In 1994, the rock band dEUS released Suds & Soda, a debut single suggesting a drunken fantasy jam between the Beastie Boys and The Pogues after a Faith No More concert. But the all-powerful British music press barely noticed the actual sound of the record. One could picture the journos sniggering over one of their marathon liquid lunches: “Hoo-ha-haa! Have you heard? There’s a new band called dEUS… and they’re… pffft!!… from Belgium.”

It was moronic: the notion that a crunchy contemporary rock band coming from mainland Europe was somehow laughable, just as the idea of a global smash hit single from South Korea seemed before 2012. But laugh they did, fuelled by the constant spectre of Eurovision and the surfeit of slightly questionable 1980s acts like Baltimora, Europe and Modern Talking. Not that it harmed dEUS, who were, and are, awesome; as were the torrent of other ace continental acts that followed, to the point where it’s now as common to hear a band on the radio hailing from the other side of the Eurotunnel as from this.

Or is it? Europe’s a bloody big place, and with pop music, all European countries are equal but some are more equal than others. The torrent slows to a trickle the further east you go; much as the arrival of dEUS inspired chortles in the 90s, any band from beyond Berlin has to fight through an – if you will – iron curtain of humour before they’re taken seriously in Britain. Don’t believe me? Conduct an experiment. Tell a friend you’re seeing “a Ukranian rock band” tonight. I guarantee one of these reactions. A puzzled expression, accompanied by “reeeally?” An amused suggestion they’ll be using an electric balalaika. A full-on gale of laughter. A tight smile and a clipped, “Oh, how interesting,” with the clear implication that your evening’s entertainment will be crap.

In the movie version of this article, cut to a shot of me in a vibey rock club in Budapest, pint of Hungarian beer in hand, watching a Ukranian rock band. A three-piece Ukrainian rock band called Sinoptik, who are busily proving they are not crap. Far from it. In fact they’re a gloriously unfettered and ethereal barrage of rock’n’roll noise, with the searing melodies, nail-biting dynamics and surprises to match. I’m among a crowd of a hundred, but singer/guitarist Dmitriy performs like he’s headlining Glastonbury.

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Dmitriy from Sinoptik. Pic by fnyrzkny

Sinoptik are here, as am I, for the very first Budapest Showcase Hub (BUSH), a conference and music festival with the rallying cry of “looking at the Eastern European music scene from a brand new perspective”. And perspective, when considering a band like Sinoptik, is what you need. They drove from Ukraine, presenting visas at the EU border which took months and a bank account of savings to procure. They recently transferred their HQ to Ukraine’s capital Kiev, after their hometown Donetsk was engulfed by civil war. The struggles of a band in London these are not. And yet here they are, mopping the floor with any rock act I’ve encountered this decade.

You see, the Eastern European music scene is getting its shit together, with the various promoters, labels and bands joining forces to export their own music to their western neighbours. And it’s a no-brainer: in 2016, there’s no reason why the next big acts can’t come from Prague, Belgrade or Vilnius. The talent’s certainly there. One of BUSH’s headliners is Brodka, a singer-songwriter from Warsaw of staggering confidence and vision, her latest record Clashes sounding like the possible result of a post-punk band being locked in a cathedral for the night. A big hit at home, it has yet to make much of a dent abroad, Brodka herself eyeing the challenges ahead with knowing humour: “I’m ready to build my audience album by album, but it’s difficult to break the market when you’re Polish. Let’s face it, it’s not like being from Iceland where every band has an instant ‘high-quality’ tag thanks to Björk.”

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Brodka. Pic by fnyrzkny

People mention Iceland a lot here. It’s not hard to see why. When I ask IAMYANK, a distinctive electronic artist from Budapest itself, where he would choose to work if not here, he replies “Iceland” without hesitation. “It’s a resilent, off-the-beaten track place which happens to make beautiful music. They’ve built a brand… if a group said they’re from Iceland, you’d check it out. The same isn’t true for Hungary.”

