Year of Release: 1996
Well, here we are at the final leg of our journey. Even hardcore "Indie Top 20" collectors like me had largely lost interest in the series at this point, for a whole variety of reasons. Growing up probably played a huge part, but the purpose the series originally served - being at the forefront of alternative music trends and bringing you tunes you just couldn't easily and cheaply obtain elsewhere - had long since lost its currency. During Britpop, and indeed even post-Britpop, alternative music was everywhere.
By 1996, XFM was one year away from its London launch, Radio One was daytime playlisting the likes of Helen Love and Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, and almost everyone had an indie album in their collection somewhere. I realised I was no longer surprised by anything anymore when my brother - who spent a large chunk of the eighties listening to Shakatak in his car - asked me if I'd heard Space's new album yet.
Then there was "Shine", a cheap and enormously popular indie compilation series put together by Phonogram, which eventually sprawled across two CDs per volume and was surprisingly diverse in its selections. It would never have given Rancho Diablo or Christian Death the time of day, but it did allow many more interesting rising stars space.
The sleeve to Volume 23 gives no clues about the closedown of the series, though the Melody Maker sponsorship is clearly absent. The inlay card on the CD clearly states "we'll be back in a few months", but they never were. The will obviously wasn't there. Beechwood had bigger fish to fry by this point, and were issuing Dance music compilations and tribute LPs which mostly sold in greater quantities (and in the case of the former, were probably cheaper to put together) than "Indie Top 20", and while the label wouldn't have existed without what was once their flagship series, I suspect hard business was beginning to take over from mere sentimentality. By the end of the nineties, Beechwood had a staff force of 75. It was all a far cry from the debut "Indie Top 20" cassette with its scruffy grey inlay.
For all the disappointment that comes with the finality of the series, this is actually a really good compilation which combines the familiar (Suede, Blur, Boo Radleys, Sleeper) with the comparatively obscure but wonderful (Octopus, Orange Deluxe, Urusei Yatsura). It also accurately reflects the back-end of Britpop in 1996, when Pulp, Blur and Oasis were all either on a break or about to embark on one, and some of the more reflective, interesting, acerbic or psychedelic groups who began to cut through in their absence. The party was almost over, but as is often the way, some very interesting people were left hanging around by the half-full bottles of booze.
1. Suede - Trash (Nude)
When Bernard Butler left Suede, the vast majority of fans and idle onlookers assumed that the group were doomed. There was a widely held belief that the Butler and Anderson songwriting partnership was a game of equals, and both would flounder if left alone. It wasn't uncommon to read the accusation that Suede continuing without Butler would be akin to The Smiths carrying on without either Morrissey or Marr.
When seventeen year old Richard Oakes auditioned and successfully took Butler's place, it seemed as if the band were having a joke at our expense, or were perhaps going to do one final end-of-pier "Best Of" tour with their young fan before sodding off forever. Whatever the future held, it was clear that songs like "Sleeping Pills" and "The Wild Ones" were not in it. Very few of us actually had high hopes for their comeback single "Trash", but begrudgingly listened to its debut on evening radio anyway.
On the first listen, "Trash" actually sounded slightly perplexing. Saddled with a high-end treble filled mix, Anderson's wavering dalek vocals, and a leaden glam thump, it sounded like "Metal Mickey" being sucked through a wormhole in space. It was clearly a product of Suede, but a brash one that chose to forget "Dog Man Star" had ever happened. Having evicted Bernard Butler from the shared creative house, it was as if they'd invited an impressionable local teenager in to raid the drinks cabinet, cranked up some catchy seventies glam rock albums, and decided to paint the town red.
That made "Coming Up", their third album, tremendously likeable. For those of us who enjoyed their earliest barnstormers and felt the urge to listen to them perhaps more frequently than we wallowed in the moody sprawl of "Dog Man Star", it offered contrasting possibilities. It also resuscitated their commercial fortunes, while showing that their sense of provincial melancholy hadn't completely abandoned them with tracks like "By The Sea" and "Picnic By The Motorway".
It all went a bit wayward after "Coming Up", of course, but "Trash" reminded everyone that besides producing extremely ambitious albums, Suede were also masterful at straight-ahead, fizzing pop.
2. The Boo Radleys - What's In The Box (See Watcha Got!) (Creation)
On the other hand, The Boos had clearly decided that trying to be pop stars wasn't working out, and had retreated back into their old ways. While both "What's In The Box" and "C'mon Kids" were given ample airplay by Radio One and a heavy push by Creation Records, they didn't follow "Wake Up Boo" into the top ten. The group retreated into experimentation, and in doing so pre-empted the next moves of Britpop behemoths like Blur and Pulp, who would return with very different, less accessible noises in 1997.
