On 13 March 1995, Radiohead’s landmark second album was released to widespread acclaim. A quarter of a century later (now there’s a sobering thought), the reputation of The Bends as one of the finest albums of the 1990s – with such beautiful, moving songs as “Fake Plastic Trees”, “High and Dry”, “Black Star” and “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” – endures.
Of course, 1995 wasn’t just any old year for music. It was the year that the Britpop movement reached its zenith amid the much-hyped, tabloid-fuelled rivalry between Blur and Oasis. And there was much more on offer, too. Radiohead themselves could never be pigeonholed as Britpop, and 1995 was a classic year for albums right across the musical spectrum – as you will see from this list of the year’s 20 best albums.
20. Cast – All Change
Retro Sixties meets Britpop on the Liverpool band’s excellent debut. John Leckie produced and main man John Power brought his La’s credentials, so guitars and harmonies shine. Hit singles “Walkaway”, “Alright” and “Sandstorm” are among the highlights and “Promised Land”, with fuzzed Neil Young guitars and a Ritchie Furay-like vocal, wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Buffalo Springfield’s first album.
19. The Jayhawks – Tomorrow the Green Grass
Channeling the spirit of Gram Parsons, the alt/country luminaries’ fourth album found them in their mid-career pomp. Gorgeous melodies and wistful vocals illuminate “Two Hearts” and aching opener “Blue”, while “Real Light” and “Ten Little Kids” display a rockier approach. The cover of “Bad Time” achieves the near impossible feat of weaving silk from a Grand Funk Railroad song.
18. Blur – The Great Escape
“Country House” might have won the singles race with Oasis, but The Great Escape’s reputation has fluctuated over the years. Still, there’s a broad scope to the songs here, the best of which – “Fade Away”, “The Universal” (one of Blur’s most ambitious), the Kinks-like “Charmless Man” and touching ballad “Yuko and Hiro” – ensure The Great Escape has a place on this list.
17. Alanis Morissette – Jagged Little Pill
One of the biggest and most unexpected successes of 1995, the Grammy album-of-the-year winner put the highly wrought Morissette on the confessional singer-songwriter map. Some found the unrelenting navel-gazing and uncompromising language overwhelming. Nevertheless, powerful songs such as “Ironic”, “You Oughta Know” and “Hand in My Pocket” struck a chord with many and the album sold shed-loads.
16. Black Grape – It’s Great When You’re Straight… Yeah
This phoenix-like rise from the ashes of the Happy Mondays topped the charts. Relics of the old sound remained, but on mighty epics “Reverend Black Grape”, “Kelly’s Heroes” and “Shake Your Money”, Shaun Ryder, joined by rapper Kermit and remixing guru Danny Saber, unashamedly looted various back catalogues, adding hip hop, rock, soul and funk to the 24-hour party.
15. Garbage – Garbage
This knowing, grungy mix of styles – presided over by Shirley Manson, one of the faces and personalities of the year – was a superb debut, laced with loops and samples. Arresting opener “Supervixen” immediately grabs the attention with its stop/start motif, and in among the multifaceted groove lie banging singles “Stupid Girl”, “Queer” and “Only Happy When It Rains”.
14. Paul Weller – Stanley Road
With Steve Winwood guesting on “Woodcutter’s Son” and “Pink on White Walls”, a lovely Traffic vibe permeates the autobiographical successor to Wild Wood. Described by Weller as the culmination of his solo career to that point, blistering opener “The Changingman”, soulful ballads “You Do Something to Me” and “Wings of Speed”, and the menacing “Porcelain Gods” rank among Weller’s finest.
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13. The Smashing Pumpkins – Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness
“The impossible is possible,” Billy Corgan exhorts on the outstanding “Tonight, Tonight”, which follows the opening instrumental and really kick-starts this post-grunge classic. Corgan then attempts to prove it on a wildly ambitious and breathtakingly audacious double album – which, even at two hours long, and with a dazzling array of styles, doesn’t overreach itself, and which also includes other essential Pumpkins songs “1979”, “Zero” and “Muzzle”.
12. Elliott Smith – Elliott Smith
Smith’s lo-fi second album was the template for his future success and acclaim. A dark album with Smith baring his soul throughout, it has finger-picked guitars and hushed delivery that recall Nick Drake. Addiction and depression haunt beautifully structured songs like “Needle in the Hay”, “The Biggest Lie” and “Christian Brothers”, but this fragile, intimate record rewards repeated listening.
