Tracing the evolution of UK alt-pop from just after new wave died, through the Britpop explosion, and ending right before Coldplay emerged, this four-disc box set is both an excellent survey and a very well sequenced mix.
Rhino Records have resurrected and rearranged seemingly every genre and a great many individual musical acts, as well. This time, rather than mining one specific style, their latest assemblage of tunes relies mostly on geography and chronology. The four-disc Brit Box collects 78 songs from a succession of eras and trends in the UK music scene. As the set's subtitle suggests, indie, shoegaze, and Britpop are the prominent genres in this set. A heaping helping of radio-friendly alternative pop songs rounds it out nicely. Despite the lack of a truly cohesive theme, the folks who assembled the Brit Box track list did a wonderful job of sequencing these mostly great songs into a near-seemless listen.
While the outcome is great, the parameters Rhino employed for choosing what to include in this survey of British music are a bit arbitrary. The first of these, according to John Hagelston's intro to the liner notes, is that the music has to be "cool". Obviously, this is a highly subjective measure, but Hagelston makes a compelling argument by specifically mentioning the exclusion of both Bush and the Spice Girls. The catch-22 with "cool" is that, if you think artists as un-cool as those are cool, then you obviously don't know cool music when you hear it. Let's play it safe, then, and assume that every song on The Brit Box is, like, totally cool, you know?
The second parameter holds that the music included must have been released between 1985 and 1999. There's no arguing that, since they've used the term "Last Millennium" in the name of the box, the 2000s are out. But why start at 1985? Well, in one way, this makes sense. In Simon Reynolds' terrific book Rip It Up and Start Again, he rightly marks the end of the new wave era as 1984. Rhino have already devoted 15 CDs to this period with their excellent Just Can't Get Enough series (which, actually is enough).
The Brit Box, then, begins just after the death of new wave. Of course, the seeds of the next era had already been planted. Just glancing at the list of artists on this set, this becomes clear. The Cure, New Order, and Echo & the Bunnymen had all been releasing music since the early '80s. Granted, the aesthetic sensibilities of each of these acts changed with the times. In 1981, they were all creating cold, gray-toned post-punk music. But was the music of New Order in 1983 significantly different from its output of '85? (No.) I suppose a starting line had to be drawn somewhere -- even if this means excluding Echo's glorious tune from 1984, "The Killing Moon".
Cornershop - Brimful of Asha (Fatboy Slim remix)
With any box set, there will be some bones to pick with which particular tracks were selected and which artists were omitted. Addressing the former, Rhino mostly chose quite well. Many indisputable classics are here: the Stone Roses' "She Bangs the Drum", the Sundays' "Here's Where the Story Ends", Cornershop's "Brimful of Asha", and, as track one, the Smiths' awesome 1985 anthem to loneliness, "How Soon Is Now?". Choosing other songs from any of these artists would have been willfully obscurist. They are emblematic of the times from which they came and remain terrific tracks to this day.
As to those acts left out of the cramped red phone box on the box set's cover, Rhino did a fine job of including whomever they could license for the project. Regrettably, Radiohead were apparently disinterested in being anthologized. But, hey, who could pick just one Radiohead song, anyway? And this does seem to be the implied rule -- that each artist is alotted only one track. Still, couldn't Rhino still have given Morrissey his due as a solo artist? Mozzer's "We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful" and "The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get" are among the best, and the longest-titled, songs of the first half of the '90s.
The Smiths - How Soon Is Now?
These are minor grumbles, though. It's easy to forget these sins of omission when The Brit Box offers song after song of sparkling pop music. The entirety of the first CD is jammed with great material from a time in British music when no particular scene or sound dominated the landscape. Rhino consider this the "indie" disc, although this term wasn't used much back in the late '80s, and many of the artists represented were signed to major labels. In those long ago times before some marketing genius came up with the term "alternative", we used to call this music "modern rock". The term describes those acts that didn't fit into the other niches of the time: synth pop, college rock, American Underground.
The Brit Box gives us everything from the reverb-drenched dream pop of Cocteau Twins' "Lorelei" to perennial favorites "Just Like Heaven" (the Cure), and Echo & the Bunnymen's insipid-yet-catchy "Lips Like Sugar", along with the noise-pop of Jesus and Mary Chain's "April Skies" and the dancey rock riffs of the Wonder Stuff's "Unbearable". The Charlatans UK usher in the club-friendly "Madchester" sound with "The Only One I Know", and compatriots Happy Mondays, Primal Scream, and Inspiral Carpets keep the baggy clothes and bouncy beats alive. Echoes of the Smiths' guitar pop resurface at disc's end with the terrific trio of the Trash Can Sinatras' "Obscurity Knocks", the La's lovely "There She Goes", and the breezy beauty of the aforementioned Sundays song. As you can see, Rhino took a scattershot approach when compiling this box, but they also weave these different genres together skillfully, revealing the common elements and making for a killer mix.
Trash Can Sinatras - Obscurity Knocks
This trend continues on disc two of The Brit Box, which kicks off with four terrific shoegaze cuts: Ride's panoramic "Vapour Trail", the bleached-white pop of Pale Saints' "Sight of You", My Bloody Valentine's undulating wall-of-sound on "Only Shallow", and Lush's ethereal "For Love" are all resplendent representatives of their genre, showing its diversity and depth. However, the absence of Slowdive is a big disappointment that isn't mitigated by the generic sound-wash of the little-known Telescopes. Rhino continues its celebration of "the sound that celebrates itself" with solid entries from shoegaze staples Chapterhouse, Catherine Wheel, Bleach, and the under-appreciated Curve.
