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ARTS / Everywhere and nowhere, baby: Rock Band of the Year

WHAT SORT of a year could it have been whose most important band didn't release a new record? A pretty good one as it turned out. The impact of Nirvana's astonishing rags-to-rags ascent at the end of 1991 resounded throughout 1992. Not just in clueless and sinister 'grunge fashion' supplements, but because everything else - from Bruce Springsteen's return, to the absurd antics of Axl Rose - had to be considered in the light of it.

While Geffen Records assiduously over-milked their old album for new singles, Nirvana never managed the swift follow-up they had hoped for, but they did keep their mystique, and their balance, on a dizzying rumour-go-round. In December they released Incesticide, a motley retrospective selection - half brilliance, half formative raggedness - which offered fascinating hints as to where they might go next. All year, major record companies paid absurd amounts to anyone with long hair, cranked-up guitars and hesitant speech patterns, unaware that all the best 'Nirvana-style' bands had either, like old-stagers Sonic Youth, already been signed up, or, like newcomers Pavement, decided small was beautiful.

Old arguments about corporate buy-outs of rock 'n' roll rebellion were given a new perspective in the United States where the Time/Warner conglomerate publicly backed two of its artists - Ice-T, with his police-baiting thrash-metal anthem 'Cop Killer', and Madonna, with her picture book. This was also the year in which the Eighties became history at last, when nostalgia for Husker Du and The Human League raged as warmly as that for Abba and the Sex Pistols. And a couple of living rock legends made surprisingly interesting contributions: U2's determination to prove they had a sense of humour spurred them to scale spectacular new heights of self-importance, and REM pulled back from self-parody to make probably their finest album.

While America ruled the rock roost, and cornered the market in sassy eloquence via politicised rappers Arrested Development and Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, Britain triumphed in bedroom dancefloor experimentation. The Orb took ambient house to number one in the album charts, but more interesting noises were made just outside the mainstream. Baby Ford, Ultramarine and The Future Sound of London all made richly compelling records. And, in a better year for rock than for pop, there were a couple of notable exceptions. Right Said Fred refused to be one-hit wonders, and The Shamen's ability to be both humourless and hilarious was little short of inspirational.

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