When Gorillaz first stepped foot in the music industry arena, nothing had been proven, aside from Albarn’s prior successes with Blur. No “virtual” or “cartoon” band had ever seen immense success outside of TV shows, or movies. Many of the genre fusions the group would come up with had been explored, but not perfected, or delved into like they would go on to do. Most-importantly, no one had been able to craft the insane canonical journey Gorillaz are now known for. The first session of Gorillaz’ music-making had all been about breaking ground, but now, most of the first-time accomplishments are gone, and they’re still here, just making good music.
Throughout the group’s first four releases during the 2000’s, and early 2010’s, Gorillaz forged a path that only they could walk through. Their debut record, Gorillaz (2001), brought a very simplistic, trip-hop approach that melded quite well with their dark and twisted universe. It was by far their most one-dimensional, but even at the start, they wanted to prove their versatility, with songs like “M1A1,” and “Punk” giving a glimpse at their ability to expand to other genres, which they would do over the next nine years. Demon Days (2005) took the ideas behind Gorillaz, expanded them into a cohesive project capable of telling a story, and upgraded the somewhat “empty” sound, with grandiose instrumental execution. Finally, the decade would be rounded out with The Fall (2010), and Plastic Beach (2010). The latter maintains as one of their greatest releases ever, but the former still collected merit based on its initial idea: crafting a quick, lo-fi record on an iPad, while on tour.
Fast-forward to 2017, after their six-year hiatus, and you can see the changes the group went through. Whether it was Albarn specifically is uncertain, but the group lost a lot of its music video and lore focus, and put more of their intensity on production; specifically, producing others’ music. Humanz (2017) felt much more like a production-compilation record with the Gorillaz’ name stamped over-top of it, and The Now Now (2018) was an Albarn-heavy exploration of sonic brightness, like he had just done in his solo career, and with Blur. But now, things are much different. Their 2020 album, Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez, seems much more like their time spent on Plastic Beach, and they’re looking forward to continuing this direction, hence the “Season One.” They’re even getting close to creating more music now, than before their hiatus. Their footing is set, and the future is bright, so what better time to make a Top 20 list, than now?
20. “Left Hand Suzuki Method”
“Left Hand Suzuki Method” gets the reward for Gorillaz’ weirdest song, despite their already-weird reputation. Running down the checklist, it begins with the sounds of someone hitting a bong, samples japanese violin lessons, a two-hundred-year-old composition, and Muddy Waters. Gorillaz did their best Avalanches impression, turning their plunderphonics adventure into something great.
19. “The Valley of the Pagans”
Gorillaz, feat. Beck is a no-brainer when you stop to think about it. They’re eccentric innovators with an ear for good hooks, they often-times present similar sonic aesthetics, and most importantly, Beck’s random phrases can fit nicely in Gorillaz’ nonsensical universe. So it was confusing why it took so long, but it didn’t disappoint. The sporadic songwriting of “100 million Viagra tablets,” or “She’s a plastic Cleopatra on a throne of ice” are just a few of the several lyrical highlights. And their layered vocals over silky-smooth synths revive the Plastic Beach (2010) Gorillaz once again. It’s a lively, bright, and zany jam.
In many ways, Humanz (2017) took a break from the expansive experimentation of past Gorillaz albums, but this wasn’t the case on “Charger.” The riveting, revving guitars quite literally “charge” this track up beneath 2-D’s nonchalant lyrical performance, while Grace Jones’ echoed voice haunts the surrounding halls alongside scattered laughter. Like many of their greatest achievements, it remains energetic, ominous, and borderline-confusing.
17. “Glitter Freeze”
On the surface, “Glitter Freeze” masquerades as a simplistic endeavor for the crafty Gorillaz crew, but when everything you do is picture-perfect, simplicity is no longer a weakness. The purely-synthetic club beats and melodies mesh into the physical embodiment of what a rave is: a sparkle-filled spiral of motion and glamour. Later, the genius swap to the slightly-offbeat cohesion gives it enough variation to not get old. Most Gorillaz tracks nowadays allow for dancing to occur, but that’s the only goal of “Glitter Freeze,” and if you can comfortably sit still while enjoying this song, you scare me.
The past three Gorillaz records have strayed further and further from the content they became known for on Gorillaz, but “Pac-Man” is the exception to the rule. In an effort to replicate the low-bit nature of retro gaming, the repeated hip-hop beat shrouds itself in minimalism. Pairing that with 2-D’s dragging, nihilistic vocals gives it the bare-bones, empty feeling that many of their past hits shined with. Yet, none of that surpasses ScHoolboy Q’s brilliant final verse, bringing it all to a close.
