Amazing how Gorillaz still get my students hopped up, enough to disinter the old joke about the other band Wings singer-bassist Paul McCartney was in (I wasn’t even aware it took Kendrick Lamar to stop 2017’s Humanz from debuting US #1).
1. 13 (1999)
This kiddie mash-up of Phil Manzanera solo albums, Wire, British soul, and the band’s still robust affection for Ameri-indie served a collection of laments over love lost. It works because the band’s commitment to studio-as-instrument is total and impressive. “Gotta get over,” Damon Albarn mumbles in “Caramel,” like a convert to New Age, as Graham Coxon lets guitar EFX accumulate. “Bugman” and “Trim Trab” offer equally bad trips. Their pop sense remains intact even when Coxon mewls through his parts of “Coffee and TV.” I listened to Thirteen that summer of 1999 as the pus drained out of the wound of an unrequited love affair, leaving me with an awful reckoning. Yes, much of this record is adolescent. So is rage. “Tender” sucks, though.
2. Blur (1997)
The album where they dropped the sour jokes and put underused Graham Coxon at the front where he belongs. The “Sexy Sadie” harmonies and chord sequence in the last minute of “Beetlebum,” laden with EFX, is a delight, despite what Tom Ewing correctly identifies as a listless Albarn performance; I’ve no idea what a “beetlebum” is, but when in doubt say, “It’s about heroin.” As decent as they were cranking out fake punk tunes — “punk” does not equal “fast” — they were better when they evinced curiosity about other musics, like the dub-influenced organ-drenched crawl called “Death of a Party,” in which Albarn plays listless instead of singing listlessly. So this was supposed to be their American album? The most delightful song, “On Your Own,” blurps and wheezes as if Eno were turning the knobs in 1972, long ago and far away. “Strange News from Another Star” envelops listeners in the chill of a winter’s night spent looking off-world. Very Bowie, Damon. If Blur had released this album at the dawn of the nineties, they might’ve beaten Primal Scream to the kudos and kicked off a slew of other English trends; in 1997, Pavement was about to implode and male American college students listened to Beatlebums Elephant 6.
3. Modern Life is Rubbish (1993)
A cynic’s pose attracts the young because it compensates for a host of aesthetic and personal shortcomings. The young cynic, however, knows the press mistake his positions for new smarts, and it can encourage him or her, often him. Feeling frisky after the same press reviewed Leisure as a B-level Madchester album at best, Blur got into the business of self-promotion: this was the era when Albarn dropped London Fields to adduce the seriousness of their intentions, which meant “a fucking big two fingers up to America,” in bassist Alex James’ carefully worded sentence. So with la-la-la’s, hurdy-gurdy keyboards, and singsong melodies, Blur conjured, to quote abandoned producer Andy Partridge, an everyday story of smalltown that played the Kinks and The Jam on its pub jukeboxes. It’s still pretty good, inaccessible to anyone in America during the year of its release unless you lived in a town with a solid college record store, less rancid than The Great Escape (“Pressure on Julian,” “Chemical World”).
4. Parklife (1994)
In Miami you couldn’t hit indie discos between 1999 and 2004 without “Girls and Boys” packing the dance floor. Albarn’s swishy organ matched his dishy ambisexual lyric, which, I can assure you, turned on as many guys as Franz Ferdinand’s “Michael.” They advance further into caricature: “Parklife” is as incomprehensible as a Superbowl, “Clover Over Dover” an excuse for classical keyboard sounds. Yet for the first time in at least twenty-two years — I’m that specific — I listened to Parklife today, and almost every song had a hook by which to remember it. I was newly impressed by the self-martyred Graham Coxon’s work: the Cars-drenched “Trouble in the Message Center,” the hard thick rhythm strums in “Tracy Jacks.” If he felt stymied by Albarn’s songsmithery, it’s not in evidence. If provincialism is a disease like lead poisoning, Coxon has the cure.
5. The Great Escape (1995)
Brits didn’t care much for Pearl Jam. We returned the favor. More here.
6. Leisure (1991)
I loved the sleeve. Although that song is like hearing Alice Cooper doing “Clones (We All Are)” — an accommodation to trends several months too late but hummable anyway — I played “There’s No Other Way” a lot in the winter of ’91 while writing my first horrible novel. What a fabulous skitter-riff! The rest fades, not unpleasantly. I can still hum “Bang” too. Crucially, Albarn was never cuter. Playing a Madchester whizz-strung kid too blank to be frank, he revealed his essential dilettantism, hence the umbilical tie to a generation of English poseurs.
7. Think Tank (2003)
Not every band needs its Cut the Crap.