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If the Orb's 1995 release Orbus Terrarum was an extended meditation on the earthbound, the band's follow-up in Orblivion rises from the muck of primordial ectoplasm for a guided tour of late 20th century Western culture's more paranoid face. From the Cold War (the album kicks off with Joseph McCarthy's intoning of the immortal invective "Are you now, or have you ever been...") to the pre-millennial ranting of David Thewlis' warped, apocalyptic monologue from Mike Leigh's Naked ("The bar code! The ubiquitous bar code!"), Orblivion does for post-industrial, turn of the century mania what earlier albums such as The Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld and U.F.Orb did for aliens and flying saucers. Like the previous record -- an effusive mix of sprawling environmental textures, clanging, treated percussion, and humorous, trainspottery samples -- Orblivion brings with it another adjustment in mood, combining elements of downbeat, electro, and drum'n'bass with dense, soupy amalgams of treated electronics and shimmering rhythms. Orblivion also evidences a renewed interest in the more immediately engaging, upbeat pop of "Perpetual Dawn"- and "Little Fluffy Clouds"-era Orb, with a deeper, more embellished sound marked, in all likelihood, by the first full-time contributions from former engineer Andy Hughes (who replaced Kris Weston after the latter's departure in 1994). Dub is still the organizing principle of the Orb's music, however, and whatever one's opinion of the actual album (reactions are likely to range from "genius" to "aimless") the production is undeniably amazing. [Island's 2008 U.K. edition included a nine-track bonus disc of remixes.]
The Prodigy's response to the sweeping legislation and crackdown on raves contained in 1994's Criminal Justice Bill is an effective statement of intent. Pure sonic terrorism, Music for the Jilted Generation employs the same rave energy that charged their debut, Experience, up the charts in Britain, but yokes it to a cause other than massive drug intake. Compared to their previous work, the sound is grubbier and less reliant on samples; the effect moved the Prodigy away from the American-influenced rave and acid house of the past and toward a uniquely British vision of breakbeat techno that was increasingly allied to the limey invention of drum'n'bass. As on Experience, there are so many great songs here that first-time listeners would be forgiven for thinking of a greatest-hits compilation instead of a proper studio album. After a short intro, the shattering of panes of glass on "Break & Enter" catapults the album ahead with a propulsive flair. Each of the four singles -- "Voodoo People," "Poison," "No Good (Start the Dance)," and "One Love" -- are excellent, though album tracks like "Speedway" and "Their Law" (with help from Pop Will Eat Itself) don't slip up either. If Experience seemed like an excellent fluke, Music for the Jilted Generation is the album that announced the Prodigy were on the charts to stay.
Modern Life Is Rubbish established Blur as the heir to the archly British pop of the Kinks, the Small Faces, and the Jam, but its follow-up, Parklife, revealed the depth of that transformation. Relying more heavily on Ray Davies' seriocomic social commentary, as well as new wave, Parklife runs through the entire history of post-British Invasion Brit-pop in the course of 16 songs, touching on psychedelia, synth pop, disco, punk, and music hall along the way. Damon Albarn intended these songs to form a sketch of British life in the mid-'90s, and it's startling how close he came to his goal; not only did the bouncy, disco-fied "Girls & Boys" and singalong chant "Parklife" become anthems in the U.K., but they inaugurated a new era of Brit-pop and lad culture, where British youth celebrated their country and traditions. The legions of jangly, melodic bands that followed in the wake of Parklife revealed how much more complex Blur's vision was. Not only was their music precisely detailed -- sound effects and brilliant guitar lines pop up all over the record -- but the melodies elegantly interwove with the chords, as in the graceful, heartbreaking "Badhead." Surprisingly, Albarn, for all of his cold, dispassionate wit, demonstrates compassion that gives these songs three dimensions, as on the pathos-laden "End of a Century," the melancholy Walker Brothers tribute "To the End," and the swirling, epic closer, "This Is a Low." For all of its celebration of tradition, Parklife is a thoroughly modern record in that it bends genres and is self-referential (the mod anthem of the title track is voiced by none other than Phil Daniels, the star of Quadrophenia). And, by tying the past and the present together, Blur articulated the mid-'90s Zeitgeist and produced an epoch-defining record. [EMI's deluxe 2012 double-disc expansion of Parklife contains the 1994 album on the first disc and a host of B-sides and rarities on the second. Parklife is where Blur hit their stride and this is evident even throughout the B-sides collected here. Sure, there are songs that are proud throwaways -- Graham Coxon's spiteful, boozy pisstake "Red Necks" and Alex James' tweaked twee "Alex's Song" -- but there are also moments of shivering beauty, as in the Ziggy Stardust homage "Peter Panic," the gleefully nasty disco "People in Europe," and the barbed pop of "Threadneedle Street." To these B-sides acoustic versions of "Jubilee" (a song that does not easily lend itself to such an arrangement), "Parklife," and "End of a Century" are added, rounding out a generous and entertaining bonus disc.]