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Isn’t it frustrating not being able to box something in? Not being able to name it because the goddamn thing is so busy evolving that it slips through your fingers? Sure, they might be a bunch of cartoon characters, but there’s always been something a little darker than meets the eye going on with Gorillaz. They’re pockmarked and weathered, garish, rough around the edges, the residents of Banksy’s Dismaland as counterpoint to Mickey, Donald, and pals. There’s no one who could have better given life to the idea of “smart pop” while confidently rebelling against the genre’s shackles. Fresh ahead of the release of their fifth album, Humanz, 2-D, Murdoc, Noodle, and Russel have achieved an astonishing ubiquity with their smooth funk electronica, far beyond what Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett may have ever expected.
During their promotion behind Demon Days, the band’s website was coded to look like a home/studio building called Kong Studios, which you could visit, explore, and play games. As if the album weren’t thrilling enough, Hewlett, Albarn, and team had fleshed out the awesome experience of living in the disc. As time passed and new music arrived, the Studios altered and changed, much like the music itself. Then came Plastic Beach, and the accompanying island site full of dazzling animations.
Essentially, the universe of Gorillaz — both musically and from a storytelling standpoint — has always been vast and all-encompassing, fusing genres across the spectrum with a saucy smile and subtle head nod. Their family of collaborators has grown also exponentially, from Del the Funky Homosapien and De La Soul to Mavis Staples and Lou Reed. But that’s the magic of Gorillaz: Despite their cartoon visages and the massive swirl of genre shards ranging from alt rock to pop, hip-hop to new wave, they never lack for subtlety or depth.
For that reason, putting together a list of 10 songs that sum up Gorillaz proved a unique challenge. Capturing all the flash and bravado was a must, but so was angling the spotlight on their quieter moments, their more subtler emotions, and their more human experiences. Finding the most engaging gasps of Albarn’s genius was key, but so was finding his most thrilling collaborations. The resulting list shouldn’t be considered the Gorillaz’s best songs, but rather the ones that represent the building blocks that make up their unique sound — the individual cells of the Gorillaz wonderland animation.
“Here you go!” Fittingly, Gorillaz sum up our mental well-being with a mantra telling us to, “Please repeat the message/ It’s the music that we choose,” instead of worrying about chasing our tails because the world is spinning too fast. The ways in which the world changed from 1900 to the 2000s bares its stain, and they needed a title to reflect the leap through a new threshold. Murdoc Niccals explains that “the clocks were changing and the 21st century was dawning … a new age was upon us.” While they’re acknowledging the change, 16 years down the road that change is still lingering, with the world motioning forward at lightning speed. With Talking Heads/Tom Tom Club’s Tina Weymouth and Miho Hatori (Noodle) taking charge of backing vocals, plucked bass gently bounces off surging keys, a finger-snapping head-swaying beat belts out with sentiments skewed to fit our modern world, and their unabashed clarity unveils their cleverest trick yet: stop spinning, stop worrying, and stop moving too fast. Chill and get the cool shoe shine.
Before Gorillaz started amassing a wide cast of collaborators, they had Del the Funky Homosapien — or, shall I say, Del the Ghost Rapper. Gorillaz co-producer Dan the Automator had worked with Del in their Deltron 3030 project, and brought the Oakland rap legend in on the Gorillaz sessions, contributing verses to two smash tracks: the superb and funky “Rock the House”, and the absolutely legendary hook-a-thon “Clint Eastwood”. In fact, in story canon, Del the Ghost Rapper lives within Russel, and acts as his rap mentor. The first results of that collaboration turned out to be quite the success, one of the biggest sing-alongs since the turn of the century. Combining a line from the titular actor in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly with a very Spaghetti Western melodica line, “Clint Eastwood” also perfectly showed off how well Albarn’s disaffected British drawl could gel within the contexts of the Gorillaz’ genre smash-ups, blithely repeating that massive chorus: “I ain’t happy, I’m feeling glad/ I got sunshine in a bag/ I’m useless, but not for long/ The future is coming on.” We didn’t know what that future would be, but it’s clear a decade and a half later that 2-D, Murdoc, Noodle, and Russel were solidifying their place as influential groove-purveyors.
