Britpop songs – 10 of the best

For some it meant the arrogant swagger of Oasis and cheek of Blur, to others it stood for the perceptive wit of Pulp, but mostly the Britpop moment produced catchy tracks about youth on the move

1. The Auteurs – Starstruck

This year is the 20th anniversary of Oasis’s Be Here Now, an album ripe for sympathetic reappraisal, if only because any record that attracts so much rancour can’t be all bad. Along with marking the moment Oasis’s creative well ran dry, it turned out to be Britpop’s endgame, sweeping the whole genre into the dustbin. And that’s how many remember Britpop today: a backward-looking bubble of we-are-the-champions triumphalism. But it wasn’t always the embarrassing uncle that nobody wants to acknowledge. Before the fatal hubris of the Cool Britannia phase, which generated an NME article proclaiming Noel Gallagher the most influential person in Britain, Britpop’s bands were clever and observant, or at least interesting. The Auteurs were all three. Leader Luke Haines hated many things, not least the classifying of his arty indie band under the Britpop umbrella. In fairness to him, the Auteurs’ 1993 debut, New Wave, shared more DNA with groups like the House of Love than Oasis, but unfortunately for Haines the Auteurs simply happened to be in the right (or wrong) place just as Britpop gained momentum. New Wave’s loveliest track, Starstruck, is shot through with the bittersweet Kinks influence that was a Britpop cornerstone, while its lyric – a fictitious memoir of a child star whose career “took its first nosedive” when he was five – is as Brit as it comes.

2. Saint Etienne – You’re in a Bad Way

Saint Etienne were fellow purveyors of small details and fleeting impressions. “Toast is burned and the coffee’s cold / And you leave all the post ’cos it’s nothing but bills again” are You’re in a Bad Way’s opening lines, establishing the quiet despair that counterpoints the song’s cascading 60s arrangement. “Home from work, put the TV on / Get your kicks watching Bruce on the old Generation Game,” it continues – you get the idea. Singer Sarah Cracknell, one of Britpop’s great voices, airily sketches a picture of everyday drabness before the chorus bursts into anthemic life. In Saint Etienne’s world, there was nothing that couldn’t be sorted out by a visit to the local caff (never “café”), and that was probably where the song’s protagonist ended up, regaining the will to live over a cup of tea at a Formica table. As with Starstruck, this 1993 single had the retro flavourings that would come to typify Britpop, but existed in a different universe to the genre’s TFI Friday bullishness.

Watch the video for You’re in a Bad Way by Saint Etienne

3. Suede – Animal Nitrate

To appreciate how outre Suede first seemed, watch their performance of Animal Nitrate at the 1993 Brit awards. Six months earlier, before they’d released so much as a single, Suede had featured on a Melody Maker front cover under the headline “The best new band in Britain”. But that kind of overhyping was standard music-press flummery – what got them out of the indie hinterland was their three minutes at the Brits. “Who was that?” was the reaction of both the TV audience and much of the crowd at the actual event, as well it might – even if that night’s other acts hadn’t been textbook-staid, Suede would still have been a glam hurricane. Introduced with a sardonic: “Please welcome the already legendary Suede” (at that point, their career consisted of two singles and that Melody Maker cover), they spent their slot burning themselves into the ears and retinas of everyone watching. Bernard Butler’s opening riff is one of the most undeniable in pop, and Brett Anderson – pirouetting in a lace blouse as he yowled: “Like his dad / you know that he had animal nitrate in mind” – imprinted himself on those viewers hungry for something different. The song’s dark dysfunctionality complemented the band’s sleazy glamour, and a sensation was born.

4. Blur – Parklife

Though Blur ambitiously viewed the Parklife LP as “a loosely linked concept album”, they probably hadn’t anticipated the cultural significance its title track would have. This was the song around which Britpop coalesced, giving form to what had been vague ideas about UK popular culture and turning it into the zeitgeist. It didn’t hurt that the track had a magnetism that made it fit in everywhere, from the Radio 1 breakfast show to the Evening Session to Spanish dancefloors. Phil Daniels’ key narrator role had originally been written for Damon Albarn, who found it impossible to “get into character” and suggested Daniels for the part. Daniels’ acerbic Cockney patter, coupled with the unshakeable chorus, instantly created a new archetype: the resurgent working-class young Londoner with money in his pocket. Pressing the point home further, the video offers the sight of Alex James pushing Graham Coxon in a supermarket trolley, and a recreation of the Abbey Road cover, but with the zebra crossing relocated to East London.

