The Mix: Britpop At 20
The Era's Best Songs, And Stories From The Artists Who Wrote Them
The Mix: Britpop At 20
On Sept. 8, 1993, the London rock band Suede took home the Mercury Music Prize, Britain and Ireland's "album of the year" award, for its self-titled debut. It capped a historic year for lead singer Brett Anderson and his bandmates, who in March had set a record for fastest-selling debut album in U.K. history. But the evening marked the beginning of something even bigger.
After years of American grunge music riding roughshod over the British charts, Suede's success finally gave the U.K. music press a reason to flaunt the Union Jack again. Anderson was a natural-born pop star, just like his idol David Bowie, and Suede guitarist Bernard Butler was already being compared to the incomparable Johnny Marr. Magazines like NME and Melody Maker seized the moment and stoked the public's nationalistic pride. Men and women who grew up on Beatles, Kinks and Who songs were ready for their own golden era of British pop — or, perhaps more accurately, their rebuke to grunge — and record labels were more than happy to oblige.
They called it Britpop, a nebulous black hole of a genre that absorbed any British accent with a guitar from 1993 through 1997. Fledgling acts with two decent songs and the appropriate look were snatched up by major labels. Music weeklies waged a constant battle to unearth the next Suede or Blur or Oasis. Radio playlists tossed aside self-loathing grunge acts and embraced unbridled ambition. Teenagers forked over 10 quid for CD singles. Every lead singer wanted to be a star, and no one was above a few la la la's. (OK, so maybe Thom Yorke resisted.)
Over time, Britpop's canon crystallized. A handful of elite bands (Suede, Blur, Oasis, Pulp, Elastica) transcended the tag, which lost some of its luster after Oasis released the bloated Be Here Now in 1997. Many of the musicians who climbed the charts in the mid-'90s are now essentially unknown to anyone under the age of 30. Some might argue that that's a good thing, a karmic correction that separated worthy artists from flavors of the month.
Our take? Don't look back in anger. The Britpop era may not have birthed a hundred great bands, but it certainly resulted in hundreds of great songs. For fans of classic songwriting and guitar hooks — not to mention terrible music videos — we haven't seen anything of Britpop's magnitude since. And, thanks to the Internet and its splintered culture, we may not see it again.
For this pop-up NPR Music Radio channel, we compiled more than 500 songs from Britpop's heyday — from Suede's "The Drowners" to Oasis' "D'You Know What I Mean" and many good songs in between — and spoke with more than a dozen musicians who witnessed music history firsthand. You'll hear their short stories and recollections sprinkled throughout the mix. And just like "Wonderwall," they never get old.
5 Songs To Listen For
There are more than 500 songs from the Britpop era (1993-97) spinning in this NPR Music Radio channel. Here are five songs to listen for that sum up the different sounds swept up in the scene.
Suede, 'The Drowners'
Suede's debut single "The Drowners" was named song of the year by both the NME and Melody Maker in 1992, setting the stage for Britpop's dominance.
Blur, 'For Tomorrow'
One of the reasons Britpop developed such a stranglehold on England's national consciousness was its subject matter — many of the hits contained specific British references, a huge departure from grunge's American perspective. Damon Albarn did just that with his London locales in "For Tomorrow."
Oasis, 'Live Forever'
Britpop never really congealed into one sound, but one thread that connected just about everyone was the quest for fame. After The Smiths' run in the 1980s as Britain's flagship act, bands had heard enough false modesty, and were through feeling guilty for wanting to succeed. "Live Forever" pretty well sums up that idea.
The Charlatans, 'One To Another'
Many of the bands sucked into the Britpop vortex were actually left over from England's Madchester sound, named after the northern city of Manchester. Acts like The Charlatans, Stone Roses, Inspiral Carpets and Happy Mondays were more than happy to re-enter the national spotlight.
Menswear represented everything critics hated about Britpop. The band was hyped before it had released a single song, "borrowed" melodies from other acts, and worried more about image than aptitude. But, like many other Britpop acts, it released a handful of undeniably catchy songs.