20 years ago. That is exactly how long it has been since British boyband Blue released their debut album. When I first learnt of this on Instagram a week ago, I had two immediate reactions.
Firstly, I am that mature now (I was 12 in 2001 for reference, date fans). Secondly, after cranking up that album (which I bought at the time, I was a big fan) and their subsequent four others on Spotify for the first time in a very long while since last Friday, it quickly dawned on me just how awesome they were, and what an important role they played in British pop music two decades ago, tapping into and yet completing fitting the on-trend R&B and soul sound of British pop in the early 00s.
The fact that debut album helped Antony Costa, Duncan James, Lee Ryan and Simon Webbe to over 16m record sales worldwide, as well as three UK number one singles and albums apiece, and two BRIT Awards, speaks for itself. Several big names, from Lorde to Olly Murs, have since cited the band’s influence on their own music or desire to follow a career in music in recent years. Pop bands don’t sell that many records without actually being well, y’know, good.
Unfortunately, much like some of their peers before them, they were an artist of that moment at the turn of the millennium who, the second the initial hysteria and adulation around them rescinded with their initial breakup in 2005, quickly became remembered less for their music and success and more, certainly on the tabloid media’s part, constantly used and mocked as a cruel example of what happens “when it all goes wrong” owing to well documented difficulties each of them has experienced together and apart in the time since.
But you listen to any of their old classics (as I indeed have done all week for the purpose of this blog) and their ear for harmony, a good melody and – I don’t use this term lightly – some straight up bangers has held up far above all of that. So their announcement this week of a 20th anniversary UK tour in September next year feels, in a way, both deserved and an opportunity to remind people of exactly what they achieved as one of the most naturally gifted pop acts of that decade. So here, according to us, is our definitive ranking of all of Blue’s UK released singles to date…
18. SIGNED SEALED DELIVERED (FEAT. STEVIE WONDER AND ANGIE STONE)
Released: December 2003 / Highest UK chart position: #11
We meet the better remembered of their superstar collaborations later on in this list, but here is the other, the second single off their chart topping third album Guilty. On paper, working with a Motown legend and a hugely talented US soul singer (and covering one of the former’s most famous songs to boot) should have been a winning combo. Instead, it sounds like a bit of a mess, although this is a fault more of the production choices on the record than the vocals. Either way, it’s the one we revisit least.
17. GET DOWN ON IT (FEAT. KOOL AND THE GANG AND LIL’ KIM)
Released: January 2005 / Highest UK chart position: Chart Ineligible
What was meant to be their last UK single release before their initial breakup, but disqualified from charting here due to one CD format of the release being over the maximum running time allowed for it to chart (what a singularly 00s problem to have). Similar to when their labelmates Atomic Kitten teamed up with one of the most famous disco bands of all time a year previously on “Ladies Night”, this was a functional but fairly unnecessary run-through of a song that was already a classic. We could live without it, put it that way.
16. BREAK MY HEART
Released: August 2013 / Highest UK chart position: Did Not Chart
The third single off their 2013 comeback album Roulette, this has a promising initial intensity and darkness about it, which sadly doesn’t carry through the song as a whole. We suspect this is probably because there are times when unnecessary use of autotune is at play on vocals when there doesn’t need to be. It’s almost as if the producer has never heard them sing – because they can (and how).
Released: June 2004 / Highest UK chart position: #9
If there was one single in Blue’s earlier back catalogue which all but said “We are trying to break America”, then this, the fourth and final single off the Guilty album, was it. Featuring a guest rap from L.A.D.E (who hasn’t been heard of before or since the summer of 2004) and a pool party video straight out of an episode of Entourage, it’s fun, US hip hop chasing pop sound with naughty lyrics about getting intimate with the laydeez in penthouses, rather misses the mark on repeated listens.
