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.

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The Over/Under: Lou Reed

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High on my list of rock-scribe near misses is the time I came within a Marlboro butt’s distance of interviewing Lou Reed. (You’ll never guess what happened: He suddenly decided he didn’t want to talk to one more goddamned journalist during his promo stint.) Maybe it was just as well; Reed has been known to hang up on interviewers when he’s feeling especially cranky. That sort of contentiousness is an integral part of Reed’s career persona, which is what we mean when we talk about his “charm,” in quotes. Still, down amidst the coals of that touchy tough guy, there smolders a tiny, warm, hopelessly romantic ember. Every Reed fan has a stylistic preference; my own has always been for the noisy, squonky stuff: Metal Machine Music and The Blue Mask, etc. But when you review it, his songbook is surprisingly full of softer material, evidence that like most songwriters who’ve survived more than three decades of stardom, Reed has long been involved in the process of nailing his whole life—the good, bad and ugly parts—down on paper. He’s recently made himself over as a kind of artistic Renaissance man, showing photographs at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, releasing albums of ambient music for tai chi and meditation, heading up a three-man drone/noise outfit called Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Trio. But for this edition of the Over/Under, we revisit the pop songbook of one of rock’s most contentious sweethearts: the nicest Jewish boy from Long Island ever to date a transvestite named Rachel. Note: As usual, there are a few very popular songs on the overrated list. This seems to be an ongoing point of contention, God knows why. Five dollars of this writer’s personal cash money to anyone who can explain, calmly and rationally, how a song can be both overrated and unpopular. (Read our Velvet Underground Over/Under.)

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The Over/Under: Kings Of Leon

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Part of the early appeal of Kings Of Leon was their magazine-ready background story. Raised by an itinerant, defrocked minister, the photogenic Followill family had the musical skills to match the back story, not to mention some truly impressive facial hair. The band had been long acclaimed in England, but it wasn’t until last year’s Only By The Night, with terrific lead single “Sex On Fire,” that the Kings finally got the attention they deserved in their native land. The band will be touring into the fall, so why not find out which songs they need to put on their setlist and which need to be stricken from the record?

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The Over/Under: Queens Of The Stone Age

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Attention comments-section creeps, mutants, shut-ins and teenage hand models: MAGNET has been fairly diplomatic about these Over/Under lists in recent weeks, offering up a “hey, it’s just this listener’s opinion” line of conciliatory dialogue in order to keep the apes in the yard. But when it comes to Queens Of The Stone Age, the best hard-rock band of the last decade, I’m pulling rank. I’ve, um, relaxed at the Queens’ Rancho De La Luna clubhouse and I’ve walked through the Joshua Tree desert in the pitch-black night through a pack of coyotes. I’ve been to the green room and the hotel and the afterparty and the party that comes after the afterparty with these guys. I gave Homme a Ween bootleg and he gave me some pull quotes. Troy Van Leeuwen made fun of my Wrens T-shirt, and I sat with Nick Oliveri as he got a Roky Erickson “Easter Everywhere” tattoo. I told Nick he could hold my hand if he got scared, but he was such a trooper. Here are the five most overrated and five most underrated QOTSA songs.

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The Over/Under: The Velvet Underground

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All right, troops, once more, and then to hell with it: To peg a piece of music as “overrated” isn’t necessarily to denigrate it, only to suggest that in the popular mind it’s come to be: a) regarded more highly than it ought to be, or b) held in higher esteem than other pieces equally, or more, deserving of praise. We hate to belabor the point, but when MAGNET’s Eric Waggoner filed an Over/Under on Big Star, two actual death wishes popped up in the comments section. (Big Star, fercryinoutloud. And we’d thought power-pop fans were such a docile bunch.) One disgruntled correspondent predicted that some on-staff “imbecile” would soon tackle the Velvet Underground, and while we recognize blatant goading when we see it, truth be told, that one was already in the hopper. Since this season brings a spate of new Velvets-related critical studies, coffee table art books and historical overviews, the time seems right for revisiting the VU’s catalog. Bearing in mind that this is one of the few rock groups that rarely recorded a wrong note, a quarter-century of enshrinement has made critical assessment of the Velvets a little rote and conventional. So with gun and bullwhip at the ready, we climb into the pop-culture cage to tease the bear. How it upsets our mothers to hear us called imbeciles.

