I never should have signed up for this. Volunteered, even. It doesn’t matter what criteria you apply or artificial boundaries you create to make the task easier, there’s no way to pick 10 songs from Blur’s catalog and call them the band’s best without knowing you’ve left out at least a dozen more that not only belong in the conversation but are probably better than the 10 you picked in the first place. But here I am, cutting, indecisive, fucked.
Anyway, last week, Spin‘s Chris Weingarten posed the following question:
Serious question of the day for Americans: When exactly did Blur turn from enjoyable/ignorable singles band into OMG IMPORTANT ARTISTES
— Chris Weingarten (@1000TimesYes) August 1, 2012
I kinda get the impression that maybe Weingarten thinks Blur shouldn’t be considered “IMPORTANT ARTISTES” and thus the “serious question” he poses is actually rhetorical, but I disagree with that notion wholeheartedly, and I’m interested in answering him in earnest. So: There are a few points in the band’s career when they seem to make this leap. The most obvious is their sixth (and second-to-last) album, 13, on which they left behind entirely their jauntier, more condescending elements and produced an album that was, for the first time, wounded and emotionally direct; it was also, sonically, their most daring work, as well as their most consistent. It produced singles, yes (most notably opener “Tender” and unlikely hit “Coffee And TV”), but it’s an album that demands immersion. Really, “Tender” and “Coffee And TV,” while great, feel anomalous here; the album is at its best when it leaves behind chart aspirations for the murky depths of Damon Albarn’s heartbreak and Graham Coxon’s abrasive guitar anti-heroism, which are fully plumbed on Side 2.
The next most obvious point is probably sometime after Blur dissolved completely — or soon before that dissolution — following their gorgeous, misunderstood, magnificent final (?) album, 2003′s Think Tank, which was “OMG IMPORTANT” enough to score a 9.0 on Pitchfork upon its release. At that point, Albarn had already put on display his own impressive artistic diversity beyond Blur (via Gorlliaz, Mali Music, and his Honest Jon’s label), and Blur’s music was reflecting Albarn’s explorations. It was as good a time as any for critics and fans to revisit Blur’s earlier work and pick up on the band’s vast and constantly evolving creativity, which obviously dwarfed a Britpop scene that produced almost nothing but “enjoyable/ignorable singles band[s].” (As someone who remembers and owned albums by the likes of Echobelly and the Bluetones and Catatonia and Space and Cast and Dodgy and Sleeper and ALL OF THEM, let me tell you that, if you think Blur were just a singles band, you really have to go back and check out some of those import Now That’s What I Call Music comps from the second half of the ’90s.)
But really, the point at which Blur made that leap came when they released their second album, 1993′s Modern Life Is Rubbish. While their 1991 debut, Leisure, had produced some fine and indelible singles (“There’s No Other Way” and “She’s So High,” of course) that cashed in on the popularity of the Madchester “baggy” scene, Blur changed their approach entirely and tried to produce a classic with Modern Life, a loose-concept album about being young and broke in post-Thatcher, pre-Blair Britain. Here, Albarn’s voice as a writer emerged — both lyrically and melodically — and Coxon’s violent, acrobatic guitar abilities were first unleashed. (This is not to give short shrift to the contributions of bassist Alex James or drummer Dave Rowntree, who really do combine to create the most dynamic [and quotable] rhythm section of the era.) Modern Life became the first chapter of the band’s unofficial Britpop trilogy — followed by ’94′s Parklife and ’95′s The Great Escape — which obviously came to define Blur’s identity for quite some time. Modern Life is not a perfect album, but it’s deep and ambitious and obviously not especially singles-oriented (except that nearly every song here could have been a single); experienced in context, it clearly signals the emergence of Blur as artists. American critics and audiences might not have recognized it as such because we had some interesting music happening on our own shores in 1993, and the brute power of grunge didn’t mingle well with the arch, Anglocentric Davies-isms Albarn was offering at the time, but that doesn’t change the depth of the work or its vitality nearly two decades later.
So, now that I’ve spent three paragraphs arguing against Blur as a singles band, I’m left only with the task of … picking out and ranking their 10 best songs and excluding the rest. Before writing this, I read over the comments here to get an idea how Stereogum readers view Blur’s catalog, and it made me realize only the utter futility of this undertaking — nearly every song named in that 369-comments-and-counting thread deserved serious consideration for inclusion on my own list. I’m not exaggerating when I say this could have been a top 50 and I’d still be making hard choices, cutting songs I’d prefer to include, songs that are essential to both Blur’s discography and their evolution from singles band to some of the best and most important artistes in music.
