Damon Albarn’s (Blur, Gorillaz, The Good, The Bad And The Queen) Collected Albums Reviewed

Written by | July 30, 2020 6:11 am | No Comments

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In 1994, I was thirty eight and Britpop was the last musical movement I took to religiously, even Strokes era New York didn’t move the needle for me, but Britpop I was all in, haunting small import only record stores off Christopher Street and picking every Britpop EP and maxi-single (on CD by then) by the likes of Suede, Pulp, Oasis, Elastica, and Blur, and never missing an appearance at the Supper Club on their way to the Beacon when they reached our shores like all good British invaders must.

Damon Albarn looked like the choirboy most likely to make the fold in NAMBLA monthly, a very cute, tousled head, innocent from the ranks of the public school, middle class, the sort of backstory  Ray Davies aspired to. Childhood buddies Damon and lead guitarist Graham Coxon formed Blur in the whirl of Stone Roses, before the two were reinventing Brit Pop. By the time of Blur’s second album, Damon was mixing extreme melancholia with hi jinx and social commentary, and as the years have gone by he has perfected being a miserable bastard with a back beat…

Leisure (1991) – Blur –  Graham’s ringing chord followed by an indelible hook introduced Blur’s first song on their first album, from a sub genre known as baggy, the song was “So High,” one of three goodies, the others being “Bang” and “There’s No Other Way”. The album went Gold in the UK, and survives as a bit more than just a recherchez of childhood with walls of guitars and Damon’s whine UK style, from the nose. It is a variant on “shoegaze” at its heart  – B

Modern Life Is Rubbish (1993) – Blur – This isn’t the birth of Britpop, that happened a year earlier when the single “Popscene” rewrote the lessons of rock, walking Stone Roses to the door and locking arms with the Kinks, and other, pop bands of the British Explosion, but with an cockiness all little school boys in disgrace and an attitude although the band was in their early 20s so the teenness was a stretch. Damon was so furious at “Popscene” not being a hit he left it off the album. “Popscene” did exactly what its title said it would, it was at the epicenter of swinging London 1992 with Tony Blair as the star of a rejuvenation of the UK culture. MLOR was a moderate hit and deserved better, imagine a hybrid XTC without the magic mushrooms but with plenty of magic America. Interrupted by fake commercials, and 70 blank tracks (remember, CDs used to do those tricks) before a hidden track. Along with arty work outs there was a clutch of killer songs, “Chemical World,” “Advert,” “Sunday Sunday” (the latter so Kinks like it should be patented). But even so, Blur were a world unto themselves and sounded like the edge of a sound, what would be Britpop, and if you don’t believe me listen to the horns on “Sunday Sunday” which, I mentioned the Kinks, it also has a new wave Armed Forces feel. It is the only Blur album that has improved with time and the first of the Britpop trilogy – A

Parklife (1994) – Blur – Put disco ambisexual “Girls And Boys,” the lead off song and a huge hit as a single with Damon giving you a wink on the video and becoming a superstar, side and the rest is a place where the 60s of the Who and the Kinks come together in an orange and red and yellow glow. The title track  features Phil Daniels spoken word, Daniels was, of course, the star of the movie of the Who’s rock opera “Quadrophenia”. Parklife dropped in April, Oasis’s debut Definitely Maybe dropped in August, and the game was afoot. On all three albums so far, Blur has never simply stolen, between Graham’s ringing shoegaze influence lead and Damon’s smirky, whiny and compelling singing, they didn’t sound like Oasis or anyone else. It didn’t even chart in the US. Blur had been using four producers till here, always including The Smiths producer Stephen Street and here Street’s influence comes to the forefront  – A

The Special Collectors Edition (1994) – Blur – Up to now, we Britpoppers lived and died with the EP (and collected dozens of bootlegs), and this box set of B Sides brings some of them together, on a Japanese import that doesn’t really survive inspection – C+

The Brit Pop Blur Box (1994) – All the singles released in Australia including the Pet Shop Boys remix of “Girls And Boys” and the Francoise Hardy duet “To The End” given the close up it deserves. There was a free tee shirt that came along with it – B+

