Somehow, in the shady days of post-grunge radio, when music struggled to find a definable scene or sound, in the midst of the detritus of Staind and the early birth pangs of Disturbed, came the Gorillaz. A quirky British act based on animated characters and the unexplored mental depths of Blur frontman Damon Albarn, the Gorillaz dominated an entire musical cycle without ever bending to the mold.
The rise of the Gorillaz was, in retrospect, an isolated event. Too off-beat and cynical for CHR and too beat-driven for alternative radio, the Gorillaz sat uneasily on the radio dial, and ultimately came to prominence through college radio and independent stations. Over other media, their early animated, stylistic, never-before-seen videos floated MTV for about a year, and the band was among the first to grip the true promotional potential of the internet among the young generation.
Damon Albarn, whether through intention or happy coincidence, is the new millenniums’ answer to Joe Strummer. This parenthetically makes it no small curiosity that the Gorillaz last stated lineup featured two members of the Clash. Albarn's rapacious appetite for music of other cultures and genres, as well as his affinity for the evolving, still young world of hip-hop (and hip-hop production,) has always lent his virtual cohorts a distinguishable and all-encompassing sound.
The Gorillaz have always stood in stark contrast to the (I’m gonna say it) predictable Brit-pop of Blur and while that doesn’t necessarily explain why the former band was huge in the States and the latter band wasn’t, it does illustrate the cultural differences in musical taste.
To listen to the "Singles Collection" is to attempt to cage and define what was never meant to be contained. The Gorillaz were always an experiment cleverly hidden behind the faces of translucent personas. To try and define their sound or present a viable showcase of the band's rangy dabbling with panoply of musicians is likely a fool's errand. The number of unreleased or never finished cuts that Albarn has stored away could likely fill the cavernous warehouse from the end of "Raiders of the Lost Ark."
However, this does not mean that the "Singles Collection" isn't a worthwhile venture. The collection does an admirable job of chronicling the Gorillaz's journey from alt-rock hybrid to pop music commentator to mind-boggling, occasionally overwhelming musical trial-and-error.
Naturally it kicks off with the hits from their debut record, including the sweetly melancholy “Clint Eastwood” and the electronic, droning “19-2000.” By the time the listener reaches the stringed, funky, choral “Dirty Harry,” those unfamiliar will think they are dealing with an entirely different act.
That flexibility was always the Gorillaz hallmark, and a product of their association with varied producers over the years. Dan the Automator helped Albarn flesh out his vision for the first trip, followed on the second effort by Danger Mouse, fresh off “The Grey Album.” It was this ability by Albarn to attract visionary talent that separated his rap/rock fusion from long-gone contemporaries like Linkin Park or Limp Bizkit (yeah, I know they’re not long-gone, but who knows the difference?) As a friend said to me in discussion of this “Singles Collection,” “[Gorillaz] was Linkin Park for people who were still listening to “Kid A” from the year before.” All of this wild, unbridled creativity can be witnessed in order on the “Singles Collection.”
There are two things missing from the “Singles Collection” that keep it from being a complete chronicle of the band’s journey. The first missing piece is more evidence of their most recent work. As an example, there’s nothing from the band’s fourth album “The Fall” on this collection. The second absence comes in the form of the band’s various B-sides, remixes, collaborations, unreleased material and so forth. By all reports, 2012 may see a separate collection of that material releasing to the light of day, but in the mean, the “Singles Collection” is a chronicle of the Gorillaz from a radio point of view, and not from the band’s complete body of work. (Caveat: the included Soulchild remix of “19-2000” is pretty damn cool, and really changes the song’s affect.)
“The Singles Collection” caters to those who have stuck with the Gorillaz for the duration, all the way through the trippy audio-visuals of “Stylo” and “Superfast Jellyfish.” As the band’s sound has morphed from being rap-influenced-rock to rock-influenced-rap/dance, it’s a curious study to see the stages of the Gorillaz career encapsulated on one disc. As an added bonus, studious listeners will no doubt hear the band’s influence on acts that came later, especially in the vein of Jurassic 5 and N.E.R.D (and by extension, the Neptunes.)
For those who have been dedicated to the Gorillaz from the starting gun, this collection probably doesn’t mean much to you except that it may be a subtle promise that there’s more music on the way. But for those looking to introduce themselves to one of the new millenniums’ most influential bands (at their particular moment,) and an interesting story to boot, this is a fine place to do so.