"What's In The Box" is a mighty piece of work, though, filled with the hurricane force of The Who at their most psychedelic (which, as you might recall, also didn't pay huge commercial dividends for that band either). Screeching and roaring its way from your stereo, it's heavier and much more leaden than the band had ever been, while also retaining some of their earlier shoegazing wooziness. From its piledriving entrance to its sudden abrupt end, you can't help but feel invigorated by the whole thing. If I have a criticism at all, it's probably that its lack of subtlety meant that a month of playing it was enough for me - once the shock of the song's force becomes familiar, there's nothing new to uncover.
Their album "C'Mon Kids" was an odd pick and mix selection of psychedelic whimsy combined with heavy guitars, tape effects and sudden, sharp changes of tempo and mood. While it only reached number 20 in the album charts, Radiohead were apparently startled enough by it for it to have a subtle influence on the "OK Computer" sessions. The band would never regain their commercial fortunes, though there are moments on their final LP "Kingsize" that could have clinched that for them had they not been on the verge of disintegration at its point of release.
3. Northern Uproar - From A Window (Heavenly)
And really, when bands began to edge away from the more people-pleasing aspects of Britpop, you could argue that new bands like Northern Uproar were the very things they were backing away from. As unsubtle as the Pistols and as anthemic as Oasis, NU were guitar-based lad's music as its most obvious and indelicate. "From A Window" is all power chords, sneering and fist punching, sounding strangely like the work of some of the beefier flop glam rock bands of the mid-70s from this century's perspective.
Live, Northern Uproar were actually a very powerful proposition, filled with the kind of cocky arrogance only a gang of teens with guitars and strong tunes can have. On record, some of that impact got lost, and their eponymous debut LP - which some suspected would be enormous - had to content itself with a number 22 chart placing.
While the lead guitarist Jeff Fletcher was struck by a lorry and tragically killed in Stockport in 2014, the group remain a going concern, and released their latest LP "Hey Samurai" in 2015.
4. Sleeper - Sale Of The Century (Indolent)
Once you get past the intriguing and slightly psychedelic intro, "Sale of The Century" is, unfortunately, Sleeper at their most obvious, filling in most of the necessary boxes on your Britpop bingo card. Tacky daytime/ early evening television reference? Check. Very sugary, overpowering chorus? Check. Sense of Wake Up Boo styled optimism, just a few rungs down from Katrina and The Waves at their most euphoric? Check. Congratulations, you have won an ironic teasmade. You can pick it up on the door right next to the pile of retro Adidas tops. Have a nice life.
Louise Wener is smart enough to include small lyrical fragments of doubt and introversion in the track, of course - the line "How long til reason makes us small again?" is clearly the work of someone who has been here before, and realises that no love affair can make you feel supernova forever - but while this is one of the group's more popular outings, it underwhelms me on repeat listens. Even on the first play you sensed where the song was headed before it even got there, and it feels like the end result of a "how to write a top pop song" weekend workshop. Spin back to "What Do I Do Now" to hear the group achieve much bigger wonders both lyrically and musically, but managing to produce a lesser hit in the process.
None of this stopped Sleeper from being big news in 1996, though, producing glossy videos and widely played hits which made them far more publicly recognisable than some of their more credible peers.
5. Blur - Charmless Man (Food/ EMI)
Success was clearly disturbing Damon Albarn at this point, and he reacted to the situation by producing two singles which clearly owed a debt to The Kinks during their "Lola Versus Powerman" period. That LP savagely bit the hand which fed - or perhaps more accurately, fed in an inequitable way - and mocked the disinterested and self-serving nature of the clueless label suits who surrounded the group.
Blur's opening salvo in this vein was obviously "Country House", which openly mauled the bothersome owner of Food Records, David Balfe, who very few musicians appear to have a good word to say about (If you want to get past the needling, mocking "Country House" and get a flavour of the man's personality in detail, Julian Cope's biography "Head On" is merciless). "Charmless Man" appears to be less about a specific individual than a brand of anonymous media type, with Albarn sneering "Educated the expensive way/ he knows his claret from his beaujolais".
While the track has a similar rollicking, sarcastic knees-up feel to "Country House", it's actually not as cruel or savage, and lyrically feels a bit sketchy. A lot of the unresolved half-rhymes in the lyrics stick out like sore thumbs and and make them feel like a first draft in places. Melodically, it could also be a cynical Sleeper track were it not for Graham Coxon's buzzing, malfunctioning robot guitar licks throughout, which brilliantly soundtrack the charisma-free breakdown of the individual in question.
And really, this is how Blur excelled over many of their rivals during the period. Even at their poppiest and most obvious, it was possible to find abrasion, bite and awkwardness in the mix, which made them considerably more interesting than whoever had scored Chris Evans' single of that particular week. By 1997, those experimental and lo-fi elements would really find a stronger voice in "Blur", and while the leap from "Charmless Man" to "Beetlebum" feels enormous, both are very clearly the work of the same band with the same anxieties, frustrations and foibles.