Virtual Brilliance – 13 Best Gorillaz Songs

Unlike your average act, Gorillaz are made up of fictional, cyberpunk-inspired animations. They began life when Damon Albarn, frontman of Brit-pop giants Blur, moved in with acclaimed comic author Jamie Hewlett. Tired of seeing endless cliches on MTV, the pair set out to redefine the rules of playing music and pushed the capabilities of their (pre-smartphone) digital age. Albarn honed his passion for boom-bap beats and catchy melodies, while Hewlett sharpened his pencils and got to work. Before long, the four members of Gorillaz were born – 2-D, Murdoc Niccals, Russel Hobbs and Noodle. A slew of hit singles, dazzling videos and A-list guest spots (Lou Reed, Snoop Dogg, etc.) soon followed as this genre-bending cartoon crew took the world by storm. We’ve put together 13 of the best Gorillaz songs.

13. Cracker Island (feat. Thundercat)

During the bitter feud between Blur and their noisy Northern peers Oasis, Liam Gallagher famously dismissed the Londoners for making “chimney sweep music.” It seems those taunts didn’t bother Albarn. On ‘Cracker Island’, taken from the album of the same name, the songwriter embraces his Southern accent as his alter ego frontman 2-D adopts a playful, almost mockney twang. Gorillaz have made a habit of inviting guests onto songs, and this number makes use of progressive bassist Thundercat, combining his falsetto voice with R&B-inspired runs. The track plays out as a call-and-response between the duo, and establishes the theme of the album: a mysterious island full of crackers (a slur used for white people) where its inhabitants, according to Albarn, would “only listen to Fox News”.


12. Saturnz Barz (feat. Popcaan)

Gorillaz fifth album, ‘Humanz’, was recorded in multiple locations, and arrived seven years after 2010’s ‘The Fall.’ Its lead single, ‘Saturnz Barz’, was recorded in Jamaica, and features the country’s breakthrough Dancehall artist, Popcaan. The song almost didn’t happen — recording sessions to lay it down started around midnight and went deep into the night, but by the end of trying to find the right sound Albarn recalls he “wasn’t really feeling it”. The next day they tried again, and this “alternate narrative to a lot of the ideas within modern dancehall” is the result. Popcaan dominates this trap-inspired number, with vocoder-drenched vocals that only just leave room for Albarn’s eerie crooning. Known for their innovation, the band’s haunted house video features an interactive 360-degree feature.


11. Aries (feat. Peter Hook & Georgia)

Named after both Hewlett and Albarn’s star signs, ‘Aries’ was the third single of the band’s ‘Song Machine’ project. Gorillaz’s drummer Russel Hobbs described the album as a “whole new way of doing what we do, Gorillaz breaking the mold ‘cos the mold got old.” The first album in the series, ‘Season One: Strange Timez’ was a collection of music videos and ‘episodes’ compiled from monthly collaborations with different artists, starting in late 2019 and running through the COVID-19 pandemic. People’s endless downtime during that time seemingly benefits ‘Aries’ — it’s a gorgeously produced number, with James Ford’s (Simian Mobile Disco) synths washing over Peter Hook’s melodic, rich bass and Georgia Barnes’ irresistible percussion. The final result sounds like peak New Order, with Albarn effortlessly filling in on vocals.


10. Empire Ants (feat Little Dragon)

Little Dragon are an electronic quartet from Gothenburg, fronted by the Swedish-Japanese Yukimi Eleanora Nagano. The band grew up together listening to Alice Coltrane and De La Soul, so it seemed only a matter of time before they’d wind up joining forces with Gorillaz. ‘Empire Ants,’ from 2010’s ‘Plastic Beach’ album, was co-written by Nagano, and she remembers Albarn’s studio being “a playground – there were instruments from all around the world and an ocean of synthesizers.” The song’s first half is made up of Albarn’s wistful warbling over gentle lead guitar and keys before those synths find a use. At the midway point, it morphs into a hazy, funk-driven sonic landscape, as Nagano sings “my little dream, working the machine.”


9. Dirty Harry

‘Dirty Harry’ might be the spiritual sequel to the band’s previous effort ‘Clint Eastwood’; the song is named after the hard-edged, magnum-touting San Francisco inspector Harry Callahan, played by Eastwood, who famously tells a bankrobber to “ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?” Gorillaz are obvious fans of the actor’s films, but ‘Dirty Harry’ seems to question the politics of then-president George Bush with rapped lyrics like “the war is over so said the speaker, with a flight suit on, maybe to him I’m just a pawn,” and seem to compare America’s politics with the titular aggressive cop. Produced by New York hip-hop producer Danger Mouse, handling mic duties is Bootie Brown, lead vocalist for ‘90s rap outfit The Pharcyde.


8. Tormenta (feat. Bad Bunny)

Albarn was first made aware of Puerto Rican artist Bad Bunny by his daughter, who had been checking out Latin and reggaeton artists. Reggaeton is an evolution of dancehall that embraces Caribbean styles, hip-hop, and often Spanish vocals. That’s the case on this song, with Albarn’s trademark listless vocals used lightly, making way for Bad Bunny to give the track its heavy Latin flavor. The song’s title is a Spanish word for ‘storm’, and was inspired by a bout of tropical weather during its recording. Albarn has said what he loves most about Gorillaz is “I can bring in anyone I want,” and here he demonstrates the band’s ability to mix it up with aplomb.


