Leisure (Food/SBK ‘93) Rating: B
As everybody points out, at the beginning Blur was heavily influenced by "Madchester" bands like The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays, as well as the whole psychedelic shoegazer scene (My Bloody Valentine, Ride, Slowdive, etc.). As such, Leisure seems like less of their own making and has less of their own personalities than the subsequent albums that would come to define "Britpop" in the mid-'90s. Still, the band could play and had an impressive chemistry right from the start, and this isn't the bad starting point I had so often read about. Several songs see to that, starting with the dreamy, winningly melodic, at times psychedelic "She's So High." Also notable is "There's No Other Way," the groovy, danceable, and catchy top 10 U.K. hit, and "Sing," whose hypnotic, hazily droning melody is so wonderfully atmospheric and dramatic that I can easily forgive its one-dimensional nature and overly long length (it was later featured on the popular Trainspotting soundtrack). I also at least modestly enjoy several other songs ("Bang," "Repetition," "Bad Day," "Fool," and "Come Together"), but some tracks, particularly towards the end of the album, are either unremarkable or are downright weak. What would become longstanding Blur weaknesses (lesser second halves, by and large the singles are the best songs, and overly cluttered and chaotic arrangements) originate here, but Blur also begin to assert their strengths (vocal hooks all over the place, an ability to tackle any style and make it work) as well. Still, the lyrics are less sharp than what I'm accustomed to (having listened to the band's first album last), and the end result makes me think of Leisure as the first semi-successful baby steps towards much better things. Note: The resequenced U.S. version of the album replaces "Sing" with the very good if not quite as good "I Know."
Modern Life Is Rubbish (Food/SBK ‘93) Rating: A-
A significant step up in class containing more mature lyrics and more confident and original music, this album is both more rocking and more consistent than Parklife, though perhaps its peaks don't rise quite as high as its far more acclaimed and slightly superior successor. Granted, Modern Life Is Rubbish could probably use some of The Kinks’ (their obvious musical role models, albeit updated with a more modern new wave and/or psychedelic sheen) simplicity, but the band’s chaotic and seemingly disjointed chords always seem to coalesce into oddly catchy pop songs. With the help of Smiths/Morrissey producer Stephen Street, Blur embrace their Britishness on this album, as Damon Albarn tells eccentric tales of middle class Englishmen muddling through day after day. Albarn's talent as a lyricist is to create living, breathing characters rather than mere caricatures, and his band backs him up with a varied and inventive musical attack that owes much to Bowie, Bolan, Julian Cope (paid tribute to on the uniquely creative grower track "Pressure On Julian"), and Syd Barrett, as well as to the over-emphasized Kinks connection. "For Tomorrow" (all together now: "la la la la la"...), "Colin Zeal" (the one where said smug yuppie is "so pleased with himself") and "Chemical World" (all together now: "yes yes!") are among the bands best and catchiest pop songs, while gorgeously sad and affecting ballads come in the form of “Blue Jeans” and “Resigned” (love me some funereal church organ, and when Damon sings "I don't really want to change a thing, I want to stay this way forever" on the former song it really gets to me). The great chugging groove of the simple yet effective (and comparatively heavy) "Advert" is also highly recommended, while "Star Shaped" (dig those fabulous falsettos) and "Villa Rosie" (whose "who who's" are a precursor to "Song 2") are underrated album tracks featuring memorable vocal hooks, and the psychedelic "Oily Water" is another underrated number that builds to a great wall of sound ending. Unfortunately, the album is far too long for its own good, featuring a pair of silly interludes and several less than stellar songs on side two that bring the overall quality of the album down several notches. Albarn’s Cockney accent may also take some getting used to, and not everybody will be able to relate to his sarcastic lyrics about British life, but even if you can't you'll probably be too busy singing along to be too bothered about that anyway. Indeed, though it's yet another in an endless parade of '90s albums where less would've been more, Modern Life Is Rubbish was still an extremely impressive album overall. It's the album where the band found their signature sound, which basically birthed Britpop, and though it wasn't a huge hit it set the stage for the massive U.K. success of Parklife. Note: The U.S. version of the album also features the band's fabulously hard-hitting if not particularly successful single "Popscene," so I'd advise you to pick up that version of the album, especially since the song was unfortunately omitted from The Best Of Blur.
