‘The Drowners’ may have been the first Britpop single, but Suede’s third consecutive excellent release was the moment that the blue-touch paper was lit, the point at which the band capitalised on the breathless media hype, stormed the barricades and elevated themselves into the mainstream. ‘Animal Nitrate’ was the absolute apex of the Bernard Butler-Brett Anderson songwriting partnership, combining Butler’s energetic, glam guitars with Anderson’s cocksure lyrics about underage gay sex and amyl nitrate. And a brilliant chorus, to boot.
Aided by an indelible live performance of the track at the 1993 BRIT Awards – a week before it even came out – with Brett Anderson at his confrontationally androgynous best, in a lacy shirt and flagellating himself with his microphone as he suggestively sang “what does it take to turn you on now you’re over 21?” in front of a shocked British music industry whose landscape was about to change decisively. A fortnight later, ‘Animal Nitrate’ sashayed and sneered its way into the Top Ten, an unheard-of achievement for a band that had been unsigned 12 months before and singing about violence, drugs and seedy sex in council flats. Suddenly, British indie was saved. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Metal Mickey’
Although N.W.A. had undoubtedly had a seismic effect on hip-hop, Straight Outta Compton’s singles had not dented the Billboard Hot 100. ‘Nuthin’ But A “G” Thang’, even though its lyrics glamorised marijuana and lionised violence and misogyny – elements that were to blight the gangsta-rap movement for its entire lifespan – saw a freed and unrestrained Dre play a much cannier game. Linking up with Snoop Dogg, then only 21 and who wrote Dre’s lyrics as well as his own, proved to be a masterstroke as it thrust two stars into the spotlight at the same time.
It also meant that Dre was able to concentrate his energy on production, his normally perfectionist work ethic coming across here as totally effortless. Sampling Leon Haywood’s funk/soul hit ‘I Want’a Do Something Freaky To You’, and with a synthesiser piercing the thick clouds of bass like a shaft of Californian sunshine cutting through the smog of Los Angeles, Dre and Snoop toss lines languidly back and forth. ‘Ain’t Nuthin’ But A “G” Thang’ was bottled lightning, rocketing to no.2 on the Billboard Hot 100. Along with the massive commercial success of The Chronic in 1992, it proved to be the archetype for a decade’s worth of West Coast hit-making, carrying hip-hop incontrovertibly into the mainstream. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Let Me Ride’
Michael Stipe has always been inscrutable, but ‘Man On The Moon’ is arguably his most cryptic and yet most insightful lyric. Centring around references to the late comedian Andy Kaufman, the history of science and religion, board games like chequers and chess, and tangential references to theories that the moon landings and Elvis Presley’s death might have been faked (as some argued Kaufman’s own death also was), Stipe’s words are a fascinating image cluster of pop-culture allusions and ideas. As such, it stands to be revisited over and over again, and it might mean something different every time depending on what mood the listener brings to the table.
But more than that, ‘Man On The Moon’ is up there with R.E.M.’s finest performances as a unit in their 30-year career. An epic yet understated arrangement that kicks off the stunning three-song sequence that ended Automatic For The People, its endless horizons make the listener feel sharply aware of the cosmic insignificance of human endeavour. And yet, at the same time, Stipe’s wit balanced out any sombre tendencies to make it uplifting, so that it communicated R.E.M.’s humanist message more perfectly than any other song in their huge catalogue. Subsequently, ‘Man On The Moon’ became an absolute staple of their live sets until their sudden split in 2011, and remains a touchstone for Nineties alternative rock. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Drive’
The strange story behind Underworld’s ‘Born Slippy’, one of the most unexpected and sonically extreme hit singles of the Nineties, just demonstrates what was possible at the heights of Britpop. Named after a greyhound that the band had bet on, and originally an instrumental released as a stand-alone single in January 1995, ‘Born Slippy’ fell well outside of the Top 40. The ‘.NUXX’ remix on its B-side that actually became the chart smash, re-released the following summer after being used for the closing sequence of Danny Boyle’s zeitgeist-defining film Trainspotting, alternated between hedonistic bliss and pure, amphetamine energy from start to finish.
