With album #8, The Now Now, inbound, let’s rank the complete discography of the world’s most successful virtual band.
Note: an abbreviated version of this article originally ran on Set the Tape (link).
Summer 2001. An almost 7-year-old Callum Petch wanders into the corner shop next to his Gainsborough-based Primary School with some saved-up pocket money in order to buy a magazine for reading once he got home. He spots an issue of The Box that came packaged with a free VHS of hit music videos, pleads incessantly to his mum for the extra cash required, and the magazine is his. He gets home, tosses the magazine aside never to be looked at again, and pops in the tape. Shaggy, Steps, S Club 7, friggin’ Afroman, all the hits of our more innocent pre-9/11 time. But then, nestled in between those titans of popular music, was something darker, something weirder, something… animated. The song was unlike anything this boy had ever heard before, ditto the visuals, and ditto ditto the fact that these cartoon characters were being pitched as the band, not one-off counterparts for a concept video. He had no idea what this was, or why the song was called “Clint Eastwood,” but he needed more. Immediately.
Thus began an infatuation with Gorillaz that has lasted to this day and will likely last until the day I finally cark it. Over the years, much of the mystique, rules, and kayfabe of the project have dissipated – the albums became more collab-heavy, co-leader Damon Albarn started performing shows in the spotlight rather than hiding in the shadows, the once insanely-detailed website that let the user tour the virtual Kong Studios disappeared to the realm of temperamental apps, and the lore of the characters fronting the band became ever less relevant – but the tunes have remained. Oh, boy, have the tunes ever remained! Finally getting to see them live last December at Manchester Arena was the highlight of my year, perhaps even decade, and their every return after a near-endless hiatus (the last of which was effectively a short-lived break-up between Albarn and co-leader Jamie Hewlett) immediately becomes the only thing I’ll talk about and the only thing I’ll listen to for months at a time.
Today, Gorillaz break yet another one of their rules by releasing album #8, The Now Now, only a year and two months after Humanz. The turn-around is insane, made even more so by the singles dropped so far already feeling like Song of the Summer contenders and the artwork that Hewlett’s been pumping out for Phase 5 being borderline his best yet. So, with a new album, that TV series (FINALLY), and the grand return of LORE all inbound, what better time to stop and take stock of the recorded output so far of 2D, Noodle, Murdoc, Russel, and now Ace Gangreen from The Powerpuff Girls (yes really)?
Astute readers may have noticed that I’ve been calling The Now Now “album #8” despite it technically only being the 6th official studio release by the project. Well, that’s because this here list also includes both G Sides and D-Sides, the B-Side compilations of Phases 1 and 2. More than just my belief that they harbour some cracking songs worthy of praise, and the fact that Albarn (veteran of a little-known band called Blur) very rarely treats B-Sides as toss-offs, I’ve also included them because both cases offer up more rounded pictures of the project. Gorillaz primarily traffics in alternative hip-hop, but their frequent stylistic digressions – into sub, synthpop, electronic, grime, alt-rock, once even something borderline sludge-rock – are a large part of why their cult worships them so strongly. This is a project more than just their hits, and even their hits are pretty goddamn weird by the usual standards of the pop charts Albarn and Hewlett sought to satirise in their original mission statement. Also, the o’s in the Now Now logo line up to make an 8, so I’m taking it as canon.
I get real Charlie Kelly when it comes to Gorillaz lore, believe me. Disagree with my rankings? Why not hash it out with me in the comments below? I will gladly talk everybody’s ears off about this band if given the chance!
#7] The Fall
Let’s start with the black sheep of the clan. The Fall is Damon Albarn noodling around with his iPad whilst on tour in North America promoting Plastic Beach. The results are disappointingly largely what that sounds like. Admittedly, it is often pleasant to listen to and the set contains a few genuine standout tracks that deserve way more love from both fans and Albarn himself – “Little Pink Plastic Bags,” “Amarillo,” “Bobby in Phoenix,” and especially the gorgeous homesick melancholy of “Revolving Doors” – but much of the album feels like a bunch of half-formed thoughts that drift by without incident. If anything, The Fall’s closest relative is that of Albarn’s own Democrazy, a collection of demos put out there for hardcore fans to pour over but of little interest to everyone else. The last ‘song’ is just a 30 second recording of a novelty yodelling pickle toy.
