A list of Gorillaz best featured guests...what can go possibly wrong?

By: Tommy “T-Rod” Rodriguez

The Cure, Schoolboy Q, Earthgang, Beck, St. Vincent, Slaves, Slowthai, Fatouma Diawara, Mike WiLL Made-It, Peter Hook, 6LACK, Elton-freaking-John. On paper, this is a grab bag of some of music’s greats, each with their own distinct sound, catalogue, and lyrical style. Besides making some truly great music, there is one key factor that makes all these different artists a little more alike. 

They helped the virtual band Gorillaz make one of the best records of the year, Song Machine

Gorillaz, initially a cartoon collaboration/side project/movement developed by Blur frontman Damon Albarn and acclaimed graphic artist Jamie Hewlett, is one of the few groups where features are more than welcome. The idea of Gorillaz (a cartoon band featuring its own fictional history and band members with real-world music) has struck a chord with plenty of music fans, blurring the lines between the ludicrous and grounded aspects of music creation. With Albarn and several teammates at the forefront of this project, the Gorillaz name is a magnet for some of the most wild ideas penned on the pop playbook, especially in terms with how many big names they work with. With the release of their acclaimed Song Machine album, I have been on a bit of a Gorillaz binge lately, revisiting their catalogue and checking out how well their music has aged, and which songs stand out the most. With so many collaborations, it’s difficult to say which mashup of genres and ideas is the best of the best, but nonetheless I shall make an attempt. 

Song Machine: Season One, “Strange Timez” is a contender for my favorite album of the year, loaded with colorful, quirky, and poignant genre fusions that service 2020’s weirdness in a perfect way.

Here are my favorite Gorillaz collaborations, from pop bangers, woozy trip-hop, to straight up electronic bliss. Hopefully these tracks can show you that maybe having a guest on an album isn’t so bad after all…

Honorable Mention: “DoYaThing”

Featured Guest: James Murphy and Andre 3000

Album: N/A (Single) 

I refuse to include this song in this list because, well, I’ve talked about it extensively on Popular Demand Podcast. In short? It’s absolute insanity: Andre 3000 gives one of the most defining performances of his long lasting career, and legendary electronic connoisseur James Murphy provides a hook that is disgustingly catchy. Read it here and give the boys at Popular Demand some love, especially for allowing me to write about a feature lineup this f*cking insane. 

17. “Humility”

Featured Guest: George Benson 

Album: The Now Now 

George Benson is a beast on the guitar. As a legend in the jazz, soul and funk world, Benson’s masterful ear for melody and vibe worked perfectly as the summery introduction to Gorillaz’ oft-forgotten summer record. One of the best aspects of this outfit having a lot of featured artists is that they play to the strengths of both their guests and their own quirky sound. As Albarn (playing the fictional Gorillaz frontman “2-D”) harmonizes over a tropical rhythm and island-esque guitar plucks, the feeling of an ocean breeze flutters about your ears. Benson has no vocals, but his guitar work elevates the track from a feel-good pop tune to the ideal poolside soundtrack. 

16. “The Valley of The Pagans” 

Featured Guest: Beck 

Album: Song Machine 

As soon as the Slipn’Slide bass, crispy drums, and quirky electronic tones kick in on this Song Machine highlight, you know you’re in for an oddball of a track. Thankfully, alt-pop superstar Beck is the perfect person to shine on a beat as weird as this. His over-the-top singing matches the splashes of synth keys over the hook wonderfully, but his lyrics truly match up with Gorillaz’s socially conscious and alien ethos. He bridges the line between rapping and singing, mentioning plastic Cleopatras, West Hollywood, and the fake nature of celebrity in a mouthful of word stew. His back and forth with Albarn is a duet on 5 tabs of acid, with each simultaneously overpowering and complimenting the other in a show-stopping way. Even though Song Machine is relatively fresh, I think this was one of many tracks that will be a classic in the band’s catalogue…

15. “Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach” 

Featured Guests: Snoop Dogg and Hypnotic Brass Ensemble 

Album: Plastic Beach 

It’s quite a flex to begin your album with an jazztronic spoken-word piece from Snoop Dogg, but by the release of 2010’s Plastic Beach, Gorillaz were pretty much unstoppable. One of the most beautiful aspects of the their catalogue is how they twist features to simultaneously fulfill and subvert expectations for wary fans. While the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble keeps a jazzy-edge to the track’s instrumentation, it’s incredibly synthetic, almost like your favorite homecooked meal being covered in a plastic wrap and still tasting good. Snoop, meanwhile, rides the beat marvelously, bringing his laid back and cocky nature…but it’s masked beneath a regal air of superiority. He maintains his lyrical focus on pollution and hedonism, mentioning his typical weed consumption immediately after swimming with the sharks in a hopeless world. It’s Snoop Dogg keeping his magnetic charisma, but instead of being that cool friend you’d grab a drink with, he’s a hermit surrounded by an ocean filled with junk. It’s Snoop, and it isn’t at the same time, warning you of the garbage sifting through your toes.

