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From Blur to 'Bots: Damon Albarn's 15 Defining Music Moments
As Damon Albarn gets set to release his first proper solo album, "Everyday Robots," it's easy to forget how versatile and eclectic he's been over the course of his career. Sure he's been at the forefront of Britpop and found crossover success in the U.S. with Blur, and had surprising hits with the cartoons of Gorillaz, but he's also dabbled in African music, scored films, composed a Chinese-influenced musical and an opera about a 16th century mathematician, astronomer, and scholar. With "Everyday Robots" due April 29, we looked back at Albarn's diverse discography and highlighted his 15 most intriguing musical moments.
Albarn, guitarist Graham Coxon, bassist Alex James, and drummer Dave Rowntree joined forces in 1989 as Seymour and soon changed their band name to Blur. They had varying success with their blend of Manchester-influenced rock and BritPop, eventually fostering a rivalry with fellow countrymen Oasis. They had their biggest hit with their more lo-fi, American-influenced self-titled 1997 LP and its single "Song 2," which became an international hit. Coxon left in 2002 just before they recorded their seventh album, "13," and the other members pursued other projects until they reunited in 2008. Despite massive headlining shows and a few singles, they have yet to release another full-length.
The "Ravenous" Score
Following the one-off solo song "Closet Romantic" for 1997's "Trainspotting," Albarn's first full-on solo effort was the score to the 1999 Guy Pearce cannibal film "Ravenous." Though he shared credit with composer Michael Nyman, Albarn contributed a number of songs that he wrote individually, featuring his first real forays into minimalist, moody instrumentals that combined folk influences and loops. The following year, he contributed music to the Icelandic drama "101 Reykjavik" and the crime comedy "Ordinary Decent Criminal," with the songs reflecting more electronic, funk, and dub sounds, a predecessor of his work with Gorillaz.
Through Coxon, Albarn met artist Jamie Hewlett, who was best known for his comic strip "Tank Girl." After years of being acquaintances, they shared an apartment and later decided to form a virtual band made up of cartoon members. With musical help from producer Dan the Automator and rapper Del the Funky Homosapien, they eventually released a self-titled debut in 2001 led by the smash single "Clint Eastwood." The album peaked at 14 on the Hot 200. They followed it up in 2005 with "Demon Days," which produced the singles "Feel Good Inc." and "Kids With Guns" and featured guest spots by De La Soul, Neneh Cherry, Ike Turner, MF Doom, and Dennis Hopper, among others.
To benefit the charity Oxfam, Albarn traveled around Mali, jamming with and recording local musicians. The sessions were held live outdoors and in small bars throughout the Western African country, and featured Afel Bocoum Lobi Traore, Toumani Diabate, Ko Kan Ko Sata Doumbia over the LP's 16 tracks.
The Good, the Bad & the Queen
In 2006, Albarn started work on a solo project with producer Danger Mouse only to decide to form a full-fledged side band with Clash bassist Paul Simonon, Verve guitarist Simon Tong, and Fela Kuti's Africa 70 drummer Tony Allen. The band remained unnamed but has since gone by the name of its sole album, with many of its song's composed in Kuti's Nigerian studio, Afrodisia. The group has yet to record any more material and hasn't performed together since 2011.
"Monkey: Journey to the West"
During the years he worked on "Demon Days" and "The Good, the Bad & the Queen," Albarn also collaborated with Hewlett, director Chen Shi-zheng on the opera "Monkey: Journey to the West." It's based on the 16th century novel "Journey to the West" by Wu Cheng'en, and the three collaborators traveled to China for both musical and visual inspiration. It debuted at the Manchester International Festival in 2007 and has since had stagings in Europe and the United States. Rather than release a live recording of the music, Albarn reworked his compositions for a studio album, "Journey to the West," that came out in 2008.
