Damon Albarn’s spirit of curiosity helps define Blur, the legendary British quartet he’s fronted for a quarter-century, but fittingly, he has trekked the furthest when his explorations taken him beyond the confines of his groundbreaking British band.
Albarn’s solo career started humbly enough, listing off James Bond film titles over chintzy keyboard on the 1996 Trainspotting soundtrack’s “Closet Romantic,” and covering Tubeway Army’s “We Have a Technical” a year later with Matt Sharp of Weezer and the Rentals. Since then, he has scored two films, 1999’s Ravenous with minimalist composer Michael Nyman and 2001’s 101 Reykjavik with former Björk bandmate Einar Örn Benediktsson of the Sugarcubes, as well as two operas, 2007’s China-focused Monkey: Journey to the West and 2011’s Dr Dee: An English Opera. He has participated in at least five non-Blur groups, one of them — Gorillaz — with success to rival his flagship group. He has championed music from all around world, through those collectives and his partnership in the Honest Jon’s Records label. That was his song, “Sister Rust,” over the closing credits of the 2014 Scarlett Johansson blockbuster Lucy, and in July he’ll premiere a musical based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.
On April 28, Blur’s six-year-old reunion culminates with the release of The Magic Whip, their first new album since 2003’s Think Tank and first with all four founding members since 1999’s 13. To mark the occasion, here’s a primer on ten essential Albarn releases — albums and one-offs alike — away from the group with which he’s most closely associated.
Deltron 3030 (feat. Damon Albarn), “Time Keeps on Slipping” (2000)
Gorillaz were born here. Okay, technically, Albarn and Hewlett had already been at work on their cartoon group before Deltron 3030. But Albarn’s three guest appearances on the Del the Funky Homosapien-underpinned alt-rap supergroup’s 2000 debut album — particularly “Time Keeps on Slipping,” which Albarn also composed — offer an alluringly gloomy preview of the direction he, Hewlett, and Dan the Automator would take on Gorillaz.
Gorillaz, Gorillaz (2001)
Albarn’s first big post-Blur move can be explained away as almost obvious in hindsight, but it definitely wasn’t at the time. With Blur, Albarn had always kept in touch with the zeitgeist, evolving stylistically from album to album, and the band’s hits — in America, at least — tended to come on like sneak attacks: If you weren’t already a fan, you’d never necessarily have known that Eurodisco lark “Girls and Boys,” grunge-goofing sports-arena blitzkrieg “Song 2,” and strummy milk-carton soundtrack “Coffee & TV” were all by the same people. So in a way it makes sense that Albarn’s next move would be similarly unpredictable: A take on then-timely trip-hop, as well as funk and rap, and one where his identity was obscured. It makes sense, too, that this new project’s debut album would turn out to become Albarn’s most successful at the time on the U.S. charts.
What’s still hard to fathom is that Albarn’s winning idea, with cartoonist Jamie (Tank Girl) Hewlett and producer Dan the Automator, was a Monkees-style made-for-TV band of cartoon simians. For all the dark, dubby, sample-driven album’s lofty ambitions and echoes of predecessors such as U.N.K.L.E., the parallel to the “I’m a Believer” moptops was no accident: Gorillaz’s 2001 self-titled debut works best as a pop album. Del the Funky Homosapien’s (ahem) animated guest verses are relatively radio-friendly ballast for the spaghetti-Western moodiness of “Clint Eastwood” and jazz loops of “Rock the House.” Meanwhile, the low-key melodicism of opener “Re-Hash” wouldn’t be out of place alongside Albarn’s sunny 2014 single, “Mr. Tembo,” while the bratty “Punk” further mines Blur’s “Song 2″/”Chinese Bombs”/”Bank Holiday” pogo-punk vein. In Albarn’s usual wily way, and with a distinctly unusual visual presentation, he proved there was life after Blur.
Gorillaz, Demon Days (2005)
With the Gorillaz framework established, Albarn and Hewlett set about to make it bigger. Demon Days, which arrived four years after Gorillaz, was in many ways like its predecessor, only more so. There were more guest stars: rappers (De La Soul, Roots Manuva, MF Doom, Bootie Brown of the Pharcyde), powerful female singers (Neneh Cherry, Martina Topley-Bird), and utterly unlikely personages (Ike Turner, Happy Mondays’ Shaun Ryder, actor Dennis Hopper). There were more hits, such as the cackling eclecticism of “Feel Good Inc.” or the slurry neo-disco of “Dare.” Of course, it sold better, too.