Released: February 2014 / Highest UK chart position: Did Not Chart
An interesting single this; neither is it the silky croon or totes emosh balladeering of some of their earlier slower numbers we’ll get to later. Instead, what we’re dealt here is a thundering, anthemic midtempo that actually calls to mind Keane as much as it does anything else. According to Antony in their 2017 autobiography, they had to particularly fight to get this on the Roulette album. Antony, if you are reading this, we say it was a battle worth picking, as this is really quite excellent.
13. KING OF THE WORLD
Released: March 2015 / Highest UK chart position: Did Not Chart
In a way, it is kind of fortuitous that, having started their career working with the offspring of a Motown legend (Ray Ruffin, the late son of Jimmy Ruffin of “What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted” fame) that with “King of the World”, they went full circle to embracing and releasing a song that sounds like it could have been straight from the pens of Holland/Dozier/Holland on the Hitsville USA label for their most recent album, Colours. Perhaps therefore, one of the most primitive but natural sounding singles of theirs.
12. U MAKE ME WANNA
Released: March 2003 / Highest UK chart position: #4
Not, as the title might suggest, a cover of Usher’s debut number one from 1998. Whilst “U Make Me Wanna” is all string drenched, clipped Craig David-esque smoothery, it is still a mystery to this day why they went with this song as the third and final single off the One Love album when both “Riders” (which they performed as the show opener at the BRITs in 2003 and as the opener on their first ever tour) and “Flexin” were both crying out to be singles instead. Still, this being a top 5 hit shows they were A) still doing something right and B) is hard to argue with.
11. TOO CLOSE
Released: August 2001 / Highest UK chart position: #1
Taking a leaf out the same handbook established by East 17 (“If You Ever”) and Another Level (“Freak Me”) of hitting chart payola with and covering a little known US R&B bonking anthem, the band’s first UK chart topper was their reworking of a song that had previously only got as high as #24 in 1998 for Next. Despite its risque subject matter (“Baby when we’re grinding, I get so excited … You’re making it hard for me”, indeed), they managed to pull it off and set up their hit making career good and proper after many thought “All Rise” was a lightning bolt that wouldn’t strike twice.
10. HURT LOVERS
Released: April 2013 / Highest UK chart position: #70
A song most definitely not defined by its commercial performance. “Hurt Lovers”, the lead off single for the band’s Roulette album, which was their first in exactly a decade, was a ballad that illustrated a maturity, power and strength, with an aim at the sort of contemporary pop that only Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic seems to carry off with equal panache. Definitely deserved to be bigger than it was.
9. I CAN
Released: May 2011 / Highest UK chart position: #16
If this song had been released without its attachment to being that year’s UK entry for the Eurovision Song Contest (where they finished 11th, despite being the bookies’ favourite), then we dare say “I Can” would be remembered a hell of a lot more fondly. No matter though; as their first single after seven years away, it proved the magic of what made them such a great pop band was still there.
8. CURTAIN FALLS
Released: November 2004 / Highest UK chart position: #4
Although titling the lead single from your greatest hits album as “Curtain Falls” might be a move that screams “We’re splitting up” (particularly when they’d spent all of 2004 denying that they were about to), thankfully, it is far from a miserable listen. They turned to Stevie Wonder again too, but this time sampling the same riff from “Pastime Paradise” utilised by Coolio on his worldwide chart topper “Gangsta’s Paradise” in 1995. Kudos as well, for a music video that all but predicted the global lockdowns for the pandemic 15 years before they happened. Pop clairvoyants, you might say.
Released: October 2003 / Highest UK chart position: #2
My first thought I wrote down, on revisiting the title track and first single off the lads’ third album was, to my surprise, ethereal. As a lead single, this ballad is more understated than what had come before, but in many ways that is what works in its favour. There is a temptation here to say that, owing to Duncan co-writing this song with Gary Barlow, that this is their shot at “Back for Good” style glory. It isn’t, but in the best possible way; it really shows off the variety and depth in their voices, and holds up really well to a solid hour’s repeat, particularly on the “If loving you with all my heart’s a crime” hook.