"It Felt Like a Kiss"
After "Monkey," Albarn reunited with the Manchester International Festival for this immersive theater experience in which groups of viewers were led into a previously abandoned building and made to feel as though they were in a film. Albarn wrote an original score to accompany the archival footage that was broadcast throughout the building, and San Francisco's Kronos Quartet recorded his music for it.
The third Gorillaz LP was their most star-studded yet, featuring notable contributions from Lou Reed, Snoop Dogg, Mos Def, Clash bandmates Paul Simonon and Mick Jones, soul man Bobby Womack, the Fall's Mark E. Smith, De La Soul, and many more. Debuting at no. 2 on the Hot 200, the 2010 album's singles included "Stylo" and "On Melancholy Hill" and was followed by the group's first world tour, which included a headlining spot at Coachella.
Blur reunited for Record Store Day release in 2010, their first single since 2003's "Good Song" and their first with Coxon since 2000's "Music Is My Radar." The physical version of the playful-yet-subdued track was limited to 1000 7-inch singles, though the band decided to put it up as a free digital download to avoid decreased-quality pirate versions.
After teasing it in interviews, Albarn released "The Fall," a Gorillaz album he recorded using his iPad while on tour. It was released on Christmas Day 2010 as a free download for fan club members, with a proper release following in April 2011. Unlike "Plastic Beach," the only guests on the album were Jones, Simonon, and Womack, effectively making this much more of an Albarn solo effort.
"Dr Dee: An English Opera"
For his second opera, Albarn was inspired by comic book author Alan Moore ("Watchmen," "V for Vendetta") to write about the life of Dr. John Dee, mathematician and alchemist, among other things, who served as an advisor to Queen Elizabeth I. Albarn did some of the singing and guitar playing for the live production, which also featured Tony Allen, West African influences, Elizabethan-era English instruments, and a 20-piece orchestra. He released a studio version of the well-received musical in 2012.
"Kinshasa One Two"
Albarn's fascination with African music led him to record another Oxfam charity album in 2011, this time in the Democratic Republic of Congo's capital city, Kinshasa. Over the course of nine days, he worked with dozens of local artists as well as producers such as Dan the Automator, Kwes, Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs, and Actress. The resulting 14-song album came out under the group name of DRC Music.
"Rocket Juice & the Moon"
This collaboration featuring Albarn, drummer Tony Allen, and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea took a few years to get off the ground, but they finally completed their eponymous album for a March 2012 release. Eighteen tracks longs, the LP featured a mix of funk, Afrobeat, jazz, and hip-hop, with guest spots by Erykah Badu, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, Thundercat, and several African musicians. As for the group's odd name? "Someone in Lagos did the sleeve design and that's the name he gave it, which suits me because trying to find a name for another band is always tricky," Albarn told the Irish Times in 2012.
"Blur 21"/"Under the Westway"
2012 was a massive year for Blur. They were tapped to perform at London's Hyde Park as part of the Summer Olympics' closing ceremonies, and they decided to release the box set "Blur 21," ecnompassing 18 CDs, three DVDs, and a 7-inch single that spanned the quartet's entire career. It included all their albums with bonus material for each, plus entire discs of rarities from their beginnings as Seymour up until 2012. Just prior to the set's release, they dropped a brand new single, "Under the Westway," performing the song and its B-side "The Puritan" on a live stream before giving it a proper release. That marked the first time the original quartet debuted a brand new song onstage since 1999.
With such a prolific output, it's odd to think that the 46-year-old is finally releasing a proper solo album. He calls "Everyday Robots" his most personal yet, exploring profound moments in his life, such as his relationships and his former heroin habit, as well as issues with modern society's reliance on technology. Brian Eno, Bat for Lashes' Natasha Khan, The Leytonstone City Mission Choir help Damon out here, and to drum up buzz for the release at SXSW, he performed "Clint Eastwood" for the first time with Del the Funky Homosapien, with Snoop Dogg also making a cameo on the track. He'll hit Bonnaroo, Governor's Ball, Fuji Rock, and many other worldwide festivals with his backing band, the Heavy Seas.