The Great Escape (1995) – Blur – The heart of Britpop, with Blur and Oasis going head to head for UK dominance – Blur won the singles war with the sublime “Country House” but (What’s The Story) Morning Glory is a much better album than The Great Escape. Stephen Street takes over all production on TGE, and it begins with two great songs. “Stereotypes” takes on wife swapping with an unnecessarily jaundice eye though the hook, ” All your life you’re dreaming then you stop dreaming” is worthy of King Ray himself. “Country House” is better, up there with “Parklife” and the not yet dropped “Song 2,” as their greatest moment. But then it falls right off a cliff. “Best Day” is a gloomy bore of a ballad and it leads the way for Blur’s Pan-Global sneer “The Universe,” from place to place on songs that don’t bear scrutiny. A major disaster and a stall – C

Live at the Budokan (1996) – Blur – The first time I saw Blur on stage was on the Parklife tour (at the Academy on 44th Street) and one thing was absolutely clear: Blur were a vastly better live band then Oasis ever were, and around this time in their career probably the best live band anywhere. It was all Albarn, the man was a force of nature, he ran, jumped, pounded his keyboard and started singalongs. They should have released a live album from the 1994-95 tour, instead they were stuck flogging The Great Escape, and the result is self-evident: it killed what should have been a masterpiece, but Blur were too good a band for it to be a wash out – B

Blur (1997) – Blur – And as Britpop whirled around them, Blur was past it, and while Oasis went one cocaine high overblown song after another on Be Here Now,  Blur turned left into a Brit Grunge sound informed by not just Nirvana, but also Pavement, and with guitarist Coxon’s alcoholism and Damon’s heroin addiction, the album had that drag to it. It was still a very strong mix of art and guitar rock, first song “Beetlebum” is as good as its name, and the second song, “Song 2” was a bigger hit than everything Oasis had done combined, you couldn’t go to a sports arena without hearing the hook, a huge money maker for them. Towards the end of the album there is another killer track “Movin’ On” and song for song it is a hugely consistent collection – A

Bustin’ + Dronin’ (1997) – Blur – The first side is remixes of Blur (the album) songs by the likes of William Orbit and Moby, the second is a recorded live at (John) Peel Acres and their best recorded live  work to date  I just wish the second side was longer – B+

13 (1999)  – Blur -produced by William Orbit, it is a quietly arty time bomb exploding their career, while opinions are divided, I considered it a masterpiece at the time and listening to it again I can hear what I liked about it. I even saw em perform the lot at Roseland with nothing but pleasure. It is a difficult album (so many break up albums are), and it manages to be closed off and, because we are so used to Blur by now, we know our way around enough to be open to them. “Tender,” finding Damon alone but with his girlfriend, lying in bed, and looking for a savior, the chorus is a beautiful thing, and “Bugman” sounds like pre-Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain  Pavement, “Coffee And Tea” might squeeze itself into one of the trilogy, around the middle of the second side. It stands up better than any other Blur album except Blur (hell, it stands up better than 21st Century Magic Whip) if only as an album unmoored from its surroundings – A-

Ravenous (soundtrack) (1999) – Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman – Nyman is the minimalist composer linked with John Cage and you get the sense the Ravenous soundtrack informed Trent Reznor and Attica Ross, but it doesn’t work without the movie (neither do Trent and Attica). Electronic noise and a disjointed alertness to its environments… plus “Welcome To Fort Smith” with its calliope and, can it be?, singing – B

The 10 Year Limited Edition Anniversary Box Set (1999) – 22 CDs with 126 tracks featuring all official UK singles to date, consider it an update of the Japanese only Special Edition from 1994 – B+

Midlife: A Beginner’s Guide to Blur (1999) – Not a greatest hit, the one I have was revised in 200, four from Blur, including the opening track,  two from The Great Escape (and they didn’t include “Country House”), four off Modern, Park Life, and 13 only one off Leisure, three off the reason for an update, Think Tank,  and while it has some hits it isn’t lyng when it calls itself a primer – B+

Blur: The Best Of (2000) – Blur – fucking weirdos, a best of that doesn’t include “Song 2”? Some live at Wembley tracks on the deluxe, a redundant album and it shouldn’t be – B-

Gorillaz (2001) – Gorillaz – “Clint Eastwood” is up with “Song 2” and “Parklife” as one one of Albarn’s flat out masterpieces, rapped by Del the Funky Homosapien, and the chorus  sung by Damon himself, it adds dub to electronica and it stands out as an earworm of the first order -as if Ennio Morricone was fronting Blur. The Gorillaz concept, a virtual band with Damon writing the songs, and Tank Girl animator Jamie Hewlett cartooning the videos, was way before its time. They first time they played in New York, the band performed behind a screen while the cartoon characters were front and center -an idea they never bothered with again. I’ve never been big on dub, and while this is obviously influenced by trip hop it doesn’t sound nearly good enough to worry Portishead or Massive Attack. As a whole, there was something exciting and innovative about the band and a song like “Latin Simone” was an opening herald of Latin Trap, but too much of it is twiddling  adjustments – C

