops, and Ryder’s exuberant shouts—feels livelier and looser and more joyously warped than the Mondays ever did. And they are funnier: On "Kelly’s Heroes," Ryder lampoons the hero worship of the scene he spawned, and "Tramazi Parti" is a piss-take at the idea that taking lots of drugs could be fun in the first place. –Jayson Greene Listen: Black Grape: “Tramazi Parti” Ash 1977 Infectious / Home Grown 34 Ash seemed to want nothing to do with the Beatles/Kinks axis that dominated Britpop, instead mining the puppyish aggression and buzzsaw melody of the Undertones, their Northern Irish antecedents. Ash barely sounded like Britpop but sat neatly in a post-Pixies UK indie scene, as in love with Veruca Salt’s “Seether” as they were the Bluetones. (Football had their hearts, too: The cover of 1977’s calling card single, “Kung Fu,” depicts Manchester United star Eric Cantona executing a mid-match flying kick on a rival team supporter.) Ash’s reputation ultimately hinged on a brace of singles, “Girl From Mars” and “Angel Interceptor,” which provided a neater encapsulation of teen infatuation than any other Britpop act could. It didn’t hurt that Ash were young—Tim Wheeler and Mark Hamilton were still just 18 when those songs charted. If the mid-tempo hits “Goldfinger” and “Oh Yeah” sound like a dressing-up box raid on Suede and Oasis (with whom they share a producer in Owen Morris), and deeper cuts betray a Gallagher plod, the band channel their youthful vim to spend the last five minutes of the album (“Sick Party”) violently throwing up. –Laura Snapes Listen: Ash: “Girl From Mars” Black Box Recorder England Made Me Chrysalis 33 After he unwittingly helped invent Britpop with the Auteurs and retold terrorist history on Baader Meinhof, a solo concept album about Germany’s radical leftist Red Army Faction, the sui generis indie gadfly Luke Haines formed what was intended to be a duo with ex-Jesus & Mary Chain drummer John Moore. But when Black Box Recorder wrote their chilling first song, “Girl Singing in the Wreckage,” about a teen mom and her baby stumbling through the debris of a plane crash, they realized it required a female vocalist. Enter Sarah Nixey, an ingénue whose icy whisper could telegraph posh boredom just as convincingly as twisted sensuality. In his memoir Bad Vibes, Haines calls her “our Trojan horse.” Not that Black Box Recorder’s entry into the pop mainstream, with their debut album England Made Me, went so smoothly. Banned from radio for its deadpan chorus, “Life is unfair/Kill yourself or get over it,” the listless single “Child Psychology” embodies all that is unsettling about this quintessentially English release. An anthology of childhood vignettes and suburban tableaux laced with casual cruelty, the album cuts deepest when it goes quiet and introspective. Moore’s twinkling percussion situates Nixey’s damaged narrators inside a bleak dollhouse caked in the dust of memory; each track is a miniature chamber of horrors. –Judy Berman Listen: Black Box Recorder: “Child Psychology” Manic Street Preachers Everything Must Go Epic 32 Speaking in a new UK TV documentary about the Manics’ career-defining fourth album, bassist and lyricist Nicky Wire doesn’t mince words: “I fucking hated Britpop.” Specifically, it was the patronizing depiction of the working classes by the likes of Blur that most galled Wire. It prompted the dignified rejoinder of “A Design for Life,” an anthem that breathed hope into a band otherwise poleaxed by grief after the 1995 disappearance/presumed death of Wire’s best friend, guitarist Richey Edwards. With Everything Must Go, the Manics turned that grief into mourning glory, a sneaky blend of commercial power-pop hiding lethal lyrical cluster-bombs about the suicidal photojournalist “Kevin Carter,” the Alzheimer’s-debilitated artist Willem de Kooning (“Interiors”), and the unbearable suffering of animals in captivity (“Small Black Flowers That Grow in the Sky,” one of several posthumous Edwards lyrics on the album). Released into Britpop’s mainstream critical mass, the album went triple platinum, elevating the Welsh “culture sluts” to the UK arena circuit to peddle their sweet pain to tens of thousands. A vindication for the remaining trio, yet in Richey’s phantom presence, Everything Must Go remains a four-man masterpiece. –Simon Goddard Listen: Manic Street Preachers: “A Design for Life” Saint Etienne Foxbase Alpha Heavenly 31 An album whose biggest hit transposes a Neil Young song into dub reggae (“Only Love Can Break Your Heart”) couldn’t be accused of parochialism. Still, despite its breadth of reference, Saint Etienne’s collage-like debut reads overwhelmingly as a love letter to the capital, rebooting the myth of Swinging London for the sample-happy 1990s. Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs, two pop obsessives from suburban Croydon, were new to both the city and music-making, so Foxbase Alpha (named after an imaginary idyll they joked about as teenagers) has the quality of a dream taking shape, with singer Sarah Cracknell their new best friend and airy muse. “Girl VII” renders stops on the city’s tube network as glamorous as São Paolo and Valencia, while “London Belongs to Me” depicts Camden, soon to become Britpop’s grimy hub, as a hazy utopia where summer and youth are eternal. –Dorian Lynskey Listen: Saint Etienne:“Only Love Can Break Your Heart” Suede Sci-Fi Lullabies Nude 30 Put two Britpop fans of a certain age together and the conversation will turn quickly to CD singles. Often released in multiple versions to juice the lead track’s UK chart position, the CD single was a taxing format for artists, now on the hook for producing essentially twice as many B-sides. For some, that meant commissioning extra remixes or live tracks. But a few 1990s artists, including Suede, took cues from 1980s favorites like the Smiths and the Jam, treating B-sides with the same quality control as any other release. Suede managed to keep up both the pace and high bar of their B-sides over the first half-decade of their career, as evidenced by Sci-Fi Lullabies. At 27 tracks, it’s nearly the output of their three studio albums released over the same time period, and an exquisite set of aching, melancholy ballads (“The Big Time,” “High Rising") and sure-footed midtempo tracks (“To the Birds,” "My Insatiable One”). Overflowing with focused ideas, these tracks are neither the discard pile nor experiments or detours. The bassist doesn’t get to sing lead. There’s no drum-’n’-bass track. It’s just Suede doing Suede things— widescreen drama, kitchen-sink glamour—while carrying the torch of the great British single. –Scott Plagenhoef Listen: Suede: “My Insatiable One” The Charlatans Tellin’ Stories Beggars Banquet 29 One of Britpop’s greatest triumphs, born from one of its greatest tragedies. In 1995, when their eponymous fourth album entered the UK charts at No. 1, the Charlatans proved themselves the tortoise to the Stone Roses’ hare as the last men standing of early-1990s Madchester. In the summer of ‘96, they began its follow-up in giddy spirits, nailing the Top 10 bangers “One to Another,” “North Country Boy,” and “How High” in a single session. Then, three weeks before they were due to play their biggest show yet, supporting Oasis at Knebworth, keyboard player Rob Collins was killed while racing his car from a pub to the studio. The intended victory lap, Tellin’ Stories, instead became Collins’ wake, lacquering the album and its emotive title track in particular with a poignancy otherwise at odds with the prevailing euphoria. Completed with Primal Scream’s Martin Duffy filling in the gaps, Collins was respectfully given the last word with the closing instrumental, “Rob’s Theme.” That this remains the Charlatans’ biggest-selling and best-loved album is tribute enough to him. –Simon Goddard Listen: The Charlatans: “Tellin' Stories” Morrissey Vauxhall and I Parlophone 28 Once upon a stage in 1992, Morrissey draped himself in the Union Jack, a flag long sequestered by far-right nutjobs, prompting many an irate liberal to speculate on whether the former Smith harbored imminent plans to invade Poland. Dodging these slings and arrows, he instead retreated to a haunted manor studio in Oxfordshire, cocooned in Brighton Rock, Oliver Twist, and a 1950s documentary on Lambeth scamps, subsisting on an alleged diet of “pea parcels.” When he re-emerged in 1994, it was with his fourth—and, to date, best—solo album. Vauxhall and I is Morrissey’s “My Way”: wistful (“Now My Heart Is Full,” “Hold On to Your Friends”), touchingly thin-skinned (“I Am Hated for Loving”), and aggressively unapologetic (the chainsaw-revving “Speedway”). But above all else, it’s a musically elegant, lyrically eloquent defense plea that tells his detractors to kindly sod off. The public concurred, returning Morrissey to the UK No. 1 spot just as Britpop boomed and, before anyone had the chance to offer him an overdue “Sorry, Steven,” the Union Jack was suddenly everywhere, from Noel’s guitar to Ginger’s cleavage. Alas, with typically ill Morrissey fortune, all too soon he was writing rotten songs about window cleaners and being ritually crucified by the press once more. As you were, Britannia. –Simon Goddard Listen: Morrissey: “Speedway” Super Furry Animals Fuzzy Logic Creation 27 Like their Welsh peers the Manic Street Preachers, Super Furry Animals hated Britpop’s parochialism. Nevertheless, as Creation labelmates of Oasis, they were welcomed to the mid-’90s party, mischievously spiking the drinks with their psychedelic punk-pop. In Gruff Rhys, they boasted a singer equal parts Syd Barrett and Noggin the Nog, the perfect mouthpiece for a debut comprised of songs about UFO abductees (“Hometown Unicorn”), guitarist Huw Bunford’s hamster (“Fuzzy Birds”), George Foreman (“Something for the Weekend”) and “Hangin’ With Howard Marks,” an ode to the Welsh cannabis smuggler as featured on the album sleeve. A bit like a “Sgt Pepper’s Homely Welsh Punk Band,” Fuzzy Logic is bong-smoke bonkers but also beautiful—not least during “If You Don’t Want Me to Destroy You,” its eco-friendly fourth single, for which Creation granted them a £2000 promotional budget. Being Celtic space cadets, they naturally opted to blow the lot on a tank, paint it blue, and turn it into a mobile techno sound system. With fittingly fuzzy logic, they’d later sell the tank to Don Henley of the Eagles. –Simon Goddard Listen: Super Furry Animals: “If You Don’t Want Me to Destroy You” The Verve A Northern Soul Virgin / Hut 26 The Verve’s second album is a transitional work between the zonked-out psychedelia of 1993’s A Storm in Heaven and the epic balladry of the band’s most commercially successful LP, 1997’s Urban Hymns. That’s not a dig—if anything, A Northern Soul is a happy medium for the Verve, showcasing the band’s rocking and emotive sides with equal fervor. On one hand, A Northern Soul refines the guitar freakouts from the group’s debut, with songs like “A New Decade” and the title track embracing a spacey grandeur more akin to Pink Floyd than the punchiness of Britpop. This aspect of the Verve always put them out of step with their contemporaries, which might explain why they came to rely upon sweeping anthems by the time of Urban Hymns. On A Northern Soul, the Verve honed their formula on the luminous love song “On Your Own” and the breathtaking chamber ballad “History”—just in time to deploy “Bitter Sweet Symphony” a few years later. –Steven Hyden Listen: The Verve: “History” Hefner Breaking God’s Heart Too Pure 25 As the 1990s petered out and Britpop increasingly became the sound of post-Oasis knuckle-draggers, Hefner hit reset and helped carve out a corner of UK guitar music more indebted to its indie, shaggy-dog roots. Embraced by UK radio god John Peel while their contemporaries were appearing on Jools Holland’s mainstream TV show, Hefner were proud outsiders, spinning bedsit tales of librarians and the boys with nail-bitten fingers who wooed them. Hefner’s style was ramshackle throughout—veering from jangly, nervy uptempo guitar pop à la Violent Femmes to patient, loose balladry—and it’s Darren Hayman’s lovelorn lyrics that unite. On the band’s debut album, Breaking God’s Heart, Hayman examines the social and emotional equity of love and lust from every angle, cataloging seemingly quotidian sexual encounters for those who don’t actually experience them with regularity. Crucially, Hayman doesn’t slide into fantasy or role-playing the way geek-chic hero Jarvis Cocker did so effectively in Pulp. Instead, Hayman remains squarely in the common people camp, weighing the relative values of sex and romance, human connection, and heartache for people who have nothing else to do but dance and drink and screw. –Scott Plagenhoef Listen: Hefner: “The Sweetness Lies Within” Supergrass In It for the Money Parlophone 24 The video for Supergrass’ “Late in the Day” begins in stark black-and-white with frontman Gaz Coombes strumming away on an acoustic guitar, smoke trailing up from an ashtray on the arm of a lonely couch. It’s all very art-house, very serious-singer-songwriter—very reminiscent of the “Wonderwall” video. But then a pogo stick is thrown into Coombes’ hands and the trio head out into the streets, bopping through rain and over a car, showing off some neat one-legged stunts along the way. The clip is a winking fake-out from the Oxford group’s second album that highlights the most crucial part of their character: fun. Even when Coombes is singing about missing his girlfriend on tour or the treacherousness of burgeoning stardom, there’s always a Memphis horn blast, a McCartney-cute organ solo, a Townshend-whirling power chord, or a slinked-out Stones groove to keep things light, quick, and urgent. It’s only rock‘n’roll, and Supergrass never let you forget it. –Ryan Dombal Listen: Supergrass: “Late in the Day” Kenickie At the Club EMI 23 Within Britpop’s tacky class-war narrative, few bands took the high ground. “Blur vs. Oasis” was the lightning rod, but the era was aflood with performative stereotype fulfillment, enabling the media to paint an uncouth proletariat at war with the arty middle class. Kenickie were one group to fashion an antidote. Like Pulp, the Sunderland four-piece spoke to a working class for whom glamorizing bleak Britannia was not a matter of sport but survival. Their synth-dappled guitar-pop was deceptively vulnerable, a strange cocktail of elation and deflation; amid tributes to boozy weekend bacchanals were reflections on women’s desires and anxieties. Their songwriting sketched an alternative to girl power’s individualist rush: Instead of assuming an audience with the tools to empower itself, Kenickie showed hedonism to be a release valve, something fought for and snatched from the daily grind on scrappy nights out. A proper breakout hit never materialized, and their refusal to capitulate to the Britpop era’s narrowing definition of counterculture might be why. In the eyes of their sizeable cult, it’s also the key to their immortality. –Jazz Monroe Listen: Kenickie: “Acetone” Saint Etienne So Tough Heavenly 22 On So Tough, Saint Etienne conjure an ideal London, a place strung together with snippets of British movies and journalistic chatter, full of collective possibility. The opener “Mario’s Cafe” might be pop’s most blissful song about the buzz of simply hanging out with people you like, and the jaunty single “You’re in a Bad Way” is a comforting arm around a mournful shoulder. That track’s bubblegum sound reaches backwards, but So Tough is mostly a modernist, outward-looking record—where pop, dub, and house jams mingle with ballads you might find in the world-weary songbooks of European crooners. The latter work particularly well: The regal sweep of So Tough's most ambitious song, “Avenue,” and the poised sorrow of its finest one, “Hobart Paving,” showcase Sarah Cracknell’s pristine voice against their plush arrangements. Saint Etienne were part of a friendly assortment of imaginative groups, a proto-Britpop scene that also included