Damon Albarn - Biography
UK singer, songwriter, and producer Damon Albarn was the lead singer for Britpop band Blur and is a key member of electronica outfit Gorillaz. He has also released a solo album, collaborated on an East-meets-West musical, and played in an unnamed alt-rock supergroup.
Albarn was born into a middle-class London household. As a child, he studied guitar, piano, and violin. During his youth, he studied composition (winning a regional competition) and, following in the footsteps of David Bowie, mime. At age 12, he befriended future Blur bandmate Graham Coxon. At Goldsmith University, Albarn and Coxon became reacquainted and formed a group called The Circus. After bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree joined, the band went by Seymour for a spell, before settling on their now-famous moniker, Blur.
The band's 1990 debut single, the airy "She's So High," hit #48 in the UK. That song would be the opening track to Blur's first album, Leisure (1991 SBK). Stylistically, the LP echoes the danceable rhythms of the fading "Madchester" sound while offering early glimmers of the more rock-driven Britpop sound, but wasn't terribly distinctive. Infectious second single "There's No Other Way" reached the UK Top 10 and skimmed the bottom of the US Top 100. Leisure failed to chart in America, but peaked at #7 in the UK.
Blur's Stephen Street-produced sophomore album, Modern Life Is Rubbish (1993 SBK), marked a significant step forward for the band. The ponderous tempos that dragged down their debut are mostly gone, replaced by crisp hooks. Here, Albarn and company pioneer the Britpop sound, combining 1960s British Invasion songwriting with punk attitude and alternative rock guitars, coming off like The Jam on steroids. England embraced the new sound, sending the record to #15, despite the lack of a strong single. In America, however, Modern Life Is Rubbish bombed, selling fewer than 20,000 copies. While Blur's third album wouldn't radically change the band's standing in the US, Parklife (1994 SBK) did turn them into superstars in England. Again produced by Street, the album shows Albarn and his mates' songwriting taking another leap forward. Insistently catchy new wave-influenced lead single "Girls & Boys" hit the Top 5 in the UK and on Billboard's Modern Rock Tracks. The rest of the LP ranges from little ditties like the trippy "Far Out" and circus-themed "The Debt Collector" to the Kinks-meets-Stones of the shuffling title track and the weird bounce of jammy "London Loves." Diverse, innovative, and highly entertaining, the album won rave reviews and topped the British charts, while three more of its singles reached the UK Top 20.
In the heart of the Britpop era, and constantly battling with rivals Oasis for accolades and chart positions, Blur returned just one year later with their Street-helmed fourth album, The Great Escape (1995 SBK). The disc kicks off with a quartet of rocking pop tunes (three of which would become Top 10 UK hits), before meandering into less consistently successful territory. Still, "The Universal" is a gorgeous single, and a few other late-album cuts hit the mark. An engaging listen with plenty of good songs, the record proved a success, peaking at #1 in England, reaching the Top 40 in 14 other countries, and eking out a #150 slot on Billboard, as grunge-saturated America remained largely indifferent to Britpop's charms.
Two years later, by the time Blur released their fifth album, the Brits, too, had become indifferent to Britpop. Fortunately, the band had seen the writing on the wall. Blur (1997 Virgin) presents an aural makeover, with a nod toward the late '90s American aesthetic of lo-fi indie rock melded to thickly saturated guitars. The gambit paid off on both sides of the Atlantic, as fickle UK listeners rewarded the new sound with another trip to the top of the charts, and US record buyers took post-grunge single "Song 2" to #6 on the Modern Rock chart. America also bought the album, taking Blur to #61 on Billboard. Critical praise, too, was high. However, for Blur's sixth full-length, 13 (1999 Virgin), the reaction from critics shifted to a mixed response. New websites like Pitchfork and PopMatters raved, while the old guard were more reserved toward the band's increasingly pensive and atmospheric approach. Either way, the album was Blur's fourth straight UK #1 and performed reasonably well in America, reaching #80.
Graham Coxon began investing more and more time into his budding solo career, releasing four albums between 1998 and 2002. Drifting away from the band, he contributed little to Blur's seventh and, thus far, final album, Think Tank (2003 Virgin). Recorded in Morocco, the album explicitly incorporates some local music flavors, including oud playing and a Moroccan orchestra on "Out of Time," the disc's UK #5 lead single. The mostly mellow and often trippy record generated highly mixed reviews, while earning the band yet another #1 slot in England and a solid #56 placement in America.
Between Blur's penultimate and final albums, Damon Albarn was also venturing into other projects. Collaborating with graphic novelist Jamie Hewlett, Albarn formed the virtual "band" Gorillaz, a mostly solo recording project presented as a group comprised of four animated characters. The act's debut, Gorillaz (2001 Virgin), achieves a generally laid-back synthesis of electronica, indie rock, dub, and hip-hop. UK Top 5 lead single "Clint Eastwood" (often referred to by its central refrain, "Sunshine in a Bag") features guest rapping from Del tha Funky Homosapien and remains Gorillaz' signature song. Receiving mostly strong critical praise, the album hit #3 in England and #14 in America. Four years later, with Blur's final album behind him, Damon Albarn released the second Gorillaz album, Demon Days (2005 Virgin), this time boasting production assistance from Danger Mouse. With help from guests De La Soul, the rhythmically rubbery single "Feel Good Inc" hit #2 in the UK and went Top 20 in the US; its follow-up, "DARE" (featuring Sean Ryder of Happy Mondays fame) hit Top of the Pops in England, where Demon Days also reached #1. In America, the album peaked at #6 on Billboard. The third Gorillaz album, Plastic Beach (2010 Virgin), earned high critical marks and debuted at #2 in both England and America. A wide variety of guest musicians appear on the record, including Snoop Dogg, The Fall's Mark E. Smith, and Lou Reed.
During this period, Damon Albarn also released a solo album under his own name. The title Democrazy (2003 Honest Jon's) is a play on the fact that its tracks were recorded as demos. Unfortunately, the songs sound like nothing more than Casio-and-vocal sketches hastily recorded to four-track and slapped onto CD. The album was justifiably skewered by the press. Albarn later helped form a nameless super group with Paul Simonon (ex-Clash bassist), Tony Allen (Fela Kuti's drummer), and former Verve guitarist Simon Tong. Their alt-rock LP, The Good, the Bad & the Queen (2007 Honest Jon's), garnered good reviews, hit #2 in the UK and reached #49 in the US. The following year, Albarn teamed with Hewlett and Chinese opera director Chen Shi-Zheng for Monkey: Journey to the West (2008 XL), an avant-garde musical that combines electronic music composition with programmed beats and synthesized orchestration.