I remember the Gorillaz being pretty cool in elementary and middle school. The novel project (note: not novelty) formed in 1998, and Blur frontman Damon Albarn and comic artist and Tank Girl co-creator Jamie Hewlett tackled multimedia ideas that came to define a millennial approach to music. Albarn wrote the music behind Hewlett’s designs, and together they built a fictional band with its own history, supported by an impressive amount of music videos over the years. The Gorillaz, at least in their early years, toured with a giant screen to showcase the “band.” But the duo turned trio (producer and voice of “Noodle” Remi Kabaka Jr. became an official member of the band in 2015) didn’t just rest on some gimmick. Indeed, Albarn’s freewheeling musical tastes, inclinations, and writing abilities spun off from Blur in a tremendous way. His curation of guest talent and embrace of pop, hip hop, reggae, electronic and “world” music have resulted in seven eclectic and exciting albums so far, over the 19 years from 2001 to 2020. This piece, which ranks those seven albums, won’t include the compilation albums G-SIDES (2001) or D-SIDES (2007), or the remix album LAIKA COME HOME (2002, created by the group Spacemonkeyz, which formed expressly for this purpose and have not released music under that moniker since), or the impetus for this piece, the EP MEANWHILE (2021). They were all listened to, however, to gain a fuller appreciation for the Gorillaz’ entire body of work.
#7 — THE NOW NOW (2018)
Favorite track: “Tranz”
THE NOW NOW was intended as the same kind of follow up to HUMANZ that THE FALL was to PLASTIC BEACH: that is to say, it was a more stripped down, nearly solitary effort from Albarn as opposed to a record with a “bigger” sound and stuffed to the gills with guests. In the case of THE FALL, that resulted in an album that was really rewarding in a totally different way. But THE NOW NOW is more on the underwhelming side, serving up groovy but rarely electrifying tracks. “Tranz” is an exception and, it should be noted, the Gorillaz have yet to make a bad album. THE NOW NOW just doesn’t feel as vital as anything in the group’s discography, even if it is a mildly satisfying listen.
#6 — HUMANZ (2017)
Favorite track: “Ascension”
That being said, THE NOW NOW’s predecessor also isn’t in the upper echelon of Gorillaz records. Released after the largest hiatus between the group’s releases (seven years) and a period of time where it looked like the Gorillaz might never come back, HUMANZ was an ambitious, wide-ranging album commenting on the state of a post-Trump world…although it was mostly recorded before the guy won. But the album isn’t exactly a pointed political statement against one person alone. Like PLASTIC BEACH, HUMANZ is a commentary on the world as Albarn and Hewlett see it, filtered through fun (for the most part) dance music. Also like PLASTIC BEACH, HUMANZ is full of guest artists, from De La Soul to Vince Staples; the latter appears on “Ascension,” the record’s best track. It feels like a chaotic fever dream, but an upbeat one, and fittingly, no other track “ascends” past this early song (it only follows the intro). For all its extensive production, songwriting chops, and musical influences, HUMANZ wasn’t quite the return that I was hoping for, as a Gorillaz fan. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a dance-y experience with a little more to say.
#5 — SONG MACHINE, SEASON ONE: STRANGE TIMEZ (2020)
Favorite track: “MLS”
The “Song Machine” project is the Gorillaz’ latest fun approach to music release and promotion. A web series of music video “episodes” and accompanying songs were released throughout 2020, culminating in this record: SONG MACHINE, SEASON ONE: STRANGE TIMEZ. As the name would indicate, a “Season Two” is in the works. But for now, SEASON ONE can be enjoyed as the best work the Gorillaz have done post-hiatus. Like HUMANZ, STRANGE TIMEZ hits so many genres and includes so many musical guests, but in spite of the episodic release of a number of its songs, it feels more cohesive. STRANGE TIMEZ is almost more…dreamy, as exemplified by tracks featuring Robert Smith, Beck, and even Elton John. But the best song is technically on the “Deluxe Edition” (which means nothing in today’s streaming world): “MLS,” where Albarn is joined by rapper JPEGMafia and Japanese rock band Chai. Chai in particular are to be credited with the song’s beautiful etherealness, thanks to their spacey background vocals. But the tropical sounds throughout “MLS” brighten things up and don’t render it a totally “loose” song. The same could be said for all of STRANGE TIMEZ. Its experimentation could have led to a loss of the plot, meaning some of the hooks that make the Gorillaz great could have slid off into self-indulgence. Instead, STRANGE TIMEZ is a clear, fluid, and enjoyable collaboration with a wide array of artists.
