At the height of Brit Pop, as Oasis was drawing hundreds of thousands out to Knebworth, no one played Brit Pop. Like the dreaded Emo tag, bands detested the label. To be emo in today’s market means you’re a young band with the traditional guitar, bass, drums, and maybe keyboard lineup, your influences are third generation punk bands, and you sing with an uncontrollable sense of emotion. Likewise, bands saddled with the mark Brit Pop in the Nineties, typically used the traditional guitar, bass, drums, sometimes keys lineup, drew extensively from the catalog of vintage UK acts like The Beatles, The Stones, and The Kinks, and embraced their Brit-ness through fashion, attitude, and diction. Yet in spite of the rejection of the very phrase meant to characterize a movement by those responsible for its sound, these unwilling Brit Pop artists did provide Anglophiles with an alternative of chippy three-minute pop songs in direct contrast to an American rock landscape dominated by the pessimistic drudgery of grunge.
The Brit Box is Rhino Records’ 4-cd, 78-track compilation documenting UK Indie, Shoegaze, and Brit Pop from the Mid-Eighties through to the end of the Nineties. The four discs in the set are mostly chronological in order as they build to the coronation of Brit Pop’s undisputed kings, Oasis, midway through Disc 3, then as they trace the genre’s eventual downfall as manufactured acts angled for their own spot at the top of the pop charts.
Disc 1 of the Brit Box examines the roots of Brit Pop back to the UK indie scene of the Eighties and features such modern rock stalwarts as The Smiths (“How Soon is Now?”), The Cure (“Just Like Heaven”), Echo and the Bunnymen (“Lips Like Sugar”), The Stone Roses (“She Bangs the Drums”) and The Jesus and Mary Chain (“April Skies”) along with some long forgotten acts like The La’s (“There She Goes”), The Sundays (“Here’s Where the Story Ends”), and Inspiral Carpets (“This Is How it Feels”), and those who almost, but never quite did impact the states like Primal Scream (“Loaded”) and The Charlatans UK (“The Only One I Know.”).
While Disc 2, with Ride (“Vapour Trail”), My Bloody Valentine (“Only Shallow”), Lush (“For Love”), Catherine Wheel (“I Want to Touch You”) and Curve (“Coast is Clear”) centers on the sedated sounds of dream pop and shoegaze through most of its duration, before taking on a more direct rock sound on the latter half of the disc with Ned’s Atomic Dustbin (“Grey Cell Green”), The Manic Street Preachers (“Stay Beautiful”), and Teenage Fanclub (“Star Sign”).
It isn’t until Disc 3, and the appearance of Suede’s glam-fantastic “Metal Mickey” along with the big three of Pulp (“Common People”), Oasis (“Live Forever”), and Blur (“Tracy Jacks”) that we get to the bands who have traditionally been tagged as Brit Pop. Although we’re now squarely in the middle of the phenomena, there are some acts like Swervedriver (“Duel”), The Boo Radleys (“Lazarus”), New Order (“Regret”), Stereolab (“Wow and Flutter”), and James (“Laid”), whose connection to this disc, and the Sixties obsession of Brit Pop’s signature sound, are due to timing more than any other similarity.
Lastly, the fourth disc chronicles the downturn and eventual demise of Brit Pop. If you want one example of where it all went horribly wrong, Andrew Perry, the author The Brit Box’s introductory essay, lays blame squarely at the performers of disc four, track four, Kula Shaker. With a tightly managed look, a tightly managed sound, and a privileged pedigree that included Cripian Mills, the son of British actress Hailey Mills, they embodied the type of opportunism that plagued Brit Pop’s dying days where it seemed anyone with the right mop-top hair cut and the right clothes could buy their own fifteen minutes of fame. Still, the closing set isn’t without its merits. Tracks by Cornershop (“Brimful of Asha”), Ash (“Girl from Mars”), Spiritualized (“Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space”) and The Verve (“Lucky Man”) lend a degree of legitimacy to a disc littered with bands who were nothing more than footnotes in the history of UK guitar rock — Babybird, The Bluetones, Silver Sun, Mansun, Hurricane #1, Gay Dad — need I go on?
