Damon Albarn's got a new album arriving in a few days, and his band's most popular album commemorates its 20th birthday. What better time to pay tribute to the period when Blur put the "pop" in Britpop?
5 - 1
While Modern Life Is Rubbish restored some of the band's luster with the British music press, it was "Girls and Boys", the first single from Parklife, that unequivocally restored Blur's commercial fortunes. In light of its popularity (it reached the top five of the British singles chart) and its prominence in this entire era of the band's output, it's interesting to note how atypical it is of the quartet's rockist guitar-pop strain. Then again, it was a brilliant -- and amusing -- stroke to score the group's half-intrigued/half-appalled snapshot of island holiday carnal debauchery to a delightfully cheesy Eurodisco groove. Between Alex James' bassline (second only to Green Day's "Longview" in the ranking of 1994's top bass parts) and the song's ridiculously catchy chorus, it's no surprise that this one became an instant audience favorite.
(The Great Escape, 1995)
You've probably noticed by now that The Great Escape isn't well-represented on this list. Blur's fourth album is never bad -- it's actually quite enjoyable, particularly the singles -- but it's more a consolidation of the ideas first explored on Modern Life Is Rubbish and then perfected on Parklife mixed with some bizarre experiments, and few of its better moments are of the same caliber as those found on those two LPs. One big exception is "Charmless Man", as obvious a choice for a single as anything in Blur's songbook. Right from the start, "Charmless Man" -- yet another one of Albarn's many lyrical character studies -- bounds into view clutching bundles of irresistible hooks, a stark contrast with the insufferable and off-putting personality of the title character. Albarn has a tendency to inhabit his characters at a remove, inserting a distance between them and himself even when he speaks in the first person, so it's a hoot to hear him squirm as he tries to pry himself away from an overly privileged fellow who's so posh he "knows his claret from his Beaujolais".
Poised and exquisite, "To the End" is one of the loveliest Blur ballads. Albarn's fake Cockney accent aside, "To the End" dispenses with the cheekiness that increasingly typified the band's output during this period in favor of a swoony romanticism. The song's verses set the mood by pairing up Albarn with Stereolab's Laetitia Sadier for an understated bilingual duet, and its choruses seal the deal -- dozens of listens later, the way Albarn hits "And it loooooooks like we might've made it" over a swelling string section swells never fails to get to me.
("Popscene" single, 1992)
Alongside Suede's "The Drowners", this stopgap non-LP single was instrumental in inaugurating Britpop. After chasing the baggy bandwagon to an artistic dead end, Blur finally uncoupled itself from riding the current trends to instead carve out its own identity. "Popscene" was certainly an audacious way to go about it, given its lyrics function as a pointed critique of the self-congratulatory inner circle of London's then-moribund indie scene. The song barrels onward at a bracing clip unlike anything Blur had evidenced beforehand, as if the band can't wait to cast off its shackles. Indeed, when Albarn sneers lines like "And everyone is a clever clone / A chrome-covered clone am I", it's not entirely clear if he's assuming a character or taking himself to task for being a conformist up to that point in the pop limelight -- either way, the energy radiates from the band audibly invigorated by clear break from business-as-usual it has afforded itself. History initially treated "Popscene" cruelly -- it stalled on the singles chart, was omitted from the UK tracklist of Modern Life Is Rubbish, and remained unavailable on British shores in any format for a long time -- but now it's widely (and rightly) perceived to be one of Blur's high points.
(Modern Life Is Rubbish, 1993)
A better commercial success than "Popscene" yet not the full-on career restoration that "Girls and Boys" was the following year, the first proper single of the "Life" period was an utterly pivotal release. "For Tomorrow" tied together geographical reference points, a reverence for British pop history (both in terms of aesthetics and quality, "For Tomorrow" sounds like it could've been written by David Bowie in his glam rock prime), and a guarded optimism concerning British life in the 1990s, and in doing so announced to the public that Damon Albarn at last found his voice as a songwriter. Far less critical and cynical than many other songs from the so-called "Life Trilogy" (indeed, less than most other cuts from Modern Life Is Rubbish, the band's ostensible "state of the nation circa 1993" document), there's a radiant purity to the song that elevates it beyond being merely a well-written tune into a song worth rallying around. More so than any song bar Oasis' "Live Forever", from its forward-looking title down to its seemingly endless coda "For Tomorrow" encapsulates the spirit of Britpop, the spirit of a generation who spent the previous decade subsisting on the fringe only to find that the wider world was slowly becoming theirs for the taking.