If you needed any more confirmation that Blur took the gold in the 1990s Britpop battle royale, the fact that they were picked to headline the huge Hyde Park concert capping the Olympics—with New Order opening for ‘em—should close the case. It’s just the last leg of a big victory lap that includes the comprehensive 21-disc career retrospective Blur 21 and a couple of new swan song singles as the group rides off into the sunset—or maybe not. Apropos of the band’s curtain call performance wrapping up the 2012 London Games, the PopMatters music staff has pulled together a chronologically arranged list of 12 essential Blur tracks, tracing how the group changed over time to create an identity and legacy all its own.
While the Britpop group’s incarnations as faux-Cockney punters (circa Parklife) and as the British Pavement (Blur) are most often hailed as the band’s high water marks, Blur’s early dabbling in the top trends of the British indie scene at the start of the 1990s—Madchester and shoegaze—on its 1991 debut Leisure is often referred to in less affectionate terms, if at all. In spite of the lack of love for that period, consensus is clear that the record yielded at least one top tune, “There’s No Other Way”, a groovy genre workout that outdid some of the better attempts at crafting danceable Madchester singles by actual Mancunian bands. Spooling out indelible riffs like they’re going out of style, Graham Coxon’s playing is quite lyrical, sliding up and down the neck of the instrument with hammer-ons and pull-offs galore adding flair. Highlights include Coxon pulling back tastefully after Damon Albarn sings “All that you can do is watch them play” in each chorus, his backwards-sounding guitar solo, and the flurry of high-pitched licks that end the track with an ecstatic rush. (To read an extended treatment of “There’s No Other Way”, click here.) A.J. Ramirez
If you witnessed the car-crash tour movie Starshaped, you’ll know the ‘92 Blur were riding a runaway rollercoaster of blood ‘n’ puke. Destination? “The Dumper”. Freshly reduced to the status of bums by their Fagin-esque, tea-leafin’ manager and having had the older cool kidz laugh ‘n’ point when they politely asked if they could sit on “The Big Bus” with Dinosaur Jr., Blur, evidently, had fuck all to lose. For these urchin underdogs revenge would be sweet… and loud! The spazzy, speedy, spunky “Popscene” was no enormohit (No. 32), but it was a blood oath, pinky promise they weren’t through just yet. Matt James
You could make a good case that “Girls & Boys” was the song that initially defined Britpop, but nothing else in the subgenre sounded like it. It’s definitely the song that redefined the band’s career, giving Blur an identity and a chart topper that pushed Parklife to #1, and yet the group never replicated anything like its over-the-top synth-pop again. But it just goes to show that “Girls & Boys” is all about its ironies, the club hit that makes a mockery the discotheque set. As frivolously catchy as that chorus sounds—tell me some inexact approximation of the line “Girls who are boys / Who like boys to be girls” isn’t going through your head right now—and as cheesy as those keyboards are, “Girls & Boys” offers as complex a social commentary as you’ll find in hot-and-bothered ear candy, not just making a place for Blur in a long-standing Brit tradition of satire, but extending it into modern life. Arnold Pan
Damon Albarn almost ruins the loveliest track from Parklife. Even this stately Francophilic ballad (featuring breathy vocal counterpoints in the verses courtesy of Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier), so poised and understated it should come packaged in a tuxedo, isn’t immune from the frontman’s mid-‘90s propensity to affect a very broad and very fake Cockney accent. But all concerns are put to rest every time Graham Coxon strums a G6 chord and Albarn tenderly sings, “Well, you and I / Collapsed in love,” as the music swells around an utterly sublime chorus, where the singer assures the object of his affection, “And it looks like we might have made it / Yes, it looks like we’ve made it to the end.” Even the presence of a bridge section evocative of a carnival fairground can’t undermine what the band pulls off here. A.J. Ramirez
What makes Blur’s “Parklife” so special? Is it because it is a call and response spoken word piece set to music—and a catchy ditty at that that jangles more than a pocket full of quarters? Is it because it’s a slice of life piece about a day in Britannia? For me, this is the quintessential Blur song because it’s the one I remember hearing when I used to go clubbing when I lived in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Not “Song 2”. Not “Girls & Boys”. This. It’s a ubiquitous song, just one that doesn’t grate or grow old. It’s simply just a perfect piece of quasi-abstract pop, and one with a big beat that you can certainly dance to. Here’s to…“Parklife!” Zachary Houle
When compared to the worldwide popularity of Blur (or, more precisely, “Song 2”) and the art-minded achievements of 13 and Think Tank that came after it, The Great Escape tends to be overlooked in Blur’s oeuvre. Lest anyone forgets, though, this was the album that the group released at the height of Britpop’s hype, its haymaker in Blur’s prizefight with Oasis over the charts and minds of the UK public. On an album that was Blur’s most socially engaged, “Charmless Man” stood out for its razor-sharp wit, skewering status-obsessed philistines with voracious appetites, but no taste. With a Kinks-y bounce to it and that snotty na-na-na refrain, “Charmless Man” sneaks in its critique with earworming snark that’s never preachy or holier than thou. Arnold Pan