Blur's debut is generally vilified amongst rock critics for being a monotonous, profoundly derivative Stone Roses imitation, with each track sounding the same and being utterly bereft of any creativity or originality.
While this assertion is difficult to dispute, it doesn't change the fact that, all these points notwithstanding, the caliber of the songwriting is very high for a debut, with nearly every track containing something worthwhile to offer.
In addition to some clever riffs courtesy of the group's guitarist Graham Coxon, the hooks on the album primarily manifest themselves in the form of terrific vocal melodies from frontman Damon Albarn, who is already quite gifted with regards to the art of the vocal hook. Often Albarn's vocal melodies salvage what would otherwise be uninspired forays into the realm of indie rock.
While the similarity of the tracks is indeed a severe deficiency, the fact remains that, if one can endure the uniformity of the sound, nearly all these songs are quite well done in their own right, adhering to a solid level when it comes to songwriting and performance.
As far as the album's transparent influences are concerned, while this derivativeness is an egregious fault, many contemporaneous British groups attempted to emulate the Stone Roses and fared much less well, both qualitatively and commercially. Furthermore, Blur would hardly progress too far when it comes to originality, as changes in their stylistic paradigm of choice were due more to shifts in their influences rather than a forging of their own unique sound, be it Brit-pop of experimental indie rock.
Ultimately Leisure is an unjustly scorned album, underrated by those unable to look beyond its surface liabilities and recognize the craft that went into composing these songs. While Blur would dramatically change after this album, Leisure nonetheless is a solid foundation for the group's future efforts, with Albarn honing his songwriting skills throughout the album and ending up with a plethora of catchy vocal melodies. While the subsequent album is customarily heralded as the first worthwhile effort from the group, it's a mistake to ignore what is ultimately a quite solid debut.
Most Blur fans will cite a tremendous qualitative disparity between this album and its predecessor; while I'll concede that it's the better of the two, there's hardly been a dramatic improvement in the songwriting department, and in fact Modern Life Is Rubbish may very well be the more erratic of the two.
The major paradigm shift that inspires fans to lavish praise on this album and revile Leisure stems from the transition from trip-hop dynamics to a Britpop sensibility. That's certainly understandable, as Britpop seems to be a much better fit for the group, infusing more personality and distinctiveness into the proceedings. Furthermore, the highlights on this album are stronger than the best material from Leisure, leading one to believe that the band has truly found its niche in the world of contemporary pop.
All the same, the album is hardly original, owing as much to the Britpop stylings of the Kinks and the Jam as the previous LP did to the Stone Roses. Likewise, the general quality of the melodies isn't higher than on their previous outing.
One definite advantage MLiR has over their debut is increased diversity; whereas Leisure was somewhat monotonous with each song sounding relatively the same, this album brings far more variety to the proceedings, shifting from pop to hard rock to Britpop to ballads and from fast to slow on a regular basis. This makes the album, despite being much longer, easier to take in one sitting than Leisure was, a major and very necessary improvement.
Ultimately, if one is merely to look upon them at the surface level, MLiR is a major improvement over its predecessor, with greater diversity, superior production values and a stylistic facelift. If one is to go deeper into the caliber of the songwriting, however, the album is hardly a drastic improvement for the band, a transitional effort that, while it translates their strengths into a new genre fully intact, more addresses the surface details of the band than the quality of the songwriting itself in its stylistic overhaul. This transfiguration of the group into a Britpop outfit was definitely a positive step for the band, but it wouldn't be until subsequent albums that the band could fully capitalize on this change.
Thus MLiR is a very good album that's as apt to be overrated as its predecessor was underrated. Certain flaws, such as lack of consistency and an overlong runtime prevent it from truly being excellent (not to mention the several dozen three second silent tracks before the final two songs on the album that the group decided was a funny and clever idea for some mystifying, sadistic reason), but nonetheless it's a quite a solid release by a group that was starting to truly find itself.
Where MLiR established a foundation of Britpop for the group, Parklife builds upon this with a growth in the band's songwriting, leading to what is easily Blur's best album to this point.
All of the new Britpop elements the band explored on MLiR are successfully imported here and married to an improved facility for catchy melodies. The band is still emulating Britpop icons like the Jam and the Kinks, yet they make each song theirs, fashioning a comparatively unique identity in the process.
