Gorillaz are no stranger to collaborations. Since 2010’s Plastic Beach, they have been enlisting a diverse and varying rotation of collaborators. From Bobby Womack to Vince Staples, Mavis Staples to Kali Uchis, they always keep us guessing and that’s never been more true than on their new project Song Machine.
Song Machine has been one of the group’s most ambitious series yet. Launched as a web series, they have spent the year rolling out one song at a time alongside a video. There’s a narrative to it all, although Gorillaz told Radio 1, it’s an “obtuse” one. This project, more than any other by the group, feeds off the varied nature of the collaborators.
Russell Hobbs of the group said, “World is moving faster than a supercharged particle, so we’ve gotta stay ready to drop. We don’t even know who's stepping through the studio next.”
He further described it as “pure chaos”. Well, Song Machine has finally arrived and it’s certainly chaos but in the best kind of way. To celebrate, we’re going to go through all the collaborators and decipher how they fit into the Gorillaz world.
Robert Smith, lead-singer of The Cure, needs no introduction. One of the most iconic voices in alternative music, he’s stepping into Gorillaz's world for the first time. Strange Timez was recorded during the pandemic with Damon Albarn never actually stepping into the studio with Smith. Instead, it was recorded over email, not that you’d be able to tell. Strange Timez is a dizzying hallucination and a perfect entry point for an album that continues to get strange.
Back in 1998, Albarn said that Beck was the only US musician who has ever influenced him. Finally, the pair have come together on Valley Of The Pagans and unsurprisingly it works. Beck and Blur, Albarn’s other band, were often mentioned in the same breath but it’s not that alt-rock sound they channel here. This is a funky, airy cut that’s surprisingly full of sunshine.
British-born, New York-raised musician Leee John may be one of the lesser-known artists here for younger fans. He’s the lead-singer of soul band Imagination who scored a number of top 10 hits in the UK back in the ‘80s. Since then, he’s been sporadically hopping on dance tracks but his Gorillaz appearance takes him into a slow-moving, elongated music world that may be the most relaxing moment on the album.
Schoolboy Q joins an esteemed list of hip hop collaborators Gorillaz have worked with including Vince Staples, Pusha T and De La Soul. Pac-Man was recorded prior to the pandemic and featured in the fifth episode of Song Machine. It’s remarkably different to anything Q has ever appeared on. It’s a gameboy-like, interplanetary tune that was released to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of Pac-Man.
St. Vincent AKA. Annie Clark joins the Gorillaz world for the first time. It’s relatively rare to hear Clark featuring on another act's song but she’s been expanding her collaborative wings in the past few years, writing for Taylor Swift and producing for Sleater-Kinney. Chalk Tablet Tower sits right in Clark’s world on melody-heavy, synth-pop and it’s a glorious moment.
There’s probably no need to explain who Elton John is. He’s having a big year appearing on projects by Lady Gaga, Teyana Taylor and Surfaces. That’s been a rarity for him for much of this millennium but this Gorillaz cut shows he’s in a collaborative phase. He recorded The Pink Phantom in a different studio to Gorillaz and 6lack saying, “I was in the studio in London and he was at the other end in Devon, but even remotely it was such an engaging and creative process.”
Anyone who follows 6lack knows that he’s a master at turning in an exceptional feature. From Normani to Khalid, he’s proved himself to be one of the most recognisable voice in R&B. It’s no different on The Pink Phantom. He goes toe-to-toe with a legend and comes off sounding like one himself.
You probably never imagined you’d hear Joy Divison’s Peter Hook on the same album as Schoolboy Q nor on a song with one of this year’s brightest new pop voices Georgia. That’s the beauty of this exceptionally random Gorillaz album. He takes Aries right back to the world of ‘80s Brit-pop.
‘80s Brit-pop is clearly a huge influence of Georgia’s own music so it makes sense that she sounds in her element with Hook on Aries. Georgia released her own Mercury-nominated record Seeking Thrills this year and is one of the true breakthroughs of 2020. It’s good to hear her getting the recognition she deserves on an album of this magnitude.
