Damon Albarn was quite the pop genie in 2015: a figure who, despite his penchant for trying gutsy new experiments and refusing to keep his feet rooted in one place for long, has been granting his fan’s wishes by returning to some of his best-loved projects. After reforming Blur and delivering the so-tasty-you’ll-never-tire-of-licking it ‘The Magic Whip’ LP, his old troupe of cartoon rogues are next on the list. He even revealed he’s “started work” on a new Gorillaz record. “I’ve just been really, really busy so I haven’t had a chance. I’d love to just get back into that routine of being at home and coming to the studio five days a week.”
We’ve already listed the numerous reasons why the return of Murdoc and the gang is worthy of your excitement. The truth, though, is the demented pop of Gorillaz only makes up a portion of Damon’s stellar CV outside of his work with Blur; a mighty and varied discography that takes in everything from afrobeat supergroups to solo albums and beyond. And so we’ve bravely taken on the tricky task of ranking each of his non-Blur projects in order of greatness. Delve in, if you dare…
Honourable Mentions: ‘Mali Music’ (2002); ‘Journey To The West’ (2008); ‘Dr Dee: An English Opera’ (2011); ‘Maison Des Jeunes’ (Africa Express, 2013)’
Before we start with the countdown, here’s a glut of Damon releases that didn’t make the final list but still demand your attention. 2002’s ‘Mali Music’, a collaboration with Malian musicians Afel Bocoum and Toumani Diabate, and 2013’s ‘African Express Presents: Maison Des Jeunes’, in which Albarn, Nick Zinner, Brian Eno and more worked with Malian musicians during a week-long trip to the country, are both wonderful – but given the input of so many other artists, it’d feel a tad naughty to give all the plaudits to Damon. Likewise, his soundtrack for the stage production of ‘Journey To The West’ and opera score for ‘Dr Dee’ aren’t albums as much as they are performance projects, and it’d be tricky to rank their bonkers wares against a straight-up LP. And while we’re on the subject of Damon’s more wonky, less rankable work, he’s provided the music for ‘Wonder.land’, a stage adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s uncanny kids’ classic ‘Alice In Wonderland’, that was part of this year’s Manchester’s International Festival and will be shown in London later this year. Plenty there, then, to entertain you if you fancy going through the looking glass.
7. ’Rocket Juice And The Moon’ (Rocket Juice And The Moon)
Let’s be frank: given the involvement of Flea, he of the perennially gurning face and bass-thwacking naffness, this could have been much worse. But if inviting the Red Hot Chili Peppers man to join Albarn and Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen for an LP that takes inspiration from Afro-funk and psychedelia could have been disastrously disrespectful – “More slap bass! Damon, take your shirt off! Tony, put a cock on your sock!” – ‘Rocket Juice And The Moon’’s major undoing is that it leans too much the other way; that, in staying so reverent and faithful to the spirit and sound of the source material, it’s all strangely flat and devoid of spirit or personality. For all the technical skill and sunny grooves, and despite highlights like the smooth, slink and Erykah Badu-featuring ‘Hey Shooter’ or the Albarn-crooned ‘Poison’, it’s oddly mundane. Albarn’s arguably at his finest when hopping from one genre to another, ignoring convention, splicing styles and upending the status-quo; here, though, he never threatens to put his own stamp on things.
It’s hard, now, to remember what a wonderfully weird concept Gorillaz seemed back in 2001: a strange pop experiment in which one of the UK’s best-known and best-loved singers hid behind animated sketches and cartoon tomfoolery instead, in which the artistic vision of ‘Tank Girl’ creator Jamie Hewlett was just as important as Albarn’s musical nous. And even now, nearly 15 years on, there’s still the nagging feeling that ‘Gorillaz’ was most vivid as visual art, that those songs don’t shine quite as bright without the illustrations to back them up. But there’s still roots and tell-tale signs, here, of the ambitious, tongue-in-cheek music that Gorillaz would go onto make, with their carefree and anything-goes approach to pop; after the break-up bumout of Blur’s ‘13’, Albarn sounds like he’s having fun again, from the sinister whistle of classic single ‘Clint Eastwood’ or trippy wonder of ‘New Genius’. Gorillaz would grow bigger and better in the future; this is their starting point, the first doodle on the page, a small step for some cartoon monkeys but a giant leap for Albarn et al in leaving the shackles of his Blur days behind.
5. ’The Fall’
It’s tempting to dismiss ‘The Fall’ as mere fan’s folly. This, after all, is an LP that seems rooted in a gimmick – it was, essentially, the first album to have been recorded on an iPad – and was initially given away as a free download on the band’s website for fan club members. And yet even though ‘The Fall’ was cobbled together piecemeal on the road, recorded on the hoof by Albarn during a US tour with no pre-planned ideas or highfalutin concepts, it’s one of Gorillaz’ most consistent listens. It’s an underrated, low-key gem that’s full of treats, from the sidewinding funk of ‘The Snake In Dallas’ to the splintered electronics of ‘California And The Slipping Of The Sun’. And rather than a slew of high-profile cameos, there’s just a handful of guest spots, including the blues-heavy beauty of Bobby Womack’s turn on ‘Bobby In Phoenix’. Sure, it lacks the razzmatazz of Gorillaz’ other releases, but it doesn’t need it -it’s got its own subtle stardust instead.
