Arts and Entertainment

Gorillaz’s “Song Machine” Is the Most Creative Music Project of 2020

Gorillaz’s “Song Machine” project has produced a compilation of some of the best and most creative songs of the year.

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By Noah Taylor

Picture this: you’re a lanky, blue-haired, pupil-less singer, and you’ve been the frontman of a famous rock band for two decades. After releasing several classic albums and having some of the biggest songs of the 2000s, you decide to make a comeback after seven years. You release two albums, both charting tepidly and receiving mixed reviews, and it’s clear that you’re losing what made your music great. What do you do? If you’re 2D, the frontman of the genre-defying outfit Gorillaz, then you go back to the drawing board, reinvent your music-making process, and make your best album in recent memory.

Gorillaz is a virtual band created by Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett. Albarn, frontman of a rock band, and Hewlett, a comic artist, created Gorillaz as a commentary on mainstream culture: that a fake, manufactured band could be more original than anything else in modern music. The gimmick of the fictional band expanded through their music videos into a whole world and storyline, and the music was as catchy as it was genreless, exploring everything from hip-hop to metal to gospel to country. Gorillaz’s latest project is “Song Machine,” a monthly web series in which Gorillaz stars as host and its features appear as guests, with each episode containing a new single and music video. The features range from rapper ScHoolboy Q to legendary singer Elton John, and each brings their own flavor to their episode’s song. The culmination of the “Song Machine” project so far is its first compilation album “Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez,” a massive album loaded with features on every song. The fact that this sprawling compilation is not only good, but also one of the best albums of 2020 is a testament to the glory of Gorillaz.

With the focus on individual songs over a cohesive album, each track feels unique. The first “Song Machine” single, “Momentary Bliss,” is bursting at the seams with energy, with rapper slowthai and punk band Slaves emanating an infectious mixture of positivity and aggression. On the other end of the spectrum is the relaxed, freely-drifting “Friday 13th,” in which rapper Octavian’s raspy vocals float over a dreamy beat. Certain tracks don’t work as well as others, but at worst they're decent, and at best they’re immensely creative and well-made. Gorillaz is still experimenting with its production and features, making combinations of artists that work against all odds like “MLS,” a collaboration between experimental rapper JPEGMAFIA and Japanese pop rock band CHAI. JPEGMAFIA’s verses contrast CHAI's sugary chorus in a strangely complementary way, adding a stinging edge to a cute and bubbly song. Another unexpected collaboration is “The Pink Phantom,” in which R&B singer 6LACK's lowkey crooning underlines Elton John's powerful vocals.

Despite the abundance of features, the heart of “Song Machine, Season One” is always Gorillaz themselves. On their comeback album “Humanz” (2017), the band lost themselves in the myriad of guests and often sounded like features on their own songs, largely due to the absence of 2D’s unique vocals. Thankfully, 2D is present on most “Song Machine” tracks, often giving a verse to let the features shine. While he’s great in a supporting role, “Aries,” the only song in which 2D is the sole lead vocalist, showcases what makes him the soul of Gorillaz. Over production from bassist Peter Hook and drummer Georgia, 2D’s vocals are soft yet powerful as he muses on his loneliness and isolation. His voice, combined with the warm, steady bassline and driving vocal refrains in the chorus, culminates into a beautifully bittersweet yet uplifting track that serves as a reminder of what makes Gorillaz so special. Every song on “Season One” is like that—a return to form for Gorillaz in which their old ideas are given a modern revival while retaining the unique production that made their classic works pop.

The title of the album alludes to our “Strange Timez,” a reality that we are all intimately familiar with and probably tired of hearing about. The title track “Strange Timez,” featuring rock frontman Robert Smith, is a dark pop ode to the anxiety of 2020, which is viewed through the lens of Gorillaz and their features on every track. Similarly, “PAC-MAN” features a deflated 2D comparing the repetition of day-to-day life to the titular game, a series of mazes with no end in sight. The beat is a simple but effective loop and allows rapper ScHoolboy Q to flow between talking about his violent upbringing to the police brutality and injustice plaguing America. “Opium” takes us through the minds of 2D and rap duo EARTHGANG during quarantine over a seven-minute slow-burning club beat. “The Valley of the Pagans,” featuring Grammy favorite Beck, is a playful critique of the shallowness of Hollywood life, and “How Far?” featuring rapper Skepta and drummer Tony Allen is a winding, psychedelic affirmation of ambition in the face of hardship. Whether it’s the soaring buildup of “Désolé” or the steady groove of “The Lost Chord,” Gorillaz covers almost every sound and mood and filters them through their iconoclastic production.

In a way, “Song Machine” is a perfect representation of the band, a project that embraces collaboration and creativity, mixing genres and artists to create something unique. It creates high expectations for season two of the series, which will no doubt have even wilder features, but there is no question that Gorillaz will deliver and continue to create some of the freshest, most creative songs of their storied career.