Aaahhh, the 90’s, weren’t they just great? Well, for lots of reason no, but let’s keep focused. My 90’s were pretty good overall, as long as I keep the multitude of embarrassing bits locked away deep down inside. It was this flashy decade that saw Britain really become GREAT again wasn’t it? What with everyone happy and the rise of the Blair years, flashing his shit-eating grin all over the shop. Mind you thanks to him the economy was all bubbly and it was almost like it was the 60’s again except that in reality we were still a sagging nation, short of breath from years of slow decline, and The Spice Girls would only paper over, not fill, that big crack. People really hadn’t had it any better. Except for the last time things were alright and the economy wasn’t in freefall.
Then, mixed in with all the joyfulness that I can’t seem to recall, came the saddest moment since history began; the untimely death of a true peoples’ princess; the lovely, lovely, eye fluttering, beautiful, lovely, gentle, press manipulating, daft, lovely, land mine dodging, lovely, queen of hearts, nausea inducing, Lady Di (of the kingdom of all our hearts). I had a brutal headache when I was awoken from the floor of a long vanished friend’s house (the friend’s vanished, not the house) to be told of the original ‘events in Paris’. The sickly, saccharine barrage of news that collapsed on us that day and the ensuing fall out marked the beginning of a new kind of Britain and a new, shitty kind of journalism; a slippery, robotic kind of news where people just seemed to stop saying what they really felt and started talking utter rubbish instead. To think they study Earl Spencer’s speech at universities. Absurd! Where was I going with this? Nowhere probably, but it’s good to vent spleen.
So let’s get back to me. The 90’s was my university decade and the making of a (kind of) man. Having spent the start of the decade with that fabulous sister of mine, gripped by the plot line of Dynasty on the crappiest Matsui TV ever, I managed to pull out enough effort to get to Portsmouth University to study Geography. In case you wondered I triumphed with a 2:2 so good it could have been a 2:1, if I’d done a bit better. There’s a story to tell all those grandchildren I’ll never have. By this point I had pillaged my brother’s cassette collection to get into Steely Dan and The Velvet Underground and Fleetwood Mac amongst others (he was busy being besotted with Guns n Roses), while family summer camping holidays in the south of France were spent wearing down tapes of The Eagles and Simon and Garfunkel. Great stuff but hardly contemporary. And so this was what I was listening to when I hit Pompey, at the cusp of a musical turning point known, crapply, as Britpop. Below are the 10(ish) albums from that decade I have the highest regard for. As before they may not all be albums I had even heard at the time but they got round to me at some point. My big sister mentioned that if I compiled this list she may do her own. This would be good because then I’ll have some proof that what I write gets read. Top marks! There is no real number one because I can’t decide, so just pretend the numbers are a figment of your imagination.
- Wrecking Ball, Emmylou Harris. I’ll start with the unexpected because the Yanks frankly don’t get much of a look in. Emmylou Harris is a creature of rare grace and beauty and is a living symbol of all the very best things about country music. This is an ethereal, cloud like album that floats into every gap. It’s produced by Daniel Lanois, which isn’t a surprise, and has Larry Mullen Jr (U2) drumming all over it, which is. It really doesn’t matter if you don’t like country music because this isn’t. It’s just good music and it’s very, very winsome.
- Ladies And Gentlemen Are Floating In Space, Spiritualized. The whole Britpop battle was a load of cock and at the time I didn’t have a lot of consideration for any of the big hitters. I bought ‘What’s The Story….’ because it felt like it had become illegal not to. I shunned Blur because their faux cockney oikness made my teeth grind and I never really got the whole Pulp ‘Common People’ thing. I still don’t. Spiritualized on the other hand were that little bit more aloof and had a chemical distance that made them more appealing. I still have the original medical packaging for this album and it does come out to play once in a while. If anything this album should come in a package with their live offering from the Royal Albert Hall in 1997, which is staggering. ‘I Think I’m in Love’ from either will do for a start. I went to see Spiritualized play a blissful acoustic gig at the Union Chapel years later. My partner at the time didn’t seem that fussed by it, but then she thought Kurt Cobain was a genius and was into bands like Incubus (you’ll have to look them up), so what the fuck did she know? I called time on that soon after and ended up with ‘the wife’, so I must have been right all along.
- Portishead, Portishead. Nothing sounds quite like Portishead, album or band. Then or now. I could have done the obvious and chosen ‘Dummy’ but their second album achieves the impossible by being even darker and bleaker yet maintaining full warp gorgeous speed. As above it’s quite nice to team this up with their ‘Live at Roseland NYC’ album, if you can get past the cretin American audience clapping through the intro of ‘Roads’. It’s 6.48am on a Tuesday morning and I’ve just put Portishead on. I’m not under any influence and it sounds amazing. ‘Cowboys’ alone would be enough for a medal or something.
- 13, Blur. I had to wait right until the end of the decade for it to all swim into focus (the puns just come naturally, I think). Song 2 had started to bring me around a little bit but it was watching Blur do ‘Tender’ on TOTP in 1999 that finally got my full attention. What a belter of an album and like a lot of the best music it’s pretty much as dark and intense as you like. I had to give up tickets to see them reform at Hyde Park a few years later, and when I saw them on TV at Glastonbury shortly afterwards I actually cried. Blur are simply a great band and yes, Albarn is most likely a genius.
