The 10 Best Blur Deep Cuts [Deep Cuts Week]
November 8, 2011 Leave a comment
Our Deep Cuts journey continues with ten superb and often-overlooked songs from the 90s British rock band Blur.
The first time I really heard about Blur being awesome, I was seated around a dining-room table with a bunch of British public school prefects at Uppingham School in England. I’m seriously not making this up. It was 1995, and I was there on sort of an exchange-y type of thing, dining and conversing with a bunch of fellows a bit older than I was, and they were pretty keen to know what bands I thought were good. I offered some of the standardbearers of American rock of the era — Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Weezer. But in return, they mentioned only one band — Blur. Basically, they were adamant that Blur was the greatest band going and Parklife the greatest record.
In retrospect, I find it hard to argue with those prefects, certainly with regard to the British musical scene that they knew best.
Singer Damon Albarn and guitarist Graham Coxon grew up as childhood friends in London and founded Blur, originally called Seymour before they got a record deal, while attending college. Bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree formed the other half of the ensemble. Although the band caught on fairly quickly, scoring a record deal and changing their name at the label’s request, their first record Leisure (released in 1991) was a rather uninspired retread of the then-huge Manchester “baggy” scene. Trippy songs like “There’s No Other Way” were notable, but hardly mindblowing.
But Blur’s course changed dramatically after they returned from a horrific tour of the USA — where their psychedelic sound fell on deaf ears — and learned that in their absence, musical styles had shifted back home. A rival band, Suede, was all the rage, which incensed the incredibly competitive Albarn. (To be fair, Suede’s debut record was really good.) He began his counterattack by stealing the Suede frontman’s girlfriend, fellow musician Justine Frischmann. Then, channeling Ray Davies and harboring a dislike of American culture after experiencing it abroad and noting its influences in England, Albarn decided to push the group towards a distinctly British point of view, beginning on the record Modern Life is Rubbish. Continued pursuits on this theme led the group to produce its masterpiece, a slice of contemporary London called Parklife, which dropped in ’94.
NME described these great albums as “London odyssey crammed full of strange commuters, peeping Thomases and lost dreams; of opening the windows and breathing in petrol … It’s the Village Green Preservation Society come home to find a car park in its place.”
Albarn’s experiment went awry with The Great Escape, which attempted to satirize upper crust lifestyles but ended up being mostly annoying. After ginning up a massive press-fueled rivalry with Oasis, Albarn stood by and watched as the Gallagher brothers became massive worldwide successes with their hacky, Beatles-esque tunes; meanwhile, his band’s observational pop remained a solely British phenomenon.
It was the dissatisfaction of the guitarist, Coxon — who had grown utterly sick of the “Britpop” movement his band had spearheaded, and much preferred listening to Pavement and other lo-fi American groups — that jarred Albarn and his bandmates to shift gears and find a more interesting sound. The result was the 1997 Blur self-titled, which became a significant success on the heels of a first-ballot HoF jock jam, “Song 2” — apparently Blur’s tribute to Pavement hype man Bob Nastanovich.
Blur’s sound continued to evolve with 13, a collection of mournful tracks that dwelt at length on the dissolution of Albarn’s relationship with Frischmann. And as the band’s run wound down — Coxon frequently feeling out of place with the rest of the band and eager to try something new, as Albarn’s latest musical ideas annoyed him more and more — Blur still managed to release one more solid album in 2003, the largely Albarn-crafted Think Tank. Extra points in that record’s favor for a great Banksy cover.
While Blur has been effectively broken up since the early aughts — reuniting for the occasional concert or friendly jam, but largely pursuing their own projects — their seven-album catalogue is a feast of 90s rock delights. Their tracks are frequently more interesting, more rewarding, and more enduring than most American rock released at the time. Damon Albarn has continued to be awesome, arguably even stepping up his game with Gorillaz and other projects — but Parklife remains a true gem, and every other album Blur put out contains at least a few superb songs. Let’s dive into the crates, shall we?
Greatest Hits: Blur released a fairly comprehensive Best of Blur album that sums up the band’s most successful songs. This disc includes “Beetlebum,” “On Your Own,” “Song 2” (from Blur); “For Tomorrow” (from Modern Life Is Rubbish); “There’s No Other Way,” “She’s So High” (from Leisure); “The Universal,” “Charmless Man,” “Country House” (from The Great Escape); “No Distance Left to Run,” “Tender,” “Coffee & TV” (from 13); “Parklife,” “End of a Century,” “Girls & Boys,” “To the End,” “This Is a Low” (from Parklife). Other successful singles include “Chemical World,” “Sunday Sunday,” and “Music is My Radar.”