Parklife (Food/SBK ‘94) Rating: A
Whenever I think of Britpop in the mid-'90s, chances are good that the album I’ll think of is Parklife, an even more impressive combination of synthesizer driven pop, Kinks-styled ballads, and guitar driven rock and pop. Parklife is another distinctly British creation, containing bright and catchy social satires filled with quirky characters, and sing along choruses (the fabulous “Tracy Jacks,” the somewhat annoying but still extremely catchy “Parklife”) that are delivered with distinct Cockney accents. Elsewhere, a bouncy new wave sheen appears on the infectiously catchy and danceable “Boys and Girls” (the album’s big U.K. single), the glammy, easily singable “London Loves,” and the mysterious yet rocking, New Order-ish "Trouble In The Message Center." Of course, the latter song's "la la la la la" ending is pure Blur, and "Magic America" likewise contains catchy “la la las” (by now a Blur trademark), as well as sarcastic, America baiting lyrics (small wonder that it wasn't until years later that Blur "broke" in America, and modestly so even then). "Clover Over Dover" is another atmospheric winner whose pretty harpsichord meshes well with the band’s melodic riffs and airy vocals, but Blur are at their very best on brilliant ballads such as “End Of A Century,” “Badhead,” “To The End,” and “This Is A Low.” On these gorgeous songs the band manages to keep things fairly straightforward (the album’s playful production sometimes goes overboard), with truly exceptional results. “End Of A Century,” with its “Penny Lane”-like horns, is hard if not impossible not to sing along to, the delicate “Badhead” is a great example of what an affecting singer Albarn can be, “To The End” is flawlessly orchestrated and features another excellent vocal and chorus, and the hazily psychedelic “This Is A Low,” arguably the best song the band ever did, showed their rivals in Oasis that they too could do epic-scale rock music, replete with a soaring Graham Coxon guitar solo. Alas, as per all Blur albums, Parklife features a fair amount of (in this case quite obvious) filler, in particular the circus music of “The Debt Collector” and “Lot 105,” as well as the underwritten “Far Out” (sung by bassist Alex James). I used to dislike “Bank Holiday” and “Jubilee” as well (let's face it Damon's vocals can be annoying on their louder rock songs), but these songs have grown on me somewhat (that's certainly a great drumming performance by Dave Rowntree on the former song at the very least). Fortunately, all of the current and prior (in my mind) filler tracks are quite short (ranging from 1:13 to 2:48, respectively), making the album’s flaws easier to overlook, and if you program around the filler this is an A+ caliber album. Indeed, for all its over-long and inconsistent flaws the tremendous peaks of Parklife makes it the quintessential Blur recording as well as their best album.
The Great Escape (Food/Virgin ’95) Rating: B+
To many people this album will always rekindle memories of Blur’s battle for Britpop supremacy with Oasis (and the ridiculous press barbs traded by members of both bands, who realized that there’s no such thing as bad publicity), since (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? was released at the same time. For the record, Blur started out strong but Oasis eventually emerged as the clear winner by not only outselling them in the U.K. but by conquering the United States, though personally I’ve always thought that from a musical standpoint the comparison was a ridiculous one given how different the bands are. Anyway, though the band still tries to do too many things at once, the bottom line is that if you liked their last two albums then you should like this one as well, though I personally think it’s a definite notch below both Modern Life Is Rubbish and Parklife, in part due to another inconsistent and too often pedestrian second half. To excerpt a section from Matt Kalogerakis’ excellent review of the album for the Nude As The News Webzine: “Whereas Modern Life Is Rubbish was filled with poppy accounts of the British middle class seen through a mod's eyes, and Parklife displayed trashier stories of British city culture, The Great Escape is all about the hidden agendas of upper-class British suburbanites.” Couldn't have said it better myself, and bassist Alex James noted (in John Harris’ excellent book Britpop!: Cool Britannia and the Spectacular Demise of English Rock) “it’s all about dysfunctional misfit characters f**king up.” Musically, James noted that the songs are “more elaborate, more orchestral, more theatrical” than in the past, and I agree with his lyrical and musical assessments. As before, Albarn’s greatest gifts as a lyricist remain his storytelling skills and sharp satirical eye, which are best exemplified on simple but catchy songs such as “Country Home” (the band’s first #1 U.K. hit and seemingly a love it or hate it proposition to most people) and “Charmless Man” (on which “na na nas” are substituted for their usual “la la