Now boasting relentless, thumping techno beats and given a shamanic vocal performance by Karl Hyde – famously the “lager, lager, lager… mega mega white thing” stream-of-consciousness segment – ‘Born Slippy’ had a sideways connection to a rock audience, a Trojan horse inside a 10-minute trance epic, and it raced to no.2 in the UK. There’s not a guitar in sight, and yet it’s more quintessentially Britpop, more effectively capturing the strangeness and confidence that those years unleashed on the British arts scene, than anything that revivalist classicists like Blur or Oasis could manage. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Pearls Girl’
After Kurt Cobain provided the Nineties with the decade’s sea-change moment, there was a mad rush on to discover the next big thing. When Stephen Malkmus and Pavement, lo-fi-enamoured Anglophiles with a penchant for the obscurantist and off-beat, found themselves being hailed in the press as ‘the next Nirvana’ and even flagged up with a Cute Band Alert by teen magazine Sassy by 1993, it illustrated just how crazy the situation had become. The first single from their seminal sophomore album Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, ‘Cut Your Hair’ was a wry, satirical response to the state of the industry in the early Nineties in which Pavement had, completely unexpectedly, found themselves.
Self-described as ‘a metaphor song’, Stephen Malkmus recites a fictitious advert looking for a musician to join a band (“advertising looks and chops a must / no big hair”), criticising the extent to which image was becoming increasingly important to a scene that until recently had prided itself on authenticity. By 1994, major labels were scooping up hopeful new groups and forcing them through the cookie-cutter template to be marketed to a capricious media that understood little. Widely acclaimed but only a minor hit at the time, ‘Cut Your Hair’ is paradoxically of its time but has also aged extremely well, its message an enduring commentary on artifice and marketing, but all wrapped up in a scruffy, endearing power-pop exterior that remains to die for. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Rattled By The Rush’
A six-and-a-half-minute, multi-segmented epic featuring squalls of atonal guitar, mournful harmonic vocals and bloodcurdling lyrics about “kicking squealing Gucci little piggies”… Absolutely nothing about the ingredients for ‘Paranoid Android’ made it a contender for chart success. Owing its structure to prog-rock acts from the ‘70s yet infused with the psychology of the pre-millennial tension of the Nineties, it was an enormous musical and thematic leap forwards from the comparatively straightforward angst of The Bends. And yet, this brutally uncompromising track hit no.3 in the UK, where it remains Radiohead’s highest-charting single.
In lesser hands, ‘Paranoid Android’ would have been pretentious and obnoxious, but the care with which it is constructed and the brilliance of the musicianship lie at the heart of its magnificence as it lurches from screeching guitar onslaughts to haunting acoustic refrains (the ‘rain down’ section) to synthetic experimentation. It’s the strongest and most compelling distillation of one of OK Computer’s primary themes – the desire to escape the effects of technology’s rapid evolution and its impact on the human spirit and psyche. ‘Paranoid Android’ is also a great example of trusting one’s own instincts. Ignoring the perceived wisdom in the music industry, Radiohead engaged with their public on their own terms, trusting their fans to follow them down this more difficult road. Two decades later, their reputation as the most respected rock band in the world stems from this song. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Karma Police’
Before the term ‘trip-hop’ was coined as a journalistic catch-all term for anything down-tempo, beat-driven and soulful, Massive Attack’s breakthrough single ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ was as genre-defying as anything else that has come before or since. Slowing down the bpm and disregarding any sense of obligation towards the dancefloor, the Bristol-based collective refracted elements of ‘80s hip-hop, ‘70s disco and ‘60s Motown and projected them onto a cinematic canvas, complete with a 40-piece string orchestra. In doing so, Massive Attack created a meditational, timeless atmosphere, a dramatic evolution at a time when most dance music was fleeting and ephemeral.
Shara Nelson’s voice is the cherry on top of the cake, evoking the classic Philly soul singers with her pained, wounded yet fundamentally strong performance with lines like “a soul without a mind / in a body without a heart” giving the production a focus point for the listener. All of its individual flourishes and carefully placed samples still send shivers down the spine more than 25 years later. ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ was the clear highlight from an already consistently outstanding parent album Blue Lines, and is still the epitome of an altogether darker, more relaxed and atmospheric kind of dance music that could be enjoyed while sitting down. Its influence on a quarter of a century of British R&B, hip-hop, trip-hop and grime is impossible to overstate. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Protection’
Because they were associated with the ‘Madchester’ scene, The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays most frequently get the credit for the whole ‘indie-dance’ fusion, but it was Glasgow’s Primal Scream – and more specifically, DJ Andrew Weatherall – who truly changed the way the industry looked at indie music, as the barriers were completely torn down to dance culture. Their 1990 breakthrough hit ‘Loaded’ fully cross-pollinated the aesthetics of dance and rock to create a sonic rainbow of different textures and sounds. Suddenly, shy, floppy-haired indie kids became comfortable on the dancefloor, and saucer-eyed ravers began to appreciate guitars, and everyone who remained married to their respective tribes was quickly seen as rather uncool in the face of a Generation Ecstasy classic.
