Catalog Crawl: Blur

Catalog Crawl

Music nerds love ranked lists. Music nerds love thoughtful commentary. Music nerds love carefully curated playlists. Catalog Crawl provides all of these things and more. In these features, Strange Currencies takes an exhaustive look at the discographies of our favorite artists — the ones who reside at the core of our music obsession.


Blur or Oasis? Oasis or Blur? To pay even the slightest bit of attention to British pop/rock music in the nineties was to be forced to confront the question. Even as a semi-detached American outsider, the rivalry between Britpop’s heavy-hitters was still plenty familiar. However, while Blur and Oasis’ biggest hits were inescapable in the mid-nineties, I never bothered to engage with either group beyond what I had heard on the radio or MTV. If forced to make the binary choice, I would’ve gone with Blur, simply for the fact that I didn’t actively hate them.

In fact, it wasn’t until OK Computer arrived that any real Anglophile tendencies emerged in my musical tastes. By that point, Oasis had seemingly spent any goodwill that they had built up with American audiences on a notoriously self-indulgent third record. And Blur? They were (allegedly) channelling Pavement on a song that I largely wrote off as a mildly-entertaining novelty: hardly the kind of thing that could compete with Thom and company. It wasn’t until 1999’s 13 that I ever bothered listening to a Blur album in full, and though I loved “Coffee & TV,” I was hardly blown away by the rest of it.

But a funny thing happened: those Anglophile tendencies eventually blossomed. Granted, it was largely the music of the British Invasion that really did the heavy lifting, but in retrospect, the Britpop scene provided a fascinating set of comparisons to that earlier generation. Obviously, Oasis’ mission to become the modern Beatles was little more than absurd bluster, amplified by an over-excited British media. If anything, as a band that created a string of masterpieces in a bewildering variety of modes, Radiohead were the rightful heirs. Oasis were, at best, the nineties’ version of The Rolling Stones: arrogant, stubbornly traditional, never the best band on the scene, but still capable of delivering greatness on occasion. The perennially-underrated Supergrass could be The Who in this exercise: an instrumental power trio (yes, I know The Who were a quartet, but Roger Daltrey’s occasional tambourine playing doesn’t count) that bridged a gap between pop and punk.

And of course, we know where that leaves Blur. In fact, from the time of the band’s sophomore album (1993’s Modern Life is Rubbish), Blur would be linked to The Kinks. And while these comparisons could tend to be overblown, there’s plenty of compelling evidence. Like Ray Davies, Blur’s frontman, Damon Albarn, has a knack for crafting quirky character studies into near-perfect pop songs. Like Davies, Albarn had a plenty impressive collaborator/foil within his own band: for Davies, it was his brother Dave; for Albarn, it was guitarist/songwriter Graham Coxon. And, like The Kinks, Blur were the most definitively (one might say peculiarly to outsiders) British rock band of their generation.

And like The Kinks, these British idiosyncrasies kept the band from dominating American charts in the same way that their contemporaries did (at least outside of ‘novel’ catalog outliers like “Lola” and “Song 2”). But, like The Kinks, Blur’s best music has aged remarkably well. And, when discussing exactly what constitutes the best of it, there’s a lot that is worthy of consideration. For this Catalog Crawl, I’ve ranked the band’s nine studio LPs, plus — to meet the minimum ten required for these features — the 1994 collection of outtakes, The Special Collectors Edition.

As for the requisite playlist, I’ve picked two tracks from each proper album and one from Special Collectors Edition. My only self-imposed rule was to omit any song that appeared on 2000’s The Best Of, which is essentially a relatively-unimaginative compilation of Blur’s biggest hits. Therefore, the band’s best-known tracks (“Song 2,” “Girls and Boys,” “The Universal,” and plenty of others) won’t be found here. And, as Best Of predates Blur’s three most recent records, I was free to pick any track from those. Consider The Best Of to be ‘Blur 101,’ and this playlist to be its follow-up course. Enjoy!


