Before there was Britpop, there was Suede. Way back in ’92, Blur were already around, having dropped an album no one much cared about. Pulp had been around forever, long enough to have had their shot and already lost it (they’d get another) — but again, no one cared. And then Suede appeared from nowhere like some kind of godsend: without releasing a single note of recorded music they were suddenly on the cover of Melody Maker, loudly described as THE BEST NEW BAND IN BRITAIN. Well, hell. People sat up and paid attention.
Suede materialized at a time when the whole world was fixated on Seattle. Madchester was long gone. Shoegaze burned bright for a hot second before burning out entirely. For the first time in ages, Britain had no scene. Meanwhile, grunge was busy scorching the earth in a wave of flannel and bratty American angst. Britpop, at this point, didn’t exist in any sense. Gentler, less cocksure progenitors like the La’s and the House Of Love were already fading from memory. As much as the band would later deny any association with the genre, it was Suede’s distinctly British take on glam rock that would kick the whole thing off.
Founding members Brett Anderson and Justine Frischmann met at university, fell in love hard enough to think it was real, and dreamt up the idea of starting a band. After finding lead guitarist Bernard Butler via an NME advertisement, the group slowly found their sound — they tapped the literary, high-minded culture of their university surroundings to tell impressionistic stories about the grit and grime of Anderson’s London upbringing as the son of a cab driver. Songs were dark, openly sexual, and pretentious, but Anderson had the voice and Butler had a gift for guitar — it was a natural fit. Drawing heavily on fellow countrymen David Bowie and the Smiths, Suede would birth something new in stark opposition to the noise coming from across the Atlantic.
Justine Frischmann wouldn’t stick with Suede for long; by the time the band was gaining traction she had broken up with Brett (while continuing to live with him), and was dating Damon Albarn of Blur — igniting the first of many legendary Britpop feuds. (Check out Michael’s excellent remembrance of Modern Life Is Rubbish to see what that meant for Blur.) In all likelihood, the tension in the wake of Justine’s departure would drive both bands to greater success: through painful inspiration and petty, cock-measuring competitiveness. Justine would find her own success with Elastica about a year later.
Reduced to a four-piece, Suede found their center and vaulted into the limelight. Signing a record deal just before their Melody Maker appearance, they capitalized on the fame with the release of several singles that got exponentially better, starting with “The Drowners,” “Metal Mickey,” and “Animal Nitrate.” The headlines continued to pour in, at a level nowadays reserved for A-list talent and reality-TV stars. Almost immediately the world learned of friction within the creative axis of the band, largely related to Anderson’s recreational drug use (and Butler’s general abstinence), and Butler’s obsessive tendencies in the studio. They held it together throughout the release of the band’s self-titled debut — which was so heavily hyped that it went gold on its second day of release — though tensions came to a boil during their early American tours. Looking back, the pace of the band’s initial rise and subsequent disintegration is staggering.
Nothing went right in America. Suede predated the Anglophilia that would eventually hit the States by a few years; interest was muted at best. For their second tour, they were forced to switch places with their opening act, The Cranberries, who had recently scored an MTV hit. Bernard and Brett grew increasingly distant over the course of the tour; when the time came to record a second album, they were barely speaking. Meanwhile, a lawsuit from an obscure lounge singer meant the band had to change their name for the American market to “The London Suede,” which the band despised.
Then, Britpop arrived: Blur, Oasis, and Pulp were suddenly famous, taking advantage of the “Britishness” Suede reintroduced just months before. Suede reacted immediately, distancing themselves from the pack, denouncing the term Britpop outright, and retreating inward to write an album full of dark, depressive ballads. Unable to reconcile with the rest of the band, Butler left shortly before 1994′s Dog Man Star was finished, leaving the public with the false impression that the band was breaking up. The band, however, replaced Butler almost immediately — recruiting teenage wunderkind Richard Oakes on guitar and soldiering on. Dog Man Star was a brilliant, emotionally devastating record; due to public perception of the state of the band, the overall dark tone, and MTV’s refusal to air the video to lead single “We Are The Pigs” (too violent), it barely sold.
