Founded by former Creation Records employee Jeff Barrett in 1990, Heavenly Recordings was initially an outlet for Barrett’s love of the then-burgeoning acid house movement. After releasing a few underground dance singles in their first year as a label, Heavenly went on to help launch the careers of Manic Street Preachers and Saint Etienne (the latter might be thought of as the flagship band of the label’s early days).
Over the next 25 years, Heavenly remained involved in seemingly every major movement that arose, from mid-’90s trip hop and Britpop to the garage rock revival that followed. The resulting discography is eclectic without feeling arbitrary and also doubles as a fascinating chronology of UK indie’s endless permutations.
The releases highlighted here have kept Heavenly vital through one era after another. Owing to the label’s longevity and reliably solid output, a rule of one album per artist was put into play.
10. The Magic Numbers – The Magic Numbers
Given that Heavenly’s stable has included artists as prone to pop star gestures as Doves, The Vines, and Saint Etienne, it’s a bit startling to consider that the label’s best-selling LP is The Magic Numbers. Weightless and rather conventional in its prettiness, the album pillages the songbooks of Stuart Murdoch, Sufjan Stevens, and the more conservative side of ’60s pop and folk. Yet in 2005, there was something novel about the modesty of this quartet’s music, which came across as a mellow rejoinder to the knottier charms of mid-2000s freak folk. And humble as The Magic Numbers was, it now appears to have presaged the earnest, homespun direction indie folk would soon take, both for better (Fleet Foxes) and worse (Mumford & Sons, The Lumineers).
09. The Vines — Highly Evolved
More than a decade after the fact, it’s easy enough to see that The Vines weren’t — as some turn-of-the-millennium UK journalists suggested — rock saviors. Nor were they boneheaded opportunists cashing in on the garage revival of the early 2000s, as other critics claimed (to put it another way, Is This It this isn’t, but Highly Evolved sure holds up better than anything Jet ever recorded). This 2002 effort showcased the sludgy Aussie band’s surprisingly savvy understanding of psych-punk history. Nirvana has regularly been cited as a reference point, but the best pop moments from The Vines’ debut are indebted to Paul McCartney while the most violent songs belong to the lineage that began with The Seeds, Stooges, and MC5.
08. Toy — Toy
Any attempt to describe Toy’s aesthetic ends up sounding like a laundry list of neo-psych and shoegaze revival clichés; motorik beats are filched from Can and Neu!, the tidal rise and fall of feedback is immediately reminiscent of Ride, zombified vocals suggest J. Spaceman at his most detached, and the fastidiously stoned arrangements aim for a Pink Floyd-like grandeur. Yet there’s no denying that these mind-blown elements fit together like separate pieces of a tie-dyed jigsaw. Gleaming, slinky miniatures such as “Colours Running Out” and “Motoring” are effective nuggets, but Toy’s self-titled debut truly lifts off during the epics “Kopter” and “Dead & Gone”, which ooze lysergic textures and opiated cool.
07. Temples — Sun Structures
Unlike such latter-day psych-pop masterworks such as Lonerism, The Soft Bulletin, and Merriweather Post Pavilion, Sun Structures displays zero interest in exploring modern neuroses. Reserving the right to be gloriously pompous and bombastic, Temples’ first full-length is a work of pure escapism that indulges in every Summer of Love trope imaginable. Forget about emotional substance — Sun Structures is all about full-on immersion in an idealized psychedelic era that only ever existed in Temples’ collective consciousness. Utterly refusing the present, the band employ contemporary production methods solely to help sustain their intoxicating, paisley-tinted vision. You could question the motives behind making an album so unashamedly retrograde, but you’d probably be better served by turning off your mind, relaxing, and floating downstream.
06. Edwyn Collins — Home Again
Though he recorded Home Again in 2004, Edwyn Collins was forced to shelve the album after enduring two cerebral hemorrhages. After three long years of recovery, Collins was able to satisfactorily mix the record, which was finally released in 2007. Backstories this unfortunate tend to overshadow albums and can cause listeners to approach the music itself with a blend of pity and trepidation. Thankfully, Collins is too lithe and self-aware to be ensnared by such traps, and the quicksilver Home Again manages to juke past the issue entirely. A restless work that sidesteps from synthetic soul-pop to autumnal balladry, the album maintains a swaggering gravity throughout its runtime. Best of all is “You’ll Never Know”, a valentine to Bowie’s blue-eyed soul and Collins’ own halcyon days in Orange Juice.