6. SORRY SEEMS TO BE THE HARDEST WORD (FEAT. ELTON JOHN)
Released: December 2002 / Highest UK chart position: #1
If you are looking for a reminder of just how massive Blue got within less than two years, then collaborating with one of the world’s most celebrated singer-songwriters of all time should be the conclusive proof. Suggested by Lee when their label was seeking a cover version for their second album, duetting with Elton was, initially, rebutted by all as a silly idea and one unlikely to happen. But as soon as the Rocket Man himself stepped on to play piano and provide new vocals to a song he had previously taken to #11 back in 1977, it was little wonder that this went onto be one of the band’s biggest selling and most popular hits.
5. IF YOU COME BACK
Released: November 2001 / Highest UK chart position: #1
Released ahead of their 4x platinum selling debut album, the boys showed their first two singles were no fluke, as this soulful ballad, which was one of the first songs they ever recorded as a band, produced by Ray Ruffin and co-written by 911 singer Lee Brennan (with whom they would later appear on the first series of ITV2’s The Big Reunion in 2013), became their second number one hit on the trot, and is the best example of how tight their harmonies really were (and still are).
4. BREATHE EASY
Released: March 2004 / Highest UK chart position: #4
We are just gonna come out and say it here: “Breathe Easy” remains by far the best ballad that Blue have done across their whole career. A lot of it, it has to be said, is because of Lee’s vocals and his effortless nailing of the high notes on here which are, quite simply, exquisite. But it is in terms of what emotion this song captures, on the anguish of grief and loss that makes it so damn relatable (“I can’t breathe easy / I can’t dream yet another dream / Without you lying next to me, there’s no air”). It is the chef’s kiss emoji in pop power ballad form.
3. FLY BY II
Released: March 2002 / Highest UK chart position: #6
A scenario: your debut album’s sold by the truckload, and has already produced two chart toppers and a massive selling first single. How do you ensure then, that the fourth single is a massive hit also, but still entices the punters who may have it on the album already? Answer: radically rework the song. And this is precisely what the guys did with “Fly By II”. Building on the rather unfinished sounding nature of the original album version, and incorporating a sample of the bass line off Herb Alpert’s “Rise” (the same one used on Notorious B.I.G’s “Hypnotise”), it elevated it to another dimension and ensured it was never off the radio for all of 2002.
2. ONE LOVE
Released: October 2002 / Highest UK chart position: #3
The title track off their second album, “One Love” continues to have the most universal appeal of all of Blue’s back catalogue of songs. Apart from offering an opportunity for easy crowd interaction (look up any video of them performing it on YouTube, and witness the sea of aloft arms with one finger up that greets them on the chorus), it is a catchy and cooly executed single with a positive message that compells you to put your hands up and celebrate all that is good about love, life and the world. One love is all we need, indeed.
1. ALL RISE
Released: May 2001 / Highest UK chart position: #4
And to think there was almost going to be a situation when this wasn’t set to be their debut single. Thank God, we say, for the lads’ team at their label putting their foot down, and seeing it’s potential, but also Norwegian production team Stargate (who of course have subsequently found success being writers for hire for Beyoncé and Rihanna amongst others) for going in on the sound they achieved. This bonkers but brilliant tale of putting an ex-girlfriend on court trial to a military drum beat and harmonica riff was their work, and has ensured that it remains one of the most iconic of its time and one of the all time classics of the genre. Altogether now: ‘One for the money and the free rides / It’s two for the lie that you denied…’
Blue’s Heart and Soul 20th Anniversary Tour begins on 11th September 2022 at the Belfast Waterfront Hall, finishing at Bournemouth International Centre on 2nd October 2022, with support from Atomic Kitten. Tickets are on sale now at www.officialblue.com.
Were you a fan of Blue? Do you agree with our ranking? Let us know your thoughts below in the comments or message us on our social media @ThePensmith10!