The music world has seen all manner of innovations and quirky characters in the new millennium, but two decades into their illustrious career, there is still no one quite like Gorillaz. The world’s most acclaimed cartoon band unleashed its fab furry foursome of 2-D, Murdoc, Noodle, and Russel (with some assistance from musical polymath Damon Albarn and animator Jamie Hewlett) way back in 1998. Along the way, they’ve dropped five studio albums, collaborated with some of the biggest legends in the game, nabbed a Grammy, and even earned a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records.
More importantly, Gorillaz have embedded themselves in the public conscious in a way that would have seemed inconceivable when they first arrived. Their breakthrough single “Clint Eastwood” alone would be enough to cement their legacy – included in such prestigious tallies as Rolling Stone‘s 100 Best Songs of the 2000’s – and yet the band are arguably at the peak of their creative powers now, here on the eve of the release of their sixth album, The Now Now.
Which means, there’s no better time for an official ranking. Culling from each of their full-length efforts through last year’s Humanz, these are the 25 Best Gorillaz Songs.
What starts out as a dead-ringer for the theme song to cult ’70s game show The Match Game turns into one of the best showcases for Del the Funky Homosapien’s bars put to tape (though second, of course, to his other appearance on Gorillaz’ debut). As one of the first singles in the Gorillaz chronology, it serves as prototype for the blend of their signature funk with guest MCs they would soon come to perfect on their later releases.
Blending, no, terraforming the fault lines that divided Damon Albarn’s techniques with Blur and Gorillaz lies “O Green World,” a track that is the natural evolution of songs that previously hinted towards such a melding on the first Gorillaz record. It’s 90% “ah-ah-ah” and weirdly-off-putting synth warbles, which says something about the staying power of its melody when it does finally kick in. Leave it to Albarn’s pitch-perfect, loping lines of guitar to save the day.
Not to be confused with the Snoop Dogg-featuring album opener (more on that later), the title track to Gorillaz’ magnificent third album is a woozy bit of electro perfect for those initial moments of just feeling high enough. A loop of endlessly arpeggiating twinkling synths keep you guessing at every turn, while Albarn plumbs rock royalty in the form of The Clash’s Mick Jones and Paul Simonon to bolster the gritty, analog instrumentation. “Styrofoam deep sea landfills” never sounded so appealing.
It’s comforting to know that we lived in a world where Gorillaz, then in the stages of creating their second album proper, had the clout to enlist acting legend Dennis Hopper to recite a monologue about an alien monkey town and the lessons they learned from their local neighborhood volcano. Yeah, that happened. Far more than a stoner’s wet dream of a listening selection, this Demon Days-cut is a straight-up jam. Though it is also a stoner’s wet dream of a listening selection.
It arrived on the eve of a great reckoning, when the entire world waited with bated breath for the beginning of a dark, uncertain era. Far more than heralding the release of their long-expected new album, “Hallelujah Money” was a timely parable delivered just before the world’s greatest swindler ascended to the highest office in the land. This narrative should not be forgotten surrounding the track’s release; if anything, it served Gorillaz’ promised “party record for the end of the world” an overwhelming sense of immediacy – it’s also among the best slow ballads in their catalog.
Now here’s a song you don’t find every day. The alternately delicate plinking and sudden squelching synthesizers that mark Plastic Beach are here paired with two talismans of the grime scene, Kano and Bashy, along with rich instrumentation from the UK’s National Orchestra for Arabic Music (with special note to the fiercely-energetic drum at the forefront). Eclectic doesn’t even begin to describe the finished product, but it all congeals into an invigorating whole that is – miraculously – far more than the sum of its parts.
Gorillaz have learned the hard way that nabbing a unique or unexpected celebrity guest does not always produce the best results. And while “Saturnz Barz” is not the best of this sect of their work per se, it feels like the one that challenged their sound, or rather, pushed them into bold new directions, more than any other. Popcaan delivers a stellar guest spot beneath some of the darkest production Gorillaz have put on record. The end result is like a last call for assistance transmitted from a very lonely planet, submitting to the ocean of emptiness below.
Very much the companion piece to their debut album’s massive hit “Clint Eastwood,” “Tomorrow Comes Today” takes all the traits of the former and slows it way down, placing enormous emphasis on the natural melancholy that exudes from an instrument like the harmonica. Albarn turns in a masterfully-defeated vocal performance befitting a track about being not long for this world. It’s turns like these that effectively silence the critics who lament the singer being “too detached” in his records.
Certainly the most underrated track on their debut album (if not their entire oeuvre), “Man Research (Clapper)” is an exercise in building a consistently enticing groove. Falsetto, wailing vocals transmit a yearning that is offset by the submerged beat and the jutting guitar strums with reverb as thick as molasses. It’s a tightly-wound rave-up that leaves Albarn no choice but to circle skyward toward track’s close in a mantra-like repetition of the piercingly-effective “yeah.”