Leisure

1991

(7.4)

10

Like their contemporaries in Radiohead, Blur debuted with a successful record that has since become something of an afterthought in their catalog. While Leisure bears many marks of its specific moment in time — in particular, elements of the “baggy” sound that was so prominent in the early nineties — there are more than a few songs here that hint at Blur’s staying power.

Best among these tracks are the hit singles “She’s So High” and “There’s No Other Way” — the latter reportedly a favorite of Kurt Cobain — as well as the long-time fan favorite and album centerpiece, “Sing.” Elsewhere, Leisure is comparatively forgettable, but its good moments ultimately surpass its lesser ones.

Two for the playlist: The aforementioned “Sing” is an easy choice here. There’s a dreaminess to the song that hints at Blur’s more exploratory work to come. On the other end of the spectrum, “Bang” is one of the more “of its moment” tracks on Leisure, but it houses one of the album’s catchiest choruses, and a cool, slinky riff from Graham Coxon.


The Special Collectors Edition

1994

(7.5)

9

The Special Collectors Edition presents an interesting look into a version of Blur that was, at this point, still very much in a formative state. Their influences are (generally) worn on their sleeves — there’s still a lot of baggy and shoegaze going on here — but the songwriting that would make Damon Albarn and company such a critically important band on the Britpop landscape is beginning to come into focus. I have the vinyl version, and — for what it’s worth — disc one is pretty consistently stellar. Disc two is decidedly more of a mixed bag, but these outtakes are still essential listening for any Blur fan.

One for the playlist: Originally released as a B-side to the 1992 stand-alone single “Popscene,” “Mace” is a playful track that helped to usher in Blur’s classic era. It probably could’ve fit on Modern Life is Rubbish, but it finds a suitable home here.


The Ballad of Darren

2023

(7.6)

8

Don’t take the fact that I only place Blur’s most recent album ahead of their debut — and a compilation of outtakes — as an indication that The Ballad of Darren is somehow an underwhelming entry in the band’s catalog. In truth, this is a wholly confident release that stands as a worthy successor to everything that came before it. And, when caught in the right light, Darren can hold its own with any of Blur’s post-nineties records.

Whether interpreted as resignation or acceptance, there is a maturity to The Ballad of Darren that proves to be a poignant contrast to the cocksure swagger of Blur’s glory days. And appropriately, sonically, these ten songs feel ‘lived in’ in a way that seems wholly appropriate, given the amount of perspective that they reflect. Put another way: this album isn’t going to blow you away by any means, but there is a slow burn nature to it that rewards patience. Thirty-plus years into a career, that’s a feat unto itself.

Two for the playlist: A fine choice for the lead single, “The Narcissist” is the album’s runaway highlight. Elsewhere, “Barbaric” is a solid mid-tempo track with one of the record’s catchiest choruses, and the aforementioned maturity and perspective that make Darren an affecting listen.


The Magic Whip

2015

(7.7)

7

Despite being the first Blur album in over a decade — and the first to prominently feature Graham Coxon in over fifteen years — there is a deliberately low-key vibe to 2015’s The Magic Whip. While much of this stems from the fact that a majority of these tracks were recorded on the quick during an unplanned trip to Hong Kong, it’s also worth considering that Whip was also the first album to be recorded by a middle-aged incarnation of Blur.

And though there are uptempo moments — “Lonesome Street” in particular harkens back to the band’s halcyon days — this is a decidedly moodier version of the band than the one that produced their most iconic tracks. Likewise, it also dials back the headier experimentation of the final two records from the group’s initial run.

But ‘low-key’ and ‘moody’ fit Blur well across these twelve songs. And besides, when the mere existence of a new record is a grand statement in and of itself, there’s little sense in overreaching.

Two for the playlist: The Magic Whip puts its poppiest foot forward on the opening “Lonesome Street.” It’s an exuberant track that announces the return of the classic Blur lineup after its lengthy hiatus. The album centerpiece, “Thought I Was a Spaceman” pulls out some interesting sonic tricks over its comparatively-extended run time. It’s not an immediate track, but it’s a subtly impressive one.


