Gorillaz: Ranking the albums

Summer, 2001.  An almost seven-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, 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 co-founders Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett) immediately becomes the only thing I’ll talk about and the only thing I’ll listen to for months at a time.

This week, Gorillaz will break yet another one of their rules by releasing album #5, 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)?

Disagree with my rankings?  Why not hash it out with me in the comments, I will gladly talk everybody’s ears off about this band if given the chance!

5. 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.

Choice track: Revolving Doors

4. Humanz

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.  But, if I am being honest, I am more in love with that utterly insane opening run than I am 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?  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 super-biased self.

Choice track: Saturnz Barz (Spirit House)

3. Gorillaz

Parts of the self-titled are showing their age and I do feel that the album dips 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 his time 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.”  Plus, the relative simplicity and guest-sparse nature of the album leaves the cartoons as the stars and makes Albarn recede into the background.

Choice track: 19-2000

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 tracks 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 manage 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.

Choice track: Empire Ants ft. Little Dragon

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 and then chases that 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 many fans could argue they were somehow not the best songs on the record.  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.

Choice track: Dirty Harry

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