7. DARE (feat. Shaun Ryder)

A myth surrounds ‘DARE”, the second single from 2005’s Demon Days album. According to Albarn, the title comes from Shaun Ryder’s strong Manchester accent getting in the way of his pronunciation of the word ‘there.’ The Happy Mondays frontman disagrees, claiming his idea was to use ‘text speech’ deliberately. The repeated refrain of “it’s coming up, it’s coming up” was also a happy accident — Ryder was responding to the volume adjustments in his “cans.” Whatever the reasons behind the song, it was their first UK number 1 due to its dancefloor appeal. Leftfield vocals, bright synths, and a seductive, groove bassline come together for this perfectly odd, accessible mish-mash.


6. New Gold (feat. Tame Impala and Bootie Brown)

Inviting West Coast rapper Bootie Brown from the Pharcyde to join Gorillaz for the second time, ‘New Gold’ also features Australian producer Kevin Parker, better known as Tame Impala. Parker’s ethereal lyrics talk about “the magic cove, there’s a pretty one I ask her where it goes ’cause I really want” are suggestive of gold pearls and psychedelic magic, while Brown’s rhymes snarl about “polluted-filled skies” and “liposuction.” The contrasting styles thrash against catchy bass hooks and bouncing keys, and the overall feel of ‘New Gold’ is a protest against modern materialism. Albarn eventually joins in, singing “everything will disappear,” bolstering the song’s transient theme.


5. Rhinestone Eyes

After the global success of their second album, Albarn and Hewlett wanted to push their concepts even further. ‘Plastic Beach’ arrived in 2010, a rumination on our planet’s treatment of the ocean and the debris it leaves washed up. The songs were once again jam-packed with guests including Lou Reed and Mark E Smith, but focused less on the exploits of their virtual creations and more on simply making something special, an “organization of people doing new projects.” This song is one of their most serious numbers, a casio-led environmentalist poem, with some of Albarn’s most poignant lyrics about “the paralytic dreams that we all seem to keep” that “drive on engines ’til they weep.”


4. Stylo

‘Stylo,’ also appears on the band’s third studio album, ‘Plastic Beach.’ It features two of their most prestigious guests in one place – Brooklyn’s hip-hop top biller Mos Def, and Ohio-born funk and soul legend Bobby Womack, singer of ‘Across 110th Street’. It almost featured Barry Gibb, Bee Gees frontman, until he decided against it late on. Gorillaz bassist described the song’s sound as “electro-ish ‘crack funk,’ but political soul might be a better fit. Womack recalls the desperation of his ‘70s Harlem tale, singing “night after night, just to get through the week, sometimes it’s hard” over a driving electro beat. Befitting a car chase movie, the band recruited Bruce Willis to pursue the band through a desert for the video.


3. On Melancholy Hill

Albarn has said ‘Plastic Beach’ was intended to be “the most pop record I’ve ever made.” The energy of their previous two Gorillaz records is still abundant, but it’s directed more towards catchy, keyboard-driven hooks than the bass-heavy alt-rap that established their sound. ‘On Melancholy Hill,’ Albarn leans into his love of sorrowful melodies, creating an introspective song that feels like it’s sung by him more than any of Hewlett’s characters. Built around a simple, effective synth pattern, it’s a gloriously produced melodic number and one of the band’s most direct.


2. Clint Eastwood

Gorillaz’ debut album dropped in 2001, and ‘Clint Eastwood’ was the first single from it. Featuring a fully animated video, it’s the song that put Hewlett’s four characters on the world’s radar and surprised Blur fans everywhere — their beloved frontman had started a new hip-hop group. Named after the star of ‘The Good, The Bad and the Ugly’ (the video features a snippet from the film), this song provides the formula of much of the Gorillaz material that would follow. Albarn’s wryly delivered “I ain’t happy, I’m feeling glad I got sunshine in a bag” line became instantly iconic, and tees up Oakland rapper Del the Funky Homosapien tp deliver his mind-bending, era-defining rhymes.


1. Feel Good Inc.

Our number one pick for this list was easy. If the self-titled first Gorillaz release turned some people’s heads, ‘Demon Days’ made sure the whole world was watching. ‘Feel Good Inc’ is the perfect balance of what the band set out to achieve – it’s got pop, hard-hitting rap courtesy of De La Soul’s Trugoy the Dove, and a beautifully realized music video that makes Hewlett’s illustrations glow. Albarn’s doe-eyed, Beatles-like lyrics “love forever, love is free, let’s turn forever you and me” sit innocently alongside the frenetic rhymes, atop a smooth bass line that could comfortably claim to be one of the catchiest ever recorded. De La’s Maseo provides the laugh that gives this winning tune its manic, unforgettable energy.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Rock the House
  • O Green World
  • Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head – feat. Dennis Hopper
  • Momentary Bliss – feat. slowthai & Slaves
  • Superfast Jellyfish – feat. Gruff Rhys and De La Soul
  • Kids with Guns

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About Ged Richardson

Ged Richardson is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of ZingInstruments.com. He has been featured in Entrepreneur, PremierGuitar, Hallmark, Wanderlust, CreativeLive, and other major publications. As an avid music fan, he spends his time researching and writing about new and old music, as well as testing and reviewing music-related products. He's played guitar in various bands, from rock to gypsy jazz. Be sure to check out his YouTube channel, where he geeks out about his favorite bands.

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