Blur vs. Oasis: Who Won the Last 20 Years?
Breaking down the many lead changes in the imaginary race between Britpop's marquee acts
On this day 20 years ago, Britpop reached its apex as a pop-culture phenomenon, with the simultaneous release of Blur’s “Country House” and Oasis’ “Roll With It” singles. Not that the songs were all that great — today, neither would necessitate a spot in either band’s greatest-hits live set — but what they represented certainly was: The climax of a long-brewing feud between the movement’s two biggest bands, and a chance to empirically determine which was truly the greater outfit, by vote of the people.
Of course, it wasn’t close to that simple: Nearly as soon as the victor was crowned in the first round of Blur vs. Oasis, the momentum of the fight shifted dramatically in the other direction. And so it would go over the decades to come, the groups constantly toggling back and forth in who was leading in popularity, public perception, and overall legacy. Long after the bands stopped fighting in real life — and really it’s been radio silence for some time now on that front, with respective leaders Damon Albarn and Noel Gallagher even dueting with one another on the former’s “Tender” two years ago — the debate rages on among fans, who couldn’t let the thrill of ’95 go even if they wanted to.
So, we’ve come up with a little timeline of which band has been winning Britpop’s eternal struggle over the 20 years since “Country House” and “Roll With It.” Since neither group has stayed extant the entire time, and since side projects would play a large part in defining the legacies of several of the artists involved, the accomplishments of the individual members were accounted for in determining victors. Read on through two decades of a friendly-not-friendly rivalry between the Britpop giants, and see who ends up coming out on top for the entire period.
1995 – 1996
Blur won the battle, as “Country House” outsold “Roll With It” by about 60,000 copies, but the rest of the war was a bloodbath for them. Oasis would brush off the loss and springboard to their greatest success ever almost immediately afterwards, as “Wonderwall” would not only trump any subsequent single from Blur’s The Great Escape, but also catapult them to superstardom in the U.S. and everywhere else. Oasis’ (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? would go on to vastly outsell The Great Escape pretty much everywhere, and continued to spin off hits (“Champagne Supernova,” “Don’t Look Back in Anger”) on both sides of the pond well into ’96. Blur ended the year as clear silver medalists — bronze, perhaps, if you counted Pulp — and were in serious need of regrouping.
In 2015, it seems obvious to give this year to Blur, who successfully reinvented themselves as the cheeky art-school dilettantes they kinda always were on their genre-tripping self-titled album, which included the single that would improbably go on to be their most recognized hit: the zombified grunge pastiche “Song 2.” But while Oasis’ Be Here Now is inseparable now from both the drug-hoovering excess that fueled it and the period of artistic fallowness that followed it, it should be remembered that in ’97, it was still bloody massive, selling eight million copies worldwide, and drawing mostly rave reviews (really). And even though “Song 2″ would by far be the most enduring song released by either band this year, at the time, it was dwarfed by Oasis’ “D’You Know What I Mean,” a No. 1 hit on both the U.K. pop charts and the U.S. alternative charts. Given the disparity between the scorecard back then and the scorecard in retrospect, we’ll call it even.
Not much new music released by either band this year, but a compilation from each: Oasis had The Masterplan, which collected many of the much-ballyhooed B-sides from the band’s first three albums for audiences on both sides of the Atlantic — easily bettering Be Here Now in the process — and spawned a new hit of sorts in the “Some Might Say” flip “Acquiesce.” Meanwhile, Blur had the remix collection Bustin’ + Dronin’, which did contain a pretty dope William Orbit edit of Blur deep cut “Movin’ On,” but was otherwise rightly lost to history. Easy one.
1999 – 2001
Blur kicked off this period with the fantastic 13, indulging their dronier and more emotionally wallowing tendencies with inconsistent but frequently stunning results, leaving a trio of unforgettable singles in the near-hymnal “Tender,” the breezily crushing “Coffee and TV,” and the lights-out closing ballad “No Distance Left to Run.” They also released one of the canonical greatest-hits albums of British alt-rock in Blur: The Best Of, and Albarn got started on his fruitful second life as one of the architects of post-everything animated supergroup Gorillaz, scoring an international smash with the Del tha Funkee Homosapien-featuring “Clint Eastwood.” Meanwhile, Oasis released Standing on the Shoulder of Giants, which Village Voice editor Robert Christgau memorably (and mostly accurately) reviewed with just a .
Oasis’ Heathen Chemistry did little to convince critics of a reversal in the band’s artistic decline — Pitchfork gave it a 1.2 and compared its recycling of past glories to the Gallaghers having “Xeroxed the entirety of Crime and Punishment, changed the title to Russian Psycho, and released it to the public.” But it sold: over a million copies in the U.K. alone, easily more than Giants, with its first three singles all going to the top two, and allowing a rare hit for Liam as writer (“Songbird”). Blur basically took the year off, though they did release the one-off curiosity “Don’t Bomb When You’re the Bomb,” a squelching, puzzling almost-jam that was promptly forgotten by everyone.
For over a decade, it seemed like Think Tank would be Blur’s last album, and it certainly sounded the part: Fractious, tired, and sweetly content in its own sense of finality. The album sounds much better today than it did in 2003, and indeed, its globetrotting sound and distant-but-determined vocals would set the tone for the great majority of Albarn’s work to come. Still, it’s hard to give Blur the W in the year they essentially collapsed as a band; guitarist Graham Coxon barely played on Think Tank and did not tour with them that year, and the group went on hiatus immediately after.
