It is a hefty box. It is 18 CDs and three DVDs, adding up to 21 discs, which just happens to be the anniversary Blur are celebrating in 2012, a year when they've continued their halting reunion to headline the closing ceremony of the London Olympics. And, really, there was no other choice for such a prestigious gig. Other bands were bigger -- archrivals Oasis handily eclipsed them in popularity and the Spice Girls soon brought Cool Brittania to an even greater audience -- and Suede arguably kick-started the whole Brit-pop phenomenon, but Blur defined their era, reasserting the prominence of British pop music and then heading into uncharted waters. Blur 21 chronicles that journey in minute detail and, contrary to what its imposing size suggests, the box does not contain everything the group ever recorded. You'd have to be a pretty hardcore fan to notice how their terrible 1994 cover of the Who's "Substitute" is MIA and even if you were that committed, chances are you'd rather have the four discs of unreleased rarities included here instead. These CDs -- along with the DVDs, each capturing a separate live show from different stages of the band's career beginning with the 1994 home video Showtime and ending with a 13-era live set augmented by videos that didn't make the 2000 Best of Blur DVD -- are exclusive to the box set but the double-disc expanded editions of the group's seven albums are available separately. Each of these rounds up the non-LP B-sides from the accompanying album, leaving behind a few live cuts and remixes but containing all pertinent stray songs, many of which are excellent, particularly during the group's mid-'90s prime.
What makes Blur 21 something more than just fan bait -- although, make no mistake about it, there needs to be a certain level of dedication to get through a box of this size -- is that there is an actual narrative told here, one that not only tells the story of Blur but represents the trajectory of British indie music in the '90s. At the outset, Blur were a noisy, confused amalgam of droning psychedelia, C-86 pop, and Madchester dance, their various influences gaining focus on their 1993 second album, Modern Life Is Rubbish, designed by lead singer/songwriter Damon Albarn as a defiant response to the insurgent grunge from the U.S. For two albums -- Parklife in 1994 and The Great Escape in 1995 -- Blur perfected a classical British pop before returning to their art-school roots on their eponymous 1997 album, eventually embracing modern electronic cut-and-paste techniques on 1999's 13 before splintering apart during the recording of 2003's Think Tank. This journey is compelling and the added detail of rarities and B-sides deepens the experience, particularly during the early years when they were called Seymour and during the Brit-pop purple patch when they were making more good music than could fit on a single album. Naturally, at this length there are some failures or experiments gone awry -- the early demos, such as an 11-minute "She's So High," are interesting but formless, and the concluding jams from 13 were meant to be spliced into shape by William Orbit, not heard at this length -- but all the mess winds up illustrating Blur's restless range and depth. There were plenty of other great British bands of the '90s but none of their peers -- Oasis, Suede, Pulp, Radiohead -- covered as much stylistic ground or wound up with a catalog as rich as this ridiculously generous box set handily proves.