One senses that people here are waiting to see who’ll hit big first, hoping others can follow in the slipstream. Tony Duckworth, from indie umbrella label PIAS, says, “there is a good chance that, by 2021, we will have internationally successful performers from the region.” Who will finally do it? Brodka? Tommy Cash, the arse-percussionist (no, really) rapper from Estonia? Or someone else, like Cash’s rather more savoury compatriots, the electro-rock three-piece I Wear* Experiment? Having enjoyed their single Patience – a blast of catchy, of-the-moment Nordic pop – I meet the Tallinners before their headline set at BUSH. They’re energetic, friendly and bursting with passion for what they do, but with a refreshingly global ambition. “We’re touring in South Korea,” enthuses guitar/synth man Hando Jaksi. “And Japan, and China. Our music’s popular in those places, and if people want to hear you play, I really feel you should get out there.” Live, I Wear* Experiment’s self-assuredness is unavoidable, vocalist/keyboardist Johanna Eenma whipping up the crowd at the Kuplung club like they’re down the road at Budapest’s epic Sziget festival. Stage right, drummer Mikk Simson smacks his kit with a positivity that verges on the maniacal.

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Johanna from I Wear* Experiment. Pic by Sinco

Slightly mad levels of positivity are present throughout the festival, in fact. Mid-evening, I catch Ghost Of You, a frenetic quartet from Brno, Czech Republic, who combine a Madchester-ish swagger with the urgency (and instrument swapping tendency) of The Coral. At one of the conference’s many symposiums, I witness an impassioned speech from Fruzsina Szép, a Budapest local but currently festival director of Lollapalooza Berlin. Halfway through the talk, it would be fair to say she goes off on one, calling on the audience to celebrate the diversity of talent from the region, insisting we think as one nation, rather than lots of smaller ones. It’s an inspiring, emotional oration, which I’m not ashamed to admit causes me to make a complete arse of myself and break into spontaneous applause. But is it naïve, or do others feel the same? Turns out: they do. Daniel Somló, BUSH organiser (and also, conveniently, IAMYANK’s drummer), strikes much the same note.

“That’s what this festival’s about… the realisation that we’re not separate, but one country with 140 million people… the same problems, the same thinking. We should help each other.” Virgo Sillamaa, director of Music Estonia, takes the point further. “If we’d open up and integrate – and we already are – it might shift the axis away from the traditional Anglo-American canon.” But he’s quick to point out the Catch-22. “The internet has opened new ways, but also an unprecedented number of contenders.” Alex Bruford, director at London’s ATC Live agency, agrees. “The standards are high, because everyone’s at it. The industry is now more open-minded to listen to a band from Hungary, or wherever. But once they do listen: the music has to be exceptional.”

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Ghost Of You. Pic by Sinco

How do the region’s undiscovered musicians feel, though? Is all you really need that age-old ingredient: being good?

“You do need more than that,” shrugs IAMYANK. “Things are going well for us here, but there are only so many times we can play Budapest.” Some countries are, I suspect, better at the whole music industry thing than others? “Of course,” nods Daniel Somló. “We’re trying to play in Poland. It has 40 million people; Hungary has 10 million. You can’t compare them. Also, Poland is close to Berlin, and they use that closeness really well. There’s even a government plan to bring Polish bands to Berlin, and vice versa. Also, there are many Polish people in England; whenever they go back home, they bring fresh culture with them.”

Magdelena Jensen, CEO of Chimes Agency in Warsaw, is cautiously positive about her country’s merits in this field. “The key is building confidence in what we do. Performers from Poland sometimes have a bit of a complex which holds them back, plus the industry occasionally suffers from an unhealthy negative competitiveness. But thanks to travel opportunities, conferences and the sharing of experiences, this is changing rapidly.”

Listening to Brodka’s tantalising album, or feeling the primal blast of Sinoptik‘s live show, I’m wondering – perhaps impatiently – why all this change takes so damn long? BUSH’s official hashtag is #newkidsfromthebloc, but it’s a long time since the bloc; are they really new kids?

“We’re talking about the creation of a whole sector,” explains Virgo Sillamaa. “An entire music industry ecosystem… more than just developing a talented artist.”

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IAMYANK Live Band. Pic by Sinco

Late evening, as the last chords of IAMYANK’s atmospheric set die out, I drain my pint and wander off into the Budapest night, with many earworms squirming around my slightly drunken brain. It’s a typical musician’s tendency to want everything to happen immediately, but to use a couple of old clichés, these bands and musicians just need to keep the faith, think positively, carry on banging out the tunes. Or, as I Wear* Experiment put it rather more eloquently, “beautiful patience, flow into my soul.” Here endeth the lesson.

