If the 1980s UK indie scene created some of the most iconic cult bands of all time, creating a pathway for the movement to take hold, then the 90s was when it fully exploded.
There was, of course, more to UK indie in this decade than just Britpop. The jangle pop of The La’s and James predates the term, but the records those bands were producing as the 90s slid into view no doubt helped influence that particular cultural phenomenon. Elsewhere, the baggy movement of the early 90s fused dance beats with guitars, with bands like The Happy Mondays or Inspiral Carpets looking like they were going to pick up the baton left by The Stone Roses. There was the bizarre and short-lived obsession with grebo, with bands like The Wonderstuff, Carter USM (Reading and Glastonbury headliners respectively), Pop Will Eat Itself and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin all gaining hit records. There were also difficult and experimental albums by Radiohead – who don’t really fit here, all things considered, hence their omission – or Spiritualized. And by the time Britpop had crashed and burned, the lo-fi sounds of Gomez, The Beta Band and Badly Drawn Boy reflected the country's cultural mood change.
Ultimately though, when writing the story of indie in the 90s, it's hard to look too far beyond the short-lived but era defining explosion that was Britpop. It all seemed so unlikely upon inception: the image of Suede’s Brett Anderson – the underdog figurehead for the UK’s fightback against the onslaught of grunge – stood in front of a Union Jack, telling Kurt Cobain to go home on the front cover of music magazines, felt daring and aspirational in 1993. But a few years later, he and his peers in Blur, Oasis, Pulp, Elastica, Supergrass, Sleeper, The Charlatans and Ocean Colour Scene were arguably bigger here in the UK than Nirvana or Pearl Jam ever were. Today, even so much as a mention of a Britpop B-lister can transport those of us of an, ahem, certain age straight back to a world of TFI Friday, Kickers shoes, bottles of Hooch, Loaded magazine, Euro ‘96 and bucket hats.
Here is the story of UK indie's glory days, in five essential records.
Primal Scream - Screamadelica (1991)
Tempting as it is to start with the debut Suede album, a record that proved this Britpop stuff really might be going somewhere when it topped the UK album chart in 1993, that would be a disservice to all the great music the scene produced before that inescapable term took hold. Primal Scream released their third album on the same day as A Tribe Called Quest’s landmark The Low End Theory, Red Hot Chili Peppers career best Blood. Sugar. Sex. Magik, Pixies Trompe Le Monde and, most crucially of all, Nirvana’s globe conquering Nevermind. You’d think that would be enough to bury a small, Scottish dance rock band who had never reached higher than number 62 in the UK charts before. So, the fact that it ended up winning multiple album of the year awards, a Mercury Music Prize, and now legitimately holds its own in the conversation about which of those aforementioned records is the most – okay, second most – important is mightily impressive. Its amalgam of acid house, hard rock and 60s psychedelia was already a recipe attempted by a few, but no one hit the bullseye in the way Screamadelica did. Although dance and rock culture had been flirting heavily with each other for a while, Screamadelica is the moment they finally stuck their tongues down each other's throats.
Blur – Parklife (1994)
The moment the dream became a reality. In 1994, British indie music was dangerously close to not just breaking into the mainstream, but beginning to define it. It was the year that Kurt Cobain died and Robbie Williams left Take That – while those two cultural events might seem completely unconnected, in both cases they left hundreds of thousands of young people heartbroken and looking for something, or someone, else to fill the void.
It was the perfect situation for Blur to walk into. A band who were very much part of indie and alternative culture, they were also young, good looking, relatable and made massive pop songs. Parklife connected with fans on each side of the divide. Their fizzy, fuzzy, propulsive songs of working-class British life, often told using cartoonish or colourful stereotypes, properly put the pop into Britpop, with Tracy Jacks, Trouble in the Message Centre, This is A Low, Girls And Boys, End Of A Century, London Loves all perfect crossover nuggets. Suddenly, they were the biggest band in the country, with the album settling at number one on the UK album chart and Blur picking up a record four BRIT Awards in 1995. The era of Cool Britannia had begun.