4. ’Plastic Beach’
The Gorillaz album with the finest A-list cast of all: here, on one LP, sit collaborations with Snoop Dogg, Mark E Smith, Lou Reed, Womack, Mos Def, De La Soul and Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano. On one hand, so many famous faces guarantees songs of different flavour and quirks, from Reed’s croak-heavy ‘Some Kind Of Nature’ and Smith’s grizzled cameo on ‘Glitter Freeze’ to the giddy, day-glo pop of ‘Superfast Jellyfish’ with De La Soul and Super Furry Animals’ man Gruff Rhys to Kano and Bashy bringing some grit to the throb of ‘White Flag’. But if there’s a rub, it’s that having so many head-turning guests robs ‘Plastic Beach’ of coherency; try drawing a line between the Snoop Dogg-featuring ‘Welcome To The World Of Plastic Beach’, for example, and Mos Def’s intense contribution to ‘Sweeptstakes’, and you’ll end up getting so lost you’ll start doodling ‘How did I get here?’ on your hand instead. There’s a trove of individual jewels here – put them all together, though, and they don’t make for the collective treasure chest you’d hope to dig up.
3. ‘The Good, The Bad And The Queen’
Albarn’s songwriting focus shifted dramatically in the 21st century. If Blur’s earliest days had betrayed an obsession with the capital, in which Albarn’s lyrics rarely looked beyond the sooty romance and glamour of London, then he spent the first half of the new millennium broadening his horizons, from the Middle Eastern tics of 2003’s ‘Think Tank’ and Mali Music project to the make-believe wackiness of Gorillaz. But 2007’s ‘The Good, The Bad And The Queen’, a collaboration with Allen, The Clash bassist Paul Simonon and The Verve’s guitarist Simon Tong, found the Big Smoke on his mind again. Here, though, Blur’s early treatment of London – the city as a modern den for cheeky wide-boys – is gone, and replaced by a place that creaks and croaks with spooky history. “A ship across the estuary/ Sundays lost in melancholy,” laments Albarn on the creeping melancholy of ‘History Song’, coming on like a wizened story-teller, while ‘Kingdom Of Doom’ seems to take place in a mystic old boozer. “Friday night in the Kingdom of Doom,” sings Albarn, “Ravens fly across the room.” A dark and delicate masterclass that sounds like it’s been magicked into existence from some bygone era.
2. ‘Everyday Robots’
Before its release, whispers abounded that Damon’s long-awaited solo album would pull the curtain back on his personal life; that it would be more introspective and honest, more rooted in reality after the concept-heavy supergroups and the visual distraction of Gorillaz. In truth, though, ‘Everyday Robots’ provided snatches and sketches rather than full self-portraits: small glimpses and flashes of autobiographical information, like the sly self-reference of ‘Hollow Ponds’ and its lyric “‘Modern Life…’ was sprayed onto a wall in 1993”, or ‘You And Me’’s frank take on his heroin addiction (“Digging out a hole in Westbourne Grove/ Tin foil and a lighter”). But that shouldn’t overshadow the sheer beauty of its songs, whether it’s the jazz-glitches ‘The Selfish Giant’, in which Bat For Lashes’ Natasha Khan joins Damon to pick over the carcass of a defunct relationship, the trip-hop splendour of ‘Hostiles’ and the technology-baiting ruefulness of the title track.
1. ‘Demon Days’
Just look at the singles from ‘Demon Days’, and try arguing it’s not Albarn’s finest non-Blur release. Here, scrapping for space on just one disc, are some of the most magical pop moments imaginable. The manic, menacing energy of ‘Feel Good Inc’; the urban itch of ‘Dirty Harry’; the leering, thuggy charm of ‘DARE’. Most bands would kill for one song of the same quality; for three, they’d sacrifice hundreds of farm animals.
But even beyond that unholy trio, there’s a demented spirit to ‘Demon Days’ that elevates it above all else in Damon’s back-catalogue. It’s darker than ‘Gorillaz’ and scarier than ‘Plastic Beach’, more inventive than ‘The Good, The Bad And The Queen’ and more lively than ‘Rocket Juice And The Moon’. And at times, it’s downright ugly: witness the apocalyptic horror of ‘Last Living Souls’, or the loneliness of ‘Every Planet We Reach Is Dead’, on which Albarn sings “I lost my leg like I lost my way/ So no loose ends/ Nothing to see me down/ How are we going to work this out?” What’s scariest of all, though, is when those end-of-days scenarios aren’t just limited to fantastical scenarios or dreamworlds, but are rooted in reality. “Kids with guns, taking over,” observes Damon on ‘Kids With Guns’. “Taking over/ But it won’t be long/ They’re mesmerized/ Skeletons.” Disturbingly real, horrifyingly vivid and one of his finest ever albums, period.