Thanks to their recent release, Cracker Island, virtual U.K. band Gorillaz is back in the spotlight. It's crazy to think that this group has already been performing for over 20 years, and they show no signs of stopping. We can always count on Gorillaz to provide us with funkalicious beats, outstanding collaborations, and thoughtful lyrics that critique consumerism, violence, and nihilism.
The group formed in 1998 by musician Damon Albarn and artist Jamie Hewlett. The band primarily consists of four fictional members: 2-D (vocals, keyboards), Murdoc Niccals (bass guitar), Noodle (guitar, keyboards, vocals), and Russel Hobbs (drums). Their universe is presented in media such as music videos, interviews, comic strips, and short cartoons. Gorillaz has an innate ability to marry music with fleshed-out fictional stories and alternate reality appearances. A true Gorillaz fan not only loves the music, but loves the imaginary empire the band has built. It's true art!
With this list, we're finally revealing our ranking of Gorillaz' ten best tunes. You'll find a lot of old school tracks on here, but we've managed to consider some newer jams...a song from Cracker Island even made the cut! Get ready to "feel good" (inc.) as you go through our picks.
Maybe it's the sleek techno beats, Bobby Womack's powerhouse vocal solos, or Bruce Willis' epic cameo in the music video for this song (he's never looked cooler!), but there's something really special about "Stylo" we can't quite put our finger on. The whole tune is an extended allegory of the negative effects resulting from over-population, pollution, and other bad environmental things humans are responsible for. 2-D sings sadly about the state of the world, repeating the word "overload" in a melancholy (yet very catchy) way.
However, the song isn't completely doom and gloom. During his time in the spotlight, Womack croons, "If it's love, it's electric." It means that while the planet may be dying, love may be a power source that could eventually save us.
9. "New Gold (feat. Tame Impala & Bootie Brown)"
This is a track off Gorillaz' new record Cracker Island we think will become a new classic for the group. Kevin Parker, Bootie Brown, and 2-D's voices mix together so naturally and beautifully on this thing. While Tame Impala and the aforementioned Brown take the reigns when it comes to singing, the trippy music production – with its gleaming synths, intense electric guitar riffs, and hardcore beat – make this a 100% authentic Gorillaz tune.
Lyrically, there's a lot to unpack within the jam. Kevin Parker sings, "I wonder if she knows that we're underwater / That's the way it goes in this city wonder," which is a reference to the 1988 gangster movie A Fish Named Wanda. Bootie Brown raps about things often associated with the rich: like Teslas, plastic surgery, and even popping Xannies. Then he goes on to address morality, secrets, and "new gold, fool's gold." Ultimately, the entire song is a metaphor for the chaos and instability that can come from materialism, as well as escaping problems instead of tackling them head-on. Even the song's unique 6/4 time signature is symbolism for the emotional lopsidedness.
8. "Empire Ants"
This song proves Gorillaz can nail slow ballads just as well as fast dance tracks. As the title suggests, "Empire Ants" compares mankind’s doings to the orderly march of an empire of ants. Both of our empires are powered by hard works and dreams. This tender song is about the few opportunities we have to slow down, breathe, and look at the ant farm from outside the glass. It's like what Ferris Bueller would say: "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
"Empire Ants" is both an ode to life's complexity, as well as mourning for us having to go back to work every Monday and spending most of our lives doing mundane things. We love how this song starts out simple and airy, then holds our attention with a switch to synths around two minutes and ten seconds in. This ballad is mysterious, brutal, and so very beautiful. We also can't get enough of Gorillaz' gorgeous performance of this song on Letterman.
7. "Dirty Harry"
Now we're getting into tracks from Gorillaz' magnum opus album, Demon Days. "Dirty Harry" is a snazzy little number that features the San Fernandez Youth Choir and some awesome bars from Bootie Brown. While the lines about having a gun in "Dirty Harry" suggest this song is pro-violence, the band has stated it's all meant to be ironic. "Dirty Harry" is an anti-war piece that argues solving violence with more violence will just put us in the endless, depressing desert 2-D is stranded in during this song's music video.
Interestingly, this song revisits some themes present in earlier Demon Days single “Clint Eastwood.” (We'll get to that song soon!) Themes like violence and masculinity are shared between the two tracks, and "Dirty Harry" is even named after one of Eastwood’s better-known films. You could also argue that thematically, this song is like a brother to the next track on our list...
6. "Kids with Guns"
In an unfortunate way, Gorillaz were insanely ahead of their time with this track. "Kids with Guns" was released as the fourth and final single from Demon Days and, as the title suggests, is all about the danger of kids with guns. It's an indictment of children’s obsession with violence, particularly regarding the lifestyles glamorized by media which corrupts the youth...and eventually persuades them to start using guns themselves.
The lyrics were inspired by a boy in Damon Albarn’s daughter’s class who got in trouble for bringing a knife to school. The song could also be subtly referencing the character Noodle’s childhood as a super soldier in Japan. For such serious subject matter, we can't get over how catchy and rockin' "Kids with Guns" is. We also love the subtle reference in the bridge to Salt N' Pepa’s 1987 hit “Push It.”