#6] G Sides
G Sides is really only an 8 track album when you consider that the “19-2000 (Soulchild Remix)” was affixed to the end of Gorillaz anyway and another track is the Radio Edit of “Rock the House.” So, it’s the least-necessary album in their discography by a long stretch. But whilst that could cause one to inquire about the point of releasing a B-Sides compilation after only one album from nine months prior, G Sides does house a bunch of deep-cut highlights. “Faust” is a beautiful stripped-back Electronic jam that eventually morphs into a dual Japanese/English harmony that’s amongst the project’s sweetest moments, “12D3” marks a shift into broken-down Country, whilst “Left Hand Suzuki Method” switches genres back and forth on a dime and really should have been on the main album (as it was in America). Plus, re-use aside, “19-2000 (Soulchild Remix)” is perfect Summerjam material that eclipses the original. The inclusion of the Phi Lyfe Cypher version of “Clint Eastwood” (the one made before they got Del the Funky Homosapien on instead), meanwhile, makes for a fascinating historical document of how close the project came to blowing it all before even getting out of the starting gates.
In case you wanted an idea of the kind of creative roll Damon was on during Phase 2, the first disc of D-Sides can stand toe-to-toe with any of the four proper Gorillaz albums released so far, perhaps even outmatch some of them. You’ve got the rolling grooves of opener “68 State,” the dub-reggae throwback of “Bill Murray,” the insidiously catchy and deliberately meaningless pop mockery of “Rockit,” the gorgeous closer “Stop the Dams,” AND “Hong Kong,” technically not a Gorillaz song and yet still my favourite of theirs from this era. Even the ostensible throwaways have value: “People” demonstrating the vitality of Shaun Ryder’s contribution to “DARE,” “Don’t Get Lost in Heaven (Demo)” having a Country swing that’s completely gone from the gospel version that shows up on Demon Days, and “Murdoc is God” is exactly the kind of nonsense that Murdoc Niccals would write and then force his bandmates to record whilst they all try and avoid falling asleep.
So, Disc 1 is fantastic, but D-Sides is ultimately left stuck behind the proper albums due to its second disc: a collection of remixes that run the gamut from needlessly overlong (the DFA version of “DARE”) to absolutely atrocious (Jamie T’s bastardisation of “Kids With Guns”), with one pleasant find nestled away (the “Schtung Chinese New Year Remix” of “Dirty Harry” which is the same as the original but swapping out the lyrics and instrumentation for Chinese equivalents). Two-thirds of this disc are “DARE” and “Kids With Guns” remixes, none of which provide any new or quality takes on the material they’re working with, and it ultimately drags D-Sides down as a whole.
Oh, how I ‘ummed’ and ‘ahhed’ between this one and the next entry. I love Humanz, contrary to how most of the fandom has turned on it in the year following its release, I have been bumping it regularly, and it still ended up my second favourite album of the whole year (bested only by The xx’s continued ability to zero in squarely on my personal emotional state). But, if I am being honest, I’m more in love with that utterly insane opening run than the album’s second half, where it falls off somewhat. Strong sequencing and those Ben Mendelsohn interludes do help with the flow and creation of a semi-coherent narrative (party in a tower at the end of the world), but “Carnival” is completely forgettable, the hook on “Let Me Out” is rather deflating, and the album fails to feel like a Gorillaz album. That interplay between the songs and the virtual characters making the album, more vital than most professional music critics will admit, just isn’t there; the group feel like passive spectators who only occasionally break through the noise.
Still, as music, divorced from all other context? Dear God, this is fun! We OPEN with “Ascension” into “Strobelite” into “Saturnz Barz” into “Momentz!” That’s how Humanz opens! “Ascension” is the best Vince Staples song of 2017 and the man also dropped Big Fish Theory that year! “Andromeda” absolutely soars, “Submission” taps Kelela and Danny Brown together in a combination that has no right to work as brilliantly as it does, “Sex Murder Party” honestly reminds me of old atmospheric PlayStation 1 soundtracks, “Strobelite” points the way towards The Now Now (and was my favourite song of the year), and I like “We Got the Power” screw the haters! And if you want to bring the Deluxe Edition into the equation, then you’ve also got “The Apprentice,” “Ticker Tape,” and the MASSIVE “Out of Body!” So, yeah, weakest of the main bunch, still better than most other music released in 2017 according to my massively-biased self.
Parts of the self-titled are showing their age and I do feel that the album falls off a fair bit after “19-2000” and never fully recovers until “M1A1” – plus, the UK version has the Ed Case “Refix” of “Clint Eastwood” bolted on at the end like a gorgeous strawberry cheesecake that the chef has decided to garnish with one solitary tiny shit-ball in one corner – but Gorillaz still kicks all kinds of ass. You got those singles that are still untouchable all these years later. The rumbling trip-hop of “Tomorrow Comes Today,” the bizarre skanking of “19-2000,” even “Rock the House” rules as an unofficial Hieroglyphics solo-Del track. And, towering above them all like the monolith, still unlike anything else to break into the pop charts and still capable of sending crowds into an absolute frenzy the second those drums kick in: “Clint Eastwood.”