11. Elastica – Elastica
Fronted by glacial ice maiden Justine Frischmann, these magpies threatened to become better known for the bands they were ripping off on early singles “Connection” (Wire) and “Waking Up” (The Stranglers), both found here. However, Elastica’s debut album quickly powered its way to No 1 in the charts, their brand of spiky punk attitude striking gold in Britpop’s banner year.
10. Leftfield – Leftism
Club music entered the mainstream with this Mercury Prize-nominated album. Techno, punk, trance, ragga, tribal chants, it’s all here – and familiar even to the uninitiated, thanks to the frequent media use of tracks like “Release the Pressure” and “Song of Life”. It’s notable, too, for highly successful collaborations with Toni Halliday (“Original”), and John Lydon’s ferocious vocal on “Open Up”.
9. PJ Harvey – To Bring You My Love
Harvey’s rootsy third album tempered the rage of earlier works, however Harvey’s enduring themes, such as the paradox between the carnal and the spiritual, remain on tracks such as “The Dancer”. “Send His Love to Me” was a mainstream breakthrough, while the key track on arguably her best album, “Down by the Water”, was a chilling slice of swamp blues.
8. Bjork – Post
With scant regard for the difficult second album cliche, this truly original artist produced a brilliantly eclectic album, exploring ambient and electronica along with the usual pop and avant-garde elements. The quirky single “It’s Oh So Quiet” grabbed the headlines but the string-laden “Isobel”, the wonderful folk/techno hybrid “Hyperballad”, and the industrial beats of “Army of Me” proved much more rewarding.
7. Teenage Fanclub – Grand Prix
All the hallmarks of the art cherished by so many are here – great harmonies and melodies, jangly guitars, ramshackle yet finely crafted production on a suite of glorious Big Star, Byrds and Beach Boys-influenced songs. “Verisimilitude”, “Don’t Look Back”, the euphoric “I’ll Make It Clear” and “Sparky’s Dream” are absolute wonders, making this the Fannies’ finest record.
6. Mercury Rev – See You on the Other Side
More accessible than the avant-garde psychedelia of previous works, the dreamy ambience and gloriously off-kilter sounds of Mercury Rev’s third album anticipated Deserter’s Songs. David Baker’s departure handed vocal duties to Jonathan Donahue and jazzy flourishes and lush orchestration dominated. “Sudden Ray of Hope”, “Everlasting Arm” and “Racing the Tide” are just some of the majestic, expansive marvels on display here.
5. Pulp – Different Class
Jarvis Cocker trained his jaundiced eye on British social and sexual mores on Pulp’s breakthrough album, establishing himself as the wittiest, most articulate songsmith of his generation. The autobiographical “Mis-Shapes” and the voyeuristic “I Spy”, on which he made it quite clear what to do with your year in Provence, dazzle, and in the cherished “Common People”, Cocker created an anthem for the ages.
4. Supergrass – I Should Coco.
A joy from start to finish, full of humour, manic punk energy, great hooks and melodies in a wide range of styles, encompassing all manner of Sixties and Seventies influences. “Caught by the Fuzz”, “Alright”, “Mansize Rooster”, “Lenny” and “Time” are just some of the singalong classics that earned this classic debut a special place in the nation’s hearts.
3. Tricky – Maxinquaye
A brooding paranoia inhabits this disturbing but totally compelling journey through the mind of the trip hop maestro. Tricky merged various genres, sampling Public Enemy, The Smashing Pumpkins, Isaac Hayes, and Michael Jackson over deathly slow hip-hop beats and off-kilter sounds, juxtaposed with ethereal, occasionally sinister female vocals. A quarter of a century on, Maxinquaye remains innovative, influential and damn-near perfect.
2. Oasis – (What’s the Story) Morning Glory
The only matter still up for debate about this album is whether or not it trumps Definitely Maybe as Oasis’s finest hour. For me, the masterful songwriting and assured performances here just edge it, and there’s barely a misstep. “Champagne Supernova”, “Cast No Shadow”, “Morning Glory”, “Don’t Look Back in Anger” and “Wonderwall” are wonderful, with the rest not far behind.
1. Radiohead – The Bends
Downbeat, melancholic, yet wonderfully melodic and uplifting, with Thom Yorke’s tortured lyrics and anguished falsetto perfectly matched to soaring guitar-driven soundscape, rarely has such sweeping ambition been so bountifully fulfilled than on Radiohead’s boundary pushing second album. Epic in stature and vision, yet remarkably intimate, The Bends stood apart from Britpop and everything else in the storied year of 1995.
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