Helping refresh it all was a new producer, Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton, then fresh off the success of his 2004 Jay Z/Beatles mash-up The Grey Album. Under Danger Mouse’s guidance, Gorillaz stretched into new styles, such as Latin rock, reggae, and Albarn’s oft-used gospel choirs. If you saw it performed in concert at the Apollo Theater, even on a night when the animations weren’t working, the outsize ensemble cast made it larger than life.
The Good, the Bad & the Queen, The Good, the Bad & the Queen (2007)
Danger Mouse took the helm again for Albarn’s next project. This time, the Blur leader teamed with another seasoned crew of musicians, though his choices of collaborators were less random than it might have appeared. The Clash’s Paul Simonon’s reggae-informed approach to punk bass lines resounded through the more loping moments on Demon Days. Afrobeat legend Tony Allen got a name-check on the hook of Blur’s percussive 2000 single “Music Is My Radar.” Simon Tong, formerly of the Verve, had actually played with Blur after guitarist Graham Coxon left ahead of Think Tank’s 2003 release.
A bigger surprise, especially after Gorillaz, was the decision to use such a rhythmically powerful band to express dystopian melancholy rather than stir up a dance floor. But most surprising of all was how the musicians’ various backgrounds cohered, particularly on war-plagued strummer “Kingdom of Doom” or elegiac piano waltz “80’s Life.” The outfit has lived on in a sense, with Tong and Simonon both appearing on Gorillaz’s third album, Plastic Beach, while Albarn has reportedly written all of a new the Good, the Bad & the Queen album. Oh, and for those counting, after Gorillaz songs “Dirty Harry” and “Clint Eastwood,” this effort’s name is at least Albarn’s third reference to the Hollywood actor.
Gorillaz, Plastic Beach (2010)
By the time Albarn returned to Gorillaz, much had changed for him musically. He’d composed music for Chinese opera director Chen Shi-Zheng’s 2007 stage production Monkey: Journey to the West. Then, in 2009, Blur began their ongoing reunion. While the audience for Blur’s comeback at London’s Hyde Park may have come to hear old favorites, Albarn used Plastic Beach to demonstrate that his songcraft remained as impeccable and evolving as ever. If Demon Days was like Gorillaz only more so, then Plastic Beach is more like the project’s baroque refinement. Produced mainly by Albarn, the album wrings new intricacies out of the Gorillaz framework with help from a typically eccentric casts of guests, ranging from Snoop Dogg and Lou Reed to Super Furry Animals’ Gruff Rhys and grime MCs Bashy and Kano.
First single “Stylo” isn’t too far removed from Gorillaz’s earlier pre-album tracks, but its sleek electro retrofuturism is hypnotic in a different way from those songs, and Bobby Womack’s craggy ad libs lend a newfound depth of feeling. Where Plastic Beach is most effective, though, is where it furthers the somber balladry of the Good, the Bad & the Queen, as on the soaring “On Melancholy Hill” or the music-box-like “To Binge.” (The latter, not coincidentally, is one of two tracks featuring the smoky vocals of Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano, who went on to appear on SBTRKT’s Drake-cosigned “Wildfire” and both of Big Boi’s solo albums.) As with the cartoon conceit on previous Gorillaz records, the environmental theme of the title is loose enough never to distract from another of Albarn’s most arresting collections of songs.
Gorillaz, James Murphy, and André 3000, “DoYaThing” (2012)
Commissioning three artists to produce a song doesn’t necessarily lead to more than the sum of its parts, as a 2014 entry in Converse’s “Three Artists. One Song” project showed despite featuring Frank Ocean. But multi-artist collaboration is what Albarn does routinely anyway, and this squiggly electro-pop team-up between his cartoon band with Hewlett, the LCD Soundsystem maestro, and the dapper OutKast rapper certainly does its joyously nonsensical thing, in both edited and 13-minute versions. Any excuse to get Albarn on a track where André 3000 defies his “he don’t rap enough” rep.