My Bloody Valentine - Only Shallow
Here begins another epoch in the history of UK music without a genre leading the way. Throughout the last half of disc two and the first ten tracks of the third disc, The Brit Box slips out of the shackles of representing a style and, instead, offers a survey of good and great British songs from the early 1990s. Across the pond, America was going crazy for the punk-metal sludge of grunge. The bands from England, though, were more interested in catchy tunes and beats you could bop your head to, as is evidenced by a string of fairly obscure acts who all had at least one sublime song to offer the world. Five Thirty, Moose, the Family Cat, Thousand Yard Stare, and Birdland were never household names, but Rhino has done the world a favor by keeping their melodic alt-pop alive here.
We're also treated to some very early Manic Street Preachers with the anthemic (of course) "Stay Beautiful", a taste of buzzy power-poppers Teenage Fanclub with "Star Sign" (from their essential Bandwagonesque), Suede's mod-infused "Metal Mickey", the sunny Saint Etienne, and the lounge-meets-krautrock of Stereolab's "Wow & Flutter". Again, the mix here flows very well. The one slight hitch is "Kite", a mellow and simple ditty from former Haircut 100 leader Nick Heyward that simply doesn't fit with the rest of this box, especially sandwiched as it is between James' frisky and ecstatic "Laid" and the highly stylized dub-to-rock of Boo Radley's "Lazarus". But, in an age when most people listen to shuffle and radio stations actually advertise that their programming is randomized, does anyone really care about the flow of a good mix anymore? Okay, I'll hop off my soap box and get back to the The Brit Box now.
James - Laid
This set was originally intended to be a two-CD collection of Britpop. Of all the music here, this style had the biggest impact on the UK music charts, spawning many top-selling singles and LPs. Rhino's mini-survey of the movement begins with Britpop's trio of heavy hitters. Blur start off with "Tracy Jacks". It's a good song and edged its way into the UK Top 10, but it seems like the compilers got a little shy about going for the jugular here. The modus operandi has been to select the most recognizable track from a given artist. So why not choose "Girls & Boys" -- which was also popular in the US -- or "Beetlebum", a UK #1?
Blur / Oasis
Rhino get a tad coy with Oasis, too. We hear the band's name, and we think "Wonderwall", right? Instead, "Live Forever" made the grade. Now, the song was the band's first Top 10 single, and it's quite possible that we've all gotten our fill of "Wonderwall" by now. These songs choices were likely tough calls, and the cuts Rhino opted for are only barely worth debating. Thankfully, Pulp's biggest smash remains as giddily compelling today as it did a dozen years ago. Their "Common People" transcends its genre and is a major highlight of this box set.
Pulp - Common People
Britpop's triumverate quickly inspired a league of eager new bands. Among these were Menswear. The band's guitarist, Simon White, says of their beginngs, "We were young kids who were inspired by the records we were listening to at the time. We tried to emulate them." As had been the case two decades earlier with the Sex Pistols and their tendency to generate a new punk band in every town they visited, Oasis, Blur, and Pulp were spawning Britpop pups left and right. Rhino dug up many of the good ones. More than a decade later, neither Menswear's "Sleeping In" nor Gene's "Sleep Well Tonight" sound the least bit tired, unleashing that anthemic Britpop sound with the best of 'em. Cast and Supergrass are each represented by songs called "Alright", a title which undersells how incredibly catchy each cut is. These tracks stretched the genre's parameters by leaning heavily on glam and mod, respectively.
Supergrass - Alright
Of course, music fads don't tend to last very long. By 1997, Britpop was rapidly losing steam. The rest of The Brit Box is devoted to its aftermath. Although the popularity of UK guitar pop was on the wane, its quality was not. Disc four serves up a bevy of goodies from the likes of Babybird (the excellent "You're Gorgeous"), Spiritualized's druggy "Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space", and the Verve's soaring "Lucky Man" (I'll hazard a guess and assume that two guys by the names of Jagger and Richards had something to with "Bitter Sweet Symphony" not making the cut). Rhino get cute again with back-to-back tracks with (nearly) identical song titles, giving us Super Furry Animals' jabbing and bouncing "Something 4 the Weekend", followed by the Divine Comedy's darkly funny "Something for the Weekend", a tale of deceit and what's lurking in the woodshed.
Super Furry Animals - Something 4 the Weekend
The late '90s won't be remembered for British alternative pop/rock, but Rhino reminds us that it wasn't all Britney and Backstreet at the century's end. In 1994 and '95, when Britpop was topping the UK charts, good music of this sort was easy to find. Before and after that genre's heyday, though, there were plenty of great songs lurking beneath the mainstream. The Brit Box traces the evolution of this music, beginning just after the neon lights of new wave died and ending just before Coldplay emerged to rule supreme. These four discs present an excellent survey and are also a great 312-minute mix. Because Rhino didn't stick to one genre, you won't get fatigued by hearing the same style over and over. For Anglophiles and pop lovers alike, the Brit Box is quite a treat.