Perfectly setting the tone for Demon Days, “Last Living Souls” balances chirrupy beats and cheery synths on one end with piano, acoustic guitar, and strings on the other, meeting at track’s end for a union that encapsulates the record as a whole. Dealing with a classically-Gorillaz subject (being the literal last people left on a planet ruined by pollution), it’s a production that exemplifies the best of Albarn’s songcraft; moving forward at a clipped, precise pace with more than one melodic through-line to follow.
“The sky’s falling, baby drop that ass ‘fore it crash” is the most sublime way to open Humanz imaginable. Effectively summing up the album’s thesis of a party record for the end of times in a single statement, Gorillaz burst out of the gate with such strength here that the rest of the album was doomed to whimper in its wake. Which really is Vince Staples’ fault; no other MC (band included) comes close to matching his frenetic pace on this record, churning out one-liners “She wet like Barbra Streisand” with unmatched speed and skill.
Gorillaz have been fortunate enough to work with some of the best and best-loved musicians in history across their career, the towering height of which can only be Lou Reed. The visionary rockstar behind The Velvet Underground proffers a set of verses in his characteristic drawl while Albarn lets each chorus blossom and shower in descending keyboard lines, a rush of a release after the rigidity of Reed’s clipped tones. “Some Kind of Nature” ushers in the calmer, exploratory latter half of Plastic Beach, but time points toward this duet as counting among the band’s more underrated classics.
Albarn’s work as part of the seminal Britpop outfit Blur are all over this standout from Gorillaz’ debut. Which makes sense, considering he was working double-time on both musical projects at once. Contrary to interfering with the ‘Gorillaz sound,’ “5/4” is a rollicking bit of grunge-pop that exemplifies the very best of Albarn’s impulses. It also helps that it has a beat scientifically impossible to ignore; some part of your body will helplessly bob along, don’t try to stop it.
Gorillaz have done plenty of dance tracks, but they’ve only done one shithouse balls-to-the-wall freak out rave track. “Glitter Freeze” is unstoppable and takes no prisoners; it’s a song that literally opens with a distress signal and warps it to become part of the beat. Albarn enlisted his idol (and figurehead of cult-band The Fall) Mark E. Smith to deliver a frightening, warbled sermon warning us about whatever the hell a glitter freeze is, but it’s clear once that air-raid siren of a synth line pitches upward yet again that his warning is heedless – this glitter is already well-frozen.
The title really says it all. This restrained piece of ornate electro plays every card in the synth-pop ballad playbook (if it had been released in the ’80s you can bet that John Hughes would tap this for a soundtrack) and yet it emerges without a whiff of cliché. Albarn, a studious pupil of such old masters as The Cure, Cocteau Twins, and The Jesus & Mary Chain, is able to provide his own take on the hallowed genre that more than holds its own among the pantheon. “If you can’t get what you want, then you can come with me,” he sings wistfully, embodying the piercing sense of ennui that transcends words. Naturally, he makes it sound ridiculously easy.
It’s fair to say that Gorillaz’ big comeback record Humanz was a disappointment. While not bad, it felt overstuffed to the point of saturation – where the impressive roster of guest artists they corralled ended up muddying the finished product, a classic case of way too many cooks in the kitchen. “Andromeda” is really the only cut from the album that feels overwhelmingly their own; a sort of radiant, melancholy electro-pop bubbling with carefree longing, unperturbed by the bleak lyrics that embrace it. Featured artist DRAM is woven into the tapestry of backing vocals as Albarn leans into the sugar-sweet chorus of “take it in your heart now.” Effortlessly, as good pop music should, it hits you in all the right places.
A sweeping “Orchestral Intro” gives way to this glacially-cool opener of Plastic Beach, where Snoop Doggy Dogg himself serves as the “crack-a-lacking” gatekeeper to a whole world of bleeding-heart electro-pop waiting just around the corner. Albarn’s backing vocals are at their mechanized best as he issues such rock solid hooks as the simple “just like that,” ensuring that no matter how many mentions of such troubling subject matter as “pollution in the ocean,” you’re going to keep gliding without end in this track’s enviably crisp groove.
Do you have a moment to talk about riffs? Because let’s talk about riffs. The precise plodding of the monstrous riff that surges through “Kids With Guns” is among the best Albarn has dared to strum – a great behemoth of a chord progression that effectively turns the rest of the track into window dressing. Fortunately, it’s exceptional dressing; the wheezy line of keyboard dutifully echoes said riff in reverse, while Albarn and surprise guest vocalist Neneh Cherry whisper yet another of Gorillaz’ instant classic hooks (and possible Salt n’ Pepa shout) with “push it, push it, real, push it.” Every element ticks like clockwork, though we’ve yet to encounter a clock nearly as trigger-happy with our sonic pleasure centers.
