What’s the Best Blur Album? A SPIN Roundtable
Debating the crown jewel of the Britpop champs' shapeshifting catalog
For a band still largely associated with a very specific moment in U.K. rock history, Blur have never really stayed in one musical mode for very long. Beginning as a baggy bunch of shoegazers, the group rose to Britpop’s upper echelon with their “Life” album trilogy, before falling under the spell of American indie on their final two ’90s albums, and then embracing world music in the 21st century. When a new record is announced — as The Magic Whip was a couple of months ago — it’s impossible to imagine it ending up as either a break from or return to form, because Blur’s form was never consistent to begin with.
Before we officially get lashed by The Magic Whip (which lands on both sides of the pond on April 27), SPIN had ourselves a debate over which Blur album reigns supreme as the group’s finest moment: One of their Britpop masterworks? One of their U.S. flirtations? Or one that isn’t even a proper studio album? See which pre-Whip Blur effort our staffers and contributors ride hardest for below.
Kristen Yoonsoo Kim: It was such a flop that it nearly drove Blur to bankruptcy, but that’s probably why Modern Life Is Rubbish (1993) is the Blur album I continue to champion the most. These guys pushed anti-consumerism and buried it in empty commercialism — somewhat literally, as I remember my Modern Life CD (the first Blur album I ever purchased) had a track count of 69 because they stuffed a bunch of blank tracks, titled “commercial breaks,” in between. It was one of the early signs of Damon Albarn’s cheekiness, later to become much more refined, and, well, much more lyrical.
As the predecessor to the generally more revered records, Modern Life feels like Blur Beta at times. But rough drafts have often proven to be better, or at least more charming, than the final product, and it’s on this sophomore effort that Albarn really starts to play up his middle-class Londoner appeal (“Sunday, Sunday,” the superior “Parklife” prototype). Any record that shapes a band’s trademark sound is no matter of insignificance, and this one’s packed with some all-time favorites of hardcore Blur fans, myself included (“For Tomorrow,” “Star Shaped,” “Blue Jeans,” “Chemical World”…). Is Modern Life low-key the greatest Blur record? I believe so.
Kyle McGovern: Know why the obvious answer often earns that designation? Because it’s the right answer. Plain and simple, Parklife (1994) is the keystone of Blur’s catalog. Contrarians might rep for its darker, cynical sequel, 1995’s The Great Escape, but they might also be the kind of people who prefer Back to the Future Part II to the original — they’re confusing a fussy retread for refinement of what is ultimately a superior work. The self-titled, like all of Blur’s full-lengths, has its highpoints, but the heroin-den mood lighting that gives the band’s fifth LP its color also renders it a bit one-note. Pleased-with-themselves die-hards champion 13, which is no doubt an achievement, but a sizable chunk of that record’s critical standing stems from the fact that it represents a mutation-slash-marked growth from Blur’s banner days — meaning its appeal is still intrinsically linked to Parklife.
And what lovely company that is to keep. Blur’s third album (and first true masterpiece) stands as the most richly musical document of its era: Bask in the polyamorous disco-pop that juices “Girls & Boys”; raise a pint to the brash punk put-on “Bank Holiday”; float away with bassist Alex James via the stargazing “Far Out”; settle into the cosmopolitan ennui that’s unpacked in the Francophile “To the End” and the working-stiff elegy “End of a Century”; loosen your belt and breathe easy for the oom-pah instrumental “The Debt Collector.”
According to Britpop lore (by way of the NME, duh), Liam Gallagher confronted guitarist Graham Coxon at the 1995 BRIT Awards — where Blur had snatched up four trophies thanks to Parklife — and said, “Look me in the eye and tell me you deserve these awards.” Hate to do it, but to paraphrase the man himself, Definitely Maybe is over. (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? is oh-ver. But Parklife? Its eclecticism has yet to go out of style.
Annie Zaleski: Let’s face it: Blur would have been crazy to try to top Parklife, which was the perfect collision of Britpop frippery and retrofitted new wave. And so, even though the band kept Parklife’s formula for commercial success on the next year’s The Great Escape (1995) — an over-the-top, goofy single (“Country House”), a sweeping ballad (“The Universal”), plenty of keyboard-screwy, shamelessly poppy songs — they decided to go darker and more subversive. Escape imagines a dystopian world dominated by diminished ambitions and government dysfunction, which creates legions of bored suburbanites, frisky housewives, privileged wankers, TV-watching zombies, and beaten-down corporate drones. Thanks to Albarn’s slightly disdainful, straight-faced delivery, these lyrics are both winking and dead serious; it’s hard to tell if the members of Blur despise these characters or feel like they hit too close to home.
But besides possessing lyrical depth, The Great Escape also features Blur’s last great musical achievements; the record is a cohesive version of Modern Life Is Rubbish’s amalgamation of XTC, the Kinks, Squeeze, Madness, and the Jam. Loopy keyboards snake in and out of the mix with military precision, while the album’s best moments nod to blissful Eurodisco (“Entertain Me”), bratty synthpunk (“Globe Alone”), and British Invasion pop (“It Could Be You”). Blur certainly had more commercial success when they dumbed down to more pedestrian guitar rock (cf. “Song 2″), but The Great Escape’s neon-hued power-pop was far more rewarding.
