1999 – “Right Here, Right Now”, Fatboy Slim

Oh 1999, how long ago you seem. Remember the days when all you had to do to get a hit was turn the tone control on a mixing desk from low to high and hope nobody noticed how ridiculously simple that was? Ok that’s a little unfair, but not everything stands the test of time. What’s interesting about Fatboy Slim these days is both how genuinely, unexpectedly impressive the music sounded back in the heady days of 1999 and how rather facile it sounds now. Still, in many ways Fatboy Slim’s breakthrough album, You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby is extremely forward-looking – prescient even. It’s essentially the template for, to take one not-at-all-random example, Moby’s career, and many others will follow in its wake. That’s not a criticism of artists like Moby who will use this template, but it does demonstrate where it comes from.

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1998 – Ray Of Light, Madonna

Listen to the music playing in your head

It would be fair to say that Madonna’s Imperial phase came to an end pretty much with the 80’s. Her chart success in that decade was practically without parallel but nobody’s Imperial phase lasts forever. The 90’s were decidedly more hit and miss – there was movie success (Evita) and movie failure (the quite abominably frightful Body Of Evidence). There was music success – “Vogue” and “Justify My Love” most notably in the singles charts – but though the album before Ray Of Light, Bedtime Stories, had sold in predictable boatloads because, well, Madonna has a lot of fans, neither it nor its singles really impacted the public consciousness outside of her fandom all that much. There was a four-year gap between Bedtime Stories and Ray Of Light – not quite unprecedented for Madonna but still matching the longest period between albums she had ever taken. And, in truth, her public image was slipping.

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1997 – Natalie Imbruglia, Torn

Nibbler

That career in pop music didn’t quite happen for Natalie Imbruglia. You can tell because, really, when was the last time you thought about Natalie Imbruglia? Exactly. The answer is almost certainly “the last time “Torn” came on the radio / was played in the mall”. We are firmly in one-hit wonder land and, you know, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s not quite the whole story but let’s be honest, if anyone can name another song she recorded without having to Bing it then that would be pretty remarkable.

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1996 – A Design For Life, Manic Street Preachers

While you could never claim that the Manic Street Preachers were a Britpop band – certainly not the way that Blur, Oasis, Pulp, Suede et al were – there’s no denying that their fourth album, Everything Must Go, slots terribly well into that genre. Right place, right time, right approach. It stands in stark contrast to the Manics previous album, The Holy Bible, which was full of bleak, disconcerting lyrics and stark, under-produced songs. It’s a strange, distant and powerful piece, and is an excellent summary of one phase of the band.

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1995 – Common People, Pulp

Bar Italia?

The biggest cliché of Britpop is that the correct answer to the question, “who’s better, Blur or Oasis?” is Pulp. And, indeed, it’s true. Clichés tend to become clichés because they have a grain of truth in them, so while Blur and Oasis were battling it out at the top of the charts with “Country House” and “Roll With It” respectively – a chart battle largely invented by and for the music press, subsequently fuelled by members of both bands – Pulp had already won the war with “Common People”. In the end Blur won the battle of the singles, with “Country House” (an unremarkable but entertaining slab of Kinks-derived pop) beating Oasis’s “Roll With It” (an unremarkable but entertaining slab of Beatles-derived pop) to the Number 1 spot. 

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1994 – Confide In Me, Kylie Minogue

Eye see what you did there

Oh, Kylie.

I mean, where to even start? For anyone even faintly aware of music in the 80’s the idea that “indie Kylie” could be A Thing was so ludicrous as to be simply laughable. Kylie (rarely even gifted with a surname back in those days) was just another pathetic consequence of manufactured pop, another actor-turned-pop-star and a bit of musical sausage for the Stock, Aitken And Waterman meat grinder, capable of churning out a few disposable singles before fading back to obscurity. Ordinary voice, pretty-but-none-more-80’s looks, predicable dance move and bland songs. Come on. It’s Kylie (sometimes Minogue, occasionally “& Jason”)! She’s not ever going to amount to anything. Thus went the orthodoxy but it turned out Ms Minogue had other ideas.

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1993 – What’s Up?, 4 Non Blondes

What’s Up (with that terrible artwork)?

Well it’s one-hit wonder time here at We’re Number 2, but one-hit wonders aren’t simply, erm, one thing. They come in many different shapes and sizes, and there’s little to define or connect them. They can be novelty hits, one-and-done albums that briefly find public favour (as is very much the case here), groups will long careers that briefly intersect with the public before fading back to their previous status, they can be inspired by a specific events (sports covering a lot of ground here), and so on. The magnificently-named 4 Non Blondes fall into the second category, releasing just one album in their brief career, a lone single from which managed to garner chart success.

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1992 – Justified And Ancient, The KLF & Tammy Wynette

The cream of the crop

They’re a confounding band, The KLF, and that’s what makes them so profoundly interesting during a moment in time when a lot of music was anything but. Because although there’s a lot of good music bubbling under in 1992, precious little is making much of an impression at the top end of the charts, singles or albums. In fact the singles charts in the UK are in the absolute doldrums, with sales levels plummeting to near-record lows and just twelve Number 1 singles over the course of a whole year.

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1991 – Sit Down, James

Could it, like, be any more 90’s?

James are one of those bands that get lumped in with a style that they’re not quite a perfect fit for. Emerging from Manchester in the first half of the 80’s they knocked about all the familiar Manchester-in-the-80’s clichés – you know, playing at the Hacienda, supporting The Smiths, a brush with Factory Records, that sort of thing. It takes the remainder of that decade, and a bit of a shift in the line-up, before they finally manage to get some career momentum going, though James are notable for being an act whose live performances are where they built the core of their audience, not through records sales or chart performance.

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1990 – Tom’s Diner, Suzanne Vega / Love Shack, The B-52’s

Of course, “Tom’s Diner” had a long history before it became a hit, and another altogether different legacy after its release. It was originally written around 1981 or 1982 when Suzanne Vega was a student at Barnard College – the diner is a real place and she really did frequent it, though the physical building is probably better known these days as the exterior location of Monk’s Café in Seinfeld.  The song eventually saw release half a decade after it was written, on Vega’s critically acclaimed 1987 album Solitude Standing and it appears on the album twice, once as the a capella opening track and once as an instrumental to close the album out.

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