The Over/Under: Britpop

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The Britpop phenomenon might have ended nearly 15 years ago, but it cast such a shadow over the U.K. music scene that its presence is still felt today. Where would groups such as Franz Ferdinand, Arctic Monkeys or the Killers be without Blur, Pulp and Oasis? Often maligned as a scene obsessed with fame and fashion, the mid-’90s saw a revival of British creativity and provided a pop-friendly rebuttal to the dominant American grunge sound. By looking backward to the Kinks and Beatles, Britpop set the musical standards for years to come. With Blur back together and Jarvis Cocker on tour, it’s the perfect time to examine the most overrated and underrated bands of the Britpop era.

:: The Five Most Overrated Britpop Bands
1. Oasis

In the Britpop trifecta of Oasis, Blur and Pulp, Oasis was the most successful and the least interesting of the lot. While the band made some good pop songs and had a genuine lunatic in Liam Gallagher, Oasis was the very definition of overrated. From overhyped 1994 debut Definitely Maybe to the NME covers it still graces, Oasis received more praise than it merited. Oasis is like the Quentin Tarantino of the pop world; its first two efforts showed real talent, but the band has spent so long rehashing the same formula that it’s damaged the very reputation those initial works established. How many other groups have soldiered on despite producing nothing of interest since 1997? In a way, it’s impressive. But in another, more accurate way, it’s just sad.

“Roll With It”:

2. Supergrass
Sure, Supergrass was nice and loud. But as much as critics liked to peg the band as “eclectic” and “ambitious,” and even though Supergrass took on everything from psychedelia to house music, somehow the songs tend to blend together. Because Supergrass was ostensibly more thoughtful than Oasis, the critics hyped the group to high heaven, and a massively overrated outfit was born.

“Alright”:

3. Elastica
Elastica was a perfectly fine pop group, but with only one decent album under its belt, it’s difficult to see just what has made the band so celebrated. Was it Justine Frischmann’s badass persona? The group’s legacy as one of the few female-friendly crews in Britpop? Upon closer examination, that statement doesn’t really hold: What about Salad, Sleeper, Echobelly, Lush, the Cranberries and other bands with female members that found success during the Britpop era? Elastica’s reputation has grown over the years, while many of those equally interesting groups have been forgotten.

“Car Song”:

4. The Verve
The Verve has one—count it, one—great song, and that is “Bittersweet Symphony.” Not only that, but “Bittersweet Symphony” was immeasurably improved by a Jay-Z remix. The most impressive aspect of the Verve is how Richard Ashcroft has successfully tricked the world into thinking of him as a deep, insightful writer, despite penning lyrics as inane as “Are you invited/To the party of life?/Now you’ve decided/Do you live ’til you die?” The answer to that question is, by the way, yes. Despite having more high-profile break-ups than Jennifer Aniston, the Verve has endured both commercially and critically. While 1995 sophomore album A Northern Soul had its moments, 1997’s Urban Hymns (the band’s biggest success) is one of the most bloated, boring and overpraised albums of the ’90s.

“Bittersweet Symphony”:

5. Manic Street Preachers
The Manics were always in an awkward position; sneering at Britpop’s success but benefiting massively from the scene it helped create, making hit albums such as 1994’s The Holy Bible and 1996’s Everything Must Go. Guitarist Richey Edwards’ mysterious disappearance in 1995 (his family declared him dead in November 2008) made him a martyr for the group, and while his loss is still felt by family, friends and fans, it doesn’t mean that we have to take self-indulgent trash like “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next” as “art.” If the Manics had embraced their pop sensibilities, below all the condescending trappings (see “Faster” or “Revol” for a pop sound buried under layers of production) they could have been truly great.

“Faster”:

:: The Five Most Underrated Britpop Bands
1. The Boo Radleys

Like their namesake, the Boo Radleys were sweet, sincere and somewhat reclusive. Songwriter Martin Carr might have resisted the Britpop label, but his band’s shoegaze-tinged take on ’60s Britannia showed that the mid-’90s scene was as vibrant and complex as it had ever been. The band broke up in 1999, and that’s a shame. Because in an era of economic collapse, global warming and Orly Taitz, we need bright, hopeful pop songs more than ever.

“Wake Up Boo!”:

2. The Auteurs
The Auteurs, like many other Britpop also-rans, had their one moment of greatness (1994’s Now I’m A Cowboy) before comfortably retreating into history. But this musical footnote actually produced six brilliant albums of jittery British rock in its brief career, thanks to songwriter Luke Haines’ gift with a pop tune. Haines’ sometimes difficult vocals and the band’s eventual move toward house and techno alienated casual fans, but this was the rare Britpop group pushing the envelope rather than going with the crowd.

“Lenny Valentino”:

3. Gene
Gene might have started life as a punchline, but Martin Rossiter’s band of ordinary boys offered so much more than a Smiths pastiche. Sure, Rossiter’s croon bore an eerie resemblance to a certain Pope of Mope, but Gene stood on its own. Deep down, it was a sweet, melancholy group that took the Smiths’ moody lyricism and combined it with an old-school pop sensibility. Sadly, commercial disappointments brought Gene to an end after 2002’s Libertine, but who knows? Maybe one day Gene will be appreciated for the band it was, not the one the press expected it to be.

“Haunted By You”:

4. Marion
Marion managed just two albums in its short career, and only 1996 debut This World And Body managed to chart. While you can hear the band’s influence in modern success stories such as the Killers and Bloc Party, Marion never got the attention it deserved. For a band inspired by British heavyweights like Radiohead, the Buzzcocks and the Smiths, getting Johnny Marr to produce its second album must’ve seemed like a dream, but 1998’s The Program was a commercial failure and the group sputtered to an end at the same time as Britpop itself. Plans for a reunion have been delayed by illness, and Marion fans everywhere are left in limbo. Luckily, there’s only about three of them left.

“Time”:

5. The Longpigs
America has been the graveyard of dozens of British bands, with only Oasis emerging somewhat intact. For evidence of this theory, give an American teenager an acoustic guitar and wait out the seven minutes until he starts playing “Wonderwall.” The Longpigs were another victim of the Britpop curse, and their quirky brand of pop, influenced by Radiohead and Suede, failed to chart overseas. After 1999 sophomore album Mobile Home, the band split. Guitarist Richard Hawley—now a solo artist—played in Pulp and has toured with former frontman Jarvis Cocker, which makes perfect sense: The Longpigs’ tales of broken hearts and pop melodies had Pulp written all over them. And yet somehow this brilliant band never really made it. Maybe it was that name.

“Far”:

—Emily Tartanella

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