By 1995, the Pick Of The Year compilations were settling nicely into a comfortable rut. As autumn lurched from November into December, I’d drag out all the albums I’d bought since January, play them through, and make a shortlist of tracks. After a few days of fannying about with timings and running orders, eventually I’d have a set of favourite songs that I could laboriously copy onto cassette in real time. Computers? No need for 'em back then.
Actually, that’s not strictly true, as 1995 saw one technical innovation in these compilations. Rather than having a handwritten track listing, I printed one out on my swanky new Sharp FontWriter word processor. Basically a full sized typewriter with a five line dot matrix display and a 3.5" floppy drive, it was intended as a stepping stone towards the Fisher Price My First Computer that inevitably lay in my future. (My thinking back then was this: I worked with PCs during the day. Why on earth would I want to use one at home as well?)
But enough of the techno geek nostalgia. Here's the music geek nostalgia you came for.
1. THE ONE WORLD ORCHESTRA – The Magnificent (from Help, Go! Discs) (video)
Here’s something that’s never happened before or since: a Pick Of The Year compilation containing two songs from the same album. Mind you, War Child’s first charity record was a pretty big deal at the time. Loads of your favourite pop acts all went into the studio on the same day – September 4th, 1995 – and recorded songs for an album released so quickly afterwards, they didn’t even have time to include a track listing on the sleeve. One of the nicest surprises was a brief reunion of The KLF under this pseudonym, gleefully hammering the theme from The Magnificent Seven and some samples from Serbian radio into an instant drum ‘n’ bass classic.
2. BJORK – Hyper-Ballad (from Post, One Little Indian) (video)
It's a surprisingly concrete piece of imagery, when compared against virtually every other lyric ever written by Bjork: throwing things from the edge of a cliff, and musing on the transitory nature of existence as you do so. Which might possibly explain why it's my favourite song from her entire oeuvre to date. Though the music helps too: when the drums come in over those final choruses, it gives the whole track an emotional acceleration that she’s never quite achieved since. Bjork's always had a canny ear for collaborators, and Nellee Hooper and Marius De Vries do some astonishing work here.
3. ASH – Girl From Mars (from The Best... Album In The World... Ever!, Circa) (video)
I’ve gone a bit cool on Ash over the last few years. Partly because I’ve more or less grown out of being excited by the mere idea of young people playing over-amplified guitars: partly because of a shitty gig they did at the ICA a few years ago, where they quit the stage after a mere half hour set. Also, to be honest, the loss of Charlotte Hatherley has knocked a big hole in their ear for a tune. But in the pre-Hatherley days of 1995, that didn't seem to be a problem. Even though I’m claiming to be a grown-up nowadays, the sheer oomph of the extra guitar that comes in at the end of each chorus still gets me somehow.
4. SUB SUB – Southern Trees (from single Southern Trees, Robs Records) (video)
When you sample a really well-known song, usually the idea is that you’re trying to grab some of its historical energy for yourself. Which makes it a peculiar idea to base the chorus of a dance record on the first couple of lines of Strange Fruit, one of the grimmest ballads ever written. It’s a juxtaposition that tickled me greatly at the time, and I could generally bring most parties to a halt by sneaking it into the middle of a mixtape I’d brought with me. (I have fond memories of the late Rob D hearing this come up at one of his own dos, and just tutting at me.) It’s certainly a far cry from the bouncy pop of Ain’t No Love (Ain’t No Use) that Sub Sub were best known for at the time. When they broke up and reformed as Doves several years later, that baseline of melancholy was to serve them well.
5. SUPERGRASS – Alright (from I Should Coco, Parlophone) (video)
1995 was the peak year for Britpop, and there are several crashingly obvious examples on this tape: this is just the first one (I don’t think Ash really fit the genre, somehow). Interesting to note that of the various bands of the era represented here, the two that were always best known for their extreme youth - Supergrass and Ash - are the only ones still surviving today, doing what they always did. And Alright was a perfect statement of intent for the lighter side of Supergrass' repertoire. Even the video is still fun. You never see bands just mucking about in videos any more, do you?
6. TRICKY – Aftermath (from Maxinquaye, Island) (video)
Tricky first turned up on the previous year’s compilation with his debut single, Ponderosa. After an almost unbearable delay, he finally released an album that completely delivered on the promise of that single. Although it turns out that my favourite track on it predates that debut: Aftermath was originally put out as a white label before he signed up with Island. One of the most perfectly realised bits of dope-fuelled paranoia I’ve ever heard on record, its atmosphere is dark enough to make even a quote from a David Cassidy song seem like the most threatening thing on earth. Tricky’s never quite managed to produce a collection as good as Maxinquaye since, but I keep listening to him in the hope that he might.
