To the End: 12 Essential Blur Songs for 2012

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.

 

“There’s No Other Way” (1991)

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

 

“Popscene” (1992)

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

 

“Girls & Boys” (1994)

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

 

“To the End” (1994)

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

 

“Parklife” (1994)

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

 

“Charmless Man” (1995)

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

“Song 2” and more…

 

“Song 2” (1997)

“Woo-hoo!” Blur’s 1997 self-titled LP was where Britpop’s most vocal boosters signaled the last call for the movement and decided to go American. What “Song 2” demonstrated to surprisingly receptive U.S. radio stations was that the foursome was as adept at pastiching Seattle grunge and grubby lo-fi indie rock as it was the fathers of British guitar pop. Alex James and Dave Rowntree lay down a solid beat, Coxon rolls out the last great alt-rock riff of the ‘90s, and Damon Albarn mewls vaguely discernable lyrics that are punctuated by the most imitated sports chant this side of Queen’s “We Will Rock You”. Often chided for being pop-minded middle-class art students instead of proper rockers like the working-class heroes of Oasis, all the fellas should ever need is this roaring two-minute single to silence those who challenged their ability to whip up an audience into a moshing frenzy. A.J. Ramirez

 

“You’re So Great” (1997)

Smack dab right in the middle of Blur’s 1997 self-titled album is one of the most unflinchingly raw and vulnerable songs in the entire Blur canon, and — ‘lo and behold — it’s the very first solo song we ever got out of Graham Coxon. While the album did mark the band’s move towards the American underground lo-fi rock sounds that Coxon was absolutely infatuated with, there was never a clear heart to be found on the disc. Songs like “M.O.R.” and the sexy “Beetlebum” showed that the band still knew how to strut, and the more experimental passages in the disc’s latter half were necessary, if only occasionally interesting, but “You’re So Great” was where the heart is. Boldly without a drum track to speak of, this is just Coxon by himself, his guitars positively soaking in lo-fi fuzz, his reedy voice just barely poking through the mix. Yet the melody is so strong that we would’ve paid attention to him regardless, and when he gets to that final bit of the chorus — “And I feel the light / When you tell me ‘It’s OK’ / ‘Cos you’re so great and I love you” — we feel that exact light that he’s talking about, that warmth working its way into our hearts, leaving “You’re So Great” as one of the most thoughtful tracks Blur has ever done, a title which unknowingly manages to describe it perfectly. Evan Sawdey

 

“Tender” (1999)

“Tender” found Blur at a crossroads, but, then again, what else is new? It’s well known that 13 was made in the wake of Albarn’s break-up with Elastica’s Justine Frischmann, and “Tender” definitely makes its mark as an introspective and, well, tender moment for someone whose strength as a songwriter had always been writing about other people. After years of being cheeky and clever, Albarn puts his feelings out there with Coxon’s coaxing, making corny sentiments like “Love’s the greatest thing” sound sincere and even heartbreaking. And when that backing choir chimes in ever so unobtrusively, you feel how Albarn’s not going it alone on a song that manages to feel soul-searchingly intimate and transcendently vast at the same time. Arnold Pan

 

“Coffee & TV” (1999)

Introspective and paced to pull the heartstrings, “Coffee & TV” gently marches along to a simplistic guitar strum. For this anomaly from 13, Albarn stepped aside to make room for guitarist Coxon to wax sensitive and deliver perhaps the most vulnerable of their hits. It’s a delightful and unusually off-key anthem for an underdog. A high-school recital vocal delivery combined with the playful keyboard part give it a universal patio or road-trip appeal even many years after its release. Darryl Wright

 

“No Distance Left to Run” (1999)

Throughout his career, Albarn has been heralded for his succinct pop knowledge and his wry, biting lyrics. Yet vulnerability was never his strong suit — that was Coxon’s department. Yet 13, the final full Blur album with Coxon intact, featured Albarn on the mend from breaking up with Frischmann, and Coxon could not have been a better foil for his bandmate. “No Distance Left to Run” is a somewhat incredible number, as it features only the most minimal of elements. “It’s over,” starts Albarn in a detached, wounded coo, the song serving as both his confessional and his time for mourning. The sweet voices and light keys near the end are simply a coda, a lullaby to sweep the harm away, but from the sounds of it, Albarn is shattered to the core, which is doubly true when you consider that he’s said in interviews repeatedly that he had a difficult time even recording his vocals for that track — it left him wrecked, shattered by the end. Although Albarn entered the album with a broken heart, he can take some minor consolation for coming out the other side not only with some perspective and a slight sense of comfort, but also one of the greatest breakup songs ever written, full stop. Evan Sawdey

 

“Out of Time” (2003)

In retrospect, “Out of Time” couldn’t be a more appropriate title for Blur’s last great single. With Albarn splitting his attentions after Gorillaz had blown up and Coxon just plain splitting from Blur as Think Tank was being recorded, there was already a posthumous feeling to “Out of Time” even as the album was current. But that didn’t mean Blur couldn’t tweak its sound one last time: “Out of Time” typifies how Albarn was looking forward to new challenges, even while he was still at the helm of his old band, incorporating the African musical elements that he would champion later. And yet, the ethno-pop touches blended right into Blur’s mix, which showed an eclectic and experimental side without messing with the signature character of the band. It’s as fitting a tribute as there could be for a band that never settled for resting on its laurels, evolving even as it was going out in style. Arnold Pan

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