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Blur



Perhaps no other band has combined a spirit of restless innovation with overwhelming commercial success over the last decade to the extent that Blur has (Bjork would seem to be the only other individual artist; Radiohead, for all their acclaim, were neither particularly innovative, nor hugely popular until the late '90s). Born fully from British musical tradition, Blur have added immensely to that tradition, redefining themselves repeatedly along the way.

Pretty much anyone who ever loved Brit-pop loved Leisure, Blur's 1991, which pretty much exemplifes the term, with its consolidation of predominant British styles of the day -- the baggy Manchester sound and the blissed-out shoegazer approach -- with chart-making U.K. guitar rock from The Kinks to The Jam. But faced with overwhelming popularity, the band, led by the counterbalancing forces of vocalist Damon Albarn and guitarist Graham Coxon, promptly changed tactics, experimenting with some of the noise and asymmetry of American indie rock on their next album, Modern Life Is Rubbage. 1994's Parklife was of course the big breakthrough for the band, featuring one of the band's many incessantly catchy singles, "Girls & Boys," whose glam-punk teeth and disco-spiked attitude again revealed the band's compulsive need to explore musically.

Parklife also showed off Albarn's increasing songwriting skill, displaying a knack for class-aware social commentary that hearkened back to The Kinks. The band's brilliant and beautifully sad 1995 album The Great Escape -- in certain regards a kind of Village Green Preservation Society for the '90s -- continued in this vein while offering some of the lushest and most diverse experimental pop of the decade. The band's self-titled '97 fifth album yielded another insanely catchy single ("Song 2") likely to echo through sports arenas centuries from now, but was widely panned as the record on which Blur let their eclecticism get the best of them, but while sometimes jarring in its transitions, it's an interesting compendium of the band's musical preoccupations, featuring more of the noise and electronics they'd played with on the previous two albums, along with forays into rich psych, lo-fi indie, and plain ol' Brit-pop.

Rumors of Blur's imminent breakup persisted throughout the recording of this album (and have continued pretty much to this day), but the only breakup occurred between Albarn and his famous girlfriend, Elastica singer Justine Frischmann. In 1999 the band delivered another diverse but somewhat spotty album titled 13. After that, Coxon, who had already released one album under his own name, began working more seriously as a solo artist, recording a second album The Golden D. Meanwhile, Albarn collaborated with Dan The Automator, Miho Hatori and others on the insanely successful Gorillaz project, which in combination with Coxon's solo direction, caused a serious rift between Blur's two principals.

And so Coxon, the band's quiet backbone for a decade, is missing from the band's seventh album, Think Tank, leaving Blur to continue on as a trio of Albarn, bassist Alex James, and drummer Dave Rountree. All the news items about the album's recording suggested classic rock and roll hubris: the band went to Morocco, seeming to reflect Albarn's newfound fascination with African music (in 2002, he recorded the album Mali Music with a group of Malian musicians). Albarn recruited Fatboy Slim to produce, then had a much publicized falling out with the Big Beat star. The resulting album is messy and sprawling, as Blur albums have increasingly tended to be, offering a fascinating collision of the band's trademark glam-inspired Brit-pop with dance textures and North Africa-flavored meandering instrumentalism, while slipping in a couple of those fragile ballads and raging rockers we all love so much.