The Singles Collection 2001-2011

What the hell were Gorillaz? A pop curio, maybe? Hindsight suggests they were crucial in determining the shape of British pop in the millennium. Gorillaz helped re-unite both indie and pop with that most Paul Morley’s jowl-wobbling of things: the abstract.

With UK garage, funky house-pop and nu-metal dominating the charts, by the start of 2001 Brit indie was midway through its Dunkirk moment. History puts The Strokes as last minute saviours of the genre, reintroducing New York post-punk to UK teens with ‘Last Night’. However, six months prior Gorillaz’ Clint Eastwood’ had already gone someway to dislodging indie mentality from its love affair with the 60s, bogus notions of ‘authenticity’, unwieldy sonic (and attitudinal) swagger and a hegemony of plodding bluster.

Their method? Reviving the ideas and practices of the then-neglected pop bloodline of ‘meta-pop’; a lineage with its ideological roots in The Art Of Noise, Japan and Talking Heads, and a rough year zero in the shape of Malcolm McLaren’s Duck Rock. Taking further conceptual cues from hip-hop’s sampling culture, Gorillaz represented a 21st century update on the meta-pop canon. They become the first pop group to be inspired by digitalism itself, cut and pasted into existence on a big pop culture display. What were Gorillaz? Albarn’s own plastic beach, his virtual holiday retreat, a kind of pleasure-tech heaven.

With the cracks beginning to show in Blur, in 1998 Albarn set about recruiting a cast of magpie artists to help realize his postmodern dreams. This included Miho Hatori of Cibo Matto – a Japanese female duo and primary influence on the Gorillaz sound, who approached pop like J-pop teens did street fashion: with an almost antic kind of assemblage (soon to be appropriated by the 21st century hipster, in both fashion and musical terms). Japanese-American mixologist Dan The Automator would produce their self-titled debut, followed by seasoned collagist Danger Mouse for 2005’s Demon Days. And of course, completing the line-up were the kings of postmodern pop: Tom Tom Club’s Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz. Later appearances by Gruff Rhys and Mark E Smith rounded off a long list of artists who’d based their entire careers on intertextuality.

All told, selling an extraordinary six million copies worldwide, their debut is overlooked as a precursor to indie’s mad rush to ‘super-hybridity’ throughout the past decade. Positing the idea for the plastic pluralism plied by art-school acts in the Noughties, from MIA to MGMT to The Go Team and CSS, the experiment prefigured a whole school of indie pop-thinking completely unique from 90s Brit indie. Serendipitously, the same month their debut was released, Daft Punk revealed Discovery, planting the seed for millennial indie’s other prevailing leitmotiv: h-pop.

The Japanese element – manifested in the animation, the cutesy instrumentation, the melodic e-numbers, Hatori’s girly j-pop vocals, the Toyko-neon textures, and even just a general redolence – lent the futuristic sheen of hyperreality that Japanese culture had signified since the 80s. And because this was art-pop and therefore packed with subtext, the aesthetic also yielded a batch of secondary associations: thoughts of Japanese trash culture, Roxy-style distance, pop songs about pop, and even the trauma of Hiroshima. There is a whole tranche of Japanese art dealing with the notion that the tragedy had stripped the country of its history, leaving only the chintzy detritus of pop culture. Indeed, Jamie Hewlett’s anime videos were implicitly post-apocalyptic.

Together, these implied ideas created an atmosphere artist/sociologist Gerhard Richter called ‘afterness’ – a kind of mass cultural despondency that Albarn hit on with the Good, The Bad And The Queen; an album dank with the melancholic sentiment that everything had been done before (‘modern life is rubbish’ as Blur had declared years before). This wearied state-of mind that The Good, The Bad And The Queen embodied chimed with Gorillaz’ aesthetic, for there’s surely a sadness implicit in the recycling of Western arcana that imbues so much of Japanese pop culture. The same air of lamentation and loss emanating from Albarn’s other supergroup cut through Gorillaz tracks like ‘Feel Good Inc’ and ‘On Melancholy Hill’. Indeed, ‘Clint Eastwood”s follow-up ’19/2000’ envisioned a new decade depressingly similar to the one that preceded it. "And if time’s elimination / We got nothing to lose / Please repeat the message".

The best pop tune Albarn had produced since Blur’s ‘The Universal’, the hip hop-tinted ‘Clint Eastwood’ is a surprisingly dark affair, and a genuine one-off. Though it’s more Len’s ‘Steal My Sunshine’ than Insane Clown Posse, the menacing loop, macabre synths, Morricone horns and Del The Funky Homosapien’s ghoulish rap offered a horror-rap track of subtle, sinister and paranoiac edge; testifying to indie’s ability to provide a fresh perspective on genre music.

The Demon Days mid-section, meanwhile, documents the newfound levity, vibrancy and the expanding sound of a group of homegrown pop-smiths to be treasured, if only for the music’s singularity. Going Top Ten in over 20 countries, for years there hadn’t been anything in the charts quite like ‘Feel Good Inc’. Alternating between snazzy machine funk, a beatific chorus and De La Soul’s rapping, it also sports a subtle nod to rave – the chorus’ Balearic acoustic guitar injects a poignant note of nostalgia for high-times in golden-era Ibiza, which by 2005 had become a bittersweet ‘Boy of Summer’-esque memory for Albarn’s generation. The chorus sounds like a daydream, with Albarn wistful for the utopian "Altogether now" future once promised by rave: "It is tinkling, falling down / Love forever love is free / Let’s turn forever you and me / Is everybody in?". With the rude arrival of MC Trugoy’s mocking ‘get-real’ flow, the bubble bursts. In the video for the song, 2D awakes after years of hedonism in the ‘Feel Good Tower’, to be haunted by the twisted faces of De La Soul. "For a while it was great to be on the inside, but the party got out of hand. The Feel Good Tower represents this. The palace we built had become a prison" Albarn explained. On ‘Tomorrow Comes Today’, however, Albarn channels that ‘afterness’ ennui in full – that very 2011 feeling of cultural dislocation, ten years before John Maus’ soul eroded creations, and the information fatigue that Simon Reynolds identified in Lil B’s ‘The Age Of Information’: "The digital won’t let me go / Don’t think I’m all in this world".

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