Twenty-five years ago, on Nov. 19, 1991, Scottish jangle-pop group Teenage Fanclub released their third album, Bandwagonesque, on Creation Records; about a month later, Spin boldly declared it Album of the Year, instead of the more obvious candidate, Nirvana’s landmark Nevermind. (Other passed-over ’91 contenders: R.E.M.’s Out of Time, Primal Scream’s Screamadelica, and My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless.) It was a controversial decision that generated much flak, and in the magazine’s 15th anniversary issue in 2000 (in a self-deprecating section called “Critical License” that also questioned a 1990 Spin article praising Mike Tyson as “a man of intelligence, wit, and insight”), the editors retroactively mocked that year-end decree. The anniversary issue bizarrely dismissed Bandwagonesque as “forgettable,” and pointed out that Nevermind had actually topped Spin’s Best Albums of the ‘90s countdown, while Bandwagonesque hadn’t even placed on that list.
But really, Spin was right the first time around. Then-Spin editor Mark Blackwell was completely correct in ’91, when he wrote that Bandwagonesque “would be hard to equal in any year.” Perhaps the album didn’t shift the zeitgeist needle the way Kurt Cobain and company did, but just like Nevermind, Bandwagonesque still sounds exhilarating and relevant in 2016. Bandwagonesque wasn’t just one of the best alt-rock albums of 1991, or the ‘90s, or even the past quarter-century. It’s one of the most brilliant powerpop albums of all time, an impeccable opus of songcraftsmanship from start to finish — from the epically feedback-laden six-minute opener “The Concept” and the irresistibly groovy two-minute glam stomper “What You Do to Me,” to sweet, unaffected pop gems like the gorgeously winsome “Alcoholiday” and guileless, fanboyish crush ode “Metal Baby.”
“It was pretty crazy,” Teenage Fanclub founder Norman Blake told me a few years after Bandwagonesque’s release, addressing the backlash just as TFC had finally started to establish themselves as Britpop elder statesmen with their critically embraced fifth album, Grand Prix. “But we think the people who are buying our records now are buying them because they like our music, not because we became flavor of the month… I think people think we’ve come into our own and we’re doing our own thing. You know, [in Britain] Bandwagonesque was kind of slagged off. They said it was rip-off of Big Star or whatever.”
Later in 2000, the same year that Spin rescinded its 1991 praise, Blake spoke again about those endless, if understandable, Big Star/Teenage Fanclub comparisons. “That was funny — that Big Star thing. I think when we did Bandwagonesque, someone asked what we’d been listening to, and at that point we’d been listening to Sister Lovers a lot, and we happened to mention it. A guy called Paul Lester, he’s one of these soundbite guys you hear on the radio all the time, he asked us, ‘What are you listening to?’ And we said, ‘This group called Big Star.’ And he said, ‘I’ve never heard of ’em.’ Fair enough. About a month later he gave us a slagging-off, and he was talking about ‘the seminal Big Star,’ as if he’d known about them for a long time! We thought it was really funny. We told that story quite a lot at the time, and he hasn’t talked to us since then! But it’s true.”
The comparisons were rather apt, of course, not only because TFC’s three songsmiths (Blake, Raymond McGinley, and Gerard Love) exhibited a nearly Alex Chilton-esque level of songwriting prowess and an obvious fondness for the soft-rockin’ ’70s, but because their sunny melodies and loved-up lyrics often evoked the wide-eyed sentimentality of Big Star classics like “Thirteen” and “September Gurls.” So it could be theorized that Bandwagonesque failed to connect on a mainstream level in 1991 because, while its crunchy/fuzzy riffage, somnolent vocals, and ironic song titles were oh-so-‘90s, the album was still out of step in a decade lyrically dominated — at least in its first half, and in the alternative rock sphere — by angst and self-loathing. (Think Radiohead’s “Creep,” Green Day’s “Basket Case” and “Longview,” Beck’s “Loser,” and the bulk of Nirvana’s catalog.)
Blake admitted that “it’s always been unfashionable [to play happy songs], especially for young bands; a lot of young bands are sort of aggressive.” But Teenage Fanclub never wanted to hop on the grunge bandwagon (no pun intended). Blake said in 1995 of grunge: “It’s boring… I can’t relate to stuff like [Stone Temple Pilots’] ‘flies in the Vas-o-line.’ I always thought Kurt Cobain wrote songs about his difficult life — he was really a mixed-up guy, and he wrote about that. And it was fine, because you believed him. It wasn’t put-on… But I’m a romantic, love-song kind of guy. It’s just what I write about. I don’t have a heroin problem; I don’t plan to have one. I won’t be writing any songs about it.”
Blake hadn’t changed his stance on the matter in 2000 — when nu-metal had taken over — further griping, “Those [nu-metal] bands aren’t angst-ridden. They’re just trying to make a lot of money. Angst sells! Like Slipknot, one of the lines in one of their songs is ‘I want to slit your throat and f— the wound.’ That’s just nonsense. Just rubbish. I can’t imagine any of them are in any way tortured at all, you know?”
Teenage Fanclub have gone on to release standout album after standout album of shiny, happy, summery, harmony-laden folk-pop euphoria — including this year’s Here, their 11th full-length and first album in six years, which cracked the top 10 in Britain. (Perhaps at this point, they should change their name to Grown-Up Fanclub.) But it is Bandwagonesque that remains the underrated band’s ultimate masterpiece, a rare album that sounds very much of its time and yet is so utterly its own thing. It may not have made Spin’s best-of-the-’90s list, but it’s in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, and 25 years later, its breezier, janglier sound is rightly credited as ushering in the classic era of mid-’90s Britpop.
“Mark Blackwell should feel no shame choosing Bandwagonesque 1991’s Album of the Year,” Spin reader Chris Nadeau wrote in the magazine’s July 2000 issue. “It just reminds me of the third British invasion that should have happened, but was eradicated by an inferior, flannel-clad trip to hell.”