But many of the true highlights of Gorillaz can actually be found in the deeper cuts. The cavernous “New Genius (Brother)” is stark and forceful, “Re-Hash” is the catchiest Beck song Beck never wrote, and the utterly gorgeous “Sound Check (Gravity)” remains one of producer Dan the Automator’s finest moments. More than any of the individual songs, however, Gorillaz also stands as a testament to Albarn’s commitment to Gorillaz as a concept. He sings the vast majority of the songs here with an entirely different voice to that in Blur, losing himself in 2D. Many of the songs lyrically sound like the kind of nonsense that a moderately-talented band of misfits like the ones that make up the collective face of Gorillaz would pen, particularly in the filthy bizarre “5/4” and the gibberish one-two of “Man Research (Clapper)” and “Punk.” And the relative simplicity and guest-sparse nature of the album leaves the cartoons as the stars and makes Albarn recede into the background. Hewlett and he would perfect that meld later, but Gorillaz stands as a document to the purity of that concept. Plus, y’know, Tunes.
#2] Plastic Beach
Until Humanz came along, Plastic Beach was the most consistent album that Gorillaz had yet put out. Gone was the rampant genre-hopping of the first two official records in favour of a cohesive, shimmering, A to B, full-blown pop album. Much of the tangible instrumentation had been replaced by drum machines, synthesizers, and keyboards. Guests permeated all but 5 of the album’s 16 tracks, and they took full-command of those from 2D. Upon release, long-time fans may have been ready to riot over these changes, and some did… but most did not because the songs were JUST THAT GOOD. Plastic Beach has bangers coming from every direction, “Rinestone Eyes,” “White Flag,” “On Melancholy Hill,” motherfrakkin’ “STYLO” – I didn’t actually hear “Stylo” until I bought the album and I was properly blown back in my chair the first time Bobby Womack showed up, not exaggerating.
And then, over time, Plastic Beach’s nuances and subtleties made themselves known. This is one phenomenally sequenced album. From the majestic tease of the titular beach through the fog on the orchestral opener, progressing from day (“Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach”) to twilight (“Empire Ants”) to night (“Sweepstakes”) to the bleary haze of the following morning (“Plastic Beach”), the seafaring “Pirate Jet” leading us out as the land fades from view. Despite all the guests, with 2D disappearing for entire songs at a time, and the synthetic instrumentation, Plastic Beach still crafts a world, a narrative, a paradise to escape to that soon reveals itself as a crapsack filled with miserable people succumbing to excess pollution, with the band (or what was left of it at the time because LORE) as your captains. It pulls off the tricky balancing act that Humanz couldn’t quite and the results make for the kind of album I just have to listen to front-to-back every time. It also contains my absolute favourite Gorillaz song, the mesmeric “Empire Ants” whose incandescent beauty can only be heard rather than described.
#1] Demon Days
You’re shocked, I can tell. Demon Days is roughly 90% of the Gorillaz fandom’s favourite, and it is my favourite album of all-time. I don’t think a perfect album exists, but Demon Days gets right up close to that idea. Musically, the thing is on another level, with much more complex and richer instrumentation and lyrics than on the self-titled, without sacrificing the characteristic genre-hopping – the album’s middle stretch follows a Verve-like post-Britpop ballad with a slow-burn jazz freakout, then a slice of old-school hip-hop chased down with a shot of grime. The hits were ubiquitous and unlike anything else featured on the James Blunt wastelands of the 2005 charts (“Feel Good Inc.,” “DARE,” “Dirty Harry”) yet were still somehow not the best songs on the record. Those would be “Every Planet We Reach is Dead” and the Dennis Hopper-narrated storytime parable of “Fire Coming out of the Monkey’s Head.” The production on this thing is the reason why the more hardcore music nerds of your circle of friends still tolerate Danger Mouse no matter how many more chunks of personality he sands off of The Black Keys with each successive album.
But, crucially, Demon Days represented the ideal of the entire concept of Gorillaz. Prior to the album’s release, Hewlett succinctly laid out the game plan as “let’s repeat the same process, but do it better. Because everyone thought it was a gimmick. If you do it again, it’s no longer a gimmick, and if it works then we’ve proved a point.” And that is Demon Days. Hewlett’s accompanying artwork was better, the videos were better, the kayfabe of the band was still intact and more involved. The music was a giant leap forward, arguably the best album Albarn has ever put out across his entire career, and even if he largely ditched the voice he utilised throughout Gorillaz, they still feel like songs that go hand-in-hand with the concept rather than songs being funnelled into the concept for lack of anywhere else to go or the concept excessively driving the songs. I could listen to this album every single day for a full month and never get tired of it, something I have actually done before. Demon Days is just magic, unlikely to ever be equalled but I am more than happy to watch Albarn and Hewlett try.
Callie Petch is calling the world from isolation.