Denim and the Auteurs; by the time it had hardened into the real thing, they felt alienated. So Tough stands as a snapshot of the Britpop that almost was: more cosmopolitan, more comfortable with the rest of the 1990s, and considerably more chic. –Tom Ewing Listen: Saint Etienne: “Hobart Paving” Gene Olympian Costermonger 21 Many Britpop bands looked back to the 1960s, but Gene were different: The Smiths were their ground zero. If seen from a certain angle, they could be perceived as a parody act. Sonic allusions run rampant on their debut, Olympian—Martin Rossiter sighs like Morrissey, “Haunted by You” opens with a ringing inversion of “This Charming Man”—but Gene also followed the Smiths’ blueprint more subtly, taking stills of films for their cover art and releasing their own Hatful of Hollow grab-bag of B-sides and live cuts the year after Olympian. All these Mancunian affectations from a group of Londoners are endearing because they're not calculating; this is a band that felt the love so deeply, it infused every portion of their music. Olympian functioned as a slightly melancholic tonic to the arrogance sweeping Britpop during the spring of 1995. Certainly, Rossiter and his mates also had self-confidence—and they were tougher than the Smiths, showing some measure of debt to Suede’s gnarly glam noise revival—but the tenor of Olympian is strikingly different than, say, Definitely Maybe. If Oasis wanted to get out of that dirty bedroom, Gene was happy to dwell within it, wish the world would slow down, and wallow within their dashed dreams. –Stephen Thomas Erlewine Listen: Gene: “Haunted By You” The Auteurs New Wave Hut 20 Although Luke Haines would probably hate you for saying it, the Auteurs were very much the thinking person’s Britpop act, a band whose songs spoke of failure, faded glamour, and the intellectual seediness of bedsit life rather than living forever and very big houses in the country. A strangely wistful yet venomous tone pervades the Auteurs’ debut album, New Wave, as if Haines doesn’t know whether to seduce his listeners or punch them in the mouths. The 12 songs are defiant and melancholy, Haines’ hungover croon draping over lovelorn guitar lines, simple percussion, and sporadic piano, offset at times by the addition of a cello. It’s sparse yet effective, with the Beatles and the Go-Betweens as clear touchpoints. Later, Haines revealed Nirvana’s influence, too—and if you squint a little, songs like “Bailed Out” and “Junk Shop Clothes” are not so many miles from the quiet emotional intensity of their “MTV Unplugged,” although Kurt Cobain would never write lyrics as deflating and witty as Haines’ scorching put-downs. –Ben Cardew Listen: The Auteurs: “Junk Shop Clothes” Lush Lovelife 4AD 19 With their third full-length album, the 4AD dreamers Lush dropped out of the shoegaze cocoon and hit the ground running. The reinvention succeeded, partly because the pivot to Anglocentric guitar pop was performed with the conviction of born extroverts. Their chatty early single “Ladykillers” gleefully savages hapless suitors’ pick-up games: A preening ladies’ man, a peacocking male feminist, and “school of charm” connoisseurs everywhere wither under Miki Berenyi’s been-there-done-that snarl. The subtext of songs like “Ciao!”—in which Jarvis Cocker spars suavely with Berenyi in a game of post-breakup oneupmanship—was that Lush were dealing Britpop the feminist counterpoint it sorely needed. The message prevailed in part because they didn’t reject the escapist thrills of sex and booze (this was, after all, the 1990s) but instead delivered righteous barbs with the joyful arrogance of snarky pub chat between mates. –Jazz Monroe Listen: Lush: “Ladykillers” Blur Modern Life Is Rubbish Food 18 Blur were most definitely “holding on for tomorrow” while putting together their second album. Their debut, 1991’s Leisure, left them on the wrong side of the dwindling Madchester trend, while mismanagement meant they ended up in the financial hole. They hit the States for a long, drunken tour in 1992, looking to settle their debts, but came back disenfranchised with the growing American influence on British culture (shameless capitalism chief among it). Damon Albarn and co. took it upon themselves to remind the UK of its roots, looking to classically British songwriters like Ray Davies, David Bowie, and Paul Weller while crafting the rock‘n’roll jangle that set the tone for Britpop. In his songs, mostly set around London, Albarn walks a fine line between completely jaded and vaguely hopeful, with no tune capturing this feeling better than lead single “For Tomorrow.” Albarn wrote the song on Christmas Day after Blur’s label demanded a hit, not seeing yet that they had tapped into the next big thing by topping retro English rock with the cynicism that would come to define Gen-X. Atop elegant strings, Graham Coxon’s rough-edged guitar riffs, and a patchwork of vocal harmonies, the then-25-year-old Albarn shares what he knows about the world: It kind of sucks, but what’s the alternative besides moving forward? Needless to say, things got a bit better for Blur from there. –Jillian Mapes Listen: Blur: “For Tomorrow” Shampoo We Are Shampoo Food 17 On their exhilaratingly bratty first album, Shampoo fused Britpop, teen pop, and riot grrrl—and the association horrified feminist punks, who dismissed them as a patriarchal product. It wasn’t an entirely fair criticism. Teenage best friends Jacqui Blake and Carrie Askew might’ve projected calculated vapidity in interviews (Melody Maker introduced them as “two alien teen snitches/queen bitches from Planet Peroxide”), but the duo didn’t meet in a boardroom. As the designated weirdos of their suburban high school, they’d co-authored a Manic Street Preachers fanzine before forming a band of their own. We Are Shampoo contains precisely the kind of music you’d expect from teen girls who bonded over dissident rock. Layering sugary hooks atop cartoonish AC/DC riffs, they ethered “saddo” dudes, gamers, and the “dirty old love songs” of Whitney and Mariah. Their anti-manifesto “Viva La Megababes” taunted rivals, “Hippie chicks are sad, and supermodels suck/Riot grrrls, diet girls, who really gives a fuck?” Not even their shouty juvenile delinquency jam “Trouble,” a hit in the UK, could bring them stateside stardom, despite placement on such youth-friendly movie soundtracks as Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and Foxfire. But it didn’t take long for their influence to go global in the form of another British act whose suspiciously familiar brand of impish pop feminism really was a corporate invention. –Judy Berman Listen: Shampoo: “Viva La Megababes” Morrissey Your Arsenal His Master’s Voice 16 By 1992, the blouse-wearing, flower-wielding Morrissey had beefed up both his look and sound. Newfound collaborators Alain Whyte and Boz Boorer came from the rockabilly scene; with cigarettes rolled firmly in sleeve, they brought a swagger that had eluded the ex-Smiths frontman’s previous solo releases, the mercurial Viva Hate and the dismal Kill Uncle. Bowie’s most valuable Spider From Mars, Mick Ronson, helmed production duties, bringing a powerful glam stomp. For the first time in half a decade, Moz had an unstoppable team and unstoppable songs. Your Arsenal found Morrissey throwing two fingers to his haters, lamenting assorted personal and societal failings, and dissecting the newly post-Thatcher working class identity with gusto. He vacillated between condemnation and an uncharacteristic cautious optimism as his band matched him mood-for-mood, tough as a Millwall brick one moment and then heartbreakingly tender the next. And as he examined English identity via the common people and embraced his fellow drowners in a sea of swimmers, some might say that Morrissey handed the blueprints of Britpop to the next generation. –Elia Einhorn Listen: Morrissey: “Tomorrow”  Cornershop When I Was Born for the 7th Time Wiiija 15 Part of the fun of the Britpop years was seeing bands rocket from the most obscure crannies of indie to the top of the charts. That one of them was Cornershop, riot grrrl allies who found initial fame by burning a picture of Morrissey outside his label HQ, still seems like a pinch-yourself moment. Cornershop’s third album, When I Was Born for the 7th Time, shows they deserved their fabulously unlikely slice of stardom. It’s the most affable of records, a loose collection of indie-funk jams with vocalist and songwriter Tjinder Singh threading deadpan wisdom between the beats. Scratch the easygoing surface and there’s invention at every turn, from “Funky Days Are Back Again”’s frazzled electro backing to Singh playing the heel on “Good to Be on the Road Back Home Again,” an oddball country duet with Tarnation’s Paula Frazer. But the record’s heart is its hard-won positivity, especially on “Brimful of Asha,” their cult hit turned real one. That song takes the DNA of Britpop—fuzzy memories alchemized into pop gold—and rewrites it for a British-Indian boyhood, with references to playback singers Asha Bhosle and Lata Mangheskar, All-India Radio, and the UK reggae label Trojan Records. The Britpop party never felt more inclusive, or more joyous. –Tom Ewing Listen: Cornershop: “Brimful of Asha” The La’s The La’s Go! Discs 14 The La’s’ eponymous debut and only album was several years ahead of the Britpop curve, arriving in the time of Madchester and raves. As such, The La’s serves as a bridge between the two eras. The songs are pure Beatles melodicism—you can almost see the Fab Four tapping out the opening number, “Son of a Gun,” during a relaxed moment in A Hard Day’s Night—mixed with the Kinks’ guitar riffs, notably on “I Can’t Sleep” and “Feelin’.” Oasis would later employ this combination to considerable commercial return. However, as with the Stone Roses’ debut, there was something in the simple, hazy euphoria of songs like “There She Goes” and “Timeless Melody” that connected with the blissful possibility of the rave era, making the La’s both perfectly of the time and prescient of what was to come in British guitar music. Sadly, they wouldn’t be around to pick up the Britpop spoils, dissolving in a fit of frustrated perfectionism soon after, but the succinct pop mastery of their debut meant they were never far from Noel Gallagher’s thoughts as his band took Britpop to the world. –Ben Cardew Listen: The La’s: “There She Goes” Suede Suede Nude 13 Suede’s arrival was a glass of cold water to the face of British guitar music. It wasn’t just that they were so radically different from everything else at the time—a riot of ripped cardigans, Bowie guitars, and fluid sexuality in a world of shoegazers—but they also came perfectly formed, spat defiant and blinking into the world. Suede found them full of swagger, filth, and an innate sense of drama, from the knowing squalor of “Animal Lover” to the airy desperation of “Sleeping Pills,” from the peacock pop strut of “Animal Nitrate” to the divine disgust of “Pantomime Horse.” Suede would later get weirder (Dog Man Star) and more overtly accessible (Coming Up), but their debut was the record that had it all, a dazzling mixture of pop smarts, experimental nous, and wickedly original thinking. Without Suede, Britpop would have been a far safer, easier, and more vapid proposition. –Ben Cardew Listen: Suede: “Animal Lover” Supergrass I Should Coco Parlophone 12 In Britain, the phrase “I should Coco” is a sarcastic way of saying you agree with someone, but there was nothing to be petulant about when Supergrass emerged with this debut. Even today, you're hit by the shambolic, fat-free introduction to a trio who brought a punk edge to Britpop, taking their forebears (the Kinks, the Jam, Buzzcocks) and imposing three-chord hard noise while also glorifying how it felt to be young, liberated, and reckless. A few months later, when Oasis released their time-shifting (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, they already looked positively past it. The tracks’ guileless energy reflects their speed of recording, too. Most impressive of all is the fact that the six-minute, sprawling organ epic “Sofa (Of My Lethargy)” was done in just one take. The adolescent call-to-arms “Alright” was featured in Clueless and has become an insufficient tentpole for the Oxford band, who were drowning in far more eclectic ideas. From the acoustic dreaminess of “Time to Go” and the lightning-speed thrill of “Sitting Up Straight” to the Madness-like “Mansize Rooster” and the fantastical glam rock of “Strange Ones,” these three scamps painted pictures of life’s everyday mishaps and oddities while keeping listeners darting about on their toes. –Eve Barlow Listen: Supergrass: “Sofa (Of My Lethargy)” Pulp His ‘N’ Hers Island 11 Jarvis Cocker was not meant to hold a guitar. To prowl the stage like an electrified stork, to rumble about tawdry sex artifacts like lipgloss and tight pink gloves and gleefully chronicle our animalistic impulses—he needed both hands free for that. Today, to watch Pulp’s set at Glastonbury 1994—an inauspicious midday slot, just one year before their conquering headlining gig—it feels quaint to see the Sheffield singer grip some wood and pick strings through the glorious “Babies,” stock-still save an emphatic kick or two. (Defying nature, he did reprise this during the reunion tour.) By His ‘N’ Hers, Pulp had already been toiling for almost 20 years and three albums, with little to show for it, but they carried themselves in the studio like arena stars. Their thrillingly contradictory formula was honed: sexy and heady yet considered, shiny and singalong yet too clever to be cheap, with Cocker’s pleasantly barbed pathos anchoring tonic synth-pop. The dancefloor anthems (“Lipgloss,” “Razzamatazz,” “Do You Remember the First Time?”) were as bittersweet as the seeping mood studies (“Acrylic Afternoons,” “David’s Last Summer”) and then they capped it by lifting the chord progression of “I Will Survive” wholesale on “She’s a Lady.” Why not? They’d come this far. –Stacey Anderson Listen: Pulp: “Babies” The Verve Urban Hymns Virgin / Hut 10 There are many albums on this list that speak to Britpop’s capacity for mordant wit, incisive social critique, and nuanced emotions. And then there’s Urban Hymns: pomp and circumstance personified, Be Here Now with a messianic complex instead of a coke habit. It begins with an orchestral sample that has cost the Verve millions, and the first lyric is Richard Ashcroft telling us the meaning of life. It doesn’t get any less modest going forward, but it would be the last time Ashcroft could back up his unwavering, deadly serious belief in his own profundity. And Urban Hymns is something to behold: The power ballads (“The Drugs Don’t Work,” “Lucky Man”) would get laughed out of a folk-rock open mic if Ashcroft didn’t perform them like the most important love songs ever written, while generational anthems “Catching the Butterfly” and “The Rolling People” are utter nonsense elevated to the sublime thanks to his mojo-risin’ shamanism and Nick McCabe’s wah-wah pedals. Four years later, Bono would supply U2’s pull quote for a decade by claiming that they were “reapplying for the job of best band in the world,” but framing such a thing as an application process should’ve automatically disqualified them. As far as Urban Hymns was concerned, the Verve were the only band in the world. –Ian Cohen Listen: The Verve: “The Drugs Don't Work” Oasis Definitely Maybe Creation 9 “Tonight I’m a rock‘n’roll star,” Liam Gallagher proclaims at the start of Oasis’ debut. Taken out of context, it’s easy to mistake this chorus as another example of braggadocio from Britpop’s brashest band—particularly given the anti-stadium-hero ethos of the era. But the verses of “Rock N’ Roll Star” tell a different story, reflecting Oasis’ modest circumstances when they made Definitely Maybe. Before Oasis were arrogant, they were aspirational: Throughout the album, Noel Gallagher writes about a dead-end, working class life from which there is no