*The asterisk is actually part of their name. I don’t know what it means.

DECEMBER 2016

Conversations can continue on Twitter @timwthornton

Enjoying the EU Referendum so far? Finding it full of scintillating, balanced, educational debate and reasoned argument, free from personal politics and ulterior motives? No, me neither. All things considered, I thought we might as well listen to some music. Hearing a few decent tunes never fails to calm me down, keep me sane, reassure me that – in the words of The Killers – everything will be all right.

So I made a playlist. Each tune on the playlist is from a different EU country. Why? Am I trying to send a subliminal message of togetherness and cultural enrichment? Well: subtract the word “subliminal” and you’re pretty much there. However – as a sort of disclaimer – I have no idea what any of the artists on the playlist think about the EU. Perhaps they hate it. Perhaps they love it. Perhaps, like any sensible human, they think it’s flawed but generally a force for good. Who knows? The only thing I would suggest is: in the UK at least, people find it very hard to view the EU with a sense of pride. They look at our gross financial contribution with relentless focus on what we get in return, rather than the genuine cultural, economic and peaceful achievements across the whole continent that our net contributions have assisted. There are bands on this list from all parts of Europe, from countries with wildly differing recent histories, but the one thing all these countries have in common is the vibrancy and vitality of their music scenes – and they’re getting better all the time. I like knowing that our nations are connected in this way. I like going into arts centres in Cornwall, Manchester, Bilbao, Budapest and Gdansk and seeing the same flag on the plaque in the foyer. It’s not everyone’s priority, but it’s one of mine. Anyway, enough… Just listen to the music…

We kick off with the sounds of Monikino Kino, a Czech/Slovakian duo. I love this – it’s soft but nicely spooky. Next we head to sunny Poland with Brodka, who holds the unlikely honour of having given me the whole playlist idea in the first place. I don’t mean she called me up and said, “Hey, dude, what about a playlist?” – but that I felt inspired after first hearing her spellbinding album, Clashes. Check it out, it’s a peach. In fact (contravening all playlist laws) she gets two tracks… and yes: My Name Is Youth is supposed to end like that…

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Monikino Kino. Don’t mess with them.

 

Fink have met Strasbourg’s The Walk a couple of times over the years; it’s nice to hear their time-signature-challenging rock kicking ass on a full album. We’ve also encountered and played a show with Luxembourg’s Monophona, a cool Massive-Attack-esque trio who make great use of their varied strengths and Claudine’s unique voice. I’m not quite sure why Barcelona’s Böira have called a song Glasgowbut I’m picturing some weekender in the city’s West End, a hungover morning followed by another afternoon of hectic partying. The singer’s clearly too damaged to even open his mouth on this one. Oh, wait, they’re an instrumental band. Anyway, it’s a mighty rocking sound, like a slightly more commercial Explosions In The Sky. I wonder if writers compare all instrumental bands to Explosions In The Sky? It must be a bit like saying all a cappella groups sound like The Flying Pickets. Anyway, I digress.

To Holland, and Drive Like Maria, who trick you with a mellow intro and then rock your pants off, unlike Budapest’s iamyank who does a nice line in Boards Of Canada-ish soundscapes set to some perky beats. Yes, I’ve included a British band on the list – the consistently amazing Daughter – partly because, hey, Britain’s still in the EU at the time of writing, and partly because they’re one of the more internationally-flavoured kids on the UK block. Fossa is my favourite track on their recent album Not To Disappear; just for a laugh, try tapping along to the early part of the song but then keep going when the beat changes. If it doesn’t spin you out, you clearly have a very special brain.

My old friend Jannik gave me about a hundred suggestions for a Danish band but I ended up going with his very first suggestion Baby In Vain, a scaldingly hot female rock trio who are apparently all about 12. Compete with that, Savages. And so to Italy, where we find the wonderfully named Nothing For Breakfast. There’s a Fink joke in there somewhere. At the risk of pissing off a large number of Italian people: decent homegrown indie rock isn’t massively easy to come by in Italy. I don’t mean there isn’t any, I just mean it’s not obviously hanging from the trees or served free with a glass of wine in a bar. So the passionate, dynamic Peaceful Corner is a like blast of dirty indie-rock air on a beautiful Tuscan hillside. Yep, I’m going straight to metaphor-Hades for that one.

