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On This Day In Music… March 21, 1999: Blur Top the Album Chart With '13'

The album was the former Britpoppers' fourth consecutive No. 1 LP – and their masterpiece.

Source: mega / Food Records / Parlophone

'13' was Blur's sixth album of the 1990s.

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Of all Blur’s 90’s output, 13 is not the record that most would immediately choose to play. And yet their sixth studio release of the decade was also arguably their most significant, and in many ways their crowning glory. 13 represents the moment the one-time mockney geezers freed themselves from the (sometimes self-imposed) limitations of Britpop and the whole Blur vs Oasis nonsense, and found their true selves.

Named after the number of songs on the LP, 13 expanded Blur’s sonic palette in a surprising, daring and occasionally breathtaking manner. Released on March 15, 1999, it debuted at No. 1 six days later and stayed at the top spot for two weeks. It would go on to spend a total of 17 weeks in the Top 40 and produce three top 20 singles.

If it’s not an instantly easy listen, it is an intensely rewarding one. Where the songs of Blur’s Britpop heyday had influences grounded in the glory days of, well, British pop – The Kinks, The Jam, Madness, XTC – then the influences listed on 13 were altogether darker: The Fall, Pink Floyd, Faust, Nick Drake, Wire, The Velvet Underground.

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Source: mega

The influences on 13 were altogether darker and more diverse than on Blur's previous output.

And yet the signs had been there; 13 wasn’t a full handbrake turn from the band’s Parklife or Great Escape days. Their previous, self-titled, album (released two years earlier) had contained the singles “Beetlebum” and “Song 2”, both of which hinted at a growing fascination with lo-fi sounds and a darker, more introspective outlook – but with 13 they took those ideas and applied a new inventiveness and sense of daring previously only ever hinted at.

More than any of Blur’s other output to date, 13 was very much Graham Coxon’s album. The guitarist had released his own solo LP, The Sky Is Too High, the year before, as well as launching a defiantly avant-garde record label, Transcopic, and it is his restless energy that shone through most strongly on 13.

In an increasingly digital era – Google was just a year old, and Amazon a little shy of its fifth birthday – when “Superstar DJs” ruled the clubs and the media was obsessed with the coming catastrophes of the Millennium Bug, Coxon’s defiantly analogue approach to creating leftfield soundscapes – ironically, in conjunction with the all-too electronic producer William Orbit – stood out. Not in a meat-and-potatoes, guitar-bass-drums way, but in that it showed just what could be done with guitars and rhythm instruments if you had ideas and imagination enough.

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Source: James Quinton/WENN / MEGA

Graham Coxon was the creative engine behind the album's musical direction.

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The confidence in their new identity is there from the start – in glorious style. Opening track “Tender” is a full seven minutes and 41 seconds of pure beauty: beginning with a tinny picked guitar line, it starts slow, but from the moment around a minute and a half in when the gospel choir kicks in it doesn’t look back, building and building and building to a glorious climax. It is an astonishing song, and almost inconceivable that it came from the same bouncy quartet who just four years earlier had cavorted with Page 3 girls in the “Country House” video.

Released as a single ahead of the album, “Tender” peaked at No. 2 – kept off the top spot, rather wonderfully, by Britney Spears’ debut single “…Baby One More Time”. Riddle me that.

From there, the album launches into the frantic distortion of “Bugman”, the jaunty acoustic pop of “Coffee & TV” and the Pink Floyd-meets-Sonic Youth weirdness of “Swamp Song”. And then it’s a near free-for-all. “Battle” is a tripped-out extended jam, the Fall-like “Mellow Song” dark and disturbing, “Trimm Trabb” builds to a barely-held-together wall of noise, and “No Distance Left to Run” a fragile, intimate guitar-and-vocal back and forth.

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By the end, you’re left part exhausted, part elated, part heartbroken, part inspired. The band who had once sung jauntily about the “End of a Century” had, right at the turn of the millennium, captured all the fin-de-siecle uncertainty, anticipation and paranoia that would increasingly define the year.

13 was described on its release as Damon Albarn’s ”divorce album”, written after the breakup of Albarn’s relationship with Elastica singer Justine Frischmann. "My music is a heartfelt thing now rather than a head thing,” he told the NME at the time. “I think you have to have been properly broken-hearted to really start to get to grips with it. Maybe that's what the split with Justine was all about. I've managed to find my music and keep my personality intact.”


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