escape, save for fantasies of fame and fortune. In that same song, in a cutting whine pitched at the midpoint of John Lennon and Johnny Rotten, Liam Gallagher sings Definitely Maybe’s truest line: “In my mind/My dreams are real.” It was up to Oasis to make those dreams real. Definitely Maybe became a generation-defining classic in the UK (and a beloved cult favorite among Anglophiles overseas) based on Noel Gallagher’s effortless ability to write rock anthems with simple, universal themes: the invincibility of youth (“Live Forever”), the undying allure of decadence (“Cigarettes & Alcohol”), and the desire for self-actualization (“Supersonic,” which is also about snorting Alka-Seltzer). Damon Albarn and Jarvis Cocker were wittier, perhaps, but Noel Gallagher spoke in a more primal language. His dreams were also the dreams of millions. –Steven Hyden Listen: Oasis: “Supersonic” Blur Blur EMI / Food 8 Before their self-titled album, Blur were brilliant in a way that was also a little hard to look at—for American audiences, anyway, who preferred a slouch or an untucked shirt corner somewhere. But that all changed when Blur hit American shores in 1997, pulling its hair over its eyes and frowning theatrically. It was an audacious bid to reinvent the band as across-the-pond visitors to the then-exploding American indie rock scene, and it is also a gloriously confusing, fractured jumble, more a major-label mixtape than an album. After the relatively conventional “Beetlebum,” Blur proceeds through a series of cartoon trapdoors, reeling from faux-grunge (“Song 2”) to faux-glam (“M.O.R.”) to ersatz Sebadoh tributes (“You’re So Great”) to high Noel Coward camp (“Death of a Party”). For Americans and Brits alike, the album was both perplexing and fascinating, like watching a movie through a Vaseline-smeared lens and being unable to tell if the actors are laughing or screaming. Blur’s relationship to American alt-rock—mocking it with “Song 2” while simultaneously scoring a bona fide hit—was also their relationship to success, as they scoffed at it and held it at arm’s length while zealously pursuing it. If you are truly going to be the smartest kids in the classroom, it’s not enough to scorn the test—you still have to ace it. –Jayson Greene Listen: Blur: “Song 2” Pulp This Is Hardcore Island 7 Britpop often benefited square-peg acts, whose years of woodshedding gave them a golden opportunity when the mainstream’s round hole was busted open. By late 1995, a Ben Sherman shirt and mod bangs were pretty much all it took. But Pulp were something else. They’d formed in 1978, when the wide lapels and nylon that Jarvis Cocker took into every student union in Britain weren’t ironic, they were standard issue. If it took about 17 years for those planets to align, it only took three to repudiate everything that Pulp and Britpop had apparently stood for. This Is Hardcore’s first single, “Help the Aged,” said it all—a dour celebration of decay that explodes into its chorus like overripe fruit. The band that had typified blind hope in the face of abject failure had seemingly, in success, found only defeat. That the sumptuous art rock of “This Is Hardcore” and “Dishes” were among Pulp’s best songs—as typically dyspeptic as anything on OK Computer, informed by Cocker’s disillusionment—was besides the point. This Is Hardcore told the faithful that the jig was up. In the bleak Bowie stomp of “Party Hard,” Cocker perfectly undermines Pulp’s cynical raison d’être: “If you didn't come to party, then why did you come here?” –Laura Snapes Listen: Pulp: “Help the Aged” Elastica Elastica Deceptive 6 If Britpop’s essence was gleeful, irreverent insouciance in the face of dour American grunge, then Elastica were the Britpoppiest band of them all. Led by the impossibly fierce Justine Frischmann, this black-clad gang of three birds and one bloke banged out smart, deliciously catchy pop-punk songs about stuff like erectile dysfunction, car sex, and, um, lubrication. They shamelessly shoplifted riffs from Wire and the Stranglers, but turned them into tunes that were a thousand times more fun. Their debut album was 15 songs (plus one bonus track) in 40 minutes without an ounce of fat. They were the kind of band that makes people want to be in bands. Frischmann was a Zelig-like figure in Britpop: A founding member of Suede and romantic partner to the frontman Brett Anderson, she left him for Damon Albarn, forming Cool Britannia’s First Couple. (At the peak of their powers, Elastica were far more successful in America than Blur.) Unfortunately, Frischmann’s relationship with Albarn, as well as with the other members of her band, imploded in “Behind the Music”-style fashion in the late 1990s, and Elastica’s 2000 sophomore album, The Menace, was met with indifference. But for a brief, shining moment, Elastica were the coolest band in Britain. –Amy Phillips Listen: Elastica: “Connection” Suede Dog Man Star Nude 5 Suede’s Brett Anderson was Britpop’s first pin-up, baring his midriff and pouting coyly on the cover of Select’s April 1993 “Yanks Go Home!” issue—an anti-grunge salvo that championed the “crimplene, glamour, wit, and irony” of five young British bands. Just a year later, sinking into druggy oblivion and feuding with guitarist and co-songwriter Bernard Butler, Anderson grew alienated from the movement. Dog Man Star was the product of that isolation, a murky, maximalist symphony that overlaid the sex-drenched, council-estate sadscapes of Suede’s debut with visions of Old Hollywood glamour, as glimpsed from a distance of four decades and 5,500 miles. Still unfinished when Butler left the band, it was also a breakup album of sorts, its soaring arrangements battling melodramatic lyrics in an echo of the discord between its creators. The standard criticism of Dog Man Star is that it’s too melodramatic to take seriously. Certainly, it has preposterous moments: the self-serious fairy tale “Black or Blue,” the swaggering condescension of “This Hollywood Life.” But excess was kind of the point with Suede, and this album captured their aesthetic at its most immersive. Black-and-white films haunt 1990s England on “Daddy’s Speeding,” about James Dean, and the hyper-romantic “The Wild Ones.” By the time the credits roll on “Still Life,” a Douglas Sirk weepy punctuated by hysterical strings, Suede have so persuasively sanctified everyday longing that even their overreaches sound purposeful. –Judy Berman   Listen: Suede: “The Wild Ones” Oasis (What's the Story) Morning Glory? Big Brother 4 This was the people’s champ, the album that broadcast Britpop’s loving nostalgia, brash guitar worship, and rampant tunefulness further than any other. Admittedly, it is not the era’s smartest record, nor is it the coolest. But who needs smart or cool when you have Liam Gallagher sneering through a rock‘n’roll fantasyland bursting with wonderwalls, champagne supernovas, and enough maxed-out distortion to deserve a tinnitus warning? Who needs subtlety when you can listen to a man rhyme “say” and “day” over and over (and over) and make it sound like a bloody revolution? But while (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? happily blares from the mountaintops, it also can’t help but glance at the abyss below. For all his arrogance, Noel Gallagher can be a surprisingly reflective songwriter, aware of the pitfalls of fame and drugs while simultaneously aiming for the top of the pops and hoovering cocaine. “Wonderwall” is an all-time ballad about being hesitant and inarticulate; the title track, with its helicopter chops and five-alarm riff, both actualizes and takes the piss out of coke-fueled mania. And “Champagne Supernova” serves as an excessive Britpop pinnacle as well as a eulogy for good times that can’t last. “Where were you while we were getting high?” Liam repeats endlessly at the end of the song, stretching out the memory as far as it could ever go. –Ryan Dombal Listen: Oasis: “Champagne Supernova” Radiohead The Bends Parlophone 3 Radiohead were never a Britpop band, but on The Bends, they became the vent through which its subconscious fumed. As optimism swirled around Tony Blair’s ascent and the resurgent economy, 1995 saw Britpop fever erupt into a Dionysian free-for-all, with boozy shenanigans dominating tabloid headlines. To that, these Oxford oddballs issued their second album, a doomed cry from the party’s cellar. As they echoed Britpop’s disdain toward unchecked wealth, the pop-oriented album also undermined the movement, suspicious of both hedonism and Blair’s New Labour (which minted the left’s new pact with neoliberalism). The Bends’ title track—with its histrionic cries of “I wanna be part of the human race!”—mopes in the mid-’90s zeitgeist’s shadow, mooring Britpop’s social theatricality in grunge’s grandiose alienation. That song, with its jibes at Radiohead’s ’60s-worshipping peers, rubs shoulders with radio-friendly ballads (see “High and Dry” and its tetchier sibling, “Fake Plastic Trees”) that anticipated the airbrushed post-Britpop rock of Coldplay and Travis. But the record’s integrity to the Britpop years lies in the way it challenged a jaded generation’s imagination. The unlikely breakout single was “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” which channels a sense of capitalist dread that even class-conscious Britpop artists repressed. And while the album found Radiohead in the jaws of a decade they hadn’t yet learned to outmaneuver, its epic portrayal of drift and disenchantment secures its reluctant spot in Britpop’s pantheon. –Jazz Monroe Listen: Radiohead: “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” Blur Parklife Parlophone 2 Britpop moved indie guitar music from the UK’s margins to the mainstream with remarkable speed. Parklife was the catalyst—a colorful, pop-centric palette of great scope and eclecticism, effectively launched with a disco song (“Girls & Boys”). Subsequent singles were an elegant French-kissed breakup song (“To the End”), the anthemic title track, and a hand-wringing over encroaching age and domesticity (“End of a Century”). Blur had hinted at such depth and variety, but Parklife  found them with new ambition and confidence. Even the record’s understated gems (“This Is a Low,” “Badhead,” “Clover Over Dover”) carry a lived-in sense of belief miles away from the group’s baggy roots. Blur had explored notions of Britishness on their previous album, Modern Life Is Rubbish, but they made it a thesis statement on Parklife, giving both a clear narrative and an all-important rooting factor to what would become Britpop. Synthesizing an emergent sense of national pride with youthful anger and a satirical eye, Blur built bridges from art schools and indie dances to the mainstream, in much the same way Nirvana’s Nevermind did for punk-rooted music a few years earlier. Indeed, the death of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, just weeks before the release of Parklife, underlined the feeling that the epicenter of credible guitar music was shifting from the U.S. to the UK. In the short term, Britpop was a Parklife-built world, and it provided paths to the charts for such outsiders as Super Furry Animals, Pulp, and Elastica. By 1996, Oasis would become so commercially dominant that Britpop’s original sense of glamour, wit, and artifice were replaced by more conservative, lumpen impulses. The line at the time was that Blur won the Battle of Britpop but Oasis won the war. Twenty years later, it feels clear who, creatively, got the better of whom. –Scott Plagenhoef Listen: Blur: “Girls and Boys” Pulp Different Class Island 1 Britpop had a remarkable power to turn complex personalities into cartoons. Jarvis Cocker, more than most, conspired in his own caricature, perhaps reasoning that after several years of frustration and anonymity, he wasn’t going to take any chances. Take “Common People,” a song in which cute social comedy escalates into seething insecurity and omnidirectional rage. The radio edit snipped the most vicious lines, in which Cocker is a dog who will “tear your insides out,” while its brash, playful video reduced it to Carry On Class War. That’s Different Class’ Trojan horse strategy in a nutshell: Come for the fun, stay for the psychodrama. Coming hard on the heels of His ‘N’ Hers, Different Class seized the moment with slavering jaws; “Common People” and a momentous Glastonbury performance duly fast-tracked Cocker to national treasure status. Camp and gangly in thrift-store chic, this uncommon pop star seemed to embody Britpop’s core narrative of the underdogs taking over without shedding his lifelong sense of unbelonging. Even when he’s a participant, he’s a voyeur at heart, stranded on the threshold of wherever he is. In his ambivalent rave memoir “Sorted for E’s & Wizz,” he’s the guy wondering why he’s not having as much fun as everyone else. The central themes of Different Class are sex and class, both characterized by mess, discomfort, longing, and revenge. Panting and yelping, Cocker describes the emptiness of too many partners (“Underwear”), not enough (“Live Bed Show”), and unrequited lust for one in particular (“Disco 2000”). The songs about class identity tell a similar story. The hungry autodidact’s fantasies of transcending the brutal conformity of working-class Sheffield hit the wall with “Common People,” where the gilded Greek art student is the catalyst, not the subject; her crime is to remind him that he can’t leave it behind and, thus, to make him feel ashamed for wanting to. In “I Spy”—a torrid mind-meld of Serge Gainsbourg, “First We Take Manhattan,” and Mike Leigh’s Naked—the thwarted interloper becomes the vengeful seducer, despoiling the privileged milieu that enthralls and disgusts him. His different class is a class of one, and it gets lonely there. With the sole exception of “Something Changed,” Different Class is never purely joyous, yet it sounds like a celebration throughout. Seasoned producer Chris Thomas (Sex Pistols, Roxy Music) conspired with the six band members to assimilate a lifetime of British pop, from glam-rock and torch songs to synth-pop and Two Tone, and render Pulp’s distinctive tawdry glamour huge and unstoppable. What’s more, Cocker has the knack, like a classic British sitcom, of making anguish hilarious. Different Class thus epitomizes Britpop’s signature blend of surface jollity with undercurrents of anxiety, representing both the club and the bedsit, art school and “Top of the Pops,” community and isolation, the party and the comedown, victory and defeat, pleasure and the price of pleasure. It’s good because it throbs with the desire to transform and escape; it’s great because it knows what happens when you get what you think you wanted. –Dorian Lynskey Listen: Pulp: “Common People” 1. James Dean Bradfield 2. Jacqui Blake 3. Carrie Askew 4. Louise Wener 5. Luke Haines 6. Norman Blake 7. Sonya Madan 8. Darren Hayman 9. Miki Berenyi 10. Martin Rossiter 11. Cerys Matthews 12. Tjinder Singh 13. Jools Holland 14. Lauren Laverne 15. Brett Anderson 16. Brian Molko 17-18. Pulp’s showgirls (“This is Hardcore” video) 19. John Peel 20. Begbie (Trainspotting) 21. Sick Boy (Trainspotting) 22. Spud (Trainspotting) 23. Renton (Trainspotting) 24. Gaz Coombes 25. Sadie Frost (“Common People” video) 26. Sarah Cracknell 27. Lee Mavers 28. Damien Hirst 29. Oasis’ dummy (“Wonderwall” video) 30. Oasis’ clown (“Wonderwall” video) 31. Tony Blair 32. Richard Ashcroft 33. Thom Yorke 34. Jonny Greenwood  35. Danny Boyle 36. Noel Gallagher 37. Liam Gallagher 38. Graham Coxon 39. Jarvis Cocker 40. Candida Doyle 41. Damon Albarn 42. Justine Frischmann 43. Kate Moss 44. Blur’s milk carton (“Coffee & TV” video) 45. Super Furry Animals’ raccoon Contributors: Stacey Anderson, Eve Barlow, Judy Berman, Stuart Berman, Ben Cardew, Ian Cohen, Ryan Dombal, Elia Einhorn, Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Tom Ewing, Simon Goddard, Jayson Greene, Steven Hyden, Dorian Lynskey, Jill Mapes, Jazz Monroe, Amy Phillips, Scott Plagenhoef, Ryan Schreiber, Laura Snapes […]