Oasis - (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? (1995)
Oasis barged right on in through the door Blur busted open with their debut album Definitely Maybe in 1994, but surely not even a pair of egos as big as the Gallagher brothers could have seen its follow up becoming such a cultural phenomenon. At the time of writing, (What’s The Story)… is the fifth biggest selling album in the history of the United Kingdom, and it turned its creators into some of the most famous people in the country – and that's people, not just musicians, with Liam and Noel more recognisable than most of Britain's movie stars, politicians or royalty at the time. In the years since, there has been constant debate about which of the first two Oasis albums is the best (for the record, it’s not this one), but in terms of impact, there is really no contest. It was a monolith, a once in a generation moment that swallowed up all of indie, Britpop, alternative music and whatever else got in its way.
But, even removed from all context, (What’s The Story)… is just a killer record. Wonderwall may be totally overplayed at this point, but it is still a great piece of songwriting. The title track, Some Might Say, Cast No Shadow and, especially, the career high of Champagne Supernova all still rule. There was only one direction for Britpop to travel after this...
The Verve – Urban Hymns (1997)
By 1997 the Britpop party was well on its way to being over. The lavish, excessive Oasis shows at Knebworth in 1996 seemed to represent everything that indie was supposed to stand against, and after the biggest party of a generation, there had to be a roaring hangover. The Verve were an influential and adored band of the jangly pre-Britpop days, but, as the indie scene bloated, they weren’t around to accept the acclaim their excellent music deserved. Instead, they regrouped in the aftermath of Oasis’ success and released an album of heartfelt, insular, regret-filled, beautiful songs.
The line usually parroted is that Radiohead’s sublime OK Computer, also released in 1997, was the album that killed Britpop, but the likes of Pulp’s This Is Hardcore and Six by Mansun played their part as well. But in terms of one album that sat in similar sonic terrains, but brought the grey skies to Britpop, it has to be Urban Hymns. It connected so readily with audiences that it is currently the 19th best-selling album in UK history, frontman Richard Ashcroft organically tapping into the mood of the nation and finally turning The Verve into the stars they should've always been. The likes of The Drugs Don’t Work, Lucky Man, Sonnet and, of course, Bittersweet Symphony are now iconic British anthems. For Britpop, there really was no coming back from this.
Belle And Sebastian – The Boy With The Arab Strap (1998)
After Britpop's demise, it was dreary singer-songwriters and boy and girl bands who had their turn at UK chart domination, while the indie scene seemed to make a conscious effort to strip itself of all of the era's indulgences and surplus bombast and retreat back underground. The bands that defined indie's final chapter in the 90s weren't the arch pop megastars of before, but scruffy, relatable, unremarkable individuals. It’s perhaps for this reason that their part of the story tends to get airbrushed out, but there was some genuinely unmatched music still being released as the decade drew to a close.
Belle And Sebastian’s third full length album gets the nod ahead of Gomez’s Bring it On due to the fact that it did give 90s indie one last triumph over the mainstream when it shockingly, and hilariously, beat big pop acts 5ive, Steps, Billie Piper, Another Level and Cleopatra to win the Best Newcomer Award at the BRIT Awards in 1999. The Scottish folk-pop collective couldn’t have been bigger underdogs, but on the strength of music alone, they deservedly picked up the award. The Boy With The Arab Strap is a deliciously sweet feast for the ears, songs like A Summer Wasting, Dirty Dream Around The Sea and Stuart Murdoch and Isobel Campbell’s honey-coated duet on Sleep The Clock Around all ache with beauty, and the title track is just a straight up great pop tune. The album proved that an understated approach and great songwriting could still be enough to see you succeed, and a few years later Doves, Elbow, Grandaddy, Arab Strap and more would prove it further.