15. “Every Planet We Reach Is Dead”
Gorillaz took huge compositional leaps from their debut record, to their sophomore, Demon Days, but remnants of their initial selves still remained. “Every Planet We Reach Is Dead” is a hollow artifact from their humble beginnings, wrapped in the gorgeous instrumentation that combines synth-keyboards, electric guitars, orchestral passages, and an electronic filter that brings them all together. 2-D’s hopelessness still shines as the emotional centerpiece, but the surrounding sections provide proof of the band’s mind-blowing progress.
Somehow, “19-2000” might be the most normal song on their debut record, but not to a fault. The slow, steady, and funky groove of various electronic noises isn’t just catchy, it’s incredibly intelligent. 2-D’s monotone voice allows for the real enjoyment to come from the wacky boops, beeps, and wubs; and when compared to many of the surrounding tracks on the record, it’s significantly fuller, and more danceable because of that. Its steadiness also makes it wonderful to walk, jog, or in the case of the music video: drive recklessly to.
13. “O Green World”
Out of all the foreboding tracks in Gorillaz’ discography, “O Green World,” might also be the most melodic. The distant plucking of strings set the stage perfectly, and seem to be coming from some spliced recording. When the bass finally comes in, it’s occupied by chilling strings and electronic squelches that makes you question what the real mood of the track really is. It could really stop there and market itself as the intro to the next Fallout game, but luckily, it doesn’t. The rest of the track is ruled by 2-D’s fuzzy, called-in voice, and the catchy background vocals that will inevitably stick themselves in your head for days.
12. “Rock the House”
There isn’t a more welcome break from the windy, apocalyptic, nihilistic world of Gorillaz’ debut record, than “Rock the House,” and nothing can compare the danceability of its natural, jazzy rhythm. A single trumpet, drumset, and bass guitar suddenly flip the record on its head, and you’re standing at a house party, ready to boogie. Russel sounds like the next member of A Tribe Called Quest with these verses. And a solo from a jazz flute of all instruments? Who would’ve thought?
11. “Dirty Harry”
If “Rock the House,” is a house party, “Dirty Harry” is a full-blown concert. The echoes of kids’ voices as they sing along to the chorus is weird for a Gorillaz song, but welcome nonetheless. In fact, it’s all they needed to accompany their funky, buzzing synths for the first half of the song. Of course, it is a track from Demon Days, so there has to be some tonal shift coming… and there is. The synths drop-off in favor of a simultaneous joining of hip-hop beats and orchestral strings that work incredibly well together. I can’t think of another time those two have met so effectively. And all the while, Bootie Brown is killing it on the mic.
10. “Superfast Jellyfish”
“Superfast Jellyfish” is an assault on three fronts. The first is full of zany, sample-based antics, all having to do with food. Their collective rapport feels like it’s straight out of an MF Doom track. The second, and following-up on the first, is slow, simplistic hip-hop, delivered at a snail’s pace. And the third; a synth-based electronic masterpiece. With a short, three-minute runtime, it feels like a breeze for Gorillaz, considering the length of many of their other tracks, but it’s one of the more fun journeys they take us through. 2-D’s vocals are high and emotive for once, and the cartoonish fun is a delightful highlight in their early, dreary discography.
9. “Slow Country”
Gorillaz’ early days were not often filled with happy beats or joyful lyrics, but a lot of their depression could be veiled in an apocalyptic universe they filtered it all through. “Slow Country” gets real, and this time, it feels real. Dealing with the unavoidable issue of loneliness, 2-D spouts all of his feelings out there, in as numb a tone as ever. The accuracy of these individual lines is uncanny, saying “Shit nightlife. Be trying not to laugh though. You won’t get money for doing what you loving.” The heart-piercing repetition of “Can’t stand loneliness” gets unbearable by the end, especially when there’s only a hushed wind to cover it up.
8. “Fire Coming out of the Monkey’s Head”
Many of Gorillaz’ storytelling and canon come from a collection of their online videos, tracks people have speculated about, or specific media they’ve written about it, but in this singular case, it’s all laid out for us in a song. “Fire Coming out of the Monkey’s Head,” is the closest thing to Bob Dylan that Gorillaz have in their discography. It’s plain, it’s simple, it’s folk, but even then, it comes with the paranormal explanation of what may be a monkey-shaped volcano, a bouncy beat, and occasional glitching as well. It relies on a much more straightforward approach to songwriting, and with it, paints a gorgeous metaphorical picture of their shadowy world.