It’s incredibly rare that a remix causes its original artist to completely overhaul its approach to its own music, but this is precisely what happened when Weatherall was tasked with remixing the Scream’s 1989 Stones-influenced jam ‘I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have’. Retaining only a few of Bobby Gillespie’s vocals and some guitar lines, he totally transformed a mournful lament into one of the most influential, recognisable and cutting-edge singles of the decade, prefacing the remix with Peter Fonda’s rebel speech from 1966 film The Wild Angels (that amazing “we wanna be free to do what we want to do”) and throwing in some dream-sequence beats, lysergic guitars, soulful trumpets, house pianos and making something truly transcendent. Hitting no.16 at the height of summer, several months after its release, Weatherall was quickly commissioned to be lead producer of the Scream’s equally groundbreaking Screamadelica. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Come Together’
There are very few songs in the history of pop music as freighted with significance as ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. It’s the Song That Broke Punk; the cultural watershed that ended one era and kicked off another; the song that turned a disillusioned kid from a dead-end town into a global superstar overnight. There surely cannot be anybody under the age of 50 in the Western world who does not recognise those iconic opening power-chords. Its creator could not cope with the massive success and subsequent pressure that ‘Teen Spirit’ had engendered, sending him spiralling into a sequence of events that ended with him taking his own life. And all from a song that was apparently written in five minutes, its lyrics scribbled on a dashboard on the way to the studio, and which borrowed liberally from the chords to Boston’s ‘More Than A Feeling’ and closely followed Pixies’ quiet-loud dynamic.
But that’s how hungry the rock audience was for change by late 1991, at a point where ‘alternative rock’ was deemed only suitable for late-night TV showcases and specialist radio segments. ‘Teen Spirit’ was the moment that that all changed definitively, and the underground invaded the mainstream. Paradoxically listless but completely thrilling at the same, the song itself crackles with restless, bored energy that made Kurt Cobain’s ‘spokesperson for a generation’ status a fait accompli – even though there’s absolutely nothing grandstanding about it. All these years later, it’s actually hard to listen a track as iconic and familiar as ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ critically anymore because so much cultural baggage is bound up with it, particularly the Generation X / ‘slacker’ ethos that subsequently became attached to Cobain’s weary sigh “I found it hard, it was hard to find / Oh well, whatever, nevermind”. But its legendary status has always been untouchable. It IS the Nineties. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Lithium’
The angriest and most enduring song of the Nineties, with a socio-political sentiment to rival the Sex Pistols, was a combination of dramatic performance and laser-sharp insight relevant to its time. By 1995, it’s worth remembering that Britpop had descended into an ugly cipher for class warfare in parts of the press, between the “authentic” working-class Northerners Oasis and the artsy, middle-class Southerners Blur. The brilliance of ‘Common People’ was down to Cocker perceptively choosing to sidestep this dichotomy, criticising the voyeurism of class tourism from the sidelines in a witty, stinging satire.
“Everybody hates a tourist”, he sings with venomous precision at the naïve girl in the song who wants to live like common people but knows her rich parents can bail her out at any time, not so subtly aimed at cultural commentators and bien-pensants in the mid-Nineties who lionised poverty and the working-class experience, and ought to have known better. “It seemed to be in the air, that kind of patronising social voyeurism,” Cocker told Q the year after its release. “I felt that of Parklife, for example, or Natural Born Killers – there is that noble savage notion. But if you walk round a council estate, there’s plenty of savagery and not much nobility going on.”
But all of that only explains the anger, which made ‘Common People’ a cultural event in 1995. It would not have endured, however, if those sentiments had not been coupled with a superb performance. The stabbing, two-fingered organ intro makes for the perfect musical foil for Cocker’s lyrical fury and the physicality of his vocals, as it telescopes out from an unmelodic, almost conversational style, building carefully over more than five minutes into the most memorable of singalong choruses.
In the wake of its success, hitting no.2 in May 1995, Pulp were offered the chance to headline Glastonbury at very short notice after the shambolic soap-opera that was The Stone Roses had to cancel. They aced it, and its parent album Different Class was a stupendous commercial and critical success on release that winter. One of the most unlikely pop superstars became a household name, and a decade of British pop was given its symbolic shorthand. That is ‘Common People’s legacy. (LISTEN) Also try: ‘Mis-Shapes’
Tags: 1990s, Ed Biggs, Nineties, staff list, Top 200 Tracks of the 1990s
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