10. “On The Way To The Club” (from Think Tank, 2003)
Think Tank is Blur’s loosest, most relaxed album: sonically comparable to 13, in many regards, and thematically in line with Damon’s Gorillaz. The songs flow casually into one another, so that each one sounds more like a fragment than a complete piece. That tendency is probably frustrating to many fans who preferred Blur’s very formalistic Britpop records, but it allows for a huge warmth where those earlier albums could be a bit picky. “On The Way To The Club” is sheer, shimmering beauty; Damon’s plaintive vocal floats hazily while Alex James’s bass line pushes through the fog like a Humvee. “On the way to the club/I fell down a hole,” sings Damon to start the song, and once in the hole, he pines for a missing lover, he falls further down the hole (“So I stayed in the club/rewarding myself”), and pines some more. It’s a club we’ve all been to, and while it’s not an especially happy place, it’s kind of amazing just the same.
9. “He Thought Of Cars” (from The Great Escape, 1995)
The Great Escape remains, I think, Blur’s most difficult album: Like the final installments of most trilogies, it’s bloated and demanding and confusing. It showcases some of Blur’s most aggravating tendencies. However, it also has moments of sublime beauty, none more striking than “He Thought Of Cars.” Sequenced into TGE, the song follows the mercilessly frenetic “Mr. Robinson’s Quango” (one of the band’s worst songs, IMO) and fades in with a crash of similarly rambunctious noise till the vocals arrive and everything else fades into the shadows. It’s a hair-raising moment of music, and “Cars” keeps ‘em on end for the next four minutes. Damon’s lyrics here are unusually obtuse — impressionistic? incomplete? — which lends the song an air of surrealism and increases its potency; there’s a great dissatisfaction and yearning here, and the melodies on both the chorus and (especially) the verse make those feelings palpable and inviting.
8. “Clover Over Dover” (from Parklife, 1994)
Parklife is pretty widely considered the essential Blur album; it was absolutely their most significant breakthrough and one of the defining documents of Britpop. But it’s not just an important record, it’s a great record, loaded with diverse and memorable songs, and almost flawless from top to bottom. “Clover Over Dover” is closer to the bottom, in several respects; it’s obviously nowhere near as well-known as “Girls And Boys” or “Parklife” or “To The End,” but it’s a better song than all of them. “Clover Over Dover” was reportedly conceived as a ska song, but the final version bears no traces of that genre; instead, it’s spacious, wondrous, and absolutely stunning, driven by a harpsichord and a puffy cloud-filled sky of backing vocals. Damon’s sweetly melancholic melody belies the moroseness of his lyrics: The song opens with “I’m on the white cliffs of Dover/Thinking it over and over/But if I jump it’s all over” and closes with “Don’t bury me I’m not worth anything.” It’s a minor song but a towering achievement.
7. “Trimm Trabb” (from 13, 1999)
For all its musical splendors, the Britpop trilogy put a heavy emphasis on Damon’s words, which were increasingly complex and narrative-specific; even the downsized self-titled album featured some pretty tricky lyrics (“Look Inside America,” for instance), but on 13, the band changed their approach entirely, musically and lyrically. The album is famously a document of Damon’s breakup with Justine Frischmann (of Elastica), and the lyrics are resolutely scarred, solipsistic, nostalgic, even. “Trimm Trabb”‘s title, of course, refers to a model of sneaker produced by Adidas in the ’80s and favored by Damon in the ’90s, but there’s nothing else nearly so specific here — it’s just a cyclical mantra of pain: “I can’t go back/let it flow/let it flow/I sleep alone/I sleep alone.” But Graham’s guitar has been totally liberated from any prior constraints; he fades in on a simple, fantastic riff and over the course of the song’s five-plus minutes, he distorts and destroys the thing. The song builds with him, from darkness to supernova.
6. “Out Of Time” (from Think Tank, 2003)
“Out Of Time” was the first single released from Think Tank, and its urgent title and lyric sort of belie the song’s serenity and luxuriance — it’s easily the warmest Blur single, and maybe the warmest song in their catalog, period. It’s the first Blur release without Graham, and perhaps some of the song’s looseness is due to his absence. Recorded in Marrakech with a Moroccan orchestra, “Out Of Time” is Damon indulging a bit in his world-music explorations via Honest Jon’s, but those elements blend wonderfully with Alex James’s loping bass line, Dave Rowntree’s relaxed percussion and Damon’s lazy vocal. It’s a splendid, sunny, utterly captivating piece of music.
5. “Under The Westway” (single, 2012)
Am I overrating “Under The Westway” here simply because it’s a new Blur song, and because it’s a decisively terrific song at that? What I’m asking is, am I just happy Blur are back (momentarily, anyway), and not just back, but back, and using this list to voice my happiness? It’s possible. You could also argue, though, that, without virtue of perspective, I’m actually underrating it. I think you could make a strong case that “Westway” is the best song ever written by Blur. It doesn’t harken back to any particular period in the band’s career — it’s not as high-strung as the Britpop albums or as spaced-out as the post-Britpop albums. Weirdly, though, it kind of combines the best things about both those eras to create something else: It’s elegant, clear-eyed and clean-sounding, with a gigantic melody and a complicated, critical lyric, but it’s also sad and pretty and simple. The instrumentation, melody, and tone recall John Lennon and/or David Bowie, but the song is plainly Blur, even though it would not fit on any Blur record. The band’s reticence to release a new album when they are clearly operating at an insanely high level is beyond maddening.
