74: The Flaming Lips – Race for the Prize (1999)
Within the first few seconds, the Flaming Lips song “Race for the Prize” manages to recall both “Like a Rolling Stone,” with its inaugural snare crack, and “Heroes,” with the high-pitched, Fripp-like sustain of synthesized sound that ushers us into the world of the song and returns later, serving as its chorus. This is to say that it is a truly epic song, both in the sweep of its music and the ambition of its lyrics, with Lips leader Wayne Coyne widening the scope of his vision to encompass the whole of humanity. In the image of two scientists racing “for the good of all mankind”, “Locked in heated battle/ For the cure that is their prize”, Coyne takes a scenario that sounds like it’s straight out of a disaster movie to paint a poignant picture of two figures putting their lives on the line for the rest of their fellow terrestrials.
Though the theme of planetary collapse is still with us, perhaps now more than ever, the kind of naïve heroism the Lips embrace here feels like a missive from a different time, especially with the characters being scientists—hardly the most lionized figure in today’s social discourse. That said, the song has its own kind of darkness, with the line between cooperation and competition kept somewhat ambiguous throughout. Coyne’s voice, which has suffered over the years, is at its earnest best here, as are his lyrics, which on this album tend toward the metaphorical (without being heavy-handed) and elsewhere operate on an emotional register that is disarming in its immediacy and are reminiscent of Mercury Rev, another group produced by longtime Lips acolyte Dave Fridmann.
Musically, too, this album—and this song in particular—finds the band at its best. Though many probably prefer either the more experimental, guitar-driven sound of their earlier albums (especially the 1990-1995 sweet spot) or the more production-heavy sound that they’ve embraced since Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, for some of us The Soft Bulletin still remains their most miraculous release, a kind of indie Dark Side of the Moon with a more unabashedly diaristic, poetic sensibility. Oh, and it has some of the best-sounding drums you’ve ever heard, supposedly recorded with just one microphone hanging over the set. Ultimately, this is what propels the song skyward. Maybe one day it will make for a great campaign song—hopefully in the right hands. – Dylan Montanari
73: Blur – Girls & Boys (1994)
“London Swings! Again!” Or so said Vanity Fair in the Spring of 1997. Hindsight is, of course, 20/20, and turning the clock back an extra three years would make a world of a difference. While the latter half of ‘97 would see the delusion of “Cool Britannia” come crashing down in a daze of coke-and-heroin-fueled debauchery, Britpop was in full swing during the heady summer of ‘94, and Blur were the leaders of the pack.
After an apprehensive introduction via Leisure and the promising Kinks-inspired, inklings of Britpop in Modern Life is Rubbish, Parklife was the populace-pleasing boon the band so desperately needed to ensure its survival. Its artpop leanings and cynical presentation received a warm reception critically, and Damon Albarn’s knack for earworm melodies guaranteed ample radio play. It’s the kind of guitar pop that is sorely missing in the charts nowadays—intelligent yet unafraid of fun, witty while still retaining a hedonistic edge. Top of the Pops smashes, like the album’s jubilant title track, made headway in the charts, but its revelatory lead single, “Girls & Boys,” would forever change Blur’s future.
Over a humping Eurodance beat, Albarn spits out the semi-ironic rallying cry of a hedonistic, drug-fueled summer of love. “Always should be someone you really love,” he cheekily quips after every chorus. It’s the hit that Albarn had been working towards since the band’s first single, and in a sense, you can hear him slowly formulating a blueprint for the dancefloor-friendly pop of Gorillaz, as well. The success of “Girls & Boys” and Parklife awarded Blur with both their first top-five single and their first chart-topping album, respectively. By the end of the summer, a certain pair of feuding brothers from Manchester would emerge as ambitious challengers, but for the rest of the year Blur remained the reigning kings.
More importantly, beyond the charts and the NME-fueled hype, Parklife and “Girls & Boys” still stand as important totems of British music. Nearly two decades after the fact, 50,000 punters, stuffed into Hyde Park to witness the London Olympics’ closing concert, would roar back their approval in the form of “Girls & Boys”’s delirious chorus: “Girls who are boys/ Who like boys to be girls/ Who do boys like they’re girls/ Who do girls like they’re boys.” And you know with Blur, it’s always someone you really love. – Edward Dunbar