The sound on this album turns at every corner and Octavian’s contribution is particularly different. Friday 13th taps into so many different genres from synth-pop to slowed dancehall. Octavian is one of the most exciting voices coming out of Britain, catching the attention of Drake very early on in his career. He’s currently rolling out his debut album.
British MC Kano is one of the few voices here that has collaborated with Gorillaz before. He featured on Plastic Beach’s White Flag and he reprises his role here once again. Dead Butterflies is one of the only grime-influenced songs on the album and while Gorillaz pull most of their collaborators out of their comfort zone, Kano sounds in his lane here.
Roxani Arias features with Kano on Dead Butterflies. It’s almost impossible to dig up any information about who Roxani Arias is so we’ll use this space to say that the song was co-produced by rap production legend Mike Will Made-It.
Fatoumata Diawara can do it all. The Malian artist has been acting since the ‘90s and has also collected Grammys for her music. She brings a sense of grandeur to Gorillaz’ Desole - one of the grooviest songs on the record. This is Diawara’s second British collaboration of the year after she appeared with Disclosure on Douha (Mali Mali)
Slowthai is a king of collaboration. His presence on every song is so large that he can make any style his own. He adds Gorillaz to his growing list of collaborators with Momentary Bliss. It was the first taste of the Song Machine project, kicking it off with a punk rock-rooted moment.
Slaves help Slowthai and Albarn have a Blur moment on a Gorillaz record. Momentary Bliss is the most raucous moment on the record thanks largely to the band’s gritty, dry guitars that grace the song. Slaves haven’t released any music apart from this in 2020 and it’s good to hear them on top form.
EARTHGANG have had a landmark 12 months. They released their critically acclaimed record Mirrorland and since that they've worked with J. Cole, Sinead Harnett, Louis The Child and more. Their versatility is on full display on Opium - a winding, six-minute journey that trips through world sounds while name-checking everywhere from Sydney to Lagos.
Joan As Police Woman
At this point, Joan As Police Woman is alternative music royalty. She's in the second decade of her career and still making classic records. Here she teams for a rare collaboration. Simplicity sees Gorillaz comes into Joan's world with the most alternative, rock-tinged cut of the LP.
GoldLink is one of the most versatile rappers out there. He's able to hop on R&B, rap and electronic tracks with ease. Over the past year or so he's teamed with Kaytranada, August '08 and Tyler, The Creator. On Song Machine, he's paired with Unknown Mortal Orchestra for a creepy, descending tune that may be the most atmospheric on the album.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Unknown Mortal Orchestra is a king of lo-fi, funk-induced music so it's no surprise that he appears here on the haziest song of the album. After a relatively quiet few years, it's good to hear that groovy voice back.
Moonchild Sanelly is a South African artist who has worked with Beyonce, Diplo, Wizkid and more in the past year. She makes twisting, experimental soul music and she brings that expertise to With Love To An Ex. It's a distorting, malleable song that bends the mind.
JPEGMAFIA has been a cult rap hero for a while now but the word is well-and-truly out about him now. He brings so much charisma and energy to MLS in one of his most immediate verse of the year.
The best thing about this Gorillaz album is you get legends like Elton John on a record with relative newcomers like CHAI. CHAI are a Japanese four-piece who have dropped a handful of excellent tracks this year. MLS is no different. They juxtapose JPEGMAFIA's rocksteady delivery with hazy, atmospheric vocals.
Speaking of legends, Tony Allen is one. Allen sadly passed away earlier this year but the Nigerian drummer and songwriter made his mark as part of Fela Kuti's band. He brings grandeur and weight to the Skepta-featuring deluxe album closer How Far?
There's no better way to end an album than with a powerful Skepta verse. The British MC has never collaborated with Gorillaz before but he's a natural fit for their rich, dynamic production.