1. The Charlatans - Then (Dead Dead Good/ Situation Two)
"Excellent follow-up to their hit earlier in the year. Outstanding, a massive hit that should establish Northwich's finest as a major band".
It wouldn't have been illogical to expect another juddering piece of catchy organ-driven indie as a follow-up to the hugely successful "The Only One I Know", but "Then" took people by surprise in 1990. While it was still a bit of a smash by indie standards - number 12 in the national charts isn't really to be sniffed at - it has a despairing dream-like quality to it, sounding like the soundtrack to someone's slow-motion meltdown.
It is beautiful for all that, though, and the misty, blurry sound to this showed that there was far more to The Charlatans than foot-tapping retro pop. In "Then", they had also managed to create a piece of atmospheric indie which, while not being overly similar to the likes of Ride, Lush or Slowdive, certainly had a similar tripped-out, steadily building ethereal nature at its roots.
Frustratingly, despite the fact that it was a reasonably big seller at the time by indie standards, "Then" is very infrequently heard on the radio now, with programmers tending to skim past all the post-"Only One I Know" singles until they get closer to their more upbeat Britpop revival material ("Weirdo" occasionally excepted). This does the group a disservice, as they're much more versatile than they've generally been given credit for. Three singles down the line, and they'd already managed to show us three very unique sides to their personalities.
2. Teenage Fanclub - God Knows It's True (Paperhouse)
"Jack Black - it's good for singing, guitaring, and playing the drums." - Don Flemming
This remains one of my favourite Teenage Fanclub tracks. It sounds amazing from the first second - starting off with that buzzing guitar riff, then steadily building to a clattering, pissed off anthem of betrayal, it's the halfway house where the moody melodies of "April Skies" era Mary Chain meet with American underground rock and Big Star. From the sulking chorus right up to the basic but marvellous guitar outro, it feels oddly effortless and yet wonderfully constructed. If anyone had dismissed Teenage Fanclub as being a scratchy indie band, this was the point at which they would be proven wrong - and things would get better and more powerful over the coming years.
The group were about to up sticks and sign to Creation in the UK and Geffen in the US, and while they never quite achieved the commercial wonders many predicted (it's often forgotten that circa "Bandwagonesque", they really were regarded as possible future stars) a string of acclaimed albums and moderate hits would ensure that their legacy would be the envy of many of their peers. Staying respected and relevant twenty-five years down the line is arguably preferable to stadium success followed by rapid burn-out.
3. Pale Saints - Half Life Remembered (4AD)
"Gustav Holst is the horse's mouth in whose saliva we take our baths".
If "Sight Of You" had been maudlin, "Half Life Remembered" is disorientating and slightly frightening, from its strange video featuring dated psychedelic effects and an overload of custard, pasta and beans and dentistry related nightmares, to the track itself - airy vocals meeting a vaguely threatening and malevolent melody. "It's eating you away, and some will never know its taste" we're informed, while ambitious drum patterns smash around and angelic female vocals coo along.
To all intents and purposes, "Half Life Remembered" really is Pale Saint's equivalent of "White Rabbit", and is so obviously about hallucinogenic matters that it would have been banned in a less enlightened age. While psychedelic ideas were incredibly prevalent in this period through the noises of both the so-called Madchester bands and the shoegazing stars, this really was unbelievably explicit. When they're not twanging away in an early sixties style, even the guitar riffs veer close towards sitar-mimicking scales in places. Far out, man.
But it's unbelievably good. It could make the mistake of spanning ten minutes and repeating its best ideas endlessly, but instead, for four and a half minutes, it's an interesting and ever-evolving piece of wonky pop that explores every possible melodic nook and cranny.
The Pale Saints always were one of the more interesting and inventive groups in the so-called shoegazing movement, which makes it strange that they appear to be less raved about during the present revival.
4. Welfare Heroine - Cry - Blood (Dub) (Non-Fiction)
"It's hopelessly sad, hopelessly lonely, probing, while always attempting optimism... but already I can feel tears pricking my eyelids, more of an emotion than a song".
A real oddity of the period, "Cry - Blood" mixed Gregorian monk chanting with a post-punk dub sensibility. While it was released slightly before Enigma's "Sadeness" which unexpectedly rose to Number One in the early part of 1991, its subsequent credibility has nonetheless probably been slightly damaged by the obvious similarities.
Nonetheless, it's an incredibly uncommercial slice of minimalism which finds its groove early on and remains firmly locked into it. The shuffling rhythm is pure 1990, it's only the deep dub basslines and faintly jazzy riffs which make it sound outside of anything else being produced at this point.
Welfare Heroine consisted of NME journalist Dele Fadele - so the fact the track earned an NME single of the week is slightly suspect, to be frank - Dave Egan and Ian Jones. Like their labelmates The Honey Smugglers, they were very quickly dropped from Fiction's slightly half-arsed Non-Fiction subsidiary label after a couple of singles and left to fend for themselves.
5. The Shamen - Oxygen Restriction (One Little Indian)
"A sub bass collision with techno pop minimalism... but Teutonic it ain't"
The Shamen's unbroken run of tracks on the "Indie Top 20" series starts at Volume Three and ends right here, and it's been possible to track their evolution right through that period, from politically outspoken psychedelic guitar noiseniks to disco biscuit spiritualists. Seldom has one band changed their style so much and so recognisably in such a short space of time.
By this point, the group were poised to take on the world. "Oxygen Restriction" was a track on their LP "Entact" and was not actually released as a single, so it's hard to hear the commercial chops they had developed; but if you were in any doubt, "Ebeneezer Goode" wasn't terribly far around the corner.
As for "Oxygen Restriction", it is indeed a stripped back and bare piece of techno which judders by at a mid-tempo without leaving an enormous impression. It seems to have been dropped on to "Volume Eleven" of this LP to take advantage of The Shamen's rapidly growing reputation at this point. And perhaps, of course, it would have been a horrible pity to have left them off the tracklisting, since they had been such mainstays until this point.
By Volume Twelve, however, we will find ourselves doing without them.