The band underwent a metamorphosis after Butler’s departure. Third album Coming Up saw a move toward lighter fare; they still couldn’t crack the American audience, but the album was a monstrous success in the UK, eventually selling more than a million and a half copies. A year after the release of Coming Up, they released a double-disc B-sides compilation titled Sci-Fi Lullabies, which was (somehow) just as strong as their first two albums.
Anderson’s drug use had always ranged from persistent to extreme; somewhere after Coming Up things took a turn for the dark. Between experimentation with everything under the sun and full-blown crack and heroin addiction, he was losing focus. By the time Suede resurfaced in 1999 with new material, the creative magic was dissipating. Head Music was as much a dance album as it was a drug album, but for the first time the band felt forgettable.
A few years passed while Anderson kicked his habit. Unfortunately by the time they reconvened in 2002 for a new album public interest was waning. A New Morning was too little too late, a look to the past without any semblance of fire, just another shade of brown from a band past their prime. Suede hung it up shortly thereafter. Anderson and Butler briefly collaborated as the Tears, producing one half-decent record before Anderson moved on to a mellow solo career. Suede remained dormant until 2010, reuniting for a handful of shows before releasing an incredibly strong album earlier this year. New album Bloodsports turned out unnaturally potent, sounding more in line with Dog Man Star and the debut than anything they’d done since.
Trying to condense a catalog like this into 10 “best” songs is, by nature, really fucking difficult. The first two albums are essentially perfect; you could make a valid case for any combination of songs off either, never mind the gold buried on the B-sides album. The third record is almost as strong — unfortunately it gets short shrift here, despite containing some of the band’s most famous singles, which barely appear on this list. You’ll probably be pissed that one of your favorites has been left out. Trust me: I love ’em all, too. Chime in and share your favorites in the comment section, and don’t forget to tell me exactly what I got wrong.
10. “Filmstar” (from Coming Up, 1996)
Suede’s third album ushered in their second act: the dynamic, dysfunctional duo of Brett Anderson and Bernard Butler had just dissolved in a puff of smoke and acrimony, leaving Anderson on his own, stripped of his usual foil. Enter 17-year-old guitarist and Suede mega-fan Richard Oakes. Amazingly, Oakes slipped into Butler’s shoes with ease, in spite of his age. Coming Up saw the band reacting against the sound of their previous album: Gone were the mythic bummers of Dog Man Star, in their place muscular glam rave-ups. If it felt lighter, that’s because it was: Anderson described the album saying:
“I wanted it to be a complete turnover from the last album, which was very dark and dank… I wanted it to be communicative and understandable. Pop music generally has to be pretty dumb, I think. And I’ve had my little affair with the avant-garde. It’s not as exciting as pop music.”
The singles were all varying degrees of huge for Suede, making it their best-selling album by far. The fifth and final single, “Filmstar,” is all spit and swagger, a mix of crunchy T. Rex power chords and snotty ’90s rock (it always makes me think of Garbage for some reason), making it the biggest, dumbest, strongest song on the album. Anderson gets great mileage out of his favorite lyrical trick — falling back on words that rhyme with gasoline — digging deep to sing about… terylene. That’s polyester, apparently.
9. “Snowblind” (from Bloodsports, 2013)
The most impressive thing about Suede’s sixth and latest album isn’t so much that it sounds like classic Suede … rather, it is classic Suede. Teenage guitar prodigy Richard Oakes is a teenager no more, but the dude sounds as young as ever — even as he funnels his energy into material closer in tone to the band’s first two albums, which he didn’t even play on. Who knows what he’s done in the intervening years to come back this fiery, but it’s the kick in the ass Brett Anderson needs to show the fuck up for the first time since Coming Up. The second track on the album, “Snowblind,” isn’t a single — it’s just an album track that happens to kick ridiculous ass. Virtually everything on the album is solid, far better than the half-baked, sober-living poptimism of A New Morning or the debilitated mess that was Head Music – but “Snowblind” is a beast all its own. The guitars crackle with life, Anderson rediscovers the intensity he’d misplaced, and the band feels electric again. They’re back where they’re supposed to be, doing the work they’re meant to do — even if they’ll never see the spotlight again. Glad to have you back, boys.
8. “Europe Is Our Playground” (from Sci-Fi Lullabies, 1997)
“Run with me baby, let your hair down. Through every station, through every town. Run with me baby, let’s take a chance.”