14. “All Alone”

Featured Guests: Martina Topley-Bird and Roots Manuva

Album: Demon Days 

Often considered a contender for Gorillaz’s magnum opus, Demon Days is definitely less feature-heavy on the surface (ala the lack of feature credits on streaming), but the collaborations sprinkled within are incredible. While “All Alone” may be forgotten by fans due to it lacking a truly catalogue-defining concept, I think it makes the case for features being good solely on performance. The beat is a mashup of drum and bass, constantly shifting as the percussion clatters at the speed of a bullet and James Bond-esque guitar licks quiver on. Roots Manuva absolutely kills his verse here, bringing a velocity and wit that perfectly matches the scattered nature of the beat with equally scattershot braggadocio: as the verse carries on, Manuva finds a way to make his odd flows mesh with the beat at every bend. Martina Topley-Bird’s contributions continues matching the beat’s metamorphic nature, harmonizing with some beautiful electronic drones and acoustics in a truly heavenly moment…before descending back into darkness. They play a key moment on the record, serving as one of the last gasps of air before descending into its most hellish moments.

13. “Aries” 

Featured Guests: Peter Hook and Georgia

Album: Song Machine 

As someone who got introduced into New Order’s brilliant discography through this song, I can’t help but be attached to its new wave glory. Peter Hook (from the aforementioned New Order) and acclaimed drummer Georgia lay down some gorgeous instrumentation to this meditative love song, with the former’s bass lines creating a skintight slow dance between the pianos and Albarn’s sleepy melodies. Georgia’s drumming is paced like a heart rate at rest, pumping the song along slowly but steadily, only exploding on the chorus to emphasize Hook’s and Albarn’s shouts for joy. Gorillaz have always been known for their excellent production, but this track is absolutely perfect in its instrumentation. With Hook and Georgia, the song never misses a beat, making it an easy standout on Song Machine

12. “DARE” 

Featured Guests: Shaun Ryder and Roses Gabor (Uncredited) 

Album: Demon Days 

A twisted electronic banger for the ages, “DARE” is one of Gorillaz most iconic tracks, and for good reason. The thumping club groove and motivational lyrics are in stark contrast to the relatively grim and lowkey soundscape found on their sophomore masterpiece, but it truly succeeds due to Ryder and Gabor’s vocal antics. Ryder’s performance is absolutely bonkers, simultaneously demented and in perfect control as he shouts “It’s there” over the beat, a phrase that is heavily altered by his thick accent into “It’s DARE.” Gabor, channeling the virtual band’s fictional guitarist Noodle, brings a level of innocence and fun to the track that makes the hook and verses explode. It’s an iconic track with an iconic pairing that is so good, it makes you forget that 2-D is barely on the song. 

11. The Pink Phantom 

Featured Guests: Elton John and 6LACK

Album: Song Machine

If you would have told me 6LACK and Elton John were on the same track together, I would have simply rolled my eyes. Not only are they completely different in terms of style, genre, sound, vocal timbre, and lyricism…but the pairing just doesn’t mesh well on paper. How could an Atlanta autocrooner mesh with one of music’s greatest voices? 

On a gorgeous Gorillaz ballad of course. 

If you’re listening to a Gorillaz track with more than one feature, the odds are that the two artists will be connected in the most illogically logical way. In this case, “The Pink Phantom” relies on Elton and 6LACK’s emotion to push this synth heavy piano ballad to the stratosphere. Elton’s breathy, showy vocals syncopate with Albarn’s listless crooning and 6LACK’s auto-tuned harmonies in a show stopping mixture of soul, trap, and electronic melancholy. 

10. “Stylo” 

Featured Guests: Mos Def and Bobby Womack 

Album: Plastic Beach 

In contrast to “The Pink Phantom,” “Stylo” has a feature lineup that seems to be a smash hit. The late Bobby Womack was a soul legend, known for belting out some of the genre’s most thunderous vocals. Mos Def, on the other hand, is a hip-hop Hall of Famer that perfectly mastered several key aspects of soul in his music, often using soul samples to emphasize the emotion in his tracks. While the beat of this track is a steady, techno groove, the duo match this ominous aesthetic in their lyricism and performance, working alongside each other to discuss electric love and destruction in a clash of lightning. Womack’s vocals sound absolutely incredible, the sound of a robot preacher taking the Terminators to church; Mos Def’s vocals are heavily manipulated, quiet and poignant his lyrics strike like an electric current running through water. Both represent the ideal feature, bringing their own unique take on your song’s core theme while still keeping it consistent. 