7. “Rhinestone Eyes”
“Rhinestone Eyes” takes the strengths of both “Glitter Freeze,” and “On Melancholy Hill,” and puts them on display. Like “Glitter Freeze,” the synths take hold of the song and never let go. The chorus is actually entirely driven through instruments, with just a few background “Mmmms” from 2-D. But like “On Melancholy Hill,” behind the veil of bright electronica lies a very alienated, and poetic 2-D. The relationship he describes isn’t detailed, but specific lines like “I’m a scary gargoyle on a tower” tell you exactly how he’s feeling, and it’s rather powerful. The two vastly different takes combine into something fun-but-sad.
If “Rock the House” is the welcome break from the monotony of Gorillaz, “DARE” provides the exact same breath for Demon Days. The quick disco-funk, led by Noodle of all people, is all about dancing, and comes right after the void of tracks like “All Alone.” The significance of Noodle is much more than just the rarity of her leading the track, though. She provides a brand new perspective to the internal issues 2-D illustrates throughout the rest of the record, effectively responding to the distressed band member. And when her infectious joy meets an infectious beat, it’s hard to argue with her.
5. “Tomorrow Comes Today”
The emptiness, and borderline lo-fi nature of their self-titled debut comes to a peak with “Tomorrow Comes Today.” The only piece of the song that feels alive (which includes echoing percussion, bass, and 2-D’s dull vocals) is the periodic harmonica, which couldn’t be more fitting. But occupying all that blank space is the concerned 2-D, or as many argue, Damon Albarn. The exact meaning behind each line is unknown, of course, but the issue of the future is something that’s universal to everyone. Whether he’s speaking from his personal experience as an artist in the harsh music industry; as someone uncertain of his new band’s ability to continue; or through 2-D’s own fictional struggle to move ahead, “I don’t think I’ll be here too long” should open some eyes and ears.
4. “Empire Ants”
“Empire Ants” is a tale of two halves. 2-D’s initial narration above quietly-euphoric guitars and glistening pianos shows reflective contemplation of society. It’s contained, it’s tame, and it’s straightforward. Following this is then a quick explosion of both sound and emotion, with Little Dragon expanding on all of the ideas he set up. Through some additional glowing synths, they tell the tale of humans, and their similarities to an ant-like empire. The tonal shift is incredible, and at first, unexpected. But something as impressive is their ability to explain this gorgeous metaphor in two separate intervals.
3. “On Melancholy Hill”
Gorillaz waste no time jumping into things on “On Melancholy Hill.” The wall of synthesizers hits from second one, and doesn’t let up until the song itself finishes. The unapologetic strength of the instrument is very similar to how guitars are used in shoegaze, and like shoegaze, the brightness of the instruments shouldn’t distract from what’s actually going on. While it masquerades itself as a pop song, the darkness within it can’t be ignored. 2-D’s obsession with this significant other, and the past they came from is too much to bear, and as the world draws to a close, he wants those moments back. All the positivity taken from something as warm and sunny as a beach is tainted by its lack of reality, as it’s made of plastic. And the synths do the same for 2-D’s true emotions.
2. “Feel Good Inc.”
What’s more well-known in Gorillaz’ discography than the “Feel Good Inc.” cackle? Probably nothing. And the same can be said about Murdoc’s bassline. It rocked fifteen years ago, and it rocks now. The importance of the song itself though, comes in its juxtaposition to the rest of their music. Throughout their first two records, Gorillaz spent time constructing a depressed state for 2-D, but also largely the world the band lived in, through the venting of emotion. “Feel Good Inc.” takes that negativity and cynicism, and vocalizes it outward towards others, as a critique of things like culture’s ability to brainwash people, and the self-indulgence people use to distract themselves. This is seen slightly clearer in the video itself, but can be heard through the mentioning of “So while you fill the streets, it’s appealing to see. You won’t get undercounted ‘cause you’re damned and free.”
1. “Clint Eastwood”
“Clint Eastwood” could easily take the number one spot, just through the iconic nature of the song, and what it did for the band early on. Of course, the memorable music video doesn’t hurt either. It was watching that exact music video in a Denver Hard Rock Cafe that introduced me to the band, at just five or six years old. That being said, its effectiveness and quality have nothing to do with the fame it inevitably absorbed. The chorus — “I ain’t happy, I’m feeling glad. I got sunshine in a bag. I’m useless, but not for long. The future is coming on” — tells the tale of an everyday melancholy struggle, and despite exuding a relatively sad aura, it ends on a somewhat happy note. The slow pace at which it’s delivered then captures you in this feeling. After you’re entranced in the hypnotic effect, Del comes in and takes hold of the song, with two verses that still kill to this day. That combination of the dragging, unassuming beat and his hard-hitting rapping will always be powerful.