  • 5-10-15-20: Jarvis Cocker on the Music of His Life
    Posted by Stacey Anderson on March 28, 2017 at 4:50 pm

    5-10-15-20: Jarvis Cocker on the Music of His Life Photo by: Photo by Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images for Sundance London Two decades after Britpop’s heyday, Jarvis Cocker remains the poet emeritus of absurd sex and stubborn social friction. As the frontman of Pulp, he played a disco librarian who sharpened his sly wit in rock songs that were smart yet campy, glossy yet bittersweet. The band became international stars in 1995, with Different Class and its proletariat anthem “Common People,” but this belied a much longer road; Cocker had started Pulp in 1978, as a 15-year-old in his native Sheffield, and coaxed the group through nearly two decades of obscurity before cracking the charts with 1994’s stylish His ‘N’ Hers. But the excitement of those Britpop boom years was fleeting; Pulp dispatched the dark opus This Is Hardcore from their gilded cage in 1998, then went on hiatus after releasing their 2001 swan song, We Love Life. In Pulp’s wake, Cocker released two solo albums and remained a shepherd for his country’s misfits and mis-shapes. Eventually, the pull of Pulp gave way to a triumphant reunion tour in 2011. During that trek, Cocker also reunited with the Chateau Marmont; he’d first stayed at the infamous, star-stacked Hollywood hotel in the 1990s but became enamored upon his return. His suite there, which included a baby grand piano, inspired Room 29, his new project with pianist/composer Chilly Gonzales, a closely observed, often-droll song cycle about the former residents of the hotel, including Clara Clemens, the tragic daughter of Mark Twain, sexpot ’30s starlet Jean Harlow, and hermetic film mogul Howard Hughes. With its tales of stilted sexual escapades, glamorous partiers wilting with malaise, and curtains parting on rueful mornings, Room 29 seems of a piece with the sordid oeuvre Cocker has amassed across more than three decades. Though Cocker and Gonzales are presenting Room 29 live with shows that feature some theatrical flair, the singer stresses that it is not a musical. “I hate musicals,” he says emphatically, calling in from the BBC studios in London, where he’s taping his popular radio show, Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service. “And it’s not an opera—because I really, really, really dislike opera.” Plenty of other music has struck his fancy and shaped his life, though. Here, he shares his most vivid musical memories, five years at a time. Gordon Lightfoot: “If You Could Read My Mind” My main thing for music has always been the radio; that’s where I’ve heard things. Around age 5, when I was getting ready for school, my mum would get us up, and we would have breakfast in the kitchen, and the radio would be on. It would be the BBC Radio 2, which is the easy listening station. So I remember hearing a song called “If You Could Read My Mind” by Gordon Lightfoot whilst I was having my hair brushed and trying to keep still—because if you moved when you were having your hair brushed in the morning, my mother used to get in a really bad mood. Pink Floyd: The Dark Side of the Moon I still hadn’t really bought a record, so I was still listening to things mainly on the radio, but also watching the chart rundown on “Top of the Pops.” That’s when I became aware of more grown-up music. I liked glam-rock; we’re not allowed to mention his name now, but Gary Glitter’s music was quite good. “Blockbuster!” by Sweet really takes me back to that time because that song starts with a siren. Whenever I hear that record, it immediately transports me back to being on the bumper cars at fun fair. It’s perfect music for that. I was into music like that, but my mum would still get babysitters, because my sister was 8 at the time. So we would have teenage girls come around the house, and one of them had a copy of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. The record was broken—apparently, she had left it on the radiogram and somebody had sat on the lid—so you couldn’t play the first track on side one or side two. But she still brought it around. I had to go to bed for school the next day, but I listened to that record through the floorboards. I was actually quite frightened by the bits and bites of deranged laughing, and I wished that I had not listened to it. But I started to realize that music wasn’t just things that you listen to at fun fairs, that there was a more adult side to music. I think Pink Floyd’s music still stands up, actually. Still don’t like The Wall, though. Animals is as far as I got. Devo: “Gut Feeling” I kept reading about punk, but the local radio station wouldn’t play punk; they didn’t think it was real music. That led to me one of the musical discoveries of my life. One night, I really wanted to hear what this punk music was and, turning the radio dial, I heard John Peel’s radio show. I started listening to it and taking songs off there all the time, and that became my musical education. It made me want to form a group; the early Pulp were really just a ragbag of the influences that we’d picked up from listening to John Peel’s show every night. The first Devo album came out that year [in 1978], and I went to see them play at the City Hall in Sheffield, which was quite influential. One of the first songs that Pulp learned how to play was the Devo song “Gut Feeling.” A couple of years later, when we first did some recordings, I took them to John Peel—he used to do these road shows at colleges, and I just went along to the one he did in Sheffield and hung around and gave him the tape after when he was putting all his records back into his DJ box at the end. He listened to it on the way home, and that really changed my life. Then he gave us a session [in 1981]. We were all still at school. I was 16 or maybe just 17, and the drummer was 15 and he looked about 12. He could hardly reach the bass drum pedal to play the drum. Pulp: It That John Peel session encouraged me to pursue a professional music career, so 1983 was the year that the first Pulp album came out. Don’t let anybody tell you that the ’80s were good; the ’80s were horrible. When those big snare sounds and the digital thing started to come in, music got very thin and nasty-sounding. Our album, which was called It and sold about four copies, really didn’t have anything to do with that trendy, shiny ’80s sound; the drums were as quiet as you could possibly have them while still remaining audible. We realized we were not really in sync with the times that we were living in and that we needed to go our own way if we wanted to get somewhere interesting. Cocker in 1991 at age 28. Photo by Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images. Pulp: Separations That was the year that I came to London for the first time, to go to college. I’d done the group, it hadn’t really set the world on fire, and I realized that I had to get out of town, otherwise I would just end up being an embittered ex-musician—which is probably the worst kind of embittered person you can be. So I studied film at Saint Martins art college. The horrible ’80s were coming to an end, and things started to get a little bit interesting: Acid house began and became the last really great subculture in UK history. So I got into that scene, and that manifested itself in the Pulp record that actually didn’t end up coming out until a couple of years later but was recorded around that time, Separations. [Pulp bassist] Steve Mackey and I had been going to raves quite a lot and we decided that we had to introduce technology into the Pulp sound, so it’s a weird hybrid record, because the songs were all written on guitars, but then we decided to record it with drum machines and sequencers. It’s a very unusual record. Not all of it worked, but it was a brave experiment. Suede: “Animal Nitrate” I’d gone to college because it seemed the group wasn’t going to do anything. But as I left college in ’91, it felt like we were allowed to have fun again. Bands like Stereolab and Suede had started, and we played some concerts with them and got to meet some of the bands that were around in London at that time. By ’93, it was all turning into something interesting—I don’t think they’d come up with that horrible word “Britpop” yet, but there was a new movement of bands. It was before it really broke and got spoiled by getting too commercialized. It still was really just a bunch of people in secondhand clothes getting wasted in Camden, which was fun. We’ve had the optimism, but now we’re getting to the despair; unfortunate things like Robbie Williams and the Spice Girls happened, kind of because of Britpop, which I will forever be ashamed of. I was not in a good place mentally or physically in 1998. I don’t remember that much about that year because I wasn’t really paying attention—I was just trying to hide under the duvet as long as possible. Bonnie “Prince” Billy: Master and Everyone Doesn’t life go by so quickly? God. 2003 was a big year for me. It’s when I got married and became a father—well, I’d like to point out that I’d got married nine months before I became a father. It’s illegal otherwise. That’s when I was living in Paris, too, so I was mentally living in a country where I didn’t really speak the language so well, and also exploring that terrain of being a father and wondering what I was going to do. At that point, I thought, Well, maybe that’s it: I’ll stop music now at 40. That’s like a nice, round figure. Maybe I’ll try to do something else with the rest of my life. It was a transitionary time, and when I think about the music I was listening to, I think about the music that my wife at the time listened to, like Cat Power’s You Are Free and Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s Master and Everyone, which has a profile of him and his resplendent beard on the cover. I think that she was even playing that in the birthing room when my son was born. I’ve tried not to influence my son with music. I mean, there’s music around in the house, but I’ve tried not to indoctrinate him because if you try and push a child in a certain direction, they’ll always go in the opposite one. I do remember him being in the room when a Velvet Underground record was on, and I was thinking, I wonder what his brain is making of this. But he didn’t cry, not even when “The Black Angel’s Death Song” came on. Cocker in 2006 at age 43. Photo by Paul Bergen/Redferns. Leonard Cohen: “Death of a Ladies’ Man” Time gets flattened out, because now we’re into the digital age. Usually, I’m quite a retro person, but my manager was one of the first people to buy an iPod, so I got one. But then I thought, When am I ever going to use that? It took me ages to take it out of the box—maybe four or five years—and then I just couldn’t see the point of carrying it around. The first song that I ever downloaded was Leonard Cohen’s “Death of a Ladies’ Man.” Leonard Cohen and Scott Walker are the two real touchstones in terms of people I’ve listened to consistently throughout my whole life. If you listen to that first Pulp record, it is just a direct rip off of his first album—though I’m not saying it was as good as that. I was very lucky to [meet Cohen] when his album Old Ideas came out. I hosted the playback of that in London, and then I interviewed him about it. I was nervous about doing that, but I’m really glad that I did. I didn’t get to know him so much, but at least I got to meet him, and I was able to tell him how much his work had meant to me. Stealing Sheep: Not Real That’s around when I started to do radio work. I’ve been doing Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service off-and-on since then, and that’s made me interface with music in a slightly different way. Now I’m thinking of music I can share with an audience at home. It still feels quite creative, because I like the idea of making a mood—it’s like going around to a friend’s house and playing records. You’re trying to make a nice mood for everybody to have a good time, especially because it’s on a Sunday afternoon, so I always think people may be a bit fragile after getting wasted on Saturday night. It’s not really a high concept, but that’s what I try and do.  I’m very lucky because I do it at the BBC, so there are no advertisements, and I’m allowed to choose all of the music myself and invite people in to interview them. For instance, there’s a group of girls called Stealing Sheep and I quite like their records, and there’s a label called Clay Pipe Music that releases really nice, short-run albums, often kind of pastoral sounds, sometimes electronic stuff. I can really just make the show two hours where I share stuff that I like with people. I love doing that.  Today, in preparation for the show coming back in April, I pre-recorded an interview with a guy called Steven Johnson, who’s recently published a book called Wonderland, which is all about how a lot of technical innovations have come from the human impulse to play. We talked about music, and some of the earliest human artifacts that have been found in caves are bone flutes. So, human beings were making musical instruments long before they learned how to write. I like to think about things like that. Music is not a luxury—it’s a thing that we’ve done ever since we knew what it was to be a human. It’s a profound part of us. It’s not just like a little added extra, it’s something really deep within us. That’s why we react to it so strongly, and why it’s precious to us. […]