9. “Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head”

Featured Guest: Dennis Hopper 

Album: Demon Days 

A cataclysmic tale narrated by the incredibly talented Dennis Hopper is certainly one of pop’s most unsung triumphs. The now deceased legend takes the reins on this track in a haunting fashion, acting as the omnipresent voice of Earth as he tackles human greed and wrath by telling a folk tale over a sinister guitar line. For a track that barely features any singing, this track is one of the most gripping in Gorillaz’ catalogue for how well it portrays the conflict humans face as they struggle for power. Hopper’s role is played perfectly: despite the increasingly disturbing nature of the lyrics, his voice remains calm. As the story reaches its conclusion, the slightest hint of emotion begins to emerge, only to end just as quick as Albarn’s voice appears, closing out the track with an ending any A24 movie could dream for. 

8. “Désolé” 

Featured Guest: Fatoumata Diawara

Album: Song Machine 

“Désolé” is the song that inspired this whole list: back when this genius track first released in February, my love for Gorillaz was revived in a big way. The track’s outstanding pianos, horns, rhythmic drumming, and wistful nature was simultaneously old and new for Gorillaz…but what brought it home was Ms. Fatoumata Diawara. The Malian queen did not fully dominate this track, supplying mostly backing vocals and simple one-liners to the track…but she makes this song soar. Her voice is beautiful, capturing the sad nature of the song in her French vocalizations and supplying harmonies among the watery beat that are damn near jaw-dropping. As she laments over a lost love, I genuinely become overcome with emotion…she is the best showcase of how features, no matter how small, can turn a song from great to masterful. 

7. November Has Come 

Featured Guest: MF DOOM

Album: Demon Days 

MF DOOM was an underground legend in the mid 2000s, especially around the time Albarn and crew made Demon Days, so it was only natural for Gorillaz to enlist him for this spooky mix of hip-hop and psychedelia. DOOM’s flow is vicious, simultaneously kicking past and falling below the beat in a tug of war that truly accentuates his wordplay. This is the case of a feature being straightforward but working absolute wonders, especially with DOOM’s hip-hop criticisms syncopating perfectly with Gorillaz’ counterculture methodology. Smooth, sinister, and villanous, this may just be one of DOOM’s best features and the virtual band’s best deep cuts.

6. Pac-Man 

Featured Guest: ScHoolboy Q 

Album: Song Machine 

I won’t forget y’all doubting ScHoolboy Q after he dropped CrasH Talk (an album that was actually solid despite the hate it received). The West Coast gangsta-rap icon has a voice and aesthetic that shouldn’t mix with Gorillaz’s kooky aesthetic, but Q not only does well on this heavy, synthetic beat. 

He absolutely goes off. 

Q’s first verse, following Albarn’s fearful introduction, is a sharp change of pace, bringing the energy and gruff voice that he’s known for on a braggadocios verse that fires on all cylinders. After his initial verse and a moody bridge, however, Q appears again to take a sobering look at race relations in 2020. As he analyzes his own fame, his threatening environment, and his desire to keep breathing, the song is turned into utter brilliance. His breath control is pristine, allowing him to display his wariness and frustration in a tone that is both ignorant and conscious…something that is converted into his devastating lyrics. Overall, Q is much more than just the writing at face value: it’s his use of emotion and aggression that sells his tracks. He completely takes over this song, capturing the turbulent nature of 2020’s socio-political climate in a poignant double verse. 

5. “Ascension” 

Featured Guest: Vince Staples

Album: Humanz 

Humanz is easily one of Gorillaz most mixed releases, seemingly destined for success but falling short in terms of the typical critical response the band usually receives. That doesn’t mean it has its moments though: “Ascension” is one of the virtual band’s best tracks ever, and it’s all due to the North Long Beach MC. His cynical nature is a perfect addition to Gorillaz’ generally moody outlook, but his take on apocalypse is incredible. “The sky is falling baby, drop that ass ‘fore it crash” he urges the listener, going on to celebrate his vices and deconstruct the very system that oppresses American citizens. It’s classic Vince: high energy, blunt, and straight up violent. This time, however, it’s contained within the Gorillaz soundscape: electronic swirls, choirs, and Albarn’s listless vocals. As Staples denounces the American dream, claiming that others can succeed so long as they don’t have his skin color, he ascends this track into a truly heaven-like status and descends the listener into deep thought.

