20. I Want You (1987)
Pulp’s luckless 1980s career has been dismissed as juvenilia – not least by Jarvis Cocker – but it’s sparingly studded with great songs, albeit great songs hampered by their ultra-cheap production. I Want You, from their second album Freaks, the kind of epic ballad they would later master with Something Changed, is a perfect example.
19. Countdown (1991)
Their former labels’ attempts to cash in on Pulp’s mainstream success were wearying but at least some of the music they were hawking was really good. Countdown, from their third album, Separations, is a tense rumination on ageing and escape. The re-recorded 12in version is the one to hear.
18. Do You Remember the First Time? (1994)
That rarest of things: a Top 40 hit that mentions buying a vibrator in its opening verse. It’s another entry in fourth album His N’ Hers’ chronicle of relationship woes in which the protagonist winningly attempts to sweet-talk his ex by suggesting that, if they have sex again, it can’t be worse than their disastrous first attempt.
17. Like a Friend (1998)
A fantastic This Is Hardcore-era B-side, Like a Friend ended up on the soundtrack of the 1998 movie Great Expectations. The moment at 1min 45sec where it unexpectedly changes gear, the tempo shifts and the whole band crash in is fantastic, the disconsolate lyrics – “come on in, wipe your feet on my dreams” – terrific.
16. Sorted for E’s and Wizz (1995)
An equivocal hymn to Cocker’s raving days, which ponders the meaning of hedonism. The question of why hedonism has to have a deep meaning hangs heavy, but even so, its evocation of comedown paranoia – “I seem to have left an important part of my brain somewhere in a field in Hampshire” – is perfect.
15. Cocaine Socialism (1998)
Bafflingly relegated to a B-side, Cocaine Socialism is a livid but witty excoriation of New Labour’s attempts to co-opt Cool Britannia and of Cool Britannia itself. A lot of Pulp’s 90s peers were aiming for Ray Davies-inspired social satire, but no one else came up with anything as pointed and powerful as this.
14. Mis-Shapes (1995)
In a world where tribal youth culture barely exists, Mis-Shapes’ rallying call for suburban weirdos sounds like a transmission from a distant past, where “you could end up with a smack in the mouth just for standing out”. But if its lyrics feel like a time capsule, the chorus still hums with vibrant, valedictory energy.
13. This Is Hardcore (1998)
Hard work compared to its hit-packed predecessor, Different Class, the damaged, self-lacerating mood of This Is Hardcore is summed up by its title track: queasy lounge music horns, pained vocals, lyrics that appear to equate fame with pornography. Clearly it wasn’t going to sell the way Different Class did, but as a slow fade on the excesses of the mid-90s, it works perfectly.
12. Something Changed (1995)
Pulp’s songs about love and sex were so fraught – with everything from jealousy to class consciousness – that it’s oddly startling to hear them come up with something straightforwardly sweet: a lyric about the element of chance involved in falling in love (“where would I be now if we’d never met?”) and a lovely chanson-esque melody.
11. Inside Susan: A Story in Three Songs (1993)
Perhaps it’s cheating to include what’s effectively three different songs as one track, but let’s bend the rules for Susan’s tripartite life story. Stacks is one of pop’s great depictions of excitable adolescence; Inside Susan’s interior monologue is beautifully drawn; the dull marriage of 59 Lyndhurst Grove subtly weary and sad.
10. Razzmatazz (1993)
An awesome tale of relationship schadenfreude, in which a recent dumpee notes that things aren’t panning out for his former partner. Its brilliance lies not just in its fabulous chorus, but the distinct hint of pain in Cocker’s voice: for all his gloating, he clearly isn’t enjoying himself much either.
9. Sheffield: Sex City (1992)
On the B-side of Babies lurked a lust-wracked tour around Pulp’s home town that’s audibly inspired by house music, quotes at length from Nancy Friday’s 1973 book My Secret Garden: Women’s Sexual Fantasies, is at turns atmospheric, authentically erotic and barkingly funny – like nothing else British alt-rock produced in 1992.
8. Lipgloss (1993)
Lyrically, Lipgloss sounds a little like Razzmatazz part two – another portrait of a woman abandoned after the novelty wore off – although it’s noticeably more detached and sympathetic than its predecessor. But the star here is guitarist Russell Senior, who reels off a succession of concise, attention-grabbing riffs around the vocal.
7. Pink Glove (1994)
His N’ Hers was an album mired in sexual obsession and envy, and Pink Glove – the saga of a triangular love affair told by the least dominant figure, alternately sneering at his rival and issuing feeble threats to leave – might be its highlight. It should have been a single; its melody is certainly addictive enough.
6. Disco 2000 (1995)
There’s something hugely winning about the fact that, while Pulp’s peers stole from the Beatles or Wire, Disco 2000 borrowed heavily from Laura Brannigan’s Eurodisco hit Gloria. Its singalong chorus masks an incredibly sad song of undimmed unrequited love. Its subject, Cocker’s childhood friend Deborah Bone, died of cancer in 2015.
5. Sunrise (2001)
Whether intentionally or not, the last track on the last Pulp album feels like the band saying goodbye: it’s elegiac and optimistic, its lyrics simultaneously bidding farewell to a party lifestyle and scorning the bleak worldview found on This Is Hardcore. The music is just gorgeous, an acoustic sigh that turns into a guitar-heavy jam.
4. Underwear (1995)
Underwear might be Pulp’s equivalent of Elvis Costello’s I Want You; both songs capture the moment when jealousy begets lurid visions of what’s going on behind your back. But while I Want You’s music relentlessly amps up the tension, Underwear’s chorus is strident and anthemic and blessed with one of their finest melodies.
3. The Fear (1998)
Complete with Paul Daniels reference, The Fear explains why Pulp chose commercial suicide with This Is Hardcore: “This is the sound of someone losing the plot … you’re going to like it, but not a lot.” But The Fear’s wilfully murky sound does nothing to hide the strident brilliance of its melody, or its disturbing lyrics.
2. Babies (1992)
The finest example of Cocker’s song-as-short-story approach to writing, Babies’ sad, funny, grubby coming-of-age tale turns teenage voyeurism, unrequited lust and wince-inducing memories into one of the greatest songs of the 90s, so stark and conversational in its approach that listening to it feels – appropriately enough – like eavesdropping. It’s also got a killer tune.
1. Common People (1995)
A lazy standby for any soundtrack required to evoke the mid-90s, Common People is so overplayed you might reasonably never want to hear it again. But look beyond its familiarity and it’s a remarkable song, an expression of fury at class tourism lobbed into the middle of the Britpop period’s dropped aitches and faux-gorblimey laddism. Completely at odds with the tenor of the era, its surging power and nailed-on chorus meant it ended up one of the era’s biggest anthems, which is quite an achievement and the perfect way of underlining how distant from their Britpop peers Pulp were.