At the height of Britpop in the mid-nineties, every self-respecting music fan had to make an ideological choice: Blur or Oasis? Initially, I was firmly on Team Oasis. The Gallagher brothers had muscular guitar riffs and vertiginous melodies, not to mention irresistible swagger, while Blur, led by front man Damon Albarn, just seemed too preening and twitchy to take seriously.
But as the decade wore on, my allegiance shifted. Oasis continued to ply the same four Beatlesque chords, with diminishing returns. Blur, on the other hand, veered into far more challenging territory, releasing a trio of albums - culminating with Think Tank in 2003 - that with their embrace of electronics and exotic rhythms transcended the limits of Britpop and demonstrated Albarn's maturing song craft.
Albarn has been a wellspring of creativity in the last decade. His projects include the monstrously successful Gorillaz, a Chinese opera, the Congolese pop experiment DRC Music and Rocketjuice and the Moon, a world-spanning supergroup that releases its self-titled debut album on Monday. In the process, Albarn has revealed himself to be the most visionary pop artist since David Bowie.
It's difficult to imagine Albarn's trajectory without the Gallaghers. At first, the Blur-Oasis rivalry made chart success an all-consuming pursuit, but when Noel Gallagher told a reporter in 1995 that he wished members of Blur would "catch AIDS and die," Albarn saw the ugliness and irrelevance of pop stardom – as he later told a reporter, "Oasis were like the bullies I had to put up with at school." Exhausted by celebrity and increased in-fighting in Blur, Albarn decided to expand his songwriting, a move that not only reinvigorated his existing band, but led to a much more ambitious venture.
Conceived by Albarn and illustrator Jamie Hewlett in 1998, Gorillaz remains one of the most subversive acts in music history. Putting a squadron of cartoon characters front and centre took the attention off Albarn the pretty-boy pop star, and also liberated his songwriting. In Gorillaz, he has indulged his love of hip-hop and bleeping synthesizers, but the success of this "virtual band" lies in its collaborative nature – thus far, the Gorillaz roll call has included people like Dan "The Automator" Nakamura, De La Soul, Lou Reed, Snoop Dogg and Bobby Womack.
The four Gorillaz albums have their cartoonish moments, but they've also yielded some of the most inspired pop tunes of the last decade, from the swooning circus dub of Clint Eastwood to the giddy funk of Feel Good Inc. to the soulful electro of Stylo.
With over 15 million albums sold, Gorillaz long ago ceased to be a side project. But it hasn't been enough to satisfy Albarn's creative restlessness. In both Blur and Gorillaz, the London native had always found stimulation in his immediate environs – British culture and the American pop that dominated MTV. But he felt it was increasingly limiting; he was ready for a new muse.
If Bowie found mid-career inspiration in Berlin, Albarn found his in Africa. In 2002, he released an album with guitarists Afel Bocoum and Toumani Diabaté called Mali Music, and he brought some of that to Blur's Think Tank, recorded in Morocco with local musicians. At the time, Blur was in shambles, with guitarist Graham Coxon largely absent from the sessions. This gave Albarn greater latitude. He nudged the music in all sorts of interesting directions, employing a variety of North African string instruments and elements of Afrobeat in addition to dub and electronica, consequently producing Blur's finest record to date.
Last year, Albarn was back in the region travelling to the Democratic Republic of Congo to record Kinshasa One Two, a collection of rousing dance tunes featuring contemporary Congolese performers like Jupiter Bokondji and Nelly Liyemge.
In many ways, Rocketjuice and the Moon feels like an extension of the Think Tank sessions. The core of the group consists of Albarn, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea and one-time Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen, and their sound could be best described as languorous Afrofunk. On Hey Shooter, the leadoff single, Erykah Badu wraps her sultry vocals around Flea's wah-wah'd bass, while Albarn provides a suitably slinky organ vamp. The music is light-years away from the kinetic pop of Gorillaz, but it is equally committed to breaking new ground.
Back in 2009, the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper named Albarn "Multitasker of the Decade." The honour was well-intentioned but felt slightly condescending – the suggestion being that Albarn was little more than a dabbler with an attention deficit. But his musical curiosity should not be mistaken for dilettantism. The high quality of his output in the last two decades confirms his songwriting gift, and his openness to new sounds will undoubtedly continue to enrich pop music.
Special to The Globe and Mail