4. “To Binge” 

Featured Guest: Little Dragon

Album: Plastic Beach 

This is a poignant one. 

Gorillaz rarely tackles subjects that are truly personal, as in dealing with conflict that affects the individual experience. On “To Binge,” however, Little Dragon frontwoman Yukimi Nagamo and Damon Albarn portray the throes of alcoholism, addiction, and toxic relationships. As a duet, the song works perfectly, with the duo displaying the effects that addiction can have on more than one person. For Nagamo, it’s the fear that comes from developing an attraction to toxic people. For Albarn, it’s the hypnotic relationship with pills and alcohol. Despite the rather peaceful instrumental, the song is oppressively dark…and beautiful. It’s the last glancing look at a loved one as your force yourself to move toward brighter horizons, only to double back and give your unhealthy relationship one more go. 

3. “Clint Eastwood” 

Featured Guest: Del tha Funkee Homosapien 

Album: Gorillaz (Self-Titled) 

The feature that started it all, this iconic horror-core feature on Gorillaz’ first big single has all you can want from a good rap feature. Del is one of rap’s unsung heroes, and he showcases it on this creepy ass beat: he matches the crashing cymbals and zombified pianos with a wit and voice that perfectly rises and falls like a continuously reanimating skeleton. Del takes this both as a moment to flex his lyrical muscle and a way to fit in as a piece of the Gorillaz universe, addressing his relationship with the fictional drummer Russel Hobbs while dominating the rest of the band. Del’s verse is important in the Gorillaz canon: it was their first employment of a big hip-hop guest that not only subverted the typical “rap feature,” but created a new mixture of genres. It’s a perfect mix of pop, rap, jazz, alternative, and 100 other genres that bottles the skill of the Gorillaz camp and Del himself: with a beat this iconic, only one as skilled as himself could absolutely go off. Now, go stream Deltron 3030.

2. “Feel Good Inc.” 

Featured Guests: De La Soul 

Album: Demon Days 

Here we are: Gorillaz’ most popular track…and there’s so many reasons why it was a hit. The grim and funky bass line is one of popular music’s most iconic instrumentals, the mixture of hip-hop drumming and electronic embellishments turns the song into a freaky club rager, and Albarn’s abstract analysis of materialism grows more potent as the years go on…

But would this song be the same without De La Soul? 

The East Coast rap group  is acclaimed for their personality, witty wordplay, and performative energy. Years upon years after their debut, the outfit absolutely snaps on this beat, bringing a maniacal energy and humor that somehow throws the song into complete disarray and perfect harmony at the same time. “With your sound, you’ll kill the inc.” they smugly command, capturing the ideas of easy pleasure in an absolutely perfect verse that is somehow incredibly heady and pop-sensible. Their laughs, their energy, their ability to master the bass line of the track…it’s one of pop music’s most memorable rap collaborations ever…and probably the best Gorillaz has to offer. 

But f*ck it, this is my list, so let’s explain why one artist ever so slightly beats them for the best feature.

The BEST Gorillaz Feature: “Some Kind of Nature” 

Featured Guest: Lou Reed 

Album: Plastic Beach 

This track is the reason why Gorillaz is so good. Beyond the glorious beat that straddles the line between synthetic electronics and natural percussion, beyond Albarn’s wonderful performance as 2-D, beyond the genius songwriting and progression of the track, there’s something that this track has that no other song really contains.

It makes the late Lou Reed accessible to the masses without sacrificing the darkness he brought to music. 

Although Lou Reed has passed, no one could deny that he has left an undeniable impact on music’s conscious edge, something that he brings in spades to this song…without saying a whole lot. While the song is clearly discussing the destruction of the world’s natural resources, as well as our addiction to the synthetic idols we have created (television, plastics, etc.), Reed’s contributions are vague at best. He respects the audience’s intelligence and leaves room for the mind to wander. The song is still lively, one of the few cases where a pop sound mixes with darkness in a way that is simultaneously on the nose and completely obscured. Much like the way we enjoy things that further the destruction of our environment, we are unaware of the evil energy on this song. Without Lou Reed’s haunting performance, these ideas may have never come through…but he is here in all of his sinister glory, acting as a warning to everyone: our world is changing, and it may not be for the better. 

And that is why this is my favorite Gorillaz feature: it works perfectly alongside the themes of the songwriting, fits perfectly along the beat, but says so much with saying so little. It’s pop at its best: succinct, quick and memorable, but has a wealth of meaning behind a few simple words. 

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