  • Greil Marcus' Real Life Rock Top 10: How Chuck Berry Could Leave You Wanting More
    Posted by Greil Marcus on March 27, 2017 at 2:25 pm

    Greil Marcus' Real Life Rock Top 10: How Chuck Berry Could Leave You Wanting More 1. Alison Krauss, Windy City (Capitol) This didn’t have a producer, it had a stylist. 2. Steve Jones with Ben Thompson, Lonely Boy: Tales from a Sex Pistol (Da Capo) “He never learned to read or write so well, but he could play a guitar”—and end up knowing where he’s been and what it meant. Jones on Johnny Rotten rejecting the band’s admittance to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2006: “He sent them a letter at the last minute refusing to appear and calling the whole ceremony ‘urine in wine’ … Left to our own devices, the rest of us would probably have done the show, but in the long run what he did was best for the Pistols as an idea.” 3. Paul Ryan, tweet (February 21), and Rubella Ballet, “Money Talks” (Ubiquitous, 1985) Ryan: “Freedom is the ability to buy what you want to fit what you need.” Rubella Ballet: “In this corrupt society/The rich/Pay/To be free.” But given the government we chose, with the country to be remade through tax cuts to the wealthy, the effective repeal of the corporate income tax, elimination of regulations inhibiting profit, the abrogation of prohibitions against bribery and self-dealing, and the removal of estate taxes—insignificant in terms of macro-economics, but symbolically, in terms of how America defines itself, enormously significant—the reality is not quite as either the Speaker of the House or a Thatcher-era London punk band defines it. The reality is that the rich will be paid to be free—to represent freedom, as an ever-receding but infinitely alluring possibility, to everyone else. 4.-7. Van Morrison, The Complete Them 1964-1967 (Legacy/Exile/Sony); ..It’s Too Late to Stop Now… Volumes II, III, IV & DVD (Legacy/Exile/Sony, 1973/2016); Keep Me Singing (Caroline/Exile, 2016); at SFJazz (October 18, 2016) The 69 tracks on the Them set, so much of it conceived and worked out live in Belfast with Morrison fronting a hurricane band, all of it recorded in London, with Jimmy Page’s hands tangled in the sound, remain unparalleled in their ferocity and lyricism: at their most unique, as with “Mystic Eyes” or their cover of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” both at once. In 1973, as the leader of Marin County band Caledonia Soul Orchestra, he combined performances from the Troubadour in Los Angeles, the Santa Monica Civic, and the Rainbow Theater in London for a 1974 double live album, and to listen now to all three shows, with unpredictable song choices (“Since I Fell for You,” “I Paid the Price,” “Sweet Thing,” “Take Your Hand Out of My Pocket”) dancing around “Gloria,” “Caravan,” and “Cyprus Avenue” (but not “Madame George,” which I saw him play once at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco in 1969 and never again), is to fail utterly to place one above another: you’ll change your mind every time you listen. Which means it’s a risk to put your past on the market with your present. Keep Me Singing is so tepid not even a version of Bobby “Blue” Bland’s 1963 “Share Your Love with Me,” a profound song which brought so much out of Richard Manuel on the Band’s Moondog Matinee 10 years later, seems to demand anything from Morrison, and the most notable new song, “Too Late,” catches your ear because, you realize sooner or later, it’s using the same melody as “Share Your Love.” And the story on stage is not necessarily different. As Joel Selvin reports on a recent show in San Francisco: “SFJazz is the bright, shiny 600-seat auditorium dedicated to jazz performance, funded by wealthy technocrats, who have turned to jazz instead of the opera or symphony for their cultural philanthropic impulses. Many notable figures in the jazz world such as Herbie Hancock or Chick Corea have worked the room, but Morrison, the first major rock performer to appear at the cozy, intimate showroom with pristine sound and generous sight lines, was able to command $250 tickets for this prestige booking. If he certainly looked the part in stingy brim fedora, shades and pin-striped suit, he didn’t deviate from his typical concert program one bit because he was playing a jazz room. “For an hour and a half, Morrison ambled through a procession of largely recent material backed by a lean, pared down four-piece band and backup vocalist. He brought his daughter, Shana Morrison, out to duet on ‘That Old Black Magic’ and invited boogie-woogie pianist Mitch Woods, who had recently recorded with Morrison in New Orleans doing duets with Taj Mahal, to play a couple of songs. Otherwise, the show was a standard indifferent Morrison affair. “He can be such a frustrating performer. He never really stepped on the gas until late in the set when he bellowed ‘Step right up’ from ‘Ballerina,’ from Astral Weeks, his chest pumped out, his head tilted skyward. He closed the set and returned for the briefest of perfunctory encores—a chorus of ‘Gloria’—leaving the stage while his band played extensive solos for an additional 10 minutes.” But between 1980 and 1996 Morrison put out 15 albums without one that stuck, and a year later released The Healing Game, music of menace and sadness a younger man likely wouldn’t have understood, let alone made. You can never write him off, which is why Selvin was there for one more lousy show and I’ll always buy anything he does. 8. Lana Del Rey, “Love” (Polydor/Interscope) Michael Robbins writes in: “What gets me is the way she rhymes ‘all dressed up’ with ‘in particular,’ which wouldn’t work on paper. It’s all in her vocalization. Singers often understand intuitively things about sound that many poets never learn.” 9. Rhiannon Giddens, Freedom Highway (Nonesuch) The album is named for a Staple Singers song from 1965. Listening especially to Giddens’s own slavery songs—“At the Purchaser’s Option,” the title taken from a newspaper ad that can make you sick to read; “Julie,” which, knit to the bones of the traditional murder ballad “Pretty Polly” for its rhythm, continues the tale to a finale that could end a novel Toni Morrison hasn’t written; and “Come Love Come,” a story that compared to the first two feels dutiful, with programmatic words that nevertheless dissolve into the sweep of the singing—and then watching the Nazi and White Power signs from the Civil Rights era in I Am Not Your Negro or the separate-but-equal legalized contempt in Hidden Figures, it’s hard not to wonder how much of that country may be coming back. That makes this record, in the moment, almost unbearably difficult to listen to, and just as difficult to stay away from. It may be too measured in its weighing of the emotion proper to this word or that pause; it may be too careful, too precise, to stand up to the country it’s claiming. But if it fades, if it’s forgotten, sometime in the future someone will find it at a yard sale, in an online search for something else, and be shocked that anyone ever spoke so clearly. 10. Chuck Berry, “The Things I Used to Do” (YouTube) It was 1965. He was two years out of federal prison, where he’d been sent in 1962 for a racially-targeted Mann Act conviction, now appearing in a Belgian television studio surrounded by a large circle of young teenagers, the girls in dresses, the boys in coats and ties, who look as if they’ve been dragged there on a field trip. There’s a pick-up band of local musicians: a white-haired pianist, a goateed bass fiddle player, a drummer, and a rhythm guitarist, all of whom seem a nervous and full of pride over the chance to play with this man. The pianist hits the first of a series of trilling high notes he will follow throughout the performance and Chuck Berry, lithe, taking small, cat-like movements, impossibly handsome, with a large, loose pompadour, bends slightly into a crouch for Guitar Slim’s already classic 1953 tragic New Orleans blues. He tracked the song, looking not at the bored students, not exactly at the moving camera in the center of the circle, but to the woman in the song, who he knows is “out with your other man.” “I used to search all night for you, baby/But my search/Would always end in vain”: he looks her straight in the eye, not with anger, scorn, or pain, but with something just short of a wink, saying that he knows she knows he’s done the same.   Not the curl of a note or a word is rushed. A flurry in the rhythm rises up and disappears. Guitar Slim had a harsh, angular tone on his guitar, creating a sense of drama he couldn’t quite sustain. With a quieter, more specific feeling in every musical or verbal phrase, Berry seemed to slow the song down from the inside. He let the listener all the way into the song, and then, when it ended, left the musicians, the woman in the song, you watching now, days after his death, maybe even himself, wanting more. […]

  • Radiohead’s <i>OK Computer</i> at 20: The Radiohead Prophesies: How <i>OK Computer</i> Predicted the Future
    Posted by Stuart Berman on March 24, 2017 at 5:00 am

    Radiohead’s OK Computer at 20: The Radiohead Prophesies: How OK Computer Predicted the Future Photo by: Images by Jessica Viscius This week, we are celebrating Radiohead’s OK Computer with essays, videos, interviews, visual artworks, and more. Check out all of the coverage here. Though it’s technically Radiohead’s third record, OK Computer is really more like the first draft for a never-filmed pilot episode of “Black Mirror.” Much like that acclaimed sci-fi series, the album’s vision of the future didn’t feel like some far-off imaginary dystopia, but a logical, benign extension of the present that birthed it. Back in 1997, the internet was still a shiny new toy for most, but Radiohead already sensed the depressing side effects of a totally wired world: the mindless amusement, the echo-chamber conformity, the pressure to keep up. There are no explicit mentions to computers on the album; from its passive title on down, OK Computer is ultimately less about technology than submission, depicting a world where aspiration has given way to automation, where the pursuit of happiness has become less of a goal and more of a process.  The whole thing emits the dispiriting sensation of staring at the dull glow of your laptop screen at 3 a.m., in a sparsely furnished condo unit in a state-of-the-art high-rise where you never say hi to your neighbors. But OK Computer isn’t just some fuzzy, half-formed, crystal-ball prophecy. Each song actually yields a vivid premonition of life as it is lived now, when a volatile cocktail of unfettered consumerism, technological dependency, social disconnection, and paranoia has yielded a U.S. president with all the class and credibility of an infomercial huckster. Here’s a song-by-song breakdown of the album’s most prescient lyrics. {{ citation }} “Airbag” For Westerners, the 1990s were seen as a time of peace and prosperity; the Cold War and all those fear-mongering, nuclear-holocaust telefilms that came with it were already distant memories. But now that the person in charge of America’s nuclear arsenal has talked about bombing Russian ships just to boost his flagging approval ratings, the next World War feels once again like a looming inevitability. From its ominous opening line to its evangelical posturing to its allusions to bright lights and news tickers, “Airbag” could double as the opening number in a musical about Donald Trump’s presidency. {{ citation }} “Paranoid Android” According to legend, Thom Yorke wrote “Paranoid Android” after witnessing a well-heeled woman freak out after someone accidentally spilled a glass of red wine on her white Gucci dress. He found her enraged facial expression so unsettling that he had to go home and write a six-minute prog-punk suite about it. But by this point, disproportionate overreaction has become an American pastime, from the rise in road-rage incidents, to people getting shot over texting in movie theatres, to the president routinely unleashing Sunday morning Twitter assaults aimed at “Saturday Night Live.” {{ citation }} “Subterranean Homesick Alien” History has shown that, as technology advances, so too has the adult-entertainment industry. In this song, Yorke had seen the future, and that future was drone porn. {{ citation }} “Exit Music (for a Film)” As the title unsubtly suggests, “Exit Music (for a Film)” was initially written to accompany the closing credits of Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 po-mo Shakespeare redux Romeo + Juliet. And sure, it’s easy to read the lyrics as the doomed protagonists’ de facto suicide note. But clearly, Yorke was anticipating the inevitable moment when Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner will have to covertly plot their White House exile to save their damaged personal brands. {{ citation }} “Let Down” On one hand, commuters have less reason to be disappointed now. Public transportation has improved greatly since the time of OK Computer’s release: self-driving cars are now a thing, swipe-card technology has made tram rides more convenient, and personal entertainment consoles allow flyers to select their film of choice from an array of options rather than the entire flight being forced to sit through Forrest Gump again. On the other hand, we live in the era of 12-day traffic jams, subway cars that require human cattle prods, and airplane designers who actually want to make you feel like a bug crushed in the ground. {{ citation }} “Karma Police” In which Thom Yorke offers a spot-on description of what it’s like to sit through a Sean Spicer press scrum. {{ citation }} “Fitter, Happier” OK Computer’s roboticized spoken-word centerpiece is basically a one-way conversation between Siri and a gig-economy millennial who’s just signed a petition but can’t make it to the protest because he needs to live-tweet the Oscars. {{ citation }} “Electioneering” Some songs just write themselves. {{ citation }} “Climbing Up the Walls” OK Computer’s most chilling song sees Yorke playing the role of trespassing predator. However, in 2017, home invasions need not require any actual breaking-and-entering; hacking, doxxing, and identity theft are the intrusive tools of choice for negative creeps. When Yorke sings, “I’ve got the smell of a local man/Who’s got the loneliest feeling,” he’s basically painting the psychological profile of a troll. Watch an animated version of this article. {{ citation }} “No Surprises” It’s not just that most people hate their jobs now; more and more people are actually killing themselves at work.  {{ citation }} “Lucky” Sure, Yorke and Moby have had their disagreements over the years. But it was very thoughtful of the Radiohead singer to preemptively write a song about that time Moby turned down Donald Trump’s offer to DJ his inauguration party. {{ citation }} “The Tourist” OK Computer’s last song is quite possibly a prequel to its first one, with the imminent car crash of “The Tourist” setting up the life-saving inflation of “Airbag.” Though, these days, “The Tourist” feels less like an account of vehicular misadventure than a comment on the perils of flying with a Samsumg Galaxy. […]

  • Radiohead’s <i>OK Computer</i> at 20: A Thousand Feet Per Second: <i>OK Computer</i>’s Sublime Velocity
    Posted by Anwen Crawford on March 23, 2017 at 5:00 am