The band’s best-known album is Parklife, which in addition to the hits above went quadruple platinum in the UK, although it topped out at #10 in the US. Anyone who wants to get acquainted with this band should start with that album and great songs like “Badhead,” “London Loves,” “Trouble in the Message Centre,” and “Tracy Jacks.”
#10. “Bang” from Leisure
Leisure is usually ignored as being too “baggy” and Madchester-derivative, but I think it’s got a few great cuts that stand the test of time. “Bang” is one of those tracks. Coxon lays down a psychedelic-type guitar lead over Alex James’ overactive bassline, Rowntree meanwhile holding down a beat you can do E and groove to.
Albarn’s lyric is typical of this era, showcasing both disaffectation and a touch of hippie optimism: “I don’t need anyone, but a little bit of love would make things better.” Simple but effective harmonies punctuate the memorable hook and power a respectable bridge.
Coxon’s axe is really the highlight, overdubbed several times to create a dance-floor vibe John Squire wouldn’t be too proud to lay claim to. James, Rowntree and Coxon do an especially nice job breaking down the coda. This track may have a dated sound, but remains a jam.
#9. “Gene By Gene” from Think Tank
From the beginning of the band’s career to the end, in a click of a mouse!
“Gene By Gene” was really the last straw for Graham Coxon as a member of Blur; Albarn brought in Fatboy Slim to work on a track, and a disgusted Coxon walked. Funnily enough, since I obviously understand where Coxon was coming from, the resulting song turned out to be rather awesome.
Unlike most of the dreadfully boring songs by Fatboy Slim himself, this is a catchy, quirky number with instrumentation that brings a little funkiness and weirdness to Albarn’s vocal track. Soaring harmonies add a nice layer of goodness to a drum-machine groove with tons of overdubbed vocal and plenty of keyboard. I’m not sure anyone in Blur played on this track other than Albarn, but it’s still a gem, prefiguring as it does some of the brilliant hip-hop experimentation of Gorillaz.
The squeaky-mattress breakdown at the end is especially inspired. Apparently not everything Fatboy Slim produces is terrible.
#8. “Country Sad Ballad Man” from Blur
Although “Song 2” is always a necessity when American football helmets are set to smash against one another, and “Beetlebum” is one of the better girlfriend-on-heroin songs, I’m pretty partial to “Country Sad Ballad Man” as the most tasty track in Blur’s lo-fi set.
Like apparently 50% of all Blur songs, it features a mopey protagonist lost in his television. Rescuing a rather lackluster lyrical effort is a great chorus and some tasty guitar playing from Coxon.
The song goes up a level with a bridge that bangs on a heavy F# chord, with Rowntree whaling away on his drums and Coxon laying down some fuzzy guitar parts. It ends with a lack of resolution and a odd vibe. This is a weird song that really hits me in the happy place. I have no idea why the ballad man is country sad, or why the country man sings a sad ballad, but I do know that this is a good tune.
#7. “Dan Abnormal” from The Great Escape
The Great Escape was a massive letdown after the band’s last two brilliant albums and an avalanche of press, but it still had some quality tunes. In addition to the singles, I’m down with “Stereotypes,” and even more so with this song.
Again with the TV — I bet Damon Albarn’s kids are punished harshly if they so much as dream of turning on the telly — but I’m willing to spare the criticism because this is a quality banger with a truly weird harmony on the choruses.
I do like this lyrical depiction of an insomniac loser with glazed eyes staring at naked ladies on a screen: “It’s the miseries at half past three/ watching video nasties/ He has dirty dreams while he’s asleep/ Cause Dan’s just like you and me.” Now THAT’S self-loathing I can identify with.
#6. “Popscene” (single)
Blur pushed all its chips to the center of the table with this song, intended to be the first single from the band’s second album. It bombed, the second album was scrapped, and the band underwent a significant re-invention, emerging with Modern Life is Rubbish. The band later refused to include it on any album or even the Best of Blur, reasoning that the public had had its chance to appreciate the song and had decisively rejected it. (It finally got a re-release on the band’s career retrospective, Midlife.)
Heard nearly 20 years later, “Popscene” is a witty and energetic smackdown, a giant hole blown into the side of the “Madchester” big tent. “A fervent image of another world is nothing in particular now,” notes Albarn, and the band mocks the “popscene” that’s all about making the scene and hitting up the hot clubs to trip out on psychedelic jams.