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Nothing For Breakfast. Nice wallpaper, lads.

 

We played a show once with Austria’s Schmieds Puls and they were a tough act to follow, as well as being jolly nice people. Great to see that Mira and the band are ripping it up over there; their sound is so precise and engaging. Sonically, it couldn’t be further away from Blahalouisiana, from neighbouring Hungary (which gets two bands because I couldn’t make up my mind). I have a soft spot for this song, as Blahalouisiana seem to be aping 80s pop-rock without trying too hard. Great chorus too. Another sharp contrast next: Germany’s Bohren & Der Club Of Gore, recommended to me by our friend Jan who’s always giving us the most insanely varied stuff to enjoy. This is deep… it soothes my soul, man…

Once you’ve been soothed, here come Stockholm’s Sudakistan to promptly unsoothe you. There’s something incredibly exciting about their sound: like a dream-cross between Ty Segall, Ozomatli and Chuck Mosely-era Faith No More. Love it. Of all the bands here, these are the guys I’d most like to see live. Luckily, I’ve already seen Finland’s Teksti-TV 666 live, and it was an overwhelmingly guitarist-laden experience: five of the fuckers. I still love the story of our singer Fin jokingly suggesting that they should perhaps get a sixth guitarist, and one of the band seriously replying, “We have five… that is enough.”

A quick hike through Poland for another Brodka track, then to Latvia for the epicMežaparks by Shipsea, who I suppose is the Latvian James Blake. I wonder if he’s bored of people calling him the Latvian James Blake? Perhaps I should call him the Latvian East India Youth instead? Or maybe the Latvian C. Duncan? Perhaps he’s just the Latvian Shipsea. Ahhh. Got there in the end.

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Shipsea, having a think about something.

 

I was also incapable of deciding on just one Spanish band so we’ve also got the beautiful Dare by Lucia Scansetti, with the slightly weak excuse that Böira are actually from Catalonia. Anyway, Scansetti’s track is so chilled and sweet, I couldn’t resist. Chilled is one thing you couldn’t say about Bazooka, the self-described “psychedelic punk rock juggernaut” from Athens. I can’t improve on that description really, other than to say that it’s nice to hear a drum riff. You hear that? Drum riff. Drummers can write riffs too, you know. Then for our penultimate track we head to Portugal for the stripped vibes of Márcia. I’m loving this: it’s kind of like Portishead’sSour Times without the scuzzy bits.

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Bazooka. Greek mountain in the background.

 

Finally, and appropriately, we return to every Eurosceptic’s favourite punchbag: Belgium. I fucking love Belgium, for all the usual reasons, and I fucking loveSoulwax, who are the band behind the “fictional” group The Shitz, created for the film soundtrack to Belgica. Being a Soulwax fan is often a deeply frustrating experience – they’ve only made three proper Soulwax albums in twenty years, for God’s sake – but when they do produce new stuff it never disappoints. How Longboasts their usual tension and one of their trademark carnivorous scaling chorus riffs. And as they’re the composers of (no exaggeration) one of my top ten favourite rock songs of all time (Too Many DJs) I can forgive them pretty much anything.

So there you have it. I didn’t quite do all 28 EU countries as I initially wanted to, but hopefully there’ll be something here to nourish your poor decision-addled brain as June 23 approaches. I don’t need to tell you that I’ll be voting a very firm Remain, but hey, I’ve done it anyway… what did you expect?

Big thanks to everyone who helped me choose these tracks x

HERE’S THE PLAYLIST AGAIN

In Simon Reynolds’ splendidly comprehensive discussion of pop culture’s obsession with its own backstory Retromania, he states that “every generation as it ages will want to see its musical youth mythologised and memorialised.” Looking at the eras currently being eagerly painted with the nostalgia brush, one decides Reynolds can only be right. Particularly in the realm of indie, where the contemporary-to-vintage transition period is now so short, big hits need never bother leaving the alternative radio playlists anymore: Radio X and their ilk can continue to play Bloc Party, The Libertines, and Red Hot Chili Peppers – everyone’s favourite alternative rock landfill – onwards unto eternity. Vintage pop music is no longer limited to Hard-Rock-Café-o-rama; in the grand church of historical rock, you’re now just as likely to worship Alex Chilton, Ian Curtis, Jonathan Richman, Patti Smith or Shaun Ryder as you are the Eric Claptons, Stings and Led Zeppelins of this world.