G Sides – Gorillaz  – B Sides – C

Mali Music (2002) (with Afel Bocoum, Toumani Diabaté & Friends) – Damon Albarn – This is the least exploitative recording of an indigenous people’s music you will ever hear.  It is nothing like what Paul Simon did with South Africa on Graceland or Latin America with The Rhythm Of The Saints, the difference is Simon used Worldbeat to shade then change his music. Damon played Mali music. Invited by Oxfam to be a cultural ambassador, he recorded 100s of hours of music with local musicians, came back to London, and cut and paste them into songs. To my untrained ears, it sounds like Indian singing over African sounds, and it is thoroughly enjoyable deep drums and odd effects, thought it didn’t send me in search of the originals. It certainly is a meeting of musical minds and one of Damon’s triumphs – A-

Think Tank (2003) – Blur – not much of a Blur album, Cox is off at rehab before falling out with the band  and Simon Tong (of the Verve), the band are on their heels, Damon is handling all the heavy lifting and the result is a Gorillaz album as performed by Blur. “Out Of Time” is the inevitable hook monster Damon tends to provide to sell an album, but nothing here is good enough, and it is a boring listen. Blur’s worst album.

Laika Come Home – Gorillaz and Space Monkeyz – Incredibly useless dub versions of Gorillaz debut – C-

Democrazy (2003) – Damon Albarn – a vinyl only collection of Gorillaz demos… I haven’t heard it but I would be shocked if it was any good…

Demon Days (2005) – Gorillaz – quite possibly the most popular album of Albarn’s career, it got to # 6 on the Billboard 200, so perhaps it’s a good album to get a grip on what the problem with Albarn is: he is a poseur and a bore, and this is as tasteful as electronica can stomach being. The giveaway is that the dreaded Danger Mouse is up to his neck in it, producing in his often imitated and often topped manner of angular beats on infinite tracks. It is a rolodex (archaic reference) with the mostest, everybody on its own track: De La Soul, Neneh Cherry, Roots Manuva, MF DOOM, Ike Turner, Bootie Brown of the Pharcyde, Shaun Ryder, and Dennis Hopper, they are all here waiting for their close up on slow moving songs like the electronic blues of “Every Planet We Reach Is Dead”. I hate this band so much it may well be me but my eyes roll to the back of my head every time Damon drawls in his languid limey way – C-

D-Sides (2007) – Gorillaz – dub versions, B Sides, loosies. And you thought it couldn’t get any worse – D+

The Good, the Bad & the Queen (2007) – The Good, the Bad & the Queen – Around about now, it doesn’t matter what name Damon calls himself, it still sounds like the same bummer tracks, miserable singsongs, as if after all those years with Blur the only thing that he learnt from was “Bad Head” -with the late great Tony Allen on drums and Paul Simonon of the Clash on bass, the bottom still wobbles, and with Simon Tong of the Verve on board -he replaced Graham on Think Tank, the Blur by other means is crystal clear. Another disappointing effort – C

Journey to the West (2008) – The novel is an extended account of the legendary pilgrimage of the Tang dynasty Buddhist monk Xuanzang who traveled to the “Western Regions”, that is, Central Asia and India, to obtain Buddhist sacred texts (sūtras) and returned after many trials and much suffering… I know how he feels. Oh, alright, the music is Damon’s best work since 13, 25-member orchestra featuring traditional Western and Chinese instruments, as well as musical saw, ondes Martenot, glass harmonica and a klaxophone, which features car-horns attached to a musical keyboard, which was purpose-built for the production by artist Gavin Turk.:65 Strings were performed by a string section assembled for Gorillaz live performances] Albarn devised a system for the score based on the Chinese red star.  The orchestra was joined by an eight-piece choir provided by Liverpool-based Sense of Sound, ps I got that from Wikipedia. Although it was billed as Damon, that had to do with contractual obligations, and it is really Gorillaz with Jamie involved in the mounting of the theatrical presentation. Head and shoulders above anything else Gorillaz had done to date – A-