#4 — GORILLAZ (2001)
Favorite track: “Rock the House”
I don’t know what the narrative leading up to the Gorillaz’ self-titled debut was, but I can imagine some being dismissive of the news that the Blur guy was doing this weird virtual band thing with hip hop, Latin, funk, and electronic influences. But instead, GORILLAZ was an incredible debut, a forward-thinking fusion of diverse styles and a simply fun and catchy alt-something experience. In fact, as much as I like Blur, I think the Gorillaz albums are the true indicator of Albarn’s near-genius, and it was on display right away. Even though I’ve indicated a slight skepticism of “loose” albums, by which I mean records that dive into a sound without clear pop hook progression, GORILLAZ is one of the exceptions (of which there are many, of course). I mean, at the end of the day, it still has “Clint Eastwood,” “19–2000,” “Tomorrow Comes Today,” and my personal favorite, “Rock the House,” all top-tier Gorillaz songs and all groovy and catchy. Everything in between is, as mentioned, looser, in the sense that the other tracks kind of noodle with the musical influences that have come to define the Gorillaz. But that noodling on GORILLAZ is executed extremely well, to the point that it’s really a loop of great sounds as opposed to aimless musical experimentation.
#3 — THE FALL (2010)
Favorite track: “Bobby in Phoenix”
Somehow, what could be considered the Gorillaz’ most experimental album is among my favorites. THE FALL was quickly recorded while on the supporting American tour for PLASTIC BEACH, also released in 2010, and was semi-famously made by Albarn on an iPad on the bus between stops. THE FALL’s track names indicate his preoccupation with the locations he visited (“Detroit,” “Amarillo,” “Seattle Yodel,” and many more), and I kind of get the energy of those places that he imbued into the songs themselves. My favorite is “Bobby in Phoenix,” a kind of different song for the Gorillaz, based in twanging guitar and the incredible voice of R&B legend Bobby Womack. In fact, he’s the only guest artist on the whole thing, a far cry from the personnel composition of PLASTIC BEACH. And the musical composition of THE FALL is also quite different, “stripped down” as I and others like to describe something that isn’t full of instruments, sounds, and clever production techniques. It makes THE FALL special, a kind of outlier in my general music taste, a record I could have very well liked but not quite loved. Instead, Albarn was able to pull out of his back pocket, almost literally, a simple electronic symphony that communicates the feeling of being on the road.
#2 — PLASTIC BEACH (2010)
Favorite track: “On Melancholy Hill”
PLASTIC BEACH is the Gorillaz’ not-so-simple symphony. A concept album addressing the dire state of our climate, PLASTIC BEACH expanded the guest artist rosters of its predecessors. Oftentimes, when an artist or band does such a thing, it kind of pads out a record or indicates an add-on rather than a truly synthesized influence. That is not the case with the Gorillaz in general, and especially not on PLASTIC BEACH. The record is almost entirely all killer no filler, and even that “filler” is only slightly less potent than its murderous brethren. I just want to sing along and move to every song on the album, and so it’s strange that the chill “On Melancholy Hill” ends up my favorite track on PLASTIC BEACH, and perhaps my favorite Gorillaz song in general. It just gives off such a sad yet comfortable vibe, and provides a vital counterpoint to the admittedly awesome eclecticism of songs like “White Flag,” “Rhinestone Eyes,” and “Stylo.” Ultimately, PLASTIC BEACH is nearly the best example of what the Gorillaz do so well, which is provide a fun, diverse approach to hip hop, funk, and pop…with a little bit more in the background to indicate that not everything is quite as upbeat as it could or should be.
#1 — DEMON DAYS (2005)
Favorite track: “Feel Good Inc.”
DEMON DAYS is the antithesis of the sophomore slump. Yes, the Gorillaz’ second album is their best. They came back with a host of collaborators, including Dennis Hopper of all people, and what I would consider a “tighter” version of the experience provided on GORILLAZ. What I mean is exemplified by “Feel Good Inc.,” the group’s biggest song and my boring answer for favorite track on DEMON DAYS. But I just can’t hear that first bit of laughing that starts the song and not instantly…well, feel good. That goes for the whole of DEMON DAYS, which is indeed all killer no filler. It’s just full of these clever, almost missed bits of sounds and production quirks that latch the songs into my brain. Even interlude-ish track “Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head” (narrated by Hopper) contributes to the record in a way that most narrative interludes don’t. It fleshes out the sense that not everything is “feel good” about DEMON DAYS, and repeat listens to the record cement that feeling. It’s not that the record is some kind of dark manifesto, but its lyrical themes are reflected in the music as well. DEMON DAYS was a more poppy approach to the inclinations of GORILLAZ, but it’s not bubblegum. DEMON DAYS is as much rich and rewarding as it is fun, danceable, and catchy. It’s the best example of the Gorillaz’ enduring appeal.