Meanwhile, Oasis didn’t do much musically, but the Gallagher Bros. easily won the legacy battle in Britpop documentary Live Forever: Noel cackling about Be Here Now’s lousiness from his oversized throne and Liam forever unaware that the peak of Cool Britannia had even passed, while Albarn generally acted embarrassed the whole time, demurring about his more unseemly moments and hiding behind his ukelele. As always, bros have more fun.
Oasis didn’t have much to recommend their 2004 besides an infamously lousy headlining gig at Glastonbury and a Beatle descendant actually joining their ranks. Neither did Blur, for that matter, but at least Graham Coxon had his solo moment in the sun with Happiness in Magazines, going silver in England and spawning a couple of minor hits, including the delightful “Freakin’ Out.” Give the guitarist some.
Oasis came roaring back with Don’t Believe the Truth, the group’s best-selling and best-received album since at least Be Here Now, spinning off a pair of U.K. chart-toppers in “Lyla” and “The Importance of Being Idle,” and reviving their popularity Stateside, even making their Madison Square Garden debut that June. But while Blur remained dormant, Albarn was in the midst of his greatest success with Gorillaz, making countless year-end lists with their Demon Days LP, and enjoying a crossover hit with the De La Soul collaboration “Feel Good Inc.,” which far exceeded any U.S. Top 40 traction that the singer ever managed with his original group. Because it’s still just a side project, though, we’ll call it another tie.
2006 – 2008
In between Gorillaz albums and with the full band lineup still on sabbatical, all Blur really has going for it during this period is Albarn’s well-received but largely dull work with second supergroup The Good, The Bad, and the Queen, while Oasis coasted on Don’t Believe the Truth for a year or two, released the good (though not quite definitive) hits compilation Stop the Clocks, and then stayed winning with 2008’s excellent-selling follow-up LP Dig Out Your Soul: no masterpiece, but a year-end contender in these pages, at the least. Moreover, they cemented their legacy as the enduring band-of-the-people from the Britpop era; An ’08 reader poll in Q magazine of the 50 Best British Albums placed Oasis’ first two albums at No. 1 and No. 2 on the list, respectively. They even got the Jigga Man agitated enough to take shots at Noel (“That bloke from Oasis said I couldn’t play guitar / Somebody shoulda told him I’m a f—king rock star”) and mockingly sing part of “Wonderwall” in his “Jockin Jay Z.”
2009 – 2010
After a half-decade’s absence, Blur finally returned to the stage in 2009 with a handful of triumphant headlining gigs at U.K. festivals — including one at Hyde Park that would eventually merit its own accompanying live album. In 2010, they would also release their first new music since 2003 — the surprisingly jaunty “Fool’s Day,” a lovely return to form for the original quartet — while Albarn pulled double duty in Gorillaz for the release of their kaleidoscopic third album, Plastic Beach. Meanwhile, the Brothers Gallagher would reach their endpoint following a backstage row at the V Festival in ’09, splitting the band in the process. Sunrise, sunset.
Blur took a while getting back into the swing of recording and touring, and while they were re-familiarizing themselves with one another, Oasis descended back on the masses in the form of splinter groups Beady Eye (led by Liam Gallagher) and Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds. Neither group hit the same sort of, um, highs that the brothers did together, but the debut albums from both were hits, with the Flying Birds’ self-titled debut in particular doing big numbers, and packing an Oasis-like lift into singles like “If I Had a Gun” and “The Death of You and Me.” Fans would take what they could get.
Oasis did get a nod at the 2012 Olympics in London, with Beady Eye appearing to play “Wonderwall” at the closing ceremonies, much to the absent Noel’s consternation. But not only did Blur get to play a closing concert for the ceremonies at Hyde Park, they were also repped for by the the U.K.’s Household Division, who marched while playing a cover of the band’s iconic “Parklife.” They also released their best new music in a decade, in the form of the elegiac “Under the Westway” and the frenetic “The Puritan.”
Tough to come up with a terribly convincing argument for either band in this most inactive of years, except to say that at least for Oasis, it was the year that “Wonderwall” was largely calcified as the anthem for its generation, even outside of the U.K. Australia’s Triple J station voted it the No. 1 song of the previous 20 years, and then-ascendant American pop-culture icon Hannah Hovarth sang it in the bathtub on an episode of Girls. There was also a second Beady Eye album, for whatever that was worth.
2014 – 15
Oasis helped remind of former glories with fine two-disc reissues of their classic first two albums, packing no shortage of bonus tracks to remind just how much spillage their brilliance allowed for in those early years. But Albarn and Blur did them one better, with the release of Damon’s Everyday Robots and then the band’s The Magic Whip, two albums that continued to expand the singer/songwriter’s musical worldview and keep him as relevant a recording artist as just about anyone 20 years younger than him. “Wonderwall” was just crowned our No. 1 Alt-Rock Song of 1995, but Whip will contend for best-albums lists this year, just as Everyday Robots did last year. It’s hard to know when, or if, Oasis will be able to say the same.
LAST 20 YEARS
Overall, it’s probably not too surprising that Oasis has been the edge — the Gallagher Brothers always were too big to fail, in almost every respect. But Blur does have the torch currently, and there’s no reason to think they won’t continue to run with it. This is how the story of the next 20 years begins.
OVERALL VICTOR: OASIS, 12.5 – 9.5