Just as Britpop came to an end, so too must the 20th anniversary Britpop celebrations. After all the Blur box sets, Suede reissues, and Menswear reappraisals, the last hurrah came this past October in the form of Mat Whitecross’ documentary Oasis: Supersonic. The film functions as a time-capsule portrait of Britpop’s 1996 peak, framing its narrative around the Gallagher brothers’ triumphant two-night stand at Knebworth for some 250,000 fans that August. Beyond that era-defining event, 1996 was also the year Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker bum-rushed Michael Jackson at the Brit Awards in a symbolic storming of the palace, while Trainspotting cinematically immortalized the mad-fer-it generation just as Easy Rider did for the hippie ’60s and Saturday Night Fever did for the disco ’70s.
By ending the story at Knebworth, Whitecross’ film tacitly acknowledges the moment when Britpop’s champagne supernova started to fizzle into flat corner-store Prosecco. Soon after, the British charts would be taken over by another, decidedly different group draped in Union Jacks and saucy attitudes, the Spice Girls. On the other side of the spectrum, electronic music was plotting its mainstream incursion. But if 1996 is commonly perceived to be the beginning of the end for British rock music’s pop-cultural dominance, then 1997 offered one last jolt of life, like that horror-movie villain who refuses to stay dead.
Britpop was a reactionary movement by design: a celebratory reclamation of once-proud UK musical traditions—’60s pop and psychedelia, ’70s glam and punk, ’80s indie—in the face of American grunge’s pervasive misanthropy and aggro instincts. But the rock music coming out of the UK in 1997 felt undeniably of the moment, embracing contemporary influences—electronica, post-rock, minimalist classical, lo-fi—while snapping out of Britpop’s hedonistic bubble to grapple with the tensions of encroaching technological overload and globalism. It was a year when established bands underwent career-saving reinventions and upstart acts dropped game-changing debuts.
Alas, this didn’t exactly usher in a new golden age of forward-thinking mainstream British alternative. By the end of the millennium, the charts were clogged with the sensitive serenades of Travis and Coldplay, and shortly thereafter, the British music press effectively turned into the Strokes’ PR department to trumpet a regressive garage-rock renaissance. But listening to Brit-rock’s class of ’97 now, you don’t so much feel like you’re revisiting a bygone moment as living in the tense, chaotic future it anticipated.
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the record that got the ball rolling: Blur’s self-titled fifth album. Let’s have a look back at 10 albums that made 1997 one of the greatest years in British rock ever—right up there with ’68, ’72, and ’79.
Blur, Blur (February 10, 1997)
Blur was intended as an act of retreat. After their overly arch 1995 album The Great Escape got steamrolled by Oasis’ universally adored What’s the Story Morning Glory in the much-ballyhooed Battle of Britpop, Blur wasn’t so much interested in plotting a retaliatory strike as playing a new game altogether. It speaks volumes about the aesthetic restrictions of Britpop that the mere revelation of Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon’s fondness for Pavement became a minor cause célèbre in the British music press. While Blur didn’t exactly live up to the “Britpop heroes go full American slack-rock” hype, the album stripped the songs down to their skeletons. They lay bare the raw materials Blur (and Albarn solo) would dramatically reshape on future records, from discordant punk fuzz to murky dub grooves to frayed-nerve serenades. Ironically, in trying to initiate a retreat, Blur only slingshot themselves to their greatest Stateside success to date: American and British football may be totally different games, but sports fans on both sides of the Atlantic can certainly appreciate the rallying power of a good “woo hoo!” (Listen on Spotify, Apple Music, or Tidal)
The Chemical Brothers, Dig Your Own Hole (April 7, 1997)
Along with the Prodigy’s Fat of the Land and Daft Punk’s Homework, the Chemical Brothers’ second album generated a thousand “Electronica Is the New Rock” headlines in 1997. But the album’s success had a lot to do with the way it rewired Old Rock, providing an easy gateway from Britpop to big beat: “Setting Sun” jacked up the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” groove with drum ‘n’ bass clatter and rave sirens (not to mention a guest vocal from England’s most famous Fabs fan, Noel Gallagher himself), while the nostalgia-fueled symbiosis between the late ’60s and the late ’90s reached its summit on the sitar-tweaked blowout “The Private Psychedelic Reel.” (Listen on Spotify, Apple Music, or Tidal)
Radiohead, OK Computer (May 21, 1997)
