Damon Albarn spent the 1990s fronting the Britpop band Blur. Last decade, he teamed with comic book artist Jamie Hewlitt to invent the animated virtual group Gorillaz.
On Gorillaz's third studio release, Plastic Beach, Albarn writes and produces 16 tracks that are brought to life by a cross-generational lineup of pop stars, including veterans Lou Reed and Bobby Womack, young rappers Bashy and Kano, and instrumental groups like the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble and the National Orchestra for Arabic Music.
It's no small accomplishment that Albarn accommodates this mix of performers and still forges an artistic whole. Plastic Beach confronts the synthetic sheen that coats our world - our food, our environment, our bodies. Fittingly, Albarn coats these substantive lyrical statements with plenty of pop gloss.
The happy-go-lucky raps of Gruff Rhys and De La Soul fuel "Superfast Jellyfish," a song that fetes "pretty packages of frosted delights." But Plastic Beach ultimately yearns for something organic. Lou Reed calls for it on "Some Kind of Nature": "Some kind of soul/It's got to come find us/All we are is dust."
Gorillaz may be a virtual band, but Plastic Beach is the best real album I've heard so far this year.