las”). Fortunately, these young gents aren’t at all like the charmless man they so vividly bring to life, as Blur continues to adeptly mix and match their chosen ‘60s styles with their own updated ‘90s touches. The band's merger of old and new sounds works extremely well on “Stereotypes,” a rare rocker featuring randy lyrics about wife swapping and some good Coxon guitar (which is too often reigned in or absent elsewhere), the bittersweet orchestral ballad “Best Days,” the falsetto-flavored, horn-heavy soul-pop of “Fade Away,” and the outstanding orchestral ballad “The Universal” (a big production number and those female backing singers towards the end are a nice touch). These songs would sound fine in any era (slicked up though they sometimes are), and other solidly enjoyable album tracks include "Top Man," "It Could Be You," and "Entertain Me." Better still are the excellent ballads “He Thought Of Cars” (low-key and moody) and “Yuko + Hiro” (low-key and delightfully quirky with more female vocals that hit the spot), as by and large the ballads are again the highlights. And though none of these songs so much as dented the U.S. charts (four cracked the U.K. top ten), this just made Blur stand out even more as the British band of choice.
Blur (Food/Virgin ’97) Rating: B+
It’s ironic that after making some of the past decade’s most rewardingly refined Britpop, Blur finally achieved their (lone) big U.S. hit with the grungy guitars and mindless but undeniable “woo-hoo” vocals of “Song 2.” Actually, I guess it’s not too surprising, considering that this is easily the band’s most Americanized album, with Damon Albarn’s vocals mixed way back and his Cockney accent turned down. But rather than this being a transparent attempt to pander to American audiences, Blur further demonstrates the group’s instrumental ingenuity, particularly guitarist Graham Coxon. The album’s raw, murky, stripped-down sound also makes obvious the group’s (seemingly newfound) love of lo-fi American acts like Pavement, Guided By Voices, and Beck, and though this isn’t really the style that best fits Blur, for the most part they pull things off in fine style. Plus, though the band’s playfully experimental nature ensures that even their best albums are inconsistent, Blur rocks more convincingly here than ever before, largely because the focus is on Coxon’s trashy guitar playing instead of on Albarn’s often-muddled vocalizing. The best examples of Blur’s newfound prowess in this area are “M.O.R.,” a hard-charging rocker with terrific stuttering riffs, “Movin’ On,” an anthemic and fuzzy lo-fi rocker, and especially the aforementioned “Song 2,” arguably Blur’s most famous song which excitingly hurtles along like an out of control freight train. On the whole, Blur is also musically darker and drearier than past albums, with nary a cheery “la la la” vocal or lushly elaborate string arrangement to be found. The album’s most impressive downbeat numbers include "Beetlebum," an ambitious, difficult-to-describe, oddly great gem of a song that surely must be one of the strangest U.K. #1 hits ever, “Country Sad Ballad Man,” a dirge-like ballad with oddly engaging falsettos (which had appeared on “Beetlebum” too come to think of it) and some good guitar bits, and "Death Of A Party," a moody dirge (there’s that word again) with a ghostly ambiance. Lest people think that Blur completely forgot their Britpop roots, the old Blur also makes token appearances on “On Your Own,” a catchy, danceable electro-pop number with a sing along chorus, and "Look Inside America," a charmingly catchy pop song on which Damon belatedly tries to make peace with America, which was the least he could do after all his prior nasty comments/lyrics about America as well as his claims that Blur were basically the “anti-grunge” band. So much for that, but the bottom line is that all of the aforementioned songs are at least good, some more so, and this album was a surprisingly successful reinvention, one that was probably necessary given that the band had begun to repeat themselves somewhat on The Great Escape. Granted, Blur is more impenetrable and requires repeat listens more so than previous efforts, but this courageous new style unpredictably plays away from previous band strengths, with extremely interesting (if predictably inconsistent - yes, the second half of the album is again not nearly as good as the first) results. As per usual there are some less than stellar (“Theme From Retro,” “I’m A Killer For Your Love,” “Strange News From Another Star”) and flat-out filler songs (the short punky “Chinese Bombs” and the atrocious and interminable “Essex Dogs,” which the band at least smartly sequenced at the end of the album), but that’s to be expected with Blur. Still, the band at their best - such as on the charmingly lo-fi and touching semi-ballad "You're So Great," written and solely performed by Coxon, the standout performer on the album - remain a creative force to be reckoned with, whether synthesizing a new British style or aping current American styles. Woo-hoo!
