1. ”Beetlebum” is a good choice for an opener, but also unrepresentative of the album as a whole; it’s one of the few that could be classified as Britpop. Great intro, great riff from built from slid power chords, great lead-in to the choruses, great harmonies during said choruses, great touches of counterpoint during the verses. Probably could have done with some shortening, but like “Tender” on Blur’s following album, I never complain while the song is happening because it never feels like its length.
2. ”Song 2” (or “02_Blur_-_WHOO_HOO.mp3” as the folk who remember LimeWire will know it as), so named not only because it is the second song on the album but because everything that happens in the song happens in two’s: the number of syllables in the hook, the number of verses, the number of choruses, the number of bridges, the number of minutes. Most people will probably write it off as stupid, but it’s meant to be – a parody of the grunge era in America with utter nonsense lines like “I got my head checked / By a jumbo jet” and when Albarn finally gets a moment of sincerity in, “I’m never sure why I need you,” he immediately counters it with “PLEASED TO MEET YAH! YEAH YEAH!” Immortal drum beat, and I’m sure Kurt Cobain would’ve been happy to know that one of the greatest songs (if not the greatest) to sound like Nirvana since Nirvana came from a British band. The two best songs from the album are its first two.
3. I originally thought that “Country Sad Ballad Man” was a failure; it not being country or sad (leave the falsetto to Thom Yorke, Albarn). On further listens, like most of the album, Blur is the first and only instance in Blur’s discography that it owes more to Graham Coxon than it does Damon Albarn; Coxon’s crunches keep the verses afloat, and his riff provides the melodic punchline where Albarn’s was a little shoddy. When people bring up Pavement when talking about Blur, they often mean the lo-fi aesthetic, and that’s fair – but really, the more deserving talking point is the unexpected turns into noisy sections (think: “Transport is Arranged”); this one going from a (pseudo-)sad thing into a hopeful bike ride towards freedom (or maybe just the park). Also: the backing vocals weren’t a necessary thing, but I’m happy the band added them anyway.
4. ”M.O.R.” – the only song written by the entire band – is the catchiest song after the first two. Love how the backing vocals in the verses and choruses are sent through radio transmissions to add to the urgency to the apocalyptic guitar and propelling drumbeat. Third best song on the album.
5. ”On Your Own” continues the pop success of “M.O.R.” thanks to the catchy riff and (though wordy) chorus; when Graham Coxon comes in for backing vocals, it sounds like a drunken singalong (and knowing what Coxon was dealing with at the time, it probably was). Also worth mentioning is that Albarn will essentially recycle the backing vocals (at the 2:55 mark onwards) wholesale for Gorillaz’ “19-2000.”
6. ”Theme from Retro” is the first song on the album that’s an outright failure. It’s interesting (at best) for the first 30 seconds but the band doesn’t know at this point in time how to expand the idea into a proper song so it plods aimlessly for another 3 minutes. If you have access to the singles or the second disc from the career-spanning box set 21, I’d suggest replacing “Theme” with “Get Out of the Cities,” a throwaway but with a catchy hook that marries Blur’s love for the Kinks lyrically with Blur’s love for Pavement sonically.
7. Graham Coxon’s first entire song to the band is a good one – the fourth best song on the album. Lyrically, it’s about Coxon’s alcoholism (he’ll recycle the “Tea tea and coffee” bit into “coffee and TV” in two years’ time) and I find the “You’re so great and I love you” to be particularly powerful because it’s rather ambiguous as to whether he means his close friends, as in people or alcohol. Like the best lo-fi songs, this doesn’t hide its lack of melody in the lo-fi aesthetic but rather uses the lo-fi aesthetic to – errr – blur the already lovely melody. A couple of great guitar solos, too.
8. ”Death of a Party” of the few instances on the album where every member is integral to the song. Albarn provides the vocal melody, Graham Coxon dreams up a great guitar sound for the choruses, bassist Alex James brings his a-game for the verses. Albarn will try to recreate this one’s success on 13 and clean it up and try again for Gorillaz’ first album. He never comes close.
9. ”Chinese Bombs” is the obligatory 1-minute throwaway on any Blur album to prove that they could have been punk rockers in another life except not.
10. Like the worst lo-fi songs, “I’m Just a Killer For Your Love” hides its lack of melody in the lo-fi aesthetic and assumes that that’ll be enough – it isn’t. Graham Coxon whips up an interesting guitar sound; George Starostin describes it as “a vacuum cleaner continuously getting turned on and then turned off.” Damon Albarn offers some super-serious singing followed by some super-annoying falsetto.
11. Whereas Parklife’s “Magic America” was incredibly sarcastic, “Look Inside America” is much more poignant, obvious from the moment Albarn opens the curtains and sings “Good morning!” … to “lethargy.” But I’m not too interested in the lyrics and “Look Inside America” wins it because of the other instrumentation: the strings in the chorus (probably synthesized) to the harp (though it could be Coxon playing with the guitar nut of an acoustic for all I know) interplaying with the electric guitar in the bridge.
12. ”Strange News From Another Star” is a decent ballad with a melodic chorus, and like previously mentioned songs, it turns into something else in the coda. I’ll just say that the weakest link of the four members is drummer Dave Rowntree, who does nothing more than competence. In this case, I wish he offered more than just a solid beat – the coda sounds like it wants to go somewhere but it just stays in the same place.
13. ”Movin’ On” has good harmonies in the chorus (not quite in the same level as “Beetlebum” but definitely getting there) and a good solo. The coda this time feelsespecially tacked on and I wish I was listening to Steve Shelley bang those out instead of Rowntree. Oh, well.
14. I know some people who think “Essex Dogs” is a success, but I disagree. The Velvet Underground-noise that the band uses as the bed definitely makes an 8-minute song an easy listen, but it’s never as good as like-minded Velvet Underground songs because a) Damon Albarn isn’t as captivating or interesting a lyricist as Lou Reed (or even Lou Reed-ites like Patti Smith) (though “In this town we all go to terminal pubs” is a good line) and b) the rest of the band isn’t as captivating or interesting as musicians as the rest of the Velvet Underground.
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For the longest time, I always thought 13 was Blur’s greatest triumph because “Tender” and “Coffee + TV” are their best songs, “Caramel” and “Trimm Trabb” their greatest ambitions and “No Distance Left to Run” their greatest ballad. At the same time, I also understood – didn’t agree with, but understood – if someone preferred Parklife. Recently however, I’ve changed my mind. Sure, only “Song 2” really matches up to the highs of either album, but the thing with Blur – coming from a Blur fan – is that they weren’t an album band. They were a band that you’d take the best tracks out of each album and ditch the husk of whatever was left and never think twice about it; a singles band. With that line of thinking, Blur offers the best good to throwaway ratio in their entire discography. And it’s paced well, too. In other words, this is their best album, the one that you can listen to start to finish without wondering why you’re wasting your own time.