It’s easy to forget, but Gorillaz are actually fairly solid in their lyrical game. The apex of their poetic use of language comes in “Rhinestone Eyes,” an uptempo pop-cut that would be full of feeling had its bleeding heart not been replaced with a Casiotone. “Under sunshine pylons we’ll meet,” Albarn croons, “while rain is falling like rhinestones from the sky.” A recurring theme in all of the band’s work is indulging in pleasure and finding beauty in a decaying world (gee, that doesn’t resonate at all) – “Rhinestone Eyes” is the most convincing, not to mention the most exquisitely-rendered, plea to join them.
This… beat. “Stylo” is technically a song, but it is really more of a pure distillation of funk, a groove that is primordial in rhythmic intent. The ear is struck immediately with the cyclical lines of gelatinous synth, propelled infinitely forward by the monolithic beat. The mechanic repetition of both the track and the chorus’ warning of an “overload” would reduce the listener to a state of hypnosis were it not for the sudden, cataclysmic arrival of soul legend Bobby Womack, whose superhuman-baritone tears the fabric of the song asunder with great peals of human longing. It’s not just the machinist pace that leaves you exhilarated; this is what supreme musicianship sounds like.
The one that started it all… “Clint Eastwood” is inarguably one of the most essential musical artifacts of the new millennium, which isn’t too shabby a title to hold for a debut single. The years have done little to dull the impact of Gorillaz’ kingmaking track – it remains abundantly clear what made it such an immediate hit. Del the Funky Homosapien’s bars are both animated (no pun intended) and elastic, full of enough memorable one-liners to serve drunken karaoke sessions with ease. The MVP is still Albarn, whose bemoaned tenor wails the sort of lines that are the stuff of pop music dreams; “I’ve got sunshine in a bag” may be Gorillaz’ single-greatest lyrical achievement. Wrapped in the thick fog of a production that accentuates ghostly harmonica and synths that eerily spiral ever-upward, “Clint Eastwood” is the sort of track that comes but once in a lifetime.
A perfect dance track may be an unattainable concept, but damn, “DARE” must come awfully close. Giving you eight seconds of wheezing air turbines kicking off to prepare yourself before the beat decisively drops, “DARE” plops us right into a seedy, futurist-take on a disco floor-filler, custom made for a ring around the nuclear-powered roller rink. The track intercuts one of Gorillaz’ catchiest choruses with dreamy verses buoyed by feather-light lines of keyboard, evoking the sort of genre-hybrid club cuts that turned Blondie into the toast of the town (tellingly enough, “DARE” remains the band’s sole number one single in their native UK). And special attention must be given to that bassline, an entity of seduction so powerful that it’s probably best to use protection when listening.
A cloying, ornate melody surreptitiously delivers one of the bleakest subjects Gorillaz ever tackled; the refrain of “Dirty Harry” is sneakily sing-songy enough to distract you from the message, namely, “I need a gun cause all I do is dance.” This essential cut from Demon Days – and unofficial answer to their previous “Clint Eastwood” – is a pointed rumination on the psychological effects of war, and it is wrought in a decadent presentation. Handclaps and the San Fernandez Youth Chorus bolster an already potent bass-groove, while an energetic middle section hypes a welcome guest-verse from the Pharcyde’s Bootie Brown. The melody is heavily indebted to tropes of traditional Eastern music, yet Albarn’s (arguably better) “Schtung Chinese New Year” remix of the track honors its influences by directly featuring Chinese artists. In either language, the song’s strength and depth of feeling is immediate.
In just under five minutes, Gorillaz create an immersive symphony. The first movement is one of ice; of ghostly keyboards that brush feather light atop a glistening, tonal space of bright ambience. “The polyphonic prairies here, it’s all around you,” sings Albarn, his voice floating high above the flawless sheen of glass-like stillness. Suddenly, a shift, a second movement appears far in the distance, a descending line of pointed synth begins to emerge, flying closer as each second passes. The stillness subsides and it becomes our sole point of focus, becoming more earnest with each refrain. Like a wave, the beat crashes overall, bathing the world in warm, dulcet energy, all while Little Dragon soothe the change in pace with words not meant to be fully understood. In short, this is electro as high art.
It may seem like a consensus choice or an easy pick for the top spot, but at the end of the day, there is no question that this isn’t the greatest Gorillaz song. Like “Clint Eastwood” before it, “Feel Good Inc.,” the startling centerpiece to their breakthrough sophomore effort Demon Days, is a landmark of the 2000s. It also serves as the most perfect execution of Damon Albarn’s career-long quest as Gorillaz to marry his alternative and electro-pop sensibilities with the world of funk and hip-hop. Albarn enlisted the venerable De La Soul for a slew of maniacal verses that match their cartoon-inspirations note for note in energy, while he wisely places himself where he works best: crooning an instantly-catchy hook with deep affect. We would speak on the power of the new millennium’s greatest funk track’s legacy, but that was apparent the moment it was released – “Feel Good Inc.” is a bona fide instant classic.
For more of our song rankings, check out our picks for the 20 Best Justin Timberlake Songs.