Watch the video for Parklife – starring Phil Daniels

5. Oasis – Supersonic

When a band launch their career with their best song, the only way should be down, and thus it proved, eventually. Though Oasis had a decent run of memorable early singles, none quite equalled Supersonic – hearing it now, its uncluttered perfection still startles. As a calling card, the song was incredibly effective – raw, unapologetic and burning with confidence. Though it was about Oasis’s yearning for fame, Liam Gallagher swaggered as if success were a done deal, and from that point it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Fortuitously, it came out the same month – April 1994 – as the Parklife album, and rumblings of a north/south rivalry began almost immediately, to the advantage of both bands.

6. Boo Radleys – Wake Up Boo!

Britpop could be surprisingly malleable, as shown by this 1995 single. The Boo Radleys had the wrong hair and clothes, and had done time as shoegazers but a change of direction, and bang! – they were adopted by Britpop overlord Chris Evans, and lauded as the next shiny thing. For a tune about fundamental incompatibility in a relationship, Wake Up Boo! is insanely peppy; at the time it embodied better than any other song the thread of optimism running through the mid-90s. The band’s performance on the quintessential 90s “youth” show The Word pushes every giddy neon button.

Watch the video for Wake Up Boo!

7. Pulp – Common People (live at Glastonbury)

Pulp’s breakthrough came when they stepped in as last-minute substitutes for the Stone Roses at Glastonbury in 1995. Common People was the last song of their set, and by the time it finished, the group had palpably crossed the line to bona-fide stardom. Though synonymous with Britpop, Common People has the qualities that make a song timeless: there’s Cocker’s fabulously louche delivery and the massive uplift into the chorus, obviously, but also the lyric. Addressed to a long-ago acquaintance who wanted Cocker to show her the world of “common people” in the hope that their supposed credibility would rub off, it resonates to this day.

8. Pulp – Something Changed

The fourth and least remembered single from Pulp’s Different Class, Something Changed is rarely mentioned in the same breath as the game-changing first three, Common People, Sorted for E’s and Wizz and Disco 2000. As a lesson in what Pulp were about, however, it’s unsurpassable. While the first three singles set out their stall as observers of social and class mores, Something Changed is a love song, but one defined by Pulp’s intrinsic pathos and vulnerability. Cocker’s lyric considers the role that chance plays in relationships: what if he’d gone to see a film that day instead? What if she’d visited friends? When they woke that morning, they didn’t know they were about to meet: “Life could have been very different then / but something changed.” Cocker’s partiality to hammy vocal flourishes is absent; this is his most unadorned performance, and by a long way Pulp’s most moving song.

9. Elastica – Line Up

From their 1995 debut, Elastica’s finest hour starts with the sound of energetic vomiting – an aural tribute, perhaps, to the Good Mixer pub in Camden Town, where thousands of Britpop hangovers were created. It resolves into a tirade against a groupie called Drivelhead, who hangs around the Camden gig scene in the hope of bedding some lunk whose band has just been third on the bill at the Dublin Castle. “Drivelhead wears her glad-rags / She’s got her keys, money and fags / I know her mind’s made up / To get rocked,” sings leader Justine Frischmann, though by the third verse, she’s dropped the subtlety: “Drivelhead knows all the stars / Loves to suck their shining guitars / They’ve all been right up her stairs / Do you care?” Line Up isn’t just three surging minutes, it’s also a screen-grab of a moment in time, when Camden was the epicentre of a movement that felt like something big. It’s rare for a woman to sing about groupies – Delaney & Bonnie’s Groupie (Superstar) is the only other song that comes to mind - but Frischmann, who was dating Damon Albarn at the time, had presumably seen her share of Drivelheads and wanted to vent.

Watch the video for Line Up by Elastica

10. Mansun – Wide Open Space

Mansun happened to be playing catchy guitar music at a time when every such group was labelled Britpop, but in their case it was a misnomer. Leader Paul Draper was a fan of Prince and John Barry rather than the Beatles, and his band’s 1997 debut album, Attack of the Grey Lantern, was a theatrical concept affair leagues removed from the breezy simplicity of contemporaries such as Cast and Dodgy. Along with a musical vision, Draper had a strong grasp of melody, yielding an album engaging enough to hit No 1. Wide Open Space was one of its singles, and – compelling and hugely anthemic – as close to Britpop as the band ever got. One got the impression that Draper had written it just to prove he could – the paranoia at its centre (“I’m in a wide open space / it’s freezing”) marked it as an outlier.


Caroline Sullivan

The GuardianTramp

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