7. OASIS – Don't Look Back In Anger (from (What's The Story) Morning Glory?, Creation) (video)
Yeah, another predictable one. I remember being at a party in 1996 where this was playing and suggesting “Noel Gallagher might only have two good albums in him, you know.” Everyone chortled like it was an amusingly provocative thing to say. To be fair, that was actually how I’d intended it to come out. But Oasis were genuinely unstoppable at this point in time, with the career peak of the Knebworth gigs still to come. It was hard to imagine that they’d go downhill so quickly after that, but it was also hard to see where they could go from here. No matter: this is still a great song, and neither time nor subsequent career mistakes have stopped it being one.
8. NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS – The Ballad Of Robert Moore And Betty Coltraine (from single Where The Wild Roses Grow, Mute) (video)
In a compilation with a very high proportion of tracks that were released as singles – I make it a dozen or so – this is the only B-side I thought was worth including this year. Cave’s none-more-unlikely duet with Kylie Minogue proved to be a useful harbinger of the excellent Murder Ballads collection he’d release in 1996, but TBORMABC showed that he could write funny songs about violent death as well. Someone could have a lot of fun making a wildly over-literal video of this story, but I’m afraid I haven’t got the resources to do it myself.
9. RADIOHEAD – Lucky (from Help, Go! Discs) (video)
Another one from the War Child compilation album. Whereas the KLF track was more of a happy bonus for those of us who loved the band, it was widely acknowledged at the time that Lucky was the bona fide standout hit of the collection. Made in the transition period between The Bends and OK Computer (and turning up again on the latter two years later), it’s a memento of the days when Radiohead were more interested in crafted songs than sonic experimentation. Thom Yorke's at his best as he proclaims himself to be fearless, like Jeff Bridges in that movie (although as Father Ted Crilly said, it’s not a very good reference).
10. PULP – Common People (from Different Class, Island) (video)
I’m reminded of Ghost Town by the Specials in 1981. Another classic of British pop, one so far ahead of its peers that even my mum noticed. As she watched them on Top Of The Pops, she squinted at the telly in fascination and noted “they’re saying something, aren’t they?” (I like to imagine she meant that with the subtext “are they allowed to do that?”) I remember my dad being similarly fascinated by Pulp’s Common People when he heard it on a pub jukebox, realizing that it was going into areas that pop songs didn’t normally venture into. Parents can surprise you sometimes, can’t they? Anyway, fuck William Shatner, this is a well-nigh perfect pop song, and there’s no way a 1995 compilation could possibly avoid it.
1. SCOTT WALKER – Farmer In The City (from Tilt, Fontana) (video)
Thinking about it, I reckon I bought Scott Walker’s Tilt without hearing a single note of it first. Can you imagine that happening nowadays, when more or less every bit of music out there can be heard on a try-before-you-buy basis, legitimately or otherwise? Obviously I was aware of Walker’s earlier work, at least slightly: but I think the thing that intrigued me most at the time was the incredibly divided reaction to the album. It’s challenging in parts, sure, but not the unlistenable racket that some critics made it out to be at the time. And Walker was canny enough to ensure that he opened the album with one of the loveliest melodies he’s ever written. Even if the tribute to Pasolini in the lyrics is as impenetrable as much of his later work, the unbelievable swell of the music carries it completely. (By the way, if you only follow one video link in this whole piece, it should be this one.)
2. CHEMICAL BROTHERS – Leave Home (from Exit Planet Dust, Virgin) (video)
This single was, I believe, my introduction to the Brothers. Even if I did initially feel smug with myself about spotting the Kraftwerk sample, eventually that pleasure gave way to pure enjoyment at their love of dynamics, of tension and release. All this track really is, when you get down to it, is a carrier system for the two bits where they build up to the short pause before the main riff comes crashing in again. But that’s good enough for me, even now.
3. EDWYN COLLINS & BERNARD BUTLER – In A Nutshell (from Volume 13, Volume) (video)
“Volume! Volume! It’s as cool as fuck! Volume! Volume! A CD and a book!” That jingle from Volume magazine’s regular contributor Mindless Drug Hoover sums up its appeal perfectly. Each issue was a CD of new and unreleased material from hot bands of the time, accompanied by 192 pages of entertainingly irreverent articles and gags from the likes of a pre-Father Ted Linehan and Mathews. Unlike, say, the patchy Indie Top 20 series I mentioned a while back, Volume’s hit rate was supernaturally high. I don’t believe this collaboration between Orange Juice legend Collins and ex-Suede guitarist Butler ever appeared anywhere else apart from the long-unavailable issue 13. Which is criminal, considering how lovely it is. Don’t ask me why the line “I ain’t got no moneys, can I pay you in kind?” hits me so hard, it just does.