- The La’s, The La’s. Quite possibly the best band to ever come out of Liverpool. Well not quite, but they were a pretty tidy bunch. Of course Lee Mavers was very good at what he did but he could have been a bit more non-insane. Never mind, this starts off with ‘Son of a Gun’ and keeps sparking along until you have to start it all over again. It has more energy that an ADHD kid on coke. At their own birthday party.
- Blue Lines, Massive Attack. Pure class, from start to finish. To experience at its best either smoke something (so I’ve heard) and drift off, or stick your headphones on and go for a stroll in London on a busy day. It hangs around ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ but don’t think the rest of it isn’t equally jaw dropping. Because it just is.
- Moon Safari, Air/Fat of the Land, The Prodigy. Ok, I’m cheating here but I’ve lumped in 2 albums to represent the opposite ends of electronic music in general during the 90’s. Moon Safari somehow seems a bit dated but it’s very nice and clever and gentle indeed and is still probably best enjoyed in the back-ground of a restaurant, perhaps as you have a heated debate with friends about whether Rolf Harris is better or worse than Max Clifford. The hype and build up to ‘Fat Of The Land’ felt immense at the time, as it fell off the back of ‘Firestarter’ and ‘Breathe’. It took ‘Breathe’ to make me really prick up my ears and then I was totally sold. It’s a sledgehammer of an album, despite having Crispian Mills from Kula Shaker on one of the numbers. That said I could never go to a Prodigy gig because someone would have killed me.
- OK Computer, Radiohead. I just had to have Radiohead somewhere here because they deserve every bit of overhype that’s pushed their way. A band of rare and phenomenal talent, a talent that should have made Oasis scurry into the shadows (but in fairness did not, more on Oasis later) this isn’t their all-time masterclass album but it is incredible and I have played it a LOT over the years. I don’t buy all the comparisons to prog rock and the whole concept album thing. It’s just about the tunes and the musicians. What tunes. What musicians.
- Grace, Jeff Buckley/Welcome to Wherever You Are, INXS. This is really just to show what an agonising process it’s been. And by agonising I mean intensely pleasurable. Grace would go into most serious music fans top 10 and for perfectly good reasons; it has superb musicianship, great songs and of course Buckley’s voice, made all the more heart-breaking by his badly timed decision to go for a dip. INXS were never my idea of a great band but ‘Welcome…’ has all sorts of things going for it. Great cover photos in all formats and a swaggering confidence which can only come from a band that don’t know it’s the last, indeed only really great piece of work they’ll ever make. Michael Hutchence managed one more effort before he died trying to sustain an erection on the back of a hotel room door. He will forever be known as the man who stole Paula Yates away from Bob Geldof. I wouldn’t have cared less if I hadn’t thought Geldof was a gobby prick with a substantial amount of fried potato product on his shoulders and as great a gift for song writing as that bestowed upon Ringo Starr. Good work with those starving Africans though. Both albums are full to the brim with good songs and lovely little ideas, so in the long run it’s a tie.
- Second Coming, The Stone Roses. At the time of its ‘moment’, the Madchester craze had marginally less than fuck all impact on me and that’s pretty much how I’ve left it. I know people who will happily say the Stone Roses debut is the best album of all time and that it has defined the key moments of their life. Ok, well done, but, and this is purely because I got into them much later, The Second Coming has always had much more vim and vigour for me. They said they were taking a lot of coke at the time. Really!! I would never had noticed from the fact the first five minutes are made up of jungle noises and are then followed by John Squire overdubbing a squillion guitars in an attempt to get to Zeppelin Valhalla on a fast track ticket. What’s silly is that it sounds so good and the guitar overdub orgy climax on ‘Breaking into Heaven’ is easily up there with anything Jimmy Page ever did. Sacrilegious? I’d say not. The rest is riddled with fabulous moments and ends on ‘Love Spreads’, with a nonsense lyric that makes so much sense.
Glancing up it seems like a fairly pedestrian list, but there you go. Before I finish I should bring up some other good efforts. As promised I’ll start with a few words on Oasis. If you like music simple and loud then there really is no mystery. They’re just a good old rock’n’roll band and if you crank them up to 11 and forget about what an unconquerable dick Liam Gallagher is, their music just makes you feel better about the world in general. History has served them well, now that the dust has settled and order is restored; with Noel sustaining a rather good solo career and Liam slowly vanishing into the distance. His voice, once heralded as a thing of wonder, is no more than an industrial cheese grater set on shiiiinnnneee mode. Bless. It says a lot that he called one of his kids Lennon.
Lindsey Buckingham’s ‘Out of the Cradle’ is very well worth a listen and going back to the height of Britpop both Suede and Supergrass worked wonders when they were on form. I should also tip my hat to Depeche Mode who’s ‘Songs of Faith and Devotion’ contain the best first 3 tracks of any album of the 90’s, but given their inner torment they just couldn’t quite make it first class to the very end. Oh and I suppose I should give a little nod to U2 who made ‘Zooropa’, my favourite of their albums except when Bono spoils Johnny Cash’s hard work at the end of ‘The Wanderer’. I’m posting this now instead of reading it again!
G B Hewitt. 6.4.2016
It’s only been a few days but I already want to put ‘Tusk’ by Fleetwood Mac in my 70’s list. And ‘Rock Bottom’ by Robert Wyatt.