    Radiohead's OK Computer at 20: A Thousand Feet Per Second: OK Computer’s Sublime Velocity Photo by: Illustrations by Noelle Roth This week, we are celebrating Radiohead’s OK Computer with essays, videos, interviews, visual artworks, and more. Check out all of the coverage here. For the longest time flight was a wondrous thing, an attribute of the gods and their messengers, the domain of witches, dragons, and birds. Even now, nearly 240 years since the first aeronaut piloted a hot air balloon above Paris, the view afforded to us by flight can feel like a breach of mortal perspective: too vast, too glorious, and much too close to death. “Pull me out of the air crash,” sings Thom Yorke on “Lucky,” a song that takes place in the slow-motion seconds after realizing that you’re going to die in a manner abrupt and possibly a bit stupid. Then you get lucky. The history of human transport is also a history of new ways to die, and OK Computer joins this sublime, speed-induced terror together with a very modern jadedness. For clearly some declension in the character of travel has occurred over the centuries, and we sense it, wedged into an economy class airline seat, or stuck bumper-to-bumper on another ugly freeway, the billboards blaring at us from all sides. OK Computer captured this cheapening of our environments and imaginations in a way that felt revelatory at the time, and still feels resonant now. It is a beautiful record—there is something very capital-R Romantic, very J.M.W. Turner, in its musical scope and texture, with instruments smeared across the stereo field—and also a deliberately banal one. Yorke’s lyrics, a deadpan simulation of advertising slogans, self-help mantras, and political doublespeak, undercut the grandeur of the music at every turn, and this tension between transcendence and routine grants the album an anxious and enduring power. The standard gloss on OK Computer, both at the time of its release and in the 20 years since, has been to call it an album about technology. But it seemed clear even in 1997 that it was also—or more so—an album about infrastructure, both the physical infrastructure of “motorways and tramlines,” as Yorke hymned it on “Let Down,” and the more elusive, “soft” infrastructure of global logistics, surveillance, finance, and banking. All those painterly, semi-abstract sounds—guitars that ping and squawk and melt, the wavering Mellotron choir, the glockenspiel, the shimmering cymbals, the quarter-tone violins—create a sense of a world in which human beings are irretrievably tangled inside systems of our own making. There’s so much damn noise (and remember, OK Computer was made several years before Wi-Fi, smartphones, and social media turned us all into twitching, overloaded fools), and sometimes the excess is amusing. Surely no-one can take the prog-baroque gabber of “Paranoid Android” with an entirely straight face. But the laughter is several shades of bleak. Think you can escape all this? Get in the car and drive? The joke’s on you. Capitalism’s insatiable, undead spirit has always arrived at your destination in advance. As the spaghetti junctions of infrastructure yank the planet into ever more constricted shapes, we’ve discovered that we’re moving both too fast to cope and too slowly to get away. The wonder of OK Computer is that Radiohead managed to recreate this temporal befuddlement in sound, with songs that feel fast and slow simultaneously, like those lost hours on a plane flight that crosses over the international date line, hurtling you into your future but somehow also taking you backwards in time. Listen to “Airbag” as it opens the album from a superhero’s viewpoint—“I’m back to save the universe!”—with Jonny Greenwood’s arcing guitar riff panned hard left and a cello that mirrors it at hard right, the slur and slippage of Phil Selway’s cut-up drums, and Colin Greenwood’s funk-dub bassline moving beneath like a set of tectonic plates. It’s lunatic and it’s tired, a collision that recurs across the record, in the gloopy reverie of “Subterranean Homesick Alien” and the tinpot singalong of “Karma Police” with its ear-shredding, engine-on-fire finale made by Ed O’Brien’s use of digital delay; in the frantic claustrophobia of “Climbing Up the Walls” (the bass, again, ballast to counter the chaos) and the debilitated lullaby “No Surprises.” The latter song was reportedly created in the studio by recording the music at one speed and then slowing it down for playback, so that Yorke could sing his vocal over the top. You can just hear the pitch irregularities, a wobble in the instruments, like a vehicle diverging slightly from its lane. Then there’s “Exit Music (for a Film),” which, four songs in, nearly brings the album to a dead halt, but doesn’t. There must be a thousand lonely bedroom balladeers who’ve tried to play this song and failed, then wondered why. Friends, you’ve been had: “Exit Music” may be still at its center, but only in the way that an astronaut strapped inside a space capsule is still. Everything at the edges moves with enormous force. Those fluttering, shuddering sounds that start up halfway through (crowd noise? backmasking? both?) feel like a solar wind; no other song on OK Computer comes as close to reaching orbit or spirals so far out of it. Before it appeared on OK Computer, “Exit Music” could be heard over the end credits of Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film Romeo + Juliet. But the song is not so much about the teenage lovers of Shakespeare’s play as it is about the rules that crush them, and the parallel tragedy of our modern lives. “Today, we escape,” as Yorke sings it, is a promise that cannot be met. We are still hidebound by authority, and the free market has not made us free. OK Computer was released only weeks after Tony Blair’s New Labour government—rictus neoliberals—were elected to power in Britain, and this circumstance made the song’s weary rage all the more striking. For here was the triumph of the technocrats; their language was styrofoam and their souls were bankrupt. “We hope that you choke” was a curse hurled at them, at all the career politicians, investment bankers, fossil fuel executives, and corporate shills who have worked to make the spaces of our lives so narrow. For all of this, Radiohead were not (and have never been) musicians given to explicit protest songs. They’re too self-conscious for it. What they’ve really excelled at is autocritique. OK Computer is the work of a band fully cognisant of the fact that they too are a part of the infrastructure; fed up with the tour bus and the airport transit lounge; bored of the office parks, warehouses, and squat government edifices that one finds at the edge of cities, replicated across the globe alongside the mixed-use, arena-sized, sponsored entertainment venues. And still, the joke was on Radiohead, because the success of this album made them fixtures of those very spaces. The 14-month promotional grind that Radiohead undertook for OK Computer nearly ended them. And you could watch their disintegration take place from the comfort of your sofa thanks to Grant Gee’s documentary Meeting People Is Easy, released on VHS in November 1998, only a few months after the band’s tour had ended. The film gives an impression of people who are trapped; trapped by the logistics of global touring, trapped by their new fame, trapped by the mass of opinion surrounding them. Several chunks of footage are superimposed with scrolling text, taken from reviews of OK Computer and from interviews with the band. It looks like a Facebook news feed, before that platform existed. Meeting People Is Easy opens with footage of a satellite looming like a giant eye, then cuts to a shot filmed from the rear window of a train carriage as it enters the terminus. Two minutes later, when the camera brings you face-to-face with a dead end and the computer voice from “Fitter, Happier” intones its line about pigs in cages, it’s clear where this going, mood-wise, and it’s nowhere you’d like to visit. It’s a film to put you off rock stardom for life; rarely has universal acclaim produced such pure misery. Still, it seems a misperception to think of Radiohead as five frowning gloom merchants whose music constitutes a refusal to engage with the world. Not when OK Computer is borne so much of world, and our jouncing around inside of it. There is a moment late in “Let Down”—a song of slippery time signatures, with Jonny Greenwood’s ringing lead guitar keeping one rhythm, and the drums another—when Yorke’s voice is tracked against itself. “One day I am going to grow wings,” he sings, in the left channel, “A chemical reaction/Hysterical and useless.” But in the right channel—that stereo space again—his voice is enacting what the lyrics can only describe. Up, up it goes; untethered, a wordless curve. It’s a test flight. And even if the attempt will fail it doesn’t feel useless to try. It was February 1998, the height of a southern summer, when the OK Computer tour reached Sydney. And it was storming on the night that Radiohead played; a huge, theatrical, subtropical storm that turned the sky into fissures of lightning, rain sluicing down. I nearly didn’t go, because I needed a lift to the venue and there was rain on the road and a logjam of traffic because of the rain. And I was in a bad mood, as I often was then. So I walked in one song late. The Sydney Entertainment Centre had space for 13,000 people. My seat was at the back. I was 15 years old when OK Computer was released. It took me somewhere. It gave me a world that was both a mirror of this one and a shelter from it; now when I try to find words for what that meant I end up in tears. How ridiculous! Not ridiculous. It is what it is. For the longest time my head was full of noise. When I was 18 I came very close to killing myself. And since. Some of us are drawn like magnets to a chance to step off the edge of things. But these nervy Englishmen, with their songs about cattle prods! They didn’t save me; nothing so corny. But they did make me feel that there was room in the world for the thin-skinned, the fretful, and the constitutionally pessimistic. Me and thousands of others, joined together under the sign of pop music’s most inexhaustible cliché—the community of outsiders. If you were there when they toured this album then you’ll remember the moments when it happened: The way the “rain down” section of “Paranoid Android” became a collective plea for deliverance, or the cheer that went up when Yorke sang “bring down the government” on “No Surprises.” And if you weren’t there, or haven’t already seen it, then watch the footage of their headlining 1997 set at Glastonbury. By every practical measure it was an almighty stuff-up; the stage monitors blew, so they couldn’t hear themselves, and the lights were angled wrong, so they couldn’t see the audience. From this difficult position they drew forth a performance of consummate grace and power, and by the end you can see it on their faces, a dawning realization that they have managed to do something remarkable, and that everybody loves them for it, and that this is OK. Something similar happened in Sydney that night. A gale-force energy was coming off the stage, and it was met by the audience. This weather occurring inside was more tumultuous even than the deluge outside, and louder than a cloudburst.   Right at the end they played “The Tourist,” but before they played it they just stood there for a little while, taking in what was happening, the almighty screaming cheering near-hysterical fervor. And then the song, that gorgeous waltz, so exposed, like a nerve end or the frayed edge of an electrical wire.  And onstage an absurdly enormous voice with John Lydon’s anger and Sarah Vaughan’s phrasing issued forth from the body of a singer who seemed to have an extra set of lungs tucked inside him. “Hey man, slow down/Idiot, slow down,” he sang, but no one obeyed him and nothing slowed down. “The Tourist”—and therefore OK Computer—ends with a tiny, precise bell. After all that has come before, it never fails to make me smile. If a car could be conscious of its own split-second salvation then it might make a sound like this, a little ding of relief. It gives me a picture of an accident reversing itself, the luggage back in its right place, bodies unfolded from their mangle. Then the vehicle is gone. […]

  • Radiohead’s <i>OK Computer</i> at 20: Twelve Visual Artists Interpret the 12 Songs on Radiohead’s <i>OK Computer</i>
    Posted by Pitchfork on March 22, 2017 at 5:00 am

    Radiohead’s OK Computer at 20: Twelve Visual Artists Interpret the 12 Songs on Radiohead’s OK Computer Photo by: Illustration by Noelle Roth This week, we are celebrating Radiohead’s OK Computer with essays, videos, interviews, and more. Check out all of the coverage here. Also, the original artwork in this feature has been collected into a limited-edition print zine that is available—for free, while supplies last—at Soho House, Reckless Records, and Quimby’s in Chicago, as well as Mast Books, Rough Trade Records, Molasses Books, and Greenlight Bookstores in New York City. “Airbag”By Mario Hugo “I wanted to create something that references both life and death, and almost feels like Munch’s ‘The Scream.’ There is something pervasive here—a little enigmatic and dark—but then the portrait itself is slightly wondrous and innocent, like a naive, self-reflective effigy. Swirling stardust etches both the environment and the face equally, almost like they are consuming one another.” “Paranoid Android”By Erik Carter “While researching this song, I came across a story about how the lyrics were inspired by an incident where Thom Yorke saw someone spill a drink on a woman at a bar, and she turned violent. ‘There was a look in this woman’s eyes that I’d never seen before anywhere,’ the singer once said. ‘Couldn’t sleep that night because of it.’ I tried to imagine that look.” “Subterranean Homesick Alien”By Sally Thurer “The narrator in the song paints terrestrial life as synthetic and space travel as enlightening, because seeing Earth from a distance puts his anxieties in perspective, so I wanted my illustration to focus on the boundary between manufactured and metaphysical space. The cracked pavement is the material world giving way to spiritual truth, to the sky.” “Exit Music (for a Film)”By Lala Abaddon “To me, ‘Exit Music (for a Film)’ is the darkest track on OK Computer, but it also has this suffocating lust and wet longing to it.  That dichotomy is represented in the fluidity and distortion of my composition, which straddles the subconscious divide of a surrealist landscape and an abstract, reclining nude.” “Let Down”By Doug John Miller “As a commentary on globalization and the eerie loneliness of modern life, ‘Let Down’ has a particularly spatial feel to it, so I chose to explore the ethereal but mundane cityscapes that I find fascinating. I illustrated the song through the lens of an ‘architectural lobotomy,’ a thematic term coined by architect Rem Koolhaas. I wanted to look out at a scene that you can’t quite touch.” “Karma Police”By Maren Karlson “This piece presents the idea of an immortal, powerful, omniscient entity that haunts us, that sees every wrong direction we take on our journey through our own labyrinth of error and ignorance. While we are eternally transforming, we are never flawless. We are always just one second away from being caught.” “Fitter Happier”By Max Guther “‘Improve yourself’ is the slogan of today’s society, but if we don’t allow ourselves to rest and make mistakes, we will always only mark time.” “Electioneering”By Camilo Medina “‘Electioneering’ makes me think of a politician who’s touring the country, saying what people want to hear—but those same people will be screwed by these individuals who are only driven by greed and a thirst for power. It’s a feeling that hits especially close to home right now. ”   “Climbing Up the Walls”By Jesse Draxler “The idiom ‘climbing up the walls’ means self-agitation through fear, anxiety, stress—being stalked by inner demons. The monster and its victim. The haunting of yourself, by yourself.” “No Surprises”By Sonnenzimmer “‘No Surprises’ has always struck us as an eerie lullaby for the archaic human. We wanted our interpretation of the song to pick up on the lush sound that teeters between warmth and despair–a nearly impossible balance of saccharine tragedy.” “Lucky”By Geriko (Hélène Jeudy & Antoine Caëcke) “We listened to ‘Lucky’ as a warning from the ’90s, a premonitory dream of the coming decades. By reusing the symbols of the song, we drew the outcome of this dream: It is a rain of plane. The victims have their eyes wide open, the survivors are blind.” “The Tourist”By Wang & Söderström “This song tells a metaphoric story about a journey that no longer knows its goal—the point disappeared deep down in a frenetic search. It’s about going too fast and missing the most important parts. Slow down, and the way will reveal itself.&rdquo […]

  • Radiohead’s <i>OK Computer</i> at 20: This Is What You Get: An Oral History of Radiohead’s “Karma Police” Video
    Posted by Ryan Dombal on March 21, 2017 at 5:00 am

