1. The Sundays - Joy (Rough Trade)
"...Equally as important for giving style back to the independents as putting integrity back into the mainstream". NME, Jan '90
The Sundays emerged in a blaze of publicity in early 1989. In those days, the inky music press were still obsessed with finding "the next Smiths", and alongside the likes of Wedding Present and The House Of Love, The Sundays were deemed to be prime contenders. Debut single "Can't Be Sure" stayed atop the indie charts for what felt like the whole winter season, dripping with delicately jangled guitar lines and Harriet Wheeler's expressive and almost folksy vocal stylings. It then topped John Peel's Festive Fifty for 1989.
So far, so incredible. The trouble is, The Sundays were damned on two fronts - not only has their work-rate been consistently sloth-like (their debut LP didn't emerge until 1990) but they were also signed to an ailing record label which was about to go belly-up. "Joy" seemed to have been slated as their follow-up to "Can't Be Sure", and had a video made to accompany it, but beyond white labels no copies have ever turned up. Given that it received airplay and television exposure, the only plausible explanation is that Rough Trade's precarious circumstances were to blame for its non-release.
"Joy" is actually a beautiful track, rich with an incredibly wintery and mournful atmosphere, but it doesn't sound like a single. It probably would have edged its way into the Top 40 purely by dint of the group's status had it been granted a release, but it's a strange atmosphere-piece to be considered as a 45.
Following Rough Trade's collapse, The Sundays would move on to Geffen and we won't see them on Indie Top 20 again. Suffice to say, they remained a cultishly successful act until their demise in 1997, consistently selling tens of thousands of records to their fanbase while never quite managing to reach out beyond that core group.
2. See See Rider - She Sings Alone (Lazy)
"Stumbling and sliding through a morass of sexual sophistication with S as a central cypher in the iconography of See See Rider"
Though if you want tangles with misfortune, See See Rider take the cake. Much-touted at the time, within moments of "She Sings Alone" receiving favourable reviews, members Stephen Sands and May Rock Marshall were involved in a motorcycle accident which rendered them inactive for an extended period. By the time they returned a whole year later with new material, other members had buggered off and they were forced to reacquaint themselves with the gig circuit all over again with a new line-up.
While 1990 has often been noted as being an absurdly generic year for British alternative rock, with baggy beats and wah-wah guitars seeming to work their way on to every other record, See See Rider did stand out. The moody vocals of Lewis Chamberlain and May Rock Marshall created an unholy alliance, the gravelly imperfections of the former combining with the disappointed sourness of the latter like some kind of nineties indie Hazelwood and Sinatra. "She Sings Alone" truly soars as well, the guitar lines continually building throughout the record until they're almost scraping the sky.
Whatever hopes anyone had for the band, it's hard to imagine them ever being huge, and in the end only two singles emerged - this and "Stolen Heart" in 1991. "She Sings Alone" did show vague signs of commercial promise when it entered the UK Top 100 at Number 99, however. This might not sound like much, but even in 1990, a showing on the official Gallup chart was a huge deal for an indie band, and a sign that the real world was waking up to them. With better fortune on their side, it's possible greater things could have been achieved.
3. Galaxie 500 - Blue Thunder (Rough Trade) - vinyl and cassette only
"...is the sound of a storm brewing, oppressively, in the eventide." Everett True, Melody Maker, 27/1/90
Thanks for that, Everett. Though the sound of the storm brewing was possibly also Rough Trade's imminent bankruptcy, which brutally impacted on Galaxie 500's lives, forcing them to bid for the rights to their own albums back at an auction.
"Blue Thunder" stems from the band's later period, but it's fair to say that throughout their careers they were deeply divisive, with many listeners and critics feeling that their approach was too shambolic to be worthy of praise. Others, however, adored their naive approach and saw parallels between them and the Velvet Underground and also other current indie twee artists.
What very few people seem to have commented on - at least from memory - is how redolent of Neil Young "Blue Thunder" is in places, with even Dean Wareham's fragile vocals edging close towards the great man at times. It's threadbare and brooding stuff, but actually astonishingly powerful despite its delicate framework.
"Blue Thunder" seemed to come in two versions, an acoustic version and a version with a honking saxophone sprawling all over it. My vinyl copy of "Indie Top 20" is fully saxed up, but I've heard talk that other pressings apparently aren't. If there's a good reason for this, I'm damned if I know it.
4. AC Marias - One Of Our Girls Has Gone Missing (Mute)
"...This is lovely... AC Marias "One Of Our Girls" is marvellous, revelling in melancholy and loss just so them big ole ice guitars can come a-rolling in one mo' time". David Quantick, NME
A.C. Marias was the adopted stage name of occasional Wire video director and collaborator Angela Conway. She's joined on this track by Bruce Gilbert of Wire, Barry Adamson of the Bad Seeds and Rowland S Howard of The Birthday Party.
It seems unfair to point it out, but "One of Our Girls" is incredibly Wiry, right down to that precise, metronomic rhythm track and those ringing guitar lines. Gilbert co-wrote it, and clearly had a huge hand in its production, and while Wire's days on Indie Top 20 really finished on Volume 8, this track acts as a nice coda.
Innocent, delicate, melancholy and faintly choral, this is a ghostly little single which really didn't sell in enormous quantities, but sounds oddly of its time despite the heavy involvement of the indie elder gentry. The vocals actually pre-date the early nineties Rave single habit of putting innocent, pie-eyed female vocals over looped rhythm tracks, and make it sound like a spooky precursor to a lot of commercial electronic music.
5. Lush - De-Luxe (4AD)
"Lush's first single reached number 53 in the Gallup chart in March".
And really, this was it. The rude young interloper to the baggy beat party. Without a trace of funky drummer samples or Dance remixes, Lush achieved more with their debut release than many new artists on major labels were managing at the time. They single-handedly proved that the market for fresh new alternative music was far bigger and broader than anyone supposed, and you didn't have to be dancefloor friendly just to chart in the "real world". That would have an impact on the scene as a whole (though Ride's debut January release was also a similar event).
Lush were self-confessed naifs at the time, which is staggering when you consider the richness on offer here. This isn't a bunch of Talulah Gosh soundalikes fumbling their way around their instruments - "De-Luxe" has innocence and abrasion in spades, as well as a peculiar arrangement which never quite reaches any kind of traditional chorus but swaps between two distinct elements - the almost folk-rockish melodies of the "I've been waiting on the slide" part, and the very slight chorus beginning with "Inside of me". The vocal interplay between Miki Berenyi and Emma Anderson also resembles something akin to "Scarborough Fair", giving an actually quite abrasive track a very haunted, ancient atmosphere. It holds you glued to the stereo by the force and beauty of its detail alone.
I'll be rude enough to suggest here that Lush were very often an imperfect band, producing large numbers of album tracks and even singles which never quite gelled. "De-Luxe" was a storming single for the group to announce themselves with, though, and almost couldn't have been bested. This is how to make an entrance.