The best part is probably Coxon’s solo, which seems to explode out of the song and turn it on its side with arpeggiated gusto. Plus, there are some pretty nasty horn arrangements. Time has been kind to “Popscene.”
#5. “Trimm Trabb” from 13
Weird and wonderful, this is sort of the first Gorillaz song. Odd sound effects and filtered mutterings morph into an acoustic groove with a tribal rhythm. Albarn croons with a creepy harmony floating overhead. There is a little piano filigree that comes in at the end of the first chorus that gets me every time.
The band establishes a nice groove only to bust out of it in epic fashion. A spooky vocal track cues up a rather massive bit of guitar riffage from Coxon, and when Albarn brings the song back into effect, there’s a lot more musical punch behind it. The song concludes with some guitar shredding and filtered screaming as a vocal repeats, “That’s just the way it is.”
#4. “Coping” from Modern Life is Rubbish
Modern Life is Rubbish is practically as good as Parklife, and comes highly ROTI-recommended. It’s full of great singles like “For Tomorrow” and “Chemical World,” but also includes intriguing musical interludes and delicious album cuts like this one.
A rather energetic song given its subject matter — dealing with depression — “Coping” has a great hook and a sweet, thumping bassline that has Alex James taking it easy for once. Blur always comes up with funky harmonies and this track has ’em too, both on the chorus and on the “la la la” section that concludes the song.
This song is pure 90s goodness and I bequeath it unto you with my compliments.
#3. “Sweet Song” from Think Tank
A shimmeringly gorgeous ballad, this one just gets better and better as it goes. With tinkling piano, skittering drum machine and acoustic strummings, Albarn lays down a gentle and sensitive melody that is safe for babies and softies of all ages. It’s nice to see him shift out of ironic-commentator mode and wrap a vulnerable vocal in swaddlings of emotive harmony.
“I believe love is the only one,” Albarn sings, admitting “I deceive ’cause I’m not that strong.” Then, around the 3:13 mark, the song goes to a magical place that I can’t really describe. It lifts up to a plane where irony can no longer survive and only the pure of heart can travel. Can you make it there with me? I hope so. I believe in you.
#2. “Blue Jeans” from Modern Life is Rubbish
Oh man…this song is so tasty. Ostensibly a catalogue of stuff Damon Albarn bought at flea markets, it seems to really be about his love for a sweet lady and his desire to keep things this awesome for all time. I think we can all identify with that sentiment.
The harmonies are unusual, crunchy and just simply great. The rhythm keeps you a bit off-balance and Coxon contributes some really great guitar parts. Most of all, the chorus is just splendid. “I don’t really want to change a thing…I just want to stay this way forever.” Those are my thoughts exactly when this chorus is going down.
#1. “Clover Over Dover” from Parklife
OK. I know I just broke my own commandment by giving the top spot to a track from the band’s best-known and most-popular album. But “Clover Over Dover” has never made a greatest-hits album by Blur, not even the aforementioned career-retrospective Midlife. Why on earth is this? Do people not realize this is one of the very best tracks on Parklife, one of the best songs Blur ever recorded?
Albarn kills it vocally on this one, not with any crazy stylings or soulfulness, but with layers upon layers of harmony, jabbing counterpoints and washing sweeps of “aahs.” Coxon rises to the challenge as well, contributing a half-dozen catchy guitar parts packed into one song. Alex James brings one of his best-ever basslines, swooping in at the perfect time. And Dave Rowntree keeps a steady, gentle groove behind it all.
What is this song about? I have no idea. Nor do I really care. It’s an audio masterpiece, with guitar and vocal parts that will linger in your mind long after the lapping waves in the song’s final seconds subside into nothingness.
Once again, because the Internet is incredibly awesome, I am able to offer the Spotify users among you a playlist that includes not only all of the songs on this list, but a dozen more great Blur tracks you probably haven’t heard, since my top-secret ROTI data analysis report shows me that few of you are from the UK…
Anyway, that’s enough website secrets for one day. Listen and enjoy:
Not only did Blur make seven enjoyable albums and a gang of classic songs, they also made one of my favorite music videos EVER. Quite possibly, my all time #1. A video so awesome, I’m hard pressed to describe the feelings of joy and delight it provokes in my soul. Here it is.
One more tasty bonus cut. If I could have found a Youtube clip of the studio version of “Bad Day,” it might well have replaced “Bang” on this list as the best early-Blur deep cut. Instead, though, I found this kinda-awesome live BBC version. Enjoy it, Blur-heads.
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