13 (Food/Virgin '99) Rating: B-
This album continues in the same dreary direction as the last album, only Blur too often forgot to write actual songs this time, as 13 is primarily comprised of atmospheric mood pieces and lo-fi Americanized rockers seemingly bashed out on the spot. The album does contain at least four classic Blur tracks, however, though it should be duly noted that three of them can also be obtained via The Best Of Blur. "Tender" is a terrifc epic scale song that's well, tender, but also playful, catchy (love Coxon's "oh my baby" backing vocals), and soulful, with a female gospel choir (shades of Primal Scream's Screamadelica) adding the icing on the cake. "Coffee & T.V.," another in a long line of superlative singles, is catchy pop song (with a great video) whose low-key verses are sung by Coxon (who also adds some flat-out cool guitar soloing) before Damon sings the hooky high-pitched chorus, while "No Distance Left To Run" is a lovesick ballad about Albarn's recent breakup with Justine Frischmann of Elastica. Rarely has Damon revealed so much about himself, and the song is all the better for it. That said, though Albarn addresses this relationship's disintegration on other songs as well, I'll be damned if I can remember too many details about most of them aside from "Trimm Trabb," one of the great overlooked gems in the entire Blur discography. Like many of the songs here, this alternately subdued and rocking track is long, multi-sectioned, ambitious, and highly experimental, but unlike the majority of this album this winningly mysterious effort is completely successful. The best of the rest is probably "Bugman," a fast-paced grunger with wild guitar and some trademark "la la la" vocals, though like most songs here this one overstays its welcome as the band overly weirds it up during its considerably less enticing extended instrumental coda. Some of the other songs have their moments and are at least semi-interesting, such as "Swamp Song," a noisy stomping rocker with tribal chants, "1992," a draggy ballad that at least has some good guitar, "Battle," whose shoegazer-y atmospherics are at times appealing, "Trailerpark," a moody trip-hop track a la Tricky, and “Caramel,” another moody, experimental song obviously about the Frischmann breakup. Too much of the album, however, features (to quote my friend Doug) "too much pretentious wanking around," with overly long and ultimately boring or annoying multi-sectioned dirges being the norm. Perhaps replacing Stephen Street with new producer William Orbit was part of the problem, but the disjointed and indulgent 13 was a disappointing, unfocused effort from a band capable of better.
The Best Of Blur (Food/Virgin '00) Rating: A
Blur is one of the most interesting bands of the past ten years, and since their entertaining but inconsistent albums have always been highlighted by their singles, it would stand to reason that The Best Of Blur would indeed be just that. Still, I'd quibble strongly about the song selection, in particular their decision to include only one song from Modern Life Is Rubbish; at the very least they should've included "Chemical World" in addition to "For Tomorrow," though I support the exclusion of "Sunday Sunday" which was one of their weaker singles. Quibbles aside, by and large this album does contain most of Blur's biggest and best songs, and the non-chronological sequencing works well (despite the poor decision to start the album with the same two songs that began Blur) because intermingling the band's three distinct periods - the "baggy" not quite sure of itself debut Leisure, the mid-'90s "English Life" trilogy that marked the band's "classic" period, and the "Americanized" late-'90s Blur of Blur and 13 - together makes The Best Of Blur flow better than had the band's different periods been presented separately. As for the new song, to quote my friend Guy: "I like "Music Is My Radar" a lot, though it's different. It's very robotic (hence the video in which all the dancers wear futuristic outfits) with really lazy vocals by Albarn, but it's also catchy as hell and is weirdly danceable." As far as M.I.A. singles that I would've included, "Popscene" (excluded because the band childishly insisted on "punishing" their U.K. audience who didn't buy the original single by not making it available on any U.K. album), the aforementioned "Chemical World," "Stereotypes," and "M.O.R." are notable omissions, and I'm sure any big time Blur fan will lament the absence of some of their favorite non-single tracks (some of mine include "Sing," "Blue Jeans," "Tracy Jacks," "Badhead," "He Thought Of Cars," "Yuko + Hiro," and "You're So Great"). But "best of" albums aren't about album tracks, they're about hits, and on the whole I can't complain too much, because simply looking at the track listing made me think: Blur are a damn good band, who are a great singles band. As such, The Best Of Blur works as an ideal starting point for the uninitiated and as a great playlist for the already converted.
