Parlophone, 2010

Remember when Gorillaz was still new, and kind of weird?  Blur’s break up was still fresh in peoples’ heads, and Damon Albarn’s new project, a cartoon band involving electronic-based music, seemed like a massive stretch.  But the melodies were catchy, and even more importantly, the arrangements they were surrounded with were sort-of groundbreaking.  Now it can be argued that Gorillaz’ success has begun to overshadow even Blur’s (although it’s mainstream only, of course, since Blur will always be first in our hearts).

Plastic Beach, along with a slew of remix and b-side compilations, marks Gorillaz’ third studio album.  It’s more than a little bit ironic that this new record, for all its demonstrated growth and maturity, is also the album Albarn claims was meant to be his most poppy and accessible.  It works hard at sustaining the hip-hop and electronic elements of the past along with Albarn’s more recent endeavors into music, such as the classical influences found in his rock opera Monkey, and it does this both successfully and effortlessly.

It’s a small shock to the system hearing an orchestral intro followed by the ever-cool Snoop Dogg welcoming us to the Plastic Beach, but this wears off fast.  The guest artists used in the previous two Gorillaz albums harnessed anonymity, and to the casual music listener seemed to blend in with the rest of the band, but with guests like Snoop, Mos Def, Gruff Rhys, De La Soul and Lou Reed, that anonymity this time around is forfeited, and makes the album seem like more of a mixtape than a record.

But it’s a damn good mixtape, and one that fits together with the ease of a college indie rock station’s afternoon playlist.  There are moments of beauty here that surpass anything Albarn’s done before, such as the soaring “Empire Ants” or the slightly new wave “On Melancholy Hill”.  It doesn’t seem like an accident either that these are offset with some of his most fun tracks.  “Superfast Jellyfish” juxtaposes nonsensical fast food breakfast talk with sea life, and both Mos Def tracks, “Stylo” and “Sweepstakes” juggle a keyboard bassline with Def’s adept rhymes and a couple outstanding hooks.

The Gorillaz’ experiment has gone much farther than surely anyone could have imagined, and it’s not ridiculous anymore to call them a serious force in pop music.  Not everything on the new album’s a winner, the second half does drag a bit at times, but Plastic Beach is still prime material.  Consider it an essential addition to your soundtrack for the summer.