Andrew Unterberger: Regrettably best-known to casual fans as The One With “Song 2″ On It, Blur (1997) is actually the band’s best LP, because it’s simultaneously their most ambitious and least pretentious album. It’s their most kaleidoscopic work, touching on all phases of the band’s past and future career — the Seymour punk of “Chinese Bombs,” the Leisure dream-pop of the “Beetlebum” outro, the classic Parklife Britpop of “Look Inside America,” the murky 13 trip-hop of “Death of a Party,” even some of the future-contemplative solo stuff of Damon Albarn (the appropriately shimmering “Strange News From Another Star”), and the intimately lo-fi work of Graham Coxon (the heartbreaking, alcoholic love ballad “You’re So Great”). All of it’s here, and all of it works, giving the album an expansiveness that makes it feel a lot bigger than it actually is — at 14 tracks and 57 minutes, it’s actually just as long as The Great Escape and far shorter than 13, even though if you had to point to one LP as Blur’s White Album, it’d undoubtedly be this one.
That’s all the ambitious part. The unpretentious part is that despite doing all these things, the one thing that Blur doesn’t do is put on airs. It’s not an attempt to blend in (or push forward) any scene; it’s not an explicit response to (or criticism of) contemporary trends in British or American culture; it’s not an attempt to expose the Western world to Eastern music; it’s not even an attempt to make Damon Albarn a sympathetic character for getting dumped by the fellow Britpop superstar he was kind of a dick to. It’s just Blur getting loose, well removed from the unnecessary drama of the Oasis Wars and just making the music they want to make, whether that’s an eight-minute, three-part spoken-word suite (“Essex Dogs,” plus a hidden track or two) or a two-minute grunge sendup with a shoutalong chorus (you know the one). It’s the most fun Blur’s had, and consequently, the most fun Blur’s ever been.
Marc Hogan: Their best album partly because it’s also their most “Blur” album, 13 (1999) exemplifies the factor that most set Blur part from their world-conquering rivals Oasis or the dashing lyrical observations of Pulp: their curiosity. By 1999, these art-school bohos — these cutely mugging mavens of character studies and wry lampoons — had already gone from distinctly English glam-punk to pillaging American lo-fi, so the last frontier had to be to get personal. Blur being Blur, they got personal obliquely; picking a producer, William Orbit, who’d just boosted Madonna with the electronica-pop of 1998’s Ray of Light. Instead of cleaning up the band’s mess on 13, Orbit reveled in it.
The snotty two-minute Amer-indie burst “Song 2″ had vaulted Blur to a new level of fame, so of course 13’s first single was an unironic six-minute mix of Appalachian folk and gospel with an opening line taken from Tender Is the Night. Yet Albarn’s plainspoken admonition to “come on, get through it” resonated far beyond people who had just split from Elastica singer Justine Frischmann. Other highlights: The gut-punching breakup acknowledgement “No Distance Left to Run,” the sludgy roar of “Swamp Song,” the kaleidoscoping ache of “Caramel” (apparently another heroin ballad, sigh) and the piano-led dream-pop confessional “1992.”
Because Blur is 13’s most “Blur” and best album, its biggest hit could only be the least probable choice of all — “Coffee & TV,” a Graham Coxon-sung, five-minute long indie-pop jaunt about Coxon’s alcoholism. Yet, with help from a clever milk-carton music video and canny Cruel Intentions film placement, this ode to starting over again became the kind of song a far more muscular (and deeply American) band, Queens of the Stone Age, would channel on their 2013 song “I Sat By the Ocean.” Blur’s exploration brought them someplace rich and vital here, and they planted their flag deep.
Dan Weiss: Can a great singles band be a great band? The problem with Blur isn’t that they don’t write great songs — look at the track list of Blur: The Best Of (2000). “Tender,” “The Universal,” “There’s No Other Way,” “Beetlebum” and “Girls & Boys,” all on the same record. The problem with Blur is that for all of Damon Albarn’s chameleonic musical wardrobe changes — dubalicious early Gorillaz, Afrobeat-inspired Rocket Juice and the Moon, the Britpop-to-American-noise arc of his forever headlining act — his best songs are rarely denied a promotional radio push.
“Death of a Party” and “Tracy Jacks” live up to the hits on the wildly uneven Blur and Parklife for sure, and “Sweet Song” and “Moroccan Peoples Revolutionary Bowls Club” even beat the well-known cuts from Think Tank, in a first for a Blur album. But for their near-bulletproof critical reputation, you couldn’t compile a fully listenable hour from the remainder of the Blur catalog not included on their first (and superior) best-of. Blur’s best album would not have “Magic America” on it, or “Dan Abnormal,” or “Theme From Retro.” These guys are aimless jammers and willfully tuneless when they loosen up. This likable-not-lovable band needs every boiled-down sum of its exuberant, willing-to-fail parts it can get. They embody the term “hit or miss.”