MLiR implemented a new direction for the band yet lacked the capacity to fully realize their potential in that area; Parklife rectifies this mistake, resulting in an album overflowing with catchy pop songs and utterly bereft of filler.
From the album's hyper catchy opener (Girls & Boys) it's clear that Albarn has grown in the songwriting department, filling each song with plentiful hooks and infectious melodies. By simultaneously adhering to the framework of MLiR and superimposing their improved pop sensibility over it the band generate a plethora of pop classics (and, as evidenced by tracks such as End Of A Century, they've grown immeasurably with regards to composing ballads as well, able to restrain their usual sly cynical mode and replace it with true emotions).
Each track has something to offer, utterly devoid of filler (even the brief instrumental segues are sufficiently charming to ward off accusations of filler). Diversity is once more paramount, and while this variety is confined to a rather limited range it enables the album to never grow monotonous.
Ultimately Parklife is the album MLiR aspired to be, its natural successor in that it retains that album's merits while simultaneously augmenting them. Where MLiR introduced Britpop elements, Parklife refines them to near perfection, the natural destination of the previous album's transitional status. While it's not Blur's best work, it remains a nearly immaculate Britpop excursion, a consummately entertaining album that depicts the band in top form. While the preceding albums were very good in their own right, Parklife is the fulfillment of the potential exhibited on those albums, with the band evolving in every meaningful way.
If MLiR could be said to establish Blur's Britpop sound and Parklife could be said to add superior songwriting mechanics into the mix then The Great Escape is where the band integrated their own distinctive sound into the proceedings.
Good as they were, MLiR and Parklife were rather derivative of the likes of the Kinks and the Jam, and while these influences are still present in tGE the album features quirky, offbeat and often surreal elements that are all the group's own, giving them their own independent identity.
Furthermore, the caliber of the songwriting is just as strong, if not stronger, than on its predecessor, an album that already excelled when it came to pop hooks. Great melodies abound, with nearly every song being catchy enough to lodge itself into your mental jukebox for quite some time.
From the eccentricity of the hyper catchy Top Man to the consummately British Charmless Man (which once more abuses 'na na's' for its refrain, a habit of the band that can be forgiven for invariably being executed brilliantly), the album is loaded with excellent pop songs, many imbued with a sort of strangeness that gives the LP a unique character that its predecessors lacked.
The album lacks anything that could be denigrated as being filler, a degree of consistency that enables tGE to hold the listener in rapt attention throughout the duration of the run time.
Ultimately tGE is simply an exceptional pop album, an experience where everything works from the rockers to the ballads. With each installment in the Britpop trilogy further refining itself, tGE is the beneficiary of everything the group learned through the crafting of this triumvirate.
The band had taken their Britpop formula as far as it could go, perhaps making it a wise move to forsake this style on subsequent albums for fear of resorting to composing rehashes. While the new directions adopted by the band would turn out quite well, the band never duplicated the brilliance attained throughout the Britpop trilogy, with tGE acting as the culmination of these efforts.
For their follow up to the acclaimed British trilogy, Blur shifted into the realm of indie rock, resulting in a release that sounds more reminiscent of the American underground than a product derived from the Manchester scene.
Graham Coxon, the primary catalyst for this change in direction, takes center stage here; unfortunately he seems more concerned with generating strange new sounds from his guitar rather than playing catchy riffs or melodies.
The transition from Britpop to indie rock has resulted in a de-emphasis of pop hooks, with more focus being placed on experimentation than catchy tunes; this is a severe detriment to the album, given that melody has always been the band's greatest strength.
Despite these handicaps, however, this eponymous LP is still a good album. Tracks like Beetlebum and the hit single Song 2 retain the band's strengths, both showcases for the group's songwriting talent. There's no innate problem with the band shedding the trappings of the Britpop scene; as long as they're able to compose songs of this caliber it doesn't matter what genre the band tackles.
While somewhat erratic, most of the songs still display signs of strong craftsmanship, and while he all too often succumbs to fits of self-indulgence with regards to his sonic experimentation Coxon plays extremely well on the album, enabling the group's paradigm shift to indie rock to sound completely convincing rather than some half-baked attempt at reinventing themselves.
