When Gorillaz released their debut album on March 26, 2001, Damon Albarn already had a wealth of great work behind him. As the frontman of Blur, he wrote several songs that have since become classics, and he arguably became the single most important person in the Britpop movement, equal to that of Thom Yorke in Radiohead. Quite simply, he had nothing to prove to anyone. And yet, he still managed to create another great band, ensuring his place as an essential rock legend.
Gorillaz are, for lack of a better term, a cartoon band. They were the result of a collaboration between Albarn and comic artist Jamie Hewlett. They were unlike anything the music world had really seen before; the music was real, but the musicians were not — and this wasn’t just for novelty or promotion purposes, they were a real band. The animated group had their own names and personae, adding an extra dimension to the music. Damon Albarn was providing the vocals, but he was doing it as 2-D, a frontman who was considerably different from the lead singer of Blur. Essentially, by creating Gorillaz, Albarn was able to give himself an entirely new musical identity.
This is a big reason why Albarn has endured in ways his contemporaries have not. Essentially, he was able to escape the Britpop Bubble. While we may revere the work created by the likes of Noel Gallagher and Jarvis Cocker, we tend to think of them within the context of their era. They are the avatars of a very specific time period in rock music; when the alternative charts were dominated by English acts who created memorable music, but were often out of the limelight just as quickly as they had ascended to it. By creating Gorillaz, Albarn showed not just that he was more than what people thought of Blur, but that he was more than Britpop. He exists outside of that movement, and very few of his ’90s contemporaries can say that.
Gorillaz were also essential to re-introducing Albarn to the American markets. While Blur had many essential singles in the UK, in the U.S., they were one-hit wonders — a tragically incorrect notion — with their only chart success being “Song 2.” Sure, there were plenty of American listeners who bought Parklife and The Great Escape (hell, even their 2015 reunion proves that they’re still fresh), but that audience is decidedly in the minority. Despite being one of the best bands of their time, Blur’s heyday was largely ignored in the United States.
While Blur did create a lot of great music, their lack of resonance in America was somewhat understandable; much like the Kinks before them, they were a quintessentially British band. Beyond Albarn’s strong English accent, many of their songs and lyrics reflected a sensibility that American audiences had difficulty relating to. Naturally, “Song 2” was the exception — it basically borrowed a catchphrase from Homer Simpson. But while Blur’s nationality could not be muted, Gorillaz seemed to belong to the world. Sure, Albarn’s accent could still be detected from time to time, but they didn’t really have a nationality; they were a floating group of characters who seemed to belong to us all.
Indeed, Gorillaz have endured in the United States in a way that Blur have not. When their self-titled debut was released, the immensely catchy single “Clint Eastwood” became a smash, likely causing many American listeners to stop and say “wait…is that the ‘whoo-hoo’ guy?” Follow up tracks like “19-2000” and “Rock The House” are still in major rotation and commercial syncs to this day.
Their sophomore effort, Demon Days, was an even bigger hit, giving them their most enduring single, “Feel Good Inc.” along with “Dare,” which both became hits on the alternative charts. By the time they released Plastic Beach — which featured cameos by Lou Reed and Bobby Womack to name a few — they had become an unstoppable rock phenomenon.
Respectively, Blur and Gorillaz are both great bands that will be remembered for decades to come, but it was the creation of the latter that allowed Damon Albarn to not only escape the shadow of Britpop, but to be acknowledged by American audiences who had previously ignored him. Without Gorillaz, the majority of American music listeners would know Albarn strictly off one hit kitschy single decades ago. Instead, they know what the UK had known for years: that he’s one of the most essential songwriters working today.