Think Tank

2003

(7.8)

6

I feel a bit like a philistine rating Blur’s most experimental record in the lower half of their catalog, but for my money, Think Tank hasn’t quite earned the reputation that some fans have afforded it. Granted, this could very well be a me problem, and — given my predilection for rooting for underdogs — I’ll continue to give it every chance to win me over.

The thing is, Think Tank sounds very much like the work of a band undergoing an identity crisis — which, of course, is exactly what it is. Graham Coxon left Blur partway through the sessions — only appearing on the closer “Battery in Your Leg” — and Damon Albarn had recently found unexpected success with his side gig. The deemphasis on guitars, and subsequent focus on beats and electronic flourishes, make complete sense in the context that Think Tank was created in.

But at the end of the day, as interesting as Think Tank is as a study of aural textures, the songs often fail to match those on Blur’s previous records. Where the album tends to succeed most is in its ballads: the aforementioned “Battery,” “Good Song,” “Sweet Song,” and especially “Out of Time.” If only the more upbeat material could’ve been equal to the task.

Two for the playlist: One of Blur’s finest tracks, “Out of Time” is a no-brainer pick for the playlist. Also excellent is “Sweet Song,” which Damon Albarn wrote for Graham Coxon after the latter had (temporarily) departed the band. It’s a beautiful “no hard feelings” tribute to a fruitful creative partnership.


Blur

1997

(8.2)

5

While much is made of 1997’s Blur being inspired by American indie rock, that narrative is arguably a bit reductive. Sure, one can hear the influence of Beck (“Country Sad Ballad Man”), Guided by Voices (“You’re So Great”), and Pavement (a lot of these songs) throughout, but Blur earns its self-titled status by definitively being the work of its own accomplished creators.

And sure, this is definitely a retreat from the Britpop stylings that had defined Blur’s previous three records. However, Blur still teems with the distinct British-isms that had set the band apart from their contemporaries. Not only that, but the songs are almost all excellent, and the quartet generally sounds wholly at ease with its change of direction.

Two for the playlist: The first Graham Coxon-led song to appear on a Blur record, “You’re So Great” is the clearest example of the guitarist’s fondness of American indie rock, particularly in its embrace of a defiantly lo-fi aesthetic. Another highlight, “Death of a Party” points to the moody experimentalism found on Blur’s next two albums.


Modern Life is Rubbish

1993

(8.4)

4

Rarely on their second album do Blur go for the big statements — that would be a task for the follow-up — but they discover a satisfying equilibrium between ‘quaint’ and ‘ambitious’ throughout Modern Life is Rubbish. Thus, while Rubbish may not be the best Blur record — though plenty of fans consider it to be — it’s the coziest work in their catalog by a long shot.

This is also the song cycle that would begin to usher in all of those Kinks comparisons: where Damon Albarn truly begins to dive into the many peculiarities of modern British life. Not only is this the point where he starts to find a voice as a songwriter, and but it’s also where the rest of the band really begins to flex their own creative muscles.

Two for the playlist: My first pick here is “Blue Jeans,” which is the track that best displays the cozy vibe of Modern Life is Rubbish. It’s a fan favorite, and justifiably so. My second pick, “Popscene,” gets in on a technicality, since it was actually a part of the American track listing for Rubbish. It was a notorious chart flop for Blur, but in retrospect, the song represents a crucial turning point in the band finding its own sound.


The Great Escape

1995

(8.6)

3

I’ve never really considered this until now, but the third entry in Blur’s “Britpop Trilogy” bears a lot of similarities to another album that appeared in 1995: Pavement’s Wowee Zowee. And while plenty of Pavement references would be made with Blur’s next record, indulge me for a minute.

First, both albums are stuffed — some might say ‘overstuffed’ — with ideas. As such, it makes it much harder for the listener to wrap their heads around them in a mere few listens, in stark contrast to their immediately-praised predecessors. For both, descriptors of ‘difficult’ and ‘sprawling’ are fair, but also not necessarily meant as a critique.