Think Tank (Food Virgin '03) Rating: B+
Coming off their weakest album since their debut and then losing guitarist Graham Coxon, previously an essential member of the band, things did not bode well for Blur, which makes the consistent quality of Think Tank that much more of a pleasant surprise. Needless to say, now more than ever Blur is Damon Albarn’s band. Perhaps emboldened by his successful recent side projects (his Mali Music album and his "virtual band" Gorillaz, whose self-titled debut outsold any Blur album in the U.S.!), Think Tank successfully recasts Blur, not for the first time, in a new light. By embracing a more danceable, funky, sample-heavy electronic direction, adding dreamily atmospheric space ballads, African and Middle Eastern influences, and accentuating the rhythm section of bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree, Blur are still extremely experimental but without abandoning their accessibility. After all, Blur trademarks such as singable “la la la” vocal hooks tie this version of the band to previous ones, and though perhaps the album's subtle charms require a bit of effort to “get” and there are few obvious classic tracks this time out, the rewards are well worth it. Albarn claims the album to be about “politics and love,” but in reality it’s (thankfully) mostly about the latter. Fittingly, there are some stellar ballads on this album, in particular the ironically titled “Out Of Time,” which is timeless, and “Good Song” and “Sweet Song,” which are more aptly titled. On the more rocking front, “Crazy Beat” (the Fatboy Slim-produced first single) is an annoying attempt at a danceable but rocking party tune that's somewhat salvaged by its catchy "yeah yeah yeahs," while the paranoid Middle Eastern punker “We’ve Got A File On You” is fun for the minute it lasts. Elsewhere, several highly experimental and mostly successful songs include “On The Way To The Club,” which rides a sexy, atmospheric, and quite exotic space groove, “Brothers And Sisters,” a slow, funky sing along, “Caravan,” a mellow, draggy ballad somewhat salvaged by its dreamy "la la la" vocals, “Moroccan Peoples Revolutionary Bowls Club,” a funky rhythm-based track reminiscent of Soul Coughing on which Rowntree excels, and “Jets,” which loops a slinky little riff alongside some deep fried bass before veering off into some spirited free jazz courtesy of an extended sax solo. What these and other highly experimental but completely successful songs such as “Ambulance” (dig its hazy danceability and vocal hooks), “Gene By Gene” (catchy, lightly funky pseudo-reggae), and “Battery In Your Leg” (the album’s affecting last song which is the only one to feature Coxon) have in common is that they are the product of people having fun with their newfound freedom. The album isn’t perfect by any means, as there’s little stylistic flow and their electronic experiments and excessive use of Pro Tools at times seem a sorry substitute for Coxon’s creativity. However, most of these songs offer something to recommend them by, as by and large Think Tank exceeded expectations by being so forward-looking, far ranging, and flat-out interesting. Post Think Tank, Albarn has kept busy, releasing two additional Gorillaz albums, Demon Days (2005) and Plastic Beach (2010), and, with a different cast of musicians, The Good, The Bad & The Queen was released to generally positive reviews in 2007. For his part, Coxon has released a steady stream of solo albums, though I haven't heard any of them. Blur regrouped with Coxon for a highly successful tour in 2010, but it remains to be seen whether additional Blur albums will emerge.