Where To Start With... Gorillaz
As the frontman and the main creative force behind Blur, Damon Albarn had already enjoyed nearly a decade of chart hits and critical acclaim. But, by the time the band's self-titled album arrived in 1997, wear and tear was beginning to show.
The preceding years has seen his band championed as the forerunners of the 'Britpop' scene that had been dominating the charts, but in spite of Blur's success – and partly as a result of the 'battle of the bands' being portrayed in the British press between them and Oasis – Albarn in particular was becoming weary. Having split from longtime partner Justine Frischmann, Albarn ended up sharing a flat with Tank Girl creator Jamie Hewlett, and it was here that the idea for a side project featuring a cartoon band was born.
With Hewlett creating the band's visual presence and Albarn masterminding the music, Gorillaz slowly began to take shape between 1998 and 2001, when the group's eponymous debut album finally emerged. Taking in influences from many styles of music, with a particular emphasis on hip-hop in the early days, Albarn recruited the likes of Dan the Automator and Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, whose raps can be heard on singles 'Clint Eastwood' and 'Rock the House'.
Meanwhile, tensions between Albarn and Blur's guitarist Graham Coxon were becoming strained and when the latter quit the band during the recording sessions for their seventh album Think Tank, both Coxon and the remaining members began pursuing other interests.
For Albarn, this meant that Gorillaz would become his main focus and a follow-up to their debut, Demon Days, arrived in 2005. Produced by Brian 'Danger Mouse' Burton, the album yielded several hits and would eventually go platinum six times over in the UK, as well as eclipsing Blur's success on the other side of the Atlantic by going double platinum in the US.
In the years since, Albarn has become known as one of the busiest people in the music industry and has undertaken various musical side projects including The Good, The Bad and The Queen, Mali Music, Kinshasa One Two and Rocket Juice & The Moon, as well as a solo album and his forays into theatre with Monkey and Wonder.Land. Every few years, however, Albarn has returned to Gorillaz, releasing another three albums over the last decade. For a while, a dispute between Albarn and co-founder Hewitt seemed to suggest Gorillaz had released their last album before the pair buried the hatchet and returned last year with Humanz.
This week, just a year on form their last full-length offering, Gorillaz are back once again with a brand new album. The Now Now was announced in May after the band had debuted several new songs on recent tour dates. One of these, 'Hollywood', features guest appearances from Snoop Dogg and Jamie Principle, while that album's opening salvo 'Humility' features vocals and guitars from jazz legend George Benson.
Co-produced by James Ford, the man usually found at the mixing desk for Arctic Monkeys, The Now Now is a more cohesive affair than the all-star Humanz and tracks such as 'Strobelite' and the instrumental 'Lake Zurich' point to an album squarely aimed at the dancefloor.
You can find the video for 'Humility' below, beneath that we've picked five key tracks from the band's back catalogue to get you in the mood...
The first single the band released saw a guest appearance from Del Tha Funkee Homosapien and set a markedly different tone to Albarn's work as part of Blur. The slower album version here was accompanied by an uptempo remix courtesy of Middle Row Records pair Ed Case and Sweetie Irie, but it's the original that gives the best indication of what was to follow and, along with 'Rock The House', this one of their debut's outstanding tracks.
'Feel Good Inc.'
It was with their second album Demon Days that Gorillaz really began to hit their creative stride, thanks in no small part to the contribution of producer Danger Mouse, and the album contains several outstanding tracks including this little gem featuring a guest appearance by De La Soul that would turn out be the first of several occasions the hip-hop legends would collaborate with Albarn's cartoon band.
According to Happy Mondays frontman Shaun Ryder, who provides guest vocals on this cut from Demon Days, he was sent into the vocal booth and played an instrumental version of 'DARE' without any lyrics or melody, with the instruction to freestyle over the track. When playback began the music in his headphones was too quiet so he asked them to turn it up, which they did, very slowly – hence the “It's coming up, it's coming up” lyric and the following “it's there”, which Ryder says he pronounced to sound like text speak “as in 'C U der'.” And that, folks, is how you write a hit song. Or at least it was in this case.
One of the more unusual tracks on 2010's Plastic Beach also happens to be one the album's best, with De La Soul returning to add a suitably surreal lyric and Gruff Rhys performing a chorus hook that hints at the themes of environmental destruction that populate the rest of the album.
Gorillaz' most recent album Humanz is a star-studded affair with a laundry list of guests, but one of the album's finest moments features an appearance from Jamaican singer Popcaan, who delivers a haunted and distinctive vocal on standout 'Saturnz Barz'.
The Now Now is available in hmv stores now - you can also find it here in our online store.