There’s an almost knee-jerk reaction against greatest-hits albums among people who care about such things, and for good reason: They’re mostly terrible. They’re a way to sell the same fans the same music twice (or thrice). And they often remove songs of their context within an album, which is something that matters to a lot of fans.
And that’s how discussion around Midlife: A Beginner’s Guide to Blur is probably going to be framed, especially since the band released a greatest-hits/live comp just nine years ago (Blur: Best Of). But what’s likely to get lost in there is the fact that Blur had only one top-ten U.S. hit (the lark of “Song 2”), and most stories about them that cracked the U.S. press centered on their lame and fake feud with Oasis. It’s not like Blur were conquering heroes who everyone knew; stateside they were marginalized in the alt-rock boom of the mid-’90s.
As its subtitle suggests, Midlife ain’t for those with worn-out copies of Parklife lying around: It’s for the more than a handful of “beginners” to Blur who only came to know of the band after coverage of their recent (U.K.-only) reunion tour made the rounds. Sure, the greatest-hits release seems timed for a cash grab, but Blur have long been over do for a reappraisal of their canon (in the U.S. especially), and Midlife makes a strong case for Blur being the best band ever tossed underneath the Brit-pop banner.
Midlife’s two-disc, 25-song length ensures that just about every good-to-great single Blur ever released is included, starting with breakout single “Girls & Boys,” “Coffee & TV” and “The Universal,” and culminating with “She’s So High,” “Popscene” (an out-of-print single included here for the first time), “Parklife” and late-period highlight “Battery in Your Leg,” from 2003’s Think Tank (which came out after Blur: Best Of). The songs showcase a band that was capable of dominating the Top of the Pops while still managing to hold on tightly to their art-school roots (they were like Radiohead without the self-loathing), and it maps out the evolution of Blur as they went from Kinks-obsessives with an equally great respect for the Smiths and Stone Roses to something more distinct.
If there’s a complaint to be lobbed at Midlife, it’s that it’s sequenced with a lot of the band’s slower, down-tempo numbers stacked on top of each other in a ten-song tun that spans disc one and disc two, which makes for a sometimes weary listening experience. But the strength of the (somewhat) random sequencing is that it doesn’t arrange things chronologically, so the similarities between early singles like “Popscene” and later singles like “Battery in Your Leg” become apparent thanks to appearing close together. Blur may not have gotten the adulation they deserved in the states during their heyday, but Midlife is a solid move to reevaluate Blur’s position in the pantheon.