Every band has a story, but the Gorillaz are a story. We all know it’s Damon Albarn behind the mic with a rotating cast of collaborative characters, but the stellar, genre-blending electronic music is only half of the band’s greatness. Jamie Hewlett’s cartoons are rife with personality, and the foursome’s outlandish comic antics and adventures bring the project to life. They were breathing in the virtual before society realized its own cyber destiny.
Gorillaz proves that you don’t have to let experimentation and originality fall to the wayside in the name of commercial viability. You can still have songs on the radio and sell a bunch of albums even if you continuously push yourself to be strange, dark, and a little twisted. Gorillaz are virtual beings, and yet they are continuously one of the realest acts on the market.
The proof? Here are 15 of the best Gorillaz songs ever recorded.
15. Gorillaz – “Rhinestone Eyes”
This electro-funk song from Gorillaz’ third album Plastic Beach stands out for its delicious weirdness. That pumping, synthetic organ surrounded by swirling ghost voices is some kind of wonderful. It’s dark, because almost everything by the Gorillaz is dark, but it’s got a jolt of energy that makes you wanna get up and adventure, as 2D’s deadpan delivery is fabulously juxtaposed against stabbing samples.
14. Gorillaz – “Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head” feat. Dennis Hopper
This Gorillaz song features Dennis Hopper, from effing Easy Rider, reading to you the damned destiny of men who do not heed the warnings of nature. The only other song I can think of anywhere remotely similar to this is The Velvet Underground’s “The Gift,” which is equally narrative-based and disturbing. Put this one on next time you’re sitting around a campfire exchanging ghost stories.
13. Gorillaz – “Don’t Get Lost in Heaven”
Right after the demise of the Happy People in “Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head,” “Don’t Get Lost in Heaven” sweeps you into the bright lights of the afterworld. It bleeds just as seamlessly into Demon Days‘ album-ending title track This whole little closing act of the LP is quite brilliant, running beautifully on a theme with this tune as a reflective centerpiece. And who doesn’t fall victim to the charms of an angelic chorus?
12. Gorillaz – “Every Planet We Reach Is Dead”
This Demon Days deep cut has a Western feel, the crashing symbols sound like a cowboy’s heavy walk punctuated by the clinking of spurs. Albarn could be a man singing a sad song of love lost in an old saloon. The bright keys could be the dusty piano. It’s a cinematic piece that grows ever more interesting and noisy in a sweeping, chaotic build, before coming down in a sunset of strings. Nothing is resolved, and everything is as it should be.
11. Gorillaz – “Plastic Beach” feat. Mick Jones and Paul Simonon
The title track from the Gorillaz’ third studio album is a real creamy dream. Funky creaks and croaks and wonks plop here and there among the cascading keys. It’s also, essentially, a collaboration with punk all-timers The Clash, as both guitarist Mick Jones and bassist Paul Simonon grace the tune with classic cool. This is a summer song for when everything is wrong, but partying is still on the docket.
10. Gorillaz – “Rock The House” feat. Del The Funky Homosapien
’90s alt-rap great Del comes through for his second appearance on Gorillaz’ debut LP. He plays the role of drummer Russel’s dead MC friend. Russel is possessed by Del, which is really not that bad of a deal. While comments from the cartoon members of the band in faux-tobiography Rise of the Ogre reflect a certain distaste for the tune, “Rock The House” stood out on Gorillaz with its bright horn sample (courtesy of “Modesty Blaise” by John Dankworth) as one of the most fun and fanciful moments on the record.
9. Gorillaz – “Superfast Jellyfish” feat. Gruff Rhys, De La Soul
Any song that opens with a clip of a commercial is a winner in my book. De La Soul’s Trugoy grabs the baton of sarcastic capitalism and runs with it right into a bubble of cheeky fun. The bouncing beat lulls you into a false sense of happiness as you crunch on your sugar-coated mind-control bites. Slurp up the pink-and-purple swirl of milk and wash away the feeling that there might be something more meaningful at stake. There you are! You’re ready for the dance floor called life.
8. Gorillaz – “Andromeda” feat. D.R.A.M.
There’s no denying the fabulous funk of this Humanz single. It’s got an interstellar groove that boldly goes where no cartoon band has gone before. It’s a fun, seemingly innocuous song, but it’s actually very personal to Albarn. It’s named after a nightclub from his youth, and it was the only place that played soul music in the area. He tried to capture the spirit of those nights in the song. He also dedicated “Andromeda” to the mother of his longtime partne,r who recently passed. It’s an emotive dance track with highs, lows, sick synthlines; in short, everything you need in a dope dance hit.
