The arrival of newest Blur single “Go Out” heralded the long awaited (12 years, to be exact) new album The Magic Whip. Seems as good a reason as any to look back at their career and pick out 10 highlights.
The new single puts me in mind of the more moody and ‘lo-fi’ album release, Blur. It has one of those ‘non choruses’, with the band almost sounding bored. On first listen, not a creative high then….but where can we find their best work?
Naming a top ten from such a band is of course nigh-on impossible. I’ve covered all their albums here, but there are so many excellent tracks for you to discover if you don’t know this band. Best albums? Try Think Tank and also delve into the past with Modern Life Is Rubbish.
1. There’s No Other Way – from Leisure.
It may be uncool to like singles, particularly if they are big hits, but this is the song that catapulted Blur onto our radios and televisions. A grumpy but suspiciously well groomed band sitting at a dining table. The song itself is incredibly catchy power pop, with what became some trademark harmonies that always set them apart from some of their more dour contemporaries. Irresistible, from the second the guitar blasts in.
2. Blue Jeans – Modern Life Is Rubbish.
Ok, so I appear to be doing this chronologically. I hadn’t meant to, but there we are. “Air cushioned soles / I bought them on the Portobello Road / On a Saturday” – a classic Blur track from an often overlooked album. Blur tackled ‘difficult second album syndrome’ by getting a bit more ‘serious’. They started to dress like a band with matching blazers, jeans, and of course Dr. Martens, subject of the first line of this song. It’s one of those quiet, mellow dreamy tracks that pepper the Blur back catalogue. They started to drop many London references and imagery into their songs at this point as well. It’s the city they all met in after all, promoting the ‘it ain’t where you’re from it’s where you’re at’ philosophy.
3. This Is A Low – Parklife.
When ‘Girls And Boys’ hit the airwaves, and the charts, it was clear that Blur had come out all guns blazing on this third album. It’s them in full ‘mockney’ voice. All cheeky chappy references. Even the artwork depicts a very working class London pastime, heading down to the dog races for a jolly good night out of betting, booze and blokey-ness. This track though… This track knocks you sideways. A counterpoint to all the laughs up to this point. The part of the evening when you realise you have had too much to drink and you start to question….everything. “This is a low, but it won’t hurt you” belts Damon Albarn. His voice soaring with passion and vulnerability at the same time. They closed their gigs with this song for years after. It’s clear they knew they’d created something special.
4. Entertain Me – The Great Escape.
The usual irony of where a band were at their commercial peak but in retrospect this album is mostly sugar and no substance. Blur v Oasis was actually national news. Who would be the kings of ‘Britpop’? Well, Blur had the number one single in ‘Country House’ and we all know how much we like to hear that one now, don’t we? This song though had more class than a lot of the rest of the album. The synth-based intro and the danceable rhythm. It was “Girls And Boys”-lite but it worked and is a standout track now, looking back.
5. Beetlebum – Blur.
Perhaps a reaction to all the craziness of the Britpop battles and ultra-clean production, this album was a really downbeat affair. “Beetlebum” juxtaposes a slightly dirty but ultimately sweet and gentle tune onto the subject of heroin-fuelled sex (between Albarn and his then-girlfriend Justine Freishman from Elastica). It was a very big hit, probably because no-one knew what they were going on about and because it was fun to say ‘Beetlebum’ out loud.
6. Battle – 13.
Like no other Blur song before or since. This song is a sonic dreamscape. A slightly eerie, electronic bell/glockenspiel sound plays a haunting refrain. The sort of thing that could come from alien spacecraft. Guitars puncture the track with grungy, gritty chords, and at the end there’s a screaming and wailing that sounds like lasers being shot from the aforementioned alien craft. It goes on for almost 8 minutes. It’s weird and wonderful and I never tire of hearing it.
7. Coffee and TV – 13.
This may not be the most obvious album to spawn some favourites. It doesn’t contain much in the way of harmony, sense of fun, or chugging danceability that really represents Blur across the ages. But this song, sung by Graham Coxon, is more perfect pop. The video, too, is pure brilliance. The story of a milk carton (‘Milky’) who goes missing. Merrily (at first) wandering about town until he starts to get a little freaked out by how busy and big it all is. He falls for some strawberry milk and their little love story is as endearing as this song. A real Blur classic and no mistake.
8. Out Of Time – Think Tank.
The album they ended up making without Graham Coxon (save his contribution to ‘Battery In Your Leg’, more of which shortly). It seems unthinkable that they could continue without their main guitarist and one of their chief melody writers. But this is a very grown up Blur album. When I saw them live on this tour they just seemed so self-assured, happy and so downright pleased to be performing. This is one of many beautiful songs on Think Tank. Simple, yet deceptively so. “Where’s the love song to set us free? Too many people down. Everything turned the wrong way round”. Time for introspection, but not misery. Heart warming.
9. Battery In Your Leg – Think Tank.
A stop-start splendour of a song. It’s as if the walls of the studio they recorded in just melted away and this vulnerable little track was left exposed to the elements. It could easily have snuck onto ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’. It contains a very simple sentiment in the lyrics. There’s a feeling of general unrest and uncertainty about the future but that if we take things back to simple principles we can all keep going. “This is a ballad for the good times, and all the dignity we had. Don’t get het up on the evil things, you ain’t coming back. You can be with me, if you want to be”. I really love this song. Gentle, persuasive, gorgeous.
10. Sweet Song – Think Tank.
This is exactly what the title says it is. “And now it seems we’re falling apart, but I hope I see the good in you come back again, I just believed in you”. It’s a simple melody played on the piano. It washes over and you can’t help but drift along with it. The lyrics almost tragic yet positive. Like most of this excellent album it combines heart an head to startling effect.
I hope you enjoy these choices. If you’re a fan of the band you’ll have your own, no doubt different ones, and if you’ve yet to discover them you’ll soon be reaching for more.
The Magic Whip is released on 27 April.