4. “This Is A Low” (from Parklife, 1994)
When I started compiling this list, I tried to establish a few arbitrary parameters to make the job a little easier. First I considered enforcing a rule demanding at least one song from each album be included, but that made for an awkward and dishonest end result. Then, I toyed with including only songs that had not been released as singles … followed by including only songs that had been released as singles. And while I could have crafted an adequate list using any of these guidelines, none of them left me satisfied. So I abandoned the easy route and just dug in, trying to find an acceptable definition of “best.” Now that I’m 60 percent of the way through it, I’m kind of realizing it could have been called Blur’s 10 Most Depressing songs. “This Is A Low” is, for all intents and purposes, the last song on Parklife; it’s followed by the jaunty instrumental “Lot 105,” but that feels like a palate-cleanser after the “Low”‘s epic majesty. The verses are strewn with references to England — which could be alienating to non-English fans — but the chorus is massive, universal and unforgettable: “This is a low/but it won’t hurt you/When you’re alone/it will be there with you.”
3. “Caramel” (from 13, 1999)
Last week, when Blur played “Caramel” for the first time ever in concert, I wrote: “The back half of Blur’s 13 is pretty much the finest string of songs ever produced by the band, and the apex of the side comes on tracks 10 and 11, ‘Caramel’ and ‘Trimm Trabb,’ respectively, which showcased a much darker side of the band only previously hinted at.” As I mentioned above (in the “Trimm Trabb” entry), 13 was written after Damon split with Justine Frischmann, and the entire album is informed by his pain. “Caramel” is the most brutally visceral example of his catharsis (even more, I think, than the fantastic “No Distance Left To Run”). Like “Trimm Trabb,” “Caramel” offers not lyrics so much as cries for help: “Where is the magic?/I’ve gotta get better/Oh lord give me magic/I’ll love you forever.” It’s seven-plus minutes of near-stillness and drone, a lovely melody cycling, bringing in skronking guitars, disembodied yelps, and skittering drums, building into a swirling hurricane, laying waste to everything in its path. At the time of its release, Damon said that prior to 13 he had never before written love songs, but after that, he never wanted to write anything else.
2. “The Universal” (from The Great Escape, 1995)
“The Universal” is one of the most beloved Blur songs, as well as one of the most misunderstood. Today, it’s the highest-rated Blur song on Rate Your Music, although Justine Frischmann famously hated it. In 1996, she told The Face, “I don’t think that Blur do themselves justice really. The choice of singles on this album has, I think, been amazingly bad. I don’t really like ‘Country House’ but I think ‘The Universal’ is a lot worse. ‘The Universal’ makes ‘Country House’ look OK. I think it’s desperately bad on every level, personally.” Moreover, the lyrical theme of “The Universal” — some dystopian future society (for which the band borrowed imagery from 2001 and A Clockwork Orange) — is kind of limp. But … that chorus. It’s soaring, yearning, optimistic, and terrified, the closest musical analogue to sky-diving I can imagine. Why did it take Blur a clumsy sci-fi conceit to write the most emotionally affecting song in their history? That’s a subject for another story. “The Universal” is a triumph.
1. “Blue Jeans” (from Modern Life is Rubbish, 1993)
If Modern Life is the moment Blur vaulted from singles band to important artistes, then it’s essential to look beyond the singles to recognize the band’s genius. The songs selected as singles from Modern Life featured Blur at their most boisterous and energetic: “For Tomorrow,” “Chemical World,” “Sunday, Sunday,” each of which has its own notable charms. But “Blue Jeans” was nestled at the album’s heart, a shimmering gem bursting with color and light. The lyrics could be read as a critique of inertia: “Blue jeans I wear them every day/There’s no particular reason to change.” But as presented, they feel like an expression of deep contentment and calm. It helps that the song is so gentle and unhurried, with a gorgeously lazy vocal and guitar lead. Every second of “Blue Jeans” is complete perfection, but the chorus is an otherworldly rush of melody and melancholy: nitrous oxide as music. “Don’t think I’m walking out of this,” sings Damon, leading up to the blissful cascade: “She don’t mind/whatever I say, whatever I say/I don’t really want to change a thing/I want to stay this way forever.” Of course, things changed. But in “Blue Jeans,” Blur captured a recognition of pure joy, coupled with the realization it cannot last. It’s something very much like falling in love, very much like perfection.
You can also listen to our playlist of Blur’s 10 Best Songs on Spotify.