4. BLACK GRAPE – Tramazi Parti (from It's Great When You're Straight... Yeah!, Radioactive) (video)
Now here’s an odd one. I appreciate that Black Grape had precisely half as many good albums in them as Oasis. Great When You're Straight was chock full of top danceable tunes, that took the Happy Mondays’ good-time vibe and focused it with laser precision. But why did I pick Tramazi Parti back in 1995? The main singles that everyone knows are all better, or at least sound better to me 14 years on. It’s a mystery. Sure, this one’s okay, and pinpoints a precise moment in history when temazepam was the hip drug of choice (and no, before you ask). But nowadays I’d probably pick something else from the album in its place.
5. PJ HARVEY – Send His Love To Me (from To Bring You My Love, Island) (video)
I’d been aware of PJ Harvey’s work for some time – I’d even seen her live, terrifying an audience when she supported U2 at Wembley Stadium back in 1993. But her third album To Bring You My Love was the first time when it all made sense to me. And, as you may have gathered from elsewhere on this site, it’s made sense ever since. Send His Love To Me is still quintessential Polly: a lyric that hovers on the brink of obsession, a vocal performance that’s close to collapse while remaining in perfect tune, a melody that completely obliterates the line between 6/8 and 4/4 time. What’s not to love?
6. RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS – Aeroplane (from One Hot Minute, Warner) (video)
Okay, the Chilis probably deserve the bad press they get these days. But back in their time, they could produce damn fine pop singles like this one. I’m sure I didn’t just pick this one for the mucky language (omitted from the Letterman version in the above video). Although given the way I was in the mid-90s, I couldn’t swear to that. No pun intended.
7. ELASTICA – Waking Up (from Elastica, Deceptive) (video)
Another Britpop act with only one decent album in them – and even the best bits of that were blatantly stolen from other sources. But Elastica always did their stealing with style, and Justine Frischmann was understandably a popular indie-boy crush at the time. (I always had a soft spot for guitarist Donna Matthews too, until I found out that her depressed pouty look was mainly down to her being off her face on smack.) The second album was a big letdown, and the split that followed was inevitable, but it has to be said that Elastica’s 'Where Are They Now?' File is much more interesting than that of most other bands.
8. SAINT ETIENNE – He's On The Phone (from Too Young To Die, Heavenly) (video)
Flashing back again to 1994, you’ll remember how POTY patron Lou suggested that And You Sure As Hell Can't Sing was a mostly downbeat collection, which he felt related to the less-than-optimal mental state of its compiler at the time. He seemed happier with the emotional arc of the 1995 tape, and looking back at it now he probably was right. Sure, there are some gloomy bits in there (Tricky and Radiohead, mainly - I still think the Sub Sub song’s actually quite funny). But there’s a fair amount of jolly pop in this tape too: and let’s face it, nobody could possibly listen to He’s On The Phone without dancing around the room in sheer glee, could they? It’s actually good enough to make you forget that this was the token new track on the Saint Etienne greatest hits album, callously included to make all the fans buy these songs for a second time.
9. WEEZER – Only In Dreams (from Weezer, Geffen) (video)
If you've been paying attention to these POTY compilations over the years, here's a trend that the eagle-eared among you may have spotted: the tendency to include an excessively long song, one that’s more an exercise in dynamics than a compelling tune. (The Belated Birthday Girl would have you believe that the 2007 compilation has two of them. But I digress.) The eight minutes plus of Only In Dreams is more or less a textbook example of this, even though the last thing you could accuse Weezer of is skimping on tunes. Nevertheless, this is on here purely because of the second half, when the song’s effectively over, and all it can do is drop down to nothing and come back again. But it does it beautifully. And if you only follow two video links in this piece, this should be the other one: a mashup of Cowboy Bebop footage that shows just how great my Felix Project videos could be if I wasn’t such a lazy sod.
So that’s 1995’s Pick Of The Year done. It’s definitely a snapshot of its time: one year later, there wouldn’t be anything like as many White Boys With Guitars in my musical diet. I’ll leave you to ponder for a little while what I might have replaced them with. Being a monkey, and all.