6. Ash - Goldfinger (Infectious)
Something very peculiar happened to Ash's output following the runaway success of "Girl From Mars". Their singles appeared to jump from being robust but noisy punk outbursts to something altogether more Pop. "Angel Interceptor" was the first sign of the wind changing direction, and is probably one of my favourite Ash singles of the lot - all dreamy backing vocals, punky thrashing and melodic meandering.
"Goldfinger", on the other hand, is just plain anthemic. So anthemic it would become a regular feature on all those "Best Anthems In The World!" and "Singalonganindiedownthepub!" compilations that littered the market throughout the late nineties and for half the noughties as well. A huge number five hit, it smoothed off a lot of Ash's rough edges and made them palatable to a wider audience, but somehow less interesting too. This doesn't rip the joint apart, choosing instead to take matters at a slow, considered, lighters aloft pace, with the biggest rock chorus they could muster.
Both this and the equally popular "Oh Yeah" set the group up for life, however, and they were still having Top 40 hits as recently as ten years ago. If "Goldfinger" is ultimately disappointing to me, I doubt they have many regrets about recording it.
7. Octopus - Your Smile (Food/ EMI)
A lot of alternative bands who were signed late in the Britpop goldrush suffered on two fronts - getting lost amidst the flood of similar sounding products on the market, and also suffering from the public's waning interest. While Britpop promotional displays remained right by the front doors of HMV branches everywhere, 1996 was a year in which the most acclaimed and successful bands of the period, Blur, Oasis and Pulp, were largely inactive. Even Supergrass only managed one single ("Going Out") during that year.
Record labels began to rely on their non-Premiership acts to keep the Union Jack flying, and while The Bluetones and Sleeper did a sterling job of continuing some interest, they weren't powerful or imaginative enough to generate the same enthusiasm as their leaders (though the music press played a powerful game, managing to convince even me that The Bluetones would be the new Stone Roses. They weren't, of course).
While Blur caught their breath and indulged themselves with cheese, booze and an assorted family pack of pharmaceuticals, their label Food signed the Scottish octet Octopus on the strength of a demo tape alone. Such events usually occur when a group is visually striking (Transvision Vamp) or so exceptional that a label wants to block any possible counter-bids or rival interest elsewhere. While Octopus were a reasonably handsome bunch, it's safe to say that it was their ideas Food were interested in. Named after the Syd Barrett song, Octopus leant towards the psychedelic pop end of the sixties music spectrum, and featured diverse instrumentation and richly woven songs, probably having more in common with Super Furry Animals or Julian Cope than most of the other groups they were saddled alongside.
"Your Smile" narrowly missed out on a Top 40 place, and still sounds wonderful. Filled to the brim with pizzicato strings, Beatles styled brassiness, backwards guitar and impressive pop songwriting, it should have been an enormous hit - and in fact, it's a track you can imagine storming the charts in either the late sixties or early to mid seventies. It's heartwarming and optimistic without being overly bouncy or twee, sounding like a pop symphony to soothe all battered souls everywhere. The video also recalls some of the prime pieces of late sixties pop cinematography, feeling like a lost "Magical Mystery Tour" outtake.
Octopus managed one album ("From A to B") before splitting up, but along with Animals That Swim should be hailed as one of the mightiest groups of the period who are nonetheless unlikely to be on the tip of anyone's tongues in the "Pointless" Britpop round. Despite this, "Your Smile" points one possible way forward everything could have gone if the public had wanted - away from catchy pop with observational lyrics, and towards intricate, polished popsike.
8. Morcheeba - Tape Loop (China)
Morcheeba weren't without psychedelic rock elements themselves initially, but these were usually pushed somewhere towards the back of the mix by the primary force of their trip-hop/ electronic influences. "Tape Loop" stems from the earliest period of their career when their sound hadn't quite been scrubbed and polished up for the mainstream yet, so subtle guitar licks and hypnotic grooves are the order of the day.
It's all perfectly OK in a loose, laidback, mid-tempo way, but there's nothing here screaming at the listener to regard Morcheeba as the most innovative group among their peers. With hugely popular later albums like "Big Calm", they'd reveal themselves to be the prime listening choice for "spiritually inclined" types on their way home from Ibiza or a festival. If you happened to find yourself following a bunch of well-spoken but hairy, beardy, beady types home from the club or pub for a late night bang on a bong, the chances are that LP was firmly ensconced in their CD player tray.
In 1996, though, Morcheeba were a faint curiosity, a group who were neither fish nor fowl and hadn't quite found their audience yet. Their appearance on "Indie Top 20" might seem baffling now, but it wouldn't have raised many eyebrows at the time.
9. Collapsed Lung - Eat My Goal (Deceptive)
Harlow's Collapsed Lung were a strange indie hip-hop group named after a particularly troubling medical condition. The crossover potential for the band was huge, but they seemed to find themselves forever touring around tiny venues in the UK to loyal cult audience of skate kids and leftover baggies.
The group had a particularly quirky sense of humour which possibly put the "serious" hip-hop fans off their work. If their name wasn't questionable enough, early track "Thundersley Invacar" set things off on the wrong foot by focusing on the problems of cruising for ladies in a three wheeled motor vehicle built for disabled people. "Eat My Goal", borrowing its title from an Alan Partridge outburst on "The Day Today", has a similar tongue-in-cheek frivolity to it.
It went on to become their only hit, entering the top 40 twice - once in 1996, and again in 1998, and has been used since on numerous adverts and computer game soundtracks. It's a huge slice of swaggering fun which didn't change the world or the music scene as we know it, but enlivened many parties or indie club nights just as the energy was waning. Not long after its 1998 re-release, the group dissolved.
10. Underworld - Born Slippy (Junior Boys Own)
Underworld were at this point already an enormously respected electronic duo, but "Born Slippy" provided them with their big breakthrough moment. Crossing over from their usual dance audience into the bedrooms of indie kids and pop listeners, "Born Slippy" is a somewhat rare example of a jarring piece of work finding mainstream acceptance, the polar opposite of Morcheeba's eventual success forged from melodic calmness. Streams of barked, overheard phrases from a Romford bound train journey join harsh, juddering beats, atmospheric washes and that persistent, chiming keyboard riff to create something which is actually tremendously uncommercial. Even The Fall's mid-nineties electronic work has more obvious hooks and coherence to it than this.
1996 was no stranger to jagged electronic sounds having a mainstream presence, of course - The Prodigy became absolute masters of that game - but whereas they had a charismatic frontman and an air of threat, "Born Slippy" is bit parts Eno ambience joining drunken disorientation and sharp, awkward angles. It's a testament to the power of the track that it not only crashed the charts and daytime Radio One, but also ended up in John Peel's Festive Fifty for that year.
Given that it was never really typical of many other sounds of the era, "Born Slippy" doesn't even sound particularly dated now. Its ubiquity is such that you do have to take a few steps back to remember just how odd it sounded on the first listen, though, and how thrilling too. Its appearance in "Trainspotting" may have helped it along considerably, but even without that moment, it felt enormous and truly fascinating.