20. Best Days (1995)
The problem with Blur’s fourth album The Great Escape might be that it captured the coke-y atmosphere of mid-90s London a little too well: its songs often sounded as horrible as the characters they satirised. But occasionally a different album peeks out: darker, sadder – epitomised by Best Days’ careworn beauty.
19. Sing (1991)
She’s So High’s blank-eyed Syd Barrett-ish vocal notwithstanding, Sing was the one convincing sign that Blur’s debut album was the work of something other than baggy-era also-rans. Its weird mix of lurching guitar noise, pounding drums and piano and childlike chorus is, by turns, eerie and intoxicating; moreover, it doesn’t sound like anyone else.
18. Battery in Your Leg (2003)
The last song Graham Coxon recorded before leaving Blur, Battery in Your Leg has a valedictory quality – the surges of dense noise he produces from his guitar are magnificent – but ultimately feels like a downcast ending, reflecting on the broken relationships in the band: “You ain’t coming back … You can be with me.”.
17. Young and Lovely (1993)
Blur didn’t squander many great songs on B-sides, but Young and Lovely is the exception. A tender depiction of children growing apart from their parents, it hits a similar emotional bullseye to Madness’s most bittersweet songs. Nearly 20 years later, the live version from Hyde Park has a certain patina of personal experience.
16. Ong Ong (2015)
For an album that had its genesis in recording sessions hastily convened as something to do during an unexpected break in a tour, The Magic Whip was a remarkably strong comeback: too experimental to be accused of warming over past glories, and filled with great songs, of which the joyous Ong Ong is the perfect example.
15. To the End (1994)
Blur’s foray into the world of easy listening – a revival was percolating in London clubs while Parklife was being recorded – keys into the music’s lush beauty, rather than its kitsch appeal. The result is a total delight, particularly the subsequent duet version recorded with Françoise Hardy.
14. The Universal (1995)
Like Oasis’s Champagne Supernova, The Universal has an elegiac quality. The work of bands at their height, realising the moment is fleeting, they might be Britpop’s answers to the anthems that heralded glam’s waning: Mott the Hoople’s Saturday Gigs, T Rex’s Teenage Dream. There’s an eerie prediction of social media – “No one here is alone” – too.
13. No Distance Left To Run (1999)
The most disconsolate of 13’s breakup songs, packing one gut-punch line after another: “I don’t want to see you ’cause I know the dreams that you keep”; “when you’re coming down, think of me”. The shattered music fits perfectly: you wonder if the song will end or just collapse in a heap.
12. Coffee & TV (1999)
An unexpected favourite of Bob Dylan – “I like coffee, I like TV and I like Blur” he told listeners to his Theme Time Radio Hour – Coffee & TV seems to be Graham Coxon ruminating on his unhappy brush with mainstream celebrity and on finding the joy in the mundane, with a lovely sigh of a chorus.
11. Blue Jeans (1993)
Before a desire for Ray Davies-y satire overwhelmed them, Blur dealt in more straightforward paeans to London life. On an understated high point of Modern Life Is Rubbish, Graham Coxon’s guitar shimmers, Damon Albarn’s Portobello Road-referencing lyric sounds satiated – “I don’t really want to change a thing” – and the chorus is an exhalation of contentment.
10. Popscene (1992)
A flop on release, Popscene was nevertheless a pivotal release: scrappy, frantic and pugilistic – “everyone is a clever clone” – it announced the arrival of a noticeably different Blur from the makers of their debut album Leisure. As if to underline its importance, they revisited it at their most recent reunion shows.
9. Death of a Party (1997)
If The Great Escape encapsulated Cool Britannia’s teeth-grinding, garish height, Death of a Party perfectly captured its hungover aftermath. It sounds rueful, shaken by the whole business – “Why did we bother? Should have stayed away” – while, for all the distorted guitar, there’s a hint of More Specials-era Specials about the creepy, claustrophobic sound.
8. Girls & Boys (1994)
One of the clarion calls of the Britpop era, Girls & Boys hasn’t dated as you might expect, perhaps because the drums and Coxon’s jagged guitar bear the same post-punk influence as vast swathes of 21st-century alt-rock: for the more dancefloor-fixated, the Pet Shop Boys remix is as great as the original.
7. For Tomorrow (1993)
A bolt of inspiration that struck Damon Albarn on a hungover Christmas Day, For Tomorrow distils Bowie – note the Bewlay Brothers-esque backing vocals – the Kinks and Madness (the latter’s influence particularly notable on the extended, brass-laden 12in version) into the perfect love song to London, its charm still infectious today.
6. Song 2 (1997)
Blur’s biggest worldwide hit (for some inexplicable reason, Americans proved resistant to Phil Daniels Vorsprung durch Technik-ing his way through Parklife) was both a masterclass in simplicity – it’s basically one five-note riff endlessly repeated – its freewheeling din the gleeful opposite of The Great Escape’s strained self-consciousness. In addition: it rocks.
5. Out of Time (2003)
In a sense, Out of Time was a peculiar choice for a single to lead Think Tank, their first album in four years – it’s wilfully understated, desperately sad, and sounds like it’s going to fall apart during the guitar solo. But it’s also impossibly beautiful, the languid melody seemingly effortless: there’s an ease and confidence behind the weariness.
4. End of a Century (1994)
One of Parklife’s highlights, End of a Century was, producer Stephen Street suggested, the album’s clearest proof of Damon Albarn’s greatness as a songwriter. He has a point: it turns an unlikely subject – the lyrics warily contemplate the pros and cons of settling down with your partner – into a vast singalong anthem.
3. Tender (1999)
Tender starts out sounding enervated: it feels like the work of a band battered by the events of the preceding years, before a gospel choir surges in, as if urging the whole thing on. The peculiar, shaky balance it strikes between exhaustion and resolve is unexpected and incredibly potent.
2. Beetlebum (1997)
You could view Beetlebum as a final up yours in the battle of Britpop, proof that Blur could ape the Beatles more artfully than their rivals, but there’s more to it than mere Fabs pastiche: a fabulous, off-centre guitar riff; a lyric depicting a relationship swimming in heroin; a chorus that somehow manages to soar subtly.
1. This Is a Low (1994)
Blur’s determination to come up with a peculiarly British take on alt-rock could occasionally lead them into have-a-banana oompah excess – Country House – but it could also make for something genuinely transcendent. Which brings us to the closing song from Parklife, which takes the shipping forecast as a starting point for a gorgeous, atmospheric tour around the British Isles, its mood alternating affectingly from sadness to a battered optimism. You can argue for ever about whether it’s really their best song, but – as the Guardian’s John Harris put it – it’s the moment when they succeeded in “imbuing Britain with a mystery as potent as any American myth”: no small feat.