With each new Gorillaz album, more attention is paid to the number of guest collaborators invited to perform than to the group’s only consistent musical member: Damon Albarn. Humanz, which arrives this week, is no different. The songs released so far center around performances from Benjamin Clementine, Popcaan, Vince Staples, Jehnny Beth, D.R.A.M., Pusha T, and Mavis Staples, with Albarn happily orchestrating things from behind the curtain. But he’s a strong performer and highly sought-after collaborator in his own right, one completely worthy of the spotlight he avoids. His selfless attitude, which foregrounds other performers in his own work, makes him such a great songwriting partner.
Taking cues from The Kinks and XTC, Albarn’s early work in Britpop act Blur focused on couching his biting social commentary in character studies, a theme that continued even after the band’s influences drifted further and further beyond the white cliffs of Dover. As the band began to pull apart in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, Albarn walked away, melodica in hand, and started the horror film-loving, The Specials-aping, cartoon outfit Gorillaz, beginning a lifetime of long-standing—and very fruitful—collaborations with the eclectic and diverse likes of Bobby Womack, De La Soul, and Tony Allen, among many others.
He’s had countless other projects, including Mali Music, Rocket Juice & The Moon, and DRC Music, as well as his Honest Jon’s label, all of which show the songwriter using his visibility in pop music to give credit where credit is due, and to highlight the work of incredible musicians who have inspired him.
This playlist goes deep into Albarn’s discography, putting his songwriting talents front and center and focusing on the not-so-guest-heavy songs that form the bedrock of Gorillaz’s nearly 20-year career. It also contextualizes his work with Blur, the band that put him on the map, and any and every collaboration he’s been involved with in between.