Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

“I don’t know where this one came from” mutters the run-out voice. Not so: “Unfinished Sympathy” may have swanked into the charts and had classic status handed to it on the spot, but you could see its antecedents easily enough. In fact to miss them you’d have to have been blind to the whole history of black music-making in Britain, because that’s what this single was from the first scribble of scratch to that last head-shaking sample, sifted and recombined into five minutes that could wipe over the lot of it and change everything.

From the point of view of ‘black music’ in this country the 90s were staggeringly important, the decade when the steady importation of styles from America, Jamaica and the West Indies finally fermented into something new and confident, something which represented urban Britain with strength and uniqueness. It became a liberal cliche to say that Goldie and Tricky were the real Britpop, not those lank-haired guitar fops, and like most cliches it got that way by having a bloody strong case to answer. But talking in those kind of terms, talking in terms of ‘black music’ generally, misses the amazing spectrum of sound the music covered. What did Tricky and A Guy Called Gerald, Rufige Kru and 4 Hero possibly have in common? Not very much, but they had this: the music they made in the 90s would have made less sense without Massive Attack, without this song.

Unfinished: Massive Attack’s greatest song continues to intrigue because that’s precisely the feeling you get from it. Not, of course, unfinished sonically (“Sympathy” is hands-down the most ravishingly produced single of the decade), more unresolved. There’s no question left unanswered in the song exactly, no decision that remains to be made, but at the end Shara Nelson is no nearer stepping into the darkness of the song’s “you” than she was at the beginning. What we’re listening to isn’t an emotional movement but an emotional moment, a woman coming to terms with something as inevitable and tidal as the deep, rolling strings underpinning her song. Unlike a lot of anointed classics, “Unfinished Sympathy” continues to provoke delight and wonder as a living track, not just as a historical fait accompli.

Historical it is, though. “Unfinished Sympathy” was the first British track of the hip-hop era that didn’t sound like a genre exercise of one sort or another, that didn’t sound like anything else at all. The great thing is that it still doesn’t, and I don’t think it ever will as long as that ground it broke remains not fully explored.