Next, both records load their most immediate tracks up front, but not without some genuine curveballs thrown into the mix early on. And both are built around epic, emotional centerpieces (“Grounded” and “The Universal”) that could reasonably be considered each band’s peak. But still, the cumulative vibe of these albums as a whole is decidedly playful.

And finally, both records were met with confusion from fans and critics alike. Both were considered squandered opportunities at a moment when all eyes were on their respective creators. However, in time, both have become dark horse favorites in each band’s catalog.

Two for the playlist: While the opening “Stereotypes” was chosen as a single, it failed to leave an impression in the same way as “The Universal,” “Charmless Man,” or “Country House” — all of which were included on Best Of. The sprawling nature of The Great Escape leaves several highly-varied options for the second pick. Though “Best Days” and “He Thought of Cars” are both excellent — and fan favorites — I’m personally a bit partial to “Fade Away.” Its echoes of The Specials fit Blur well, and make for a wholly unique track in their catalog.


13

1999

(9.0)

2

While Blur had already — in their own way — declared Britpop dead with their 1997 self-titled record, its follow-up secured the final nail in the coffin. The most overtly difficult and deliberately arty album in their catalog to date, 13 was a challenging-but-brilliant reinvention that left listeners and critics confounded upon its release, but that is now regarded by a significant segment of fans as the band’s masterpiece.

And while the album’s big singles (namely “Coffee & TV” and “Tender”) provide a pair of intriguing entry points, neither of them are all that representative of 13 as a whole. This is a moody, affected, and intentionally-abstracted work: one inspired by turmoil both within and adjacent to the band. In the end, it’s a record that demands patience: something that all too many listeners — myself included — were not willing to give it at the time of its release. Really though, believe the (belated) hype on this one.

Two for the playlist: Many of 13‘s finest non-single moments don’t work nearly as well when separated from their parent album. With that said, there is enough of a hook to “Bugman” for it to find a spot here. The same is true for “Trimm Trabb,” which provides something of a primer to 13‘s more experimental material.


Parklife

1994

(9.4)

1

If nothing else, compiling a Blur entry for the Catalog Crawl series at least partially makes up for the fact that we did not include any of the band’s records in our Top 100 Albums of the 1990s feature from a few years back. While one could make a reasonable argument that Blur should’ve landed multiple entries on that list, Parklife‘s omission feels particularly egregious, as this is one of the defining records of its decade.

And while Parklife‘s numerous hits are legitimate headliners, the supporting material here is damned impressive in its own right. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find any genuine weak spots over the course of these fifty-two minutes. Sure, some of the transitional pieces are comparatively inconsequential, but they provide further depth and range to a widely-varied but thoroughly cohesive listening experience.

But yeah, those hits are something special: “Girls & Boys” is both a rhythmic and melodic marvel; “To the End” paves the way for “The Universal,” but is plenty majestic itself; the title track’s hook is God-tier; “End of the Century” is a damned anthem; and “This Is a Low” is cited by plenty of observers as Blur’s greatest song. That’s half-a-dozen genuine classics, without even taking into consideration excellent tracks like “Tracy Jacks,” “Badhead,” “London Loves,” and “Magic America.”

So sure, I — and by extension, Strange Currencies — spent way too many years underestimating Blur, by viewing them as a good-but-not-great band with some excellent singles and merely solid albums. Allow my error to be your lesson; and know that the easiest path to seeing their greatness runs through this outstanding record.

Two for the playlist: Even though Parklife was well represented on Best Of, there are still plenty of great options left to choose from. “Tracy Jacks” wasn’t a single, but it certainly could’ve been, with its bright open chords, and XTC-esque flourishes. Also excellent is “Badhead,” which pairs R.E.M. jangle with a lovely, resigned chorus.


Author

  • Matt Ryan

    Matt Ryan founded Strange Currencies Music in January 2020, and remains the site's editor-in-chief. The creator of the "A Century of Song" project and co-host of the "Strange Currencies Podcast," Matt enjoys a wide variety of genres, but has a particular affinity for 60s pop, 90s indie rock, and post-bop jazz. He is an avid collector of vinyl, and a multi-instrumentalist who has played/recorded with several different bands and projects.

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