To many, Blur are the definitive BritPop band. Certainly, the London-born quartet were responsible for many of the movement's most memorable and iconic moments and songs; they were the first band from that scene to truly crash the mainstream, and one of the first to eschew the early '90’s obsession with grunge and American-isms, and instead embrace England’s musical past, drawing inspiration from jaunty '60’s pop and quirky, quintessentially British 'characters'.
When they adopted this approach, anyone saying that they knew this was a style that would become a massive cultural obsession is a liar, but Blur paved the way for that scene's dominance. When the movement ran out of ideas and was clearly dying, Blur refused to die with it, instead embracing art-rock, awkward mathy punk and African rhythms to create one of indie rock's most diverse and eclectic back catalogues.
But how do these albums stack up today?
8. The Magic Whip (2015)
Blur’s first album of new material in 12 years, and the first since the classic line up reformed in 2008. You’d hope it would be a glorious comeback, but, actually it was the weakest set of songs of the band's career.
Inspired by a five-day period stranded in Hong Kong after the cancellation of the 2013 Tokyo Rocks music festival, the band worked on new material, most of it thematically linked to their surroundings. The results aren’t awful, but they are often rather underwhelming.
Opener Wholesome Street is good, with textbook use of Graham Coxon’s chunky chords and Damon Albarn’s clipped prose, I Broadcast goes back to their punkier influences rather well and Ong Ong is a spindly little camp fire singalong that is very sweet. Other than that, much of The Magic Whip glides by without really making much impact.
7. Leisure (1991)
Debut albums either tend to be absolute classics that define their creators or easily forgotten efforts that the best of bands would go on to better many times over. We certainly have the latter here, but that isn’t to say that Leisure doesn’t have plenty of enjoyable moments on it. It’s just that the stye that Blur would become truly synonymous with was yet to have been perfected. Instead, we get a fairly typical early '90’s indie album, full of baggy influences and slacker vibes.
That gorgeous guitar loop that opens the albums big hit, There’s No Other Way, still sounds great over 30 years down the line, and both Sing, Bang and She’s So High absolutely hold up to scrutiny as well. But there’s no doubt that this was merely a decent introduction to the band and not a lot more.
6. Think Tank (2003)
The sole Blur album that doesn’t feature Graham Coxon, Think Tank finds the band pretty much unrecognisable from the chirpy Brit-poppers of the early '90s. It's a politically minded, experimental, often angry, often sombre record, influenced by Afrobeat and Albarn’s time in Morocco, and featuring production credits from electronic artists such as William Orbit and Norman Cook (aka Fatboy Slim).
As such, it often gets overlooked somewhat when the Blur discography is being discussed, and while it is far from their strongest effort, there is much to admire about the album. First single Out of Time is wonderfully minimalist psychedelic dream and Blur can dart between Sweet Song’s hypnotic and delicate melody, the one-minute punk blast of We’ve Got a File on You and the country dub of Brothers and Sisters without losing your attention. A bit of a lost gem, truth be told.
5. The Great Escape (1995)
Having to follow up a true smash hit of an album is always a daunting task for any band, so when Blur returned post-Parklife with their fourth album and its lead single, Country House, emerged as the winner of the 'Battle of BritPop', the pressure on them couldn’t have been higher. They were never going to escape completely unscathed, and The Great Escape was seen as Parklife Mk. II by many, and was consequently viewed as rather disappointing, at the time.
Although there is some truth in this - it's an album that undoubtedly does continue the sonic formula which Blur's previous two LPs had leaned in on, and it is definitely too long - when The Great Escape works it’s fantastic. Singles like Stereotypes, Charmless Man and, obviously, Country House are all hugely enjoyable pop songs, but it’s The Universal that really steals the show. A song that might just be the best Blur have ever written, how it isn’t their definitive moment still puzzles both us and the band themselves.
4. Blur (1997)
In 1997 the Britpop bubble burst as Radiohead’s Ok Computer arrived and made the movement's broad, chipper, Kinks-thieving anthems sound utterly redundant. Some may have expected Blur to be one of the first casualties of this new utopia, but actually, like most innovators, they had the smarts to see it coming and ditched the style before it became old hat.
It had been well publicised that the band were becoming bored of the long-standing pillars of British guitar music, and had been listening to Pavement, Sebadoh and other underground US indie rock bands: Blur, then, can be viewed as their slightly warped, Graham Coxon-driven, take on that sound. It's best known for the grungy Song 2, which if, overplayed these days is still a cracking song, but there are far higher highs on this album than that two-minute blast.