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The Over/Under: The Decemberists

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When the Decemberists signed to Capitol for 2006’s The Crane Wife, it was a sign that they, and their particular brand of quirk-friendly indie, were gunning for the mainstream. But Colin Meloy and his band of Portland, Ore., artists were the most unlikely standard-bearers of the indie cause. Influenced by folk and prog, prone to telling tales of ghosts, wayward women and man-eating whales, the Decemberists never topped anyone’s list for the next small-time band to make it big. But thanks to Meloy’s nerdy charm, clever lyrics and a band that could tackle the most epic of themes, the Decemberists are now one of the best-known groups in modern rock. With the band in the middle of part two of its “A Short Fazed Hovel Tour,” it’s time to look back and examine the most overrated and underrated Decemberists songs. Read our recent Q&A with Meloy and one from 2008.

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The Over/Under: Belle And Sebastian

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Belle And Sebastian started its steady climb into the hearts and minds of thousands of bookish romantics around the world in 1996, with the Stow College-funded recording sessions for debut album Tigermilk. Thirteen years later, frontman Stuart Murdoch has led B&S from a quaint twee sound into experiments with full-fledged glam, Lee Hazlewood/Nancy Sinatra-style balladry and lush, ’60s-inspired pop. Murdoch has further expanded on his unique vision through the project known as God Help The Girl, a movie musical he conceived, wrote and is helping bring to the silver screen. With the soundtrack already on the shelves, it seemed time to assess the work of Murdoch’s band and see which songs are underplayed and which are played out. (Read our 2006 Belle And Sebastian cover story.)

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The Over/Under: Weezer

Weezer has always gotten more than its fair share of contempt. We come not to bury Rivers Cuomo, but to praise him. Tucked beneath its Cheap Trick riffs and nerd-friendly lyrics, Weezer managed to record some of the best power-pop anthems of the past 15 years. And even if the band’s recent efforts haven’t lived up to its classic debut and history of hits, this is still a band with the power to surprise us. While some of Weezer’s songs have passed into our collective memory (“Buddy Holly,” “Beverly Hills”) and have no intention of leaving anytime soon, others should never have been released in the first place (we’re looking at you, “Heart Songs”). With Cuomo and crew about to launch their own online radio station courtesy of Clear Channel, what better time to examine the most overrated and underrated Weezer songs?

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The Over/Under: Blur

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Blur was one of the most quintessentially English bands of the Britpop era. Drifting from shoegaze to grunge to pop, the group always retained its core influences of the Kinks, the Beatles and XTC. But despite a few solitary hits, Blur never quite made it in the U.S. And that’s a shame, because with a span of seven full-lengths, multiple EPs and some killer singles, Blur proved that it had the staying power many of its contemporaries lacked. But as the band succeeded financially, guitarist Graham Coxon grew more and more disenchanted, finally leaving after 1999’s 13. Following 2003’s difficult Think Tank, Blur went on hiatus. Since then, Coxon has developed a prolific solo career, singer Damon Albarn founded Gorillaz, bassist Alex James started a cheese farm, and drummer Dave Rowntree ran unsuccessfully for public office. Now reunited as a four-piece for the first time in nearly a decade, Blur is back in the public eye. And with rumors of a new album circulating, what better time to examine its most underrated and overrated songs?

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The Over/Under: Big Star

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With Big Star best-of/rarities box Keep An Eye On The Sky slated for a September release, Alex Chilton, Jody Stephens, Andy Hummel and the late Chris Bell are about to enter the mainstream rock pantheon at last. Of course, Big Star has been a key reference point for three generations of indie and underground rockers. The band’s brief, highly romanticized narrative arc—Anglophile Memphis rockers set the bar for genius power pop, begin deconstructing the genre, then self-destruct before they can finish their third record—guaranteed Big Star’s canonization by alt-rock misfits, as well as that odd strain of culture vulture obsessed with watching talent implode. MAGNET wants to reexamine Chilton and Co.’s work in part because, though this is one of those cases where the music frequently does live up to the hype, for 30 years Big Star has unavoidably colored the way we hear the music. And despite a few post-mortem live releases and a handful of bootlegs both sublime and godawful, it’s in the limited studio recordings that Big Star’s glory lives or dies. So for this installment of the Over/Under, it’s to the studio albums we go, to give the mix one final stir before it hardens. (For more on Big Star, as well as Cheap Trick, Matthew Sweet, the Posies and many more, check out our special 2002 American power-pop issue.)

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