This Is Hardcore
The context: Jarvis Cocker watched in bemusement as his band put out one unsuccessful album after another in the '80s. But a funny thing happened in 1995—Pulp became the biggest band in the UK on the strength of the irresistible Different Class, a catchy, witty, class-conscious album that won hearts throughout the land. There was only one problem: Cocker had nowhere to go but down. And down he went, fueled by drugs, the frustrations of his long-sought-after fame, and the departure of longtime bandmate Russell Senior.
The greatness: With the 1998 album This Is Hardcore, Cocker and the band found a way to turn that chaos into a sordid, redemptive, uncompromising act of self-examination. Layers of sound and distortion replace the club-friendly beats. Morbid lyrics replace the dry wit of past efforts, and, as Cocker predicted on the album-opening "The Fear" ("you're going to like it / but not a lot") it cooled Pulp's popularity. Yet the sum effect is of someone tunneling through to the other side of darkness rather than getting lost in it.
Defining song: "You look like me / but please don't turn out like me," Cocker sings to his son on "A Little Soul." He borrows the bassline from Motown, but the sentiment comes from the wells of doubt and self-hatred that most people rarely make public: "Wish I could say I stood up for you and fought for what was right," Cocker half-whispers, "but I never did. I just wore my trenchcoat and stayed out every single night." It's a postcard from the bottom, which also happens to be the point from which there's nowhere to go but up.