By Paul Laird @MILDMANNEREDMAX
As 2020 draws to a close so too does a year of muted “celebration” for the year when Britpop broke the mainstream and dominated popular culture. 1995 was the year of the Battle of Britpop, of Pulp at Glastonbury and so much more. But now, twenty-five years later…was it really all that?
Of all the crimes, sickening crimes, that time commits surely one of the most foul is the way that it can take the things you believed in so fervently, so feverishly, so absolutely when you were young and render them as a testament only to your own foolishness when in adulthood.
1995 was the year of Britpop. What had been a whisper in 1991 and 1992, what had grown to a murmur in 1993, what had been talked of in the most hushed of tones in 1994 had become a roar by the summer of this year. At the time I was shouting too. This was my time. This was, as Martine McCutcheon so eloquently put it, my moment…my perfect moment.
Now I look at the top fifty albums of 1995 as decided by the Melody Maker and NME, with careful attention being paid to the top ten, and I can’t help but feel a deep sense of shame. How could I have got it so wrong? How could I have ignored so much great music, genuinely great music, for music that was, if we are being honest only ever great in flashes and was, much more often, a bit dull.
Don’t get cross.
I’m not saying for one single second that all of those albums we loved in 1995 weren’t great at the time. I’m not even saying they are not great now. At least I’m not saying that about most of them. I still listen to and adore those albums today. What I am saying is that there was better music that year…music with more creativity, more craft and more confidence than some of the ones that formed the bulk of the Britpop heavy list.
It was an act of cowardice on the part of the Melody Maker to put “Different Class” (Pulp) as joint number one with Tricky’s “Maxinquaye”. Where Jarvis and the gang had achieved the sort of success they probably didn’t ever really believe they would and had done it with their second best collection the truth, no matter how hard it is to accept, was that it wasn’t in a different class to what the Knowles West Boy had produced. “Maxinquaye” was the sound of the now and the blueprint for the sound of tomorrow at the same time. It is a dark and terrifying work, a glimpse into the trauma and madness that scars the lives of people on the fringes, the communities that just a few short years later would be used by the likes of Channel 4 as poverty porn. It draws on personal experience and offers vivid social commentary (just like “Different Class”) but does so without once glancing backwards for inspiration. Even when Public Enemy’s “Black Steel” is covered it sounds like an original work. To their credit the NME called this one right and placed “Maxinquaye” in the top spot on its own.
Number two on my list would not have been “What’s the Story Morning Glory” by Oasis. Even at the time I found it to be an album that was the antithesis of what pop music should be. It was dull. After the riot of “Definitely Maybe” this was the sound of the AGM at the local bowling club. A better Oasis album could be crafted from songs they released at that time but that album isn’t available so I can only comment on the one that is…and it’s just not all that good. There are moments when it soars; “Champagne Supernova” and “Cast No Shadow”…maybe? My choice would have been TLC’s masterpiece “Crazysexycool”. For reasons only the people involved in curating the list can explain it is relegated to number 40 behind things like Blur’s “The Great Escape” and Cast’s “All Change”. I love Blur. I reckon I love them more than you do. And I really love “All Change” but even the people in those bands know that neither of those albums come close to what TLC were doing. When Blur were releasing “Country House” the women of TLC were releasing the greatest single of the nineties “Waterfalls” (they also released the second best single of the decade with “Creep”). Curiously, and shamefully, over at the NME nobody thought to even mention this in the top fifty. When you consider that they found space for an album by AC fucking DC it really does make your heart sink.
The rest of the the albums on both lists is a great snapshot of the year. Tindersticks, The Verve, Pavement, Palace Music, The Chemical Brothers, Leftfield…it was an incredible year for music of all sorts.
Too often people who weren’t there try to define this period as being pale, stale and painfully male…but, if you WERE there, then the truth was very different. You can’t be too critical of the Britpop heavy nature of these lists because, truthfully, many of those albums in the top ten that I’ve been a bit sniffy about here were, very clearly, the sound of the year…Hell, they might even be the sound of the decade. All I am suggesting is that twenty five years later it might be OK to accept that music by artists who didn’t have a dick or a copy of “The White Album” may, just may, have produced music that deserved more recognition than this list offers?
My top ten at that moment in time would have looked a little different; Cast, My Life Story, Elastica and Gene would have replaced Tricky, PJ Harvey, Tindersticks and Goldie. Today though it would look more different still with Tricky, TLC, Bjork, The Cardigans and Dubstar all finding a place at the expense of Pulp, Oasis, Blur, Black Grape and Radiohead. There is a part of me that feels some sadness that the 22 year old man child who was living his life at the very heart of a genuine “moment” in history has gone…but I feel good about the fact that I haven’t stood still, that I have continued to listen, to re-examine and to change my mind. My “credentials” as a person who loves Britpop are impeccable. I don’t know of many people, maybe any people, have written as much on the music as I have over the past few years. Those bands, those albums, those people define a huge part of my life and continue to soundtrack my life today. That shouldn’t mean that I have to cut myself off to any, and all, music that isn’t made by people who once sat next to somebody who used to live round the corner from the bloke who sold Paul Weller that jumper he wears on the cover of “The Modern World”, or something.
Living in a box and refusing to cast the net wider than the music I love from 25 years ago would be a form of cultural lockdown and, frankly, I’ve had enough of that to last me a lifetime.