05. East Village — Drop Out
The pristine pop of East Village somehow managed to come too early and too late. The band’s fruitless 1986—1991 run roughly coincided with the respective implosion and disintegration of spiritual brethren The Smiths and Felt. Likewise, East Village’s sole full-length album, Drop Out, ultimately released post-breakup in 1993, silently hit shelves just before the shoegaze haze cleared to make way for Britpop’s greatest successes. A work of folk rock classicism that worships at the alters of Dylan, Rubber Soul, and The Byrds, Drop Out was left stranded between epochs that could’ve been favorable to the record’s immaculate jangle and chime. The album isn’t merely underrated — it’s virtually unheard (a 2013 reissue has seemingly done little to secure East Village any kind of cult following). Unfortunately, it remains the best-kept secret in Heavenly’s rich back catalogue.
04. Beth Orton — Central Reservation
At its worst, Beth Orton’s slightly overrated breakthrough album, Trailer Park, came off like overly polite trip hop for people who were put off by Portishead’s moodiness. Central Reservation, on the other hand, largely abandons the post-modern posturing of Orton’s earlier work and settles into a folk-jazz groove that’s a natural fit for the singer-songwriter’s smoky voice and plaintive compositions. Carole King (“Sweetest Decline”), Tim Buckley (“Love Like Laughter”), and Joni Mitchell (“Stolen Car”, the title track) haunt the record, Orton’s soul-on-sleeve performances have a poignancy all their own. If Trailer Park was something like her Odelay, Central Reservation is undoubtedly Orton’s Sea Change.
03. Manic Street Preachers — “Motown Junk” & “You Love Us”
Released during the first half of 1991, Manic Street Preachers’ second and third singles offer brief, pulsating snapshots of the band’s early vitality, before tragedy, rock mythology, and legitimate stardom came to define their narrative. These dual statements of purpose sought to align the Preachers with heroes such as The Clash and Iggy Pop while taking aim at the sacred cows the band so clearly distained. “Motown Junk” cribs a call-to-arms from Public Enemy, defiles the memory of John Lennon, and wages war with the eponymous Detroit label; “You Love Us”, meanwhile, is a glam shout-along that launches a terroristic lyrical assault on anyone who will listen before riding out on the “Lust for Life” beat. Coupled with punk poet Richey Edwards’ headline-grabbing exploits, the singles were powerful enough to cement the Preachers’ reputation as ruthless iconoclasts.
02. Doves — The Last Broadcast
With The Last Broadcast, Doves attempted to condense the entire history of UK guitar pop into one sprawling album. It’s all there in the record’s epic sweep, from the warmth of early Kinks to Radiohead’s progressive fusion of organic and electronic textures. Building on the advances of each preceding generation, the Manchester outfit developed a towering sound that transcended their native city’s despondent music heritage. Nodding to the grandiosity of Echo & the Bunnymen, “There Goes the Fear” is the dizzying highpoint. However, the entirety of The Last Broadcast maintains a palpable sense of euphoria and stands as both Doves’ pinnacle and Britpop’s last major triumph.
01. Saint Etienne – So Tough
From the start, Saint Etienne seemed intent on splitting the difference between The Field Mice’s warm twee pop and Stereolab’s metronomic lounge grooves. But with sophomore album So Tough, the trio refined their signature sensibility, which wedded unabashed sentimentality to eerie, ironic plasticity. In the process, they uncovered the hidden connections between cult films, AM pop, and acid house, creating a world where “rain falls like Elvis tears” and Joe Meek was as big as Phil Spector. Cascading from the ecstasy-spiked pocket symphony “Hobart Paving” to the glittering camp bliss of “You’re in a Bad Way”, So Tough proved that Euro disco, Peeping Tom, and Pet Sounds could all sing in perfect harmony.