It's a big time for Blur. New music, a big performance to close out the Olympics, and a huge retrospective boxset, Blur 21: The Box, comprising all of the bands studio material with a glut of extras and rarities and unreleased material all totally 18 CDs and 3 DVDs worth of material. With all that for fans to obsess over and dig through -- and there's lot to find -- it's worth it to know a bit where to dig in. So here are ten of Blur's finest B-sides, in chronological order, to get you started.
"Down" (B-side to "She's So High," off Leisure -1991)
Blur's first album was more promising than successful, but it did show the band's ambition to try all kinds of different sounds in a post-Stone Roses British music landscape. "Down" is a swirling psych-rock blast, the kind of brooding, layered shot in the arm that could have made the record proper that much better. To hear Damon Albarn's achingly repeat "down, down, down, down" on the rundown choruses over those buzzing guitars is to hear a rare combination of worn ennui and rock muscle. It's an early taste of the band's pop genius and their (sometimes) knack for arena-rock size. Great stuff.
"Inertia" (B-side to "There's No Other Way," off Leisure - 1991)
If "Down" showed their rock heft, "Inertia" shows it in a different way. It's watery guitars leading (with its own, what's the word, inertia?) into cascading choruses, you might be reminded of a more nuanced version of Smashing Pumpkins. Graham Coxon's bending notes are the perfect echo for Albarn's rangy vocals here, and like "Down" we get a big yet controlled moment that perhaps Leisure could have used. It only covers about four minutes, but it feels much larger than that, and though it's all about build up, it somehow wins you over from note one.
"Mace" (B-side to "Popscene," non-album single - 1992)
"Popscene" was leftover from the band's first and failed attempt at a second album, and it didn't chart as well as the band had hoped, but B-side "Mace" should make up for any lack of chart success. It tightens up the band's approach, with funky, angular guitars that build a bright power-pop vibe that erupts in jagged, tumbling riffs. It's another early-career loud moment that has to make you wonder why (aside from, perhaps, ignorance) US audience were so surprised by "Song 2" in1997. "You used to know, but now you don't," Albarn sneers through the end of the song, and along with the tight hooks of the song you know he does know, he's in the driver seat here, and "Mace" becomes one of many early signs that Blur was quick to find their footing and make their mark.
"Bone Bag" (B-side to "For Tomorrow," off Modern Life is Rubbish - 1993)
This one shows the more curious pop leanings the band explored on Modern Life is Rubbish. Those echoed, staccato guitars, Albarn's treated vocals, and light jittering percussion make everything melt just a bit at the edges here. But then that distorted guitar slashes into the background, slicing up the easy sway of the song. It doesn't forget the noise the band played with (see the songs above), but "Bone Bag" does put that on the back burner in favor of something more gentle, something warmer and, as a result, created a pop song as downright catchy as it is fascinating to unravel.
"Peter Panic" (B-side to "'Girls & Boys," off Parklife - 1994)
So when the A-side is "Girls & Boys," you're just going to get outshined, period. But "Peter Panic" plays a pretty mean second fiddle on this single. The boys prove they're not above paying homage to British music heavyweights, since from the opening line "Hello Peter Panic, you've landed on our planet," it's pretty clear Blur is treading in Bowie territory. Albarn even weaves some deadpan into his voice so sounds a bit like Bowie. This isn't all goofy impressions though, since when the drums and chunky guitars come in, the song takes on its own bouncy pop life. It's a bit bold as a British band to write an interstellar pop song like this, so it's no wonder this didn't make the record (as if there isn't enough great stuff on Parklife), but of all the lighter B-sides Blur gave us over the years, this may be the best curio of the bunch.
"The Man Who Left Himself" (B-side to "Stereotypes," off The Great Escape - 1996)
There's only three songs on it, but "Stereotypes" may be the most consistent Blur single of the bunch (note the next entry). It gives us two very different but nearly perfect B-sides. The first is the ringing ballad "The Man Who Left Himself," a song of simple elements that come together to make a seemingly understated tune something more. It rolls along on acoustic strumming and handclaps for its first half, with Albarn's layered vocals doing all the dreamy work, but when the guitars beef up their distortion and it opens up into some serious rock heroics, that's when you start to scratch your head and wonder why this couldn't make it on an album. It meshes the mood of The Great Escape with the more rock-oriented sound we'd hear on Blur, and that middle ground is a fruitful one.
"Tame" (B-side to "Stereotypes," off The Great Escape - 1996)
"Tame," more than "The Man Who Lost Himself," is often credited as a precursor to the aforementioned shift in sound on 1997's Blur, but to mark it as mere preamble is to miss its own singular charms. The crunchy guitars against spacey theramin, the pulsing drums cut by electronic squeaks and squawks -- it's a song as industrial as it is blood-and-bone vital. It doesn't rely on volume like earlier work, or blistering speed like "Song 2" would later. Instead, it stakes out its territory and stomps its way through it insistently. It's not their best pop song, or their best rock song, but it may be the most refined hybrid of the band's two poles.
"All We Want" (B-side to "Tender," off 13 - 1999)
After the band found success in America with Blur, the guys didn't rest on their laurels. Instead they came with the lush heartache of 13, an album that kept some of the crunch but used it to spread out into new pop territory. "All We Want" shows this path clearly, with a "Beetlebum"-esque chord repetition to open the song that gives way to piano and electronic flourishes and Albarn's pining vocals in the soaring chorus. It's got stiff competition with an A-side like "Tender," but this song holds it own. "All we want is to feel something," Albarn admits, but he's not resigned here. In the sweet frenzy of this song, he's searching wildly.
"Black Book" (B-side to "Music is My Radar," off The Best of Blur - 2000)
Blur included new song "Music is My Radar" on their best-of compilation in 2000, but maybe they should have tacked this massive, brilliant tune on too. This one sneaks up on you. Albarn half-whispers, half-croons over dark bass and gloomy organs for the first few minutes of the song, until things start to rise when Albarn claims "I've made up my mind, I've got nothing to hide." It's a song that slowly builds into a bluesy guitar romp, something pretty close to the swamp-rock of Crazy Horse but with Blur's own pop sensibilities woven in. It's a huge epic, but the pieces remain tight, contained, packed with subtle energy. Graham Coxon would leave soon after this, so things took a turn on Think Tank, but "Black Book" is proof that he didn't leave because he ran out of chops (still, thank God he's back now, right?).
"Don't Be" (B-side to "Crazy Beat," off Think Tank - 2003)
Coxon may be missed on most of Think Tank, but it's still a great album that found Albarn meshing his sounds from Gorillaz nicely with the Blur aesthetic. "Don't Be" is both representative of the time and a particular strong highlight. The song builds on low-register horns that rumble without upsetting the sweet harmonies of the song. It's a tune that pushes its own tight boundaries but never breaks through them. So while the drums kick up a storm, and horns take the place of crunchy guitars, Albarn is the calm center here, keening away in the midst of these textures, never letting things get too loud. Chaos is on the edge of "Don't Be" and songs like it, but we never quite get there, and it reveals a sweet freedom within that tight structure.
So there you have it, ten stand-out B-sides from Blur to get you started. If you're a big-time fan, there's this and hours (and hours) more on Blur 21 to entertain you for, hell, years. But even for the uninitiated, these are some good places to start. Because Blur was one of those bands with endless creativity, that could make great stuff even when they're just messing around. Blur 21 makes that abundantly clear, and when you're tossed away stuff is this good, it's no shocker that you became, for a time, the biggest band in the UK.
So what are your favorite Blur B-sides? Let us know in the comments!
Blur 21: The Box is out now in the UK, and July 31 in the US.