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Saturday, November 16, 2019

Britpop: A Deeper Dive

I would be remiss not to post about 90's Britpop, and it has taken me far too long to get around to it!
I am going to assume that most of you know about the megalithic, untouchable pillars of Britpop: Oasis' first three albums, Blur's "Parklife" (or... really any of their albums), The Verve's "Urban Hymns", Radiohead's "The Bends", Pulp's "Different Class", and Supergrass's "I Should Coco".
(If these aren't ringing a bell, PLEASE go listen to them right now!!!)  
As an aside, this list is likely more helpful for non-UK residents. Most of the following groups/ albums achieved at least some degree of commercial success in their homeland. I want to bring them to the world (or at least the handful of people actually reading this).

The La's (1990)

Let's be clear: THIS IS AS CLOSE TO A PERFECT ALBUM AS YOU CAN GET. When I first heard it, it was a revelation. That's because Lee Mavers and co. honed these songs to a scalpel edge; playing them for years on the local club circuit before committing them to wax. The tracks are concise, melodic, catchy, invigorating, memorable, charming (in an unmistakably Liverpudlian way), and timeless (see, for example, the aptly named "Timeless Melody"). Mavers is a's that simple. It is impossible to pack more pop goodness into a 2-3 minute track than The La's do here. Unfortunately, Mavers' genius proved to be the end of The La's, who would never release another album. Displeased with the debut album's mixing, Mavers lashed out in the press, doing everything he could to stymie its success (unsuccessfully as it turned out). In the meantime, he began working feverishly on the follow-up...which, almost 30 years later, has yet to see the light of day. Some rough cuts have surfaced online, including a recording known as "The Crescent Tapes" (Mavers had taken a band called "The Crescent" under his wing...and they appear to have covertly taped some material and leaked it). Although the sound on these leaks is rather low quality, the songs sound extremely promising. 

So, what happened? Rumours abound...but Mavers' perfectionism, and the gargantuan scope of his artistic vision almost certainly contributed. Apparently a young Noel Gallagher once said that he began Oasis as a way to "finish what The La's started." Hopefully one day The La's will finish what The La's started.

I Can't Sleep:

Cast- All Change (1995); Mother Nature Calls (1997); Magic Hour (1999)

Fortunately, not all was lost. From the opaque, swirling limbo enveloping The La's emerged Cast- fronted by (ex-La) John Power. In fact, a couple tracks originally written by Power for his previous band surfaced here (including the brilliant "Alright"). While The La's were largely about jangly and earthy acoustic rock, Cast tend more toward the "modern guitar rock" end of the scale. Fortunately, the songs are still anchored by impeccable craft and melodic sense. Their live recordings reveal a band completely at home in a "stadium rock" setting, not unlike The Who in their heyday.      

Beat Mama (from 1997' "Magic Hour" album):

Longpigs- The Sun Is Often Out (1996)

My favourite podcast of all time, "The Ricky Gervais Show" (hosted by Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant, and Karl Pilkington), featured a segment called "Rockbusters". Pilkington would provide a "cryptic clue" and an initial to the listener (much to the chagrin of Gervais, who expressed his disdain for the segment at every opportunity), who could call in and guess the band Karl was thinking of. It is still a joy to listen to, and I have linked a few excerpts below:


For me, it wouldn't get any bigger than being featured on Rockbusters. Longpigs achieved this honour. 
Clue: "You'll get a load of bacon off them. Initial 'L'." 
If that distinction doesn't have you convinced, just listen to some of the perfect pop on their debut album. Tracks like "She Said" (the group at their most brash), "Far", and "Dozen Wicked Words" are easily among the best of the genre.


She Said:

Dozen Wicked Words:

The Charlatans-Tellin' Stories (1997)

Another beneficiary of the "Rockbusters" treatment:
"Those people can't make up their minds whether to sit in the sun or not" (Charlatans= Shall-I-Tans?).

Again, this list won't be a deep dive for some. The Charlatans were hugely successful, and continue to maintain a rabid fanbase. In fact, this album captures them at their commercial peak (3 smash UK hit singles). Still, it wasn't until recently that I familiarized myself with brilliant tracks like "One To Another", and "How High" (after seeing the album listed on Q Magazine's 100 best records of the 90's list). I generally avoid the more dance-inflected/ "Madchester" scene groups- I am more of a guitar-rock kinda guy...but The Charlatans are an exception. They retain enough grit, swagger, and rawness to win me over. The electronic flourishes are garnish here, and the main dish is impossible not to love.

Out Of My Hair- Drop The Roof (1996)

Here's a genuinely overlooked entry. Breezy, bright, effortlessly charming, and distinctly English- it's amazing that this group doesn't get namedropped more often. 

Songs like "Mr. Jones" (not to be confused with the Counting Crows song of the same name) and "In The Groove Again" showcase Simon Eugene's (AKA Comfort's) dulcet and playful-yet-earnest vocal delivery. 

Mr. Jones: 

Ocean Colour Scene- Moseley Shoals (1996)

This is pure, no-nonsense British rock: Reverence for tradition paired with modern punch and production values. Moselely Shoals captures the group at their peak, and begins with the unbeatable one-two punch of "The Riverboat Song" and "The Day We Caught The Train".   

The Day We Caught The Train:

The Seahorses- Do It Yourself (1997)

Though featuring ex-Stone Roses guitarist Chris Squires, The Seahorses favoured a more direct and less electronic attack than the Roses had (gone are the dense washes of sound, calculated ambience, and drum loops). Singer Chris Helme also proves himself a compelling frontman. Unfortunately, this was the group's sole release (not including stand-alone single "You Can Talk To Me") before they split.