A synth drifts in, warbling along the edge of your hearing like a fogbank gently touching shore. The wail of a siren resolves into a sustained guitar, classic eBow trickery used to moody effect. By the time Brett sings the opening line we’re right there with him, running. To call it evocative sells it short: This is a sonic still-life of a specific place and time, lyrics painting the broad strokes while the instruments color in the details. It’s a love song haunted by the history of an entire continent, intimacy blown up to an international scale. I picture these guys sitting down to write a Berlin song in the mold of their hero, David Bowie — and there is a surface resemblance here to “Heroes” — but Suede go one further, channeling the concrete oppression of the Eastern Bloc with droning synths that suffocate the melody throughout the extended, faltering outro. In terms of mood, the song feels closer to the dark and dreary Dog Man Star, but it was actually written after Bernard Butler had left, during the sessions for Coming Up. It’s darker than anything else on that record, and so perfect it hurts.
7. “My Dark Star” (from Sci-Fi Lullabies, 1997)
If you need proof Suede were on a tear in the mid-’90s, just look at Sci-Fi Lullabies, probably the best B-sides album ever released. As good as any of their albums proper, it’s a treasure trove of lost songs, each more perfect than the last. There’s something romantic about the idea of leaving a band’s best material to be discovered by their most passionate fans, the ones willing to buy every single, or a double-disc collection of seemingly ’throwaway’ tracks like this. It’s unlikely the band planned it that way — I’m guessing they simply had too many good songs — but the unintended result is a deeper, more intimate relationship with the material you end up unearthing on your own. “My Dark Star” is a classic sleeper — warmth in place of high drama, slow seduction wrapped around a tentative melody that swirls and swells, billowing outward like a plume of smoke. By the time the track cracks your consciousness — and it will, given time — you’re barely aware how wholly you’ve been consumed.
6. “Killing Of A Flash Boy” (from Sci-Fi Lullabies, 1997)
“Killing Of A Flash Boy” is that rarest of rare things: a B-side that actually made it into the band’s celebrated canon. After years as a live staple, it’s evolved into one of the all-time fan favorites; they still play it live to this day. Recorded during the Dog Man Star sessions, it somehow failed to make the cut for that album, instead appearing as the B-side to “We Are The Pigs.” Both songs found Suede in a violent, dangerous mood: The verses on “Flash Boy” stomp like T. Rex doing a death march, until the chorus uncoils with a slippery, serpentine lead. Brett croons a batch of allusive, violent nonsense that gets nastier and sillier than most bands would dare, waxing ecstatic about death and heavy metal, imploring us to “think of the sea as you murder me.” Silliness aside, hooks like these can tear through you like tissue.
5. “Metal Mickey” (from Suede, 1993)
There’s that strut we love. The band’s second single released in advance of their first album, “Metal Mickey” was the guitar-first pelvic thrust the band needed to secure their place in the limelight — it hit #17 in the UK charts and actually made a tiny dent on the modern rock charts in the States (the only time they’d so much as sniff stateside success). Supposedly written about KatieJane Garside of Daisy Chainsaw, “Metal Mickey” pairs the blistering confidence of youth with a swaggering hook. “She sells heart, she sells meat,” might be one of the stranger choruses to break through to the masses, but that’s all part of the Suede magic. Bernard Butler broke the mold here: His guitar alternates from jangle to squeal, layering arpeggios on top of the kind of fuzz-faced leads that get guitar geeks drooling (he was probably using a Colorsound Tonebender fuzz pedal here, though debate still rages). Glorious stuff.
4. “We Are The Pigs” (from Dog Man Star, 1994) (1994)
If the first Suede album was nothing but sex, drugs, and seedy glamour, the second marked a retreat from all that fun stuff. Instead they gave us depression, pain, and … apocalypse? Hearing “We Are The Pigs” for the first time, the band suddenly felt dangerous, less likely to spit in your face than press a knife to your throat. The chorus read like an indictment and an apathetic sigh at the same time — implicating one and all in the death of the world as we know it, refusing to do anything but run headfirst towards oblivion.
“We are the pigs. We are the swine. We are the stars of the firing line.”
Anderson’s imagery is stark, hellish stuff, but he sings it with the same sense of tragic romanticism he throws at everything he touches — which brings the song to life.