Radiohead’s third album arrived nearly 30 years to the day after Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and it would define 1997’s prevailing pre-millennial tension just as the Beatles’ classic did the Summer of Love. As news telecasts were starting to devote more and more airtime to discussion of the Y2K bug and the oncoming techpocalypse, Radiohead were consumed with an even more frightening—and ultimately correct—21st-century prophecy: that the computers would function all too well. (Listen on Spotify, Apple Music, or Tidal)
Spiritualized, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space (June 16, 1997)
Boy meets girl, boy loses girl to the Verve’s Richard Ashcroft, boy makes 70-minute free-jazz psych-rock epic with the London Community Gospel Choir, Balanescu Quartet, Dr. John, and the ghost of Elvis, complete with enough drug metaphors to make the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers seem subtle. Lest you think Jason Pierce doesn’t come by his “sky”/“high” rhymes honestly, Spiritualized’s tour itinerary supporting their third album includes the near-top of the World Trade Center and the revolving restaurant at Toronto’s CN Tower. (Listen on Spotify, Apple Music, or Tidal)
Primal Scream, Vanishing Point (July 7, 1997)
With 1991’s rave ‘n’ roll masterpiece Screamadelica, Primal Scream seemed like they were the future of rock; by the half-baked boogie woogie of 1994’s Give Out But Don’t Give Up, they were barely the Black Crowes. The dark, dubby rocktronica of Vanishing Point didn’t just herald the Scream’s comeback—it ended up being the most crucial record of their career. Primal Scream’s fifth album reasserted the band’s avant-rock bona fides at a time when they were threatening to fade into irrelevancy, and laying the scorched-earth groundwork for 2000’s electro-punk blitzkrieg XTRMNTR. (Listen on Spotify, Apple Music, or Tidal)
The Beta Band, Champion Versions (July 25, 1997)
A folk group in dub dressing, the Beta Band initially seemed like an antidote to the more modernist music beaming out of the Isles in 1997. But the Scottish group’s debut EP answered electronica’s rise with their own unique and equally disorienting brand of acoutisca, whether transforming a simple campfire serenade into a confetti-strewn circus parade (“Dry the Rain”) or blowing up a low-key funk clang into a thundering percussive onslaught (“B+A”). A year later, Champion Versions and its two successors would be compiled into the epochal Three EPs; before long, the Beta Band would become Noel Gallagher’s new favorite group and the subliminal retail tactic of choice for discerning record-store employees. (Listen on Spotify or Apple Music)
Oasis, Be Here Now (August 21, 1997)
Super Furry Animals, Radiator (August 25, 1997)
After hearing their adrenalized 1996 Creation Records debut, Fuzzy Logic, you could be forgiven for thinking the Super Furry Animals were just Wales’ answer to Supergrass. They seemed like another band of Britpop chancers making weekend-ready soundtracks to being young, free, and fucked up (with the odd cameo from a unicorn). But the spectacular Radiator offered the first real glimpse of the future-shocked classic rock that would become their stock and trade, using their familiar Kinks/Bowie base as a foundation for techno-schooled freakery and ominous observations on everything from surveillance culture (“She’s Got Spies”) to xenophobia (“Mountain People”). (Listen on YouTube)
Cornershop, When I Was Born for the 7th Time (September 8, 1997)
Where Cornershop’s previous records initiated a sound clash between Eastern and Western aesthetics, on their third album, Tjinder Singh and co. traversed a shortwave-radio dial’s worth of pan-cultural sounds—funk, soul, indie-rock, Indian psych, even country—with the casual ease of a crate-digger’s record-bin flip. (And for a moment, they pulled off the feat of making a bygone Bollywood star the most famous actor in England.) But embedded within the feel-good grooves are stark reminders of the realities playing out beyond the discotheque doors—“Funky Days Are Back Again” isn’t an invitation to dance, but a call to protest. Perhaps it’s not so surprising, then, that Tim Kaine is a big Cornershop fan. (Listen on Spotify, Apple Music, or Tidal)
The Verve, Urban Hymns (September 29, 1997)
To a certain purist, Urban Hymns isn’t really a Verve album, as it all but vanquished the group’s formative space-rock mysticism in favor of the crowd-pleasing populism that Richard Ashcroft would drive into the ground on his solo albums. For a moment, though, Urban Hymns represented the post-Britpop ideal in that it proved a band could be as big as Oasis but with sonic ambitions beyond Beatles pastiche, exemplified even in the string-swirled samples and hip-hop-schooled beat powering “Bittersweet Symphony.” (Listen on Spotify, Apple Music, or Tidal)
Mogwai, Young Team (October 27, 1997)
For those in the throes of Britpop fatigue, Mogwai’s debut album could not have been better timed. In lieu of crowd-baiting choruses and three-minute singles, Young Team offered noise-rock eruptions and 16-minute avant-psych epics. Where most upstart bands of the day harbored desires to fill stadiums, the Scottish quartet made the sort of seismic songs that actually could topple them. And if coke-fueled excess didn’t kill off Britpop for good, then “Like Herod” surely finished the job. (Listen on Spotify, Apple Music, or Tidal)