Or are you? There exist a few supermassive black holes in the indie universe which exhibit such strong gravitational effects not even Ride can escape. To generalise wildly: if your band hailed from south of Nottingham and your heyday fell between 1989 and 1993, chances are your band are only cool to herds of uncool balding people (like me) and Steve Lamacq. I have become such a premium-strength bore on this topic that a few years ago I even wrote a novel about it, The Alternative Hero. In it, a colouring-book version of myself has a chance encounter with his all-time indie hero Lance Webster – an amalgam of about four non-fictional T-shirt-band heroes of mine – and befriends him to try and figure out why he and his band have been erased from the rock history books. A story of alcohol-fuelled bitterness ensues but, this being 2007/8 kinda time, Lance Webster himself is still wandering around suburban London, living off dwindling savings, occasionally being stopped for an autograph but generally becoming rather depressed and considering a move to the southern hemisphere. Oh, if only he had existed in 2016, there’s an 150% chance that he would be playing the Gigantic Indie All Dayer Vol 3 this Saturday night in Manchester.

Truly, this festival is an opportunity to relive some wonderfully unpretentious glory days. I may sound like I’m denigrating the experience when I say this, but anyone familiar with my knockabout blog will know I mean it with the warmest of sincerity: there is no one playing this bill who is in any danger of having an in-depth feature in Q Magazine or being given their own retrospective BBC Maida Vale gig, and gawd bless every single one of them for that. These bands represent the corners of indie that the travel guides don’t mention: the fleeting but uproariously passionate fads, the unpigeonholeable mashups, the tricky blighters, the enemies of the music press, the crazes that never quite caught fire. But each act had their glorious moment in the alternative rock sunshine, some moments more momentary or momentous than others. Their accomplishments, seeing as they almost universally emerged from damp British rehearsal rooms, were surprisingly lofty: Jesus Jones, for example, had a smacker of a US top-five single (Right Here, Right Now); The Wonder Stuff rocked Glastonbury’s Pyramid stage, headlined Reading and scored four top-ten UK hits, even including the dizzy heights of a number one; and the BMX Bandits once moved Kurt Cobain to utter, “if I could be in any other band, it would be BMX Bandits”.

Each group possesses at least one song that gives me an instant rush of youthful memories: The House Of Love’s Shine On transports me back to the edge of the indie disco, wondering whether to risk chatting up the tie-dye-T-shirted beauty; The Frank and Walters’ After All was my university household’s anthem; the indie-funk of Cud’sPurple Love Balloon for some reason reminds me of heading to Kings Cross to prematurely acquire the latest issue of Melody Maker; Credit To The Nation’s Call It What You Want captures the time I realised the UK could do hip-hop too (not to mention those hilarious occasions when grungeheads on the dancefloor mistakenly thought it was gonna be Teen Spirit); and Bentley Rhythm Ace’s Bentley’s Gonna Sort You Out is when it hit me that there was life beyond Pop Will Eat Itself. All key moments for me, and now all brought scintillatingly back to life on a stage in Manchester this very weekend. There is only one problem. As a musician, the thing that keeps my enthusiasm going is playing fresh material. But at Gigantic 3 if one of the singers announces, “hey, who fancies hearing a new song?”, he or she might as well be saying “hey, who fancies going to the bar for a drink?” So – is this gonna be a issue?

“Not at all,” says The Darling Buds’ Matt Gray. “People will always want to hear their favourites, plus we’ve more than enough old songs to keep it fresh and interesting for us.” Well, that’s good, then. How about some of the spikier guys in town: The Wonder Stuff’s Miles Hunt, for example? He surely must get bored banging out A Wish Away and The Size of A Cow. “No. I can sit on my couch and amuse myself endlessly by playing new songs, and the band can set up and rehearse any time we like to work on our future jazz odyssey. For me the stage is about giving an audience something to enjoy.” Blimey. Interestingly, the only voice of slight doubt comes from self-confessed winners of “nicest band in indie pop” title five years running, The Frank and Walters. “If we just had to play the old stuff we’d crack up,” they sigh. Well, that’s a bit more like it.