Ultimately Blur is a somewhat frustrating experience; while the new sound works well for the band for the most part, they haven't quite discovered how to translate it into strong melodies. The high quality of some tracks proves that the band is capable of integrating great songwriting with their newfound style, but sadly the album also boasts some tracks that are simply bland, tedious listens.
Were the album more consistent it would fare far better when compared to the band's prior work; as it stands, much like MLiR Blur seems to be laying a foundation for a new sound rather than expertly handling their new style (though MLiR is certainly the stronger of the two). While the band may achieve a greater mastery over the style in the future, for now Blur is a solid but deeply flawed experience.
Undeniably Blur's most artistically ambitious project, 13 fails to live up to its lofty pretensions but still remains a deeply involving listen with a few aspects that differentiate it from the band's prior albums.
One prominent disparity from its predecessors is that, for once in Blur's discography, Albarn actually evinces real emotion on many of the tracks, whereas in the past he generally remained smug and aloof. While this isn't a crucial discrepancy, Albarn's newfound emotion does engender a greater degree of potency into some of the tracks, infusing a degree of life into some of the more otherwise inert, bland and lifeless songs.
Another factor that distinguishes 13 from other Blur albums is its refreshing diversity. Albarn and company tackle everything from hard rock to gospel to atmospheric soundscapes to indie rock to ballads, ensuring that the proceedings never become too monotonous (especially vital given that the album is nearly 70 minutes long).
The album retains the experimental edge of their eponymous LP, utilizing more elaborate guitar tones and dabbling in electronica and encoded vocals on a few occasions (such as the surreal track B.L.U.R.E.M.I.). In this regard the album is very much a sequel to Blur, still devoid of anything that could be even remotely interpreted as Britpop connotations.
Ultimately the emotional transparency of the album is exploited too much over the course of the LP, with the band attempting (unsuccessfully) to sustain some of the more bland and tedious tracks with emotion alone. Fortunately this is rarely the case, and by and large each song has at least something to redeem them. Albarn isn't a good fit for the archetypal singer/songwriter model, and it's more important for him to deliver vocal hooks than simply heartfelt vocals.
While it's not the band's magnum opus by any means, 13 is still a very good listen, as it goes in more interesting and diverse directions with the new indie rock template than its predecessor did. By and large the songwriting is strong, and while some tracks can be overlong the album never grows truly tedious. Whether one cares for the album's more personal feel is irrelevant in the long run, as what's important is that the melodies and creative ideas remain intact, which they thankfully, for the most part, do.
Prior to the composition of this album Graham Coxon left the band, and needless to say his departure had a profound effect upon the group. Coxon's guitar hero antics were a significant component of the group's sound (all the more so after the shift to indie rock, a move that Coxon was the primary catalyst for), and furthermore, from a songwriting perspective, Coxon was the only major creative force besides Albarn.
Resultantly this album features far less guitar than any previous entry in the group's discography, a significant detriment to the proceedings. Worse, Albarn, who was forced to carry the entire album on his back from a creative perspective, was in far from top form, and the LP suffers accordingly.
Most of the album feels bland and enervated, with little excitement to attract the listener's attention. The songwriting is mediocre and uninspired, not to mention derivative of the group's own past (Crazy Beat, one of the few tracks that tries to cultivate some real energy, is merely a vastly inferior rehash of Song 2). Few songs register even after a few listens, a far cry from the days when nearly every song on a Blur album would be memorable.
While few songs can be called 'good' overall, there are occasionally clever aspects of the arrangements that stand out, and these are sufficient to prevent the album from growing truly tedious. Few tracks are genuinely offensive, and the aforementioned clever arrangements show that at least a modicum of care was put into the fashioning of this album.
With no Blur classics and little to truly engage the listener with, Think Tank is an album that's difficult to recommend to anyone other than hardcore Blur fans or obsessive completists. With no Coxon and Albarn caught in the doldrums of stagnation there was little to inject any energy into the LP, with mediocre songwriting and standard performances. The album feels inert and lifeless, a somewhat drab affair that teeters precariously on the brink of true boredom, with just enough merit to escape this pitfall. The album isn't truly bad, but perhaps it would have been more interesting if it was, as flaws can often be more interesting than an album's that's simply average and competent.