While America got bummed out, swaddled itself in flannel and turned its gaze northwesterly, Britain's Blur was having none of that. Singer Damon Albarn, guitarist Graham Coxon, bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree doubled-down on their Englishness in the early 1990s and spent the next decade amassing a constantly changing discography before breaking up in 2003.
In a ridiculously trumped-up brouhaha that both sides seemed to relish, the football hooligans in Oasis laid claim to being not only Brit-pop's greatest band, but the very heirs to the Beatles tradition. But while Liam and Noel Gallagher's Lennon/McCartney pastiches grew tiresome and painfully obvious, Albarn and Coxon showed the fortitude to experiment and progress like real Beatles, even if Blur's tradition was actually more firmly rooted in the Kinks. Oasis won the mid-1990s Brit-pop battle, but Blur won the war.
Beginning in the final stages of the U.K.'s “Madchester” period and finishing with the band's triumphant new ballad, “Under the Westway,” “Blur 21” commemorates Blur's return to performance and recording with a painstakingly complete collection that remasters and repackages each album with B-sides, remixes and rarities, and includes DVDs of concerts from the band's first 10 years.
In the context of Blur's career, 1991's “Leisure” contains actual hits (“There's No Other Way,” “She's So High”) but was a modest start powered with sonic flourishes and “Funky Drummer” beats that were already well-traveled by the Stone Roses and Inspiral Carpets. Which is why 1993's “Modern Life Is Rubbish” is such a massive thrill and the first proof that Albarn would be a storyteller for the ages, filling songs such as “For Tomorrow” and “Colin Zeal” with sharply wrought characters and executing the band's first great melodies.
“Rubbish” was the dry run for Blur's dizzying mid-decade masterworks, 1994's “Parklife” and the quick sequel, “The Great Escape,” the best rock-based chronicles of middle-class English life since the Kinks' “Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire).”
Then Albarn and Coxon threw it all out and went raw with 1997's “Blur.” an exhilaratingly jagged affair. Overall, 1999's “13” is less satisfying, but it contains two of Blur's best songs: “Tender,” Albarn's heartbreaking gospel-inspired paean to his breakup with Elastica's Justine Frischmann, and Coxon's brilliant song about hangovers, “Coffee and TV.”
Compared to these timeless albums, 2003's “Think Tank,” recorded after Coxon's departure and produced by Fatboy Slim, is Blur's only mediocre album and can be skipped by listeners who do not possess a coroner's curiosity. But “Blur 21” does great service to a band whose reputation only grew in its absence, and after Albarn's multiple projects with and without Gorillaz, and Coxon's mercurial solo career, is going hand in hand through their parklife again.
— George Lang