On Your Own manages to cram a (sort of) Britpop chorus into a disco/garage frame, Death of a Party sticks Doors-y Hammond organ beneath Green-era R.E.M., M.O.R. is obviously Bowie’s Boy Keep Swinging if it had been written by Dinosaur Jr. and then there’s Beetlebum, a song that confused many as the lead single from the record, but now is lauded for the simple yet oddly confusing rhythmic pattern that drives it.
A fantastic swerve away from the zeitgeist, letting Blur accelerate into their own lane.
3. Modern Life Is Rubbish (1993)
Inspired by a disastrous US tour and the desire to make music that embraced quintessential British ideas, Modern Life is Rubbish was a deliberate attempt to move away from the trends of the time.
From the opening chords, it’s obvious that this is a very different beast to Blur's debut. First track For Tomorrow is perhaps the highlight of the record, a song that features all of the hallmarks which would go on to define British guitar pop for the next few years; themes previously viewed as working class mundanity repackaged as glorious romanticism, unashamedly pop choruses, stirring strings and head bobbing riffs. It’s a magnificent way to usher in the new era.
There is some argument amongst fans whether Blur perfected the style immediately here, or if it took them one more album to really get the alchemy right. We’d say that they would go on to hit the bullseye one album later, but there really isn’t too much in it; Chemical World sounds like The Smiths being cheeky monkeys, Advert does mini-Sex Pistols with real vigour and Star Shaped goes for The Kinks, The Who and The Jam all at once, and succeeds as well.
Weirdly, despite the references being so clear, Modern Life is Rubbish still manages to establish a very clear identity for the band. In terms of important moments in their career, this record may well be number one... but they would go on to better it.
2. Parklife (1994)
It might not be a perfect album, but Parklife is a true classic that came along at a time when British music, and guitar music respectively, desperately needed something to elevate it. In the aftermath of Kurt Cobain’s death, Blur’s third album changed the narrative and the direction of the zeitgeist and created Cool Britainnia’s big bang in the process.
Yes, there is the odd lull or silly intermission present on Parklife - despite the title track being one of Blur's most famous songs, it’s aged atrociously - but the highs are remarkable. Those highs range from Alex James’ iconic bass bounce on the clubby opening track Girls and Boys, the baroque chamber pop of To the End, the krautrock, staccato thump of Trouble in the Message Centre and the kitchen sink drama put to three chords of Tracy Jacks. All weird and eclectic in their own way, yet distinctly British and distinctly Blur.
But the true centrepiece of the record is the wonderful, heartbreaking swell of This Is a Low, a song that pointed toward Blur’s future and showed that there was far more to the quartet than cheeky Cockney attitudes, perfect cheekbones and Union Jacks. There might be a healthy dollop of nostalgia involved at play here, but Parklife still sounds like the perfect distillation of the entire BritPop movement to these ears, and we’re choosing to consider that a good thing.
1. 13 (1999)
Blur at their most experimental, and their their punkiest, Blur at their boldest and simultaneously broadest, Blur at the peak of their creative powers: that’s 13 and it’s why it tops our list.
Having skilfully avoided the BritPop trapdoor two years prior, Blur doubled down and went even further into art rock territory; moving to Reykjavik for a spell, bringing in dance producer William Orbit to work with them for the first time, and quite pointedly and deliberately indulging in the members even widening musical palettes.
During this period Damon Albarn’s much-publicised relationship with Elastica’s Justine Frischmann had ended, inspiring much of the mood of 13 and giving his lyrics a downbeat and sombre quality that is the emotional core of the record. That’s not to say that this is a dour or depressing album.
Opening track Tender is a classic, full of real heart, depth, and when the choir come in to back Albarn on the chorus it is still a spine-tingling moment. Bugman has Coxon’s fingerprints all over it, like a more assured Song 2, and the cowboy slide guitar of Swamp Song is a delightful, curled lip garage rock banger.
It’s clear though, that the band really excel when the pace does drop; the nearly 8-minute trip-hop of Battle is exceptional, the slight yet mechanical Sigur Ros meets Kraftwerk of Caramel utterly at odds with anything Blur had ever produced before and Coxon’s fabulously resigned, sighing vocal performance on the otherwise upbeat Coffee & TV is filled with ennui.
But the finest moment is the chilling No Distance Left to Run, which is unquestionably one of the finest break-up songs ever recorded: over a single chiming guitar Albarn’s voice and lyrics paint a picture of a man heartbroken, beaten and tired. It’s poignant, moving, effortlessly gorgeous and the highlight of the most complete album in the career of one of British music's most endlessly fascinating bands.