Essential New Music: The Verve’s “Urban Hymns 20th Anniversary Edition”

With the benefit of 20 years’ hindsight, superlatives such as Chris Martin’s Live 8 introduction (“The best song ever written,” the Coldplay frontman enthused before launching into a cover of “Bitter Sweet Symphony”) or critic Mike Gee’s insistence that “They’re no longer the question mark or the cliché, they’re the statement and the definition” no longer seem so overblown. Urban Hymns is: a) the best album the Verve ever recorded, despite the fact that it began as frontman Richard Ashcroft’s solo debut before the band reformed; b) one of the top-selling British LPs of all time (more than 11 million copies sold and counting); and c) a classic artifact of 1990s Britrock, a guitar album that resists being confined by those terms and a pop album unafraid to let its freak flag fly.

That it’s been given a beyond-luxe facelift by original co-producers Chris Potter and Tony Cousins is secondary—in addition to the remastered original disc, the CD version includes a 56-page hardcover book and poster; the vinyl edition features a 20-page booklet; the DVD flaunts documentary The Video 96-98; while each contains a prime home-turf live set in Wigan and b-sides and outtakes that aren’t vital but do fill in blanks for completists, such as the moody “So Sister” and the spaced-out blues of “Country Song”—making obvious what was already gospel.

The original album’s three breakthrough singles, “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” “The Drugs Don’t Work” and “Lucky Man,” are some of the finest U.K. indie-guitar tunes committed to tape, while non-charters such as “Space And Time,” “Sonnet” and “Weeping Willow” further solidify what is, start to finish, a pretty damn great competitor to OK Computer for best album of 1997.

Corey duBrowa