    Radiohead’s OK Computer at 20: This Is What You Get: An Oral History of Radiohead’s “Karma Police” Video This week, we are celebrating Radiohead’s OK Computer with essays, videos, interviews, visual artworks, and more. Check out all of the coverage here. Radiohead could have stopped making videos. With their music growing stranger and more critical of the capitalist enterprise around OK Computer, they could have simply opted out of such glorified television commercials and their attendant pomp and flash. But instead of scoffing at the worst of MTV, they took advantage of the channel’s reach to challenge, warp, and fundamentally reorganize millions of impressionable teenage minds. There was the animated insanity of the “Paranoid Android” video, which imagined a surreal dimension filled with politicians in barbed thongs, humping rats, and a drunk dude with a head coming out of his stomach. And the one-shot stunner “No Surprises,” in which Thom Yorke nearly drowns for our voyeuristic pleasure. But perhaps the most trenchant visual to come from OK Computer is director Jonathan Glazer’s menacing parable for “Karma Police.” In it, a grizzled man is slowly stalked by a 1976 Chrysler New Yorker, before fortunes are flipped amid a blaze of fire. Along for the ride is Yorke himself, who plays the angel—or devil—singing from the blood-red backseat; most of the video is shot from the driver’s point of view, making each and every viewer complicit in the unfolding terror. Filmed on a desolate road in Cambridgeshire, England, the video’s ambiguity—it begins in medias res, and it’s impossible to know who to root for—lends itself to endless interpretation, and to timelessness. Making its debut on MTV’s “120 Minutes” on September 21, 1997, the “Karma Police” video came along in an era when vanguard bands and directors were encouraging each other to push at the format’s limits on a regular basis. (An influx of industry cash thanks to the CD boom did not hurt—the clip’s budget was around $200,000 at the time, a generally unheard-of sum for a video nowadays.) And Glazer was among a generation of music video auteurs, including Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, and Mark Romanek, who helped to turn an inherently craven medium into something genuinely inventive. Twenty years later, the “Karma Police” video still feels frighteningly up-to-date; as long as there are big guys and little guys and unexpected twists of fate, its power will endure. Here’s the story behind the video from those who were there. It feels like Radiohead were music video geniuses from the dawn of time—but that wasn’t the case. DILLY GENT [Radiohead’s video commissioner, 1992-2008]: When I first met Radiohead, they were all living in a house in Oxford together, just like any other young band. I got a job as a video commissioner at Parlophone Records in ’92, and they joined the label that same week. So I was due to start on the Monday but I was told, “Oh, can you just zip up to Oxford on Saturday? You’ve got to meet this band, and we’ve got to shoot a video.” That was “Creep.” At first, they were really just making the videos they wanted to make. “Pop Is Dead” is literally a treatment that Thom wrote, down to every frame—we had the entire Radiohead fan club carrying him across the Oxford Downs in a glass coffin. I was doing a terrible job, but I wasn’t really concerned because we would just go off and make something. In the early ’90s, we probably thought those videos were all right, but looking back at them now, we all just want to die. I remember an early gig in Amsterdam where there were six people in the audience. The band was still kind of working out how to play their instruments. I just thought, They’re really nice, sweet, low-key boys. The singer’s got a phenomenal voice, and they’re kind of good. But then they worked so hard and really flourished. By the time the second album came along, it was leaps and bounds ahead. And then, third album, another leap. And at the same time I was getting more confident and trusting my taste more. And since me and Thom have very similar taste, the process of making videos became very easy. MATT PINFIELD [former MTV VJ and host of “120 Minutes”]: When I was at MTV, the industry was trying to write off the band as a one-hit wonder with “Creep,” but I absolutely loved The Bends as well. We would get heat from other record companies, they would say to us, “Our record sold 20,000 more than Radiohead this week, why do you keep promoting their record?” And we said, “Because it’s great!” We stood our ground, and it was something that the band really appreciated. When Thom handed me a gold record for The Bends, he was actually in tears. He said, “I know you guys took a lot of shit for standing behind this album and these videos and the band, and I just want to tell you how much I appreciate it.” That’s what this is really all about. And of course, we were right there with OK Computer as well. I’m very proud of having a gold record for OK Computer and for The Bends. It’s not just about material things, I believe in the records and the band so much. [1] Source: The Independent, September 14, 2006 THOM YORKE: [“Karma Police”] is for someone who has to work for a large company. This is a song against bosses. Fuck the middle management! [1]  [2] Melody Maker, May 31, 1997 JONNY GREENWOOD: It was a band catchphrase for a while on tour—whenever someone was behaving in a particular shitty way, we’d say, “The karma police will catch up with him sooner or later.” [2] [3] Q Magazine, October 1997 THOM YORKE: “Karma police, arrest this man.” That’s not entirely serious, I hope people will realize that. [3] DILLY GENT: I did not know there was any humor attached to the song. The great thing about Radiohead is I never had a clue what their songs meant; I never asked, Thom never said. When I present a treatment to a lot of bands now, they’ll say, “Oh, but the song’s not about that.” And you go, “Well, we’re not making a documentary here.” With Radiohead, I could barely pick out the words, so the videos are made from the feeling of the music and what it conjures up. MATT PINFIELD: Radiohead were a band that showed you how music videos could be art, that it didn’t just have to be somebody spending $3 million on a Meatloaf video that looks like an action film—nothing against Meatloaf personally. The idea for the “Karma Police” video was originally pitched to another visually astute artist of the era: Marilyn Manson. JONATHAN GLAZER: I was flown over to New York to see a private screening of David Lynch’s then new film Lost Highway because Mr. Manson wanted the video to relate to it somehow. Anyway, all I remember from that screening were the opening credits of a rushing road beneath the camera. Next thing I knew it was the closing credits—I’d had a big night, no sleep, and nodded off. So yes, that scene must have entered my subconscious, and the idea for “Karma Police” came out of it. It’s the only time I’ve written something for one artist and ended up making it for another. RANDY SOSIN [former video commissioner at A&M and Interscope]: I remember having dinner with Manson’s manager right as the “Karma Police” video came out, and he told me that Jonathan Glazer had pitched a similar idea for a video with Manson for his song “Long Hard Road Out of Hell,” which would make sense with the car on fire at the end and everything. I had a similar thing happen once, when Michel Gondry pitched an idea for Soundgarden’s “Burden in My Hand” that later became a Cibo Matto video called “Sugar Water.” As far as why Manson passed, I just feel like he didn’t necessarily want to be a piece of another artist’s work. I don’t remember him ever saying, “Oh, why didn’t I make that video?” It’s just that music video directors in particular tend to have a very specific vision and they see which artists are willing to go there. Watch a video featuring fun facts about the "Karma Police" clip drawn from this oral history. DILLY GENT: After he directed the video for “Street Spirit,” from The Bends, Glazer and I became really good friends, mainly because we fought a lot about that video—but in a good way. So we would meet up, and he said, “I’ve got this great short film idea.” It was exactly the idea that you see in the video, and I absolutely loved it. Though I didn’t even know we were going to do it with Radiohead at that point. Then “Karma Police” came along as a track, and I sent it to Jon, and he wrote it out, and I said to the band, “You need to do this, it’s a piece of perfection.” JONATHAN GLAZER: I was interested in trying to shoot something very simple, short story-ish. Where the whole narrative could be contained within a single sentence. DILLY GENT: Jon’s a great storyteller. I remember being in his house when he was telling me about a scene from [Glazer’s 2013 film] Under the Skin before it was made. It was a bright sunny day, kids running around the kitchen table, couldn’t have been a more cozy environment—but I swear to god I thought I was going to die from horror, because he described it so vividly. There were just chills going down my back. I was like, “I am never going to see this damn movie if I can’t even handle you describing it to me in your kitchen.” SEAN BROUGHTON [“Karma Police” visual effects supervisor]: I might have stared blankly at Jonathan for a moment when he first told me the idea for the video. It is a really simple idea: A guy in a car is chasing someone, then you’re now being chased by that guy. When you’re given something like that, there is such an element of trust in it, and the execution of it is everything. You could have a different director shoot that same piece and it could be terrible. But by the time Jonathan is telling the story to someone, he already has pretty much the finished edit in his head. “Story is king” is the mantra that we always used to chant in those days. DILLY GENT: When Jon told me the idea in the café, I was going, “This might be your first cheap video!” I thought you could just attach a camera to the bonnet of the car, get a guy running, some petrol, fire. But no. The idea was really straightforward, but the production was a monster. The running actor was flown in from Hungary. He wasn’t local. And he kept getting a cramp and having to have some horrible injections put into his leg so he could keep running. SEAN BROUGHTON: The actor burned his thumb quite badly having done many, many takes of lighting that book of matches with one hand behind his back. He walked out with a fairly disfigured thumb by the end of the shoot. DILLY GENT: The car looked like a futuristic robot. That in itself was probably half the budget. And then Thom wore a little khaki-green T-shirt under a leather jacket—and we had a whole truck full of khaki-green T-shirts for him to choose from. [4] Details, September 1997 THOM YORKE: This video alone would cost us a really nice house somewhere. [4] SEAN BROUGHTON: Jon wanted to have the fire chase the car at the end of the video, and as effects supervisor, I had to figure out a way for that to happen. We couldn’t really have a quarter mile of fire chasing this car because you’d light one end and it would burn the full distance in a few seconds and probably set fire to the car and blow it up. So we actually shot the fire in a dark shed with a locked-off camera during the shoot, about a half mile away from where Thom was. Then we had to actually track that fire into the shot. We had about 100 cones that were covered with a reflective tape, and we put two down on each side of the road for a quarter of a mile. The angle of the cones were such that when the car headlights shone onto them, the tape would glow, and we used those cones in order to track each section of fire into the roadway. There were people looking at us like we were mad: “Why are there people struggling to carry 30 boxes of cones into the countryside? What the hell are you doing? Why can’t you do it another way?” We worked all night on it. At about one o’clock in the morning, Jon turned up, having not seen any part of the fire, and sat there in silence and watched it for the first time. He just went, “Nailed it.” That was it. It was a good feeling. DILLY GENT: At the time, Thom really looked a bit like an alien. He was just changing his hair; you can see his scalp. And the lighting was beautiful. With anyone else directing, it would have just been a bloke in the back of the car, but they made him look like this otherworldly human being. With Glazer’s work, you just want to grab each frame and put it on your wall. Nothing will ever be dated about that video. Watch a visual effects breakdown of the fire sequence in the "Karma Police" video, courtesy of Sean Broughton. But what does it all mean?! SEAN BROUGHTON: Any piece of good art is something where everyone sees something different in it, and to have a story that is so simple does lend itself to you reading into it. JONATHAN GLAZER: I’d say the ‘driver,’ the presence at the wheel, is more like a robot. Thom’s the storyteller. In my mind, he’s not even there. SEAN BROUGHTON: There is the lyric: “This is what you’ll get when you mess with us.” It could be applied to bullying—the kid that got sand kicked in his face suddenly turns and is a bodybuilder made of muscles. When you’re young, you’re certainly full of teenage angst, and this song and video offers a very easy translation for anyone’s feelings of unfairness, which is one of the earliest and strongest emotions that we have. When you see it acted out with a successful turning of the tide, that’s always appealing. It would be nearly impossible to make a video like “Karma Police” today. DILLY GENT: Back then you had curated platforms like “120 Minutes,” and the labels could see the direct line from the video being seen and album sales going through the roof. SEAN BROUGHTON: That time in the ’90s really was the golden era. It was when people could use the full breadth of talent that was available in the industry purely for artistic reasons. We weren’t necessarily trying to sell toothpaste to the millions. It was something that was really a work of the heart, that people really believed in, and it spurred people on to do bigger and better things. And most of it was done with no expectation of monetary reward. It was done purely for the love of it. That’s hard to find. That ilk certainly disappeared around the time that the Spice Girls all broke up. The money left the industry. People weren’t buying that many records. It all changed. People wanted green screen videos. The bubble had burst. DILLY GENT: Once there was no longer a focused place where people could see videos, there was no direct line from a video being made to albums being sold. And that’s when all of the video budgets plummeted. I mean, I remember having £50,000 to make a Radiohead video and thinking, God, I've only got £50,000, I’ve no idea what we’re going to do. Now I’m trying to make two videos for $10,000. RANDY SOSIN: Videos aren’t bad now, but I just feel like the world has changed and videos have stayed the same. I wish it would evolve as a medium because it is a powerful tool. Opportunity is there, I just don’t see a lot of people taking advantage of it. DILLY GENT: It’s very hard to make that level of music video now, because there’s so much fear attached to the creative process. Everything has been diluted now, video-wise. It’s a massive challenge for me to make a creative video. I don’t even know if it’s possible anymore. […]

  • Radiohead’s <i>OK Computer</i> at 20: What It Felt Like to Review <i>OK Computer</i> When It First Came Out
    Posted by Barry Walters on March 21, 2017 at 5:00 am