5. "Rhinestone Eyes"
Probably the biggest standout track on Plastic Beach, "Rhinestone Eyes" feels like a mix of shady city activity, bold neon blasts, and glittery gemstones in shop windows all mixed into music. This song is truly an experience. Unfortuantely, it didn't get as much of a rollout as it deserved. It was intended to be the fourth single from Plastic Beach, but was replaced with "Doncamatic" instead. Additionally, the music video for the song was never made. As a substitute, Gorillaz released a storyboard video that was supposed to be from the visual for "Rhinestone Eyes."
This banger notably samples the unreleased Gorillaz demo “Electric Shock”, which band member Murdoc Niccals revealed he snuck in there with a little delay over the top. The title line, “your rhinestone eyes are like factories far away” has a deep meaning. Rhinestone is a diamond simulant, meant to look nicer and more expensive than it really is. It’s a sign of cheap materialism, fitting in with the theme of Plastic Beach. Rhinestones also shimmer, just like teary eyes. So Damon Albarn singing the subject's "rhinestone eyes" are like factories far away could be referencing how the emotions this person shows are manufactured...and even polluting.
4. "On Melancholy Hill"
Pretty and poetic, "On Melancholy Hill" is another fan favorite from Plastic Beach. Like "Rhinestone Eyes" it's another dig at consumerism and the empty feelings it leaves us with. But it's also a deeply romantic love song where 2-D asks the person he fancies if they can provide him with real, authentic escape through love and sightseeing.
On the song, Murdoc Niccals said in an NME interview, “The melancholy hill – it’s that feeling, that place, that you get in your soul sometimes, like someone’s let your tyres down. It’s nice to break up the album with something a little lighter. It’s good to have something that’s a genuine pop moment on every album. And this is one of those.” Also, we've chosen to rank this song so high because the music production reminds us of peak MGMT vibes.
If you can resist swaying your hips, tapping your toes, or bouncing up and down while listening to "DARE," then are you even a human being? Seriously, this track is DANCY as heck. "DARE" is another hit off Demon Days and was released as the second single from the album. It features vocals from Noodles and Manchester rock band Happy Mondays' own Shaun Ryder.
On Demon Days, "DARE" follows after the general depression spanning from “Feel Good Inc” to “White Light.” So in this contrasting jam, Noodle’s lines tell 2-D that if he is so distraught over the current state of the world, he should take action because all he does is whine. The song’s title supposedly came about thanks to Shaun Ryder’s thick Mancunian accent. It was originally called "It's There" but when Ryder sang it in the studio, "there" sounded like "dare." The band just ran with it, and we think the change works far better than what was originally intended. After all, Noodles is daring us to have a positive outlook on life in this track.
2. "Clint Eastwood"
"Clint Eastwood" has one of the most memorable choruses we've ever heard in music. Those bomb lyrics, "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," are made-for-karaoke material. “Clint Eastwood” was the outstanding debut single from Gorillaz, and was dropped in 2001. The funky aesthetic of the music video and the song’s menacing, mellow beat felt like something people at that time hadn't seen or heard before.
"Clint Eastwood" features Del Tha Funky Homosapien on the mic and is produced in large part by Dan the Automator. The driving theme of the song is the contrast between 2D’s mellow, passive hook and Del’s rap that calls the listeners to action and ambition. It's an id and ego sort of struggle. As for that "sunshine in a bag" line, it's possibly a reference to weed or psychedelic drugs, or it could be an homage to actor Clint Eastwood's Gunsmoke line where his nameless character says he has “sunshine in a bag”: gold coins.
1. "Feel Good Inc."
Did you really think we'd put anything else for #1? It's almost impossible to get tired of listening to "Feel Good Inc." As the title suggests, the spectacular bassline, smooth rhythm, and Trugoy the Dove's hyped up bars (R.I.P.) really will make you feel good...even if the message of the song is a dark one.
Yes, "Feel Good Inc." isn't actually about feeling good; it's about criticism of herd mentality, isolation, and escapism. It's also an allegory for how capitalism tries to sell happiness – but it ultimately feels fake. For example, the catchy intro to the song intensifies this sense of an advertisement, as the “Feel Good” message ultimately resembles an endorsement tagline. It's almost like McDonald’s infamous slogan: “I’m Lovin' It!”
"Feel Good Inc." peaked at #2 in the United Kingdom and #14 in the United States, being the only song in Damon Albarn’s career to reach the Billboard Top 40. Not only that, but it won Gorillaz a Grammy for Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals, also being nominated for Best Record of the Year and Best Music Video. Speaking of the dreamy music video, it features computer-generated imagery combined with 2D animation, and was inspired by Hayao Miyazaki’s 1986 animated film Castle in the Sky. As Trugoy the Dove would say, we "gravitate" as we listen to this track..."ha-ha-ha-ha-haaaaa!"
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Article Image: Members of Gorillaz stand on a concert stage while giant animated versions of the core team loom on a big screen overhead. (Philadelphia Live [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons.)