It’s not all indie meat’n’potatoes at this alternative banquet. The aforementioned Credit To The Nation and Bentley Rhythm Ace, plus staples of the anarcho/crustie world Back To The Planet, all provide an invigorating bit of variety to the proceedings, blazing the trail for a distinctly 1990s brand of eclecto-post-punk and mashup dance that only fully found its feet in the 2000s. Back To The Planet, particularly, voiced political bugbears with a Crass-esque anti-establishment rage that seems sadly thin on the ground these days, at a time when we could certainly use it.

But the fury, generally speaking, has died down to the point where the backstage area will probably abound with musical mateyness. Again, I’d half-hoped that old rivalries would be reignited: “There’s that fucker who stole our entire booze rider at the Phoenix festival in ’95.” “Yeah, that’s him – he tripped me up on the way to the stage at the Reading After Dark club in 1988.” Sadly not. “I think we managed to stay friends with everyone,” say The Frank and Walters. “Inter-band feuding is a bit pathetic really when you think about it,” add The Darling Buds. “We love to meet and chat with anyone.” Aw, really? Miles from the Wonder Stuff – surely there’ll be a bitter enemy lurking behind a flightcase somewhere? “Unusually for me, no.” Drat!

And what of the performances themselves? Can we expect an enhanced musicianship, honed to virtuoso-perfection by years of noodling and chin-stroking? “No,” says the Buds’ Matt Gray. “We’re still not that technically gifted. We’re never going to be Steely Dan.” The Frank and Walters, similarly, show little enthusiasm for this improving-with-age business. “Sometimes not knowing what to do can take you to some weird and wonderful places.”

Speaking of weird and wonderful places, I find it slightly incongruous that, for a 90s festival that so assiduously avoids anything baggy, Gigantic 3 takes place in Manchester. But then, with bands coming from such far-flung locales as Wiltshire, Cork and Glasgow, Manchester is kind of in the middle. Oh, and just in case you’re missing any small amount of Mancunian influence, DJing afterwards is everyone’s favourite musical-courtcase victor, Mike Joyce from The Smiths. I myself can feel my hangover brewing even as we speak, born from a mixture of snakebite & black, leaping about the place to S*M*A*S*H in the afternoon, and a dodgy Wilmslow Road curry afterwards. Bring it on.

Gigantic Indie All Dayer Vol 3 takes place this Saturday, 28 May, in and around the Manchester Academy

 

CHECK OUT MY SPOTIFY PLAYLIST

We live, my friends, in dark times. Government cuts hit hard, while those in charge seem unable to portray themselves as anything other than pocket-lining toffs or painfully old-fashioned dullards. Her Majesty’s Opposition is presided over by a well-meaning scruff who seems perpetually at risk from being ice-picked by his jealous parliamentary colleagues. Industrial strikes abound, wars of various sorts rage away in the Middle East, nationalist parties gain popularity, and to top all the fun, a sparklingly intelligent Democratic US president is on the verge of being replaced by an over-coiffured, dangerous Republican thicko. Hey, wait a minute. Haven’t we been here before? About… ooh… 36 years ago?

…….

READ FULL ARTICLE ON HUFFINGTON POST HERE…

 

In 1988, a school friend lent me Electric by The Cult, and my love of alternative, or indie, rock was born. With the assistance of my publication of choice, Melody Maker, my eyes were opened to an increasingly large list of often ridiculously-named bands. The movement’s zenith for me will always be the early 1990s; but time (i.e. the press) has not been kind to the memory of the indie music from this period. Sometimes, one is given the impression that the only indie prior to Britpop was composed and performed upon the instruments of The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and The Smiths. Not so. Here, then, are 10 records to which I would draw your urgent attention, accompanied by a cheeky little Spotify playlist including all but one of the songs….

READ THE FULL ARTICLE ON HUFFINGTON POST