1. The Shamen - Pro Gen (One Little Indian)
"Play this loud in a very dark room and little green men will come and beat you on the side of your head with silver hammers shrieking 'Let us in, let us in, we have some good sounds for you'. Fast, furious and sometimes a mite frightening, "Pro Gen" makes all the right moves in the right places." Record Mirror
Also known as "Move Any Mountain", "Pro Gen" tickled the belly of the Top 75 in 1990 before becoming a huge Top Five hit on its re-release in 1991. Really, it's the song that moved the group away from the cultish fringes and into the big league, containing Mr C a-waggin' his finger as he rapped twenty-to-the-dozen, lots of pristine, fanfaring synths, and killer beats.
Opinion will inevitably be divided on which period of the group's work stands up the best, their early neo-psychedelia, their mid-period Hacienda-flavoured Indie Dance, or the well fed years. I would argue somewhat cautiously that all those periods had something to offer, but that "Pro Gen" seems ever so slightly unexciting in retrospect. The repetitious chorus of "I can move, move, move any mountain" wanes very quickly, and the rest rings out confidently but lacks depth, edge, wit or bite.
Still, at the time this certainly felt like a bold and significant single, and many predicted a hit for The Shamen. They were right - it just wouldn't break through in 1990, that's all.
2. New Order - Round and Round (Club Mix) (Factory)
(In an interesting move, Beechwood Music provided no sleeve notes at all for this track)
By the time "Indie Top 20 Volume 9" came out, "Round and Round" was already old hat - a 1989 release by New Order which charted lower than anticipated (Number 21) and was promoted by a somewhat rubbish video of lots of female models pulling seductive, amused or innocent faces, the kind of idea even George Michael would have considered for three seconds, then rejected. It's untimely appearance here is probably for two reasons; the fact that the Club Mix fits the baggy mood of the 1990 era, and also to pull in punters with a big indie name. Well, at least it wasn't with an old Peel Session track this time.
"Round and Round" is a curiously understated pop track on an otherwise magnificent album. Always sounding faintly underpowered and underwritten, it sits on "Technique" like a faintly catchy afterthought amidst a sea of mournful ballads and blissed out Ibiza infused indie. Either "Vanishing Point" or "Mr. Disco" would have been better second singles, and even if "Run" had been shunted up the release schedules to occupy an earlier space it might have made more sense.
Still, we can't sit here all day rewriting history, and this was launched into a faintly indifferent world in 1989. Even a "quite good" New Order single from this period is good enough, obviously, and "Round and Round" is mellow, twittery and funky, and manages to slowly charm its way into your heart and cause your feet to tap. But that's all I can find to say about it...
3. McCarthy - Get A Knife Between Your Teeth (Midnight Music)
"The title comes from a cover of an Anti-Bolschevik pamphlet of the 1920s. It showed a crazed and hairy savage with a knife between his teeth who was presumably preparing to stab a respectable citizen to death. He represented what reactionaries believed a revolutionary communist to look like".
When my grandchildren come round on a Sunday and ask me the question "Tell me pops - when was Peak Baggy? And how did we know it had happened?", I usually pop a Werther's Original buttered candy sweet in their mouths and tell them "Why, it was when McCarthy, an underground Marxist indie band from Barking who had been on the C86 compilation, added wah-wah pedals and dancefloor friendly beats to their final single".
Because it happened! It did! And the fact that I don't have any children, never mind grandchildren, doesn't make the rest of what I've told you any less true. Somewhat strangely, they got away with it without a single cry of "Bandwagon Jumpers", though that's largely aided by the fact that "Get A Knife Between Your Teeth" is a fine little single. For all the wah-wah action and pumping rhythms, it's still melodically and lyrically a typical McCarthy record, and there's not an obligatory rapper in sight. Tim Gane sounds as rattled but sweetly voiced as ever, and the chorus punctuates everything with a determined message.
There's no question it was one of 1990's more unusual releases, however, and while nothing was ever said, one wonders if it might be a factor in the group's split and Gane's subsequent Stereolab experiments (more on which much later on). "Knife" swaggers in a way that his music never really did before or since this point, and if he felt uncomfortable, nobody would have been surprised.
He certainly wasn't technically proficient enough to handle it at this point. Apparently another studio helper had to operate the wah-wah pedal for him while he played, as he had no clue how to do it. For shame.
4. Finitribe - Monster In The House (One Little Indian)
"If you've seen the Finitribe live, you start to understand what their records are all about. Being almost cabaret in a housey sort of way, they come on stage dressed in bowler hats, looking like something out of A Clockwork Orange." Rave Magazine
Indeed, there were people who seriously thought Finitribe were The Future in 1990. Taking the traditional format of a group and putting on image-consious live shows to promote their Dance sounds, they knew the power of making their presence felt before The Prodigy came along.
On the great timeline of Indie-Dance (and certainly Dance music in general) they are but a blip, but around the point of "Monster" a seismic rumbling of promise could be felt. The track is an eerie, menacing piece of work, taking a similar semi-ambient tack to The Shamen's "Omega Amigo" but adding gothic drama to the mix. It's like a bad mid-summer dream, or a slightly ropey high in the middle of a derelict warehouse. The vocals alternately whisper, mock and fearfully announce "A thing like this could warp his mind!" then loop around the circuit again as the keyboards gently play a sinister and simplistic melody.
I still really like this track, actually, and possibly appreciate it more now in 2016 than I did at the time. Its slow, ambient pace and cool mean it hasn't dated much at all, unlike many of the uptempo barnstormers of the day, and it utilises a very simple idea exquisitely well.
Finitribe are often famed for featuring Chris Connelly in their early line-up, who left the group in 1988 to join Ministry. Later Finitribe tracks did have an industrial edge to them too, but "Monster" is an uneasy kind of bliss in comparison.
5. Nitzer Ebb - Lightning Man (Mute) - Vinyl and Cassette Only
"...It's thoroughly menacing, schizophrenic and possibly the only genuinely confusing record of the week. Quite marvellous, all things considered". Caren Myers, Melody Maker.
Nitzer Ebb really were rather industrial, on the other hand, and recently reformed in 2007 to continue their unfinished business.
"Lighting Man" combines brassy razzle-dazzle fanfares with gritted teeth vocals, snarled threats and squelching synthesiser lines, and is a very irate and confusing piece of noise indeed. What it's so agitated about is anyone's guess, but this is what the harsher end of electronic music sounded like in 1990 - jabbing and taunting rather than blissed out and grooving.
Nitzer Ebb built a large following for themselves throughout the early nineties and almost had a reputation as being the "other" band hardcore Depeche Mode fans liked. They have a loyal cult following to this day.