“And as the smack cracks at the window, you wake up with a gun in your mouth. Oh let the nuclear wind blow away my sins, and I’ll stay at home in my house.”
Dog Man Star drew heavily on Bowie, more so than any of their other material — here they lift the crumbling future of Diamond Dogs and the fabricated doom-drama of Ziggy Stardust, but without the wink and smile Bowie would have given us. Instead they lean a somber intro against crackling, deadpan verses and a fire-breathing chorus. Horn stabs add just a touch of Suede sleaze while Bernard Butler does his best to remind us he was the best (and most under-appreciated) guitarist of the ’90s by drenching everything in lead guitar. His solo here ranks among his finest. Stir it all together, and we’ve got a song for the ages: “Five Years” remade and remodeled for 1994. Sadly, the world wasn’t interested. MTV actually banned the video, on the grounds that all the violence and cross-burning was disturbing. Pity.
3. “Pantomime Horse” (from Suede, 1993)
Let yourself drift. Chords shimmer like a skyline reflecting off the surface of a lake, ethereal and watery; your pulse slows to the gentle oscillation, pulling you along as notes and melody gradually take form. Suede excel at ballads; always have. “Pantomime Horse” is the quintessential album track, and it’s the closest they’d ever come to a power ballad in the traditional sense. Bernard’s guitar eases you in; Brett walks you through the initial verses; the rhythm section increases in intensity as layers of guitar click into place to build and climb, until … the sky cracks wide. Bernard Butler’s genius suddenly becomes clear as he unleashes some of the most emotionally explosive guitar playing you’ve ever heard. Brett’s crooning his heart out — “Have you ever tried it that way?” — and you know he’s singing about sex or drugs, or sex ON drugs, and the song takes control of your body the way either of those things would. Falling smack dab in the middle of an album loaded with stomping glam and everything else, “Pantomime Horse” gave a taste of the full range and promise Suede had from the very start, showing miles more depth than any of their contemporaries. It doesn’t get much better.
2. “The Wild Ones” (from Dog Man Star, 1994)
Brett Anderson was always a hopeless romantic — never more so than here. Sidestepping the shock and raunch baked into so much of their catalog, “The Wild Ones” is a simple plea for a lover to “stay” — yet it’s loaded with so much hurt and longing that it stings as much as anything. Line after line, Brett sheds the oblique imagery of which he’s so fond to embrace a newfound honesty, in the process delivering the most straightforward, gorgeous lyrics of his career. “We’ll shine like the morning and sin in the sun.” Even a sneaky line about a morning fuck session is rendered with warmth and heart. Dog Man Star is mostly remembered for its depressed excess, but “The Wild Ones” found a way to rein it all in, finding strength in balance: Bernard’s expressive guitar eases back under a bed of strings and piano, to the point you barely realize how careful the arrangement has been built; Brett could easily let loose, but he holds back in service of the song. And what a song it is.
1. “Animal Nitrate” (from Suede, 1993)
I don’t know how they got away with it. Hell, Brett Anderson doesn’t either. Recounting the song’s history to Q magazine:
I had this schoolboy-ish fantasy to sneak an overtly sexual song with the framework of pop. I was amazed it got daytime radio play, considering the title is a play on amyl nitrate.
Turns out it was the perfect title: The song hit like a head rush, pure intoxication with Butler’s swirling verse guitar setting up the best chorus they ever wrote. “What does it take to turn you on?” Framed as it is within the context of male-on-male domestic abuse, the band’s most overtly sexual song also became its darkest. But it was the synthesis of startling imagery and pure pop that made it one of the best songs of the ’90s. Paired with a video set in a seedy, crushed-velvet sex pad tucked inside a dreary, eminently-British council house, “Animal Nitrate” was the apotheosis of everything Suede were about, essentially the perfect contradiction: drugs and the desperation of a fleeting rush, love marred by tragedy, violence for the sake of sex. Released as their third single, the song shot to the top 10 in the UK, simultaneously capitalizing on and validating the early wave of hype, tilting the world one step closer to the inevitable crush of Britpop that would come just a few months later. For one shining moment Suede were the best band in the world, and you can hear it right here.
Listen to this playlist on Spotify here.