7. Gorillaz – “Ascension” feat. Vince Staples
Sirens and Staples’ apocalytpic party-starting mark the impending dopeness that will certainly leave your ears damaged and demanding more. The off-beat melody creates images of women twerking in dirty streets as buildings crumble and people spontaneously combust. Ain’t no club like the end of the world, and when this world meets its demise, put this Gorillaz song on full blast.
6. Gorillaz – “19-2000”
If you were a nerdy kid around the turn of the Millennium, it’s highly likely you remember that night when Cartoon Network’s Toonami ran a bunch of animated music videos. It was the first taste a generation of youngsters got of Daft Punk’s Interstellar 5555, and it was also the most we’d ever seen of Gorillaz to date. This song blew my mind when I was 13 – I’d never heard anything quite so strangely, electronically funk – as did its explosive and hilarious video. It’s like a modern day Looney Tunes episode, and it helped introduce us to the characters we know and love today.
5. Gorillaz – “Tomorrow Comes Today”
This lo-fi beat comes straight from the band’s debut LP and hits you right in the soul. It’s the kind of rainy-day rhythm that turns you inside out and has you thinkin’ all deep and stuff. It’s all blues and grays — the underlying melancholy sucks you in, but you can’t help but head-bob. It’s a little sad, but it’s still a mean groove.
4. Gorillaz – “El Mañana”
This is one of those rare Gorillaz singles that isn’t a down-and-out dance tune. It’s beautifully sad, the melody of one stuck between a rosy yesterday and the far-off gleam of a better tomorrow. The music video depicts the destruction of the band’s floating island: This is the point in the story where Noodle got lost. As a single, it didn’t perform as well as its Demon Days predecessors, but as a song, it’s haunting and honest, the kind of melancholy sing-along that lives in your heart on rainy days forever.
3. Gorillaz – “DARE” feat. Shaun Ryder
This was our introduction to Noodle’s singing, brought to us via the vocal chords of Roses Gabor. 2D, a.k.a. Albarn, is on the backing track, with Happy Mondays frontman Shaun Ryder chiming in alongside him. Did you know “DARE” samples Daft Punk’s “Revolution 909” at the end? It’s a downright danceable track, though it keeps that Gorillaz’ creepiness running throughout with those slinking synths and ghostly chorus vocals. It’s got bits of disco, trip-hop, and new wave peppered throughout for a fresh take on commercial viability that doesn’t have to put brakes on experimentalism, a cornerstone of what Gorillaz are all about. It remains the band’s only U.K. number one hit. Ryder is actually saying “It’s There” on the hook, and that was the working title for the track, but the singer’s accent is so intense, they just went with it and changed the name. The music video is full of horror film references, from The Birds to The Brain That Wouldn’t Die and The Ring.
2. Gorillaz – “Clint Eastwood” feat. Del The Funky Homosapien
I remember the first time I saw this music video. I was 13. My bestie was sleeping over. She got scared. I fell in love. “Clint Eastwood” is the first rap song I knew every lyric to, and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone: This eerie, drum-driven synthetic experiment is the musical equivalent of Damon Albarn creating his Frankenstein’s monster, which might explain the zombie apes in the visual. That red Japanese letting under the logo? It’s a quote from Dawn of the Dead, and it reads “Every dead body that is not exterminated, gets up and kills. The people it kills, get up and kill.” A couple months after this tune came out, every single one of my friends had a favorite Gorillaz member. It inspired me to listen to the group’s debut every time I did my homework for about two years straight. “Clint Eastwood,” much like it’s namesake, is America at its most goddamn iconic. Nothing sounded like it before. Nothing will ever sound like it again.
1. Gorillaz – “Feel Good, Inc.” Feat. De La Soul
This tune broke the top 10 in 17 countries (and came just four spots away on the Billboard Hot 100), and it’s not hard to see why. It’s got classic Gorillaz rump-shaking buffooner, a cool hook, a cartoonish attitude, and blistering verses from De La Soul. The feature won each a Grammy for Best Pop Collaboration. “Feel Good Inc.” is actually the band’s most successful single, and it perfectly encapsulates the group’s vision. That wild laugh in the background is everything that makes Gorillaz what they are — they’re mad with genius, and the only way off their twisted carnival ride is to dance.