    Radiohead’s OK Computer at 20: What It Felt Like to Review OK Computer When It First Came Out Photo by: Illustrations by Noelle Roth This week, we are celebrating Radiohead’s OK Computer with essays, videos, interviews, visual artworks, and more. Check out all of the coverage here. Having been a professional critic for several decades, I’ve reviewed something like a thousand records and concerts. Many are a blur. But I’ll always remember writing about Radiohead’s OK Computer for SPIN 20 years ago. First, a little background. I saw Radiohead open for college radio faves Belly the same week Pearl Jam’s Vs. sold nearly a million copies in 1993—a record-breaking achievement. Grunge was making every kind of rock heavier, often to a fault. Slacker bands were suddenly aspiring to be rock stars like Nirvana, who hated being rock stars, and that contradiction made many—including Radiohead at this early stage—conflicted and awkward. I’d heard “Creep” as a perfect piece of outsider pop, an anthem for all of us who were told we “don’t belong here.” But Thom Yorke’s then-bleached Cobain-esque hair and the belabored dread of their other early songs suggested Radiohead secretly aspired to be insiders, which didn’t suit them. There were plenty of second-hand, third-tier, fake-Seattle bands canvassing the U.S.; we didn’t need these Brits stumbling about as if they too were shooting smack. Their clothes were godawful; Yorke’s dancing was worse. I gladly and mercilessly panned them. Their second album, 1995’s The Bends, completely reversed my dismissal. It came out amid the Britpop explosion, which brought out dodgy imitators just like grunge. For every Suede, Blur, Pulp, or Elastica, there were many lesser, reactionary Oasis clones reviving the sullen, laddish classic rock stances new wave rightly rendered cornball. In the space of one album, though, Radiohead circumvented all that. This time they sustained the tunes that supported their seriousness, and put the “Creep”-enabled money being thrown at them to good use: The album’s emphatically cinematic videos, particularly “Just,” confirmed that this was a band that was nailing the sweet spot between accessibility and mystery. But although the UK press proclaimed that Radiohead joined the big leagues with The Bends, the band’s sweepingly positive critical consensus hadn’t yet spread to most Yanks: My SPIN cohort Chuck Eddy ended his largely negative Bends review grousing, “Too much nodded-out nonsense mumble, not enough concrete emotion.” But sales and radio play snowballed regardless: The album’s fifth UK single, “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” was its most successful; a No. 5 pop hit nearly a year after the album’s release. In America, The Bends soon fell off the chart after initially peaking at No. 147, but eventually returned to it and went gold a year later when the deceptively conventional single “High and Dry” was similarly promoted late in the game. Something was happening, and I wanted to write about it. Back in 1997, critics still often reviewed albums in advance of their release date off of promo cassettes. If it was a bigtime record, you’d generally get the tape only if you were on assignment, as bootleg CDs made from them proliferated. Security further tightened that year, when internet use increased exponentially and Winamp came along, allowing non-geeks to play new-fangled MP3s. As usual, I pitched SPIN a review of OK Computer based on my love for the previous album, and got the assignment without actually having heard it. The unanticipated wrinkle was that the tape arrived in a portable cassette player—a cheap Walkman knockoff—that had been Krazy Glued shut. I’d grown accustomed to security restrictions: Shortly after my career began, I reviewed David Bowie’s Never Let Me Down based solely on hearing it one afternoon at his record company’s office, and its soul-crushing blandness gave me no choice but to thoroughly lambast my childhood hero; there was no time for subtlety. But this OK Computer Walkman meant I couldn’t experience the album vibrating through my body via quality home equipment like usual; I had to experience it via compromised audio, and only through headphones. After decades of computer speakers, iPods, cell phones, and tinny MP3s, that distinction may seem minor, but at the time it was challenging, and particularly in this instance: Among many other things, OK Computer celebrates the sensuality of high-tech as it critiques it; this much was obvious, even on that dime-store Walkman. It’s important to remember that throughout the ’90s, rock stopped being futuristic—that was electronic music’s job. While techno, progressive house, jungle, trance, trip-hop, and other post-disco genres ruled European pop charts and U.S. clubs, rock had grown regressive and retro. America’s grunge yielded downturned, distorted guitars drawing almost exclusively from ’70s punk and metal, while Britpop, although stylistically broader, typically tapped even earlier guitar bands. Synths were usually verboten; the rare alt-rock acts of the era that featured them, like Stereolab, favored vintage analog exotica. It was as if ’90s rock willfully turned its back on contemporary sounds and equipment. As its title telegraphed, OK Computer wasn’t like that, and its break from nearly all other concurrent rock gave me the same thrill of the new that dance music of the time did. Its attitude wasn’t nostalgic, but dystopian, and it embraced pre-millennial anxieties exactly when many people—myself included—had just bought their first home computer. My review was one of the first I’d composed on a laptop and submitted via email; before that, I’d use an office computer, printer, and fax machine. 1997 was the first year I took in new music at home while surfing the web, seemingly linked to the entire world, but more isolated than ever. As I mentioned in the review, I couldn’t at this early stage comprehend most of the album’s words—there was no pre-release lyric sheet—but I felt their sadness and longing for connection nevertheless. It was my own. The music, however, made overt the alienation Yorke’s elliptical messages only suggested. Deliciously melodramatic with frenzied crescendos of massed guitars massaged into busy, buzzy orchestration, it perfectly contrasted with the wounded innocence of Yorke’s choirboy cry. Radiohead brought the noise of avant-garde rockers like Sonic Youth, but no one else had juxtaposed it against such exquisite singing that suggested mankind’s frailty, much less married it to studio craft that updated the painstaking aural architecture of bygone prog and krautrock. More remarkably, co-producer Nigel Godrich and the band created their own sonic world. OK Computer was enigmatic, but no amount of fractured poetry could stop me from thinking it wasn’t a masterpiece. What was unknowable about it also made it great. Of course, Kid A and what followed has often been more extreme, and in reading my review today, I’m struck by how much of it could’ve been applied to Radiohead’s subsequent output. The difference was that there was little precedent; they hadn’t previously released a song like “Paranoid Android,” which lacked any kind of refrain or consistent tempo. Even in the “alternative” ’90s, bands on a monumental upward trajectory rarely rejected convention and commerciality this thoroughly. The most notable exception was Nirvana’s In Utero, but that album was banged out in two weeks and sounded it. OK Computer took a year and a half to make at a time when the recklessness of grunge and the brashness of Britpop made at least the illusion of rawness obligatory, and even its noisiest parts are clearly considered. There’s not a moment in it where you think, Wow, I bet they’d like to do that over again. There’s a long history of rock journalism initially razzing radical future classics where meaning isn’t conveyed primarily by lyrics. The Beatles’ now nearly untouchable Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band famously received a largely negative review in The New York Times; in its ’70s heyday, Rolling Stone routinely ridiculed early Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Queen, and other acts now central to its canon. Rock writing was then like literary criticism for hippies: That’s why brainy singer-songwriters like Dylan and Springsteen got their props while more physical performers were often shown no mercy. But I loved pop and R&B and disco as well the archest art-rock, so OK Computer’s abstractions made sense to me. It was idiosyncratic soul music made by loners who decried soullessness as much as their heroes like Noam Chomsky; a quality that soon endeared some black musicians to Radiohead the way Miles Davis dug Scritti Politti. I raved about OK Computer with an enthusiasm belied by the 8-out-of-10 grade attached to it. Things could’ve been worse, though, and sometimes critics have even less control over album grades now. That aside, there’s nothing in this review that I wouldn’t write today, even with hindsight. OK Computer is still “the most appealingly odd effort by a name rock band in ages.” Radiohead are still making “body music that circumvents the head to reach the spirit.” And I’ve still got my sealed Walkman, which only knows one album. […]

  • Photo Gallery: Portraits and Live Shots From Pitchfork’s SXSW 2017 Day Parties
    Posted by Matt Lief Anderson on March 20, 2017 at 9:10 pm


  • Radiohead’s <i>OK Computer</i> at 20: An Airbag Saved My Life: Artists Reflect on <i>OK Computer</i>
    Posted by Marc Hogan on March 20, 2017 at 5:00 am

    Radiohead's OK Computer at 20: An Airbag Saved My Life: Artists Reflect on OK Computer This week, we are celebrating Radiohead’s OK Computer with essays, videos, interviews, visual artworks, and more. Check out all of the coverage here. Along with being an art-rock fan favorite and a critical darling, OK Computer made a profound impact on creative people who heard it—and continue to hear it. To explore why the album still means so much to so many, we asked a host of artists across the musical spectrum, as well as a few actors, to reflect on what OK Computer has meant to them through the years, how they first heard it, and why it is relevant today. Danny Brown This album truly taught me how to invoke emotion through sound. I listened to it a lot when I was working on Old because I wanted to be able to capture that same essence, whether I was making a song about depression or a festival banger about smoking weed till you pass out. Grizzly Bear’s Ed Droste OK Computer was like a warm, complex, comforting—and also alarming—record. It brought up issues I hadn’t thought much about as a teenager and exposed me to non-traditional song structures, essentially expanding my attention span. I’ll never forget hearing “Let Down,” my favorite track, on WFNX Boston all the time, and requesting it frequently in hopes of hearing it on my drive to school (my car didn’t have a disc player or tape deck). At the time, I was taking guitar lessons and writing weird songs—none of which have ever seen the light of day, thank god—and this album was hugely motivational for me, especially when it came to learning to write lyrics. It remains one of my most-listened-to albums. Maxwell I bought this album the day it came out and didn’t stop listening to every song every day for about three months. It was the sound of a band leaving the mothership in warp speed for unknown destinations in the art-rock constellation. Guitar heaven. Lower Dens’ Jana Hunter I was in high school, extremely unhappy and lonely, and in my head a lot—I was kind of built to be a Radiohead fan. OK Computer delivered a sense of companionship in understanding what an insane world we lived in, and I was desperate for that company. Not much of that thinking penetrated into deeply conservative, anti-intellectual suburban Texas, where I came from, or I wasn’t good at finding it if it did. I was afraid for/of the world and felt very much alone in that, and I was angry about all of it. OK Computer responded to all of those feelings. It met those needs and, as a kid, that was most crucial. The Beta Band’s John Maclean I had an unusual introduction to Radiohead and OK Computer. I’d never really heard their stuff until we supported them on tour in 2001; I remember telling them that I thought “Karma Police” was great before I realized it had been such an anthem for years. So every night I watched Radiohead and got to know their songs live before hearing any recordings. There was a feeling every night that this was the first time the band had performed these songs. They never sounded tired or jaded. I bought the album at the end of the tour! Cillian Murphy Radiohead have made so many important records, but the emotional complexity of OK Computer is hard to equal. “Exit Music (for a Film)” is like going over a sonic waterfall in a barrel. “Karma Police” is so ecstatically sad, “No Surprises” so warmly unsettling (with one of the greatest music videos ever). It’s futile trying to find another record that can do all that. There is only one OK Computer. Arcade Fire’s Will Butler It was the first rock’n’roll record I ever obsessed over. I was 14 when it came out, but I didn’t hear it until a year later. I made a tape copy of my brother’s CD—30 minutes a side. The first half of that record was so immersive, I would just rewind it over and over. It took me three months to get past “Karma Police”—and probably eight months to make it to “The Tourist.” I listened to it so much that it ultimately lost some of its universality—it reminded me too deeply of being a teenager. Now that I’m an old man I appreciate it again, though. I guess I’m not that old a man, but the fact that OK Computer came out 20 years ago—and that I have a long, quasi-romantic, contented relationship with it—makes me feel pretty old. Baroness’ John Baizley Up until recently, it felt as though musicians had been issued a strict, unspoken moratorium on talking about Radiohead. It is assumed that all publicity-conscious musicians, wannabe tastemakers, and hipster-audiophiles were to understand that Radiohead’s influence was a given and therefore off the trend lines to examine. This put Radiohead itself in that strange universe of revered musical artifacts best left undiscussed; like Pet Sounds’ production, Leonard Cohen’s lyrics, John Bonham’s grunty isolated drums tracks, Slint’s ahead-of-their-time-ness, Fugazi’s $5 tickets, KISS’ in between song banter on YouTube, whatever it is that everyone deems so cool about the Velvet Underground, and a host of other irrefutable musical facts (note: sarcasm). I may have even have kept silent on this subject for a few years, but in time I learned to comfortably admit my secret: Radiohead were a huge influence on me as a young musician and continue to be so. OK Computer was not only an incredible first listen in 1997, it has remained one of the most consistently listened to and examined albums in my collection. Each subsequent listen offers up discoveries and a potential inspirational kick in the pants. What has always impressed me the most with this album is that for all the wonderfully dense layers of orchestration, non-standard time signatures, distorted/chopped/warped sounds, and mournful lyrical imagery, it has a flirtatious relationship with popular music. OK Computer is an unintentional pop record, one of those albums that would seem an impossible hit if you broke the components apart. It is this very unscriptable element that makes it so effective; the best subversion in pop culture comes from the inside out. DJ Shadow I first heard the album on cassette while driving to see U2 play at the Oakland Coliseum in 1997. It was very different from the Britpop that was going on at the time in the UK—it seemed like an album that was reaching for something else. Later that year, “Let Down” was the song that I fell in love with when I was supporting them on tour. I would do my little thing, and then they would come on, and I would just sit and watch. The album is just permanently engrained in my DNA. It’s part of the music of my life. Haley Joel Osment OK Computer inaugurated that period in my school years when I could spend every night lost in my headphones as I went to sleep. All the adventurous decisions the band and producer Nigel Godrich made create this sensation that you are passing through different physical spaces during each track; it’s an ecstatic experience listening to it all the way through. There’s grim imagery in the lyrics, but there’s also so much joy in these songs. It’s an album that manages to make “the emptiest of feelings” a genuinely uplifting line. Fuck Buttons and Blanck Mass’ Benjamin John Power This shit is like gold dust to a miserable teenager. “Paranoid Android” specifically resonated with me so much growing up that even to this day the lyrics “Ambition makes you look pretty ugly/Kicking, squealing Gucci little piggy” dart around in my head at least once or twice a week. As someone who doesn’t particularly come from the ABBA school of songwriting (as far as structure is concerned) this was, and is, highly inspirational. It takes you on a journey from nervousness, to paranoia (duh), through anger to sadness via empathy, and leaves you stranded at inevitable hopelessness. Toro Y Moi’s Chaz Bundick I bought that record when I was in high school. It was the first Radiohead record I got, and one of the first contemporary rock albums I ever bought, along with the Pixies and Weezer. And it was one of the first times I heard a male sing falsetto like that in big rock music. Radiohead have built this cult following that is able to balance mainstream success and still have indie cred. That’s something I aspire to do. They created a really unique path that others can follow. They’ve always made good decisions; every single member has great taste. It’s almost an unbeatable formula. My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Nova As a guitar player, in 1997, the computer in music represented a certain fear of extinction for me, a fear that rock was dying, but Radiohead embraced technology in such a way that the sonic palette that had defined rock music was shifted. The themes of rock weren’t dying, but it was changing aesthetic clothes to reflect the Now. Plus, these songs are just as badass as they were 20 years ago! DJ Spooky Right now we’re in an era where everyone’s post-playlist. So it’s hard to really go back to thinking about whole albums anymore. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and then, of course, Radiohead, are more like what I call essayists. They really dig into the texture of an idea, and the whole album is meant to be conceptual. It’s not just music, and that’s something that’s really important to me. For better or worse, DJ culture has its rules and regulations. It’s the tyranny of the beat. I think a lot of DJs are into conceptual stuff like Radiohead because it’s something you can put on and have the tapestry of the world go by without it getting into beats and the same stuff that we normally have to listen to all the time. It’s a palate-cleanser. That’s what OK Computer was for me when I first heard it. The Twilight Sad’s James Graham I was a young angsty teenager who didn’t care for lad rock when OK Computer was released, and it instantly appealed to me. The lyrics really connected with me as I was feeling lost: disjointed and out of place in certain social circles; taught at school that the right path in life is just to get a good job; that material things equal success and that too much self-expression could be a way of setting yourself up for failure. The words within these songs confirmed that I wasn’t alone in feeling uneasy in the modern world’s way of thinking. As a 32-year-old still struggling to come to terms with society’s ideals, anxiety still looms large, and these lyrical ideas are just as relevant, if not more. Marissa Nadler I was 16 when this album came out and distinctly remember it as a unifying musical force between generations. Radiohead remains one of the few band that my parents, who are big fans of ’60s and ’70s classic- and prog rock, bought tickets multiple times to see live. Looking back, it’s not hard to see why this record resonated. Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody It’s almost insane how relevant this album is. Right now. This minute. It aches and creaks and burns post-Brexit, in the age of, gulp, Trump. Pick a song at random and it could have been written last week. The “Hitler hairdos” of “Karma Police.” “Subterranean Homesick Alien” talks of the wish to be abducted by aliens and brought aboard their spaceship to “show me the world as I’d love to see it.” Can there be a more poignant or striking symbol of how futile wars, anger, savagery, or division is than seeing the earth from space with no borders, serene blue and, from that vantage, at peace? The many-voiced schizophrenia of “Paranoid Android” with the hopeful tyrant’s voice proclaiming: “When I am king you will be first against the wall.” Lyrically and musically this record was years ahead of its time. I don’t think anyone made a better rock album in the 20 years since. Foals’ Jimmy Smith I remember sitting in the backseat of my dad’s car driving out of Oxford when the computer noises from “Let Down” kicked in and everything just changed. I fell into this pool of wondrous sounds old and new and never really came back. Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry For me, OK Computer was one of the first records to reimagine the rock record as a place. It was a really dense, sprawling landscape as both a sonic world and an emotional world. And it was engaging with its surroundings in an early-days-of-the-internet, fragmented, overwhelming-reality kind of way. They were getting outside of the typical rock mold. Looking back, OK Computer points to the myriad directions that that band would go. It’s like the jumping off point. […]