All the People: Blur Live at Hyde Park 02 July 2009 and All the People: Blur Live at Hyde Park 03 July 2009 (2009) – Blur – Hyde Park sounds absolutely insane, and so it should have been. Two nights of career spanning Blur and sure a money grab but a money grab with Graham back in the fold and a career spanning double dose from “She’s So High” to closer “The Universal” and only one song off Think Tank. As I’ve mentioned before, Blur are one of the great live bands and if you get the chance to see em eat up the stage the only band that is better at Hyde Park is the Stones. An absolute triumph – A-

Live 2009 -(2009)  Blur – Ten songs from Hyde Park, given away free with a Brit tabloid – A

Plastic Beach (2010) – Gorillaz – around about now I am thoroughly sick of Damon Albarn, and even Lou Reed and Bobby Womack couldn’t save their concert at MSG (here) which also included Paul Simonon and Mick Jones -yes, the Clash guys, playing back up. But I have been known to make mistakes and listening to Plastic Beach ten years later, I may have underestimated the performance, and definitely underestimated the album. It is the Gorillaz perfected, a test run for the sort of sound hip hop would play with (albeit more electronically and of a piece) and that Kanye West perfected on The Life Of Pablo six years later. I see what I hated, “Glitter Freeze” gets Mark E. Smith but cuts him short, none of his prole argumentative stuff, on a techno dribble. What I can’t see is what I disliked on “Stylo,” with Bobby Womack and Mos Def and “Welcome To The Plastic Beach” with an ace Snoop Dogg. It is less good than the world seems to believe but much better than I thought it was – B+

The Fall (2010) – Gorillaz – This is a terrible bleepy bloopy worn out drag, you want to punch Damon in the nose – C-

Dr Dee: An English Opera (2012) – Damon Albarn – Arty renaissance man, back to opera, but here he doesn’t have Asian sounds to trifle with and this is a Goth like opera of Victorian world music. According to (them again)  Wikipedia, the opera was scored for a band combining Elizabethan English instruments (viola da gamba, shawm, dulcian, crumhorn, recorder, lute) with the African kora and the distinctive drumming of Nigerian percussionist Tony Allen. Damon Albarn played acoustic guitar and harmonium and sang on a number of songs. A twenty-piece conventional orchestra was provided by the BBC Philharmonic and conducted by André de Ridd. An odd, not particularly pleasant quasi English folk music with additional layers, and my bet is it would be better if you were watching it in a theatre. Slow and deadly because, let’s be clear here folk(ie)s, slow and deadly is Damon’s default – C+

Parklive (2012) –  Blur – Three years after the All The People two shows at Hyde Park, this one was part of the London Olympic build up. A huge amount of fun, with more crowd noises  and singalongs – A-

Maison Des Jeunes (2013) – Damon Albarn – in 2013, Damon returned to Mali with some big name buddies like Brian Eno and Nick Zimmer, to record with with local musicians and it is really good, plus a hat tip to Ghostpoet – B+

Everyday Robots (2014) – Damon Albarn – A disaster, every single thing you hate about Albarn in one place,  a brooding place,  depressive, dreary, electronic sounds that seem there to tread on your every single emotion. I saw him touring behind this dog and it was painful and hard to imagine this forty something middle aged man was once tearing up the Academy and bringing a joyful reach to Britpop. It is so upsetting, it is such a self-important slog. Awful – D+

Live at the De De De Der (2014) – Damon Albarn -This is the concert I saw – D+

The Magic Whip (2015)  – Blur – A return to form. Good, sometimes not good, never as clever as it thinks it is, but with some good Blur songs to add to the catalog. A lot better than I thought it would be (my full length review here) –  B

Humanz (2017) – Gorillaz – some great names here, first and foremost Grace Jones, but Danny Brown, DRAM (Albarn sure loves his voices), Pusha T AND Mavis Staple on the same song.  wow, Jehnny Beth! Of all Gorillaz albums this is the most about voices and that’s fine but yet again, Damon is such an annoying songwriter. His melodic touch seems to wither and die whenever he gets next to a power tool: his tunes get buried, and sometimes his hooks gets busy as well – B-

Merrie Land – The Good, The Bad And The Queen – Damon’s more miserable than you’ll ever be with a pix from “Dead Of Night” on the cover and the Blur with different performers hybrid, Damon is as upset about Brexit as you imagine – C

The Now Now – (2018) – Gorillaz – i can not even, he gets rid of most of the featured singers and writes songs as wearying as Everyday Robot showed us.  For God’s sake, we should all have his problems . If you insist, “Iado” is a clear appropriation of “- C-

 

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