Rocket Juice and the Moon, “Hey, Shooter” (2012)
This Albarn psych-funk project, with drummer Allen and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, tends as a whole to jam on a bit too far off into space, but “Hey, Shooter” benefits from a commanding guest vocal by Erykah Badu. Hey, bull’s eye.
Bobby Womack, “Please Forgive My Heart” (2012)
The impossibly busy Albarn reunited with “Stylo” guest howler Womack as producer on 2012’s The Bravest Man in the Universe LP, the soul great’s first in 18 years and his last before his 2014 death at age 70. Putting Womack’s grizzled emotion amid XL boss Russell’s fluttery electronics, it’s a deeply human preview of Everyday Robots, and it’s a cousin to such late-career revivals as Gil Scott-Heron’s I’m New Here (for which Albarn plays bass on one track) and Solomon Burke’s Don’t Give Up on Me. The full LP doesn’t always hit its marks, but the stark stoicism of single “Please Forgive My Heart” results in an apology that demands acceptance.
Damon Albarn, Everyday Robots (2014)
If there has been a theme here, it’s that Albarn often manages to have huge success while managing to make it look almost accidental. Albarn’s first proper album under his own name, naturally, embodies this offhanded charm. In fact, even the “solo debut” angle is on a technicality: Albarn actually had released a 16-song set, Democrazy, all by his lonesome way back in 2003, but that was just a demos collection and packaged as a double-EP rather than an album. Arriving in between Blur reunion legs, 2014’s Everyday Robots introspectively refuses to rise to its own occasion, and is more of an occasion because of it.
Like The Good, the Bad and the Queen or the best moments on Plastic Beach, Everyday Robots leans toward the type of mournful, languidly paced songs Albarn had mastered as far back as “Blue Jeans” or “This Is a Low.” The aesthetic this time, which he described “sort of folk soul,” mainly sets sparse thumps (courtesy of XL Recordings owner Richard Russell) beneath acoustic-based tintinnabulations, with plenty of echoey empty space. It’s intricate and understated, and it’s best to go beyond the specific lyrical concerns — technology, Albarn’s past with relationships and drugs, a zebra the singer met in Africa — to relish the world-weary, hope-tined ache below.
Russell isn’t the only accompanist on Albarn’s solo voyage, but Bat for Lashes’ Natasha Khan is a background presence on the devastatingly melancholy “The Selfish Giant” rather than a Gorillaz-style featured guest. Brian Eno is a more prominent presence on the hymn-like finale “Heavy Seas of Love,” though almost as crucial is a church choir. With characteristic Albarn perversity, it’s Eno who sings the words on the Blur frontman’s solo album that might come closest to a mission statement: “You’re in safe hands,” quickly followed by, “It’s in your hands.” Albarn may be downcast, but his everyday robots aren’t necessarily to be feared so much as thoughtfully observed.
Africa Express, Africa Express Presents… Terry Riley’s In C Mali (2015)
Typical Albarn. His longstanding fascination with the music of Africa found its most rewarding realization on record, curiously enough, through a 50-year-old composition by a pioneering minimalist from Colfax, California. Albarn’s affinity for multiple African styles is no one-off. Aside from his work with Afrobeat luminary Tony Allen, Albarn has been expanding Blur and Gorillaz fans’ geographical boundaries ever since his 2002 project, Mali Music. More recently, he recorded 2011’s star-studded Kinshasa One Two Congo benefit album and returned to Mali to lead another collaborator-filled venture, Africa Express, which issued the fine Maison Des Jeunes in 2013.
Still, if you’re looking for a place to start with Albarn’s African work, January’s Africa Express Presents… Terry Riley’s In C Mali would be an excellent introduction. Riley’s milestone 1964 piece centers on a pulsing repetition of its title note, but it’s open-ended enough, with such a driving rhythm and snippets of melody so beguiling, that any performance can potentially hold interest. Albarn’s ensemble isn’t just any set of performers, though: Its 17 members include Eno, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner, and Mouse on Mars’ Andi Toma. Their 41-minute version of “In C” has enough percussion to be kinetic as well as hypnotic, and it’s organized in a way that allows separate sections to stand out rather than as a single big build and cooldown. The most striking part is also the one Riley calls his favorite: When the “C” drone drops out and a non-English spoken-word section begins. “That blew my mind,” Riley has said, and like Albarn in his non-Blur excursions, he isn’t alone.