Damon Albarn is a chameleon-like figure who has been at the heart of British music for 30 years. Few people have enjoyed the expansive and expressive career he has, and a crucial part of his affable charm derives from his desire to work with others on collaborative projects.
While many artists often shy away from sharing their sphere of work in fear of upsetting the atmosphere, Albarn is quite the opposite. Embracing collaboration in multiple forms, his desire to push boundaries has helped the musician operate as an exciting talent across decades. Naturally, Albarn made himself a household name with Britpop heroes Blur, dominating the 1990s alongside Oasis and Pulp. However, it’s been the post-Britpop years with Gorillaz, The Good, The Bad & The Queen, and as a solo artist that Albarn has shown that there is no end to his talents.
“What you’re dealing with is their spirit,” Albarn told Noisey in 2018 about the key to a successful collaboration. “That’s ageless. As the kids were growing up, playing with them, and you can see the ones that have got the spirit inside of them.”
Albarn has worked with just about everybody of prominence since forming the evolving sound machine known as Gorillaz. The virtual band’s albums are a constant mix of artists, new and old. Each album has been infused with a different flavour, with the base ingredient linking the artists the band have worked with seemingly robust in creative ambition and desire to push the envelope toward warm expression.
Naming just ten of Albarn’s best collaborations was a near-on impossible task, but this list shows the broad scope of his work with other artists and an amalgamation of a true orchestrator.
Damon Albarn’s 10 best collaborations:
10. Gorillaz – ‘Garage Palace’ featuring Little Simz
“It’s not premeditated or forced at all,” Little Simz told NME about what it was like working with Gorillaz on this 2017 effort ‘Garage Palace’. For Albarn and the rest of the group a happy environment makes for good music: “It’s just a vibe. It’s all off good vibes and good energy.”
This alone sums up why Albarn has become one of the dream names everybody wants to work with. He creates an atmosphere that is the perfect environment for artists to fuse their styles. ‘Garage Palace’ only featured on the Super Deluxe Vinyl Set of Humanz in 2017, but the track is one of their finest in recent years.
9. Gorillaz – ‘Some Kind Of Nature’ featuring Lou Reed
Managing to persuade Lou Reed to feature on the track which appeared on 2009’s Plastic Beach was something Albarn worked exceptionally hard to secure. “Lou Reed rejected the first couple of songs I sent him quite adamantly,” the Gorillaz man recalled to the Metro in 2019. “But I kept sending them until one caught his ear, and then we got on famously.”
Albarn spoke in more detail to Rolling Stone in 2017 about how he finally convinced Reed to take a trip to Plastic Beach and feature on ‘Some Kind Of Nature’. “I have my ways,” he joked. “I sent him quite a few tunes, and he just said they were all shit. Finally, I did this tune, and he liked it. I’m the perpetual suitor – but also not taking it too personally when someone turns you down. ‘I can do this without you. I’m only asking you because I think it would be cool.’ That’s my attitude.”
Reed thankfully gave in, and the result was worth the perseverance from Albarn. The former Velvet Underground sprinkled his special touch on ‘Some Kind of Nature’ to create a lowkey Gorillaz classic that doesn’t receive the love it deserves.
8. Rocket Juice & The Moon – ‘Poison’
Rocket Juice & The Moon is a supergroup that Albarn created in 2008 alongside Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers and Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen. Over three years, the trio recorded their only album together, which mixed Afrobeat with psychedelic funk, with ‘Poison’ being the stand-out track from the record.
The album featured guest appearances from Erykah Badu, Thundercat, Fatoumata Diawara and many more. However, ‘Poison’ just captures Albarn, Allen and Flea combining to create a truly luscious piece of music that simply wouldn’t have been possible to develop within the confinements of Gorillaz or Blur.
7. Gorillaz – ‘We Got The Power’ featuring Jehnny Beth and Noel Gallagher
This track was initially meant to see Albarn roll back the years to the Britpop era by bringing his old sparring partner Noel Gallagher into the Gorillaz fold alongside Blur’s Graham Coxon. However, Albarn decided to replace his right-hand man with Savages’ Jehnny Beth, who steals the show on the track and leads Gorillaz through this emphatic anthem — proving Albarn right with his masterstroke to include her on ‘We Got The Power’.
“At one point this song had Graham, Noel and me on it and it was sort of heading slightly in the wrong direction,” Albarn told Radio X about his decision to substitute Coxon off for Beth. “It was becoming almost retro in its sort of spirit and way too rocky for this record so I kind of stripped it right back down again.”
Adding: “We play it slightly different live then how it is on the record. It’s sort of the song that comes on during the final titles of a film. The climax. I thought Jehnny would take a bit of the testosterone off.”