“Tomorrow Comes Today”
“The camera won’t let me roll/ And the verdict doesn’t love our soul/ The digital won’t let me go.” A prime cut from their debut album Gorillaz, “Tomorrow Comes Today” originally featured on their first EP in November 2000. It drips out the darker melodic tones of early Gorillaz whilst still remaining unique enough to show them off. Here they confess maudlin feelings about longing to live in the present, the magnifying fantasies of knowing how all-consumed our lives are in this digital world, how crushed, beaten, and broken things felt whilst the noughties rolled in. With the lyrical nodes showing a slight circumstantial spike built into them (“Don’t think I’m all in this world … I don’t think I’ll be here too long”), the confident yet somber jaunt is weighted down, but doesn’t drown thanks to Albarn’s melodica being introduced into the song’s survivalist glowing undertone. Listening closely to how disconnected Albarn feels with the world proves to be one of the first devices to connect us to the band.
“Kids with Guns” (feat. Neneh Cherry)
Demon Days (2005)
Driving chords press forward, approaching cathartic crescendo. Longing vocals build a communal feeling, the kind of thing fans hit the road with, singing along together to the groove of the beat. The title is gloomy, the bass glossy, and yet we’re seduced by an underrated song that builds momentum through bleak persistence, hovering and churning until it all gathers into a shimmering chorus. “And they’re turning us into monsters … It’s all desire, it’s all desire, it’s all desire,” Albarn sings, until it bursts above gorgeous, sharp guitar picking and bottomless drum machines. Neneh Cherry injects it with guts, her mesmeric wail gliding across the warning: “Kids with guns.” According to Albarn, the song was inspired by an incident that occurred at his daughter’s school, referring to the chaotic reality that the “mesmerized skeletons” are arming themselves from chaos and trouble, and yet forging a clear path toward it. While a Salt-n-Pepa “Push it” sample jabs into our skulls and the story draws you in at a robust tempo, you always return to Gorillaz for, ironically, their human qualities, the way they provide another view of the world. Whether the metaphors are blatant or bizarre, you can always relate.
“Feel Good Inc.” (feat. De La Soul)
Demon Days (2005)
A superabundance of rap and oscillating synths spill over acoustic guitar to steer a confident existential dread while remarkably sharp and biting basslines lay the groundwork. The Grammy-winning track unfurls with every word, careening off the back of a powerful melodic line — it grabs you by the collar, slaps you in the face, and shakes you into repair. Like all of the best tracks in Gorillaz’s remarkable oeuvre, “Feel Good Inc.” feels as if it’s being broadcast from a post-apocalyptic world, a future where little of the city life remains unblemished but somehow music has managed to outlive and intensify. What makes you feel good? Sure, this impression is fueled in part by the video; over the commotion, they take aim at those godforsaken fools who have been peculiarly disillusioned in believing they can’t grasp the “Feel Good Inc.” inside themselves. While the instrumental cacophony rises up to the lyrical bombast, the outlining message is that loving one another allows you to love yourself and to detach from any herd mentality — and “Don’t stop, get it, get it.” The windmill sections of the song offer a beautiful metaphor, convincing us that isolation isn’t the key and that loving each other makes the world turn, forging a ripple effect just like the incomparable bass line.
Don’t ever think the Gorillaz aren’t in touch with reality just because they happen to be a squad of four cartoon apes. The sublime “Hong Kong”, released on their B-sides and remixes album D-Sides, shows the connected reality of the Gorillaz in two powerful ways. The song is a touching, introspective tribute to the territory of its title, a unique region defined in part by the lingering effects of its former place as a British colony and its relationship with the rest of China. In the song, Albarn looks out at Hong Kong from a 19th floor hotel window, noting both the city’s beauty and struggles. “Late in a star’s life it begins to explode,” he sings over loping acoustic guitar and nimble guzheng, the traditional Chinese zither and Western instrument intermingling in a thoughtful, cloudy blend. Across seven minutes, the cultures intermingle in sighing harmony. Fittingly, “Hong Kong” was first released on the compilation Help!: A Day in the Life, on which UK and Canadian artists shared music in support of War Child, an organization which provides assistance to children in areas experiencing conflict and the aftermath of conflict. Lest they ever be accused of relying on cartoon gimmickry, “Hong Kong” is a prime example of just how human Gorillaz truly are.
