Damon Albarn’s Non-Blur Projects From Worst To Best
Damon Albarn doesn’t deserve our love. We want Blur and he gives us … anything but. Sure, Blur is doing a handful of reunion shows in Europe this summer (the total cost to attend if you are a fan living in America? Something in the five-digit range), but a world tour is reportedly out of the question. And a new album? Well, in a recent issue of NME, William Orbit admitted that he had been recording with the band, but Albarn killed those sessions; as Orbit tweeted: “Blur could have been good. But Damon, brilliant and talented tho he is, is kinda a shit to the rest of Blur.”
If you were taking bets in 1997 or so, Albarn would hardly have been considered the most likely member of the Britpop legends to emerge as one of popular music’s most adventurous and exciting artists circa 2012. (The smart money would probably have been on guitarist Graham Coxon.) But over the last decade or so, Albarn has been just that. Along with creating the Honest Jon’s record label — which has released compilations of indigenous soul and folk music from Africa, Latin America, England and the Caribbean — he has collaborated with an insane variety and amount of artists in numerous media. He has also worked on a lot of projects that are not Blur — he now has released work with more non-Blur projects than total Blur albums, including three already THIS YEAR to go along with the Blur “reunion.”
So it’s high time to put these projects into context — by comparing them to one another, ranking them from worst to best. These rankings are not meant to be comprehensive — they leave out (among other things) Albarn’s excellent work on the new Bobby Womack album and last year’s Kinshasa One Two. But these are the projects at which Albarn is the center, or near the center. That’s what we care most about, right? Because even though he doesn’t deserve our love, we love him anyway.
Here for you, is our rundown of Damon’s non-Blur projects, from best to worst — starting with the worst.
6. Monkey: Journey To The West (2008): Albarn teamed with Chinese actor/director Chen Shi-zheng and visual artist/Gorillaz collaborator Jamie Hewlett on this stage adaptation of a classical Chinese novel. And while the three can share blame for the reportedly uneven stage production, Albarn alone must face the music for … the music. Yes, he deserves credit for such an ambitious and unusual undertaking, employing Chinese instrumentation and eschewing his strong pop sensibilities; yes, the experience is incomplete when undertaken on a stereo instead of on a stage. But no -- no one is listening to Monkey anymore. It's sonically inconsistent and unclear, and worst of all, just boring.
5. Dr. Dee (2012): Ever since, well, Modern Life Is Rubbish, Albarn's music has been pretty blatantly theatrical, so his latter day endeavors into actual theater -- including Monkey and the 2009 production It Felt Like A Kiss -- come as less of a surprise than they might from, say, Noel Gallagher. Dr. Dee is the 2012 soundtrack to the "folk opera" that premiered at the Manchester International Festival in 2012 and it's an improvement on its predecessors, if not an unqualified success. It has a few qualities that make it starkly superior to Monkey -- notably, the central presence of Albarn's voice and some standout tracks that are essential even for casual fans ("Apple Carts," "The Marvelous Dream") -- but it's still strangely uneasy listening: too buoyant to serve as background music; too disjointed to enjoy as an Albarn solo album.
4. Gorillaz (1998 - present): Over the course of their existence, Gorillaz evolved from their silly initial conceit of being a modern-day Banana Splits to a faceless, shape-shifting pop collective with no conceivable artistic boundaries. At their most inclusive and insane -- 2010's Plastic Beach -- the Albarn-led band was working with everyone from grime artist Bashy to Brit-rapper Kano to the Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music…and that was all in one song. That collaborative spirit ultimately opened up a galaxy of musical exploration, with Albarn’s gorgeous plaintive croon acting as the space between the stars. Over the course of four full-length albums, though, the revolving door could be disorienting -- Gorillaz featured such a disparate mélange of sounds that the band necessarily shunned a singular artistic vision, and therefore, an identifying voice. Frankly, to those unfamiliar with the band’s origins, even Albarn might have felt like a guest on occasion.
3. Rocket Juice And The Moon (2012): Rocket Juice And The Moon features Albarn alongside Flea and former Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen -- and with a lineup like that, it's probably fair to call them a supergroup . But that sort of pomp is nowhere to be found on the band's lovely and beguiling 2012 self-titled debut: a loose, intoxicating blend of Afrobeat, psychedelia, electro-jazz and dub, with Albarn's strong melodic sense gently leading the way. Like Gorillaz, Rocket Juice And The Moon are a collaborative unit; alongside its three central pieces, the debut features at least a half-dozen guests, including Erykah Badu and Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, all of whom take center stage at points. But even with its many disparate voices, it hangs together not just as the work of an identifiable unit, but as a consistent collection of songs, flowing together organically and effortlessly, like the last hours of a long and amazing party.
2. Mali Music (2002): Albarn's Honest Jon's has been one of the world's most consistently excellent and interesting labels for the past decade, but its inaugural release is still probably its best. For Mali Music, Albarn traveled throughout the African country, jamming on melodica with Malian musicians on streets and in bars, and recording the results. Albarn went home with some 40 hours of music, which he edited down in the studio, adding instrumentation, vocals and electronic effects as he worked. The result is one of the brightest jewels in Albarn's crown. Mali Music is so throughly manipulated by its curator that it would seem to belong to no culture, yet the music is plainly authentically African. (Albarn's voice leads only one track: the exquisite "Sunset Coming On," which would have fit comfortably on Blur's Think Tank). Shimmering, sad, gorgeous, bright and impossible to pin down, Mali Music is a gorgeous chill-out experience.
1. The Good, The Bad & The Queen (2007): Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Albarn's best non-Blur project is also the one that, superficially anyway, most closely resembles Blur: The Good, The Bad & The Queen is a traditional four-piece band -- guitar, vocals, bass drums -- with a set lineup (alongside Albarn are Paul Simonon, Tony Allen and the Verve's Simon Tong). But beneath the surface, more than any of his other projects, The Good, The Bad & The Queen fully combines all of Albarn's identities: the English folk of Dr. Dee, the Afro-beat leanings of Rocket Juice And The Moon, the chilled-out vibe of Mali Music, the collaborative spirit of Gorillaz (though the nominal frontman, Albarn frequently cedes the spotlight to the band's ridiculous rhythm section of Simonon and Allen). Initially underrated, the band's lone release (their 2007 self-titled debut) has aged gracefully; its haziness is enveloping, and once inside, its low-ley details are a pleasure to behold. Of course at its center, perhaps for the final time as a true frontman, is Albarn's voice: languid, melancholic, inimitable.