Album: 21 Box Set
Rating: 9.5 out of 10
To celebrate their 21st birthday, the 21 Box Set collects the (almost) complete history of Blur in a 21 disc set that features every studio album, every B-Side, and a huge mess of studio and live rarities. It’s a massive collection that may be daunting to digest for new or casual fans, but it’s an excellent collection of a band that’s never had a bad moment.
First forming in 1988 and originally calling themselves Seymour, the group didn’t take long to sign with Food Records (EMI eventually bought the label and turned into Parlophone) who put out their first album, Leisure, in 1991. Like a lot of the best bands that would eventually grow into something else, Blur’s first album with its new wave feel is good, but not great. The band’s first five albums in this box set have been remastered for the first time, and the new sheen the songs have make Leisure sound stronger than it ever was before. In comparison to the rest of the band’s catalog, though, it’s still their weakest release.
Blur unfortunately came out at a time when grunge was first exploding into the world, and a series of terrible management decisions that put the group into debt and Leisure’s lack of success almost destroyed the band completely. Reinventing themselves with their second album, Modern Life is Rubbish, though – Blur broke free of their slump and heralded in a new European movement, Britpop. Britpop, popularized because of its intentional contrast to the dreary pulse of grunge, is a style of music defined by its uptempo beats, use of horns, and catchy hooks. Modern Life is Rubbish then is the first album that made Blur important and insanely popular, and with tracks like “Miss America” that looked at American culture sarcastically – the group established itself as a very pro-national act.
Park Life, the band’s third album, is considered their best release by many critics for its cultural relevance and commercial success alone. With Parklife, Blur established that they didn’t just start the Britpop movement, they controlled it too. (Oasis? Meh.) It’s the tightest thing they ever put out thematically and sonically, and there’s not a wasted song on it. It’s the seminal album of the Britpop movement, and the one that Blur will most likely be defined by for future generations. Classic tracks include “Girls and Boys,” “End of a Century,” “Magic America,” and “Parklife.”
The Great Escape, the band’s next album, is anything but what the title suggests, as the band returned to the same formula they established so well already on the two albums previous. This album has some of the best songs Blur has ever written and a lot of my personal favorites (I can’t sing “Country House” without excitedly shouting the lyrics), but the public was losing interest in Britpop at the time of its release, and the album has largely been written off by critics and fans alike over the years because of it. It is because of this, though, that makes their next album so exciting to hear even now.
Simply titled Blur, the band’s fifth album is a complete reinvention of their sound. Looking beyond their draining European influences, Blur adapted the sounds of American indie rock and brought in electronic distortions, raw instrumentation, and lo-fi psychedelia to their music (this was mainly due to guitarist Graham Coxon, who had a huge interest in the scene). Maybe it was because of this that “Song 2” became such a huge hit in America and in other international places who had largely ignored the band until then. Regardless, the songs were darker, but the anthemic pop hooks were still there, and sound would be their first shift to art rock territory that would define their sixth album, 13.
13 is the most experimental album the band has ever done, but it’s also the most rewarding. I tried to avoid making a lazy Beatles comparison in this review, but 13 is like a “Day in the Life” multiplied 13 times. Guitarist Graham Coxon, with his heavy art rock influences, and Damon Albarn, with his pop ones, feel totally in unison here. Each song hits its own heavy hook before drifting into weird sonic territory mixed into dense layers of production, but the songs are experimental enough without ever being pretentious (cough cough, “Revolution 9”). Musically, this is the best work the group has ever done, and an album that gets better and better with each listen.
It is because 13 was such a largely collaborative effort that their seventh album, Think Tank, is so jarring in comparison. Graham Coxon left the band after recording only one song (“Battery in Your Leg”) after months of fighting with Damon finally broke the group apart. Gorillaz, Damon’s other band that saw its first release in 2001, combined a large pool of international influences into its music, and its this influence that carries over into Think Tank. Coming from a once very national band that was now playing without a very influential member, Think Tank feels less like a Blur release, and more like a Damon one. That’s not a bad thing, though, as this album is one of my personal favorites (minus “Crazy Beat” which I always skip), but I’m often in conflict with myself over whether or not I should actually consider this a proper release by the group. (I have lame debates like this in my head. Be cool about it, dude.)
The rarities and other B-Sides that fill out the extras in this box set are hit or miss on their quality, and a large number of them will probably only be appreciated by hardcore fans (which is a shame because Blur has some of the best b-sides ever put out by a band). This set also includes the excellent 2009 single, “Fool’s Day,” and their most recent 2012 single, “Under the Westway,” which feature all members of the group including Graham Coxon. While more skeptical or casual fans might want to check out some of the individual special editions of each album like Parklife or their self-titled release instead of buying the whole set, the 21 Box Set is still an absolutely essential purchase for regular or hardcore fans of the group.