“On Melancholy Hill”
Plastic Beach (2010)
Melancholy is … transient. The feeling pierces your skin like a mist seeping in through an open window, almost always stinging, ephemeral, a fog clouding your logic and vision. Some people live with an innate propensity for sadness, others find it unbearable. Some rip apart their relationships because of it and others are propelled toward each other, becoming closer because of it all. “On Melancholy Hill” is one of Gorillaz’s strongest songs (if not their best, @me, email me), conveying a sense of gentle urgency and hope that is pushed along by the the gorgeous melodic layers that ride softly beneath. Albarn’s startling knack for melancholic themes really gives it movement — we’re all just the little jellyfish getting sucked up in an engine in the song’s video, shredded and pulped from life. “‘Cause you are my medicine/ When you’re close to me,” he glides beautifully, over monotonous keys that intertwine with the song’s meaning, building and fading, as both melancholy and love tend to do. The way the guitar and synthesizers soar over the even disposition of the muscular yet cushiony percussive arrangements, jolts a feeling of nostalgia, a momentary reminiscence of your soul’s sentimental past. It’s the perfect distillation of taking your shoes off, perching on top of a hill and pausing … even if that moment feels transient.
The Fall (2010)
Though the Gorillaz’s albums often thrive on a maximalist “the gang’s all here” mentality, Albarn put together The Fall on his iPad while on tour supporting Plastic Beach. And while the results are no less thrilling, there’s a moody, murky, lonely feeling to the proceedings, best exemplified by the stirring “Revolving Doors”. On the track, 2-D finds himself in a Boston hotel, pilled-out and contemplating the entryway to the building, feeling lost in his constant state of transit. Slow-burning twinklers like “Amarillo” from the same album (also, coincidentally, serves as the other half of a double A-side single with “Revolving Doors”) show a unique side to Gorillaz, but “Revolving Doors” achieves that same challenged nostalgia, and yet somehow feels both claustrophobic and empty at the same time. “I feel that I’m paused by all the pills/ I see no wrong in here/ On a foggy day/ Revolving doors in London to a foggy day in Boston,” 2-D sings over a ukulele line tinged with melancholy and bronzy synths. The hushed chanting in the backing vocals feel like inner voices repeating the sad, inescapable circumstances, the reminder to Albarn’s very human, fragile lead: “Revolving doors … Foggy day.”
“Some Kind of Nature” feat. Lou Reed
Plastic Beach (2010)
Somehow, the Gorillaz turn their cartoon characters into incredibly real people, and on “Some Kind of Nature”, they turn Lou Reed into a robot. Sure, Del changed from a Funky Homosapien to a Funky Ghost when working with 2-D and co., but digitizing Reed’s voice and helping him into the world of the Gorillaz is an astonishing achievement, especially considering how simple, effective, and sublime “Some Kind of Nature” turns out to be. In an interview with NME, Murdoc proclaimed to be lifelong fan of Reed and the Velvet Underground, and it seems pretty likely that’s true of Albarn as well. The two share a view of the disintegrating order of the world and question the permanence of our lives over a surprisingly cute beat. That fusion of absolutely warm and welcoming songwriting, dark mythology, and an invigorating spot from an unexpected legendary guest felt complete on Demon Days’ “Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head”, but “Some Kind of Nature” takes that formula and doubles down on the clever, subtle musicality, resulting in an earworm that will make you think twice before purchasing anything in plastic.
“Let Me Out” (feat. Pusha T and Mavis Staples)
One thing that Albarn carries out with aplomb is finding the coolest people in the scene, putting them together, and tying everything up in a decidedly Gorillaz-stamped bow. He also knows how to evolve his sound and take it to the next level in an unexpected albeit totally natural way. That’s on full display on the Gorillaz’ new album, Humanz. He knows when to push and when to pull, and what to do to get the assorted pieces to fit. The thrilling “Ascension” grabs an appearance from the electric Vince Staples, and “We Got the Power” adds Savages’ Jhenny Beth, tweaking his quirky rap and disco-fueled rhythms respectively — and somehow these tracks work together.
But Albarn proves his mastery at this chemistry on “Let Me Out”, which connects soul legend Mavis Staples and rap kingpin Pusha T through his own silvery vocals and hyper-rich production. The track feels ‘of the moment’ and yet doesn’t feel like it’s jumping on a bandwagon — a key to the Gorillaz’s appeal, whether working with D.R.A.M. or De La Soul. “Let Me Out” uses some classic wonky Gorillaz-style synth tones, but takes on the politics of today in Pusha’s verse, the timeless heart and soul in Staples’ chorus, and throughout it all, 2-D insists that he’s along for the change that the world needs: “Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s a shift in times/ But I won’t get tired at all.” And while that resonates politically, it also sums up the constantly evolving power of Gorillaz.