Love Is The Law:

I Want You To Know:

Dodgy- Free Peace Sweet (1996)

Workmanlike Britpop mainstays with a string of successful, radio- ready singles (one of their best, "Found You", appearing on this album...along with 3 other top 20 UK singles). Check out the dual chorus melodies and pure rock bliss of "You've Gotta Look Up". 

Found You:

You've Gotta Look Up:

Suede (1992)

The masters of dark romanticism. Sex-charged, self-consciously excessive, and revelling in crunchy, dense glam riffage--the debut is as good a place to start with Suede as any (although critics usually gravitate towards the follow-up: the darker, more esoteric "Dog Man Star").

Metal Mickey:

Gay Dad- Leisure Noise (1999)

With a lineup including an ex-Mojo Magazine music journalist (Cliff Jones), this group kinda had to be good (imagine the glee of tearing into a critic unable to back his words with actual musical talent: the ultimate poetic justice for so many scorned artists). Fortunately, Jones retained both his street cred and his entrails.

Oh Jim:

My Son Mystic:

Oasis- Whatever (Single) (1994)

Yes, I know everyone is aware of Oasis. If not, you should be- they're brilliant.

What audiences outside of the UK may not know is that the group released a stand-alone single (unavailable on any full-length album until the deluxe reissue of "Definitely Maybe") to bridge the gap between their debut, and the now legendary "(What's the Story?) Morning Glory". It did the job nicely, maintaining the momentum the young superstars had begun to build until they could deliver the knockout punch.

"Whatever" is an ambitious (almost 6-and-a-half minutes in length + featuring a full orchestra) anthem for the defiant, the proud, and really anyone seeking a sense of affirmation--- an uplifting "take me as I am" statement from the pen of one of rock's most tuneful songwriters, and the lips of one of its most defiant and confident performers. In short, it richly deserves its almost 55 million(!) plays on YouTube. "I'm free to be whatever I- whatever I choose and I'll sing the blues if I want".

Heavy Stereo- Smiler (Single) (1995)

Jubilant! Heavy Stereo released a couple of 3-track EPs to promote the release of their full length album "Deja Voodoo". "Smiler" is my favourite song from the EPs, and (miraculously) did not make the track list on the full-length. Copies of the EPs and full-length are tricky to find this side of the pond, but do surface regularly on auction sites like Ebay.

The Real People (1991)

Liverpudlian pop-connoisseurs who rubbed shoulders with Oasis (including a couple guest credits on early Oasis tracks---Tony Griffiths provided backing vocals on "Supersonic", and Chris Griffiths co-wrote "Rockin Chair" with Noel Gallagher) and The La's. They seem to have taken cues equally from The Stone Roses (electronic textures and rhythms) and The La's, while retaining a wholly unique personality and vision all of their own. Hugely underrated!

Window Pane:

The Truth:

Drugstore-White Magic For Lovers (1998)

I usually stay away from anything branded "dream pop", but this one appeals to me nonetheless. Hands-down the best track here is "El President"- an ethereal duet between Isabel Monteiro and Thom Yorke (YES, THE ONE FROM RADIOHEAD). It is near impossible to stand toe-to-toe (or voice-to-voice) with Thom Yorke...but Isabel Monteiro is more than equal to the task here.

El President:

Hurricane #1 (1997)

Just recently discovered these guys, so I don't have much info. Regardless, they deserve a spot on my list.

Step Into My World:

Travis-Good Feeling (1997)

It's bouncy, angular, irreverent, brash...a far cry from the restrained and minimalist "adult alternative" sound these guys would become known for (and achieve a modicum of fame in North America with) in the new millenium. I hear echoes of Brit-Pop future here. Might The Fratellis have been listening to this album when they came storming out of the gates in the early 2000's?  
U16 Girls:

Starclub (1993)

Embrace- The Good Will Out (1998)

One Big Family:

The Boo Radleys- C'mon Kids (1996) 

Let's end on a rocker. 
C'mon Kids:

Some critics believe that Starclub shot themselves in the foot---naming themselves after a Hamburg club where The Beatles played a legendary string of shows in 1962 (see the Beatles' recording "Live! at the Star-Club..."). There may be some truth there, as these guys don't quite call the Fab Four to mind. That being said, they do warrant a re-examination. Now that the dust has settled, we can listen to simple, no-frills pop tunes like "Hard To Get" on their own merits. It's not breathtaking, but it is fun to dip one's toes into now and then.

Drummer Alan White would go on to play with Oasis from 1995-2001 (replacing original drummer Tony McCarroll). 

Hard To Get:


  1. Thank you for posting this. There are several British bands I'd not heard of. Appreciate the info!

  2. Nice one for including the real people, great band, seen them live last week in liverpool. hugely underrated. check out "Dream On" by them, lost classic!

    1. Thrilled to know those guys are still at it! Envy you for having seen them live. I will for sure check out “Dream In”, thanks!

  3. It's a little scary how many of these albums I own. The La's were key - IIRC there was a lot of buzz before the album came out, and it didn't disappoint!

    Lee Mavers had a LOT of problems, and this was the only proper album they ever mustered. But it is one everyone has to have: One of the most important albums from that period, and still, as you say, perfect. I was lucky enough to see them at Cabaret Metro in Chicago when they toured - they were excellent!

    Bonus points for Cast - ex-La's John Power's great band, whose work I also have. This is my first time on this site, so I haven't checked everything out. But if you haven't already, a nice bit on Milltown Brothers would be in order.

    1. Do you think Mr Mavers will ever release a follow up? I have always held out hope (and heard rumblings from time to time that he was playing again at various events). Wishful thinking? And thank you for the recommendation— I will definitely check out the Milltown Brothers! Always looking for new gems.