6. Gorillaz – ‘Ascension’ featuring Vince Staples
‘Ascension’ showed further growth by Gorillaz as they let Vince Staples wreak havoc on Humanz. Although Albarn semi-jokingly later admitted that his reason for wanting to collaborate with Vince Staples came in a bid to impress his daughter, with the singer telling Billboard: “Some of the decisions for this record were fuelled by wanting to impress her still.”
If Albarn was trying to be a cool dad with ‘Ascension’, he pulled it off stylishly with this collaboration that is not only a highlight from Humanz but one of the best moments from Staples’ career too.
5. The Good, The Bad & The Queen – ‘Kingdom of Doom’
‘Kingdom of Doom’ is another effort from Albarn’s supergroups, this time with Tony Allen once more, and The Clash’s Paul Simonon and The Verve’s Simon Tong. This band allowed Albarn to explore his folk leanings more than ever before, with the group releasing two albums before disbanding in 2019.
Their eponymous debut record arrived in 2007, and they followed it up over a decade later with 2018’s Merrie Land. The Good, The Bady & The Queen are more overtly political than anything Albarn has done elsewhere in his career. The sheer talent between the four members leads to satisfying results, such as ‘Kingdom of Doom‘ from their debut.
4. Gorillaz – ‘Stylo’ featuring Bobby Womack and Mos Def
As Albarn worked with Vince Staples to impress his daughter, Bobby Womack worked with Gorillaz on ‘Stylo’ for the same reason. “In the days when I would get loaded, I would have thought this was great,” the late singer recalled.
“Now that I’m straight, I think I’m too square to know where they’re at. I kept listening and thought, ‘Damn, why do they want me?’ It’s all new to me. The only thing that convinced me was my daughter said, ‘Dad, you got to do this. They’re awesome.’ I said, ‘You’re hip to them?'”
Thank the lord for Womack’s daughter forcing him to appear on the track, his searing vocals slay on the effort and work staggeringly alongside Albarn’s candid backing vocals. On top of that lethal combination, Mos Def does what he does best and adds another level of supremacy to ‘Stylo’.
3. Gorillaz – ‘Dare’ featuring Sean Ryder
‘Dare’ saw Gorillaz link up with Happy Mondays frontman Sean Ryder to create an accidental classic, which came about in the most organic way possible. According to Ryder: “I put the headphones on, and there was no track. I started saying to them to turn it up and the track was very slowly turning up so I started going ‘it’s coming up, it’s coming up, it’s coming up’ and when it got as loud as I wanted it, I said ‘it’s dare.’ As in like text speak language – ‘I will c u der.’
“I then tried to freestyle something, a right load of gibberish bollocks it was, and it ended in, ‘I never did no harm’. Then I took the cans off after about ten minutes and Damon said, ‘Do that [‘coming up’] bit again but a bit faster.’ So I did, and that was it.”
It’s astonishing that Ryder managed to cook up something in a matter of minutes with no thought that is greater than what a team of the world’s most sought after ghost-writers could ever dream of creating. That natural charm bleeds into the song and transfixes you as a listener. The track is also further proof of how Albarn knows the best way of working with collaborators is to tailor it for each specific person you invite into your universe.
2. ‘Feel Good Inc’ featuring De La Soul
‘Feel Good Inc’ is Gorillaz covertly making a profound message about how we seek habits and pleasure in a desperate attempt to momentarily escape from the demands of everyday life. The track deals with both the pitfalls of this and the unadulterated joys on the blissful chorus.
De La Soul unsurprisingly absolutely adored their experience with Gorillaz, recounting: “With Damon, it was easy because we love working with him. We’re about to be on the new Gorillaz album. Snoop was also performing on the record when we were over there. We actually sat down with Damon two weeks ago, and he played us some of the new Gorillaz album, and it sounds amazing. He played us a track that he wants us to get off on his album so we got to get in the studio and put that down.”
1. Gorillaz – ‘Clint Eastwood’ featuring Del the Funky Homosapien
This track started the Gorillaz journey back in 2001, with the recently formed group that Albarn formed with Jamie Hewlett announcing themselves effervescently with ‘Clint Eastwood’. Del the Funky Homosapien provided the perfect coil for Albarn’s vocals to bounce off on the track, and the song started the blueprint for the animated band, who quickly took over the world.
Albarn recalled to Vulture in a 2020 interview: “It came from switching on the Suzuki Omnichord and the first preset was the beat. That can only happen once: [you take an] electronic instrument and the first thing you play you use, and it becomes a massive hit. As a result of that, in the proceeding 20 years I’ve bought a lot of electronic instruments hoping that that eventually would happen again. I mean, maybe we just peaked early!”