As with any of Rhino’s genre specific boxed sets, finding a tracklist to satisfy everyone is an impossible task. In addition to the legal issues that prevented obvious choices like Radiohead and The Beta Band from being included, some will have the usual gripes about the wrong songs and the wrong bands. If you’re picking one Catherine Wheel song wouldn’t you choose “Black Metallic” over “I Want to Touch You?” And if you can have only one song by Supergrass, wouldn’t it be “Caught by The Fuzz” and not “Alright?” Similarly, if you’re going to take the side of Blur in the classic Blur vs Oasis debate, are you going to make your case with a song like “Tracy Jacks?” It seems unfair that this is their lone representation on the Brit Box and not “Parklife,” “Boys and Girls,” “Country House,” or hell, even the jock rocking “Song 2,” when Oasis gets one of their biggest hits in “Live Forever.”
In his column for the Village Voice, Tom Breihan, takes the argument one step further, as he laments the guitar centric selection of Rhino’s curators and their omission of electronic acts like The Chemical Brothers and Underworld. Surely, The Chems and Underworld could have had a spot in the box, as one could have also added the likes of Tricky, Massive Attack, and Fatboy Slim to the list. And what about drum ‘n’ bass? That was big for a year or two. Let’s get a track from Goldie and Roni Size. Once you start playing this game, not only is it hard to stop, but it also takes you further away from the focus of the set.
Writing for Salon, Simon Reynolds sees even more problems with the track selection of The Brit Box as he trots out the increasingly tiresome argument that Brit Pop, like today’s American indie-rock, suffered from a profound lack of blackness, and this quality not only saddles it with mediocrity, but also ensured that as a movement, it would never gain much traction in the states. Can you say, “Stop Me if You’ve Heard this One Before?” The white, liberal guilt monster unleashed in Sasha Frere-Jones’ essay, “A Paler Shade of White, How Indie Rock Lost its Soul” is so strong that it has infiltrated our recollections of the past and is now challenging our ability to enjoy another era of popular music.
Ultimately, the arguments of Breihan and Reynolds would hold more sway if The Brit Box was meant to be an all inclusive mix of every movement and every sub-genre of UK popular music in the Nineties. It wasn’t. As the box advertises, it’s a collection of Indie, Shoegaze, and Brit Pop, and nothing more and nothing less. Panning this set because it has too much Brit Pop is like criticizing Rhino’s punk rock box set, No Thanks, because it doesn’t include any disco, or slagging Rhino’s three cd power pop collection, Poptoptia, for ignoring soft rock. These four discs, and the accompanying essay by Perry, are a narrative on the rise of Oasis and the subsequent saturation and deterioration of a specific sound. For Breihan and Reynolds, the inclusion of lesser acts like Cast, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, and Inspiral Carpets signals a weakness in the concept of the Brit Box. However, for someone with fond memories of modern rock radio of the past two decades, and who had spent many blurry-eyed, late nights watching MTV’s 120 Minutes, these acts provide the most enjoyable moments. Perhaps you only saw their videos once or twice, or maybe they appeared on a mix tape you misplaced two apartments ago. Either way, the grip of nostalgia is incredibly strong as the opening chords of Ned’s Atomic Dustbin’s double bass attack of “Grey Cell Green” reverberate through your speakers, and is even stronger still, after the fourth or fifth time you hit replay on the invigorating power pop of Cast’s “Alright,” a song you have no right in savoring.
Granted, the Brit Pop era may not have been the most original, or the most experimental time in the UK’s Rock ‘N’ Roll history, as Blur and Oasis did their best Beatles vs Stones, and everyone else was happy to tag along. Yet, as the songs from the compilation’s second tier, and third tier acts demonstrate, it was a very fertile decade where the artists embraced the simple pleasures of a good hook, a witty line, or a clever riff, and more than anything else, melody mattered.
The Sunday’s – Here Where The Story Ends
Inspiral Carpets – This Is How It Feels
The Charlatans – The Only One I Know
Manic Street Preachers – Stay Beautiful
Ride – Vapour Trail
Ned’s Atomic Dustbin – Grey Cell Green
The Boo Radleys – Lazarus
Pulp – Common People
Cast – Alright
The Verve – Lucky Man
Cornershop – Brimful of Asha
Ash – Girl From Mars